Parhad will die laughing

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Posted by Jeff from LTU-207-73-64-49.LTU.EDU ( on Wednesday, June 05, 2002 at 11:50AM :



A small audience gathered in a tiny room at the Barrows Hall in Berkeley on Tuesday April 30th, 2002, to listen to Prof. Hameen-Anttila of Helsinki University present his lecture, which disappointed quite few who were present. Every time the word Nabateans comes up, a person cannot but think instantly about the ancient Nabatean civilization of Petra, in today's Jordan. I personally prepared some notes and questions regarding those ancient Nabateans of Petra. But we found out at the beginning of the lecture that the term Nabatean in the title, and as explained by the presenter, has nothing to do with those Nabateans! Prof. Hameen-Anttila used the word Nabatean in the same capacity the early Arab Moslems of Iraq used when they called everybody who did not speak the Arabic language a Nabatean or Nabat! I believe that Prof. Hameen-Anttila should have been careful in that regard and should have stated the lecture title differently to avoid such anticipated confusion.

Prof. Hameen-Anttila's lecture was built in its entirety around an Arabic book by Ibn Wahshiya, a pagan Chaldean who converted to Islam and lived in the 10th century. Ibn Wahshiya claimed that he translated his Arabic book from Syriac manuscripts. Interestingly, Prof. Hameen-Anttila admited that there are doubts about those alleged Syriac manuscripts and their existence and there is additionally suspicion regarding the authenticity of Ibn Wahshiya's text. Many scholars today, stated Prof. Hameen-Anttila, have voiced their concern about this Arabic text and called it a forgery. Ibn Wahshiya in his book claimed that he met these pagan Nabatean families who possessed those alleged Syriac manuscripts and paid them money to get their permission to translate them to Arabic. One cannot hide his concern about this last note of Ibn Wahshiya, which I will come back to it later.

Prof. Hameen-Anttila started by stating that there is a difference between empires and people; empires disappear, but people don't. He added that the Assyrians, for example, in Medieval times continued to live in Assyria where they practiced farming and concentrated on the religious aspects of life, mainly Christianity, rather than on the nationalistic side. Still, Prof. Hamen-Anttila mentioned that Ibn Wahshiya had stated that the ancient people of Assyria slowly forgot their ancient traditions. What Prof. Hameen-Anttila opted not to mention was the fact that Ibn Wahshiya was himself a Chaldean, who converted to Islam and was motivated by nationality! Ibn Wahshiya claimed that the Nabateans consisted of the Assyrians and the Kasdanians (Chaldeans) as Prof. Hameen-Anttila mentioned but again the professor failed to mention that Ibn Wahshiya was ready to say anything to glorify his own past. Ibn Wahshiya, in fact, stated Professors Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, quote: "directed his hatred indiscriminately against all who threatened his Chaldean primacy, be they Arab, Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, or even Syrians. The Chaldeans having articulated their identity in terms of universal concepts, civilization had to be Chaldean outright or to leave the Chaldean alone. But since the Chaldean concepts came in a cleaner version from Greece and Iran, they lost the copyright; and since they lived in lower Iraq, they could not be left alone; and so for all the initial vividness of their afterimage, the Chaldeans lost their ethnicity in that of the Arabs as they had lost their truths in Islam." Unquote. (Read "Hagarism", by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Cambridge, 1977, p. 88)

The two authors stated that there is no proof that the Chaldeans (the magicians or soothsayers) could have generated ethnic unity, social solidarity, or historical meaning. (Read "Hagarism", by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Cambridge, 1977, p. 85)

It is well documented that paganism during Islam was not tolerated. I reminded Prof. Hameen-Anttila, during the Q and A session, by the pagan Harranian experience with the Islamic Caliph who gave them an ultimatum to either become Muslims or join ahl al-Kitab (i.e. be Christians or Jewish). I even explained that if paganism was not tolerated during Islam and those practicing paganism were persecuted, how did pagan Nabateans agree to sit with Ibn Wahshiya and accept to communicate with him about their pagan beliefs and practices and allegedly allow him to translate the pagan mysterious Syriac manuscripts into Arabic? I did not get a clear-cut answer from Prof. Hameen-Anttila who simply stated that since Ibn Wahshiya was originally a Nabatean simplified matters! My point, which found no answer, was that by allowing the alleged Syriac manuscripts of pagan people to be published in Arabic and hence be read by every Moslem, those Syriac speaking people were openly exposing themselves to persecution, a rather unprecedented act. Worth mentioning that the Mandaeans in Iraq who still preserve some pagan practices in their rituals are today, in the 21st century, very careful from opening up to anybody about their rituals, out of fear of persecution. One can imagine the situation in the 10th century when expansion of empire and the spread of Islam were the Moslem caliphate holiest missions and paganism was outright prohibited.

Later I asked Prof. Hameen-Anttila in private while few others were standing around listening, what he meant by the title Kasdanian mentioned in the lecture, he stated it meant Chaldean. I said, you hinted directly or indirectly about Kasdanians in Nineveh, what brought Kasdanians of southern Mesopotamia to Nineveh? He answered I do not know, Ibn Wahshiya says so. I have to admit here that I was very loose in stating Nineveh when Prof. Hameen-Anttila was more general when he stated that the general locality of the people in question was centered in a region between Mosul and Baghdad. If Prof. Hameen-Anttila is then generalizing with the region were the Nabatean populations existed, i.e. in that larger region from Mosul to Baghdad, then that could make a lot of difference.

To have Chaldeans or Kasdanians in a region around Baghdad is understandable since Baghdad was very close to Babylon and Baghdad was always confused with Babylon. Interestingly, more solid evidence on the survival of ancient Chaldeans in mid and southern Iraq is represented through the present-day Mandaeans than the unreliable accounts of Ibn Wahshiya. In 1604, Gerolamo Vecchietti, a Tuscan and one of the finest of narrators, who was entrusted by the Pope and other European sovereign to look for manuscripts in Oriental languages, was traveling along the Baghdad-Basrah route. He stopped by a small village where he found a group of Mandaean Christians who spoke a language they called the Chaldean language. After arriving in Basrah, Vecchietti met many other Mandaeans. Having gathered what he could from the Mandaeans in term of news and information, Vecchietti deduced that the Mandaeans were "a generation of the ancient Chaldean Christians," reduced to ignorance by Islamic persecution. (Read "The Mandaeans: The Last Gnostics" by Professor Edmondo Lupieri). Historical evidence in fact does not show links between these true Chaldeans of southern Iraq, who are known as Mandaeans, and the modern term Chaldean given to the Nestorian converts to Catholicism, who live in northern Iraq. We, from the other hand, have to agree that in the eye of an Arab Moslem there was no difference between the various Christian religious sects and when they did not speak the Arabic language they were simply labeled Nabateans.

I believe that Prof. Hameen-Anttila was not prepared well for his presentation; he was not sharp with his argument. He did read some passages from Ibn Wahshiya's Arabic book, which was translated to English, but did not try to defend the legitimacy of Ibn Wahshiya's book and source. Prof. Hameen-Anttila, in addition, failed to analyze the disputed and questionable character of Ibn Wahshiya in his presentation. He finally ended his presentation somehow abruptly, perhaps due to shortage of time, by quitting the translated text of Ibn Wahshiya and stating his final sentence and very generally mentioned that the people of Assyria and Babylonia did not disappear!

Fredrick Aprim

(from Zinda)

-- Jeff
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