Looking Back at Islam's History and the Middle East's 'Long War' Key to Finding the Solution

Aleppo’s historic citadel in the oldest city in the world

As of today events along the Turkish/Syrian border region continue to slowly cool down. Turkey continues to shell the Kurdish positions near Azaz but with less intensity. The Saudis, like the Turks, aren't talking about imminent invasion, at least for now. The Americans and Russians too appear to have recognized the fear of being on the 'eve of destruction' as a great motivator.

As the complex events continue to unfold today the best thing we can do is to look back the long history that the current conflict is a part of. What better place to start than Aleppo, where nearly 5,000 years ago a shrine was built on a hill to to a storm god, Hadda. The hill that would over 2,000 years later be fortified by the governor Alexander the Great left to rule the area after he conquered the region. The hill that today is the central prize that the Al-Nusra Front [Al-Qaeda in Syria] is holding [barely] against the combined armed forces of Syria, the Iranian militias, Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurds and the Russian Air Force.

Thousands of pages have been written by historians, religionists and a wide range of scholars trying to fully explain the history of this beautiful land and peoples of the Middle East. What follows is a reading list of sorts. In it the writer of these lines will try to touch on a couple of the major events but also to suggest articles and books that look at the historic issues and events from a range of perspectives.

At the time of Muhammad's birth around 570 CE the Middle East was politically and militarily divided between the The Byzantine and Persian Empires who were constantly at war and the small but fierce nomadic Arab tribes who's never ending feuds and harsh terrain had forced some of them to head north into the area between the two major Empires of the region. Later this would prove to be the region where the Arabs would first expand into and conquer both empires from because there already were Arabs there and because the two large warring empires had spent all their wealth and energy fighting each other.

Muhammad was a simple man who's prophetic visions served as a catalyst to unite some of the powerful Arab's family clans around Medina and Mecca in a greater cause - Islam. The study of Early Islam is as interesting as it is confounded by those early Muslims who were contemporaries of Muhammad and who succeeded him. Almost immediately after Muhammad's death in 632 his successors launched the Arab Islamic armies in the creation of one of the world's great empires stretching from the Great Wall of China to Timbuktu, France and India.

As with every empire, the internecine battles erupted not long after the conquests began. Our modern understanding of major events of that era is clouded by the different versions of those events as passed on by the various divided factions, divisions that still exist, divisions that are still playing out in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and beyond. For instance, Wikipedia's History of Islam and Desmond Stewart's Early Islam agree on the major events but differ on some of the most important details of the split between the Sunni and Shia. The Wiki version being that Husayn ibn Ali, by then Muhammad's only living grandson, died in battle in the ensuing war that transpired after he refused to swear allegiance to the Umayyads' Caliphate. Stewart's version, the one most scholars accept, says he was murdered by the Damascus centered governor Muawiyah I's followers.

This is the origin Sunni/Shia division and of course both sides believe different versions. On top of that, and maybe even more important to today's events, after li ibn Abu Talib, the existing Caliph, agreed to arbitration instead of endless war with Muawiyah I for overall leadership, another group - the Khawaij later to become the Whabbists and Salafists - refused to accept any agreement because they were convinced only 'God' could choose and that the only way 'God' could be allowed to choose was to let all out war.determine who was the winner. [So these guys were fanatics from day 1].

The Kharijites developed extreme doctrines that set them apart from both mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims. This branch of Islam founded by the Kharijites, known today as Wahhabism and/or Salafism, became the misguided expression of one man’s political ambition - Mohammed Abdel-Wahhab, a bigot who was recruited by the British Empire to erode the fabric of Islam and crack the armor of the then-Ottoman Empire by breeding sectarianism and dissent. It is Abdel-Wahhab's alliance to the House of Saud that ultimately unleashed this now seemingly unstoppable evil we know today under the tag of Islamic radicalism.

Of course much has happened during the 1,400 odd years between the Sunni/Shia/Kharijite division and now that brought today's major Empires nose to nose [nuke to nuke] in the area around Aleppo. Most of those events are well researched and much less subject to conflicts of interpretation caused the existing oral tradition of communication that existed among the Arab peoples at the time.


Reading List:

Early Islam - by Desmond Stewart - A beautiful and scholarly look at the history, religion, art and architecture of Islam that has become as controversial for it's outspoken clarity on many issues as it is praised for the beauty of its images.

NPR 1000 year history of Western meddling in the Middle East - A six part educational series i highly recommend

European Imperialism in the Middle East - a two part podcast - part 1 is about how the European powers got entangled in the Middle East - part 2 is about how WW1 and the fallout from it influenced both Europe and the Middle East.

How the British divided up the Arab World - Focuses on the Sykes-Picot Agreement and post WW1 era that set the stage for our modern Middle East conundrum.

Debacle of a “Great Game”: The Islamic State (IS) and America’s War on Iraq and Syria - Global Research at its best.

'Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam' - by Robert Dreyfuss

Saudi Arabia and Israel: An Axis of Convenience - by Dan Sanchez - Brings the history up to the present.

American Raj America and the Muslim World - by Eric Margolis - This book is a recent and essential overview of the last 100 years of the west's interaction with the wider Muslim world - a must read IMO.