Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: Arabs

Intermediate World of Spirits

May 15, 2022

Neither angels nor devils, jinn can move in both directions, as is clear from the romance of Sayf al-Kulut and Badiat: they can surpass the devil’s works in wickedness and also act vigorously on behalf of the supreme God and goodness. In the sura called ‘The Jinn’ in the Koran, the jinn tell us, ‘That among us there are the righteous, and there are the less so—of diverse persuasions are we’….

In a plot, the supreme being can act as a narrative force embodied in providence, but there are limits to the spectrum of his behaviour. Even the furious God of the Old Testament does not possess the degree of idiosyncrasy and vitality that less strictly perfect beings, intrinsically various and unruly, can add to a story. It is not simply a question of the devil having the best tunes, but a reflection of the inherent demand that this kind of fairytale storytelling makes: for surprise, for wonder, for astonishment. The Greek myths could imagine gods and goddesses behaving badly and the stories correspondingly fizz with inventive plots: with the fairytale and the tales from [A Thousand And One] Nights this variety and spice, so necessary to a good story, moves out of the ranks of the divine into the intermediate world of spirits.

Stranger Magic, p. 48

Violent Logic of Feudalism

April 1, 2022

So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. “The economy” is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and—by the way—you’re in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we’ll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like “feudalism” makes sense.

It’s how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don’t have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It’s also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I’m pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can’t actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I’ll let you take charge of a chunk of “my territory,” and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up “his territory” for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel…the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East…. “Feudalism” was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call “feudalism” makes a very coherent in-setting response—though it might take a million different forms….

The Logic of Feudalism – Gundobad Games

Author’s emphases are in italic. Mine are in bold.

Alchemy Is a Very Broad Church

December 3, 2010

Alchemy is very old. Ancient Egyptian texts talk of techniques of distillation and metallurgy as mystical processes. Greek myths such as the quest for the Golden Fleece can be seen to have an alchemical layer of meaning, and Fludd, Boehme and others have interpreted Genesis in the same alchemical terms.

A quick survey of alchemical texts ancient and modern shows that alchemy, like the [Kabbalah], is a very broad church. If there is one great mysterious ‘Work’, it is approached via a remarkable variety of codes and symbols. In some cases the Work involves Sulphur, Mercury and Salt, in others roses, stars, the philosopher’s stone, salamanders, toads, crows, nets, the marriage bed, and astrological symbols such as the fish and the lion.

There are obvious geographical variations. Chinese alchemy seems less about the quest for gold and more about a quest for the elixir of life, for longevity, even immortality. Alchemy also seems to change through the ages. In the third century [C.E.] the alchemist [Zosimos] wrote that ‘the symbol of the chymic art—gold—comes forth from creation for those who rescue and purify the divine soul chained in the elements’. In early Arab texts the Work involves manipulations of these same Four Elements, but in European alchemy, rooted in the Middle Ages and flowering in the seventeenth century [C.E.], a mysterious fifth element, the Quintessence, comes to the fore.

If we begin to look for unifying principles, we can see immediately that there are prescribed lengths of time or numbers of repetitions for the various operations, the distilling, the applying of gentle heat and so on.

There are obvious parallels, then, with meditative practice and this suggests immediately that these alchemical terms may be descriptions of subjective states of consciousness rather than the sort of chemical operations that might be performed in a laboratory.

Mark Booth, The Secret History of the World, pp. 338-40

Birth of the Caliphate

May 9, 2008
The origins and growth of Islam are indeed exceedingly difficult to explain; but the facts are not in dispute. Muhammad’s preaching began soon after his earliest revelations in about 610 [C.E.]. In 622 he left Mecca for Medina, the famous Hijra or migration which has ever since featured as Year I in the Muslim calendar. By the time of his death in 632 the community which he had founded had come to embrace many of the tribes which inhabited the Arabian peninsula. A new power had been born. In the following generation the caliphs who succeeded to the Prophet’s leadership — and the Arabic word khalifa means simply ‘successor’ — unleashed the military energies of the tribesmen upon the settled peoples of the Fertile Crescent. At that date the area was dominated by the two superpowers of the ancient world, the Persian and Roman empires. Between 633 and 651 Persia was defeated by Islam and overrun in a series of lightning campaigns: Islamic dominion in the East reached into modern Afghanistan. In the early seventh century the Roman empire had consisted of the eastern and southern Mediterranean lands stretching from Greece and the Balkans through Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and on through North Africa to distant outposts in modern Morocco. (It is often referred to as the Byzantine empire, a name derived from the settlement which underlay the empire’s capital city, Constantinople, but its rulers referred to themselves as Roman emperors. The western provinces of the empire had been taken over by Germanic invaders at an earlier date.) Between 634 and 638 Palestine and Syria were conquered by the Islamic armies. Egypt followed in the years 640-2, and in the following year Arab forces began to stream into the provinces that form the modern state of Libya.
Thus within twenty years of Muhammad’s death his followers had destroyed one ancient empire and hacked great chunks off another. Mighty cities such as Antioch and Alexandria had fallen into Muslim hands. The most sacred sites in Christendom, the Holy Places of Jerusalem and Palestine, had been lost: not for over four centuries would Christian armies attempt to recover them.

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, p. 11

Astrolabe, Gift Of The Arabs

May 1, 2008

The astrolabe was an instrument of critical importance in [eleventh-century C.E.] Europe’s intellectual advance. It permitted all sorts of astronomical observations to be made with hitherto unmatched accuracy; it made possible rapid and accurate terrestrial measurements, for example of height and distance; it could be turned to navigational use and it could serve as a clock. The astrolabe was invented in antiquity, but the Arabs were the first to grasp its potential and elaborate its design. Knowledge of it was quickly diffused throughout the Islamic world….

Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid, p. 53

Decline of Medieval Iraq

March 7, 2003

Throughout the period of Abbasid glory in Baghdad (750-861 [C.E.]), the priceless oriental trade from India and China to Byzantium and Europe has passed up the Persian Gulf and through Baghdad to northern Syria. But the administration of Ibn Tulun in Egypt was so just and conditions in Iraq were so chaotic, that the merchants who handled the oriental trade decided to switch their route from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and Egypt. This was the beginning of the rise of Egypt and the decline of Iraq.

Soldiers of Fortune, p. 24

Slavery in the East

November 7, 1997

The Ayoubids had introduced…a feudal system that dominated Egypt…for six hundred years and vitally affected the social conditions, arts, literature, and material aspect of Cairo…. Slavery in the East is no disgrace; on the contrary, the relationship ranks far above mere hired service. The slave is regarded almost as a son.

Soldiers of Fortune, p. 43