Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) is widely known as the founder of the academic study of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah. In the nearly thirty-five years since his death, Scholem’s star has continue to shine brightly in the intellectual firmament and perhaps even more brightly now than in his lifetime.
When I first started researching historiography in Saudi Arabia, I came across many publications by government organizations, as they were the most readily available. At first glance, many of these history books told the same story: a narrative that focused on the royal family and its creation of a first Saudi state during the eighteenth century, a second Saudi state during the nineteenth century, and finally the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the twentieth century.
In September, the Israel Antiquities Authority made a stunning announcement: at the ancient Judean city of Lachish, second only to Jerusalem in importance, archaeologists have uncovered a shrine in the city’s gate complex with two vandalized altars and a stone toilet in its holiest section. “Holy crap!” I said to a friend when I first read the news.
‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power and wealth and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city whose image of lust and debauchery persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into dust. Powerful visual images in later ages, l perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition.
Taken by itself, the election of the next American president, Democrat or Republican, will have little or no discernible impact on Middle Eastern chaos. To make any meaningful difference to this still-expanding problem, American decision-makers would first need to look behind the news.
Every year, we welcome June with dreams of beaches, warm sunshine and a well-deserved vacation. This year, for over 1 billion Muslims across the globe, June represents something more spiritual as it marks the holy month of Ramadan.
Aleppo, Mosul, Tikrit, Acre… Until just a few years ago, these names meant little to the average American. Now they are all too familiar, as are the atrocities being committed there in the name of religion. Eight hundred years ago the situation in that region was much the same, except then, Christians were committing acts of cruelty no less numerous or shocking than Muslims.
The execution of the popular Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities at the beginning of this year has further intensified Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions not just in Saudi Arabia but the Middle East generally. The carrying out of the sentence, following convictions for a range of amorphous political charges, immediately provoked anti‑Saudi demonstrations among Shia communities throughout the Middle East.
Without Islam there would be no Shakespeare. This may seem surprising or even controversial to those who imagine a “national bard” insulated from the wider world. Such an approach is typified in the words of the celebrated historian A.L. Rowse, who wrote that when it came to creatively connecting with that world, Shakespeare, the “quiet countryman,” was “the least engaged writer there ever was.”
People frequently ask whether the study of history can help in managing humanitarian crises. This question is particularly timely given the massive outflow of refugees from Syria and the problems of admitting large numbers of refugees to other countries, including the United States.
The Eastern Mediterranean, comprising Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, is politically one of the most divisive regions in the world. Greece and Turkey have had their historical differences; the tiny island of Cyprus is still divided and Israel and Lebanon’s last altercation happened all too recently disrupting the harvest in the Galilee and Bekaa Valley respectively.
In the months following the Taliban’s evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden’s residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda’s most coherent organizational momentum.
At its root, Islam is as much a Western religion as are Judaism and Christianity, having emerged from the same geographic and cultural milieu as its predecessors. For centuries we lived at a more or less comfortable distance from one another. Post-colonialism and economic globalization, and the strategic concerns that attended them, have drawn us into an ever-tighter web of inter-relations.
In antiquity, ‘Arabia’ covered a vast area, running from Yemen and Oman to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Today, much of this region is gripped in political and religious turmoil that shows no signs of abating.
In world politics, preserving order has an understandably sacramental function. The reason is plain. Without minimum public order, planetary relations would descend rapidly and perhaps irremediably into a “profane” disharmony.
Despite Bin Laden’s death in 2011, the extremist group Al Qaeda has since survived and, some argue, continued to thrive. The effort and resources Bin Laden invested into Al Qaeda fortified its foundation, making it difficult, if not impossible, to disband or weaken the group after his death. But how did the terrorist group come to be what it is today?