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Baghad in Sunni Arab Mythology

"What's "model of Al-Hudaibiyyah"? --from a reader

"'in Baghdad, the most important city outside of Mecca in the mythology of Muslims, to the Rafidite dogs, those quasi-Persians, of Shi'a Islam.'" - from another reader

Others have answered the query about Al-Hudaibiya and "Rafidite dogs." I didn’t know this when I started preparing this answer ten minutes ago (I’ve been watching “Kabuyahan Swak na Swak” on television – I wouldn’t miss it for the world), but I hope there are details in it that do not overlap with what has already been posted (at JW). And it might be good to have both taken care of in the same posting.

Furthermore, aside from answering the question about al-Hudaibiyya and "Rafidite dogs" I have taken note of a piece in yesterday's "Wall Street Journal" in which Fouad Ajami makes a prediction about Sunni acquiescence in the loss of Baghdad, and this gives me a chance to predict that he's dead wrong about that Sunni acquiescence, because of the role that Baghdad plays in the Arab imagination, the Arab mythology.

Ajami can be funny and forthright about many things. He gave Said repeated whippings, though nothing so fine as what Bernard Lewis delivered. And he is often a truth-teller, and in the past has told many home truths that are more effective if given by -- well, you know, a "native." His finest hour came on television several years ago, when Dan Rather or Charlie Rose was vaporing on about Saddam Hussein's supposed "secular" and "Western" makeup, and Ajami got up, and in mick-mockery, pointing to his trousers, and somewhat exasperatedly, noted: "You wear pants, I wear pants.”

He can also write to set your teeth on edge.: “The truth of Iraq will assert itself on the ground.”. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Perhaps, though the boy has been taken out of the Arab East (though he enjoys that pronoun “we” as in “we, the Americans”), the East hasn’t taken the Arab East out of the boy. A little too much of the Oriental muchness and poetic-boozy superflux is still present – though compared to Hamid Dabashi, and that tribute to Edward Said, Ajami is as laconic as Beckett. But he must come to understand that his notion of what constitutes "fine writing" perhaps comes from an Arabic or Persian linguistic mental subtext, and here in the Western world it’s something to be avoided. Unless of course you are named Dominique de Villepin, or Bernard-Henri Levy, and thank god, we aren’t..

So here goes:

1.Hudaibiyyah is the name of the place where Muhammad made an agreement with the Meccans in 628 A.D. In engage for Muhammad agreeing not to attack the city, the Meccans would permit Muhammad and his followers to enter Mecca in order to make an annual pilgrimage, the umra (now the “lesser pilgrimage”). The agreement was to last for ten years. The agreement was honored on both sides for the first year. But eighteen months into it, feeling stronger, Muhammad on a pretext attacked the Meccans.

The Western tradition has arrived at the view that "pacta sunt servanda" -- treaties are to be obeyed. The Muslim tradition says that Muslims may make a "truce" treaty (not a real "peace" treaty) that can last up to ten years, with Infidels, but that whenever they believe themselves in a position to breach the treaty in any way -- either particular provisions, or its entirety -- they are fully entitled to, and should, do so.

It is amusing to see how, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, someone -- I forget if it is Claude Cahen or Montgomery Watt -- tries to present Muhammad in as good a light as possible, but fails. Muslims will tell Infidels two things, that contradict each other:

First, that Muhammad had every right to attack because it was a tribe allied to the Meccans that first attacked a tribe allied to Muhammad.

Second, that Muhammad was a brilliant war-maker and his deception at Hudaibiyyah was truly admirable, and to be emulated.

What matters is this: as Majid Khadduri wrote in his "War and Peace in the Law of Islam," Muslims have a right to breach, and should breach, any agreement with Infidels whenever they can, in order to further the cause of Islam.

#2. The past, the mythologized glorious past of high Islamic civilization, means everything to Muslim Arabs. It is the high point, supposedly, of their existence, and in their imagined past all kinds of Christians and Jews, or those who were non-Arab Muslims -- Persians, Central Asians, Kurds, and many others -- become "Arabs" (Saddam Hussein was not the only one to claim Saladin as an Arab, nor was Saladin the only famous figure, non-Arab or non-Muslim, from the Islamic past who has been claimed or believed by many to be, a Muslim Arab).

Baghdad was the capital of the most important Abbasid Caliphate. The fabulous city of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. The city of Mutanabbi, and other poets. The city of the House of Translators. Madinat al-salam, the City of Peace, for 500 years, from 762 A.D. , when it was founded, until 1258, when it was conquered and much of it destroyed by the Mongols under Hulegu, it was the most important city in the entire dar al-Islam. And in Muslim memory and Muslim mythology – they are usually the same thing – it remains the most important city even if stripped of all the glories of that fabled – in every sense – past. Cairo, that is Fustat (Old Cairo), is a distant second. Mecca has its place as the center of the religion, but for Islamic history, it is Baghdad all the way.

Now that Baghdad is in danger of falling into the hands of those “Rafidite dogs.” The exact meaning of “Rafidite” has to do with distant Muslim history, and the literal meaning – as a follower of Zaid – is not important here. What is important is that the term is one used by Sunnis to curse Shia. It was a favorite phrase of Al-Zarqawi.

Baghdad is the city where Muslim history was made. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Fouad Ajami, a piece mixing his wonted good sense and his penchant for empty and grandiose phrases that he really ought to cut out, claims that eventually the Sunni Arabs will acquiesce, will reconcile themselves, to the new Shi’a order in Iraq, and above all to Shi’a control of in Baghdad. He writes:

In the fullness of time, the Arab order of power will have to come to a grudging acceptance of the order sure to take hold in Baghdad. This is a region that respects the prerogatives of power. It had once resisted the coming to power of the Alawites in Syria and then learned to accommodate that "heretical" minority sect and its conquest of Damascus; the Shia path in Iraq will follow that trajectory, and its justice is infinitely greater for it is the ascendancy of a demographic majority, through the weight of numbers and the ballot box. Of all Arab lands, Iraq is the most checkered, a frontier country at the crossroads of Arabia, Turkey and Persia. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq and beyond have never accepted the diversity of that land. The "Arabism" of the place was synonymous with their own primacy.

I beg, I plead with you, to differ.

I don’t think Sunni Arabs anywhere would ever permanently acquiesce in the loss of Baghdad: not in Iraq, not in Saudi Arabia, not in Jordan, not in the U.A.E., not in Egypt, not in Syria. The Kurds, Shi’a, and Sunni each will now control a region, but Baghdad is where they meet (well, the Kurds a little less so), and Baghdad is the hero of the Arab narrative, a narrative in which people are identified by their cities, not by nation-states, and Baghdad is the City of Peace, that madinat al-salam that can never be allowed to be lost to Shi’a Islam, or still worse – to the Shi’a Islam of Arabs increasingly tied to, linked with, cunning, ruthless, and relentless Persian neighbors.

Now I really must go to the television -- I think I may be able to catch a  re-run of "Just Pooja." And I couldn't see it before, because it was running at the same time as that Kabuhayan Swak na Swak I simply couldn't miss. Say, I think on television they misspelled it, for obvious phonetic reasons, as "Kabuhayang." I must have a word with the station manager.