M. Izady

More Great Maps from M. Izady at Gulf 2000

Middle East Cultural Historical Regions Map by M. Izady

Middle East Cultural Historical Regions Map by M. IzadyThe fantastic map trove at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, generated by cartographer M. Izady, continues to expand. Many detailed maps of language, religion, ethnicity, and cultural-historical regions in the greater Middle East are found on the site.

Today’s GeoNote highlights Izady’s map of “Primary Cultural and Historical Zones.” This map makes an invaluable companion for historical sources covering the region. Regional terms, such as Khurasan, Hadramout, and Hijaz are often encountered in such works, but until now it has been impossible to find a single map that indicates their positions.

A few oddities are apparent. Note that the map includes two “Iraqs,” one in modern Iraq and the other in Iran. Although seldom used now, such terminology was once widespread, and I was quite confused when I first read of a Persian “Iraq.” (The etymology of the word is still debated.)

My one complaint about the map is the use of several non-local terms, such as “Piedmont” for part of Kurdistan and “Caspia” for the eastern Caucasus. The term “piedmont” derives from the Italian for “mountain foot,” and is used for several regions of the world situated near the base of a prominent mountain range. It is used here as substitute for indigenous terms meaning the same thing.

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Arabs and Persians; Shiites and Sunnis: More Complicated Than You Might Think

Physical Map Showing Areas of Sunni Islam in IranUninformed voices in the United States commonly refer to Iran as an “Arab country”—a fundamental error committed even by outlets as respectable as Slate magazine. Few Americans grasp the lines of division between Arab and Persian (or Iranian) culture and society. Iranian-Americans emphasize the distinction; calling a person of Iranian heritage an Arab is likely to provoke a quick lecture on the subject. Websites with names as subtle as PersiansAreNotArabs.Com spread this message so insistently that it has become an object of humor within the community. Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani’s “Persians vs. Arabs” video has reached 456,035 YouTube viewers. While Jobrani’s routine is gently satiric, the 1,407 comments that it has garnered range from harsh to vile, bandied back and forth between Arab and Persian partisans. Many focus on the name of the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. As one obscenity-free but historically challenged comment frames the issue: “ARABS FINISHED THE persian EMPIRE IN LESS THEN 10 YEARS. AND SINCE THEN THEIR EMPIRE DOESNT EXIST ANYMORE. ARABS ARE STILL THERE AND THEY CONTROL AND USE THE GULF MORE. ARABIAN GULF FOREVER!!. “

As basic as it is, the distinction between Arabs and Iranians can be over-stated. As noted in a previous post, more than a million Iranians are Arabs. In both Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, moreover, so-called Persian Arabs—people of mixed background—maintain cultural traditions associated with both groups. Over long periods of time, hundreds of thousands of Persian Sunnis fled across the Gulf to avoid discrimination, a movement that was especially pronounced under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979). In Bahrain, a few of these refugees and their descendants still “speak a dialect of Persian sometimes referred to as Khodmoni [or Khodmooni].” On the other side of the Gulf, some self-identified Iranian Arabs actually speak Farsi (or Persian) as their mother tongue, having lost the language of their ancestors. Most of the estimated 50,000 Arabs of Khorasan in northeastern Iran, for example, are Persian-speakers. Intriguingly, those Khorasani Arabs who maintain their original language speak an “extremely ancient Arabic dialect.”*

The common identification of Shia Islam with Iranians and Sunni Islam with Arabs likewise represents an oversimplification. Tens of millions of Arabs are Shiites, including the majority of Iraqis and Bahrainis. And while most Iranian Muslims are indeed Shiite, some ten percent follow Sunni Islam. Iranian Sunnis are mainly Baloch or Kurdish, but an unspecified number are Persian, concentrated in the southern province of Hormozgan and in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Like other Sunnis in Iran, they face discrimination. A year ago, Sunni Online, the “official website of the Sunni Community in Iran,” ran an article claiming that pressure and even violence against the community were increasing “day by day.” An intriguing recent discussion thread on the Sunni Forum website delivered a more mixed message. Here an Iranian commentator calling himself “Sunni Warrior” tells his fellow sectarians, “Sunnis have no problem [in Iran]. But if you are shia and then become sunni you will get hanged for turning kufir.” (Sunni Warrior also provides an insightful comment that hits a little too close to home: “And don’t trust those western maps, you know they divide us in sunni and shia areas! If a place has 52% sunni and 48% shia they make it a sunni area…”)

M. Izady's Map of Religion in Iran, Gulf 2000 ProjectLanguage Map of Persian/Arabic Gulf from MuturzikinAs mentioned in the previous GeoCurrents post, most Iranian Arabs are Shiites. Mike Izady’s remarkably detailed map of religion in Iran and vicinity, however, depicts the Arabic-speaking coastal strip of Bushehr Province as Sunni. Comprehensive linguistic maps indicate that this area’s inhabitants speak Gulf Arabic, rather than the Iraqi Arabic prevalent in Khuzestan province, which would help explain the religious differentiation of Iranian Arabs.

Astoundingly, Izady’s map of religion shows an area of “African Animism” in southeastern Iran. A community of African descent, the Ahl-i Hava, does indeed inhabit this area, which Iraj Bashiri linked in 1983 to the Portuguese importation of slaves from southeastern Africa in the 16th century. (Others have hypothesized different origins, including, bizarrely, descent from pre-Indo-European indigenes!) Bashiri portrays the faith of the Ahl-i Hava as a syncretic blend of Shia Islam and animism, the latter marked by the peculiar worship of winds blowing from particular directions. Until recently, another ethnic group practiced animism in the country as well: the Godars, “nomadic gypsies who migrated from India to Iran.” According to director Bahman Kiarostami’s 2004 film “Infidels” (Koffar), the Godars were forcibly converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic revolution of the 1970s; evidently they are still widely viewed as infidels by others.

*The phrase used in the German report on the subject is “außerordentlich altertümlichen arabischen Dialektes.” Khorasani Arabs may be few in number but they are of considerable historical importance, having been the main military force behind the replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE. Some scholars have argued that the subsequent Abbasid “Golden Age” was in large part the result of the fusing of Arab and Persian (as well as Greek) intellectual traditions. In later periods as well, many of the finest Persian scholars, including the astounding geographer and polymath al-Birunī (973-1048 CE), wrote mostly in Arabic rather than Persian.

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The New York Times Misleading Map of Religion in Syria

New York Times Map of Religious Diversity in Syria I was delighted to find in the New York Times this morning a large, colored map of cultural diversity in Syria and neighboring areas, focusing on religion but including some linguistic information as well. It was immediately apparent that the map was based on M. Izady’s work at the Gulf 2000 project, the best available source for maps of this kind. Close inspection, however, revealed that the Times cartographer either did not understand Izady’s original, or was simply not able to replicate it accurately. The map published this morning contains several glaring errors, as well as a number of misleading depictions. I have highlighted some of these problems with red labels on the reproduction of the map posted here.

The biggest problem with the map is the fact that it exaggerates the range of both Shi’ism and its Alawite offshoot. Note that virtually the entire Mediterranean coast north of Israel is depicted as Shi’ite (whether mainstream or Alawite), whereas in actuality, northern Lebanon and several other parts of the country are solidly Sunni. (In the Times map, the only part of Lebanon depicted as Sunni is the extreme south, an area that is actually Shi’ite!) Syria’s core area in and around Damascus is also shown as Shi’ite, whereas it is largely Sunni. The inset map of the distribution of Shi’ites throughout the Middle East is also highly exaggerated, showing many areas with at best Shi’ite minorities (upper Egypt, far western Turkey, much of Pakistani Baluchistan, etc.) as if they had Shi’ite majorities. The Alawite zone is also unduly inflated. It erroneously includes an area of Alevi Islam (a different Shi’ite “off-shoot”) in central Turkey, and the large Alawite blob depicted in central Iraq is purely imaginary.

The grey areas on the map, labeled “other religion,” are also curious. As this category includes Yezidi areas in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, Jewish areas in Israel, and a largely Christian zone in southern Cyprus, it should at least be labeled “other religions.” And as Christian areas elsewhere on the map are depicted as such, it seems odd that southern Cyrus would be thrown into the “other” category.

Finally, the Kurdish-speaking area, depicted with diagonal lines, is misconstrued. Kurdish is spoken over a somewhat larger area of Syrian than is indicated; more important, the Kurdish area extends over Syria’s borders across northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. As the religious communities depicted on the map are not shown as terminating at the boundaries of Syria, it seems odd that the Kurdish area is.

For GeoCurrents maps of Syrian religious and ethnic diversity, see this post.Wikipedia Map of Arab Israelis

M. Izady's map of religion in northern Israel and environs

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Libya’s Tribal Divisions and the Nation-State


Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, that of Libya has a strong tribal component. When key tribal leaders rejected his regime, Muammar Gaddafi’spower began to evaporate from large segments of the country.

The phenomenon of tribalism in oil-rich Libya has caused some confusion in the media. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor began by noting that Libya is “considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world,” yet went on to assert that “Qaddafi’s greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping [the tribes] of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance.” Only the “current chaos,” the article contends, has allowed tribes to “reassert their importance.” Most reports, by contrast, maintain that Gaddafi sought to manipulate rather than eliminate the country’s tribal structure, bolstering his own power by dividing military command, for example, along clan lines. Yet the consequences of such tribalized power structures for the country’s national government can be perplexing. A recent article attributed to the New York Times portrays them in stark terms: “Under Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official rhetoric disdains the idea of a nation-state, [and] tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military…” Yet the original Times article, as posted on its website, pulls back from such a blunt assessment, blandly contending only that “under Colonel Qaddafi’s idiosyncratic rule, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military.”

Such confusion derives largely from the expectations generated by socio-political theory. Political modernization is supposed to dismantle traditional social features like tribal power structures, replacing them with the systematic administration of the bureaucratic state. Tribes thrive where state power is weak or non-existent, allowing a measure of security in an anarchic environment. By this logic, Libya, with its vast oil wealth, has undertaken a path of state-led modernization that should have undermined the country’s tribes. And to regard Libya as anything less than a nation-state would risk throwing our entire geopolitical world model into question, as all countries are habitually regarded as nation-states, political entities in which primary allegiance is given to the nation as a whole rather than to subsidiary aggregations such as tribes, ethnic groups, or regional communities. Tribal affiliation, by such thinking, is a vanishing feature of a by-gone world.

But despite countless assertions of Libya’s nation-statehood, its political structures have never matched the model. Far from attempting to replicate the forms of the European nation-state, Gadaffi has sought to build a different kind of government, as reflected in his country’s official name: the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” “Jamahiriya,” a term Gadaffi coined himself, is usually translated along the lines of “state of the masses” or “direct democracy.” According to official propaganda, the Libyan political model seeks to transcend not so much the national side of the nation-state model but rather the state itself. Jamahiriya, we are told, is based on “[the] rejection of the notion that the people need the structure of the state in order to regulate their lives. … [T]here is no need for a superfluous state structure which, however well monitored by the people, may threaten the revolutionary achievement of direct democracy….” Such a form of government, Gaddafi has insisted, is fitting for the entire world. As a result, Libya’s official ideology has been deemed the “Third Universal Theory.”

“Direct democracy” in Libya, as elsewhere, has promised much more than it has delivered. In practice, it has entailed autocratic rule, nepotism, and massive levels of corruption, much to the fury of the Libyan people. But by disparaging the normal structures of national government, the Libyan experiment has also left a vacuum of political organization—one that has been partially filled by the tribal groups. It is in this backhanded way that Jamahiriya has reinforced the tribal element in Libyan politics.

Because tribal groups in the greater Middle East have generally been regarded as anachronistic remnants destined to die out, they have rarely been mapped, and almost never in any detail. The 1974 CIA map of ethnic groups of Libya posted above in unusual in that it does show “selected tribes,” but its selective nature reduces its utility. Most of the country’s tribes are not depicted, including the largest, Warfalla, with an estimated one million members. As the continuing importance of tribal politics in the greater Middle East has been demonstrated not just by the upheaval in Libya but much more powerfully by experiences of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, cartographic attention to this aspect of political organization is clearly in order. Thanks to M. Izady and Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, comprehensive mapping of tribal groups in Afghanistan has now been carried out. Further efforts, one can hope, will be forthcoming.

* Many thanks to Shine Zaw-Aung for pointing out the discrepancies between the article on the New York Times website and the same article as reprinted in other newspapers.

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Egypt’s Religious Diversity and Its Forgotten Shi’ites


Issues of religion have figured prominently in news reports and commentaries on the recent political upheaval in Egypt. A number of rightwing pundits have warned that the uprising could allow the Muslim Brotherhood to seize power and establish an Islamic state. They have also highlighted recent attacks on Egyptian Christians by Muslim extremists, arguing that the Christian position will probably further deteriorate under a new regime. Most observers, however, have stressed the secular nature of the Egyptian revolution, casting doubt on any devolution into a hard-line Islamist government. A number of reporters have stressed cooperation between Muslim and Coptic Christian protestors; a photograph posted on The Daily Dish, for example, showed Christians linking hands to form a protective cordon around praying Muslim demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Despite the political divergence of recent commentary, most reports divide Egypt cleanly into two communities of faith: the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians. Standard reference sources claim that roughly ninety percent of Egyptians follow Sunni Islam, with virtually all of the rest adhering to Coptic Christianity. In actuality, the situation is more complicated.

Religious statistics in Egypt are crude approximations at best. The country does not ask about faith in its infrequent censuses, and the subject has not been addressed through public polling. As a result, reasonable estimates of Egypt’s Christian population vary from over twenty to as low as seven percent. The Wikipedia pegs the Christian proportion at “10-20 percent.” The same article puts the number of Coptic Christians at thirteen to seventeen million; yet if Christians possibly account for only ten percent of the Egyptian population, their numbers could not exceed eight million. And not all Egyptian Christians are Copts; the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities each number roughly a quarter million, and other sects count thousands of adherents.

The geography of these communities is an intricate one. As can be seen in M. Izady’s map of religion posted above, Egyptian Christian congregations are interspersed with Muslim communities over much of the country. A hundred years ago, roughly eighty percent of Egyptian Christians lived south of Cairo in Upper Egypt. But with the vast expansion of Cairo and other cities in the north, the distribution pattern changed. Today some sixty percent of Egyptian Christians live in Lower Egypt.

Estimates of Egypt’s Shi’ite population are more variable yet. The Wikipedia article “Religion in Egypt” tells us that “there is a minority of Shi’a numbering a few thousands,” while the article on “Islam in Egypt” does not find the Shi’ite community worth mentioning. Many sources, however, estimate Egypt’s Shi’ite population at 700,000: less than one percent of the total population, yet a very substantial number. A few experts think that this community is significantly larger.

Whatever their numbers, Shi’ites were persecuted under the Mubarak regime. According to Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “Shi’ites are treated with suspicion like all other religious groups in the country as a threat that must be contained.” But there are some indications that they have been singled out for special persecution. A 2004 news report claimed that three Shi’ite dissidents were held by security forces for eight months and were only released after they promised to convert to Sunni Islam. Five years later, a number of Shia leaders were arrested and charged with “forming a group trying to spread Shiite ideology that harms the Islamic religion.” According to one dissident, “There have been smear campaigns about us in the state press and in mosques, and our loyalty has been questioned.” Shiites, he claims, have often been regarded as agents of Iranian subversion by the Egyptian security forces.

The notion that Shi’ism in Egypt is a vehicle of Iranian subversion is shared by some outside of Egypt as well. In 2008, the Saudi-owned international newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat claimed that the very existence of Shi’ism in Egypt stems from the recent activities of the Iranian government:

Statistics in Egypt a few years ago show that the Egyptian Muslims were 100 per cent Sunnis. Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under the Shiite Fatimid rule. Recently, the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and Egyptians amounting to thousands and perhaps dozens of thousands have converted into Shiites. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups.

These claims are not credible. Shi’ism has perhaps gained converts in Egypt in recent years, but the faith has been present much longer than that. To be sure, the Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 CE, did not impose its version of Islam on the country; the Fatimids were noted for their tolerance, allowing Sunni Muslims, as well as Christians and Jews, not just to practice their faiths unmolested, but also to reach high levels in governmental service. Yet Shi’ism – in the Ismaili version of the faith practiced by the Fatimid rulers – certainly did “penetrate” Egypt during this period. In the standard narrative, Ismaili Shi’ism gradually declined after the Fatimids lost power, and eventually all but vanished. According to the official U.S. “country study” of Egypt, “there were virtually no Ismailis in Egypt.” It is doubtful, however, that the author of the “country report” had accurate religious statistics for all parts of the country, and it is often the case that that sizable but proportionally small minorities in densely populated areas are unduly dismissed. A “mere” one percent of Egypt’s population might be considered inconsequential, but at 800,000 it is equivalent to the population of San Francisco.

Some scholars put Egypt’s current Ismaili population well above one percent. M. Izady pegs Egypt’s total Shia population at 2.2 million, finds it to be concentrated in seldom-studied southern Upper Egypt, and judges the community to be mostly Ismaili. If Izady is correct, the story of Shi’ism in Egypt needs to be substantially revised. The presence of a large Ismaili community would suggest that connections with Iran may be much weaker than is commonly imagined. Both the theological and the sociological gaps between the Twelver Shi’ism dominant in Iran and Ismaili Shi’ism – known for being global, cosmopolitan, and relatively liberal – are substantial.

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