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SPEECH AT THE DAR-ES-SALAAM CULTURAL SOCIETY - 1957-11-25

Go To News Event: 
Event - 1957-11-25
Date: 
Monday, 1957, November 25
Location: 
Hazar Imam at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Author: 
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

Mr President, Your Worship, Ladies and Gentlemen

I have been asked to speak to you about Harvard University and studies of the Middle East. This is a double-barrelled topic which would take many hours to exhaust, but I hope in my own small way to be able to point out how the research work done in today's most advanced universities has and, I believe, will continue to contribute to solving some of the area's thorniest problems.

There is no point in my giving definite boundaries to the region about which I am speaking, suffice it to say that it runs approximately from the western frontier of present-day Turkey up to the northern frontier of Afghanistan and Iran, right down the western coast of India and back towards Europe, touching the southern most point of Saudi Arabia.

This is a vast expanse of land which contains practically every land formation of which we know. More than this, it is an area where there are extreme climatic changes. It is, I believe, one of the most interesting regions of our earth.

An immense amount of factors have contributed to today's problems and I would like to trace some of them to their origins in the past ages.

It has often been pointed out, and I think correctly so, that the very layout of the land has formed many of the tendencies we observe at present. The harshness and inclement nature of the Saudi Arabian peninsula must have had its effect on the minds of those who lived there long before us. I do not believe that human relations are of sufficient interest, nor of sufficient permanence to keep a man happy all through his life. He must have something else to turn to. This need may express itself in this form of art, of scientific studies or mysticism, but more often it takes the form of a search for higher life.

It is understandable, therefore, that the three great monotheistic religions of today -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- have been born in this area where human existence was restricted to its barest forms. All the empires which covered these regions, whether they were Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim or Ottoman Turk, all have broken up. You will no doubt say that this is the fate of empires generally. But is it not over-expansion one of the causes for this? Over-expansion means the inclusion of remote peoples into the framework of a society whose ways of living and ideals are born, guided and sometimes dictated from a focal point, the capital. A concrete example of this is that during the life of the Caliphate the poor agriculture and the lack of natural resources useable in those times of the focal point, Saudi Arabia, clashed with that which the Muslims found in the more fertile countries such as Persia and Spain. One of the major problems during the life of this empire was land-holding and the conquests of the great generals such as Khalid and Amr ibn al-As made this problem particularly acute.

The Caliphate was rapidly growing from a dry and sandy sub-peninsula into an empire, which embodied some of the most fertile part of the earth. Once the armies had made their conquests, they did not want to return to Mecca or Medina -- they preferred to set up their own farms elsewhere. The problem of soldiers becoming land-owners was prominent not only in Islamic times but also in the previous Byzantine days. It was a problem which owed its existence to the layout of the land.

Here, then, one can understand the strains which were put on the successive rulers of the area by all the varied forms of territory which they had to govern. Environment, the climate and the very formation of the soil have played an immense part in the creation of today's patterns of life in the Middle East. We still look for ways to solve the problems which nature puts to us.

Your incessant and drenching downpours in Tanganyika which you so happily call 'short rains' will no doubt give you similar worries. I only wish they did not strike everywhere I go. Life gets soggy. I have nicknamed my own private cloud, 'deluge'.

And now I turn to an over digested picture of the area. It is from about the time of Justinian the Great that the east Mediterranean Basin became a separate entity, apart from the original Roman Empire. Those who have studied Byzantine history will know what an extraordinarily fertile period this was for engineering, art, architecture, philosophy, religion, literature and dialectic.

Though the Empire had one of the world's finest capitals it suffered from it greatly. Constantinople became the seat of the Emperors while Rome remained the seat of the ecclesiastical Pontiff, the Pope. There was naturally tension between the two which expressed itself in later years in the large number of Christian heresies which spread all over the Middle East. There were constant and vicious attacks between Pope and Emperor, sometime ending in mutual excommunication. These clashes usually resulted in the birth of a new heresy.

It was not long after the birth of the Empire that the Byzantines began to suffer from the perpetual attacks of their boundaries. These harassed the state all through its lifetime.

The early Roman Empire with its capital in Italy had many of its frontiers naturally guarded by water, as had the Islamic Caliphate with its capital at Mecca. Contrary to this, however, the Byzantines were pestered by the Serbs, the Hungarians, the Walachians and the Moldavians descending from the north. They suffered from the harsh western attacks of the Venitians and the Franks, and in its later days, the Empire suffered from the great Muslim push in the south. As the central authority declined, people turned to discussing the nature of Christ, the relationship that existed between the Emperor and Pope, and also the many problems relating to the Trinity. One heresy succeeded another at an extraordinary pace and, although the Church called numerous ecumenical councils, the difficulties remained unsolved. Here were born the monophysites, the duophysites, the Nestorians, the Albigentsians, the iconoclasts and many other such heresies.

It is not necessary to know what were the exact points under discussion, but I have mentioned those names to try to point out the background of these Christians who live in the Middle East today.

Constantinople fell in 1453, but the Byzantines were tottering before this. One can understand what the situation must have been when the southern part of the Empire with its land problems and its religious problems was swallowed up by the northward Muslim movement. The result becomes particularly complicated when one thinks that at the very moment the Muslims themselves were splitting up into the Shia and Sunni groups which still exist today. All round the eastern Mediterranean coast, there were settlements of Christian outcasts who were mixing freely with the Muslims, and some of the key documents show that it was often difficult for the rulers to determine whom they could call their brothers and whom they called People of the Book. This intricate pattern of religion is still visible today.

It was the bad luck of the Ottoman Turks to overrun a dying Empire whose diseases were nearly incurable. The land-holding problem had got so far out of hand by the time Constantinople fell that it remained a major difficulty, even for the conquerors. No Empire can survive if the majority of the land is held by the army. If this is the case, the army controls the economy, and the ruler himself can do little but watch.

The last heretical movement in Christianity had divided the state in half on a horizontal line running through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. As the new Ottoman Empire was solidified and the minor difficulties were ironed out, it became necessary to organize the various phases of community life. It was Selim I who first attempted to impose some form of unity on Islam by controlling the activities of the ulema. It was a brave move towards pan-Islamism, but it was doomed to failure because of the deep-rooted social and theological splits that had existed under the previous rulers, the Byzantines. Only fifteen years before Selim's rule, the Sunni Turks had been attacked by Ismail Safavi, the ruler of Shia Persia. Again the theological splits were hampering the progress of the Empire.


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