Tag Archives: Egypt

Did You Know… Muhammad Wrote A Letter Guaranteeing the Protection of Christians?

Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, lived from 570-632 AD. Muslims believe that he is the final prophet of the monotheistic Abrahamic tradition, which includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

So although it may come as a shock to many, it’s really not that surprising that Muhammad frequently visited the Christian monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai in the Sinai peninsula of Egypt.

For those who aren’t aware, Mt. Sinai is the mountain that Moses climbed to retrieve the 10 Commandments in the Exodus chapter of the Bible.

St. Catherine’s Monastery and the Sinai peninsula. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of BBC)

Muhammad had a great relationship with the monks, engaging them in discussions about science, philosophy and spirituality, among other topics. Their teachings had a great influence on the Muslim prophet.

In the year 622, Muhammad fled his hometown of Mecca in Saudi Arabia after hearing of an assassination attempt on his life. He and his followers (who left the city with him) settled in the city of Medina, where they officially established the religion of Islam. This pilgrimage is known in Islamic tradition as the Hijra.

In 626 (according to the current copy in St. Catherine’s Monastery), Muhammad personally granted a charter to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery to protect the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims “far and near” who were living in predominantly-Muslim areas.

In the letter, Muhammad made it known to his followers that Christians had the right to freedom of religion and movement within Muslim communities.

He decreed that they had the freedom to appoint their own judges and handle their own property, as well as exempting them from any taxes mandated by Islam or an Islamic government:

“They [Christians] must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, nor the monks disturbed in exercising their religious order…

No taxes or tithes should be received from those who devote themselves to the worship of God in the mountains, or from those who cultivate the Holy Lands.”

A copy of the Achtiname from the 16th century. Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He also told his followers that Christians would be exempt from any mandatory military service in a Muslim community, adding that the Muslims in that community still had a duty to protect them and fight for them in times of war:

“They shall not be imposed upon by anyone to undertake a journey, or to be forced to go to wars or to carry arms; for the Islams have to fight for them,”

and he declared Christian churches to be sacred places that should never be desecrated:

“No one is allowed to plunder the pilgrims, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam.

And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger.”

St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in 565 AD, still stands today. Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Muhammad prefaced the letter by saying that its message had been sent, “to all the people as a trust on the part of God to all His creatures,” though he added that its contents were, “directed to the embracers of Islam.”

Then, in no uncertain terms, Muhammad described what he believed was a sacred spiritual relationship between Islam and Christianity:

“This letter contains the oath given unto them [the people of Islam], and he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disobeyer and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded.

He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam.

Whenever monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.”

Two modern-day monks sit and talk inside St. Catherine’s Monastery. The man on the left is a Bedouin server. Click to enlarge (Photo: Matthew D. Moyer)

The Achtiname pictured earlier in this post is not the original, but actually a copy of an original from the 16th century, which was likely already a somewhat altered version of the original text written by Muhammad in 626.

Dr. Aziz Suryal Atiya was a professor of Medieval History at Farouk University when he took part in The Monastery of St. Catherine and the Mount Sinai Expedition, a research project that looked into the history of the monastery and the authenticity of the Achtiname.

Here’s what he had to say:

“After the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640 , it was said that the Prophet Muhammad granted the monks of Mount Sinai a covenant whereby their lives and property became secure under Muslim rule. The existing tradition is that the original charter was taken from the Monastery by Sultan Selim I after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The Sultan, however, gave the monks a copy of it and sanctioned its terms.”

This timeline puts the emergence of Islam into some historical perspective. Click to enlarge

The copy now in the monastery is a copy of the certified copy given to them by the Sultan after he took the original in 1517 (supposedly for safe keeping at his palace in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul), prompting some to question its authenticity entirely.

However, the basic premise of the letter seems to have been maintained over the years, despite any small changes that may have been made to it as it passed between different hands.

Either way, the fact that St. Catherine’s Monastery has lasted for nearly 1500 years, surviving through countless different rulers (both Christian and Muslim) and years of bitter religious conflicts in the Middle East, speaks volumes about the mutual respect of the faiths on this hallowed ground.

BONUS: St. Catherine’s actually includes a 12th-century mosque within its walls, but it has never been used because it wasn’t built to face the Muslim holy city of Mecca in accordance with Islamic tradition.

Advertisements

Liberators or Terrorists? The Origins and History of Israel and Hamas

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, much of the focus lately has been on Hamas.

Critics say the group is a terrorist organization that wants nothing but to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

Supporters say Hamas, which represents the only organized Palestinian military force, is a coalition of freedom fighters and liberators defending the Palestinian people.

But where did the organization even come from? And how has is it become what it is today?

Hamas militants in training. Click to enlarge

Thinking you can understand the current conflict by looking at only the past few years of its history is like thinking you understand calculus because you passed freshman algebra.

Hopefully, this quick piece can be a pre-cal of sorts for people wanting to really understand the history between Israel and Palestine.

In 1917, Great Britain occupied Palestine during a period of British expansionism. Assisting in the conquest of Palestine was a Jewish military volunteer group known as the Jewish Legion.

This group was comprised primarily of Zionists, Jews who believed that it was God’s will for them to one day return to their ancient homeland (Mt. Zion is located in the heart of Jerusalem).

“Jewish Legion soldiers at the Western Wall after British conquest, 1917.” Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1920, Palestinian riots led to the formation of a Jewish militia known as the Haganah. The militia was formed by Jews who felt that Britain had no interest in confronting the Arab populations in the region who were expressing their disapproval for the ongoing British occupation.

Between 1919 and 1929, 100,000 more Jews migrated to Palestine. This led to an Arab revolt in the late 1930s, which prompted Britain to pass legislation limiting Jewish migration to the territory.

But World War II and the Holocaust displaced millions of Jews in Europe, and many of them sought a new life in the primarily Jewish British-held areas of Palestine.

Britain found itself in a conflict with the Haganah, who wanted to establish an independent Jewish state, while also trying to deal with the Arabs and Palestinians who were still upset that their traditional lands had been occupied in the first place.

So Britain basically gave up. They said they couldn’t solve any of the problems between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians and pulled out of the area in 1947.

General Sir Evelyn “Bubbles” Barker led the occupying British forces in Palestine between 1946 and 1947. Click to enlarge

Later that year, the UN passed UN Resolution 181, splitting up the Palestinian territory into separate Jewish and Palestinian states.

The resolution was signed without the agreement of the Palestinian Arabs in the region. The United States had promised the Palestinian Arabs that they would be consulted before any decision was reached, but that promise was broken.

So as soon as the resolution was passed, fighting began, with Arab forces attacking Israeli territories that had formerly been part of Palestine before UN Resolution 181.

Israel won that war, thanks in part to weapons acquired secretly from western countries like the United States and France who were sympathetic to the Jewish cause but didn’t want to become publicly involved.

Not only did they hold onto their own territory, they captured 50% of the territory that had been given to the Palestinians under the UN resolution.

The change of territory following UN Resolution 181 and the resultant war. Click to enlarge

In 1964, a number of Arab countries sent representatives to Cairo for the Arab League Summit. The goal of the summit was to resolve inter-Arab conflicts in the region so that the Arab countries could unite in their struggle against what they saw as western imperialism and Israeli aggression.

It was at this summit that the idea for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, was born. The stated goal of the PLO was to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”.

Although the dominant religion in these Arab countries was Islam, the PLO was comprised mainly of secular Palestinian factions (the largest being the Fatah party), who were actually wary of the rise of Islamic extremism.

Arab leaders in front of the Nile Hilton Hotel in Cairo during the Arab League Summit in 1964

Historically, Palestinians have been a religiously tolerant people. For hundreds of years, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike lived peacefully together as fellow Palestinians. The PLO wanted to make sure that this tolerance was preserved.

In fact, the Islamic extremism which is now considered the backbone of Hamas was actually encouraged by Israel itself.

In 1967, Israel fought the Six-Day War against an Arab federation led by Egypt. At that time, the PLO was quickly becoming popular among Arabs in the region, and this worried Israel.

So using PLO guerilla activity as a pretext, Israel took over the Palestinian territory of Gaza and began systematically hunting down members of the PLO and the Fatah party.

To combat the PLO’s secular influence in the region, Israel began encouraging Islamic activism in Palestine. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this Israeli policy was a man named Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza at the time.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin

In 1973, Yassin established the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya. The organization was officially recognized as a charity by Israel  in 1979.

Yassin used the organization to establish mosques and Islamic schools in Gaza, as well as a library. But Yitzhak Segev, an Israeli official who served as governor of Gaza in 1979, says that he had no illusions about Yassin’s real intentions.

Segev had personally witnessed an Islamist movement in Iran which eventually led to a military coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. The coup cleared the way for the Shah of Iran (the country’s highest-ranking Muslim cleric) to take power.

Men celebrating the military coup in the streets of Iran’s capital city of Tehran in 1953. Click to enlarge (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

He and other Israeli officials worried that the same would soon happen in Gaza, but because of the tensions in the region at the time, they were reluctant to speak out, fearing they would be accused of being enemies of Islam.

So Segev said nothing. In 1984, Israeli intelligence got word that Yassin’s group was stockpiling weapons in a Gaza mosque. They raided the mosque and arrested Yassin, who claimed the weapons were meant for use against secular Palestinian groups like the PLO, not for use against Israel.

He was released from jail a year later, and continued to spread Mujama’s influence in Gaza. Then, in 1987, he established Hamas with six other Palestinians as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The first leaflet they distributed blamed Israeli intelligence for undermining the social fabric of young Palestinians in order to recruit Palestinian “collaborators”.

But despite this harsh language, Israel continued to focus on the Fatah party and the PLO, even meeting with senior Hamas officials as part of “regular consultations” that they held with Palestinian officials not linked to the PLO.

Mahmoud Zahar was one of the Hamas leaders who met with Israeli officials in the early days of the organization’s existence (Photo: AFP)

It wasn’t until Hamas kidnapped and murdered two Israeli soldiers in 1989 that Israel started to pay attention to the group.

In response to the kidnappings, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) arrested Yassin and deported 400 Hamas activists to an Israeli-occupied region of South Lebanon.

During its time in South Lebanon in the early 90s, Hamas built a relationship with the Lebanese jihadist group Hezbollah and established its military division, the al-Qassam Brigades.

Throughout the early 90s, the al-Qassam Brigades carried out numerous attacks and suicide bombings on Israel. However, Hamas was centered in Lebanon and Jordan at the time, making it hard for Israel to eliminate them.

In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority as a governmental body to represent the Palestinians. This helped stem some of the violence the region experienced in the early 90s.

Isreali Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat agree to the Oslo Accords in 1993. The U.S. played a major role in brokering the deal. Click to enlarge (Photo: AP)

Then, in 1997, a failed Israeli assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Jordan and the resulting political fallout led to the release of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who had been put in jail for life for the murders of the Israeli soldiers in 1989.

2000 brought about a renewal of the bloody conflict, with a surge in Hamas suicide bombings prompted by the growing number of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian-controlled territory of the West Bank.

In 2004, Yassin offered a military truce to Israel, asking for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in exchange. Israel turned down the truce, and Yassin was killed by a targeted air strike two months later.

In 2006, Hamas became entrenched in the Palestinian government. Though the group had boycotted the Palestinian presidential election a year before, they decided to take part in the legislative elections in 2006. They did remarkably well, wining 76 of the 132 available seats (Fatah won 43).

Results from the 2006 elections. Click to enlarge

The relationship between Hamas and Fatah has always been rocky. Skirmishes have broken out between the two factions on countless occasions. At one point, Israeli intelligence even informed Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas that Hamas was planning to assassinate him.

Despite their past differences, however, Abbas announced in March of 2012 that Fatah and Hamas were on the same page. He told Al-Jazeera,

“We agreed that the period of calm would be not only in the Gaza Strip, but also in the West Bank… We also agreed on a peaceful popular resistance [against Israel], the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and that the peace talks would continue if Israel halted settlement construction and accepted our conditions.”

Feb. 23, 2012: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (left) at a meeting between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo. Click to enlarge (Photo: UPI/ Mohame Hams)

But this declaration of unity is seeming pretty hollow now.

Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah have proposed a number of ceasefires between Israel and Palestine during this latest flare-up of the conflict, but Hamas has refused the deals, demanding that Israel move its citizens out of settlements in Palestine if they want a ceasefire.

One of the reasons that Hamas was able to gain so much political power in the mid-2000s was that Palestinians had become fed up with the corruption of the Palestinian Authority (led by the Fatah party) by the time the 2006 elections rolled around.

Unfortunately, the added political power that Hamas gained when they took over Palestinian politics that year led to the same corruption that the Palestinian people had tried to get rid of by voting the Palestinian Authority out of power.

Dorothy Peskin is an Israeli analyst who recently released a detailed report about Hamas corruption in Gaza. She put it this way:

“With multi-million land deals, luxury villas and black market fuel from Egypt, Gaza’s (Hamas) rulers made billions while the rest of the population struggles with a 39 percent poverty level and 40 percent unemployment.”

Hamas leader Khaled Mashal is rumored to be in control of more than $2.6 billion dollars of Hamas assets, according to a source in Jordan

The average Hamas fighter today may truly believe in the Palestinian liberation cause, but power and influence almost always lead to corruption.

In my opinion, the leaders of Hamas have shown that they are more interested in maintaining their own power, influence and wealth than in actually helping the Palestinian people. Their strategy of maximizing civilian casualties by firing rockets from heavily-populated areas is just one example.

However, we must also recognize that Israel played a big role in establishing Hamas in the first place because of their fear of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization.

An American intelligence report discussing relations between Israel and Hamas was recently published by the news leak website Wikileaks.

In the leaked document, dated September 23, 1988, U.S. intelligence officials say,

“Many in the West Bank believe that Israel actively supports Hamas, in its effort to split the Palestinian nation and weaken the Intifada.”

The document also notes that although Israel was arresting a number of Palestinians at the time, very few were members of Hamas. The document went so far as to say,

“We believe that not only does Israel turn a blind eye on Hamas activity, but even supports it.”

You reap what you sow. There are countless examples of countries supporting groups that end up coming back to bite them in the ass (the U.S.-trained mujahideen are a good example).

The bottom line is that there are no clear cut good guys or bad guys in this conflict, just lots of historical wounds that are still festering today. I just hope this history helped you make a little more sense of it all.

The Strongest and Most Misunderstood Creature in the World (Video)

When you think of strength in the animal kingdom, it’s natural to think of some of the massive majestic creatures we’re all so familiar with: lions, elephant, grizzlies, rhinos, hippos…

These animals are definitely powerful, but when you examine pound-for-pound strength, you quickly realize that it’s the smallest creatures who are really the most impressive lifters.

Take the leafcutter ant, for instance. These ants cut off and carry leaf segments that are sometimes up to 50 times heavier than they are.

Leafcutter ants march across the forest floor. Click to enlarge

But even the leafcutter ant is no match for the dung beetle when it comes to true strength.

Though their appetite for dung has given them a bit of a bad name in our society today, dung beetles (also known as scarabs) were actually worshipped in ancient Egypt.

An eagle-winged scarab beetle on the door to the Edfu temple in Egypt. Click to enlarge

The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun was rolled across the sky every day by a giant scarab god.

Dung beetles may not actually be gods, but they definitely have superhuman strength. The insects are able to drag dung balls up to 1,140 times their body weight- the equivalent of an average human pulling six double deckers buses full of passengers.

But there’s more to dung beetles than just eating poop.

For example, they’re actually pretty good parents. Dung beetles are one of only a few groups of insects that has been shown to actively care for their offspring. There is even a monogamous species of dung beetle that mates for life.

Even more interesting is the dung beetle’s navigation system. After rolling a fresh poop ball, the beetles will climb on top of it and dance around, orienting itself.

Scientists theorized that the beetles were actually using the Milky Way to orient themselves and navigate.

One of the dung beetles used in the Milky Way navigation testing. Click to enlarge

They tested this theory on one species of African dung beetle by putting little hats over them that covered their eyes.

The beetles still perched atop their poop balls to try and orient themselves, but only were able to wander around aimlessly without being able to see the stars, proving that they were using the heavens to navigate.

So give the dung beetle some credit- they’re probably much more intelligent and complex than you ever imagined.

To learn more about dung beetles, check out these 10 Fascinating Facts About Dung Beetles from About.com.

Muslim Countries Are Becoming Increasingly Concerned About Muslim Extremism and Terrorism (Graphs)

On a number of occasions, I’ve heard people talking about how the Muslim world is sympathetic to the cause of extremest militant groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Well, the Pew Research Center recently carried out a study on the global attitudes towards Islamic extremism.

The study (which was carried out between April and May, before the rise of the new terrorist group ISIS) polled 14,000 respondents from 14 different predominantly-Muslim countries. The researchers found that,

“Concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations.”

Click to enlarge

Pew also found that people living in the Middle East have become increasingly concerned about Islamic extremism in their countries since last year:

Click to enlarge
Unfavorable views of Hezbollah have risen everywhere except in Lebanon, where the group is based. Click to enlarge

Despite Hezbollah’s popularity in Lebanon, people don’t typically have a favorable opinion of the extremist groups based in their country. The study found that nearly 60% of Pakistanis have an unfavorable opinion of the Taliban and almost 80% of Nigerians have an unfavorable opinion of Boko-Haram.

The study also showed that sentiment about Al-Qaeda is consistently negative. Lebanon had the most unfavorable opinion of the group, a view shared by Christians and Muslims alike in the country:

Click to enlarge

Pew also did a breakdown of Muslims’ view on suicide bombing (in Lebanon they broke the numbers down by the respondent’s sect of Islam):

Click to enlarge

While some of these numbers are disconcertingly high, Pew also showed that support for suicide bombing appears to be decreasing over time:

Click to enlarge

Read the full report and check out the rest of the data from the Pew Research Center here.

What Does the World Eat For Breakfast? (Video)

Have you ever woke up and thought, ‘I really feel like some bread with cold cuts and cucumber and a side of hard-boiled eggs and sliced tomato!’? Ya, me neither. It’s probably because we’re not from Sweden, where this is a typical breakfast meal.

Check out this BuzzFeed video that shows you what a typical breakfast looks like in a number of different countries:

Royal Ancient Egyptian Brewer’s Tomb Accidently Discovered

A Japanese team headed by Jiro Kondo of Waseda University recently discovered the tomb of an ancient beer-maker known as Khonso Em Heb.

The tomb was accidently discovered while the team was cleaning the courtyard of another tomb at the Thebes necropolis in the Egyptian city of Luxor. According to CNN:

“Khonso Em Heb — who apart from being a brewer, headed the royal storehouses during the pharaonic Ramesside period (1,292–1,069 BC) — making offerings to the gods.”

Egypt’s antiquities minister Mohamed Ibrahim described Khonso Em Heb as the chief “maker of beer for gods of the dead”. The tomb was decorated and colored magnificently and is being labeled as one of the most significant finds of recent times (by archeologists as well as beer enthusiasts).

The tomb of the beer-maker to gods of the dead dates back to 1,200 BC. Credit: CNN.com
The tomb of the beer-maker to gods of the dead dates back to 1,200 BC. Credit: CNN.com

“Alcohol in ancient Egypt was very important — not just in terms of daily consumption but also as an offering to deities. Beer, in particular was very important,”

says Poo Mun Chou, a leading Egyptologist and professor at Hong Kong’s Chinese University.

The favored brew of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom was a 3,200-year-old barley beer.

Beer during the New Kingdom period is believed to have been around one-fifth to one-tenth the price of wine making it a very popular and accessible drink for people of all classes.

While this is still the case in modern society, the beer we drink now would hardly be comparable to this barley or millet-based beverage that was enjoyed in ancient times. Although the beer of modern times can be considered a close cousin to this beer, this beer was more primitive and they actually had to use a tube to extract the liquid from below which would have had a fermented layer of substance floating on the top of the jar.

Check Out the full story from CNN here.

 

Ariel Sharon: Israel’s Man of War, Man of Peace (1928-2014)

Israeli Army Radio reported on Saturday that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had passed away. He had been in a coma after suffering a stroke in his 5th year as prime minister in 2006.

Sharon also served as Israel’s defense minister and was a famous general in the army. His 5 decade career as a military and political figure was riddled with controversy, leaving people with mixed feelings.

For example, in 1983 Sharon was forced to resign as defense minister after being found indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps during the Lebanon War of 1982.

After being elected prime minister in 2001 during a particularly tense time in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Sharon pursued a hard-line military approach to the Palestinians, ordering the re-occupation of the disputed West Bank by the Israeli military.

However, in 2005 he reversed his long-time view of occupation and settlement of the disputed lands, calling for withdrawals from 25 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank territory, turning them over to Palestinian control for the first time in 38 years.

He suffered a small stroke in December of that year, followed by a massive brain hemorrhage on January 4, 2006 which left him comatose.

So what is his legacy? He spent many years protecting Israel through deft but often bloody and controversial moves, leading many to call him a destructive and inflammatory influence on the region.

However, he also made history by extending the peace branch by calling for the withdrawals in 2005. One thing is unarguable: he played a huge part in shaping Israel, the Middle East and the world during his lifetime.

RELATED LINKS