On the Frontiers of Islam?
Review of: Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
Beginning in 2003 Eliza Griswold visited Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines and wrote articles for several American magazines. But despite its title, The Tenth Parallel does not consist of dispatches, or of edited versions of already published pieces, but is a collection of anecdotal encounters loosely organized around the idea that the “fault line” between two culture zones is at or near the tenth parallel of latitude. This is really a travel book, rich in local color and authorial presence, poor in its command of sources and as a guide to the history and cultures of the countries it surveys.
In introducing readers to Islam the author favors a few popular sources over standard works. As a result pre-Islamic Mecca, we are told, was a “capital city” (p. 79) that grew rich from trade, not with the farther east but with sub-Saharan Africa (p. 78); Yathrib was re-named “Medina” by the Prophet Muhammad (p. 79); “Muslim horsemen sailed from” Arabia “to Africa and landed in Egypt” (p. 79), which had been “substantially weakened by war against the Persians” (p. 79). The famous baqt between the rulers of Muslim Egypt and Nubia “foreshadows the Atlantic slave trade: liquor from the north traveled south, in return for raw goods and slaves” (p. 80).
The first section of the book deals with Nigeria. Arresting impressions, sometimes eloquently expressed, are offset by factual errors and offhand comments. Is it remarkable that “four out of ten Nigerians are unemployed” (p. 19), when “more than half of Nigeria’s population is under eighteen” (p. 20)? Are “most” African Muslims (p. 10) – or even North African Muslims (p. 21) – sufis? (The number of Muslims in the world is alternately given as 1.6 billion and 2.6 billion (pp. 9, 202.) There is an echo of Naipaul in a description of an African archbishop “in a powder blue pantsuit” (p. 52)!
Readers of “Making Sense of Darfur” who are interested in the author’s reflections on the Sudan may be disappointed. On medieval maps, we are told, “the tenth parallel marked the northern boundary of the territory called Bilad-as-Sudan” (p. 76). The author appears to believe that Sudan was part of the Roman Empire (p. 77), and that Britain ruled it – perhaps off and on (pp. 21, 24, 82, 96) – in the nineteenth century, an error that leads to many others. (Elsewhere [p. 82] we have “Turks and their Egyptian proxies” governing the land.) The Berlin Conference of 1885 is not “known as the Scramble for Africa”, nor did Britain get Nigeria and the Sudan as a result (p. 24). There was never an entity called “British Sudan” (p. 31), or “Her Majesty’s Sudan Service” (pp. 98-9, 308). Khartoum is downstream, not up, from southern Sudan (p. 32), and Gordon College was on the Blue Nile, not the White (p. 101). The existence of “sub-Saharan jungle” (p. 8 ) comes as a surprise, as does a reference to the Ngok as the South’s “largest ethnic group” (p. 4).
Modern history is poorly served. The following comes from page 82 (where Muhammad Ali Pasha is conflated with Khedive Ismail):
“The majority of Sudanese blacks were enslaved by a small group of Arabs, and each year, slavers shipped eighty thousand to one hundred thousand human beings north, where they were pressed into service as soldiers, jihadiqeen [sic], in the Ottoman armies…. Although the British did officially ban slavery in 1877, Egyptian slaveholders effectively ignored this prohibition, freeing their slaves only to reconscript them into the Ottoman army…. [After the 1885 Berlin Conference] Many American and British evangelicals headed for the English-speaking territories of the British protectorates in Nigeria and Sudan…. Soon, the British would draw a line across one million square miles along the tenth parallel….”
With apologies to Mary McCarthy, almost every word of this is incorrect, including “the” and “and”!
The Mahdi is traduced as a “ferocious” kidnapper (p. 96), a representative of “the Arab elite” (p. 96), and a fraud, “carving a space between his teeth to fulfill prophecy” (p. 95). General Gordon is described as “one of the first missionaries to arrive in Sudan” (p. 96). After Gordon’s death, we are told, the Mahdi ordered his head wedged in a tree, and passersby to throw stones at it. (p. 97). The British then “etched a line across the map of Sudan along the tenth parallel”, a line that, “with the policies underlying it, would lead to nearly four decades of civil war” (p. 98). “‘Trace a modern conflict to its source'”, the author quotes an American professor as hissing, “‘and there lies the British Empire'” (p. 98).
As if in support of that contention, the author tells us that after the battle of Omdurman Sir Reginald Wingate (not Kitchener) destroyed the Mahdi’s tomb, and ordered his remains thrown in the Nile so that “the Mahdi could not be resurrected on Judgment Day” (p. 98). Then (1898?) Wingate and Lord Cromer – called “high commissioner of Egypt” (p. 99) – “decided [again?] to draw a line across the entire nation of Sudan”, that Stygian 10th parallel.
Why did the British do this? “No one knows” (p. 100)! But
“The tenth parallel was a strategic military divide along which they had defeated the French in a battle for Africa in 1898…. It marked the geographic shift between the north’s sandy soil, called goz, and the south’s seasonal mush, called gardud….”
The author’s view that “American evangelical firebrands … dominated the Christian scene in Sudan” (p. 101) gives scant credit to the Verona Fathers and Church Missionary Society, who did so dominate. A canard about Jefferson Caffery, the US ambassador in Egypt after World War II, deserves correction: citing Mansour Khalid’s War and Peace in Sudan (p. 103), she quotes Caffery as referring to the Sudanese as “ten million niggers”. The remark misquotes Sir James Robertson’s score-settling memoir, Transition in Africa, (which even less convincingly records the phrase as “‘ten million bloody niggers'”).
Perfidous Albion rears its head again even in the shape of the Balfour Declaration, which, we are told, “called for the establishment of a new Jewish state” in Palestine (p. 105). An aside: Egypt’s Nasser “did not like the [Muslim] Brothers much” (p. 107).
Current events? The author refers to President Bashir unqualifiedly as “the man who claimed to be the modern-day Mahdi” (p. 93). Hasan al-Turabi is “desperate for visitors, especially Americans” (p. 105) – small wonder, since, when she did visit him, “the air seemed choked with savage, disappointed ghosts” (p. 104). A recurring specter in the book is Franklin Graham, son and heir of the American evangelist, whose Baraka is wasted on Sudanese politicians; if there is such a thing as a reverse halo effect, surely Ibn Billy has achieved it. Darfur gets a little attention, but it was not “an independent sultanate of the Fur people … until 1899″ (p. 289n).
What conclusions can be drawn from all this? Read the book for amusing and poignant vignettes about lands and peoples in flux. But there is no “fault line” between Islam and Christianity in Africa and Asia, along the 10th parallel or anywhere else. Increasingly there, as for long elsewhere (notably the Indian sub-continent), Dar al-Islam has not been contained by political boundaries and still less by mere geographical expressions. The fluidity and multi-dimensional nature of individuals’ and communities’ identities on cultural frontiers are amply illustrated in Griswold’s reporting, from Nigeria to Indonesia: both the term “fault line” and her attempts to mould her findings with a categorical term are simply too glib.
In fact, for all the conventional wisdom about the twentieth-century South, historians of the Sudan have not adequately researched the success of British attempts to limit the influence of Islam – rather than the ordinances that legalized those attempts and the anecdotal evidence of excess in carrying them out. Far too much weight has been given to what G.N. Sanderson called “proof texts”, and to the doings of a few British officials, for example in the Western Bahr al-Ghazal. But we know little of what was happening in the towns, and of longer-term trends and how these developed. Griswold notes some reasons for nominal religious “conversions”. More consequential is the degree to which Arabic and Islam have influenced local cultures. (For this one recalls, for example, Ushari Ahmad Mahmud’s work on Juba Arabic, and Ahmad al-Awad Sikainga’s several works on labor history.) If, as expected, the South opts for independence (if the referendum of 2011 takes place), we might yet see the South “become Sudanese” more rapidly than ever, because resistance across an imaginary “fault line” no longer commands attention.
(Note: By way of full disclosure, the following is an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times.
Sent: Wed, August 18, 2010
Subject: “Where Muslims and Christians Drew Lines” (Book Review)
To the Editor:
In his review of Eliza Griswold’s The Tenth Parallel (Books of the Times, Aug. 18), Mark Oppenheimer states that in 1905 “the British governor-general of Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, first played the Arab Muslim northerners against the darker Africans in the South” by making it “‘illegal for Christian missionaries to evangelize among Muslims to the north of the 10th parallel, and eventually Muslim traders could not travel to the south of it’. This division won the British the favor of their Muslim puppet leaders in the north, but of course its legacy can be read in the spilled blood of Darfur.”
In 1905 Sudan was emerging from two decades of religious revolution. Wingate was wise to deflect European and American Christian missionaries from the conquered Muslim north to the south, where the government itself would devote little money to the educational and medical services that missionaries provided, and where local people had experienced decades of slave raiding by northerners. By “Muslim puppet leaders” Mr. Oppenheimer presumably means Sayyid Ali al-Mirghani, the leader of the Khatmiyya sufis, and Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, who were far from “puppets”: the whole point of barring Christian missionaries was to conciliate these powerful religious leaders, especially Abd al-Rahman, the Mahdi’s son. And while British policy may be blamed for exacerbating the division of north and south, that division had nothing to do with recent events in Darfur, whose people were and are all Muslims.