Islams Mecca Part Four: Mecca’s Geography And Climate

Mecca is situated some 80 kilometres inland from the port of Jiddah. It is a barren, desert area, with small rocky hills jutting out of a flat sand-filled plain. It is devoid of forest, any oasis and accompanying grass and trees. It therefore had no timber to build with and no ships for trade. Because of its harsh climate, Mecca also had no agricultural hinterland. The logic of this fact forces us to rethink the whole concept of Meccan trade. How would massive camel caravans of a thousand or more animals have been replenished in such a barren place? Mecca only receives about 110mm of rain a year over an average of 22 days, or about 6mm per rain event. Rain was indeed a novelty. There was therefore no feed for livestock, let alone food for people. Barren places off the beaten track do not make natural sites for stopovers on international trade routes, let alone cities of trading empires producing armies of up to 10,000 men.

Yet Mecca is said by the Hadith literature to have been at the crossroads of significant international caravan trade routes. This is a complete fabrication as it is missing from all trade maps until the 9th Century. This lack of evidence makes sense if you consider that sea transport was vastly cheaper than land transport in late antiquity, and still is. Why would cargo be unloaded at Jiddah, taken 80 kilometres east to Mecca, then 80 kilometres further east and 1,500 metres up the mountains to the plateau town of Ta’if, then north toward the Mediterranean via overland camels when it could have continued in bulk by sea at a much faster pace? What a prohibitive and uncompetitive cost to the merchants receiving Meccan produce or spices! The need to provision such enterprises makes it without question physically impossible for trade to have originated from Mecca, or even transited through, as everything imported would have been very expensive. Making a profit via the uncompetitive overland trade route would have been utterly impossible.

In light of the above logic it is indeed surprising that the Qur’an also talks at great length about agricultural practices and the raising of livestock in the vicinity of its writer, who it claims lived in Mecca. These practices did indeed exist at and around Petra due to elaborate irrigation systems. Dry-land cereal cropping also existed in the upper Negev desert and lower Jordan. I have personally seen marginal grain fields around Beersheba at sowing time. In contrast, Mecca is totally devoid of any agricultural hinterland and associated livestock farming. Incredulously, the writer of the Qur’an, who was supposed to have lived in Mecca even talks about grape vines, olives, grain, fruit trees, dense shrubbery and fresh herbage (Q 80:27-31). This is in spite of the fact that olives are impossible to grow in the oppressive Meccan climate. But in the northwest corner of Arabia at Nabataea, in the lower Jordan and the upper Negev, agriculture flourished and it was even possible to grow olive trees. Why else would Abraham have settled there? It is looking more and more likely that the writer of the Qur’an lived somewhere else than modern Mecca and this city was theologically moved to central Arabia after the facts. The Qur’an itself suggests so.

On top of those significant agricultural contradictions we are told Mecca was a centre of pilgrimage with thousands flocking in for the religious festivals with their animals. I will talk more about this later, but let me just say that this would only compound the problem of food supplies. Crone says that when we first hear of Mecca as a pilgrimage site it is in the new Muslim era and not before. We also find they were importing grain from Egypt to feed the pilgrims, by sea of course. The more people we place in Mecca the more imports we must generate to sustain life there. All these difficulties vanish if we locate the Arab trading centre closer to established centres of agriculture, as the Qur’an points to.

Finally, in the era before the Roman Empire there was indeed an inland caravan route from Yemen to Palestine. It followed the elevated edge of the Sarawat Mountains, which run parallel to the coast all the way up the Red Sea. Yet Mecca is on the coastal plain, well over a kilometre in altitude below this inland route. Why would a caravan deviate some 80 kilometres from Ta’if, which was on the inland route and capable of resupplying a caravan with food, drop 1,500 meters in altitude down a canyon to barren Mecca, and then crawl back up to continue their journey? This would make absolutely no commercial sense.

You can read the whole essay under the Islam link on the home page.

Kevin Davis

THE CHURCH IN BRUNEI: DESPERATE FOR A BREAKTHROUGH

Note: if you would like to subscribe to this weekly email prayer letter just fill in the subscribe section on the left(Ipads and laptops) or at the bottom of the scroll down (smart phones)

1. History
Brunei is a tiny country of just over 400,000 people on the northwest coast of the Island of Borneo, an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Records show that Brunei was trading with China as far back as the 6th century. Historical references in Chinese and Hindu chronicles refer to a maritime-based trading kingdom situated at the mouth of the Brunei River. Its history and existence in medieval times was closely linked to the founders of the Ming Dynasty in China and to Chinese Buddhism.

From the 13th to the 15th Centuries, through allegiance to the Javanese Majapahit kingdom it came under Hindu influence. Then, in the early 15th century the kingdom was then exposed to Muslim traders from Malacca and widespread conversion to Islam took place. Brunei became an independent Islamic sultanate after the king’s conversion. It was a powerful state from the 16th to the 18th century, ruling over the northern part of Borneo, adjacent island chains and even pats of the Philippines. Brunei eventually fell into economic and political decay and lost Sarawak in 1841 to the British. It became a British protectorate in 1888, and then a British dependency in 1905. Japan briefly occupied Brunei during World War II before it was liberated by Australia in 1945.

The sultan regained control over internal affairs in 1959, but Britain retained responsibility for the state’s defence and foreign affairs until independence in 1984. Oil has since made Brunei very, very wealthy. Citizens pay no income tax and Brunei even owns the Beverly Hills Hotel amongst many foreign investments. Brunei now has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Asia and the sultan is believed to be one of the richest and most ostentatious men in the world. He and his brother are extremely self-indulgent and the sultan even sports a harem of 30 young women flown in from all over the world.

2. Today
Brunei is practically an absolute monarchy, with very limited political representation. In 2013 the Sultan started imposing draconian sharia law on all Muslims, who make up two-thirds of the country’s 400,000 inhabitants. Attendance at Friday prayers is now compulsory and brutal punishments are handed out for actions deemed crimes in the Qur’an. Hypocritically, the Sultan is legally exempt from all sharia laws and just as well considering his lifestyle! Non-Muslims are now subject to creeping Islamisation via its compulsory teaching in the entire school system. This has led to a new brain-drain among the well-educated who hate the new restrictions on themselves and influence on their children.

Brunei’s wealth is built solely on oil. Ninety three percent of all government revenues come from oil exports which are now declining and oil will run out within two decades. Brunei’s declining economic fortunes are being countered by ever-growing Chinese economic influence. After many centuries it is once again becoming an outpost of Chinese mercantilism!

Sunni Islam is dominant and restrictive. Islam is obligatory for all Malays from birth. Leaving Islam is forbidden and punishable. It is believed there are only a handful of Malay believers in Brunei and they face severe persecution if found out. Christian witness and missions work by foreigners is not permitted, but Christians may freely convert to Islam and the government is constantly offering financial inducements to anyone, especially tribal Christians, to convert.

3. Evangelistic Highlights
Anglican missionaries first came to Brunei in 1848. The Roman Catholic Church has also been established in Brunei for over 100 years but its leadership were all expelled in 1991. Three Australian missionaries established the Borneo Evangelical Mission in Sarawak in 1928, a work that led to the birth of the SIB Church, which now numbers 500,000 in neighbouring Malaysian Borneo. Although still functioning among the village people, the SIB has no legal presence in Brunei.

The religious atmosphere in Brunei is repressive but evangelical Christians still surprisingly number 6.1 percent of the total population, many are from the Dusun people group who are farmers living in the jungle villages. Some 15% of the Chinese population, who control most commerce in Brunei, are also Christian. Many believers are affiliated with a growing number of independent congregations and most of these are not officially registered. Some Christians do meet secretly but meetings in homes are being regularly raided by the religious police in an effort to shut them down. The number of believers is growing at around 4% a year, much to the consternation of the Islamist government. The government also greatly fears the influence of the internet and its access to alternative beliefs to Islam.

4. Prayer Points
Pray for the destruction of demonic strongholds and hidden powers.
Pray for miracles to multiply. It is only the supernatural that will destroy Satan’s grip.
Pray for internet access to bring people to Christ.
Pray for a hunger for truth and for Islam’s lies to be exposed.
Pray for the salvation of the royal family via a conviction of sin.
Pray for a revival among the tribal and Chinese believers that spills over to the Malay community.
Pray for strength in the face of creeping Islamisation.
Pray for hypocrisy in high places to weaken the reputation of Islam in the eyes of the people.
Pray that the eventual financial collapse will bring a flood of people to freedom in Christ.
Pray for the few Malay believers who must keep their faith a secret.

Kevin Davis

Mecca In The Qur’an

This is the third section of my extensive essay on the History of Mecca. It examines all references to Mecca and every other place mentioned in the Qur’an. It is further proof that Mecca’s true history is not the same as the history we are given in Islamic tradition. You can read the full essay under the Islam tab…

MECCA IN THE QUR’AN

Mecca’s current status is central to Islam and the Arab-centric nature of Islam. After the Qur’an, it is the epicentre of Islam. All historical, physical and theological roads lead to this mystical city. All Muslims the world over must pray in its direction. It is variously described as the mother of all cities, the centre of the world, the oldest city in the world and the city first established by Abraham as the first place of monotheistic worship.

It comes as something of a surprise then that what is taken for granted today to be Mecca is only mentioned twice in the Qur’an. Assuming the following references are talking about the same place, surah 48:24 describes it simply as the valley of Makkah, and surah 3:96 simply calls it Makkah. Sometimes it is also called Bakkah. Bakkah is a Semitic word that means The Valley of Weeping.

This startling lack of Qur’anic references is part and parcel of the structure of the Qur’an, it is an utterly confusing and frustrating book to read on its own as it rarely says who is speaking, who is being spoken to and what the context is. That’s why Muslim scholars invented the Sira and the Hadith. The Qur’an only mentions nine different geographic place names in over 149,000 words. This infrequency of geographic references, at the rate of one every 2,299, is one tenth what it is in the New Testament. One suspects this is deliberate. It’s as if the Qur’an is trying to avoid pinning down its original location. You will find out why as you read on.

Here is the full list of all place names in the Qur’an, with frequencies:

Location Frequency
Thamud 24
Ad 23
Midian 7
Yathrib (Medina) 2
Valley of Bakkah (or Makkah) 2
Tubb’a 1
Al-Ras 1
Hijr 1

And that’s it for a 400 page book! It’s not much to go on for any historian trying to find the truth about Mecca. But there are clues from that list, so let’s look at them now.

The Midianites were descendants of Abraham and lived at the top of the Red Sea. Moses is said to have lived with them for 40 years (Exodus 2:15-23). These people are easily located in lower Jordan. They lived nowhere near modern Mecca.

Ad (sometimes Aad) is a foreign word to Arabic. Specific details about the people of Ad are given in surah 7:65-72, surah 11:50-60, surah 26:123-140 and surah 89:6-14. From these passages we glean the following clues: They built high alters and monuments, they had cattle, springs and gardens, they had a leader called Hud, they had strongholds and homes in the rocks, they built a many-columned city called Iram and they lived close to the people of Thamud. From those clues we can safely say that the Ad knew a lot about Greek columned architecture, they were versatile farmers and lived in the rocks and mountains. This is definitely not a description of an Arabian city but a vivid picture of Petra. Nothing else anywhere further south fits the bill as Petra was the final outpost of Hellenistic culture and architecture. If it was Petra, and the Qur’an says the Thamud lived close by, then the Ad, Thamud and Midianites were all in lower Jordan or at the top of the Red Sea, not deep in the Arabian Peninsula. This was the centre of the land of the famous Nabataeans, the one group of Arabs who were culturally sophisticated, highly literate, commercially savvy and downright wealthy because they dominated the trade to Europe.

This view is reinforced by the evidence for Thamud in the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an says Thamud had gardens and water-springs and tilled fields and heavy sheathed palm trees (surah 26:141-159) and they hewed the rock into dwellings (surah 7:73-79). This is clearly a description of Nabataean rock excavating culture and its agriculture. Thamud’s location in the Hadith is given as Al-Hijr (Bukhari 4:562 and Fiqh us-Sunnah Hadith 4:83). Al-Hijr was the southern-most outpost of the Nabataean Empire, 800 kilometres north of Mecca. It is full of Nabataean tombs and is on the World Heritage list. The Qur’an’s repeated references to Thamud demonstrate its importance to the Qur’an’s writers.

It would be no accident that the Nabataeans feature in the Qur’an, howbeit under a different name, having their status theologically transferred to Mecca by the Abbasids. It was they who controlled the ancient spice trade from Arabia into Europe. It was they who pioneered sea-based transport up the Red Sea. It was they who became so fabulously wealthy as middle men that the Romans had to invade and conquer them to get in on the trade. It was they who gave the Arabic alphabet most of its letters. It was they who were by far the best adapted Arabs for handling the larger world around them in the centuries before Islam. It was they who worshipped at many cube shaped temples called a Ka’ba. We will talk in depth about Petra later.

Now let’s focus back on the two enigmatic references to Makkah/Bakkah for a moment. Makkah/Bakkah is further described in surah 3:95-7 as the spot where Abraham stood. Pilgrimage to the house is a duty to Allah for all who can make the journey.  This is clearly the role Mecca plays today, but contrary to Islamic tradition, there is not a scrap of objective historical evidence that Abraham ever went to the Arabian Peninsula. So where was Makkah/Bakkah? History records that Abraham lived at Beersheba in the Negev desert in southern Israel, as did his immediate descendants including his first-born son and the ancestor of the Arabs, Ishmael. Another son of Abraham was Midian. One of the sons of Ishmael was Nebaioth, ancestor of the Nabataeans. The Syrians are descended from Abraham’s brother Nahor. The Jordanians are descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot. These ancestors of the Arabs all lived in the Levant, not lower Arabia.

In times concurrent with the rise of the Arab Empire these descendants of Ishmael had a famous pilgrimage site close to Beersheba, near Abraham’s great oak of Mamre. They all knew where to go to honour their combined ancestor. An excellent description of this place comes from Sozomen’s Historia Ecclesiastica, chapter 4. So it seems logical that the original Makkah/Bakkah could also be located close to Midian, Ad and Thamud in the region of the Negev Desert and lower Jordan.

In addition to this hard evidence, all mosques in Islam’s early years actually faced Petra, not far from Mamre, and were then switched to face Mecca at a later date in the 8th Century. Yes you read that correctly. They all initially faced Petra, not modern Mecca. The Qur’an even records this change in direction for prayer, called the qibla which is Arabic for direction, from the north to the south in surah 2:143-4. But as usual the Qur’an it doesn’t say from where it was in the past to where it was to be in the future, or even when the change took place. Significantly, the oldest Qur’ans do not have Surah Two, so do not mention this change of direction. On the other hand the Hadith literature kindly and conveniently declare that it took place early, during the life of Muhammad in 624AD to be precise, and was a switch from Jerusalem to modern Mecca. None of this information is in the Qur’an. I will explain more about this change of direction toward the end of the essay.

The view that Makkah/Bakkah was in northern Arabia and not central Arabia is strengthened by the reference to a place called Baka in Psalm 84 of the Old Testament:

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Below I will line up the two Qur’anic quotes about Makkah/Bakkah so we can compare the three together:

Surah 3:96-7: Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for mankind was that at Makkah – blessed and a guidance for the worlds. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House – for whoever is able to find thereto a way.

Surah 48:24. And it is He who withheld their hands from you and your hands from them within the valley of Makkah after He caused you to overcome them. And ever is Allah of what you do, Seeing.

After reading all three references, you will notice similarities. They refer to a house of God. They refer to the valley of Baka/Bakkah/Makkah. They refer to a place of worship. But then there’s the mention of autumn rains covering the valley with pools of water in Psalm 84. Mecca has virtually no rain, let alone autumn rains. It receives only a total of 50 millimetres in those three months on hot baked ground. Baka was not Mecca by any stretch of the climatic imagination.

Could it be that the Qur’anic references are a plagiarised version of a poem written some 1,500 years earlier referring to Jerusalem, often called Zion in the Old Testament? Could this be why Abd al-Malik, king of the Arab Empire from 685-705AD built his ultimate statement of the emerging religion, the Dome of the Rock Mosque, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem itself which many believe to be exact spot called Zion? After all some 7% of the Qur’an is plagiarised passages from the Old Testament. Additionally, the temple Abd al-Malik built on the Temple Mount faced Petra and still does. Abd al-Malik cleverly combined the Jewish, Christian and Nabataean pagan Ka’ba holy sites.

The fact that the Qur’anic references say absolutely nothing about Makkah/Bakkah’s location being in Arabia or about its precious Ka’ba is to be expected. Modern Mecca is completely missing from all maps, inscriptions, trade notes, graffiti, official documents and church records for the period up to the middle of the 8th Century, It is only in 741AD, some 110 years after the traditional death of Muhammad that Mecca first appears in the Apocalypse of Pseuido-Methodius Continuato Byzantia Arabica. It doesn’t even appear on any maps until 900AD.

The Qur’an does, however, contain some more subtle clues as to the location of Makkah/Bakkah. Let’s now look at those clues.

Although the Qur’an is almost totally absent in geographical references, it does talk about a military defeat of the Byzantine Empire and specifically says that it was in a nearby land (Q 30:1-2). The fact that this defeat happened close to where the Qur’an was written raises significant questions about where the author of the Qur’an lived. You see, the Byzantines never ventured deep into the Arabian Peninsula, but they had already conquered and occupied Nabataea hundreds of years earlier, and were in control of Palestine, Syria and Jordan at the time of the birth of the Arab Empire.

Next, the Qur’an talks about the old woman who was left behind and became a pillar of salt when Lot and his family escaped the city of Sodom (Q 37:133-38). What is interesting is that the location for this event was universally held to be near the Dead Sea, and the writer of the Qur’an says that his readers pass by these ruins day and night. This places the location of the writer far closer to Israel than Mecca, some 1,300km to the south.

And there’s more. All Islamic commentators claim that Muhammad was a trader who frequented the lands of Palestine and Syria. Trade routes were the freeways, railways and internet of their time. For the record though, Mecca was not on any known historical trade route, none. On the other hand the Nabataean capital of Petra had been in the past the hub of several very important trading routes connecting Europe to Asia from east to west, and Europe to Africa/Arabia from north to south. It had a major trade highway to Damascus in Syria. That’s the only way Muhammad, if he grew up in Petra, could have been a trader with the Syrians. Petra was wealthy. Petra was influential. That’s why the Romans took it in 106AD. If Muhammad, the trader, came from somewhere else than modern Mecca then the logical place is much closer to the known trade routes further north. The story tellers that created the Sira and Hadith were using historical memory of Nabataean glory to project a plausible history of trading and spiritual significance down into the Hejaz and Mecca.

How could all this lack of evidence and contradictory evidence for the location of modern Mecca be sitting under our noses all along? Yet we are still just scratching the surface. In the rest of this essay we will explore Mecca’s geography, the statements of ancient historians, the flow of ancient trade routes through the Middle East, the actual commodities traded at that time and where they came from, the real location of ancient Arab religious sanctuaries, the political allegiances that shaped the Middle East in the era of the birth of the Arab Empire, and the shifting religious currents that created Islam. These evidences will give you a thorough understanding of the true history of Mecca, or lack thereof. Let’s start with modern Mecca’s location and climate.

Kevin Davis

PICTURE Edition 6: Pray for Bangladesh

History

For most of its history Bangladesh was a part of greater India. What is now Bangladesh was first unified under ancient Aryan influence and from these origins came the great Bengali ethnic population of some 240 million today. For thousands of years Bangladesh ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of greater Indian imperial politics and its Hindu religion.

Islam arrived peacefully in the 8th Century via traders. But then in the 14th Century greater India was conquered by Muslim armies. Most Hindus resisted conversion to the new faith. However, over time, and especially during the era of Moghul rule from 1526 till 1857, the Bengali people became the greatest missionary success story in all of Islam. Today, at over 200 million people, it is the largest single block of Muslims in the world, and the largest people group in the world unreached with the Gospel.

In the 15th Century Portuguese traders arrived. Jesuit missionaries soon followed. They were eventually followed by the British who conquered all Moghul lands and Bengali peoples through a policy of divide and rule. The British set up their capital in the Bengali heartland at Calcutta. In 1786 a Baptist missionary arrived in Calcutta by the name of William Carey, who translated the Bible into Bengali and four other languages! He started schools, universities and charities for the poor. He is now considered the father of modern Protestant Christian missions and is still considered a great hero to the Bengali people. 2018 marks exactly 500 years since Catholic missionaries arrived with Portuguese traders.

Independence from India came in 1948 as part of Pakistan called East Pakistan. Independence from Pakistan came in 1971 after a bitter civil war. The Bengalis finally had their own nation and in 1988 Islam was declared its national religion.

2. Today

Bangladesh is now a desperately poor country of some 170 million people with an average income is just 1% of the USA. Needless to say it is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Since independence it has been ruled mostly by two dynastic political families drawn from the upper class. Since 1991 it has been ruled by the two women who represent these dynasties today.

It is 90% Muslim, 9% Hindu and less than 1% Christian. However, most Muslims follow “folk Islam” which is a blend of Sufism, Hinduism and indigenous culture. Radical Islam is on the rise and their goal is convert all Bengalis to Islam. A decade ago radical Islamist parties were banned from politics and several leaders executed.

3. Evangelism Highlights

Following a half century where the church has surprisingly grown much faster than the population, today some 0.4% of Bangladeshi citizens, or 0.75 million people, are now an active follower of Jesus. This is up from 0.05% in 1960. Fascinatingly, Bangladesh has seen Christianity take root with great cultural sensitivity, which means many followers of Jesus are now embedded within the traditional Islamic cultural structures and institutions. Some even call themselves perfect Muslims. Up until the year 2000 most new Christians are from Hindu backgrounds, but then reports started to flow in of large numbers of new Muslim Background (MBB) converts, especially among the young. The tipping point seems to have been reached and within this century followers of Jesus could top 10-20 million. The non-Muslim hill tribe peoples close to India are also coming to faith in large numbers. The Santal, Munda, Khasi and Garo peoples are now more than 10% evangelical.

In practice this means the Christian practice in Bangladesh is ethnically divided into the underground Church, which consists of those who converted from Islam, and the visible Church, which consists of those who converted from Hinduism. Moreover, the underground Church can be divided into those who worship in secret and those who worship openly, such as when an entire village converts to Christianity, which is reportedly happening a lot in rural areas. Poverty among the general Christian population is severe, even by Bangladeshi standards.

Persecution is also very severe. Many new believers are disowned by their spouses, children, employers and community. Beatings are common and the police usually turn a blind eye to the violence. The rising tide of radical Islam is particularly brutal against those that leave Islam, and toward all Christian evangelists. This is why many new believers stay inside the Muslim culture once converted, and this is actually speeding up the growth. Open Doors says Bangladesh one of the worst countries in the world for persecution, making active Bangladeshi evangelists some of the spiritually strongest in the world, sometimes being murdered for their cause. I personally met one evangelist in 2009 who had been introduced to Jesus years earlier by an Australian. When I met him he had already brought 12,000 Muslims to Jesus!

4.  Prayer Points: The Harvest is huge, but the labourers are few.

Pray for the spiritual trickle to become a flood, there are signs this is starting!

Pray for the evangelists who daily defy the culture to bring good news to a suffering people.

Pray for the underground church to continue to penetrate Islamic culture.

Pray for internet evangelism to reach the young.

Pray for creative ways to reach the 50% who are functionally illiterate.

Pray for the Indian Bengali speaking evangelists cross the border to spread the good news.

Pray for the hundreds of Christian NGO’s helping to alleviate suffering.

Pray for the radical Muslims to go from a Saul to a Paul.

Pray that current growth continues and we will see a flood of Bangladeshi Christians by the end of this century.

PICTURE Edition 5: Pray for Bahrain

1. History
The tiny island country of Bahrain, just off the Arabian coast in the Persian Gulf, has been a strategic asset for many empires right through history. While under Persian rule in the 4th Century, many Christians arrived in the area around modern Bahrain after being pushed out of Iraq. The Persians at first persecuted these Christians but then adopted a policy of toleration later that century because the numbers of Christians kept growing. By the beginning of the fourth Century we have records of Christians inhabiting many places in the Persian Gulf and in Eastern Arabia. Monasteries and churches were common and there was a strong Christian literary output, mainly in Aramaic, the lingua-franca of the Middle East at that time as Arabic did not yet exist.

With the arrival of the Arab empire and its evolution from Syriac Christianity to Islam between 630 and  800 AD, most pagans in the region converted. However most of the Jews, Christians and Persian Zoroastrians elected to pay an onerous tax in order to keep their faith. It was not until around 1000 AD that Christianity largely, and sadly, died out in the region around Bahrain.

However, Persian rather than Arab influence remained strong on the island, and the population became mainly Shia Muslim, as in Iran today. This would lead to much political conflict with the Sunni Muslims of nearby Arabia throughout history, conflict which continues simmering even today.

In the late 18th Century the British took control of Bahrain and turned it into a cosmopolitan international trading centre full of merchants from all over the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Each brought their food, culture and religion, and that’s when Christianity first came back. In 1932 oil was discovered and this turbocharged Bahrain’s economic development, bringing in Christian expats from many western countries who remain today.

2. Today
In 1971 the British left and Bahrain became an independent country with the majority Shia being uncomfortably ruled by a minority Sunni monarch. In 2001 Bahrain became a constitutional monarchy with a parliament that allowed minority religions and women to participate. But this wasn’t enough for the Shia majority and in 2011 the Arab Spring came to Bahrain and stirred up massive protests against the Sunni government. There was a brutal crackdown.

Oil supplies 50% of all revenues and the economy is now suffering badly because of low oil prices. The country is being financially propped up by nearby Sunni Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to keep the king in power and the Shiites placated.

The nation now consists of about half Bahraini people and half expatriate workers. The mix is as follows: Bahraini 46%, Asian 45.5%, other Arab 4.7%, African 1.6%, European 1%. Most expatriate Christians come from the South Indian guest worker community. although there are now believed to be some secret believers inside the large Iranian expatriate community. Western churches and denominations are permitted in supervised areas. Evangelism to Arabs is forbidden.

3. Evangelism Highlights
There are basically four parts to the body of Christ in Bahrain and communication between them is very limited. There is the Western expatriate Christian community, the large South Indian guest worker house church community, the 1,600 strong native Bahraini Orthodox Christian community and the tiny but heavily persecuted Muslim background believer (MBB) underground church.

Although tolerant of expatriate workers following their own faith, there are approximately 188,000 expatriate Christians in total but only 19 expatriate church buildings, so many groups must share them.  Bahrain takes a very hard-line approach to any Muslim citizen who converts. Persecution is severe. In 2010 Operation World estimated there were about 1,650 Muslim Background Believers now in the country, today this figure would be higher. These people face severe persecution and social disadvantage. They must worship in secret. Bahrain needs a spiritual breakthrough!

There has been a well-respected Christian hospital in Bahrain since 1903, and this gives Christianity a good reputation. The former ambassador to England, Alees Samaan, is a Christian (and a woman!).

4. Prayer Points
Pray for Iranian evangelists among the expatriate workers as these have less trouble reaching the locals.
Pray for the many online avenues by which Muslims can now secretly search for a new faith. Chat rooms are especially popular.
Pray for those who’ve been rejected by their families for their faith. Pray that they will find a bigger family in God.
Pray for fathers to come to Christ, they will then win their family and family is the basic church building block in the Middle East.
Pray for all Christians to have the courage and boldness to reach out to Muslims.
Pray for the Christian satellite TV stations that reach many homes.
Pray for the 30,000 or so expatriate evangelical Christians who can influence many through their prayer and actions.

PICTURE Edition 4: Pray for Azerbaijan

1. History
Situated on the western side of the Caspian Sea and bordering Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Iran, the Azeri people have been a pawn in the history of many large empires throughout history. At the time of Christ it was part of the Persian Empire.

It is believed that the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus came from Armenia over to Azerbaijan and planted the Christian faith, and the first church was erected in the village Kish. The origins and formation of the Azari Church and culture are closely associated with the history of Nestorian Christianity which dominated the Middle East in the early centuries after Christ. Christianity officially became the state religion in this region at the beginning of the 4th century, making Azerbaijan region one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.

However, everything changed in 667 with the invasion of the Arabs. As Islam took off over the next century and became the dominate faith of the Empire, so it seeped into the Azeri Christian community. However, a thousand years later there were still pockets of Armenian Christians in the country. In the 16th century, the first shah of Iran established Shia Islam as the state religion. In 1806 Azerbaijan was occupied and then annexed by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian War.

With the Russians came a wave of Orthodox Christians. One group exiled from Russia to Azerbaijan were a group called the Molokin Jumpers. These were the closest thing in Russia to Pentecostal Christians and they incurred the wrath of both the Russian state. One hundred years later Communist atheism also came down from Russia and suppressed all religions in Azerbaijan. (At the same time some of the Molokin Jumpers were divinely led to go to America where they were some of the first to join the Azusa St Revival in San Francisco…wow!)

The world’s first oil boom actually began in Azerbaijan and at one time it produced half the world’s oil. it still lives off oil wealth today. With the exit of Communism and Russia in 1991 there was also an exodus of Russian Orthodox oil workers. The next decade was chaotic and culminated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which saw Armenian Christians driven into one small province.

2. Today
As with most ex-Russian colonies, the intensity of Islam is low and many are nominal.The 40 or so believers known to exist in 1991 has now grown to at least 10,000 and some say much more than this number. Azeri language literature, Bibles, music and other forms of ministry are beginning to develop, mainly in Baku where most believers live.

Unfortunately Christianity is still associated with Russian imperialism, Armenian hostility and western colonialism in general. The religious freedom experienced after 1991 have dwindled. Yet even with a stagnant population, the number of evangelicals continues to grow by around 4% a year. This would create a church of some 70,000 by 2050. Today there are still 11 communities of Molokins in Azerbaijan.

The government sees all forms of Christianity as a threat, and also sees some elements of Islam as a threat. So it has enacted strict laws on the expression of religion. No foreign involvement, no foreign funding, no expression of ones faith outside the registered building etc. This is forcing the church underground. Some 25% of the Iranian population are actually Azeri’s and many have come to faith in Christ.

3. Evangelism Highlights
Sari Mirzoev was the first Azeri to become a Christian back in 1991. Today he leads the largest evangelical church in Azerbaijan. He is on the record as saying Sometimes we have as many as 30-40 people who accept Christ as their personal Savior in a single service. His vision is to see the whole country won to Jesus. Mission Eurasia is also helping train local leaders for the harvest of souls. Because there is a large Azeri diaspora in surrounding countries, many evangelists are now making trips to Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Iraq to evangelise their own Azeri people in these nations.

4. Prayer Points
Pray for our fellow Christians living out their faith in the face of religious persecution.
Pray for the growing numbers of Azeri believers to become missionaries across the region.
Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in places of darkness. There are reports coming in of supernatural encounters.
Pray for leaders to rise up and stand against these forces of darkness.
Pray for church support organisations in the west who help nurture the Azeri Christians.
Pray with Pastor Sari for the whole nation of 9 million to come to know Jesus.
Pray for the many who are interested in Christianity but who fear the personal consequences.
Pray that the internet will be used to train believers and to reach unbelievers.

The best analysis of Syria I have ever read!

Every now and then I read an article on the Middle East that is profoundly insightful, that makes sense of the mayhem and corrects a lot of fake news coming from the western media. The article below, reproduced from this link, is one such apiece of journalism. It explains everything that has happened in Syria since the civil war began, why America failed, what has happedned to the Sunni/Shia balance, who the Alawites are and what became of the Christian community. I found it fascinating so here it is…

Introduction: The American intervention in Iraq set off a massive political restructuring of the Middle East, triggering a struggle between different religious and ethnic communities. The process has continued in Syria, where Sunni Muslims, underestimating the regional nature of the conflict, deluded themselves that they could topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime by their overwhelming demographic superiority. Among the big losers are the Christians who, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds, are not a compact minority.

Martino Diez: Speaking about crisis and renewal in Sunnism, one cannot escape the predicament of Syria. But from the start we are faced with an objection: according to many, the religious or sectarian element in the Syrian crisis is a secondary one, a by-product of government policies aimed at curbing the revolt by delegitimizing it internationally, and by dividing the opposition internally.

Joshua Landis: Well, it’s a chicken and egg problem. All sides in Syria have used religion in a very political way to gain support and to shore up their own position. But there is a religious issue, otherwise it could not have been instrumentalized. It is a circular problem and it is hard to know which begins where. Of course, it is about politics and humans using everything they have, whether ethnicity, poverty, class differences, and prejudices, in order to fight political battles. Yet, the religious question is extremely important and precisely because of this too many people tried to cover it up.

It has been a taboo in Syria for decades, ever since the modern Baathist regime took over and proclaimed that religious, tribal, regional and sub-national identities were anathema and a new Arab nation would not stand for them. Everything that smacked of these communal and tribal interests was feudalistic, retrograde, and needed to be stamped out. For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s the Alawite mountain became known as the coastal mountain and Jabal al-Drūz (“The mountain of the Druze”) was renamed as Jabal al-‘Arab (“The mountain of the Arabs”). These moves are highly instructive, since the Druze, like the Alawites, are usually accused of being majūs, “Persians, Zoroastrians.” By naming the Jabal al-Drūz as “The mountain of the Arabs,” the Druze were establishing their bona fide in a nationalistic world.

Logo of Arab Socialist Baath Party, used by its Syrian branch

MD: How would you characterize the religious policy of the Assads, both father and son, before the uprisings? The Baath started with a rather secular program, but Assad soon led a “corrective movement,” which among other things tried to come to terms with religions.

JL: The religious question has always been central in Syria, although at certain times it has been more important than at others. Let me take you back a little further than the Assads. When the French arrived in 1920, they began to take censuses and they discovered that in no town of over 2,000 people did Sunnis and Alawites live together. There was very stark demographic segregation. In 1945 there were 400 Alawites in Damascus and less in Aleppo. There really was very little knowledge of one another, and the Alawites were perceived as servants, typically the young girls being put in service into the Sunni households. The major coastal cities, which have today an Alawite majority, such as Latakia, Jableh, Tartous, Banyas, were at that time all Sunni with a small Christian minority that lived within the old walls of the city.

The parable of the Alawites rising from the bottom of the Syrian society to the top is a dramatic story, but it changed the communal nature of Syria and created great resentment amongst the Sunni Syrians writ large. The entire Ottoman world was a Sunni world and for the most part Sunni prejudice saw Shi’as as being a deviant form of Islam, one that was highly inflected by Persian anger and resentment against the Arab conquerors. The most fundamentalist Sunnis like Ibn Taymiyya saw Shi‘ism and particularly its heterodox communities, such as Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, as a conspiracy inside Islam.

MD: In his book, A History of the ’Alawis, Stefan Winter challenges this view through archive research.

JL: Winter did a good job of showing how Alawites at various times in history held important positions and presented themselves in Islamic courts: things they were not supposed to do according to the segregation. But the success of some Alawites in the Ottoman empire was the exception that proved the rule of powerlessness. Never did the Ottomans include Alawites as Muslims. Never did they fully integrate them as citizens. There was an attempt at the end of the Ottoman Empire to create an Ottoman citizenship and to redefine it away from a religious dynastic identity. In this context, Alawites and Druze were renamed the “lost communities.” It was softer than “unbelievers” or “apostates” as they used to be called, but they remained nonetheless “lost.” They continued to be accused of “religious excess,” ghuluww.

MD: And this not only from the side of Sunnis. Even Twelver Shi’ites looked at them with suspicion.

JL: In 1947, fourteen Alawites were given grants to go study in Karbala. We have the memories of some of them and they are very bitter. They were forced to ghasal al-tawba, to wash their robes, which was a purification ceremony meant to convert them. But since they saw themselves as good Muslims, they did not want to be converted and this denigrating attitude from the Twelver Shi’a ultimately meant that no one of them graduated from Karbala.

It was not until the 1970s, under Mūsā al-Sadr, that the first Twelver Shi’ite fatwa was issued stating that Alawites are Muslims. Many people still harbor doubts and suspicions about this fatwa, because at that time Assad was already powerful and Shi‘ites were coalescing together. At any rate, the broad current of Islam rejects them as Muslims. Therefore, when Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1967, he faced a dilemma. The Constitution of Syria states in article 3 that the president must be a Muslim. Are Alawites Muslim? The first instinct of Assad was to take out article 3 in conformity with secularism, but large demonstrations ensued from Aleppo right down through Damascus, rejecting this move as an attack on Syrian identity. Hafez al-Assad retreated from his position, he put article 3 back into Constitution and at the same time, he declared that Alawites are Muslim. Most Sunni clerics did not believe this, but since he was the President and had the army behind him, they bowed their heads.

As soon as the revolt broke out in 2011, most of the militias were calling these people nusayrīkuffār (‘unbelievers’), rawāfid (‘rejectionists’), al-nizām al-majūsī (‘The Zoroastrian regime’), etc. The language of the revolt was to claim that Alawites are apostates and that it was compulsory to wage jihad against them, even more violently than against outright unbelievers, because unbelievers may not know Islam, but these people do know it, they have read the Qur’an and yet… This is not new. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an important current within the Muslim Brotherhood maintained that the Alawites were apostate and a legitimate target of jihad. This was the guiding intellectual spirit behind the Talī‘a muqātila, the wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that rose up at the end of the 1970s to challenge Assad, leading to the Hama uprising in 1982, which was followed by a very brutal repression.

MD: Was Hafez al-Assad a sectarian?

JL: Yes, Assad had a so-to-say transparently hypocritical way of ruling. On the one hand, he forbade any mention of sectarianism and rise the flag of Arab nationalism stating that divisions among Syrians were responsible for the various foreign occupations the country had undergone (Ottomans, French…). But at the same time, he clung to communalism, because Syria before the 1970s had been the banana republic of the Arab World, having undergone 15 to 20 coups, failed coups and purges. It had been a constant revolving door for government. Thus, the only way Assad could stabilize his government was to appeal to traditional loyalties: first family, secondly close associates and friends, thirdly religious communities, and lastly the single party. He put his brother Rifaat al-Assad at the head of the state security to police Damascus and guarantee that no military unit would enter the capital to overthrow him, as it had occurred so many times in the previous decades. Bashar has taken his father’s playbook and changed almost nothing.


Portrait of Hafez al-Assad on a poster

MD: What exactly was the relation of Bashar to his father? When I spent some weeks in Damascus in July 2008, I was impressed to see a mega-poster of Hafez al-Assad covering most of the façade of the Ministry of Defense. I had the impression that this was a message from the old guard to Bashar.

JL: By 2008 Bashar had really consolidated to power. In 2005 he cleared up the last adherents of his father, such as ‘Abd al-Halīm Khaddām, the vice-president. He used his father’s image because much of the older generation admired and respected the father, while they were unsure of Bashar. He was shy and had not been brought up in the military. Having been called back from his optometry studies in England after his brother’s death in 1994, Bashar was sent to Lebanon to harden up, as a sort of military training school, because if you can deal with Lebanon, you can deal with Syria too. But he always had this soft, slightly indecisive side and people were not sure whether he was really tough enough. Keeping the big picture of his father was important to show continuity.

At that time, the Middle Eastern Republics were all going through a legitimacy crisis and were trying to become monarchies, because monarchy solves the problem of regime change and normalizes it. There was nothing unusual in Bashar’s attempt: Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians were all trying to perpetuate the power of the ruling family avoiding civil strife and ensuring stability. Other people, of course, like many militaries, had a vested interest in preserving the throne for the Assad family and milk the rest of the country. We believe that about 70 to 80% of the upper officers’ core was Alawite, not just in the military and the security. We have testimonies from people in the Foreign Office who defected during the revolts and said that the vast majority of the officers were Alawites or belonging to the other minorities and only 20% was Sunni. This was a pattern in all more sensitive ministries. In 45 years there has been tons of corruption and patronage. All institutions of the state were filled with loyalists, whether they came up through the Baath party and were loyalist through ideology or they came up through the Alawite community and other minorities or through rural Sunni communities. And it is this that made it difficult from the start to change the regime without a total collapse. It was the same as in in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. Once you take out the leadership, destroy the Baath party and re-arrange the core officers and the top military, as it happened with the American intervention in Baghdad, the whole edifice crumbles. You have to remake the state entirely, because to get rid of Assad you have to accept regime collapse. The whole state is built around the loyalty to the leader. It was the dilemma of Iraq, it is the dilemma of Libya to a degree, although in North Africa there is no religious communalism comparable to Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

MD: The attitude of the urban Sunni population is surprising. For instance, in Aleppo they remained loyal to the regime well into 2012, more than a year after the beginning of the revolts.

JL: The Sunni elite was co-opted and this is where Bashar’s father proved to be most successful. During the Hama uprisings in 1982, much of the country was in revolt. But in Damascus al-Assad approached the head of the chamber of commerce, Badr al-Dīn al-Shallāh, a Sunni leading businessman, and warned him about the danger of the country being taken over by fundamentalists. “If you stick with me, I’ll reward you.” And the Sunni elite of Damascus did. They saw in the Alawites a Pretorian guard that would advance their best interests and they went along with him.

MD: Many ulama too were preaching quietism.

JL: The Sunni clerical elite Assad had been cultivating, which was made up of Kurds and traditional figures, upheld the notion that clerics should not mix up in politics and that fitna, civil discord, had to be avoided at all costs. This attitude conformed to traditional Sunni political thought, hammered out in the ninth and tenth century, when Muslims were facing similar problems under the decadence of the Abbasid caliphate. Figures like Muhammad Sa‘īd Ramadān al-Būtī, who were at the head of the Islamic institutions in Syria, represented this traditional attitude. But their legitimacy was gradually undermined by a whole bunch of newer figures who were accusing them of being corrupt and bought off. And that led to the assassination of al-Būtī in 2013 and several attempts to kill the Grand Mufti and other clerics.

MD: And yet also Hanbalism and Salafism were quite at home in Damascus…

JL: Indeed, the entire nineteenth-century Salafism, which was very modernist, had an important center in Damascus and David Commins has written eloquently about this. Historically, Syria has been the cradle of a cosmopolitan, Sufi-inflected Islam, with lots of tariqas (Sufi orders, Ed.) closely linked to Turkey and Northern Iraq and with a specific Syrian “flavor.” This soup of Sufism, mysticism, heterodoxy, Neo-Platonism and various strands of Gnosticism is part of Syria’s heritage and the Salafi claim that they are all foreign imports is simply wrong; Ibn Taymiyya is really only one voice on one side.

At the same time, Syria has also known a more hard-bitten textual fundamentalist form of Islam which cannot be blamed entirely on Saudi Arabia, as liberals often do, although it has been obviously influenced by Wahhabism. Take the case of Syrian textbooks. The ninth-grade textbook of Islam contained until very recently a subsection on atheists and pagans, teaching that the only way to deal with them is to convert them or to kill them. In a sense, when ISIS conquered the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, it was simply following the instructions of ninth-grade Syrian textbooks. They did not have to turn to Wahhabism to enslave and to kill, they could follow Syrian school curricula.

To give you just an example, there were about 14 Druze villages near Aleppo. When ISIS conquered them, they made videos showing the militants forcing their inhabitants to convert while blowing up their shrines. Fortunately, ISIS  was pushed out by Nusra militias, who were slightly gentler: They too insisted that the Druze declare themselves Sunnis, but they did not make them convert and Jumblatt from Lebanon could intercede. At any rate, life for these minorities was miserable under the Salafi groups. Thus, we go back to what I believe is the key thesis here: even if there were successful Alawites in the Ottoman empire, their status was never normalized, they were always seen as deviant. When politics fell apart, due to bad government, drought, economic factors, all sort of things, these theological questions all came to the surface and because there was no good answer for them, the civil war increasingly took on a communal and sectarian edge. And of course, the Sunnis bore their responsibility too, because they appealed to jihadists to try to win their war. As a result, 40,000 to 50,000 foreign fighters streamed into Syria and Iraq and the most trained among them were al-Qaeda’s men. In fact, these radical groups ran up very easily over the militias that the United States were trying to set up.

Photo of destruction in Hama following the Hama Massacre in 1982

MD: The same miscalculation on the Sunni side happened time and again, in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere. Now, let us assume that one day the war is eventually over. Will the Sunnis find a place in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter)? And are there attempts to positively reconceptualize the status of minorities?

JL: I’m very pessimistic. The Sunni community in both Iraq and Syria has been smashed in every conceivable way. If we look at the geography of the Sunni world stretching from Baghdad right across to Aleppo, all the Sunni cities, Ramadi, Mosul, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Aleppo have been destroyed. In Iraq the US talked at first about power-sharing among the different components of the Iraqi society, but that did not come to be. What America did do is that it ignited what I’ve called a “great sorting-out,” i.e. the struggle between different religious and ethnic communities for primacy. The Kurds have now largely achieved their independence, not totally because they still rely on Baghdad for money, but they possess their own army, their own schools, they teach in their own language etc. Iraqi Sunnis had been the dominant group in the Ottoman Empire, the monarchy, the Baath and Saddam Hussein’s rule. As a result of the American intervention, they were cast down to the bottom of society and Shi‘ites caught up to the top.

MD: Was it intentional?

JL: No, I believe Americans had no clue of what they were dealing with. They thought that if you can get rid of the evil tyrant, good people will find a way to share power. I’ve spent the last years trying to make comparisons to what happened in Central Europe in the twentieth century. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires were all multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They were substituted after the First World War with a long string of new nation states, from Poland down to Palestine. I call them the class of 1920. They all failed spectacularly. In Central Europe between 1930 and 1950, 34 million people were ethnically cleansed. The collapse of multi-ethnic empires paved the way to a long and bloody process of nation building.

MD: And yet the anomaly in Syria consists in the fact that it is the minority that is trying to sort out the majority. You cannot build a nation state around a minority.

JL: This is why everybody expected the Alawites to be swept aside, since they are at most 3 million, while 70% of Syrians are Arab Sunnis. Even once Assad proved to be much stronger than everybody had anticipated, the rebels and all the opposition figures I’ve constantly debated with thought that Assad was not in the position to hold out. “If we can keep the fight going on for five or six years, we will exhaust the Alawites.” This proved to be false. Why? Because this is not a national war. It is a regional war and between Lebanon and Iraq there are more Shi‘ite Arabs than Sunni Arabs. And of course, not only did the Sunnis call on Sunni jihadists to come in. The Shi‘ites too appealed to their own jihadists for help, who are much better trained and equipped to fight. Hezbollah is the only Arab force that has driven Israel out of a territory. Iran got involved and Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni powers were not able to counter this military primacy. At that point, Russia jumped in, and America, but Iran was able to mobilize much more military power and the Russians were much more committed in Syria. Ultimately, one can say that the Assad regime has much better friends.

MD: Do you mean that if the Syrian crisis had only been a local one, the Sunnis would have been likely to win in the long run?

JL: That is not even clear. The Syrian army was powerful and it did not defect. Many individuals left, but it did not dissolve and Assad was able to rebuild it. In my opinion, Assad would still have won even in an only-Syria scenario, because, had the Gulf not sent money and had Turkey not given the rebels a sanctuary from which to wage attacks, they would have been trapped inside the country facing a sophisticated national army. But this is a counterfactual history. We don’t really know. What we know is that rebels called jihadists in and got tens of billions of dollars from the Gulf, Turkey, the US, Europe, from every corner of the world to prolong their uprising. Summer 2013 was under many respects the turning tide against Assad. He had just lost Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur and the rebels were making real advances. At that point, Russia jumped in to help its client, while America was starting to be anxious about the role of jihadi militias.

MD: What will be the fate of the refugees, especially those in Southern Anatolia?

JL: We know that 5 to 6 million people have left Syria, the vast majority of them is Sunni and most of them are unlikely to come back. Syria is in a devastated shape. The security situation is not at all regularized, people don’t know whether upon their return they are going to be jailed and tortured, their jobs are gone… Most will find a way to rebuild their lives outside. This is not new; it has happened to the members of the Muslim Brotherhood before and to waves of immigrants, liberal well-to-do-families who have been leaving Syria constantly for almost a century now. There are 11 million Syrians living in the Americas, we believe. It has been going on for a long time.

MD: But the size of the phenomenon today is different.

JL: Yes, it is much bigger. And it is going to leave a very bitter legacy. Today the Sunni community in Syria is really devastated and it is going to take long to get back on its feet.

MD: This major shift would not be totally new. Syria has oscillated many times in its history. It was originally the bulwark of the Omayyad dynasty, then turned to Shi’ism, until the Sunni revival in eleventh-twelfth century.

JL: I am thinking of this all the time. I do not know enough about Medieval Syria, but I am tempted by this comparison, because in many ways the Shi’ites in the eleventh to twelfth century were predominating, especially in Northern Syria, around Aleppo. Ultimately, however, they were defeated by the Mamluks and later the Ottomans and Syria became part of the Sunni Arab world. In the Northern Middle East there is today a Shi’ite quest not only for equality but also for supremacy, two things most Shi’ites feel they have been denied for centuries. For some, the struggle is about taking vengeance against Sunnis, for others about gaining equal rights: there is a bitter side and a softer side. Iran has been instrumentalizing this attitude tremendously. For their part, Sunnis are in a crisis because Salafis claimed the only way out was jihad, but they have lost. And yet the Sunni elites apparently continue to look for military solutions, as the statements by Muhammad Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia show. There has not been much reflection about what went wrong and this does not look promising. Similarly, in the way the Assad regime treats the Sunni rebels there is no accommodation. More precisely, there is accommodation with individuals, but not with groups, no recognition that they had some just complaints.

MD: How do you explain then the regime’s policy to bus the jihadists to the Idlib region?

JL: Idlib is just a temporary and strategic move. The regime knew that these people would not surrender unless they are left a way out (and some fought to the death anyway). They were holding the civil population as hostages and using them as shields. The issue was becoming internationally embarrassing and Assad had to let them go. But for him Idlib is only a preparation before expelling them to Turkey.

From his point of view, this would be serving Turkey right because Ankara has funded and trained these people. Yet, Turkey is a powerful country and it is not going to stand up to this plan. In the Idlib province, in Northern Aleppo and Afrin the Turks have started to set up a canton where these rebel groups can remain and refugees be sent back, under the control of Turkmen and Arab militias and while getting rid of the Kurdish problem. But it is a very delicate issue for Turkey: how can you normalize al-Qaeda and other jihadists?

MD: And for Russia too… Russia claims to be in good terms with Assad, Iran and Turkey, but Idlib can be a thorn in its side.

JL: Russia is looking for a way to accommodate the issue. It keeps on insisting on Syria’s sovereign borders, but at the same time it is bending to Turkish demands for Idlib. Many people are beginning to see that a Turkish zone stretching from Idlib to Jarablus is perhaps not the worst outcome; in terms of social justice it may even be the best we can do. In this hypothesis, this strip of border region would end up some day like Iskenderun and the Hatay province, which was taken by Turkey in 1938.

Most minorities there, the Armenians, the Alawites, left for Syria, where they incidentally helped found the Baath party (his first theoretician, Zakī al-Arsūzī, was from Iskenderun). But the Sunnis by and large remained behind, because they saw themselves as a part of a larger Sunni world. That applies to Idlib too: there were 700 Christian families in Idlib and they all fled in 24 hours. In some ways, such an outcome would not be the worst thing for Assad too, since Idlib was traditionally one of the poorest part of the country and a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activism. If Assad declares to have been forced by his allies to accept this solution, no-one will object and fight to take back this province, which is today 100% Sunni Arab. Of course, they will say that Turks are monsters etc., but this accommodation solves a problem.

MD: How do you see the prospects for Christians?

JL: The great sorting-out is grim for all minorities, but for Christians it has been devastating because they are not a compact minority, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds. Before the war, Christians were largely urban, scattered and relatively wealthy. They were very vulnerable and they became targets. They did not form their own militias, apart some limited exceptions; they could not defend themselves and they were forced to leave.

Aleppo is the perfect example: the city had a very sizable Christian minority, which after the First World War amounted to 20-25% of the total population. With the independence, the city began to explode as there was an influx from the surrounding villages, which were all Sunnis. This demographic development was accompanied by land reform under Nasser and the nationalization of schools under the Baath party. Very soon, the upper elite left for Lebanon and elsewhere. Today the Christian population of Aleppo fell to probably less than 3%. For Syria as a whole, Christians made up about 14-15% of the population at the end of the French Mandate. They are now about 3%. But that is not unique across the Middle East. The future looks grim.

MD: Do you believe that the fact of not resorting to militias was merely accidental for Christians, or was there something of a deliberate choice?

JL: I don’t believe that the pacifist passages in the Bible was the guiding principle behind the military weakness of Christian communities. In my estimation, it is rather a combination of factors, primarily because Christians are not compact. When they were compact, as in Mount Lebanon, they did form militias and they fought very strenuously until they were totally outnumbered. And in many ways, it was Hafez al-Assad who stepped in and saved them in 1976, while pursuing his minority politics in Lebanon.

MD: In the past some rumors circulated about Hafez al-Assad’s alleged closeness to Christianity. Is there anything real in these stories?

JL: The Assads are not religious. Bashar was not even initiated to the Alawite religion and he knows very little of it. He was brought up in Damascus, speaks with a Damascene accent and many Alawites complained that he was not really inside the community. In general, though, Christians and Alawites share a minority complex, some holidays (Easter, Christmas) and they religiously group next to each other. When the Alawites rose to power, the Christians saw them as protectors.

Assad has been very good at exploiting these elements. Think of the famous issue of Vogue in March 2011, just before the uprisings… It was about Asma al-Assad, “A Rose in the Desert,” but the central piece photo featured Bashar al-Assad in civilian dress, relaxed with his beautiful wife, in front of a Christmas tree, with the children in short pants playing with their toys underneath. This was the vision of a secular, advanced, Westernized Syria that he was selling to America. According to the context, the regime could stress its pro-secular or pro-Christian attitude. For a while, the West bought it and divinized Assad’s effort, which of course has been extremely violent.

MD: What did the US lack most?

JL: America misunderstood the region. It did not know what it was doing when it kindled the great “sorting-out” process by toppling these brutal, authoritarian states, which did not possess a high degree of legitimacy, but were trying to deal with very dysfunctional realities. Taking away the state only embitters civil wars. In Iraq, a state has been finally put back together, but it is certainly not what America envisioned, and it is very pro-Iranian. There was a terrible miscalculation; and we are now on the verge of a new miscalculation.

The notion that America can retrieve its position in the region by building up a Kurdish state in Northern Syria is a full hazard. It would cost huge sums of money, since the social basis is not existent, the cities, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, are in ruin and everything has to be remade from the ground up. But how can you rebuild the region by making enemies your own neighbors? Plus, Arab and Kurds in the region are bitter competitors and not natural allies and everybody will seek to use these differences to undermine the project.

It will be an almost impossible task for America. Of course, America owes a debt to the Kurds and has a long love affair with them, even since Woodrow Wilson. The US can protect them and help them get more resources, but within Syria. Assad needs the Kurds to rule Northern Syria and the Kurds need Assad. There is a deal to be made about sharing oil, water, agriculture, trade. America could do that kind of diplomacy, but the policy elite is not willing.

MD: Finally, a more personal note. Clearly, the Syrian war is not just a scholarly subject for you. Where does your interest in Syria and the Middle East originate?

JL: Well, my connection has been lifelong. I was born in New York City, but by the age of one, I moved to Saudi Arabia, where my father opened the first American bank in the Kingdom in 1958, a Citibank in Jeddah. I spent my first four years in Saudi Arabia, when it was really just a sandy place, though developing at leaps and bounds. Then I moved to Beirut until 1967, in Lebanon’s heydays. I traveled all over the region as a young child and this laid the ground for my return to Beirut after college. I took a teaching position for two years at the International College, on the same campus as the American University of Beirut.

At that time, Lebanon was going through its civil war. I started to study Arabic properly and in 1981 I got a Fulbright to go the University of Damascus, which meant I was there during the Hama uprising. I drove around the city only one week after it was destroyed. That tumultuous year was really a seminal experience to me; it was the year of the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. In many ways, it was foreshadowing the 2011 events.

Later on, in 2002, I met my wife Manar, who is an Alawite, on a bus of the UN in Damascus. We got married six months after that and from that moment on, I came back to Syria every summer. So my connection to the Middle East and Syria has become more and more personal.

My first article after the uprising, in 2011, was entitled “Why the Assad regime is likely to survive to 2013.” I made an argument about the regime being much stronger and the opposition more fragmented than assumed. Thus, I began to make a lot of enemies, particularly among the Syrian opposition. They were all accusing me of holding these positions because I was married to an Alawite and they raised their criticism in very sectarian terms. Actually, there is no doubt that being Alawite or Sunni has an influence on the way you look; it is hard to escape this world of sectarianism. The Syrian battle, like the Israel-Palestinian battle, comes down to a certain degree of tribalism, but you can still strive for a certain objectivity.

My answer to this criticism is that I actually held these ideas well before I married my wife. I wrote a long dissertation about Syria’s independence and the military coups, whose major thesis was that modern Syria was actually not a nation. The Sunnis had been incapable of uniting it either on a class or a national basis and the military had been able to carry out coups because the Sunnis were fragmented and not democratic and did not follow the Constitution. This research colored my view of how the civil war would unfold. I was convinced that Syria had not dramatically changed between 1950 and 2011 and I think I was proved right.

The Sunni opposition remained extremely fragmented and became dominated by jihadists. America failed to produce an alternative government that could rule Syria. It was not the lack of money. Had the opposition been united and presented a non-fundamentalist front, the West was ready to really back it. So much for my defense of not being a sectarian; but I have been intimately involved in this region for a lifetime and it has left a deep mark on me.

The Fallibility of the Islamic Hadith Literature

Most Muslims cannot make sense of the Qur’an. So after a few hundred years there emerged a whole body of commentary to try to make sense of the confusion their holy book generated. These commentaries are collectively called the Hadith literature. Below I have reproduced a section of my essay on the history of Mecca to show you the problems generated when you write a history of something two to three centuries later, in a foreign country, relying only on 5th to 8th generation oral history…

The Hadith literature are the official commentaries that provide us with the words, actions and approvals of Muhammad. They rank second only to the Qur’an in Islamic theological and political authority. They encompass a vast amount of clarification and traditional history interpreting the Qur’an, Muhammad’s life and the origins of Islam. It is the Hadith that creates and then makes sense of the utterances of Muhammad. It is the Hadith that most people rely on as authentic history about early Islam and the history of Mecca. It is the Hadith that tries to bring logic to the utter confusion most people are left with after reading the Qur’an on its own. Because of this confusion the Hadith is the de facto primary source of authority in the religion of Islam.

But like the Sira biographies, the Hadith commentaries were also written two to three centuries after the facts, and once again largely by Abbasid scholars over in Persia. It’s like penning the very first history of the American War of Independence from 2018 through to the year 2100AD, relying only on fifth to tenth generation oral memory. This gave the Abbasids more than plenty of time for mythologising of the type we saw above.

Anybody within Islam could write a Hadith in those restive first two to three centuries, and write they did. They could tell the world what they recalled from a trusted chain of oral authorities, the famous Isnad sources, about the words, actions and life of Muhammad. In the process it turned out that the vast majority were only written to justify factional rivalries and disputes. It didn’t matter if the Hadiths contradicted each other. It mattered more that the chain of Isnad was pure. They eventually became a laughing stock, the original fake news. They contradicted each other to the point that one dedicated scholar, Muhammad al-Bakhari, another Abbasid scholar from Iraq (d. 870AD), decided to find as many as he could, ditch the fakes and compile a trusted history of the past. He aspired to creating an authentic exegesis of the Qur’an, Muhammad and Mecca. He travelled far and wide, collected some 600,000 alleged sayings of the prophet, and then ditched all but 7,225 that he believed could be trusted. He is today revered as the most trustworthy source of Islamic history, and therefore the history of Mecca. Five other collectors of Hadith are also canonised along with him, including his disciple Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj who collected hundreds of thousands more Hadiths and discarded all but around 4,000. However, we have a problem with finding original copies of these two scholar’s writings. The oldest surviving copy of any piece of al-Bakhari’s works is from hundreds of years after he performed the great cull.

With the recent application of the tools of secular higher criticism to the story of Islam, more and more scholars are delivering body blows to the credibility of the Hadith writings. New discoveries and cold hard theological objectivity has allowed a much more rigorous search for fakes than al-Bakhari religious sensitivities allowed for. The towering 20th Century academic, Joseph Schacht, called the Hadith literature a fiction perhaps unequalled in the history of human thought. Ouch!  Schacht also argued that the fabrication of the Hadith came from a literary convention, which found particular favor in Iraq, whereby Abbasid authors/scholars would put their own doctrine or work under the aegis of an ancient authority. The ultimate prestigious ancient authority in this context was Muhammad and around 750AD scholars in Kufa, followed in a few years by the Medinese began falsely ascribing their new doctrines back to earlier jurists, and over time extended them back to Muhammad. In other words they invented all the words, life and actions of Muhammad to justify their own agenda.

The fabrications are relatively easy to spot. The amazing detail in the Hadith, the exact words spoken, the time of day, what they ate, how they travelled, who was present, the theological disputes they were defending and much more, all combine to give the Hadith too much authenticity. They are too precise, lacking in context and contradictory. What mattered most was the air of authenticity given by the alleged chain of oral authorities. The motivation was simple. They were written by very clever legal scholars living hundreds of years after the facts, who were designing a chain of historical transmission that, in the words of Dr Umar Bashear, grow backwards to justify a new legal code for a brand new empire, and one that would wrestle power from their political masters, the Caliphs (Abraham’s Sacrifice of His Son and Related Issues p. 277). Their creation of a religious prophet, a religious city, a religious text, a religious holy language a religious history and a religious destiny gave them the upper hand in the endless power struggle that was Middle Eastern politics. Supreme power within the realm of Islam would from then on rest with them, the religious scholars, not their political masters. The evidence and legacy of their work can be seen in the modern call to Jihad, and the fear of it within the political class of most Islamic countries.

It is these clever writers of the Hadith that I will now summarise to demonstrate that they did not write an authentic history of the Qur’an or Mecca. I will use Crone’s excellent examination of the various Hadith explanations of surah 106, a surah that the Hadith literature claims to talk about Mecca.

Surah 106

For the accustomed security of the Quraysh

Their accustomed security [in] the caravan of winter and summer

Let them worship the Lord of this House

Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear.

Note: To demonstrate how much the English version of the Qur’an is influenced by the stories that the Hadith commentaries created and not the other way around, the term accustomed security in line one above is a Hadith interpretation of the word ilaf, which has no known meaning. The Hadith writers had to give it a meaning or the surah would be utter confusion. In addition, all words in brackets are also extra to the original Arabic Qur’an.

Now, what do the different Hadith writers say about this surah. The following is what Patricia Crone found out…

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi says the journeys are both pilgrimages to Mecca (Mafaith, VIII, 512). However, Ibn Abbas says the journeys are to Ta’if in summer and Mecca in winter (Jami, XXX, 171). Most other commentators treat them as trading journeys to Syria, or Yemen, or Rum, or Iraq, or even Ethiopia. Ibn Habib and others say the surah is about a pre-Islamic famine (Munammaq, pp. 263)

Baydawi says they are being told to worship because they were blessed in their journeys (Anwar, II 620). But Ibn Qutayba says they worship because the Ethiopians did not harass them or Mecca on their journeys (Musbkil al-qur’an, pp. 319). Al- Tabari says they are being told to worship God as much as they travel (Jami, XXX, 199). Muqatil and Qummi both say they were being told to worship because Allah put an end to these journeys, with Ethiopians or others having taken over the provisioning of Mecca (Tasfir, fol. 253a, Tasfir, II, 444).

Ibn al-Kalbi says the fear referred to was a fear of the road. Bakkar says it was fear of the Ethiopians (Bakkar in Sutuyi, Durr, VI 398). Traditions from Tabari say it was a fear of leprosy (Jami, XXX, 200). Razi says it was fear that the Caliphate might pass from the Quraysh tribe (Mafitab, VIII, 513)

This is the type of “history” you must wade through when reading all the Hadith literature. It is clear, just from this tiny snippet that we are not dealing with historians, but story tellers desperately trying to make sense of an opaque script. This is confirmed by the fact that the later the Hadith was written, the more details of the story are presented and the more clear the chain of oral transmission. This is the opposite of normal historical manuscripts and looks more like a giant game of Chinese Whispers than of total recall. The prolific scholar of Islam, Ibn Warraq, correctly says that large parts of the Sira and Hadith were invented to account for the difficulties and obscurities found in the Qur’an (The Hidden Origins of Islam, p. 247).

Clearly then we cannot trust both the Sira or the Hadith literature as a source of accurate information about Mecca. This leads us back to the oldest book of Islam, the Qur’an. Can it finally tell us the truth about Mecca?

To read more click here.

Kevin Davis

The Fallability of Ibn Ishaq And The Sira Literature

I have just completed a new essay called Islam’s Mecca and it can be found under the Islam tab on the website. Over the next little while I will give you some sections of it so you can digest it in stages. Today I will talk about Muhammad’s chief biographer, Ibn Ishaq. I trust you enjoy the read as much as I enjoyed the discovery and writing.

Kevin Davis

First of all we need to see if the official story of Islam and Mecca is accurate or not. For this we will first look at the biographies of Muhammad, the Sira literature. We will start with the oldest and most referenced complete biography of Muhammad written. It is by the Abbasid scholar, Ibn Ishaq. Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632AD and Ibn Ishaq died in 773AD. So this history was collated from oral recollections some 150 years after the facts. Tragically, none of Ibn Ishaq’s original writings survive. They only come to us from an abbreviated version edited by a man called Ibn Hisham some 50 years later again.

Even though there are other Sira authors, nearly every Islamic biographer to this day depends to a large extent on Ibn Ishaq’s account, via Ibn Hisham’s editing. As noted already, nearly every secular western encyclopaedia article also uses Ibn Ishaq as its guide without checking its accuracy against external historical markers. Ibn Ishaq is therefore a key gatekeeper of Islamic history, and of Mecca’s history. If he tells the truth then Mecca is exactly as Islam says it is. If he is not, then Mecca, Muhammad, the Qur’an and the entire religion of Islam itself are on shaky ground.

So is Ibn Ishaq’s biography accurate? We don’t have to go far to find the answer. Even in his own day many of his contemporaries were very concerned about his writings. Ibn Hashim himself warned that he had to sanitise Ibn Ishaq’s work. Of the prophet’s life he left out things which is disgraceful to discuss, matters which would distress certain people: and such things as al-Bakkai (Ibn Ishaq’s student) told me he could not accept as trustworthy (The life of Muhammad by Ibn Hashim, Page 691, Ibn Hisham’s notes paragraph 3). On page xxxvii of the same document there are numerous reports of other authorities who doubted the trustworthiness of Ibn Ishaq’s work including the renowned Hadith specialist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, as well as Abdullah b. Numayr, Al-Daraqutnl, Abu Da’ud al-Tayalisi and Yahya b. Sa’id.

Internal evidence paints its own air of suspicion. The Qur’an states repeatedly that the prophet of Islam did no miracles (surah 30:58), and that one of the primary criticisms of Muhammad was that he could do no miracles (surahs 6:37, 10:20, 13:27). The miracle of Islam was to be the divine origin of the Qur’an itself (surah 29:51). However, by the time of Ibn Ishaq’s biography Muhammad was busy performing many miracles! He was multiplying food for hungry hordes, miraculously restoring injured eyes, drawing water from dry ground, and shooting out lightning from a pickaxe. All of these accounts contradict the Qur’an. If they were true then why weren’t they included in the Qur’an and proving Muhammad’s status as divine prophet? This would then mean we cannot trust the Qur’an. If they are false then we cannot trust Ibn Ishaq. In addition, many of these stories sound vaguely similar to the miracles of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. It is clear that the process of mythologising the past was well underway by the time the first biography was written. The 150 year gap was too long to find and record the truth.

Criticism of a more theological kind also comes from within the modern Muslim academic community. Here are some of their concerns. First, Ibn Ishaq was a Shi’a favouring Ali over all the other contenders to the caliphate. Big mistake. Second, he held the view that man has free will which contrary to the Quran’s teachings. Third, his chains of transmissions, the list of authorities who were keepers of the oral history who were called the Isnad, were defective because he didn’t name them all. Fourth, he used reports of traditions gathered from Jewish sources. Another big mistake. Fifth, his report about Muhammad’s first revelation contradicts all the other Hadith literature. Sixth, there are several stories in Ibn Ishaq which are never found in the rest of the Hadith literature.

Modern historians, such as J.G. Jansen (The Gospel according to Ibn Ishaq), have found that none of the contents of Ibn Ishaq’s works are confirmed by external sources, inscriptions or archaeological material. None. He also found that verifying testimonies from non-Muslim contemporaries do not exist. This includes any reference to Mecca.

Jansen follows up these two disturbing facts with the pithy observation that even though Ibn Ishaq astonishingly knew the exact month of every act in the drama of Muhammad’s life, he forgot to include the lunar months. The pre-Islamic calendar had to incorporate an extra month every three years as it ran on a 354 day lunar year cycle. Over the ministry of Muhammad there were 6 or 7 of these lunar months. Yet Muhammad apparently did nothing during any of them, not a single thing. Knowledge of the pre-Islamic lunar leap year had obviously been lost by the time of Ibn Ishaq so he didn’t think to include it in his dating system. This, along with the proliferation of miracles, suggests Ibn Ishaq was creating a story, not recording it.

Modern investigation into the rest of the Sira literature is now extensive, and the conclusions from the world’s leading researchers is not good. In 1983 Professor M. J. Kister wrote that The narratives of the Sira have to be carefully and meticulously sifted in order to get to the kernel of historically valid information, which is in fact meagre and scanty. (The Hidden Origins of Islam p. 240). Andrew Rippin, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History University of Victoria Canada, commented that The close correlation between the Sira and the Qur’an can be taken to be more indicative of exegetical and narrative development within the Islamic community rather than evidence for thinking that one witnesses the veracity of the other (Ibid p. 249). G. R. Hawting, lecturer at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies University of London, worries that the meaning and context supplied (via the Sira and Hadith literature) for a particular verse or passage in the Qur’an is not based on any historical memory or upon secure knowledge of the circumstances of revelation, but rather reflect attempts to establish a meaning. (Ibid p. 250). I could go on extensively with a much larger list of researchers who cast grave doubts on the veracity of the Sira literature. They have all come to the same conclusion as the three researchers quoted above; that the Sira is a product of Abbasid myth building that took place hundreds of years after the facts, rather than faithful history. We will find out a lot more about these mischievous Abbasids later.

If Ibn Ishaq and the other biographers of the Sira literature cannot be trusted when talking about the prophet of Islam, we simply cannot trust them on issues relating to Mecca as well. So let’s now turn to the Hadith literature, which is much more extensive than the Sira. Perhaps it contains some accurate information about Mecca.

P.I.C.T.U.R.E Edition 3: Albania

THE ALBANIAN CHURCH EXISTS AGAIN, JUST!

1. History

Albania is a tiny country just north and west of Greece on the Adriatic coast. Albania features in the book of Romans, where in chapter 15 verse 19, Paul says that by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. Illyricum was the Roman name for what is now Albania. By 60AD there was even a Bishop in one of its cities. Although the church was birthed in signs and wonders, it quickly settled down into one of religion and ritual as the Catholic and Orthodox churches battled for dominance. The famous heretic Arius was banished to Albania before the Council of Nicaea then banished him further away to Syria where he laid the foundations for Islamic theology. Not much happened from then on for a thousand years.

After conquering Constantinople in 1458, the Muslim armies marched into to Albania on their way to eventually reaching Vienna with the aim of conquering Europe. Sadly, the Catholic and Orthodox elite quickly embraced Islam in order to preserve their social status. It wasn’t until the 16th Century that much of the wider population converted to Islam under great persecution and duress. The next sad development was the coming of ultra conservative Communism in the 20Th Century. Albania became the first declared Atheistic state in 1967. The true church of Albania by that stage has basically ceased to exist.

2. Today

After the fall of Communism many western missionaries rushed in to Albania because of its status as an Atheistic country and the evangelical church was planted, to the ire of the three established religious blocs who wanted their flocks back. Unfortunately the new church picked up many of the bad habits the missionaries brought with them. Thankfully today there is still freedom of religion and the country is nominally 60% Muslim, 20% Catholic in the north, 10% Orthodox in the south and 10% atheist. These numbers include some 14,000 evangelicals.

In 2015 I visited Albania and dropped off a book to the Albanian Encouragement Project head office, the umbrella organisation for evangelicals in Albania. It was a publication I picked up from an ex-Muslim in India showing the supremacy of Jesus Christ inside the Qur’an. It was eagerly accepted as many church leaders are ex-Muslim. I was left with the impression Albania needed a great new wave of sign and wonders to shake it out of 1,800 years of religious darkness.

3. Evangelism Highlights

The evangelicals of Albania are growing at around 5% a year, against a stagnant national population. However, I was told the quick growth of the 1990’s has been replaced with a maturing of local leadership and a lot more training. The started from scratch so have had to relearn many truths we take for granted. Most Muslims are nominal any young so it is not so difficult to see them won to Jesus. Muslim households are very patriarchal so winning the men is key to evangelism. The Albanian church now has several fine training institutes and is already sending out missionaries to other ex-Communist and Muslim countries.

Prayer Points

Pray for continued steady growth in numbers and leaders.

Pray for continued tolerance from the national government

Pray that inter-religious tension from the Balkans doesn’t come to Albania

Pray for revival among the Catholic and Orthodox churches

Pray for the defeat of ancient spiritual strongholds and spirits

Pray for an uptick in signs and wonders, dreams and visions

Pray that the one million Albanians aboard will hear the gospel

Pray that Albania will finally come home to the vision Paul had for it when he preached there

Next week: Azerbaijan

God Bless

Kevin Davis