Today in Middle Eastern history: the Wahhabi sack of Karbala (probably 1802)

imam_husayn_shrine_by_tasnimnews_01

The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala today (Wikimedia)

Wahhabism has always taken a dim view of Shiʿism–really, denigrating the Shiʿa is at the core of the movement’s origins. Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) based his teachings in large part on those of the very influential 13th-14th century Hanbali scholar Ibn Taymiyah, and apart maybe from philosophers Shiʿa were pretty much Ibn Taymiyah’s least favorite people in the world. One of the things Ibn Taymiyah condemned was the practice, common among but certainly not limited to Shiʿa, of visiting the shrine of a respected religious figure (a “saint,” for lack of a better term) to venerate that figure and ask the him or her to intercede on one’s behalf with God. Ibn Taymiyah saw such practices as unequivocally shirk (placing someone or something on the same level with God, i.e. polytheism), and his condemnations are the intellectual justification for Salafis in modern times who, for example, destroy shrines of prominent Sufi figures (though, I should note, Ibn Taymiyah was himself a Sufi).

Ibn Taymiyah also really hated the Shiʿa pilgrimage to Karbala to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Husayn b. Ali, who was killed there in the Battle of Karbala in 680. He didn’t disagree that Husayn was a martyr, but he argued that martyrdom was a blessing, not something to be mourned. And anyway, as I say, he rejected the act of making pilgrimage to someone’s tomb and paying homage there as shirk, which is really the most heinous crime one can commit under Islamic religious law.

Ideologically, Wahhabism takes the embrace of God’s oneness and avoidance of shirk as its main point of emphasis, so it’s no wonder that Ibn Abd al-Wahhab embraced what Ibn Taymiyah had to say about the treatment of saints and their shrines. He went further though, arguing that Shiʿa were guilty of elevating their imams over Muhammad and even of placing them on the same level with God. And under the so-called “First Saudi State,” which lasted from 1744 to 1818 and grew to control most of the Arabian peninsula during its brief lifespan, these tenets of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s teaching were made state policy.

All of this is to explain why, on April 21 in either 1801 or 1802, but more likely 1802, a Saudi army of about 12,000 men marched north to Karbala, destroyed the Imam Husayn Shrine (seen above in its modern form), and massacred between two and five thousand people in the process. Or, well, it explains their theoretical justification for carrying out that act. If you ask me, the reason for the raid on Karbala was much less about the One True Islam than it was about all the sweet treasure they were able to plunder. Continue reading

This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Fariskur (1250)

Here, at long last, is the eagerly (?) awaited conclusion to February’s story of the Seventh Crusade’s Battle of Mansurah. When last we left our plucky yet doomed Crusaders, under the command of the very willing but not really able Louis IX of France (d. 1270), they’d suffered a decisive defeat at Mansurah and were sent scrambling back across the Nile and from there back on north to Damietta, their Egyptian base of operations. The Ayyubid ruler, Turanshah (d. 1250, but in this case that’s not a spoiler–well, not really), had by this point assumed direct command of his army, and though it was still on the opposite side of the Nile from the Crusaders, he’d dispatched a force downriver (which, this being the Nile, means north) to block his enemy’s retreat…

Source: Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Fariskur (1250)

Last week in Middle Eastern history: the First Battle of Gaza (1917)

Two Sundays ago, March 26, marked the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, a small and, to be honest, fairly inconsequential affair (the Second Battle of Gaza was fought less than a month later, so clearly neither side expended itself this time around) that is nonetheless interesting in that what could have been a decisive British victory became instead an indecisive Ottoman one because British forces, having actually taken Gaza, decided to retreat rather than prepare for an Ottoman counterattack. That’s why there was a second engagement in April, which was also an Ottoman victory, and then a third one in November when the Brits finally were victorious.

Why am I only writing about this now, and not last week when it might have been appropriate? Well, the simple answer is that, as regular readers know, when World War I stuff comes around I generally like to send you all to read Michael Collins Dunn instead of writing about these things myself. And, well, it took him a few days to get his account written so it’s taken me a few days to point you at it. But if you’re interested in WWI history, do go check these out: part I (introducing the key people) and part II (recapping the engagement itself).

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Today in Middle Eastern history: Iran becomes “Iran” (1935)

Reza Shah Pahlavi

I don’t mean to seem obscure with that title, but it’s a historical oddity that the nation (kingdom, empire, whatever it was at any particular point in history) of Iran was never officially called “Iran” by anybody other than Iranians until 1935, even though most Iranians had been calling it “Iran” for millennia. The rest of the world didn’t catch on until Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944) requested, in December 1934, that as of the next Iranian New Year (Nowruz), all foreign governments should henceforth stop referring to his country as “Persia” and start calling it “Iran.” Sometimes you’ll see this related by Western writers as “Reza Shah changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran,” but that’s dumb and wrong, because, again, Iran was always the name of the country. “Persia” was, for the most part, what’s known as an “exonym,” which is the term used when a group, place, language, or some other national feature is given a different name by people who aren’t part of that group, or don’t live in that place, or don’t speak that language, or all of the above.

With all due respect to Herodotus or whichever Greek writer convinced the rest of the world that the land between Mesopotamia and the Indus River was properly called “Persia,” this was never true…

Source: Today in Middle Eastern history: Iran becomes “Iran” (1935)

Nowruz, the Iraq War, and my eyeballs

Today is Nowruz, the ancient Iranian holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and, in the Iranian calendar, a new year. That really lovely holiday has unfortunately been marred since 2003 by the fact that it falls on the same day as the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, for which I suppose we should note that no one has ever been held accountable despite the fact that it was a thoroughly criminal act that set of a series of other thoroughly criminal acts perpetrated by the American government.

Yeah, good one bro

As to the third part of the title to this post, well, I just got back from getting dilated at the eye doctor, and even staring at my computer screen for the time it’s taken me to write this has been enough to make me want to scoop my eyes out of my head with a melon baller. So I would invite you to enjoy the post I wrote on this date a year ago, which is short but angry, and includes a link to my own Persian language-inflected attempt at a Nowruz explainer if that’s something you’re interested in reading. And I would say that it is unlikely that I’ll be writing a conflict update this evening–the real conflict, my friends, is with my comically wide open pupils and any source of light. Seriously I expect my eyes will be fine in a few hours but I don’t think that will leave me enough time to actually churn one of those monster posts out tonight. If I’m wrong, I’ll see you later, but otherwise, see you tomorrow.

I suppose it feels like the war is over to most people in the US, which is all well and good, but try telling that to the Iraqi people, who haven’t known so much as a month of uninterrupted peace since the morning of March 20, 2003, when the Project for the New American Century finally got its new American century, the rest of the world be damned (literally). And yeah, Saddam Hussein is no more, and the human race is richer for his demise. But at what cost? At what ongoing cost?

The utterly unnecessary and comprehensively disastrous Iraq War animates a lot of my own views on war and peace, American foreign policy, and the unjustified/unjustifiable deference our political and media discourse still gives to the Professional Experts and Very Serious Pundits who watched the most avoidable foreign policy fiasco in American history unfold before them and did nothing, or else cheered it on. By and large those people haven’t suffered so much as a minor professional inconvenience over their malpractice–they certainly haven’t suffered anything like the Iraqi people have suffered for the past 13 years.

Source: Nowruz, and the Iraq War at 13

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Today in Middle Eastern history: the Fall of Baghdad (1917)

I’ve been a little lax on the World War I centennials lately, and to be honest I’m not about to fix that at 10:30 on a Saturday night, but as I often do on these occasions I can cheat and send you to read the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn.

For background you’ll want to read his account of the Second Battle of Kut from late February. April 1916’s First Battle of Kut, as we know, was a complete Ottoman victory and one of the low points for Britain in the whole war. Following that disaster, the British army replaced its commander in Mesopotamia, Lt. General Percy Lake, with newly arrived (from Gallipoli) corps commander, Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude.

sir_stanley_maude

Hello, General Maude!

Maude wisely spent the rest of 1916 repairing the damage that had been done in the campaign that culminated at Kut. He recruited new troops from India, trained them, and had his engineers build out a rail network that could support a full-scale northern offensive. His target was Baghdad, which at this particular point in history was really of no great military significance, but which was a high profile target whose capture would be a morale booster for the British war effort. Plus, just advancing that far north would put Maude’s army in position to threaten important Ottoman positions in northern Iraq and Anatolia.

As Dunn notes, the “Second Battle” of Kut wasn’t much of a battle. The Ottomans were damn sure not going to repeat Charles Townsend’s mistake of the year before and allow themselves to be bottled up there, so they withdrew north on February 24 without much resistance. Baghdad fell pretty much the same way:

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

Khalil Pasha made straight for–wait for it–the city of Mosul, which was of much greater importance to the Ottomans (still is, apparently, per Sultan Recep I), where he set up a defense and prepared for a British attack that never came. Maude, wanting to avoid Townsend’s biggest mistake–overextending his supply lines–decided to stop his advance at Baghdad and take the necessary logistical steps to properly support the next phase of his advance. In fact, the Brits decided to shut down their Mesopotamian operations for the winter, maybe in part because Maude died of cholera in November.

In 1918, the Levant front was where the action was, and the British Mesopotamian army was ordered to send part of its force west to help on that front. Then, of course, the war ended. Although the Mesopotamian army eventually entered Mosul in November 1918, that was after the Armistace of Mudros had put the Ottomans out of the war, and the post-war status of the city had to be ironed out later on.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.