Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a somewhat uneven work with a surprisingly broad thematic coverage. The subhead is “Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.” But one of the groups covered, the pagan Kalash, are not Middle Eastern. A group like the Mandaeans, who have disappeared from the region due to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, are not in any way comparable to the Coptic Christians of Egypt, who number in the millions.
Rather, the bigger issue that is being put into focus is how religious minorities are faring in the Islamic world. The short answer is not very well. The recent events on Mount Sinjar, where the Yezidi were targeted for what seems a classical case of genocide by the Islamic State, illustrates that. The issue though is less that the Islamic State is eliminationist in its intent, but that the Muslim majorities are quite apathetic or uninterested in how religious minorities fair. Russell relates how non-Muslim Kalash children were converted to Islam by teachers who made them recite the shahada, after which they were barred from identifying as non-Muslim due to the punishments enforced upon apostates. In this way a whole generation of Kalash were extracted from their broader family networks and cultural heritage individual by individual. This is in complement to the mass expulsion of peoples in the aftermath of the late lamented Iraq invasion, which sent ripples throughout the region. It is ironic that George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, was instrumental in the eventual disappearance of Christian traditions which are nearly 2,000 years old from their ancestral homelands.
A more interesting, and less depressing, aspect of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, is the historical speculation by the author that many heterodox groups such as the Druze, Yezidi, Alawites, and Mandeans, preserve elements of Middle Eastern religious thought derived from antiquity. In particular, the influence of the Sabians of Harran looms large. This was a clearly pagan group which persisted down through the early Muslim centuries by asserting that they were the Sabians mentioned in the Koran, ergo, deserving of protection as People of the Book. The true religious identity of the Sabian seems to have been a synthesis of the ancient traditions of the Fertile Crescent, as well as Hellenistic Neo-Platonism. Sabians such as Thābit ibn Qurra were instrumental in the dissemination of Greek philosophy in the Baghdad created by Harun al-Rashid. Russell documents how threads of these beliefs have persisted among groups as disparate as the Yezidi, Alawites, Druze, and Mandaeans.
But these may be the last generations of these religious sects, who are grappling with the consequences and implications of modernity. The collective/corporate identities which insulated them in the past are fading, and dislocation and migration to the individualistic societies of the West are rendering them vulnerable to deracination. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is then perhaps useful as it records a world which will fade into memory before this generation shall expires.
Addendum: One of the more fascinating aspects in the narrative are references to a book with the title The Nabataean Agriculture. The aim of the work is mostly utilitarian. But, in an offhand manner the author, who lived in the first few centuries of Islam, recounts ethnographic detail which is strongly suggestive of the likelihood that in many rural areas of unmodified rural paganism dating to antiquity persisted in the Fertile Crescent. This, in contrast to the organized and “high culture” paganism of Harran. This is not entirely surprising, and is perhaps analogous to the survival of the Kalash into modern times. The “high religions” were dominant in urban areas among elites, but often took a laissez faire attitude toward the peasantry.