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Category Archives: History

A brief mention of two books that I’ve been reading over the month of April. The first is Team of Rivals which is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The second is Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. These are two American lives that have fascinated me. Two lives destined to belong to the ages. Read More »


I have turned into a major Goodreads fan.

For those of you who don’t know, Goodreads is a social networking site for book lovers, premised on the idea that recommendations from people you know are more valuable than recommendations from an algorithm that tries to discern what books a customer may enjoy based on what they previously bought (cough *Amazon* cough). 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that many of my friends are on Goodreads. So, as you’ve probably inferred, I’m not getting as much value from that social side of the Goodreads experience.

It turns out that I  don’t know many people who (a) read voraciously and (b) are on Goodreads (I hope that the main reason for my social poverty is (b) and not (a)).

So how come I’m spending so much time on Goodreads?

Its value boils down to three things: (1) Memory (2) Anticipation and (3) Understanding. Goodreads has helped me get all three in relation to my bibliophilia. Let me explain how:

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I attended a discourse on the difference between Islamic history and world history. World history, said the speaker, is a series of stories, to be heard and forgotten. Islamic history is an altogether greater enterprise. It requires us to learn its stories, transform them into lessons and to see them as reinforcing the truth of the faith.

A second difference between Islamic history and world history is that world history is linear and always new. Endlessly new things are ultimately irrelevant to the big picture. World history is similarly irrelevant. Islamic history on the other hand is circular. All things are repetitions of things that have happened before. This circularity is an essential way by which the story of religion is reinforced.

This pithy dismissal set off my internal radar.

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Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln.
From here 

One of the things I find interesting about the US Elections is the way that the candidates and their partisans subvert the images of Americana and American history to their own ends. This Obama image is a classic example of that.

Rajab al Asab has reminded me of the nature of time and history. An odd thing for a month to bring to mind; there is a reason it did.

There are two major markers in the month of Rajab. The first is the birth of Amir ul Mumineen and the second is the urus of Syedna Taher Saifuddin. Between these two elapses a brief 6 days, and it is that sacred temporal journey that we are now travelling.

What it bought to mind was a book I read a while back.

That book sought to trace what it called the first major crisis of Islam –  the death of the Prophet – and sought to identify what caused the solution found at Saqeefa in the words, correspondence and khutbas that were given by the major persons involved and tried to piece together what and why from those accounts.

In the end the author offers a thesis for why the crisis of Saqeefa happened when it did.

He argues that the death of the Prophet represented the first true crisis of Islam, because that death bought an end to the sacred phase in Islamic history, the phase where there was clear and absolute authority that determined the right direction for the ummah. Before the ummah had the Prophet to resolve all of its disputes. Now it had been left orphaned.

This transition gave birth to the dark world of realpolitik in Islamic political history, where religious authority was simply another factor to be assessed in the quest for temporal power.

Once that calculus was opened, and those who sought worldly power saw that religion could be manipulated to that end, there was no possibility of returning to the Sacred Phrase of history.

My immediate thought on reading this thesis was to reject its assumptions.

It is, even of its surface, a very sunni reading of history and one that makes assumptions about the way the ummah was to be organised and governed, assumptions that the author’s own book makes clear were only developed many years later.

My second thought, one I consider more valuable, was to realise that this analysis could be flipped around and be equally valid.

In a very real sense, and one I have never appreciated before, through the succession of the Aimmat Tahereen and Duat Mutlaqeen, we, like the first Muslims, live in sacred history. We  have a clear and absolute authority that determines the right direction. We  have the decision making system that is necessary  to resolve disputes. We have not been left orphaned.

Those things that created the sacredness of that early history have not departed the world, and so we have not found ourselves alone in the dark without a guide.

Rajab offers the understanding that from the successor of Rasullulah to the successor of Syedna Taher Saifuddin, we continue to inhabit an unbroken sacred history.

Senātus Populusque Rōmānus When, in 75BC, Cicero stepped of the boat at Brundisium, having fulfilled his duty to the Roman republic as quaestor of Sicily he imagined that all Rome would be abuzz with the news of his performance.

As he sailed into the harbour he keenly anticipated the praise that he would soon have lavished upon him by the citizens of the republic.

Cicero thrived on the praise of the people. Especially keen for Cicero was the hunger for  praise from his social betters. To the great and not so good of Rome, Cicero keenly desired to prove his unlimited ability and potential. To prove that he deserved his place in their midst.

He waited in vain.

Stepping off the boat he was greeted with indifference. No one noticed the return of the great Roman magistrate sent to aid in the governance of Sicily. Events occupied the minds of the powerful in Rome, and these events were not the banal management of a distant colony.

Cicero learned an important lesson that day, one that he did not forget for the rest of his career.

No matter what glories you achieve in distant lands, no matter how great the tales told of your prowess, people are consistent in one thing. They do not remember what they hear.

But what they see? Visions and images stay with them forever. What is seen has impact. Everything else fades away.

Appearances are important.

As important as substance.

jefferson_basin We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.

We…solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states…

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Appears on the panel of the southwest interior wall. Excerpted from the Declaration of Independence, 1776.

Great words resonate in their proper place.  Great times, great events, demand great words.

Jefferson’s are those of an America at its birth, and their poignant nature is attested by their incorporation into the heart of a memorial to that moment, as much as to the man who made that moment possible.

Throughout the inscriptions inside the Jefferson Memorial the pen of Thomas Jefferson, its persuasive rhetorical power and its historical triumph echo that of the State newly born through that ink.

Words truly resonating through time. Words truly inspiring. Words that have, are, and will, change the world.

Isn’t it intriguing,  that in a country that has largely been run by white protestant men [with the odd exception i.e. JFK, a white catholic man] for the last 232 years – and many more no doubt preceding the establishment of the United States of America in 1776, that this current election has as two out of the three main candidates a black man and a white woman?

And people are skeptical, that the third candidate, the classical model white protestant man has a good chance of winning.

It’s taken 88 years from when the nineteenth amendment gave women the vote at a federal level, guaranteed by the protection of the US Constitution. There is finally a credible female candidate that holds some possibility of taking her party’s nomination and going on to the White House

African-Americans have had to wait a shorter period, just a mere 43 years after the Voting Rights Act in 1965 gave them factually equal access to the ballot box in contrast to what they had enjoyed only as a mere theoretical right. There is now a Black candidate who has  a critical mass of political support.

Obama, outside of his ethnicity, is  changing, almost redefining, the heartland of the American political process in the course of his candidacy. With that comes an even stronger chance, especially given his recent hot streak, that he will find himself occupying the Oval Office next year.

In some ways though, its a tragedy, that one historical triumph, will see the postponement of another historical first. We can either have the opposite gender or the opposite skin colour in the White House. But the conspiracy of history has been such that they have both emerged at the same time to challenge for the same office.


Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian prime minister who unilaterally declared independence from Britain to preserve white rule has died aged 88 after a long illness.

Smith governed the country, now called Zimbabwe, for 15 years from 1964 to 1979, a turbulent period of guerilla war and international isolation. Seen by many as the symbol of colonial-era racism in Africa, Smith was unrepentant to the end, convinced that Zimbabwe would have been better off under minority rule than that of his successor, the current President Robert Mugabe, with whom he shared nothing but a disdain for Britain. 

Smith had recently suffered a stroke and died at a clinic in Cape Town.

Ian Smith, ex-PM of Rhodesia, dies at 88 | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

Ian Smith, an odd person indeed for me to take an interest in. But at the intersection of my two interests,  the History of the British Empire and Public International Law, no one else has as stridently or as brashly staked their claim to be a player on the international scene and held out as their main credential the strength of their racism.

My interest does not mean I endorse him. The state he founded was built upon a platform of deliberate racism, his politics alone mean that the world was right to shun him and his country, but to think that such a small country and such a tiresome man, can command such a significant portion of interest both in his time and retrospectively, are things that tweak my interest.

Angered at the tide of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s that was seeing Africa move into black majority democracies where the empire had once held sway, and determined to not let his own country be liberalized in the same manner, Smith’s racist right wing Rhodesian Front held out for a Rhodesia that was run by its 200,000  white inhabitants and with no say at all for its 5,000,000 black inhabitants.

Smith became prime minister promising to prolong white rule and made his historic Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11 1965. He gained a momentary hope of recognition, from the other Apartheid state, South Africa, but even this comfort was fleeting and recognition was soon withdrawn. Smith’s Rhodesia was never to become a real country.

International condemnation to the Declaration of Independence was swift. Nearly all the members of the UN were swift to condemn his overt racism and the UN Security Council slapped sanctions on him that ended up as a comprehensive ban on trade. Not that it meant anything, most multinationals were willing to break the ban to get access to Rhodesia’s raw materials and agricultural exports.

It was the arrival of that upstart freedom fighter, Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union which put the pressure on. Armed attacks aimed at the white farmers made Smith’s position untenable in the long run. This combined with the independence of Mozambique from Portugal to a black majority rule democracy and the waning support of South Africa, tired of its quarrelsome neighbor, that finally pushed the regime over the edge.

In April 1979 the first multiracial elections were held in Rhodesia, which saw Abel Muzorewa become the first black Prime Minister of what was now called Zimbabwe Rhodesia. However, under the Internal Settlement, which allowed the elections to be held, whites retained control of the country’s judiciary, civil service, police and armed forces, as well as having a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved for them. While this was welcomed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, opposition from the rest of the Commonwealth meant that Britain did not recognize the new state.

In December 1979 following multi-party talks at Lancaster House in London, Britain resumed control of Rhodesia, and with the help of observers from other Commonwealth countries, oversaw the first full participatory elections. During the four month period that the country was restored to the status of a British colony it was known officially as “the British Dependency of Southern Rhodesia”. The Republic of Zimbabwe came into being on April 18, 1980.

Not that Smith went quietly. He was in opposition in the Zimbabwe parliament till 1986 and stayed a persistent and prominent thorn in the side of Mugabe while living in exile abroad until he returned to Zimbabwe and then to live out the last days of his life in South Africa.


Welcome to Alter Ego What if you could live your life over again?

You can click here to play the game.

Alter Ego

How cool is this

I remember playing this game in DOS all those years ago. And then grabbing it off Home of the Underdogs when I found it was available there.

Now someone has gone and made an online version of it, keeping the old look and feel, but making it easier to access than it was on DOS, where it was a bit of a pain to play on newer computers.

This nifty little game lets you replay life again, and you can make all those idiotic decisions that you made again, or go down totally different paths and live a life totally different from yours.

It is an old school DOS game, so don’t go into it with any greater expectations than that. It’s good for a few hours of fun though, so give it a spin if you’ve never played before. Live your life differently.