President Obama and the Syria Dilemma.

August 30, 2013

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
– Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, 2007.

I’m not entirely sure what my position on intervention in Syria is. I do think it important that the UN inspectors be afforded more time. On the one hand, it seems unreasonable to suggest Syria can be compared to Kosovo before it – as some are doing – given that Kosovo did not have the level of Russian support that the Assad regime now seems to enjoy, and so any intervention against Assad, will inevitably only lead to Russian strengthening of the grotesque regime and an escalation of the conflict. On the other hand, what sort of awful precedent does it set, to allow a leader to chemically attack his own people, with no retribution, and no protection for those under attack? The circumstances forced upon refugees cannot be ignored by an international community that can help. If regime change isn’t the goal of intervention – As UK & US officials seem to be suggesting – then, what is? How do we ensure a post-Assad Syria isn’t overrun by Islamist religious conservatives? Is there a detailed plan for a secular, democratic framework upon Assad’s fall?

It would appear to me that President Obama may very well see himself in the firing line of the Republican obstruction and destruction machine, if he decides to push forward with intervention. Pushing ahead without UK assistance following the Commons vote last night, and without the spineless and opportunistic Arab League, but mainly without Congressional approval, could be a political disaster for the President. A bi-partisan Congressional group are calling on the President to seek the approval of Congress before launching any action. 50 House Democrats wrote a letter to the White House yesterday, stating:

“While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests [such as its embassies] have not been attacked or threatened with an attack. As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.”

Other prominent Democrats weighed in on the side of Congressional approval, including California’s 13th District Rep. Barbara Lee. Lee said:

“While the use of chemical weapons is deeply troubling and unacceptable, I believe there is no military solution to the complex Syrian crisis. Congress needs to have a full debate before the United States commits to any military force in Syria – or elsewhere.”

– And so, with House Democrats registering their worry that the President could go this alone, it isn’t a stretch to point out that House Republicans – given their erratic, and frankly senseless behaviour over the past few years – may use an attack on Syria as a smoking gun for an attempt at impeachment. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told a town hall meeting that impeachment proceedings against the President was:

“perilously close”

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said:

“The only legal authority that is required to deploy the United States military is of the Congress and the president and the law and the constitution.”

It is not beyond the realm of imagination, for this particular Republican House to push forward with forging a serious attempt to impeach a President they have long despised, simply because he isn’t Republican.
Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C) said:

“If one of our troops goes to Syria and is killed, I will introduce articles of impeachment against the president.”

– Jones himself likes to hold vendettas, having been a key player in renaming French Fries to Freedom Fries, in protest of France’s opposition to the Iraq war. And whilst he threatens to impeach Obama, when asked about false Bush WMD claims, Jones simply asked President Bush to apologise. In short, like the IRS non-scandal, like the Benghazi-non scandal, and now Syria; the Republican over-dramatic voices of bitterness will flippantly use the conflict as an excuse to attempt to knock the President off of his throne.

The Defence Authorisation Bill passed last month in the House that urges the President to consider all possible courses of action to remove Assad from power, not requiring Congressional approval. This matters little to the voices in the same House who now demand Congressional approval. But whilst this may appear to give the Obama White House full Congressional support for regime change in Syria, it seems to be over ruled by the Defense Appropriations Bill, which according to Rep. Bill Young (R-Fl):

“Included in this measure was an amendment , which passed unanimously, that prohibits the use of any funds with respect to military action in Syria without consulting Congress as required by the War Powers Resolution.”

– The President has his hands tied. If he goes it alone, he will be provoking a fight with Congress that he can ill afford. The wolves are waiting to pounce. Indeed, if Congressional Republicans put forward a compelling enough case, resting on Constitutional grounds among others, and especially if intervention becomes shambolic and shows no strategic planning or a reasoned pull-out strategy, then it seems to me that Congressional Democrats will find it increasingly difficult to reasonably object. Plenty of Democrats are already unhappy at the expanded use of drones, and most certainly do not favour a strike on Syria. Alienating those Democrats is particularly risky, because the conflict in Congress over intervention in Syria does not follow Party lines. If however the President does seek Congressional approval, and fails to get it, then lack of intervention in Syria from the most powerful nation on Earth gives Assad a green-light; makes the President look entirely powerless especially after his 2012 statement that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line; and Congress looking to be using the horrendous situation and innocent lives in Syria to win a battle with the White House. Everyone loses.

And if the US doesn’t intervene… what then? Who fills the gap? When does it stop? What becomes the red line before the Russians decide enough is enough? Another Rwanda? I suspect in this case, the US will be blamed for not intervening.

Either way, for the President, conflict in the Middle East has come full circle. His Presidential victory can in some way be attributed to the image presented of being ‘not Bush’, a President marred by a unilateralist attack on Iraq. In 2013 ‘not Bush’ now stands alone, preparing a unilateralist strike on Syria, tied to his 2012 declaration that use of chemical weapons would be a red line. It is an intensely difficult situation for the President, but will become far more difficult if he seeks to press ahead without Congressional approval. Calls for impeachment will become more pronounced. And as political point scoring in Washington ensures that valuable time passes, by which Syrian weapons and targets can be protected, a strike on the capabilities of the hideous Assad administration becomes less and less effective.

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Debunking Republican ‘Obamacare’ Myths.

August 28, 2013

The President signs the Affordable Care Act into law. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author:  Pete Souza.

The President signs the Affordable Care Act into law.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Pete Souza.


In between wasting time and money attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act every second of every day in the House, the Republican Party is rather adept at ‘Obamacare’ myth invention. It is as if an entire industry has grown up around the creation of Republican over-dramatic myths, from the early days screaming about ‘death panels’ to myths that provisions in the Act will allow forced home inspections, there have been many in between. And they tend to be pleasingly simple to disprove. Here are three recent GOP Affordable Care Act myths:

Forced Home Inspections.
The ‘forced home inspection’ myth is a particularly new and creative attack on the Affordable Care Act, that swept the blogosphere a couple of weeks back. Republicans on Twitter raged that this was definitely the end of liberty as we know it. The trouble is, it’s a complete fabrication.

The myth stems from South Carolina State Rep. Rick Quinn, at a state House subcommittee meeting back in March. Quinn said:

One of the things we can do … in terms of … preventing state employees from trying to enforce aspects of this law…for example, the forced home inspections that I’ve heard about.”

– This quote then made its way onto numerous blogs, and spread like wildfire. The facts though, do not support the quote. The aspect of the law that Rick Quinn refers to, is actually a state voluntary service providing home visits for new and expectant mothers. It is not in anyway involuntary. The use of the word ‘forced’ makes it appear violent, as if the President has troops waiting to invade your house. It is actually a law to provide a better service, and improve the health of the most vulnerable families. It could not be clearer. Article 7a of Section 2951 – Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visitation Programs – states:

“The participation of each eligible family in the program is voluntary”

– Rick Quinn is wrong. He appears to have tried to cover his inability to investigate for himself the allegations that he wildly spreads with the phrase “…that i’ve heard about”. That isn’t good enough. It’s the abandonment of reason, for the sake of presenting a false narrative for ideological purposes. It’s misleading, and thoroughly disingenuous.

Members of Congress can opt-out of Affordable Care Act:
Ted Cruz, the wonderkid of the Republican Party right now, is learning the ropes rather quickly. Cruz stood in front of the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa at the beginning of August, and said:

“President Obama just granted all of Congress an exception. And he did it because Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats who passed this thing came begging and said, ‘Please, please, please let us out of Obamacare.’ This thing ain’t working.”

– Much like the ‘forced home inspections’ line, this too, is a myth. Here is what that particular aspect of the law states:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law … the only health plans that the Federal Government may make available to Members of Congress and congressional staff with respect to their service as a Member of Congress or congressional staff shall be health plans that are — (I) created under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act); or (II) offered through an Exchange established under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act).”

– There is nothing in this law that allows Congress to opt-out of the Affordable Care Act. Members of Congress are now treated to the same exchanges as small businesses and those who have no insurance. If you are to claim to opt-out for Congressmen, you must also claim an opt-out for small businesses and the uninsured.
Secondly, Cruz claimed that the ‘opt-out’ that doesn’t exist, was passed because Senate Democrats insisted that plan wasn’t working. That also, is not true.
The law quoted above, is actually a clarification, on an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who argued that:

“members of Congress should get the same coverage that we are coming up with for everyone else.

– And that’s exactly what will happen, by January 2014.

Full-Time Work Destroyed by The Affordable Care Act:
According to the GOP website, 8,200,000 Americans are:

“Unable To Find Full-Time Work Partly Due To ObamaCare.”

– This is a wild distortion of the facts. The figures they quote from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is actually the number of those in part time work, looking for full time work. There is no mention of the Affordable Care Act. The Bureau never claim this figure has anything to do with ObamaCare. In fact, as FactCheck point out, the 8.2 million number is actually part of a fluctuating, yet downward trend in those working part-time, looking for full-time work:

Part-Time-Workers-488x355
– This is exactly as we’d expect to see, during a period of economic recovery following a deep recession.
Republicans have been touting this figure of 8.2 million, and “soaring” numbers of part-time workers forced to do so because of the provisions of Obamacare, for well over a year, and it is based on absolutely nothing of any substance.

I once watched John McCain tell a hall full of people in the run up to the 2008 Presidential election, that the British National Health Service refused to treat patients over the age of 75. This was the same week that my 83 year old grandmother here in the UK, was being treated by the National Health Service. Now, either McCain blatantly lied, or my grandma was younger than she claimed. Whilst I remember her cheating at Monopoly once, I’m not sure she could sustain a lie about her age for so many years.

When the complaints of Politicians toward a particular Act become more and more frenzied and over-dramatic, chances are, they aren’t being entirely honest. It is worth double checking every claim made by opponents of the Affordable Care Act, before accepting the complaint as genuine. It is also worth noting that whilst the Republicans spend an unaffordable amount of time and money attempting to repeal an Act signed into law and upheld by the Supreme Court, they are voting to ensure millions of the most vulnerable people – including children – remain uninsured and defenseless.


The Photography of the US Civil War.

August 27, 2013

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“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862

The great US Civil War historian Shelby Foote, once commented that the Civil War fundamentally changed the US linguistically from ‘the United States are…‘ to ‘the United States is…‘. A rather perfect outline of the result of the war. But there’s another interesting result of the conflict. The Civil War also introduced photography to journalism.

Lincoln recognised the power of photography, having joked that he may never have been re-elected without Mathew Brady’s portrait. Lincoln knew by 1865 the importance of photography, because its use in the US Civil War helped to diminish northern support for the Union forces, the moment hundreds of photographers invaded the battlefield at the end of a battle.

It was one thing to read letters from the front line (this also struck a blow to Northern support for the war, given the growth of the postal service at this time), but it was a completely different thing to see broken and torn corpses strewn across the battlefield, from a quiet house in northern towns and cities, far from the frontlines. The birth of Photojournalism at this point brought images of hell, to every American house in the country.

Today, they give us an incredible documentation of that four year period that cost so many lives, made so many political careers, and gave birth to ‘the United States is…‘.

Here are a few that caught my attention. Click the images, for larger versions.

A Confederate soldier, killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse:

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The inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1861:

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Union War General, and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S.Grant. 1863:

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Confederate troops killed at Antietam:

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A slave family on a cotton plantation in Georgia:

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President Lincoln, with the Glaswegian Allan Pinkerton on the left, and Union General John McClernand:

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A regiment in formation, in Missouri:

formation

The 8th New York State Militia:

Landscape

Confederate Commander Robert E.Lee:

lee

Union Troops at Fredericksburg:

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Union General, and scorched Earth enthusiast, William Tecumseh Sherman:

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Confederate Soldiers killed, at Spotsylvania Court House. 1864:

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The camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, outside of Fort Slocum. 1862. A lot of wives and children insisted on joining their husbands at camp:

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Confederate Soldiers of Louisiana’s Washington Artillery, preparing for the Battle of Shiloh. 1862:

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President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

gettysburg-address

A Union camp:

HD_UnionCampSceneBradyz

The flag of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. 1864:

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Civil War Photography was used for a duel purpose. Firstly, we see from the horrendous images of those killed in battle, those young men who lost their lives so early, for a war that shaped the US ever since; as the New York Times pointed out in 1862, those images brought the horrors of war to the doorstep of every American. Secondly, the photography of the Civil War was used to create heroes out of its leaders. Tecumseh Sherman is sitting mightily, back straight, in a leadership pose atop his horse, in eerily similar pictures to early paintings of George Washington similarly used to convey a sense of majesty and honour. Similar images from the Mathew Brady collection show us Lincoln, as a towering figure, looking purposeful. Civil War photography helped propel the face of Ulysses Grant into the minds of millions. Photojournalism was a key component of the US Civil War and its legacy can be seen whenever we are presented with the horrors of war and conflict, and the images of World leaders appearing to look determined and thoughtful. US Civil War Photojournalism is an often forgotten, but vastly important contribution to the modern World.


The Republican Party: From Lincoln to Romney.

August 26, 2013

Lincoln_O-60_by_Brady,_1862

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
— President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

“Corporations are people, my friend… of course they are.”
– Mitt Romney, 2012.

There is a rather neat simplicity in Republican circles that insists upon the populace, that the Republican Party of the 21st Century, is a continuation of the Republican Party of President Lincoln. In 2010, Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate seat for Delaware, was one of those running for Congress, asserting that the Republican Party that she belonged to, was the Party of Lincoln. It is as if they believe that had Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt (another name often used to link the GOP to its roots) existed today, they would find a similar Republican Party – in tone, and in policy – to the GOP they left behind, when in fact the history of the Republican Party renders it a completely separate entity from its late 19th early 20th Century counterpart.

It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between Texan Governor Rick Perry’s subtle call for secession, on the re-election of President Obama, shouting States Rights, to the same calls upon the election of President Lincoln in 1860 and the same States demanding secession, shouting States Rights (the Civil War was never about States Rights, as I point out in a previous article here).

Indeed, had Lincoln lived today, I would go as far as to say that the Republican Right might categorise him as a liberal who should be opposed at every opportunity. It would be the Republicans calling for secession. The GOP in 2013 is simply anti-government intervention for the most vulnerable. It is a fundamentalist position. It does not take into account context, or indeed, facts.

In contrast, President Lincoln was not anti-government intervention. Far from it, he pressed for state sponsored subsidies for railway building, canal building, road building amongst other Federally financed projects – a stimulus, as you may call it today. A vast swarm of States at the time – including Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky – had State constitutional bans on Federal subsidies for infrastructure. In fact, it was such a contentious issue splitting the progressive, Government-spending attitude of Lincoln’s northern Republicans with the Democrats in the South, that the Confederate Constitutional Drafters included the particularly conservative, anti-Federal clause:

“… neither this, nor any other clause in the Constitution shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvements intended to facilitate commerce”

– The Confederacy – with logic similar to today’s Republicans – considered internal improvements to be a matter for the individual states, not the Federal government. Lincoln disagreed. To the South, Lincoln was the very epitome of the power of central Federal government. Lincoln believed the Federal government to be a force for good.

In 1862, the Lincoln Administration signed into law, the Revenue Act. What this did, was to create the Commissioner of Internal Revenue; the IRS. Furthermore, the law created the USA’s first ever progressive income tax. If your annual income was less than $600, you paid nothing. If your income was greater than $10,000, you paid 5% (this was increased to 10% in the Revenue Act of 1864). It was designed to aid those who couldn’t afford to pay, whilst placing an increasing burden on those who could most afford to. For its time, this was an incredibly progressive step. We can contrast this today to Republicans in – for example – Wisconsin, who are currently pushing for a State flat tax, that independent analysis suggests is simply a massive tax cut for the wealthiest, whilst increasing the burden on the most vulnerable. The exact opposite of the Lincoln plan.

But it isn’t only Lincoln. Republicans will also mention their party’s ties to Teddy Roosevelt. “We’re the Party of Lincoln & Roosevelt!” is the cry from the Republican faithful. And yet, it is difficult to find any similarities between the Republican Party of 1901 – 1909, and the Republican Party in 2013. For example, in the 2012 campaign, Romney set himself up as the anti-union candidate. For Romney, unions were the problem. They hampered corporate power (the corporate power Lincoln – and in fact, Jefferson – were fearful of). For Romney, any legislation that empowered working people over the managerial classes, was only going to create bigger economic problems. This is no surprise given that when Romney was in control of Bain Capital, his company took over Marion, Ind, laid off one fifth of its workers, sharply cut health benefits, cut wages, and abolished its retirement plan. Romney got rich, by hammering working people into the ground, destroying unions, and fostering poverty.

By contrast Teddy Roosevelt supported United Mine Workers, when they went on strike in 1902 for higher wages and better conditions. The Republican President’s support for unions led UMW to a pay increase, for less hours. This, a year after Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress demanding the curbing of power of large corporations, earning him the title of ‘Trust Buster’. He then signed into law the Meat Inspection Act making it illegal for a label to be misleading, and banned harmful chemicals. With his trust busting, and his dedication to food safety, Monsanto’s abuses certainly wouldn’t have lasted very long. To today’s Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt is far more to the left, than President Obama.

Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt wished to regain the Presidency in 1912, from his Republican ally William Taft, whom he now distrusted and considered anti-progressive. Failing to do so, Roosevelt then went about setting up the very short lived Progressive Party. The Progressive Party proposed the following; strict regulations on campaign contributions (Senate Minority Leader in 2013, Mitch McConnell has very good reason to oppose campaign finance reform; his loyalties lie entirely with big business); A universal healthcare system, proposed 40 years before the British NHS, and still not realised to this day whilst Republicans spend an incredible amount of money on constant repeal-Obamacare votes in the House; Minimum wage for women; social security to provide for the elderly, disabled and unemployed (all threatened by 21st Century Republicans); an inheritance tax (repealed in Indiana by State Republicans in 2012).
Naturally the Progressive Party died horribly, after funding ran dry given that Corporate interests didn’t particularly favour a progressive position. Nevertheless, in 1912, hundreds of progressive Republicans ran for office.

Let us also not forget that whilst the Republican Party today appears to be having a problem appealing to minorities, and giving the impression that it is willing to suppress voting rights of African Americans the moment the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the defining feature of the Ulysses Grant Republican administration, was one of extending voting rights, and progressing civil rights for African Americans. Grant was the first President to sign a Civil Rights Act, in direct conflict with rising anti-civil rights groups in the South.

On the issue of race, it appears to me that the period following the 1876 election, which saw the removal of Federal Troops from the South, allowing Democrats to again mistreat African Americans, lead to Southern Republicans trying to win over those white folk who were naturally drawn to the Democrats, thus we see Republicans actively abandoning the cause of civil rights.

The Democrats had a similar struggle to become the more progressive party we see today. As late as the 1950s we see a Democratic Party that included Hubert Humphrey who strongly advocated a shift in Democrat policy, by including the idea to end racial segregation, at the 1948 Party Platform at the DNC. This moment marks a huge shift for the Democrats. Humphrey took to the DNC floor and demanded that on racial segregation, the Democrats abandon their old position, and:

“…walk into the sunshine of human rights.”

– As Humphrey was making his way through the Democratic ranks, forging new ideas for the Party, another Democrat – Strom Thurmond – was actively fighting the change. Thurmond supported Jim Crow, and segregation. This split eventually lead to Thurmond joining the Republicans, and supporting Nixon’s vastly racist southern strategy. It is incredible to note than in less than a century, the Republican Party went from passing the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments, reconstruction, and pioneering the way to bring African Americans into politics….. to supporting, and violently enforcing racial segregation. The Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s, were completely different to the Lincoln Republicans of the 1850s.

By the 1960 election, we see a clear shift of powerful rhetoric, defining what the Democrats now stood for. Less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Democrats were now firmly the party of the progressives, the heirs to Lincoln and Roosevelt. We see this, with Kennedy’s nomination acceptance speech in New York:

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.” ”

– This could easily be repeated in 2013, and the same lines of division between liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, would apply.

The Republicans we see today started to crop up around the time of the Roosevelt New Deal era, having been stirring for around the previous 60+ years since the end of Reconstruction. According to Nancy Weiss in “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR” writes:

“Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time.”

– For a number of years before the New Deal, both Parties were promising some sort of help for the most vulnerable, via the enlarging of Federal Government. The northern Democrats of the Roosevelt era knew fully that the Great Depression gave them the opportunity to reconstitute the entire Democratic Platform. It is only during the New Deal era that the Republicans start becoming the Party of small government, and pressing ahead with much more racially divisive ideas. It is around this time too, that the Republicans start to become involved far more with the Christian Right. President Lincoln did not advertise his religious beliefs, and often questioned Christian dogma. Not as much as Jefferson, but certainly enough to render him the devil in the eyes of a fundamentalist like Rick Santorum.

The name “The Republican Party” is empty & meaningless for the sake of recalling its history. It is the attitudes – conservative or progressive – inclinations, beliefs and policies that form a Party, not its name. The big business, anti-progressive, anti-welfare, rabid obsession with small government fundamentalist vision of the Republican Party in 2013, cannot be identified in any way with the early Republican Administrations, and certainly not with that of Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats & Republicans of the 19th Century are in no way comparable to their 21st Century counterparts. It is important to point our the complete 180 degree turn the Republicans & Democrats have gone through over the past 150+ years, when confronted with those who claim that today’s GOP is the “Party of Lincoln!“.

21st Century progressivism is the natural heir to the 19th and 20th Century progressivism of Lincoln and Roosevelt.


The importance of Moses

August 15, 2013

529px-Moses_Pleading_with_Israel_(crop)

It is difficult to over exaggerate the importance of Moses to the narratives of the three major religions. The Talmud refers to the Pentateuch as the ‘Book of Moses’. Jesus mentions Moses’ supposed Prophecy if the Gospels are to be believed. The Qur’an speaks of the exodus as if historical fact, with Moses (Musa) being a key Prophet for the faith. All three rely on his existence, and his deeds. All three rely on the story of the Exodus. If the stories of Moses & the exodus fall down, all three major faiths fall down with it.

It is of course obvious, that the first five books of the Bible contain massive inconsistencies and errors. This in itself is not enough to dismiss the entire text, given that it isn’t considered the exact word of God (as the Qur’an is) but it is enough to question the legitimacy of the claim that the first five books were penned by one man; Moses. It has been the opinion of most scholars for around the past century, that the first five books were written by multiple authors. There has been disagreement over how many authors there may have been, when they were composed, when they were edited and put together. Despite the disagreements, it is generally accepted that multiple hands are at work with the first five books.

The Yahwist source (known as Source J, and named so because it refers to God as ‘Yahweh’ – Jehovah – some argue that this source was produced in the 6th Century BCE as a prologue to Deuteronomistic history covering Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) places Moses as someone only able to stop God’s plagues upon Egypt. God is solely responsible. Moses, the intermediary. Whereas, the Elohim source (Source E, named so because it refers to God as ‘Elohim’) suggests that Moses was someone who openly threatened Pharaoh, and was himself responsible for bringing about the plagues. Both sources were written centuries after Moses supposedly lived.

The contradictions begin right at the start of Genesis, and proceed from there. The contradictions are actually two versions of the same story. For example, the order of creation in Genesis 1 is: plants, animals, man & woman together. Whereas, the order of creation in Genesis 2 is: man, plants, animals, woman.

So, if we can discount one Jewish/Christian myth of Moses, what about the others? Well, the most notable story is the Exodus out of Egypt. It is this story that places Moses at epicentre of Judaism, and therefore Christianity, and later, Islam. Without this, Judaism falls to the ground, Jesus’ mention of Moses in the Gospels, is irrelevant, and the Qur’an appears as nothing but a plagiarised version of the other two.

The supernatural elements of the claims about Moses certainly have no evidence. There is no evidence to suggest that a large amount of Israelites crossed a parted Red Sea, no Egyptian source that ever mentions Israelites enslaved in Egypt who later escaped. In fact, no Egyptian source mentions an enslaved Israelite population at all. There is also absolutely nothing to suggest the plagues took place. No evidence of the mass genocide of first born Egyptian sons.

We can of course accept that the supernatural elements were invented to give divine aspect, thus solidifying a story for the purpose of group solidarity and power, in much the same way as the later – more creative – stories of the Prophet Muhammad developed in order to solidify a new Arab Empire.

On a side note, one of the supernatural elements of the story – that of the genocide of first born Egyptian sons commonly known as Passover – always seemed to me to be a particularly vile ‘celebration’. There seems to be an odd obsession with linking death, to salvation within Christianity and Judaism. I have never been able to understand why Jesus needed to die, in order to absorb the sins of humanity. Where is the connection between the two? Why must Egyptian children be murdered, in order to free Israelites? I am delighted that Passover isn’t based on historical fact

The situation though, seems to suggest that even the more historically ‘believable’ aspects of the story lack any sort of evidence. Archaeologists have all but given up searching for evidence of a mass exodus of Israelites out of Egypt. There is nothing that even slightly suggests it ever happened. Ze’ev Hertzog, an Israeli archaeologist says:

“The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.”

Similarly, renowned archaeologist Israel Finkelstein says:

“Modern archaeological techniques are quite capable of tracing the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world…repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the Sinai peninsula…yielded only negative evidence, not even a single shred , no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment…there is simply no evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus.”

The traditional date set for the exodus at 1450bc (set, due to the mention in Kings of 480 years before the founding of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem) conflicts with Biblical description of just how the Israelites were put to work years before the exodus, here:

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.
– Exodus 1:11

– The name Rameses was used by Egyptian Pharaohs, though the first to use these conflicts with the dates given for the supposed building of the city of Raamses. As Kenneth Kitchen points out:

The first of these, Ramesses I, reigned only sixteen months and built no cities. None of the rest founded major cities either, with but one exception. He was Ramesses II, grandson of I, who was the builder of the vast city Pi-Ramesse A-nakhtu, “Domain of Ramesses II, Great in Victory,” suitably abbreviated to the distinctive and essential element “Ra(a)mses” in Hebrew.

Ramesses II reigned from 1279–1213 BC. Two hundred years after the exodus, and even longer after the Bible suggests the Israelite slaves built the city. Ramesses II’s body was buried in the Valley of the Kings, but is now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum…. not at the bottom of the ocean after the parted Red Sea engulfed him.

The site “Islamic Awareness” also comes to the conclusion – through Qur’anic inquiry – that the Pharaoh of the exodus (as well as at the time of Moses’ birth) was Ramesses:

“In conclusion, the Qur’anic presentation of the Pharaoh of the Exodus is internally consistent and fits well with the extant egyptological data. This is also in line with the earlier studies by Hamidullah[87] and Fatoohi et al.[88] who have arrived at similar conclusions, albeit using less exhaustive and sometimes shaky evidence, that the Pharaoh who ruled Egypt before the birth of Moses until the Exodus and his (i.e., Pharaoh’s) death was Ramesses II.”

– And despite their thorough discrediting of the traditional Biblical narrative, “Islamic Awareness” offer no evidence for an exodus during the time of Ramesses. They also do not mention how Ramesses II actually died; at the ripe old age of 90, with terrible arthritis and hardened arteries… not drowned at sea, as the Qur’an claims.

The exodus would have been perhaps the most calamitous moment in Egyptian history (with the exception of Augustus’ annexation) The Biblical narrative states that:

37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside women and children.
38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.
– Exodus 12:37-38

– To put this into perspective, the English city of Manchester has a population under 600,000. Less people live in Manchester than the population of Israelite men (not including women & children) supposedly breaking away from Egypt. When we include women and children, we can guess of a number higher than 1,000,000. At around the time of the exodus, Egypt’s population hit around 3 million people. This means, that around 33% of the population of Egypt escaped from a state of captivity, without any record of them ever existing.

The Amarna letters dated to the mid-1300s bc, make no mention of any huge slave revolt or inevitable economic meltdown that a 1,000,000+ slave revolt would have caused. The Amarna letters are unique, in that they are 382 diplomatic correspondence on clay tablets from that very specific period of Egyptian history. Fourteen correspondence with the Babylonians, more to the Syrians, Hatti, and Lebanon. None mention Israelite slaves or a mass revolt.

The website “Answers in Genesis” tries to argue that the Israelites didn’t just build Pi-Ramesses, but also built the Pyramids. David Down, the author of the article, and apparent archaeologist says:

“When we take the history and chronology of the Bible as written, we find that it makes eminent sense of the archaeological evidence. The pyramid builders were not people who had evolved from animals over millions of years. Rather, they were once part of an advanced civilization which built an imposing tower that soared over the plains of Babylon (Genesis 11), a people descended from a family that disembarked from the 15,000-ton ocean-going Ark (Genesis 6–8). We still do not know exactly how they accomplished all their engineering feats in ancient Egypt, but we can be sure that a people who were less than 30 generations from Adam had incredible intellectual skills.”

– It is difficult to know where to begin on such a ridiculous paragraph, but what strikes me as being at the heart of this piece, is that Down takes for granted the idea that the Pyramids were built by slaves. This is a myth. It is handed to us by Greek historian Herodotus, who claimed the Pyramid builders were slaves originally, but modern archaeology tells us that the Pyramid builders were in fact, paid labourers. Ex-director of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, Dieter Wildung says:

“The myth of the slaves building pyramids is only the stuff of tabloids and Hollywood.”

– Many of the workers who died during the construction of the Pyramids, were buried with honour, by the site, something that would not have been offered to slaves. Slaves did not build the Pyramids. Israelite slaves, descended from a family on an ark, certainly didn’t build the Pyramids.

The ‘Torah’ relies on the story of Moses for credibility with regard its laws, handed down by God, to Moses. If Moses did not pen these laws, and if multiple sources over time penned these laws, then it stands to reason that they came from already established systems of law. Around 3200BC there existed a tribe of people who lived in Egypt called the Kemet. They seem to have been a civilisation who lived a rather advanced existence, just slightly before the Early Dynastic period, and so predating Pharaoh Narmer who is identified as the man responsible for uniting the different tribes of Egypt, thus becoming known as the first Pharaoh of Egypt. The unified Egypt incorporated ideas and beliefs from the tribes that it unified, one of which was the Kemet concept of “Ma’at“. Ma’at was the principle used as a guide on law, morality, truth, and spirituality that was needed to help unify Egypt. The principle was depicted as a Goddess – also called Ma’at – who was said to be in control of the stars, the sky, law, and men. They deified the concept of Ma’at. She was essentially the main God. The guiding principles of Ma’at were set out in what is known as the 42 Declarations of Purity. Of those, 10 of which can be found in the Commandments handed to Moses. Or, possibly, given that Egypt had long been a force in Canaan and the surrounding area, by the 20th century BCE, the influence of those basic principles enshrined in Ma’at; principles that lived on in Ancient Egypt, reached the Israelites, who simply appropriated much of it for themselves.

Judaism relies on the story of the exodus for its origins. Christianity relies on the historicity of Moses for the very fact that Jesus himself mentions Moses as if a historically accurate figure from the Old Testament:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
Matthew 19:8

Indeed, if the first five books of the Bible are not written by Moses, then Jesus is completely wrong:

45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust.
46 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.
47 But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

– Christianity, and the claim of Jesus as a fulfilled Prophecy from Deuteronomy 18:15-22 among others, relies solely on not only the existence of Moses, but his penning at least some of either Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, if not all of it. And yet, we now know that those five books were penned by different authors, at vastly different times.

Similarly, the Qur’an, a book supposedly the exact, uncompromising, completely accurate word of Allah mentions the story of Moses, as if historical truth:

Then we sent after them (the messengers) Moses with Our signs to Pharaoh and his chiefs, but they disbelieved in them; so see what the end of the corrupters was (7.103). Moses said: “O Pharaoh! I am a messenger from the Lord of all peoples (7.104). It is a duty on me to say nothing about Allah but the truth; I have come to you with clear proof from your Lord, therefore send with me the Children of Israel” (7.105).
Sura Al-A’raf

– This suggests that either Moses’ people escaped from Egypt, left absolutely no trace, and their captors wrote nothing of them, or even acknowledged their existence until God mentions it to Muhammad thousands of years later. Or, the Qur’an is not the word of God, and was instead used as a way to anchor the new Arab empire to a religion that was strengthened by the name of already established mythical names and events. Indeed, later Hadith tell us that Muhammad upon his Night Journey visited heaven, and met Moses. The reliability of both the Qur’an and Hadith, and so, Islam’s claim on Jerusalem, whither away to nothingness, if the story of the exodus is false, which is appears to be.

There seems to be very little reason to believe Moses achieved what the Holy books claim he achieved. It is as good as certain that there was no vast exodus out of Egypt; the underpinnings of Judaism, Christianity and Islam fall at their most basic hurdle. If the exodus didn’t happen, then Christianity stole it from Judaism and fabricated the words of Jesus in an attempt to confirm the Prophecies of Moses. Similarly, if the exodus didn’t happen, early Muslims must have appropriated the story for themselves, added a few bits, subtracted a few bits, but ultimately the point remains the same. Therefore, the first five books of the Bible – written by different people, at different times, for different purposes – are the most important aspects of the three major religions.

Collective enslavement of Israelites in Egypt, and their subsequent break from bondage, appears not to have ever occurred. The supernatural elements of the story can therefore be equally as dismissed as fantasy. It is more likely that Canaan slowly became Israel, incorporating Semites from Egypt, with stories of their own, crafting a new narrative for a new people. All civilisations have their creation myths. Moses was a key name to this, much like Romulus was a key name to the mythical creation of Rome. Whether Moses existed historically, may never be determined, but what is becoming increasingly obvious is that the stories attributed to Moses from the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an, are all fabrications.


Dawkins, Hasan, and the Tale of the Night Journey.

August 10, 2013

al-buraq-5

At the end of 2012, Richard Dawkins met with Mehdi Hasan to discuss religion as a force for good or evil, and if religion can coexist with science, at Oxford Union. During the talk, Hasan was asked if he believed that the Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, in reference to al-‘Isrā’ wal-Mi’rāj. His answer was yes, and you cannot prove he didn’t. I wanted to address this answer, because it seems to be the argument from people from the three major religions, that their ‘miracles’ are believable, and thus, rational, because Atheists are unable to prove that they didn’t happen. Moses parted the sea, we can’t prove he didn’t. Jesus returned from the dead. We can’t prove he didn’t. Noah managed to fit millions of species into his boat. We can’t prove he didn’t. The Prophet flew 700 miles on a winged horse named al-Buraq (though, this detail is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but in later Hadith) and up to heaven from Jerusalem, met Jesus, Adam, Abraham, and Moses, all in one night. We can’t prove he didn’t. And so to believers, this suggests that if we can’t definitively prove he didn’t, it somehow increases the probability that it happened, to “checkmate Atheists!”. I find this a uniquely unintelligible position to hold.

Firstly, I wanted to discuss what I believe to be the motive behind Sura 17 of the Qur’an that briefly mentions the Night Journey. As noted in my previous article, the oldest Qur’anic text we currently have – Sana’a manuscript – dates back to the rule of fifth Uyammad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. I have come to the conclusion that Abd al-Malik was an exceptionally gifted ruler and political genius. The foundations of the Islam we know in the 21st Century, can be traced back to him. The legends around the Prophet Muhammad, can be dated back to him. The bringing together of tradition, state power, dynasty legacy, and religion, can be dated back to him. He knew how to secure an empire. He was a master of PR. Muhammad’s name was used to strengthen Abd al-Malik’s position as Caliph. One of his most impressive shows of power and wealth, can be seen with the Dome of the Rock and the ‘expansion’ of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The importance of this project cannot be underestimated. It’s placement – in the centre of Jewish Jerusalem, and towering above the Church of the Sepulcher – was a show of power. In a single architectural blow, al-Malik had overpowered thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history, in their most Holy of places, and designated himself and his dynasty as its successor. The winged horse, the flight, is irrelevant. The point was the importance of Jerusalem.

To link the Prophet – who never stepped foot in Jerusalem – to Jerusalem, al-Malik needed to be creative, and to send out a powerful message that this city now belonged to the new empire, and the new dynasty. The first step, was to create the most impressive architectural marvel; the Dome. Now, he needed to link this to the new religion that would be the centrepiece of the new empire (religion and empire were intrinsically linked, this wasn’t lost on al-Malik). But there was no obvious link at first. Afterall, the Qur’an names the spot that the Prophet flew to as “the furthest place of worship“, not Jerusalem. There is no reason to suspect the Qur’an meant Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa mosque was not built during Muhammad’s life time. There was no mosque in Jerusalem at this time. The myth must have developed later (though some Muslim writers have found elaborately creative ways to get around this glaring mistake). And so, It will not come as a surprise to you, that the Mosque in Jerusalem, was built by the Uyammad’s, just as a narrative was developing. And so we see attempts from that era, to link the Ka’bah in Mecca, to Jerusalem. To do so, creates a city of Islam out of the city of Jerusalem.

There are two possibilities: Firstly, Muhammad flew on a winged animal, to the middle of Jerusalem, and then up to heaven, which he did either by passing through a portal to another dimension, or… there is a physical place called Heaven somewhere in the universe…. he then met with the obvious characters from the Biblical and Jewish narratives (coincidentally), and then came back (we can discount the spiritual interpretation, because Hasan is quite clear that he believes the Prophet DID fly to Jerusalem and then to heaven). He passed this story on, which continued to be passed on word for word, until the Qur’an was written down, and further discussed in Hadith.

Or secondly, it is all myth. And it started around the time we’d expect, given the PR effort the Umayyads were making to secure their dynasty by appealing to the earlier history of the Arab surge out of Mecca, in an attempt to forge an imperial identity.

I’m inclined to go along with the latter, and I say this because it is the only rational position one could possibly adopt, after studying the evidence, and weighing the probability of the two options. To believe the former, you dismiss the latter, and by doing so you must conclude that the laws of physics are in fact, not laws after all. They can be broken. You also have to decide whether ‘heaven’ is a supernatural realm, in which case al-Buraq managed to pass through a magic portal to get there, or ‘heaven’ is in the universe somewhere, in which case, where? How fast must the winged horse travel to get there? Either way, you see there might be trouble with the finer details of your story. If you chose to believe the story of the night journey, you have a lot of evidence building to do in order to destroy the very foundations of all science. I look forward to your thesis.

Indeed, belief in the validity of al-‘Isrā’ wal-Mi’rāj, means that the work of thousands of wonderful scientists, those who laid the foundations of our understanding of physical universal principles, must be wrong. That their work, built upon by thousands more well established, peer reviewed scientists from across the planet, repeated experiment, with centuries of thorough investigation and intense calculations and evidence building; must be wrong. To suggest that these principles that have been slugged out over centuries to give us a firm understanding of the way the universe works, are all actually wrong, requires more evidence than simply “well, you can’t say that he didn’t“. To believe it to be true, means you directly contradict, and in fact, dismiss, all known phsyical properties of the universe. You cannot claim reason, after abandoning reason.

The two positions; that of “he did fly to heaven“, and “he didn’t fly to heaven“, do not have equal weight. The evidence is weighed heavily in favour of science. It is true, I cannot prove beyond any doubt, that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t fly on a winged animal, to heaven. I wasn’t there. But I can make an educated guess, using what we know of the universe and the laws it operates under, because we have nothing to suggest those laws are untrue in any way. Even if suddenly evidence were provided to suggest that universal principles can be broken, we would then need to provide evidence that they were indeed broken on that particular day. A suggestion, in an 8th Century book is not evidence. It is no more evidence, than if I were to write down that I have an invisible monkey that flies me to the moon every Sunday. And it requires of me than just “You can’t prove otherwise.

If I am to contradict & dismiss absolutely everything we know about the fundamental workings of the universe, then the burden of proof is on me to show that it is at least possible first, and then to show that it did happen as I say it did. As far as I am aware, no religious “miracle” has so far destroyed the foundations of modern science in that way. This includes the night journey.

Hasan asked Dawkins:

“Do you regard them all [people who believe in God and the supernatural] as intellectually inferior to you?”

– But I Think Hasan has the question the wrong way round. It seems to me, if you’re willing to so flippantly and easily believe a story that contradicts and disregards extensive research, studies, evidence of all those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of understanding of the laws of the universe, and forcefully squeeze your book of unsubstantiated myths and legends, without any evidence to back up what any of it says; you’re the one who believes yourself to be intellectually superior, not just to the person you’re talking to, but to the entire scientific community. Hasan says “I’m willing to say, I can’t prove that he did“. This is irrelevant. If you’re a Muslim, you believe that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged animal, because the Qur’an and Hadith say so. You therefore believe it more probable than not, which in turn means you believe all scientists to be mistaken. This is a sense of intellectual superiority on an extreme level. Dawkins is simply reflecting the work of thousands of scientists – including many incredible Islamic scientists – when he suggests that the Prophet did not fly to heaven on a winged animal. This isn’t about what Professor Dawkins believes, it’s about what science has taught us. Belief of one Professor is irrelevant.

It seems more probable to me that the universal physical laws, which have never been observably broken, and show no reason to believe they ever will be; were not suspended to allow a man to fly around on winged animal that can either break the speed of light, or can travel between dimensions. It seems far more probable that the story of the night journey was created to provide more strength to a brilliant dynasty that had become obsessed with creating a narrative to justify its power. Thus, staking their claim over Jerusalem. Then came coins, huge stunningly crafted buildings of wealth and prestige in politically important places, patronage of great artists and poets, the centralisation of power into a more bureaucratic state, the nationalisation of Arabic as the language of Empire, and a need to link all of this back to the man that was – undoubtedly – considered the hero of the Arabs in the 7th Century, Muhammad. This all happened at the same time, for the same purpose. This isn’t coincidence. This is design. This is Abd al-Malik’s, and his sons design. The night journey conforms to that design perfectly. It is therefore more probable that the night journey is a myth, for reasons stated above, than it is probable that the physical order of the universe be broken.

The discussion between Dawkins and Hasan at Oxford Union can be seen here.


The Search for Muhammad: Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan

August 8, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Orientalist

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Orientalist

In the British Library sits a collection of Syriac New Testament fragments of manuscript throughout history. Of these, lays a version of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, known as Addition 14,461. Scribbled inside the pages, is a note from what is thought to be around the time just after the battle of Gabitha in 636 CE that reads:

“…and in January, they took the word for their lives did [the sons of] Emesa, and many villages were ruined with killing by [the Arabs of] Mụhammad”

– This is the earliest non-Islamic mention of a man named Muhammad, written just four years after his death.

It is without doubt that Islamic literature covering the life, the actions, and words of the Prophet Muhammad, is vast, and along with the Qur’an, the bedrock of Islam. From biographies, to commentaries, to translations and constant reinvention to suit a more ‘acceptable’ modern narrative (the age of Aisha, springs to mind); it goes without saying, that the intrusions into every facet of the life of the founder of one of the Worlds largest religions, is central to the Islamic faith.

It is truly difficult to know where to start, what we actually know for certain, when trying to figure out just who Muhammad was. Wading through legend, and interpretation rather than fact, is a tiresome venture. But one name crops up as perhaps the most important in the institutionalisation of Islam and the beginnings of forging the legend of the Prophet; Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan.

The first thing to note, for the sake of this article, is the importance of religion, in carving a successful empire. Reza Aslan, in ‘No God but God’ notes:

“Your religion was your ethnicity, your culture, and your social identity, it defined your politics, your economics, and your ethics. More than anything else, your religion was your citizenship.”

– The significance of this will be clear by the end of this article.

The very first biography of the Prophet was produced by Ibn Ishaq; Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. The most notable problems with this, are that Ibn Ishaq was born around 704ad, approximately 70 years after the Prophet had died. He was born two decades after the fifth Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan worked to marry together the new Arab Empire, his own legacy and dynasty (the first dynasty of the Arab empire), with a religious identity of its own. Ibn Ishaq’s biography – a collection of oral traditions – was therefore written around 100+ years (traditionally, 120 years) after the Prophet had died, and just after the Caliphate had indulged in a Public Relations effort. Not only that, but Ibn Ishaq’s work has since been lost to history. We know that Ishaq’s work was edited by al-Bakka’i, whose copy has also been lost to history. al-Bakka’i edit was then edited by Ibn Hisham, whose work (in copies) are the basis for all inquiries into the life of the Prophet that we have today. Everything else, is pieced together from Hadith, that happened to come about even further removed than Ibn Ishaq. For the basis of the life of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq is often (though not always) taken at his word that he is trustworthy, which obviously means we must take al-Bakka’i’s word that he is trustworthy, and we must take Ibn Hisham’s word that he is trustworthy. And yet, even Islamic scholars throughout history have questioned Ibn Ishaq’s reliability:

“Imam Malik was not the only contemporary of Ibn Ishaq’s to have problems with him. Despite writing the earliest biography of Prophet Muhammad, Scholars such as al-Nisa’I and Yahya b. Kattan did not view Ibn Ishaq as a reliable or authoritative source of Hadith.”

If we cannot be certain of the legitimacy of all Hadith, and we place the collection of Hadith at a time that follows a systematic effort to institutionalise Islam by marrying its history to that of the Ummayad rulers, then I see no reason why we can be certain of the legitimacy of any Hadith. If we cannot be certain of the legitimacy of the entire biography by Ibn Ishaq, and cannot be certain of the legitimacy of integrity of Ibn Hisham’s edit, then I see no reason to trust any of it. Both of these contentions have far reaching consequences not just for Muslims, but for those of us who are critical of the Prophet. My criticisms of the Prophet come from the traditions presented of him, through the Qur’an and Hadith. My judgement that he was misogynistic and violent, are based on interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith. If neither can be trusted, than all criticism falls away. I am left with criticism of a legend; but given the structure and practice of belief that legend has inspired and the power it now has over the World, I think it less of a problem to be critical, than it is to believe.

So what do we know of the Prophet Muhammad?

Well, if we cross reference early Islamic writings of Ibn Ishaq (though again, we rely on Ibn Hisham for this) with the writings of those outside of Islam, we may get a more accurate picture of Muhammad, than relying purely on the biases of either.

St John of Damascus, writing before any Hadith were compiled, wrote:

“There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’ These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy.”

– St John’s birth year is contentious. Some sources insist around 675, others like Daniel J. Sahas suggest 652. Either way, he lived at a time when the Arab Empire had surged northwards and taken control of his homeland. He would be familiar with stories of Muhammad (Muhammad never stepped foot in Damascus). He lived through the iconoclast controversy, and he was a boyhood friend of the future Caliph Yazid I. He had a keen interest in people of other faiths. Interestingly, in his writings, he never refers to the new occupiers as “Muslims”. There is no “Islam”. No system of laws. The ‘heresy’ wasn’t new, Muslims are referred to as ‘Saracens’ (The Byzantines decreed that because of his supposed heresies, John of Damascus was himself of ‘saracene opinions’) and Muhammad was simply a leader of that old tradition. The chapter itself is called “Heresy of the Ishmaelities”.

St John was writing just before the accumulation of Hadith began. Around 100 years after Muhammad’s death, and well into the centralising of control toward Damascus, by the Ummayad dynasty. His writings suggest that whilst this new band of ‘heretics’ existed and were linked to a man named Muhammad by the 8th Century, they were not known as Muslims, nor were they considered a brand new religious order, separate from Christianity, with a system of values and laws of their own.

However, much of that is St John’s Christian bias. The Arabs did not consider themselves to be a heretical Christian sect. Here we see two coins. The coin on the left, is the coin of Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. The coin on the right, is the Umayyad coin, modelled on the earlier Byzantine coin…. but with the cross missing:

coin
– The Umayyad coin is dated to around 690, during a dispute with the Byzantines. The minting of new coins lead directly to war with the Byzantine Empire. And here we see the beginnings of what would become a very centralised, political Islam, through, in my estimation, the single most important Caliph in the history of the Arab Empire.

The Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan established the entity that would become an Islamic state, rather than simply conquered lands. In short, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, was brilliant. A master of empire building. A political genius. He came to power upon the death of his father, during a civil war that was tearing the fragile Empire apart. He most feared the rise of the alternative Caliph Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr and his followers. The besieging of Mecca, in 692, with over 10,000 Syrian troops, shows just how serious Abd al-Malik believed the situation had become for the future of his dynasty. Eventually the rebellions, as well as the Byzantines were defeated, and so the next step is to unify the Empire. To further the plan of unification, he needed to solidify his own claims to the Caliphate. It is around this time, that coins start to be inscribed with the name of Muhammad, linked directly to the Caliph. It is also no surprise that the Sana’a manuscripts (the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts we have) are calligraphically dated to the era of Abd al-Malik.

He had the coin above created to include an image of himself, defiantly holding onto his sword, as a warrior. Poetry of the time calls the Caliph, the ‘deputy’ of God. They go to great lengths to push this idea, and it is most prominent during the reign of Abd al-Malik.

The urgency to ensure the strength and growth of the new Arab Empire – an Empire that had already experienced civil war, and was in the midst of new uprisings – depended on creating a history of its own, intrinsically tied to the new Caliph (This happens with all dynasties of old who have spurious claims to power. Augustus adopted the title ‘Caesar’, King Henry VII of England, named his first son Arthur, linking his dynasty to the reign of the legendary King Arthur). It is the result of the attempts to centralise power more concisely and distinctly than any previous Caliph, and to solidify the new Empire, by Abd al-Malik, at a period in history by which the survival of a new state entwined majestically with the growth of the religion that it was based on. Without a powerful religious context, alongside a manipulated legend-based history, a state struggled to survive.

Unsurprisingly, the first mention of the Prophet Muhammad on any coin, was issued a year after the accession to the Caliphate, in 686, and in the midst of rebellion and civil war….. of Abd al-Malik. The coin reads: “shahāda: bism Allāh Muḥammad rasūl Allāh (“In the name of God, Muḥammad is the Messenger of God”)”. This again, coincides with the Caliph’s attempts to solidify the power of the new Empire, and link his dynasty and his Empire back to the early days, and to Muhammad. Abd al-Malik, is forging a history for his dynasty. The legend of Muhammad was the next stage in the strengthening of the dynasty through forged history.

Between 685, and 715, the dynasty that controlled the Caliphate was in the middle of perhaps one of the greatest and most impressive Public Relations ventures the World has ever seen.

Earlier Arab coins, during the period between Muhammad’s death, and the 5th Umayyad Caliph, show no mention of anything that could be linked to the Islam that evolved over the following century. No mention of Islam, or of the Prophet. They include generic phrases like “bism Allah rabbi” (In the name of God, my Lord).

Coins are one way to strengthen an Empire, but by far the most impressive, is through Architecture. Abd al-Malik oversaw the symbolic building of the Dome of the Rock, in centre of Jewish Jerusalem, on the legendary site of Temple Mount. It stands high above Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dwarfing the old Christian Church. A symbol of great power to the new Monotheism in town. Nothing says the coming of a new age, and a new dynasty, quite like crushing the old one. A symbol of authority, and wealth; great architecture is woven into the fabric of the building of Empire. This was used to stunning effect by the great architects of the Abd al-Malik era.

His son, al-Walid, upon accession to the Caliphate, continues his father’s legacy, by building the great Umayyad Mosque at Damascus, over the old Christian Basilica of Saint John the Baptist. al-Walid also became the Patron of great artists and poets at the time. The Umayyad’s were creating a brand new culture, that centred around themselves. It is for this reason perhaps that Islam, is an extremely political religion. It was necessary, for the time period.

Coins emphasising the link between Abd al-Malik’s dynasty, and Muhammad, forging the legend of Muhammad to add weight to the early days and linking it to the history of his dynasty, huge beautiful buildings on the sight of religions of conquered Empires, codifying laws through the Qur’an; this all took place to strengthen Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan’s claim to the Caliphate. He oversaw the centralising of power from reliance on tribal leaders, to a system of bureaucracy (which resulted in the Arabisation of the language of state). He reformed the military, creating official ranks of non-Arab fighters. We can trace the legends of Muhammad to, and directly following his reign. Prior to that time period, all we have are sparse references to a man named Muhammad who was simply a leader of the Arabs. What he said, and what he did, was of little to no significance. Imperial authority, Islamic authority, all resulted from Abd al-Malik’s imperial & dynastic goals.

Three things are clear. Firstly, the sudden and impressive Arab conquests around the 7th century, included and was most likely lead by a man called Muhammad, though whether his words and deeds were important to this new faith, is unlikely given that it took over a century to decide it might be wise to document his words and deeds, and over 60 years before he even appears on a coin. Secondly, Muhammad preached a Monotheism that differed to that of Christians and Jews, and was considered a heresy by non-Muslims of the period. And Thirdly, by the late 7th Century, Muhammad’s name was suddenly being used to strengthen a fragmented, and fragile political Umayyad state and to solidify the claims of one particular Caliph; coins appear with Muhammad’s name on it; Hadith are being collected in order to provide a legal framework for the new empire; Muhammad suddenly becomes a legendary and much needed figurehead for the reign of Abd al-Malik, upon his accession to a largely fragmented and warring empire.

What we do not know, and what is pure speculation at best, is the Prophet’s life before his supposed revelations, what actually happened in the cave outside of Mecca (if anything), any aspect of his life, what he ever said, and how he treated others. We simply do not know. It is far more likely that Muhammad, as presented in Islamic literature, was a figure whose legend began to be moulded by the truly brilliant Abd al-Malik, and was further added to in order to suit the goals of later Caliphs.

Islam as we know it, was intrinsically linked to the Umayyad dynasty. It was all political, all spin, all PR, and based on the geopolitical climate of the late 7th Century. The early Arabs were not Muslims as we know them today. The Fifth Umayyad Caliph carved a political empire. Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan was the great spark that lit the fire of the legend of the Prophet Muhammad.