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Sunday, July 21, 2013
Larry Gonick on Umayyad history
I reviewed Gonick's Cartoon History of the World III over a decade ago. At the time, I recommended it.
By the way, you'll not find on my blog anything about the Cartoon-Histories of the Modern world. At some point, I believe it was concerning Philip II of Spain, Gonick went on a digression about how awful George W Bush was - about how Dubya was just as bad as Philip II. This was an outbreak of the so-called "Bush-Derangement", which syndrome afflicted so much else that came out of Western scholarly and literary circles at the time. This digression ... well, I took it personally, I took it as a betrayal. When I moved house in 2010, his cartoon-histories were among what was dumped.
So, today I found a copy of #3 in a used bookstore. Out of curiosity, I wondered how well it has held up. In the meantime, from 2003 onward, I had been learning - really learning - about the early years of Islam. (And I'm not so pro-Bush now as I was up to 2004.) So I am now in a position to critique #3's account of Islam. I could not do so in 2002.
Here's my second take on the early-Islamic chapters of the book: these portions are cowardly, hypocritical, disjointed and credulous.
The first thing I noticed even in 2002 is that Gonick takes the Sira too much at its word (Mecca in 630 AD? really?). The next thing I noticed is that he omits showing the Prophet's face. Because he "has to", he claims. He doesn't say why he has to. I can make an educated guess, though.
The Sira is contemporary with the Persian occupation of Jerusalem, 614 AD. Gonick here ensures that we understand that when Jews are massacred, it is "Christians" doing the deed; but when Christians are massacred, it is a singular king (like Dhu Nuwas) or "Persians". But no: on the latter, first, the sources in Syria blamed the local Jews [G Greatrex, "Khusro II and the Christians of the Roman Empire", Studia Patristica (Peeters Publishers, 2006), 14.51; Gideon Avni, "The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 c.e.)—An Archaeological Assessment", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 357 (February 2010), 35-48; also pro-Persian Jews had been stepping up their propaganda just prior]. If Gonick had read anything about this event, then he knew who was involved in it. That Gonick glides over the perpetrators of this pogrom is a hypocrisy verging on the dishonest. (And an unnecessary one; one could easily excuse what these particular Jews did, and most readers would accept almost any such excuse. Later, when he can't ignore the Jewish role - in the fall of Christian Spain, 711 AD - he'll take the stance that the local Christians had it coming [UPDATE - see below!]. I actually agree with his argument there; I would have accepted a similar one earlier. But at least let's not cover it up.)
As for the rest, once Muawiya is ensconced as amir of the believers: the Umayyad period is almost skipped over. There's nothing on the Second Civil War. Ibn al-Ash`ath is gone. The Third Civil War is gone. The Dome of the Rock is gone(!). The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus does get some play - but it's credited to Muawiya, and implied to be a fresh Byzantine-style construction, when al-Walid built the thing decades later and just grabbed the structure from the Christian church of John Forerunner.
In subsequent chapters, we get flashbacks to more of what I was looking for: descriptions of the Arab conquests of north and northwest Africa (plus Spain), which cover the 690s and 700s. But even here, the North African / Berber section relies on the legend of the Kahina.
In retrospect, I can't recommend this part of the book anymore; and I've now got to worry about the rest of it. (And no, I didn't buy it again.)
UPDATE 7/8/2017: the Jews of Spain dindu-nuffins. Really.
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