self-punishment in the genealogy of forgiveness

Righting interpersonal wrongs in the ancient Greek and Roman world did not generally involve the wrong-doer accepting responsibility, expressing remorse, and reforming. The proper classical behavior for a wrongdoer was to offer excuses and act lowly.[1] Behaviors now associated with seeking forgiveness require more self-consciousness than was part of the social repertoire of reconciliation in the ancient world. The Christian Gospels, which both present to readers realistic, worldly details and point to eternal truths, show in descriptions of brutal bodily self-punishment developing self-consciousness for forgiveness.

economist suffers self-punishment

Brutal bodily punishments were well-known in the ancient world. The Code of Hammurabi was widely and prominently distributed across Mesopotamia 3000 years ago. Among the cases memorialized in the Code of Hammurabi:

195. If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

253. If any one agree with another to tend his field, give him seed, entrust a yoke of oxen to him, and bind him to cultivate the field, if he steal the corn or plants, and take them for himself, his hands shall be hewn off. [2]

An elite historian, writing in Rome early in the second century, described punishments under the Roman Emperor Augustus:

Augustus forced Polus, a favourite freedman of his, to take his own life, because he was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons. He broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for taking five hundred denarii to betray the contents of a letter. Because the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master’s illness and death to commit acts of arrogance and greed in his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks. [3]

Persons facing such punishments undoubtedly sought to avoid them. Avoiding punishment, which differs from appealing for forgiveness, was a matter of excuses and self-abasement.

While atoning for wrongs against God and returning to God are themes throughout Jewish and Christian scripture, the Gospel of Matthew contains a section particularly concerning interpersonal forgiveness. Jesus praising the humbleness of children and Jesus blessing children enclose six pericopes concerning forgiveness. Some of those pericopes are now central to Christian understanding of forgiveness:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [4]

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” [5]

Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me. Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” [6]

More difficult for contemporary persons to appreciate are statements about brutal bodily punishment:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. … If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. [7]

These verses plausibly teach that corrupting the young and innocent is a great wrong, and that painful changes may be necessary for a person to lead a better life. Such teachings are only tangentially related to the current understanding of forgiveness. Do these verses more directly relate to forgiveness?

Verses on brutal bodily self-punishment in the New Testament reflect ancient Greek and Roman practice of reconciliation and point beyond them toward forgiveness. The threat “you would be better off dead” — better off “drowned in the depth of the sea” — denies the possibility of forgiveness and warns of unappeasable anger that will be expressed brutally. Death now is preferable to further life if further life will be nothing but physical punishment. The forgiveness not possible after causing “one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble” is reconciliation in ancient Greek and Roman practice. The threat of unappeasable punishment comes from a powerful person capable of great anger and brutality. That’s half of the God of the Bible.[8]

The Bible at least suggests another possibility — what has come to be understood as forgiveness. Cutting off one’s own hands or feet or plucking out one’s own eye enacts ancient practices of interpersonal punishment. Brutal bodily self-punishment appeases God with self-abasement. Self-abasement was central to reconciliation in the ancient Greek and Roman world.[9] Yet these self-punishments also indicate new self-consciousness of wrong. The present tense of “causes you to stumble” indicates awareness of wrong separate from a specific act in the past. Bloody bodily self-mutilation can express remorse, self-anger, and self-reform. Change of body, described in the specific practices of the ancient world, gave birth to change of heart in the current understanding of forgiveness.

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[1] Konstan (2010). Excuses for wrongs typically were claims that the wrong was involuntary or unintentional.

[2] From the King translation (1910) of the Code of Hammurabi. The Harper translation (1904) refers to cutting off fingers rather than cutting off hands. Deut. 25:11-12 specifies cutting off a woman’s hand as punishment. Hand may actually have meant part of the female genitalia. Female genital cutting, like male genital cutting (circumcision), predates Islam. Al-Jahiz, in “Boasting Match over Maids and Youths,” reports one of the Prophet’s companions referring to a “clitoris-circumcising woman.” Trans. Hitchins (1989) p. 140. Qur’an 5:38-39 refers to cutting off the hand of a thief.

[3] Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 67. Josephus, Antiquities, 14:15:10, describes the Galileans revolting and drowning members of Herod’s party.

[4] Matthew 18:15-17. All the Bible texts are from the Revised Standard Version of the English translation, with some insubstantial changes. By tax collector, Jesus was representing a person to be avoided. Sadly, this verse historically has contributed to unjust disparagement of bureaucrats.

[5] Matthew 18: 21-22.

[6] Matthew 18:32-33. Rejoicing over recovering a sheep that has gone astray and relating divorce to hardness of heart are themes in two other pericopes between the praise and blessing of children (Matthew 18:1-5 and Matthew 19:13-15).

[7] Matthew 18:6, 8-9. I’ve used the more literal translation “stumble” for “sin”, and “Gehenna” for “hell”. These statements are incorporated elsewhere in the synoptic Gospels. See Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 17:2. In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima observes:

For men are prepared to have their own feet and hands cut off if they feel these belongings to be harmful.

See Symposium, 205e. There Diotima is speaking abstractly about the physical body and love. Jesus also spoke about bodily sacrifice and love. He spoke in terms much more directly related to life experiences in his time and place.

[8] See, e.g. Exodus 34:6-7.

[9] Some early Christians practiced mortification of the flesh. That was not self-punishment modeled on pagan interpersonal punishment. Augustine linked self-punishment with self-anger and repentance:

Repentance, you see, always means being angry with yourself, seeing that you are angry you punish yourself. That’s the source of all those gestures in penitents who are truly penitent, truly sorry; the source of tearing the hair, of wrapping oneself in sackcloth, of beating the breast. Surely these are all indications of being savage with oneself, being angry with oneself. What the hand does outwardly, the conscience does inwardly; it lashes itself in its thoughts, it beats itself, indeed, to speak more truly, it slays itself.

See Augustine, Sermon 112A, On the Two Sons from the Gospel, trans. Doyle & Hill (2007) p. 186, discussed in Hawkins (2012) p. 168. Ancient Greek and Roman practice of reconciliation primarily concerned appeasing anger arising from perceived insult to interpersonal status. At the same time, Augustine is a leading literary figure in the development of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is crucial to current understanding of forgiveness.


Doyle, Daniel Edward and Edmund Hill. 2007. Augustine. Essential sermons. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press.

Hawkins, Peter S. 2012. “A Man Had Two Sons: The Question of Forgiveness in Luke 15.” Pp. 158-75 in Griswold, Charles L., and David Konstan. 2012. Ancient forgiveness: classical, Judaic, and Christian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchins, William M., trans. 1989. Al-Jahiz. Nine essays of al-Jahiz. New York: P. Lang.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

paternity within marriage: long history of legal fiction

Law has long upheld legal fictions of paternity in the face of paternity facts.  Before the development of scientific paternity testing, facts showing that husband and wife did not have physical access to each other during a reasonable period of possible conception could factually prove non-paternity.[1]  Nonetheless, English jurist Lord Coke, known as the greatest jurist of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, wrote in 1628:

By the Common Law, if the husband be within the four seas, that is, within the jurisdiction of the King of England, if the wife hath issue, no proof is to be admitted to prove the child a bastard, (for in that case, filiatio non potest probari) unless the husband hath an apparent impossibility of procreation; as if the husband be but eight years old, or under the age of procreation, such issue is a bastard, albeit he be born within marriage.  But if the issue {child} be born a month or a day after marriage, between parties of full lawful age, the child is legitimate {the legal son of the husband}. [2]

That’s not a curious absurdity of English common law.  Legal preference for paternity fiction over paternity fact continues in paternity law through to the present day.

California family law illustrates the strength of the legal fiction of paternity. The California Code of Civil Procedure, as adopted in 1872, declared an indisputable presumption of legitimacy:

The issue of a wife cohabiting with her husband, who is not impotent, is indisputably presumed to be legitimate.[3]

A California Court of Appeals decided Wareham v. Wareham (1961) under essentially that law.[4]  The Warehams separated about May 22, 1959, filed for divorce on May 27, 1959, and were granted divorce on July 2, 1959.  Ms. Wareham gave birth to a child on February 17, 1960.  She swore under oath that she had not had sex with anyone other than Mr. Wareham in the past year.  She filed to obligate Mr. Wareham to make monthly payments to her as child support.  Blood tests conclusively excluded Mr. Wareham from being the biological father of the child.  Nonetheless the Court upheld the legal attribution of paternity to Mr. Wareham on the grounds that his wife was cohabiting with him during the normal period for conception for the resulting birth.  The Court thus upheld the financial child support obligations imposed on Mr. Wareham.

Justifications for legal fictions of paternity have varied.  In 1836, a lengthy legal-historical treatise defending Lord Coke’s statement on the marital presumption of legitimacy in English common law declared:

No man with the slightest powers of reflection, can fail to perceive that the law which presumes that the husband is the father of the child born of his wife, tends to promote public morals and female chastity [5]

By the late twentieth century, the justification for the marital presumption had shifted to the stigma of illegitimacy.  In Lockwood v. Lockwood (1946), the New York Supreme Court declared a Navy sailor the father of a child born to his wife 355 days after he sailed away on a tour of duty in the Pacific.  An Army legal pamphlet in 1982 observed of that case:

The court was clearly more interested in saving the child from the stigma of illegitimacy than in ascertaining the identity of the true father. [6]

Currently the preferred legal justification for paternity fiction is the “best interests of the child.”  Under New York State law, a court can order financial child support irrespective of biological paternity “upon a written finding by the court that it is not in the best interests of the child on the basis of res judicata, equitable estoppel, or the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman.”[7]  That’s a conceptually incoherent mash of legal concepts.  That incredible law has produced even more astonishing paternity rulings.

In politics and court cases, paternity law tends to pit women against men.  Men generally tend to prefer women, and women also generally prefer women.  In addition, women tend to engage more eagerly and more successfully in social communication.  Women thus generally win contests of social favor.

In societies that truly value gender equality, gender inequality in fundamental knowledge should be a serious concern. Sexual biology and child-birthing procedures give women high-quality knowledge of who their biological children are.  Before modern paternity testing, most men could not be certain who their biological children are.  That fundamental knowledge inequality between women and men is no longer inevitable.  Routine DNA paternity tests before accepting any claim of paternity (before so-called “acknowledgement of paternity”) and before any judicial determination of legal paternity could feasibly establish biological paternity with certainty.  Societies thus now have feasible opportunities to advance gender equality in fundamental knowledge.

Cheap paternity testing technology has made legal fictions of paternity into bigger social lies.  In high-income democracies today, about 5% of children believe their biological father to be someone other than who he really is.  Societies can legally define fatherhood as they wish.  But societies widely suppress fundamental biological truths only with grave risks of social corruption.

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[1] Statistical evidence indicates that if a man did not have sex with a woman between 200 and 350 days before she gave birth to a child, the probability that he is the father of the child is less than 0.1%.  Humans have surely long understood roughly this basic biological truth of human reproduction.  Here are statistics on pregnancy duration and duration variance. Such statistics were systematically studied no later than the early nineteenth century.  See Naegele’s Rule.  In Dazey v. Dazey, 50 Cal.App.2d 15, 20 [122 P.2d 308] (1942), a California appellate court claimed that a birth 225 days after the date of marriage is not “abnormal” or “contrary to the usual operations of the law of nature.”  In 1942, the probability of a child surviving after being born 225 days after conception was probably far less than 1%.

[2] Lord Coke’s First Institute, 244a. quoted in Nicholas (1836) p. 77.  Id. controverted convincingly contemporary discounting of Lord Coke’s statement. 7 A.L.R. 329 (American Law Reports)  (1920) reports:

it was solemnly decided by a court of the highest jurisdiction that a child born in England was legitimate, although it appeared on the fullest evidence that the husband resided in Ireland during the whole time of the wife’s pregnancy, and for a long while previously, because Ireland was within the King’s dominion.  In another instance, where the husband resided in Cadiz, the child was held to be a bastard; not because Cadiz was at a greater distance, but because it was beyond the four seas

The Four Seas Rule (extra quatuor maria) was reportedly extended to a Seven Seas Rule when the British Empire spanned the globe.  Rudavsky (1999) p. 127.  Under common law, neither husband nor wife could testify to access or non-access to each other.  Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 US 110 – Supreme Court 1989, at 125 outlines the common law.

Unlike today’s laws imposing forced financial fatherhood on men, the four-seas legal doctrine received popular criticism in seventeenth-century England. For example, Francis Osborne wrote in 1656 a public letter, Advice to a Son. That letter declared:

The English laws are composed so far in favor of wives as if our ancestors had sent women to their Parliaments whilst their heads were a woolgathering at home … Nor is noncohabitation a sufficient discharge from his {the husband’s} keeping all such children as her {his wife’s} lust shall produce during his abode between the four English seas; so as if his wife be a strumpet he must banish himself or deal his bread and clothes to the spurious issue of a stranger, a thralldom no wise man would sell himself to for the fairest inheritance, much less for trouble, vexation, and want during life.

Wright (1962) p. 65. Id. p. xxiii notes that Osborne’s letter attracted considerable public attention.

[3] California Code of Civ. Proc. § 1962(5).  In 1955, the California legislature added an emphatic prefatory clause “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, … .”  In 1965, the word “indisputably” was replaced with the word “conclusively.”  In 1975,  the California legislature replaced the word “legitimate” with the phrase “a child of the marriage” and added nonsterility as a condition for the marital presumption.  Only in 1980, more than a half-century after blood tests were widely regarded scientifically as establishing facts about paternity, did the California legislature add a two-year period after birth during which a husband could contest his paternity of a child of the marriage.  Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 US 110 (1989) at 117 documents the statutory history.  Bois (1962) reviewed California paternity law, found it an outrage to truth and justice, and declared:

Of all the possibilities, it is believed that the one most promising is the constitutional attack, relying on the United States Supreme Court to extricate our Supreme Court from the proverbial hole it has dug for itself in this area of law.

Id. p. 474.  While Bois’s evaluation of problems with California paternity law is compelling, his evaluation of possibilities for reform was evidently faulty.

[4] Wareham v. Wareham, 195 Cal. App. 2d 64 – Cal: Court of Appeal 1961.  The facts stated above are from the judicial opinions in the case.

[5] Nicolas (1836) p. 2.

[6] Brown and Loomis (1982) p. 8. The case ended with Lockwood v. Lockwood, 62 N.Y.S2d 910 (Sup. Ct. Spec. Term Queens County 1946).  The Windsor Daily Star (Ontario, Canada), May 13, 1946, p. 13, “N.Y. Ruling is Appealed” is a newspaper account of Lockwood’s legal situation.

[7] N.Y. Family Court Act § 532 (a).


Bois, John J. O.  1962.  “California’s Conclusive Presumption of Legitmacy — Its Legal Effect and Its Questionable Constitutionality.” Southern California Law Review, v. 35, pp. 437-474.

Brown, George R. and Mark M. Loomis. 1982. “Counseling the Putative Father: A Legal Assistance Overview to Disputed Paternity.” The Army Lawyer.  Department of the Army Pamphlet 27-50-118 (Oct. 1982) pp. 1-19.

Nicolas, Harris. 1836.  A treatise on the law of adulterine bastardy, with a report of the Banbury case, and of all other cases bearing upon the subject. London: W. Pickering.

Rudavsky, Shari. 1999. “Separating Spheres: Legal Ideology v Paternity Testing in Divorce Cases.” Science in Context. 12 (1): 123.

Wright, Louis B., ed. 1962. Advice to a son: precepts of Lord Burghley, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francis Osborne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Cornell University Press.

views of India from the ancient Islamic world

In the first half of the tenth century, a shipmaster from the Khuzestan region on the Persian Gulf wrote a collection of tales called The Book of the Wonders of India.  The author’s preface declared:

God — blessed is his name and glorious his praise — created his marvels in ten parts, and assigned nine of them to the eastern pillar of the earth, and one each to the other three pillars, west, north, and south.  Then to China and India he assigned eight parts, and the one remaining to the Orient. [1]

The author seems to assume a square earth; describes God’s marvels as having ten parts, but itemizes them as twelve parts; and apparently divides the east into China, India, and the Orient.  Apart from these technical difficulties, the main point is clear: China and India (where India means the region of present-day India and Pakistan) have by far the largest share of the earth’s marvels.

Wide-ranging communication across Eurasia long predates the Internet, telephone systems, and postal systems.  Nomads of central Asia have carried goods and ideas from Persia to China for thousands of years. About 2300 years ago, Alexander the Great fought his way from Greece to the Indus River.  Roman woman 2000 years ago wore dresses made from Chinese silk.  About 570, the Persian physician Borzūya translated and adapted into Middle Persian Indian texts.  These included the Panchatantra, known in Sanskrit perhaps 2200 years ago.  About 750, ibn al-Muqaffa translated Borzūya’s adaptation of the Panchatantra into Arabic and expanded it to produce Kalīlah wa Dimnah.  By 1600, ibn al-Muqaffa’s adaptation had been further translated into Syriac, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, and Czech.

The early Abbasid caliphate, which stretched from Egypt to Afghanistan, sought to acquire knowledge from India.  The Barmakid family from the cosmopolitan and highly cultured city of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan rose to prominence in Abbasid caliphs’ courts in Baghdad late in the eighth century.  The Barmakids encouraged Indian scholars to travel to Baghdad.  The Barmakids also commissioned translations of Indian books from Sanskrit into Arabic.  With the Barmakids among the Abbasid elite, Indian and Greek physicians vied for prominence in the caliph’s court.

early sixteenth-century Indian painting

Although courtly intrigue led to the Barmakids being expunged from the caliph’s court in 803, respect for Indian scholarly and cultural achievements endured in the ancient Islamic world.  Al-Jahiz was a prominent writer and scholar in the Abbasid court from 816 to about 869.  He described Indians as preeminent in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.  He praised Indian singing, dancing, painting, sculpture, their invention of chess, their development of calisthenics and martial arts, and their use of “scimitars from Burma.”  He noted that India has a large corpus of poetry and epics, and that Indians are well-versed in literature and philosophy.  He declared that Indians are excellent cooks.  Al-Jahiz praised Indians from a highly abstract level of personality down to highly specific details of everyday life

They {Indians} are courageous, judicious and possess unequaled patience.  They have beautiful clothes and civilised customs, such as toothpicks, toothbrushes, hairdressing, hair colouring and correct posture.  They possess beauty, grace and wit and have a pleasant smell.  The beauty of their women is legendary.  It is from India that aloes wood — the incomparable gift of kings — comes.  Meditation came originally from there, as did certain spells that render poisons harmless.

Al-Jahiz, who grew up in Basra, described India business skills with a realistic, personal example plausibly from first-hand observation:

Currency dealers only entrust their cash and the running of their businesses to first or second generation Sindis {Indians} because experience shows them to be the most competent, careful and reliable in matters of exchange.  You rarely see a man of Khurasani or Byzantine origin in charge of, or holding the keys to, a currency dealer’s safe.  When the dealers and spice merchants of Basra saw the profits in cash and real estate that Faraj Abū Rawh realised for his master, they all went out and bought Sindi slaves to get themselves a piece of the action.  This is just one example of Sindi business acumen. [2]

Al-Jahiz served his readers with a variety of enjoyable and informative reading.  In describing India, al-Jahiz seems to have combined hyperbolic praise of abstract qualities with realistic, factual details.

Different circumstances produced a much different view of India.  The Muslim scholar al-Biruni wrote extensively about India early in the eleventh century.  Mahmud of Ghazna was then overrunning much of India, brutally slaughtering and plundering as he went.  Al-Biruni wrote under the authority of Mahmud of Ghazna.  Al-Biruni deeply, but discretely, disrespected Mahmud of Ghazna’s actions.[3]  In contrast to rapacious violence against India, al-Biruni engaged in intellectual struggle against India:

I have found it very hard to work my way into the subject, although I have a great liking for it, in which respect I stand quite alone in my time, and although I do not spare either trouble or money in collecting Sanskrit books from places where I supposed they were likely to be found, and in procuring for myself, even from very remote places, Hindu scholars who understand them and are able to teach me. [4]

Al-Biruni was primarily interested in elite, abstract, true thought, not mundane behavior.  He found great difficulties in understanding Hindus:

For the reader must always bear in mind that the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect, many a subject appearing intricate and obscure which would be perfectly clear if there were more connection between us.  … they  differ from us in everything which other nations have in common.  … all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them — against all foreigners.  They call them mleccha, i.e. impure, and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted.  They consider as impure anything with touches the fire and the water of a foreigner; and no household can exist without these two elements.  Besides, they never desire that a thing which once has been polluted should be purified and thus recovered, as, under ordinary circumstances, if anybody or anything has become unclean, he or it would strive to regain the state of purity. They are not allowed to receive anybody who does not belong to them, even if he wished it, or was inclined to their religion. This, too, renders any connection with them quite impossible, and constitutes the widest gulf between us and them. [5]

Al-Biruni disparagingly described Hindu belief in Hindu cultural and intellectual superiority:

We can only say, folly is an illness for which there is no medicine, and the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan and Persis {provinces of present-day Iran}, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is. [6]

Al-Biruni displayed his great scholarly capabilities in part through his work on India. He wrote twenty books on India, including his massive opus, An Accurate Description of All Categories of Hindu Thought.  A highly learned German scholar who translated al-Biruni’s work in the 1880s observed, “certainly we do not know of any Indianist like him, before his time or after.”[7]

Indians became highly exotic in the ancient Islamic world.  The engagement with India evident in the Barmakids’ positions in the early Abbasid caliphate and in al-Jahiz’s essay became the intellectual struggle that al-Biruni’s work documents.  Few were able or interested in building upon al-Biruni’s huge effort.[8]  The exotic residents that Europeans subsequently encountered in the Americas the Europeans called “Indians.”  Western Eurasian civilization was much more similar to that of Indians to the east than to those to the west across the Atlantic.  Disengagement from India in the ancient Islamic world more plausibly resulted from a reconfiguration of scholarly interests than from deep cultural differences.

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[1] Ibn Šahriyār, trans. Freeman-Grenville (1981) p. 1.

[2] Al-Jahiz’s description of India, including the above two quotes, is from Kitab fakhr al-sudan ‘ala al-bidan, trans Colville (2002) p. 49 (The Superiority of Blacks to Whites).  Al-Jahiz included Indians and Arabs among blacks.

[3] Al-Biruni observed:

Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.

Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 22.

[4] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910) p. 24.  Al-Biruni presented his work as aiding interaction between Muslims and Hindus:

{a scholar-teacher asked me to write} what I know about the Hindus as a help to those who want to discuss religious questions with them, and as a repertory of information to those who want to associate with them. In order to please him I have done so, and written this book on the doctrines of the Hindus, never making any unfounded imputations against those, our religious antagonists, and at the same time not considering it inconsistent with my duties as a Muslim to quote their own words at full length when I thought they would contribute to elucidate a subject. If the contents of these quotations happen to be utterly heathenish, and the followers of the truth {meaning Muslims} find them objectionable, we can only say that such is the belief of the Hindus, and that they themselves are best qualified to defend it.

This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.

Id. p. 7.  A simple historic record of facts is rather different from a diplomatic treatise.  Moreover, al-Biruni considered understanding between Muslims and Hindus to be highly difficult, if not impossible.  This description is best interpreted as expressing al-Biruni’s peaceful scholarly purpose in contrast to Mahmud of Ghazna’s conquests.  A friend’s request to write is a classical rhetorical figure that Galen commonly used.  See König (2009).

[5] Id. pp. 19-20.  Al-Biruni’s Book on Pharmacy (Kitab al-Saydanah) similarly declared:

As they {Indians} overemphasize purity to the point of exagerration and avoid impurity as far as possible, there is no possibility of a dialogue between us.

Trans. Said (1973) p. 7.  I’ve replaced the words cleanliness/uncleanliness with purity/impurity in the translation.  At this same time, al-Biruni’s described a Hindu doctor’s successful treatment of a difficult illness. Al-Biruni declared:

These people {Indian doctors} employ a Hippocratean kind of treatment.  Whatever they have adopted they are loath to change, even though the circumstances might have changed.  I have seen them use wondrous treatments but their description would be too long.

Id. p. 6.

[6] Id. pp. 22-3.

[7] Sachau (1910) preface, p. xxiv (quote), xxvii (twenty books).

[8]  The Mughal Empire under Akbar was open to Indian culture.  The influence of Indian art can be seen in the magnificent Hamzanama created under Akbar.  On Muslim scholars who sympathetically considered Indian religion, see Friedmann (1975).


Colville, Jim, trans. 2002.  Al-Jāḥiẓ.  Sobriety and mirth: a selection of the shorter writings of al-Jāhiz. London: Kegan Paul.

Freeman-Grenville, Greville Stewart Parker, trans. 1981. Buzurg Ibn Šahriyār.  The book of the wonders of India: mainland, sea and islands. London: East-West Publications.

Friedmann, Yohanan. 1975.  “Medieval Muslim Views of Indian Religions.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 95 (2): 214-221. DOI: 10.2307/600318

König, Jason. 2009.  ‘Conventions of prefatory self-presentation in Galen’s On the Order of my Own Books‘, Ch. 2 in Gill, C., Wilkins, J. and Whitmarsh, T. (eds) Galen and the World of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Said, Hakim Mohammed, trans. 1973. Abu-’r-Raiḥān Muḥammad Ibn-Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Al-Biruni’s book on pharmacy and materia medica. Karachi: Hamdard National Foundation.

suicide and homicide: fear yourself more than you fear crime

Homicide and Suicide Deaths
(men & women ages 18-40, in U.S. in 2010)
cause of death dead men dead women
homicide 8,242 1,531
suicide 10,764 2,641
Source: NCHS Vital Statistics System, via WISQARS

Fear of crime and violence against women are major U.S. public concerns.  Statistics on deaths from homicide and suicide provide some critical perspective on those concerns. In the U.S. in 2010, more prime-age men and women killed themselves than were killed by another.  Far more men died from both homicide and suicide than did women.

Murder makes for a much more sensational news story than suicide.  Even more newsworthy is the murder of a women, especially a young, white attractive woman.  Most newsworthy of all is such a woman murdered by a man with whom she had a sexual connection, especially if he is black.  In the news business, the O.J. Simpson case was the Superbowl of news stories.

The Internet has vastly improved possibilities for persons to be well-informed.  The Internet hasn’t changed, however, the fundamentals of the news business.

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