History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (5)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

In this portion of the lecture, Prof. Bulliet recounts the rise and fall of Sufi brotherhoods, and how their legacy is reflected in present-day Islam.  

9.  The Third Big Bang—Sufism

The fighting and the discord die down, and lo and behold you have a new period of inflation along a trajectory that had limped along as a very minor tendency in the 700s, 800s, and 900s, and began to gain a little traction in the 1000s, and then becomes terribly important in the 1200s onward:   this is Sufism.  Sufism is usually defined as Islamic mysticism, and when you read the books on Sufism that were available until about 20 years ago if appears that all the important Sufis were poets or wonderworkers or crazy people who lived very early in Islamic history.   A major part of the buildup of Sufism was to collect the sayings, utterances, poems and stories about these early mystics.   But the inflation of Sufism as a pan-Islamic practice dates from about the 1200s after most of these Sufis have long passed into legend.   It consists of brotherhoods or fraternities or orders (whatever you want to call them), the word for which in Arabic is tariqa, the plural of which is turuq, which means a “path” or “way.”   In this period of the development of Sufism, you go from having an individual wonderworker or poet who has a group of admirers, to having a leader who has followers who are formally bound to him by an oath of allegiance.   These constitute a large population of devotees who hope that they themselves will rise through a series of mystic paths to a level of witness of God comparable to their master.   These brotherhoods become geographically widespread and are linked so that a single brotherhood might have chapters stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan and India, and may become incredibly numerous.   By 1500, it appears that in cities, perhaps a little less so in the countryside, probably each adult male belonged to at least one Sufi brotherhood.   They intended to be non-exclusive, but usually you just focused on one.   Some of them had women, but generally that is not talked about.  In rural areas, the maintenance of a formal brotherhood was more difficult.

You had wandering Sufis who went from village to village and manifested their holiness in return for a little fried chicken or whatever they could get out of the village (laughter).    Wandering or moving in God’s spirit was considered a good thing for Sufis; traveling for a particular objective was not considered a good thing.   Earning a living was frowned on, but recognized in some cases as being necessary.   Ideally you would rely on God’s bounty because part of this Sufi brotherhood had to do with being poor.  The word “dervish” comes from the Persian word for a poor person (darvesh), and it becomes the word for Sufi in both Persian and Turkish; faqir is the Arabic word for poor person, and it became the standard word in Arabic for Sufis.  The Sufi brotherhoods also had places of assembly that went by different names.   The landscape, both urban and rural, became dotted by lodges or convents or inns (whatever you wanted to call them), places where Sufis of a particular tariqa would assemble.

In these places you would have a dovetailing with a simultaneous development that similarly becomes subject to enormous inflation and importance in the same time period, and that is an inflation in the number of places where you could go on a pilgrimage.   It is considered one of the obligations of Islam that you should make a pilgrimage to Mecca if you are able once at least during your lifetime.   There probably was a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which is as old as that to Mecca, although this is unclear.   But you have in the 1200s and afterwards are hundreds or even thousands of places of pilgrimage.   Some of them were purely local; all the villages in a particular district would go to a certain place of pilgrimage.   But these pilgrimages frequently were the same as the burial places of prominent Sufis or of some other prominent people, rarely people from the government or the military.   It was normally either the burial place of a Sufi or the burial place or a member of the family of Ali, that is to say, the family of the Prophet Mohammad through his son-in-law Ali.

Or you had pilgrimages in places that were unidentifiable, that is to say, you would say you are going to the shrine of the kirkuz or the “forty girls.”  Who are the “forty girls”?  There are “forty girl” pilgrimages places in Turkey where there is no real agreement as to who the forty girls were.   In Nishapur where Prof. Bulliet did field work, there was the tomb of Tiflan al-Muslan ? or the “children of Muslim.”  What in the world does that mean?  Nobody knew who the children of Muslim were (laughter), but it was an impressive tomb.   There wasn’t a current pilgrimage there, but clearly there had been pilgrimages in an earlier time.

In the 1200s and 1300s you begin to have manifestations of these pilgrimages in the form of guidebooks of where to go to pray.   “When you are in Chicago, you can go and pray at the tomb of so-and-so.”   This holds true of Damascus, Cairo, Nishapur, wherever—where do you pray?  For Nishapur Prof. Bulliet collected three lists of places that you should pray, all of which emanate from after the date the city was destroyed, because people went to the ruins.  In trying to reconstruct the city as it had existed, he would go through these pilgrimage books because it would tell you how to find the grave, and that would give you some notion of the topography of the ruins.   There would be certain places that would be fixed landmarks and you could tell people where you could go from there.

These pilgrimages were terribly important.  What this has to do with Sufism is the notion of baraqa or blessing.   Blessings can be received by proximity to or contact with the sacred.  If you were a Sufi, the blessings would be involved with your association with the sheikh or leader of your Sufi order, or the local chapter of your Sufi order.   But if you go to the grave of a Sufi, then the blessing is that you’re at the grave.   Or it may be that the family of an important Sufi will inherit blessings from a previous generation.   The way this works out in different areas will be quite different, but in the area that Prof. Bulliet knows best of Nishapur, when you went to the grave of a Sufi on a pilgrimage, you made a prayer that you hoped would be fulfilled through the blessing of the saint, and then you took a little piece of cotton and you tied it to a twig on the tree growing out of the tomb of the saint.   The tree growing out of the buried body of the saint was the locus of the baraqa for that saint.

The variety of expression in Sufi brotherhoods from West Africa to Indonesia is stunning.  The variety of hadith was remarkable, the variety of legal interpretations was striking, but the variety of Sufi expressions is nothing less than stunning, because the localization of charisma in the structure of Sufism and of local pilgrimages permitted local traditions to be assimilated into Islam without having to have any centralized control.   What Sufism was in place or another would be different, but it would partially be an expression of what the local assimilation was between Islam and other traditions.   So Sufism flourished everywhere but in particular it flourished on the geographical peripheries of Islam following the resumption after the year 1000 of the expansion of Islam as a world-faith community.

Sufism was a phenomenally creative and fertile area of religious expression, including music, dance, art, and architecture.   And yet it is very hard to call it mysticism in its later phase, even though the ideal was some sort of eventually union with God.  Some orders have different sets of rules for Sufis and another set for wannabes, those people who really wish they could be a Sufi, but if they can’t be a Sufi, they would rather hang around with the Sufis—“fans” is what they would call them now (laughter).

What you have is a type of collective piety—the Sufis would meet regularly, often weekly or in a different format in the case of a pilgrimage.   The idea of regular group assemblage and participation in a ritual specific to the group became the essence of Sufism.   Whether or not you had an experience of God or whether you just visualized that, someday as you became more advanced you might have a sense of a direct experience of God, you would still gain from the collective participation in a Sufi ritual.  This growth was almost beyond imagining.   When the French conquered in Algeria in 1830, they set up a commission to make a list of all the Sufi brotherhoods in Algeria.  That list was published and there were hundreds and hundreds of Sufi brotherhoods just in the areas that the French took over in Algeria.  If you extrapolate that to the entire Muslim world, there must have been thousands of Sufi brotherhoods.

10.  The Third Big Crunch—anti-Sufi campaigns

Now there are very few, because we have reached a contraction point, and most of the Sufi brotherhoods disappeared.   This contraction has a lot to do with a feeling of revulsion and subsequently a feeling of intercultural embarrassment by highly educated Muslim scholars who felt that the Sufi brotherhoods represented superstition.   They felt   that they should be weeded out, calmed down or made sober so they wouldn’t embarrass Muslims in the eyes of the Europeans, who themselves were never superstitious or fanatic (laughter).

You had anti-Sufi campaigns, you had campaigns to destroy local pilgrimages and some of this will become the substance for later lectures because this occurs largely in the 18th century, but even more in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where it reaches an extreme in the origin of the Turkish republic in the 1920s with the banning of all Sufi brotherhoods and the conversion of all the convents and inns to non-religious purposes.

11.  The Fourth Singularity—Qur’an + sunnah + sharia + tariqa

So here we have a new singularity, because the Sufi brotherhoods are tamed subject to this enormous contraction, but there is a residue.   What Sufi brotherhoods had represented, once shorn of aspects of paganism, spiritualism or superstition, was the idea of people bonding in a collective expression of Islam.  The notion of Islam being realized in groups seems to be what is left.   When we look at the Muslim world today we find that there are Islamic parties, Islamic associations, even Islamic militant organizations that carry out acts of violence.   This is something that is part of this tariqa, or the idea that Islam is appropriately expressed within a particular group.

Now a lot of this growth of Sufism can perhaps be attached to something that happened in 1258, which was the destruction of the Caliphate, the central political expression of Islam when the Mongols destroyed the city of Baghdad.   My impression as an historian is that, in the post-Caliphate period, the importance of the pilgrimage to Mecca vastly increases over what it had been before, so that Mecca replaces the Caliphate as the center of Islam.   Later rulers, whether they are Ottoman Turks or Saudi Kings, describe themselves in their official titulature as the “Servants of the Two Holy Places” or the Al-Khadimul Haramain Sharifain.   Being in charge of the pilgrimage becomes a vastly more important thing, but it is paralleled on a local basis by the growth of these local pilgrimages and by the growth of the idea that the blessing of saints and the exercise of pious behavior within groups is appropriate to this period after the centrality of the expression of political Islam disappears.   (Prof. Bulliet will talk about the Caliphate at a later point. )

The next post covers the final wave of expansion of Islam, one that is going on today, that comes through the propagation of the faith through mass media at the end of the 19th century, through electronic media in the 20th century, and the Internet during the 21st.   Prof. Bulliet gives his predictions about the future of Islam, and concludes with his metahistorical musings comparing the unfolding of Christianity as opposed to Islam. 

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (4)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

The following post covers the next part of his lecture, on the “third wave” or expansion of Islam which is the development of various schools of Islamic jurisprudence which coalesced into what we now know today as sharia or Islamic law.

5.  The Second Singularity—Qur’an + Sunnah

The culling of weak hadith was is usually looked upon as a commendable enterprise by early Muslim scholars.  And yet if you were living in a town where you had had 20 or 30 crucial hadith that now someone from somewhere else in the big city said were all untrue, your Islam was now seriously undermined.    Let’s say you were taught based on hadith that you should fast during Ramadan and during Reja and now some somebody says “all those hadith that say you should fast during Reja are fraudulent; you only have to fast during Ramadan. ”  But you like to fast during Reja and now that’s considered wrong.  The discarding of weak hadith strengthens the notion of a single coherent pattern of behavior for the Muslim community but it savages the localisms that had become commonplace within the Muslim geographical territory during the period of inflation.  So what happens is that the hadith spread and then they contract as they come together in a new singularity that consists of the Qur’an plus the sunnah.   The sunnah is represented by six collections of hadith for Sunnis and four collections for Shiites, and everything that Islam can be after that time is an expression of this combination of Qur’an and sunnah.  This notion of sunnah being important to the concept of being a Muslim isn’t there in the very first phase when you just have the Qur’an.   Now after the second singularity the sunnah has become a key element and everyone is going to talk in some way or other about how their expression of Islam is reflective not just of the Qur’an but of the sunnah.

6.  The Second Big Bang—Fiqh or Islamic Jurisprudence

There is something of a temporal overlap,  but by and large what happens is a second expansion of inflation, and it has to do with the issue of law.  What is the law for Islam?  Mohammad is a settler of disputes during his lifetime; the caliphs who succeed him immediately after his death resolve disputes.   They appoint governors, and these governors resolve disputes.  There is no way to talk about the earliest period of Islam as a period of Islamic law.   The Qur’an itself contains a limited number of verses that give specific legal commands or prohibitions, and even those are debatable.   For example, the Qur’an clearly says that you may not consume khamr, or grape wine, lest you go to your prayers in an intoxicated fashion.   All right, no grape wine, but what about vodka?  What about Red Bull?   What about anything else?   Is it only khamr that is prohibited, or is it all alcoholic beverages?    Well then, you can disagree on that, if you are trying to think of a legal principle.  Then you can say, well, you’re not supposed to go to your prayers intoxicated.   What does “intoxicated” mean?   Is having a lot of coffee get you so juiced up that you can’t think about God apart from your prayers?   Some people would say “yes”; coffee for a period of time in the 14th and 15th century is very suspicious and some people outlaw it on the grounds that it is covered by the verses on grape wine.   There are many different qualifications; virtually every verse of the Qur’an is scanned for legal import and the same thing for the hadith.   Here the issue of contradictions among hadith becomes even more acute because there are implications that might not a difference in most cases but could have legal ramifications.  And so you have people who devised different ideas about how to derive law from the Qur’an and the sunnah, or for some people, just from the Qur’an.  Some people would discard the sunnah as an alternative.

These different interpretations about how you would create a legal system come into being because the size of the Muslim community grows.  There is a reason why this is not an immediate concern, but rather one that comes farther down the road, after the hadith have already gone through their period of inflation.   As the size of the community becomes greater, the number of the disputes, either within the community or between members of the community and others, increases and the need for some sort of systematic legal basis grows.  You end up with a whole bunch with what are called schools of law.  The word “school” is an unfortunate one; the word in Arabic is math-hab, which refers to a point of departure.   It basically consists of a group of people who follow either an eponymous or real leader who has said, “here are the principles we should use for extracting law from the Qur’an and/or from the sunnah.”  And these principles are called usuul or roots (usl being the word for root) of fiqh.  The word fiqh means “jurisprudence.”  You have 20 or more schools of jurisprudence and they spread in the 800s, 900s, and 1000s.   In the 900s, you begin to have a large proportion of those people, who are noted for their scholarship in religion and their leadership in religious affairs, called faqiih.   They are specialists in jurisprudence.   That is not true of the 800s because law comes in later than the inflation period of the hadith.   But once everyone gets their teeth into the question of law, you then have disagreements as to what school of law is true.

7.  The Second Big Crunch—the four present-day Sunni schools of fiqh

These disagreements result in fights, and these fights are not simply matters of professors throwing erasers at one other like you have here (laughter).   Rather they are fights that at their worst consist of taking catapults, setting them up in the courtyard of your mosque, and bombarding the neighboring mosque that belongs to a different school of law.  The city that Prof. Bulliet has spent much of his career studying in Northeastern Iran, the city of Nishapur, actually destroyed itself through internecine fighting between law schools.  The two law schools that were fighting to the death in Nishapur in the early 1100s were the Hanafi and the Shafi’i law schools.   The names aren’t important, except that they are considered the two law schools that are closest together.   It’s very difficult for Sunnis today to realize that what are now more or less insignificant differences between law schools—north Africans are Malikis, Indonesians are Shafi’is, and so on—were at one time things that you killed over.   These were sources of intense ideological rivalry.  So what happened was that where the hadith in their inflation period began to contribute to the dissolution of Islam, as different communities have their own Islams, with the spread of the law schools, they began to fight over which was right.  By you end up with by the end of the 1100s is was a cooling out of this process.   There was a sort of last-man-standing decision was made that within Sunni Islam there are four law schools and they all respect one another (sort of) and they will all quit fighting each other.

The sunnah had been resolved by having six books of hadith, and the ithila (?) al-mathahib or controversy of the law schools was resolved by saying that you have four co-equal law schools.   This was symbolized in the late 1100s by a caliph establishing a school of higher learning in which there was one professional chair for each of the four law schools.  That became a pattern that was not widely followed but it symbolized that the four law schools should get along.  But in the process you had other law schools which were discarded and which disappear.   Some of them, the dhahari ? school of Islam for example, you look back upon and say, “boy, that was an interesting interpretation of Islam,” but it’s now gone.  It disappeared just like the weak hadith disappeared.   Now these things never totally disappear.  All Muslims agree that hadith in the six collections are the true words of Mohammad, but there are certain sayings of Mohammad which are recognized but are not contained within these six books.  For example, “seek knowledge (even) unto China” is a wonderful thought about a kind of inquiry, which is a very familiar quote—it doesn’t show up among the six books, it’s a weak hadith, but it sounded so good that you really didn’t want to get rid of it.  So this reduction never completely succeeds.

8.  The Third Singularity—Qur’an + sunnah + sharia

In the second singularity, you have the Qur’an + sunnah; the third singularity has Qur’an + sunnah + sharia or Islamic law.  It becomes commonplace, and you hear it very often today, that the sharia is the core expression of Islam, that you don’t have Islam without the sharia, and that the law is an intrinsic and inseparable portion of what Islam is.  But that was not always the case, but whereas all possible Islams could have been contained within the Qur’an, it was then within the Qur’an and the sunnah, and now it is within the Qur’an and the sunnah and the sharia.

The next blog post covers the fourth wave of Islamic expansion, that of the mystic tradition of the Sufi brotherhoods.  

#China Growth Outlook: 10 Trends to Watch Out For (summary of Economist Education event)


An Economist Education live learning event called China’s Growth Outlook:  Challenges to Sustainable Profitability took place May 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM EST.  It was hosted by Paul Lewis, Editorial Director of Economist Education and consisted of a conversation with Duncan Innes-Ker, Senior Editor and Economist for Asia from the Economist Intelligence Unit.  Below is my summary of 10 trends I learned about from this live learning event. 

1.  Current growth rate sustainable in medium term; inflation probably under control

China’s economy is officially the 2nd largest economy in the world at this point, and will become the largest economy by 2020.   The growth rate for 2012 is estimated to be 8.7%.  This is a certainly a slowdown from the double-digit growth of the preceding decade, but concerns about a “hard landing” have been overblown; growth will probably continue in the 8-9% range for the next 5 years.

There has been a lot of concern about China’s inflation rate based on its tremendous growth rate.   However, the inflation rate is expected to be about 3.7% next year, down from about 5% last year, so it appears that the government has inflation somewhat under control.   The only caveat is that there has been some doubt expressed about the official inflation rate.  The reason is that this is estimated based on a representative sampling or “basket” of consumer goods, and this sampling may not be keeping pace with the rapid change in consumer preferences that has been occurring with the emerging middle class (see trend number 3 below)

2.  China’s economic center of gravity shifts westward

The East coast of China is obviously the most developed; average earnings per person are about $4000-$5000.   But the interior provinces are being developed, and earnings will approach the East coast level by the end of the next five-year period.   Export manufacturers may take advantage of the infrastructure buildup that was done during the period after the financial crisis.   This may ease the current mismatch between supply and demand in the housing and commercial construction market (see trend number 9 below).

3.   Middle class expanding, generational shift occurring

The expansion of the middle class means that there is increasing pressure on the government in areas relating to labor issues and the environment.   The expansion of the middle class also comes with the growing economic power of the younger generation.   The previous generation in China was very averse to taking on debt, but the younger generation does not have any such compunction, so this shift in attitudes plus the growth of the middle class mentioned above will mean a growth in private debt and consumer financing.

4.  Trade deficit starts to shrink, appreciation of currency continues

There is pressure from foreign governments for China to depreciate its currency and thus slow its export growth; however, from China’s point of view, there is pressure to appreciate its currency because of the tremendous gains in productivity that have been occurring and will continue to occur.

The shift of China’s economy from a concentration on exports to the domestic market will cause the external trade imbalance to shrink in the next five years, and the demands by foreign governments for depreciation of the Chinese currency renminbi should also shrink.

5.  Reform of state sector is increasing government priority

Those in the government that are pushing for reform of the state sector are getting increasing hold of the policy agenda.   For those wanting a good overall pattern of the direction the Chinese economy is taking, the national budget plans are a good place to start but they are pretty vague.  Once you get into details, however, here is increasing likelihood that the government will deviate from these plans.

6.  Increasing focus on quality

For example, the electric vehicle industry was projected to be a growth industry in China, partially because it got the backing from the government as one of 7 strategic industries.  However, electric battery production hit several obstacles, mainly due to the Chinese problems with quality control and quality volume (capacity).   China is determined to move up the chain when it comes to quality.

7.  IP still problem for foreign manufacturers, but outlook improving

Foreign manufacturers need to be sure to register patents locally, and to try to innovate to stay ahead of Chinese domestic competition.   There is increasing legal protection for patents in China.   A survey of the American Chamber of Commerce in China said that about 2/3 of the participants who had taken their patent cases to Chinese courts were satisfied with the outcome.   However, although there is increasing legal protection, enforcement is still not uniform and remains a problem.

8.  Skilled labor shortage decreasing

There is no shortage of unskilled labor in China, but there was a skilled labor shortage, mainly due to the fact that the skills of graduates of higher education in China were not in line with the requirements of foreign companies.   However, this mismatch has been addressed in three ways:  1) having in-house training, 2) moving facilities closer to cities that have more high-tech centers like Xian, and 3) greater coordination between businesses and higher education centers to address training needs.   The first method is obviously the most expensive in the short-run, and it is being steadily replaced by the latter two.

9.  Housing prices trend hard to predict

There has been a huge oversupply of residential and commercial construction in China; to put it in perspective, China has been building the equivalent of the entire housing stock of Spain each year.   On the other hand, the increasing demand for housing as factories move production inland from the coast may help to mitigate this mismatch between supply and demand.   Of all the trends mentioned in the program, the outcome of this one is probably the hardest to predict.

10.  Increasing use of internet

The increasing penetration of cell phones, computers, and particularly the internet mean that one of the biggest overlooked potentials for growth in China is that of e-commerce.

These trends show that China has tremendous potential for growth for companies, but that the political, legal and economic landscape is constantly changing, so companies must do their best to keep up.   In my opinion, this Economist Education event was extremely helpful in this regard.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (3)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

4.  The Big Crunch—Strong vs. Weak Hadith

It is universally agreed, among Muslim scholars and among Western, non-Muslim scholars, that many of the hadith were spurious in the sense of being invented in some way and not reflective or what Mohammad said or did, or downright tendentious, that is, put into circulation for a particular purpose.   And people more or less agreed that you could observe this more or less from the content.   For example, if Mohammad has a hadith in which he says “444 years after the first revelation the government will collapse,” then you suspect that that was probably put into circulation somewhere around 443.   Of course God could have revealed this to Mohammad, but remember this is not supposed to be revelation.   The problem was there was no certain way to determine what was spurious and what was genuine.   Prof. Bulliet is firmly of the belief that a good deal of what ultimately gets preserved is genuine.   This is opposed to a Western school of thought that maintains that all hadith are frivolous inventions for later tendentious reasons.

Separating which hadith was strong from which was weak was a conceptual challenge.   If you knew a lot of hadith, you could say “I wonder if this one is accurate and this one is inaccurate.”  If you knew a lot of hadith, you discovered that they were contradictory, that in one hadith Mohammad says “it is prohibited to eat lizard”, and in another he says, “There’s nothing wrong with lizard, it’s just that I don’t personally eat it because it disagrees with me.”  Then you have a disagreement, and a lot of the hadith do disagree at some level.  Prof. Bulliet mentioned the example with the lizard simply because it becomes a favorite fantasy of later Iranians that Arabs are lizard-eaters, that is to say, barbarians, as opposed to sophisticated Iranians who do not eat lizard.   Therefore, you can easily maintain that verses in which Mohammad sanctions the eating of lizard were invented by Arabs who were defending themselves against these nasty Persians who were accusing them of being lizard-eaters.  Minor details like this come up again and again.  How would you resolve this?  If you didn’t have a direct contradiction, why would you resolve it?

The way in which these hadith were transmitted, which is by word of mouth in an oral chain of authority, makes it clear that when people learned hadith, they didn’t learn it by reading it in a book, they learned it by hearing someone recite it.

While we don’t know the exact way in which recitation of the hadith was done in the earliest period, we do have later books that talk about the etiquette of hadith recitation.   What should the reciter do before class?   Well, you should put on a clean white garment and headdress, you should put on a little perfume, you should look into the mirror and comb you hair (you’ve got to look nice), or nowadays wear a necktie, I guess.   There’s the etiquette for the teacher, and etiquette for the class, how you enter the room, how you respond to the presence of the teacher, and so on.   It’s very clear when you read a book on etiquette regarding the recitation of the hadith that the reciter is in a sense the embodiment of the Prophet.   In other words, he is saying, “I heard from A who heard from B who heard from C who heard from Mohammad the Messenger of God—I am now reciting the words of the Prophet, and I am adopting the seriousness of demeanor and the seriousness of purpose that would be appropriate for the Prophet himself if he were standing before you.”

The people in the class were largely young people, particularly once you get into the 800s—a century and a half after the initial conquests of Islam.    The reason they were young people was because as you go from generation to the next, getting farther away from the Prophet himself, and your chain of authorities of A to B to C becomes longer.   Even though it was warned against, there was nevertheless a strong impetus to secure the shortest chain of authority that you could have.   So there was a high premium placed on having extremely young people listening to hadith recited by very old people.   This is your primary educational experience within the early centuries of Islam, and it highlighted the ends of the age table.   This is opposed to our educational system, which says that between 18 and 25 you get your education.   Before 18 it doesn’t really count, because you know what it was like (laughter), and after 25 it’s too late, you’re already formed, as some of the older members here would agree with me that nothing happens after that (laughter).

So we have a system that privileges a certain piece of the age table, and they have a system which privileged other pieces, the very young and the very old, because then you would have the shortest number of steps going back to the Prophet.   In fact, after you were around 18 or so, you would continue to listen to people reciting hadith, but you would quit taking notes.  If you were ever called upon later on in life to teach hadith, the notes you would take after the age of 18 would not be very useful, because there is not a big enough time gap.  The class let’s say in the 800s or 900s would often have boys from 5 to 8 years old just starting out, many of them with a father or an uncle who would take down in Arabic a dictation of the words said by the teacher, and a sprinkling of older people.  And then someone may quit learning hadith at the age of 18, not do anything with them for the next 30 years, and then suddenly be invited to start teaching hadith, perhaps on the grounds that he is the only surviving student of a certain source.   Whether you ever taught hadith had a lot to do with the vagaries of survival of teachers and students.

If you were in a class, you certainly had no impetus to question the truth of what you heard.  What you heard was the Prophet before you giving you instructions, giving you knowledge, giving you guidance, telling you how to lead your life—that was the Islam you were learning.   And yet, if you had hundreds of thousands of hadith, and if in any given community, you might have ten thousand in circulation, what Islam was differed from one community to another, because the array of hadith differed from what one community to another.  We know this because we have an enormous amount of information about the practice of hadith scholars traveling from place to place in order to listen to hadith because they knew what they heard in city A would differ from what they heard in city B.  During this first inflation period you had a very large empire that had been conquered by Arab armies in the course of the 630s and the 640s.   After the year 711 AH (, when the geographical limits of the early expansion had been reached, you had small communities of Muslims spread from Spain to Pakistan probably aggregating not much more than a million people.   They formed a ruling elite over a population that was many times larger than their own, so they were a sparsely distributed ruling elite.  They were largely focused in particular camps or towns, because the policies of the rulers were designed to keep the Muslims largely together so they could be brought on military campaigns when needed.   This didn’t always happen everywhere; Spain and Syria were somewhat different.   But by and large you had small islands of Muslims spread over an enormous geographical area completely surrounded by Christians, in Iran by Zoroastrians, and occasionally by Jews, Buddhists or even pagans.  It was a very widely spread community; each community had its sunnah, had its notion of what Islam was, not because they had generated a notion of a difference, but because they had different bodies of authoritative material.

They all the Qur’an or at least we can assume that they all had the Qur’an, but what they had of hadith varied, and what they had of hadith was contradictory, and a some substantial portion was spurious.   So what occurred wasn’t that you had individuals who sat in a class and said, “gee, I think Professor so-and-so told us a fib when he said that Mohammad didn’t like to eat garlic.  I bet Mohammad did like to eat garlic”; nobody was thinking that.  What you had instead was that you a had a group of people who were specialists and who knew, had heard, had written down thoroughly often literally tens of thousands of hadith.   They realized that this was getting too big and that it was getting out of hand.  So they started to cull the corpus to extract those that were sound and discard those that were weak.  In the 800s you had a number of collections, ultimately 6 for Sunnis, 4 for Shiites, of sayings of the Prophet that were sound.  The scores of thousands of others disappeared.   In making the collections, there was either an unconscious or a conscious desire to obscure geographical difference.   The collections were organized by topic rather than by locale where the hadith were collected.  This is because the underlying motive was not simply to discard the unsound and preserve the sound, but it was also to try and make the sunnah uniform and coherent, and you had to discourage the idea that you had localization because Islam should be all one thing.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet relates how the combination of the Qur’an plus the sunnah (the collections of hadith) became the second singularity from which later Islam emerged.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (2)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009. 

3.  The First Big Bang–Hadith

Then you have a very rapid inflation in terms of content related to what Islam is or could be.   We know about this inflation primarily from data coming from the late 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries, but there’s no reason to doubt that this inflation began almost immediately and it took the form of people who knew Mohammad saying things about him.   So you end up with a second body of material that was not divine revelation, but rather consisted of stories either quoting Mohammad as saying something, or representing him as doing something or expressing some preference for or opposition to a particular behavior.   This cumulative body of material ultimately comes to be called the Sunnah, or the tradition in a very general sense.   Each individual story is called a hadith, and the plural is one of those awkward Arabic plurals aḥādīth—Prof. Bulliet will therefore use hadith as both the singular and the plural.

Mohammad, when he was receiving direct communication from God, did so in a physical state that was recognized as being particular to that moment.  Some people call it a trance, but that sounds so hokey that Prof. Bulliet doesn’t want to go on record as using that particular word to describe it.   Mohammad was receiving revelation or reciting, subsequent to the received revelation, what he had heard in the revelation, because these were things he recited openly in public.   A distinction was made between that state and the state of Mohammad simply going about his daily affairs.   The former, those revelations that came in the Qur’an, were regarded as God’s word.   So now what was the status of things that Mohammad said or did when he was not in a state of receiving God’s revelation, that is, the substance of what was in the hadith?

In time, a belief emerged that is not attested to in the Qur’an (and indeed, the Qur’an says virtually nothing about the person of Mohammad) that Mohammad was a perfect human being, a perfect man, and legends arose to explain this.  For example, the idea was that there was a black spot in every human heart, but Mohammad when he was an infant had his chest opened by an angel and the black spot was removed.  So unlike all other humans he had this flaw removed.   As the notion that Mohammad was perfect or inerrant became stronger or more widespread, the importance of the hadith became enhanced.   It comes to be thought by many people that what Mohammad said or did when he was not receiving revelation constituted a fuller expression of what a Muslim’s life should be like, and how it should be lived.   Ultimately, the hadith in their aggregate come to be considered the second most important source of guidance for Muslims.   However, you have strong differences over time as to how important this is as a source.  One wing says that everything you do as a Muslim must be done on the basis of hadith, and you must be imitating the life of the Prophet.   If you are a member of the Tablighi Jamaat, the world’s largest Muslim organization, and you’re on a subway platform in Paris and the train is about to leave, there is a certain prayer you have to say because that’s the prayer Mohammad said according to the hadith before he would start a journey.   Every aspect of your life will be regulated—which sandal you take off first when you enter a mosque, which one you put on first when you leave, the minutiae of the life of a Muslim are laid out in the hadith.

This inflation meant that you had a book of revelation which was comparatively little known, in the sense that it was a book written within a population in which almost everyone was illiterate.  So it was not well known as a written work; but it was as a recited work which was the main way you would become cognizant of the Qur’an.  The problem was that it takes many, many hours to recite the Qur’an.   If you say, “I want to learn about the Qur’an”, you say “I’m going to sit and listen to someone for the next four days read this aloud to me.”   Not many people ever heard the entire Qur’an recited; they would hear pieces of it.  The hadith were intrinsically divided into very, very short utterances.   Typically the utterance would contain the story about what the Prophet did or did not proscribe, preceded by a statement by the reciter saying, “I heard from my teacher so-and-so, who heard from his teacher so-and-so, who heard from his teacher so-and-so, who heard from the Messenger of God, salla allahu alaihi wa sallam.”   There was a chain of authorities recited prior to the recitation of the hadith itself.   However, the recitation might be very, very short.  The number of hadith that came into circulation probably is in the hundreds of thousands.   (Prof. Bulliet says “probably” because we really don’t have a complete collection of the hadith.)

How did the hundreds of thousands of hadith get reduced to the collections of hadith that exist today?   That is the subject of the next blog post, where the first “Big Crunch” comes after the expansion of hadith expressed in this post.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 2 (History of Islam) (1)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009. 

1.  Explanation of Big Bang-Big Crunch metaphor

The original title of this lecture given on January 22, 2009, was “The Big Crunch and the Big Bang Theory of the History of Islamic History”.   He plans on giving an overview of Islamic History in this lecture, and the “Big Crunch and Big Bang” are metaphors taken from cosmology.   The Big Bang Theory has to do with the origin of the universe, and it postulates that the universe began as a singularity which contained the potential for everything in the universe.   A potential of almost unlimited energy started an unimaginably rapid expansion from essentially a point to the universe of the present day.   The Big Crunch theory is less well-supported by current evidence, but it suggests that once the universe has expanded to a certain extent, gravitational forces will cause it to contract again, bringing it back to another singularity which sets the stage for another Big Bang.

The reason why Prof. Bulliet is using the metaphor to talk about the history of Islam is because there is a very strong predisposition to consider Islam as something that can be broadly described that has always been the same.   Therefore, if you know something about Islam, let’s say, the five pillars, or if you have read some verses in the Qur’an, you have an advantage in terms of understanding Islam as a whole.   In other words, there is a propensity for people to adopt an “essentialist” view of Islam, saying that Islam is essentially a religion of peace, or taking the opposite view that it is essentially a religion of terrorism.   The same things could be said to be true about Christianity—the tendency to express essentialist, summary views of religion is not restricted to Islam.   As an historian, Prof. Bulliet finds this unappealing because he thinks that Islam, like other religions, has changed dramatically in its 14 centuries of existence.   When you talk about Islam, or the community of Muslims, that is to say, those people who profess the religion of Islam, it is important to situate whatever you are talking about within the historical evolution of Islam.

Prof. Bulliet is going to focus on this historical evolution of Islam as occurring in 4 stages or 4 episodes of a singularity, followed by rapid expansion both in terms of substance as well as geographical extent, which is then followed by a retraction into a new singularity, which then produces the next stage and so on.   The singularities differ at each juncture, but the pattern is the same.

2.  The First Singularity

Prof. Bulliet states that it is important to understand during his description of what follows that this is Muslim belief, rather than something that needs to be debated in terms of provable, historical substance.   The reason is that he is really talking here about the self-conception of Islam rather than an external, historian’s description of it.  According to Muslim belief, Muhammad at the age of 40, more or less, around the year 610 or 611 AD, after a period of meditation in the mountains outside his native city of Mecca, he heard a voice which said, “Recite!” and that was the beginning of the Qur’an.   It is not literally the beginning of the Qur’an in terms of the text of the Qur’an, but it was considered to be the first revelation.  The revelation consisted of God’s word, which was enunciated in Arabic, and the totality of this recitation which comes to Mohammad episodically over the next 20 years, and which was not complete until his death in 632 AD, is what became known later as the “Qur’an”, meaning the “reading.”

No one who knew Mohammad or for that matter Mohammad himself knew what was in the Qur’an, because it was never revealed all at once.  If he had lived five more days, he might have had a revelation that would have changed things utterly.  The Qur’an has a last revelation, but nobody knew it was going to be the last revelation.   Mohammed lived in Mecca until he migrated to Medina in 622, which became the base date for the Muslim calendar.   The people around Mohammad regarded him as a vehicle by which God was making his word known to humankind.   They regarded him as one in a series of such vehicles or messengers, the first of whom was Adam but which included Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus; these Old and New Testament figures were all considered part of the series.  There were some messengers who known only in the Arabian tradition, but who were not mentioned in the Old Testament, like the messenger that came to the people of Ād and the people of Thamud.  This sequence of messengers was a pattern into which Mohammad and his revelation were fit by the people of the time.  Why was it fit this way?  Because the content of the revelation told the stories of those earlier messengers, and presented Mohammed as a messenger of God whose message was a work in progress.

So nobody knew what the final form of the Qur’an was in its totality until Mohammad died.   The text was created within the next 30 years, put together from fragments of things written down by people who had heard them from Mohammad and which were arranged in a certain pattern.  There was another school of thought that it didn’t receive its final form until 200 years later.  That is a school of thought Prof. Bulliet doesn’t think is worth discussing in the class for two reasons:  1) because he doesn’t agree with it, and 2) it doesn’t really have anything to do with what the Muslims thought about their faith during the following 14 centuries.   The notion of this series of utterances by Mohammad, considered to be God transmitting his word to humankind via a messenger, constitutes the first singularity.   You could look back at the earlier stories, but the earlier stories were contained within the revelation, so even that becomes self-referential.   It’s a singularity, therefore, in that whatever Islam was going to be, started there.

In the next blog post, I will relate the first Big Bang, or expansion of Islam, from the singularity described above. 

Becoming our Teachers


The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.   Plutarch

Have you ever had the experience of having your child say something to you in an air of defiance, only to have that trigger the memory of you having said the same thing to your parents?  Or sometimes it’s the reverse, where you tell your children something in the heat of the moment with that “voice of authority” only to have it trigger the memory of how you hated hearing that when you were a child.

That’s when you realize that as you’ve gotten older, you are becoming your parents.   Now I don’t have children, but I recently had the experience that I’m becoming my teachers.  This idea struck me at a recent get-together with classmates Scott Tomlinson, Rich Carroll, and Marty Leonard here in the Southern California area.   Marty showed me a copy of our old High School Yearbook.   I had the memory of our teachers as being somewhat larger than life.   But now when I looked at our teacher’s pictures, I was struck by the thought that we were now looking a lot more like them (or sometimes even older).

I am not a teacher in the formal sense of teaching in a school, high school, or university, but I have had great respect for teachers throughout my life, mostly based on the excellent teachers I had in grade school and then in high school at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.    There are three levels of engagement with work:   it is either a job, a career, or a calling.    I’m sure for the best teachers, it was certainly a calling.   They were the ones that would encourage you when needed, but sometimes be tough enough to push you not listen to your own voice that said “I can’t”, but rather to reach inside and find the fire to take your own abilities as far as they could go.

Not all of the teachers I had in the Homewood-Flossmoor school system were so encouraging, however.   My third-grade teacher asked us to do a “show-and-tell” report, and I was fascinated with the country of Afghanistan because it was featured in a National Geographic magazine which my parents subscribed to.   I fashioned my bed sheet into the guise of a tribal costume I had seen depicted in some of the stunning photographs, and tried coming down the staircase to dinner in the dignified air of a tribal chieftain.   I almost broke my neck as I tripped over the bed sheet and tumbled down the stairs.   Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-DUMP!   It wasn’t the dignified entrance I had been hoping for.   But my parents encouraged me (after they stopped laughing) to do well on the report the next day.

When I got done with the report, my teacher proceeded to yell at me.  “I gave you clear instructions.   You were to do a report on what other children in the class might be interested in.   They don’t care about some place called … Franistan.”  “Afghanistan”, I helpfully corrected her.   “WHATEVER!   Now sit down!”   I was not as much sad, as in shock about this totally unexpected reaction.   When I told my mother and father what she had said, my mother was at the principal’s office the next day saying in no uncertain terms that my teacher was never to speak to me again in such a discouraging manner.

I promised myself to never be like that ignorant teacher who tried to discourage me because I refused to perform like an average student.   When I see younger people now that want to learn something, I do my best to encourage them like my math teacher and many others that I had later at H-F.   For example, when the younger claim examiners at Tokio Marine wanted to learn about Japanese culture and language, I volunteered and taught them every Friday at lunchtime.   And recently in our Toastmasters club, I mentored some young people during their first three speeches.  It is a joy to encourage young people to learn and gain confidence in their own abilities, like a deer overseeing a fawn with wobbly legs finally learn to stroll on the savanna.   Because of the excellent teachers I’ve had in my life, I resolve to be there for the next generation encouraging them to just GO!

World Economic Forum (#WEF) Global Risk Report 2012 (part 1—Overview)


The World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network or RRN has come out with Global Risk Report 2012 in January 11 of this year, which can be viewed and downloaded on their website http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2012/#.

The report discusses global risks using the following methodology:

a)  Identify global risks, which are risks that are global in geographic scope, cross-industry relevance, uncertainty as to how and when they will occur, and high levels of economic and/or social impact.

b)  Categorize the global risks into five Risk Categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological.

c)  For each Risk Category, rank each risk according to likelihood and severity.

d)  Using the ranking, identify the risks of greatest systemic importance as the Centers of Gravity for each of each Risk Category.

e)  Identify Critical Connectors which are risks that are connected to the multiple Centers of Gravity, and thus link all global risks into one coherent system.

The result is a map which shows the ecology of global risks and how they are all interrelated.

The report also contains three case studies which focus on special categories of risk, and one special report on the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Case 1:   The Seeds of Dystopia

This case explores the risks due to the combination of fiscal imbalances and demographic trends.

Case 2:   How Safe are Our Safeguards?

This case explores the risk of the unexpected negative consequences of regulations.

Case 3:   The Dark Side of Connectivity

This case explores the critical systems failures that could occur because of problems with cyber security of the World Wide Web.

Special Report–The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011

This special report traces the unforeseen consequences of the earthquake as they rippled through Complex Global Systems.

The purpose for the report discussing these global risks is to develop strategies to mitigate them.   I will be going through the report in several blog posts to discuss the methodologies, the findings, and the recommendations of this report.

Battlestar Galactica (#BSG)—Beauty and the Sublime


As I mentioned on a post written three days ago, I finished watched the “new” Battlestar Galactica on Sunday.    I’ve been thinking about the series this week, and I’ve found some food for thought in the lectures Joseph Campbell did on James Joyce’s literary works called The Wings of Art.   In the first part of this six-part lecture series, Campbell describes James Joyce’s thoughts on art and aesthetics that he gleaned from three sources:  Aristotle, Dante, and Thomas Aquinas.

In this post, I wanted to describe the aesthetic concepts of beauty and the sublime to illustrate how Battlestar Galactica is effective as a work of art.   These are discussed in James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.   Thomas Aquinas said that universal beauty has three hallmarks, integritas or wholeness, consonantia or harmony, and claritas or radiance.   When you have an art work such a painting, you have a frame, and it is this frame which makes the art work a whole.   In the case of a television series, you have the framework of the “previous episode recap”, the opening credits and the “teaser” for the following episode, the episode itself, and the closing credits.   Harmony is the rhythm of the elements in the artwork.   When I think of the themes that are represented in the BSG series, I think of a symphony where you have the opening statement of a theme, and repetitions of that theme with variations throughout.   Even the Cylon characters which have multiple versions of themselves carry this meme of “variations on a theme”.

If an artwork is fortunately composed, then the magic comes through in the last hallmark of claritas.   This is where the rhythm achieved within the framework creates a sort of corresponding echo within the mind of the audience.   A musical analogy would be that of the sitar.   The sitar consists of a series of main strings which are played, and then a series of strings which are never played called sympathetic strings, which run parallel to and below the main strings.   They vibrate in sympathy with the main strings, giving the sitar its shimmering, echo-like quality.

BSG was so well crafted that many watchers, like myself, found themselves stirred in sympathy either emotionally by the characters or intellectually by some of the themes involved.    That is why I would call it “beautiful” from an aesthetic viewpoint, because it moves me–sometimes to laughter, and sometimes to tears.    There were characters that I liked, or wished I could be more like, and there were other characters I despised, sometimes because on reflection I was more like them than I would have liked.

Another aesthetic experience is that of “wonder” or “awe”, and this is called the sublime.   This is when what is experienced is not something to which you can easily relate to, such as in the case of beauty, but rather something elemental or powerful which “blows you away”.    The experience of the sublime can come from sudden expansion of one’s perspective with regards to space or time (such as looking up at the night-time sky), or from natural or elemental forces with tremendous power (such as a tsunami or an atomic explosion).   Most Western art covers the aesthetic experience of beauty, but does not deal with the sublime, with one notable exception:   science-fiction.

BSG has moments of the sublime, such as the episode where the Cylons destroy the 12 colonies of the Colonials with nuclear explosions in the opening episode of the series.   The magnitude of the destruction is impossible for the brain to fathom, and you are left with the mind trying to shrink from the implications of what it has just seen.  However, for me the combination of the beautiful and the sublime was what made BSG a truly memorable experience.     The experience of beauty, of art to which my mind and emotions could relate to, was certainly there in the growing relationship I had with the various characters and their stories.   But these moments of intimacy were punctuated by moments of the sublime where I would just stare at the screen in wonder, locked into aesthetic arrest.

Those sublime moments sometimes came in the form of the sheer scale of the plot in terms of both time and space.   Other times it came because of prodigious violence, like in a battle scene between groups of ships.   However, some of the most surprising moments of the sublime came not in violence, but in silence.    Some of the prototypical moments of the sublime from the Old Testament come from these two extremes:   you have Job 38:1 where “”the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” and then in explicit contrast, the “still, small voice” that spoke to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12.

An example of these extremes in BSG was a chilling scene where a breach in the hull developed.   This caused pandemonium in a causeway of the ship, and the camera tracked a hapless crew member as she was sucked out into the vacuum of space.   The cacophony of the out-rushing air and her screams faded into the deadly silence that ensued, given the absence of any air to carry the sound.

But spellbinding moments of the sublime like these were always leavened by the beauty I felt in the unfolding of the characters’ stories, at times delicate and other times brutal, and it was this particular combination for me which made it a science-fiction experience unlike any other I’ve had before.   So say we all.

Battlestar Galactica (#BSG)—Does it qualify as proper art?


As I mentioned on a post written two days ago, I finished watched the “new” Battlestar Galactica on Sunday.    I’ve been thinking about the series this week, and I’ve found some food for thought in the lectures Joseph Campbell did on James Joyce’s literary works called The Wings of Art.   In the first part of this six-part lecture series, Campbell describes James Joyce’s thoughts on art and aesthetics that he gleaned from three sources:  Aristotle, Dante, and Thomas Aquinas.

In this post, I would like to relate James Joyce’s thoughts on what he called proper vs. improper art.   Proper art is what we normally think of when we hear the phrase “art for art’s sake.”   Improper art, on the other hand, is used in the service of either desire for an object, which Joyce calls pornographic art, or criticism of an object or idea, which he calls didactic art.

I have to explain that Joyce’s term of pornographic art can be somewhat misleading, because art which is used to make you desire an object could include sexual desire, but it means any form of desire.    All commercial art, or commercials in general can be considered pornographic art because they are not drawing attention to themselves but rather are making you want to buy a product or service.   The commercials on television are certainly pornographic under this definition, what about the program Battlestar Galactica itself?

Let’s take a look at the way the characters are portrayed through the writing.  Pornographic art in terms of character portrayal would be the typical Hollywood “hot” star who draws viewers simply through sex appeal.   I think the dialogue for the characters was so good that even if you felt an initial surface attraction for a character because he or she was attractive, this would melt into a sympathy or empathy for them based on the experiences they went through during the 73 episodes of the series.   So I wouldn’t consider BSG improper art under the category of pornographic art.

What about the other category, that of didactic art?   This is art which wants to turn you against something, usually not a person as much as an idea.    In Harold Bloom’s book The Western Canon:  The Books and School of the Ages, he argues that one of the lamentable trends in the humanities at the university level was to attack the very idea of the canon or list of classics as a propaganda tool to promote the interests of the elites in society.   He refers to that trend in the humanities as the “School of Resentment”.    Part of this trend is to advocate for books that may not be aesthetically as good as those in the traditional canon, but which served as an agent of progressive social change, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.    This is precisely the definition of “didactic art”, and it is what Harold Bloom deplored.

Looking back on Battlestar Galactica, I commend Ronald Moore and other writers for NOT taking sides when it came to exploring difficult questions such as the use of torture, as opposed to a series like “24” which was obviously pushing the “pro-torture” side of the debate.    When it came to questions involving economic inequality, it was obvious that the writers felt these issues important because the equivalent on BSG of the “working class” were depicted in many of the episodes, as opposed to shows in the Star Trek franchise where they were much more rarely seen.   But even here the issues were more evenhandedly dealt with, and they weren’t trying to convert the audience to one or another point of view.    That takes not only sophistication as a writer, but it takes a sophisticated view of the audience.

As Harold Bloom pointed out with reference to Shakespeare, we have no idea based on the hundreds of characters in his plays what Shakespeare’s own sympathies or allegiances were on the political spectrum.    In a similar way, Ronald Moore and the other writers allow you to make up your own mind, which is a tremendous compliment to the audience.

So the series tried not to take sides in political and/or economic debates, and was therefore not didactic.   Even if you were attracted to some of the characters because they just happened to be good-looking, you always were taken way beneath the surface so that you felt some sympathy or empathy for them, and so the series was also not pornographic (in this limited definition of the term).   Therefore, it is a good example of “art for art’s sake” or “proper art”.