History of the World According to the Movies: Part 11- Middle Eastern and Islamic History

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Though I don’t get into Lawrence of Arabia until World War I, I think this is probably the best movie about Middle Eastern history to post since it’s basically the only movie about the region that many people have seen which doesn’t have genies or magic carpets in them. Also, it’s a film that takes place at a very transitional time like WWI between the waning days of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East of today.

Of course, Hollywood history has usually been biased toward Western Civilization with the later years strongly focused on Europe and later the Americas. Prehistory is geared to pretty much the world, ancient history usually toward the Middle East and Mediterranean, and medieval history mostly focuses on Europe. However, there were so much other things happening elsewhere in the world but Hollywood just doesn’t seem to pay much attention to them. For the next several posts, I’ll devote to discussing the historical inaccuracies set in the Middle East post-biblical times, Asia, Africa, and the Pre-Columbian America. Of course, I’ll get into things based in modern times but I’ll also cover earlier aspects as well (except with Pre-Columbian America). Nevertheless, many of these places still contain important history worth mentioning which has changed the world. Also, I am talking about “world history” which should include other areas not under the Western radar. Still, anything relating to Oceania or Australia will be under colonial history since people there don’t have much of a history to begin with. History of the Caribbean will be under Latin American history, Pre-Columbian America, or Colonialism depending on era.

Of course, the best place to start with non-Western history will be in the Middle East. When we left off from there in Ancient History, it was the cradle of civilization as well as a place of biblical events. Sure much of it was part of the Roman Empire but by the time the Western Empire fell in the 400s, the Eastern Empire would continue to exist for another thousand years until Turks sack Constantinople in 1453. Yet, during the Middle Ages, what we call the Byzantine Empire was very much in decline by the Crusades. However, the Middle East would continue to be dominated by empires until recent times mostly by outsiders like the Turks, Mongols, and the British and French. Yet,  during the Middle Ages, the Middle East also saw the birth of a new religion called Islam founded in 622 A. D. by Muhammad which would later become a dominant faith in much of the world alongside Christianity. Of course, movies about Muhammad will never show him in accordance with Islamic custom. Still, this area was a great place of civilization while the Europe was being beseiged by German invaders but it has become a shithole in modern times (well, by our standards). Still, here is a list of errors I shall list from movies set in the Middle East post-biblical times.

Islam:

The crescent moon and star was a Muslim symbol from the Crusades. (It wasn’t adopted until the 14th century. During that time, Muslims armies would usually carry black, green, and white flags.)

Mullahs wore Quran inscriptions on their clothes. (Islam forbids writing Quran verses or “Allah” on clothing but permits it on flags.)

Muslim women wore transparent headscarves. (See through headscarves are forbidden in Islam.)

Muslim women were treated as objects, confined to their homes, and serve their men. Not to mention, there weren’t many notable Muslim women. (Actually though Muslim women didn’t have as many rights as men but not all Muslim women were harem girls, princesses, or housewives and they weren’t really considered as property. They also had more property rights than other women during the Middle Ages and could inherit and earn money. They had rights to be educated and even teach. They also had a right not to be punished if she had been raped and was permitted to kill her rapist should the creep go after her again. Female infanticide was banned as well. As for notable Muslim women, there were a lot of women in Islam who made considerable contributions. There’s a women who started the nursing profession in the Middle East, a woman who founded a university, one of Muhammad’s wives was a businesswoman, two others were scholars, one a poet, and another a nurse, a couple women were war leaders, and some were regents and queens. Also, before Islam, many women in the region had no legal status at all and were considered proper and many of Muslim women had their rights constrained more by tribal custom than Sharia Law.)

Muslims address their god as “Father.” (They use “Allah.”)

Byzantine Empire:

The last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI was a hedonist. (He was celibate.)

In 1453, Constantinople was a magnificent city. (It had been far from it, especially since it was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204.)

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire was one of wealth and power whose rulers lived in decadence and luxury. (This wasn’t really the case since it had been on a long and drastic decline since the Middle Ages.)

The Byzantine Emperor resided in the Great Palace in 1453. (The Great Palace wasn’t in use at this time.)

Giovanni Giustiniani was killed in a single combat while defending the walls of Constantinople from the Ottoman Turks. (He was wounded by cannon or crossbow bolt. He died of the effects later in June 1453.)

Pre-Islamic:

The Pre-Islamic Sassinid Persians wrote in Arab script. (The Sasssinid Empire predates Muhammad.)

The Hashashins were a sect of crazed and chaotic assassins that resided in the city of Alamut and a vizier named Nizam was the very first man they killed, which was during the Sassinid Empire. (Yes, but their presence in history begins as an esoteric Islamic cult -an offshoot of the Isma’ili sect of Shia’ Islam and they were seen as protectors of the Nizari in other communities as well. Oh, yeah, and their existence began during the Crusades and were even allies of the Crusaders {since they had common enemies}. Also, they were said to be quite friendly towards the common folk since their killings were carefully targeted and planned. However, there’s no evidence whether they drugged their recruits with marijuana {well, other than for medicinal purposes}. Not to mention, they met their downfall during the Mongol conquest of Persia.)

Golden Age:

Saladin’s was the Islamic leader’s original name. (It was actually his nickname by the Christians. His actual name was Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub.)

Saladin snuck into a Christian camp to cure Richard the Lionheart. (He would’ve done no such thing.)

Saladin was an honorable man. (By the standards of the day, sure. Yet, he only behaved this way when it suited him. Once he had 200 Knight Templars and Hospitallers executed by Sufis and Islamic scholars {who were unfamiliar with weapons}, which led to a clumsy and agonizing death to many prisoners. Not to mention, he intended to sack Jerusalem but didn’t when Balian threatened to destroy Islamic holy sites and execute thousands of Muslim prisoners. Also, before beginning his conquest in Jerusalem, he put down a Sudanese revolt in Egypt by burning down their Cairo quarter with their women and children still inside their homes. After the Sudanese troops surrendered, he promised them safe passage up the Nile only to have them massacred when leaving Cairo in smaller disorganized groups.)

Saladin was a well-known figure in Middle Eastern history who was willing to negotiate with the Christians and was respected by both sides. (Until the late 19th century he was mostly forgotten figure in the Muslim World because the empire he created barely outlived him and the fact that he was a Kurd. Also, modern lionization of him flows from the Europeans.)

Saladin knew nothing about the existence of ice prior to the Crusades. (The people in the Middle East knew well of the existence of ice and used it in drinks. Also, Saladin is known to give King Guy Lusignan ice water at the battle of Hattin, which led to the killing of Chatillon.)

Sultans were usually idiots who were only preoccupied with their toys and harem girls while the evil Grand Vizier basically ran everything. (History tells us that this wasn’t true part of the time and Grand Viziers weren’t always evil either.)

Grand Vizier Ja’far ibn Yahya of the Barmakids was a powerful and evil Grand Vizier. (He could possibly be the greatest Grand Vizier Persia had ever had. He was also a polymath who sponsored building libraries and introduced the use of paper in Baghdad {which helped start the Golden Age of Islam}. Unfortunately, because many film Grand Viziers tend to be named Jafar in movies {who are evil}; his name will live in infamy. He’s seen as a bad guy in Sunni tradition as well as an inspiration for villains. The fact he was depicted as evil in some of the Arabian Night Tales is that his boss Caliph Harun al-Rashid killed him and his family because Jafar allegedly had an affair with the Caliph’s sister Abbasa {though it had more to do with Harun fearing that the Barmakids had become too influential for their own good. I mean why execute a right-hand man and his entire family for shagging a Caliph’s sister?})

Arabs in the early Islamic era used curved swords. (Curved swords are Turkish {and wouldn’t be used until the Turks arrived from Central Asia} not Arab. They’d more likely use straight swords at the time.)

Arabian princesses were only children. (Jasmine probably wouldn’t be the only female member of the sultan’s family living in the palace and most definitely had other brothers and half-brothers vying for the throne so Aladdin probably wouldn’t become sultan anyway.)

Arabs sold tomatoes in their marketplaces during the 13th century. (Tomatoes are a New World plant and wouldn’t be known to anyone in the Old World until at least the 15th century.)

The Arabs knew of the existence of gunpowder in the 1100s. (It wasn’t known to the Arabs until at least 1240.)

Caliph Harun al-Rashid was a loveable adventurer who traveled in and out cities in disguise as well as led a great empire. (Sure he’d go in and out of cities in disguises nor was he an extraordinarily bad ruler {dates are from 786-809, which means he ruled a good twenty-three years}.  He killed Grand Vizier Jafar and his entire family, which led to a political crisis taking years to resolve.  He wasn’t an extraordinarily good ruler either and is usually depicted in the Arabian Night Tales as good guy because of the greatness of his empire {which was due to the efforts of many} not the man himself. Still, he was good to his workers except maybe his right hand man as well as attracted poets. Yet, in Hollywood, he’s played by Rock Hudson.)

Omar Khayyam romanced a sultan’s bride and saved a sultan’s son from an assassin sect. (Sure he was a poet and invented a calendar, but it’s highly unlikely that he’d thwart assassins or romance a sultan’s bride. Also, I’m not sure if Persia even has sultans.)

Ottoman Empire:

All Ottoman Army soldiers were Turkish Muslims. (The Ottoman Army was very diverse which included Balkan converts to Islam, Christian levies, and armies of the sultan’s Christian vassals.)

Sultan Mehmet entered Constantinople right after it was sacked by his army. (He entered three days after the looting of his army.)

Modern:

Shah Reza Pahlavi was a corrupt, uncaring fool who tried to escape his country to avoid Iranian civilians. (Sure he was a dictator but he also tried to grant equal rights for women and modernize Iran’s economy.)

Shah Reza Pahlavi was installed as Shah of Iran in the 1953 coup by the UK and the CIA. (He was already Shah at the time of the coup. The coup began when the Shah dismissed Prime Minister Mohammmad Mossadegh and replaced him with Fazlollah Zahedi.)

During the Iranian hostage crisis, both British and New Zealand embassies refused to help American embassy staff. (Contrary to Argo, they sheltered Americans before passing them to the Canadians. The British ambassador in Iran at the time was commended for his actions.)

It was through the help of Congressman Charlie Wilson that the Afghans were able to drive the Russians out of their country. (It was also through the help of Charlie Wilson that some of these Afghan freedom fighter who received American weapons helped launched al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which also led to 9/11.)

Getting the US Embassy hostages out of Iran was mostly an American effort. (Actually the Canadians {90% of the time} and the British helped, too, a lot. As for the airport scene in Argo, well, the Canadians actually bought the tickets well ahead of time and the escape went off without a hitch.)

The Israeli government used “an eye for an eye” retaliation with a hit list of eleven suspects after the 1972 Olympics Massacre in Munich. (The events in Munich relating to anything other than the killing of Israeli athletes in Munich has been subject to much controversy. Also, there’s no way of knowing whether the Eric Bana character was a reliable source of information.)

Giving weapons it Middle Eastern nations always worked out in the end. (Yeah right.)

The US has always been able to solve Mideast problems. (Sometimes it has made the whole situation worse.)

It wasn’t unusual for Mossad agents to have any doubts hunting down the Munich assassins. (It may be difficult to establish but according to author Aaron J. Klein, “”In interviewing more than 50 veterans of the Mossad and military intelligence, I found not a single trace of remorse. On the contrary, the Mossad combatants thought they were doing holy work.” Then again, they could be trying to come to terms with what they did. But of course, there’s the blunder of mistakenly shooting a Moroccan waiter in Norway thinking he was a Black September mastermind named Ali Hassan Salameh. Six Israelis were arrested while five were convicted. Spielberg doesn’t include this in Munich.)

There were 53 American hostages during the Iranian hostage crisis. (There were 53 hostages that were held until the end in 1981. Also, they were released in January of 1980, not March.)

Saddam Hussein’s name struck fear into the Iraqi people. (To tell you the truth, there are plenty of people in the Middle East {including Iraq} that carry the name of Saddam Hussein. It’s very common in the region. It’s just that the Saddam Hussein who ruled Iraq for over 2 decades managed to attract notoriety to be in the Western news media. Not to mention, Arabic names are very long as Saddam Hussein’s real name is Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti.)

Middle Eastern and Islamic Life:

All Muslim terrorists were violent Islamic extremists. (Sure there is religious terrorism in every religion and Islam is no exception but there are also Muslim terrorists whose motivations are purely political and not all violence is religiously motivated either even to Westerners.)

Muslim countries were usually ruled under theocrats or strongmen dictators. (There are plenty of Muslim nations that have fully functioning democracies or at least most of the time. Nevertheless, there was very little separation of church and state in the early Islamic era because much of the state structures derived from it.)

Most Muslims were Arabs. (Actually Muslims are a very diverse group consisting of Asians, Eastern Europeans, Central Asians, Indians, and Africans. Not to mention, the biggest Muslim nation in the world is Indonesia, and many people from the Middle East and North Africa don’t consider themselves Arabs even though they’re Muslims and speak Arabic.)

The Harem consisted of the sultan’s love nest where he was feted on by his beautiful concubines. (Sultans did have concubines but that was more for ensuring the birth of competent sons than fulfilling sexual pleasure. And for the sultan, monogamy wasn’t optional for the notion of having multiple sex partners was part of the job. The harem wasn’t just home to his concubines either but also his family along with female servants who weren’t very attractive and eunuchs. Most of the women consisted of the sultan’s older female relatives. Also, the women there weren’t just lounging around all day either. Sure the sultan did have a lot of women to sleep with but the Harem wasn’t the Islamic version of the Playboy Mansion as depicted by Hollywood. As for odalisques, they were servants to the older inhabitants, not concubines and most of them were left to wither on the branch due to the sultan being too old, too drunk, or too disinterested to make use of them.)

Muslims were cruel to their slaves. (Actually they treated their slaves better than the Europeans and Americans treated theirs {in some ways though sometimes they could be cruel to them}. For one, they didn’t use slavery to subjugate a whole race of people. Second, slaves actually had certain rights that slaves in the West didn’t have. Third, slavery in the Muslim world was more or less like indentured servitude than the kind of slavery we’re familiar with since there were more ways for a slave to gain his or her freedom.)

Sultans usually had dark hair. (Because of the Ottoman sultans’ preference for Eastern European women in their harems, there’s a good chance that a sultan would have blond or red hair as well as European features.)

It wasn’t unusual for an Islamic ruler to offer his daughters to marry a man of a different religion. (While Islam allows men to marry up to four wives and concubinage, it doesn’t allow men to marry two closely related women at the same time. Also, Muslim women can’t marry guys of a different faith than their own, if the guy doesn’t agree to convert. Muslim men, on the other hand, can marry women outside their faith though.)

Muslims have been hostile to those outside their religion. (Well, occasionally but during much of Islamic history they’ve been pretty tolerant of other religions {for they sometimes had to be and to a certain extent}. For instance, Muslim Spain was a haven for Jews during much of the Middle Ages. Not to mention, many of the non-Islamic invaders actually ended up adopting and expanding the religion throughout Asia {which actually brought the end of Christianity in Central Asia}. Still, they wouldn’t kill Christians unless they absolutely had to. Also, many Muslim nations have a significant population of Christians today like Lebanon and Egypt.)

People in the Islamic Middle East actually wore turbans, harem pants, sheikh outfits, and Jasmine set up. (We’re not sure what people in the Middle East wore during that time period. though we’re kind of sure about the turbans and veils. Also, Aladdin caused a lot of controversy among Muslims. Then again, movies set in the era of genies and flying carpets tend to consist of people dressed in a mishmash of Islamic clothing anyway.)

Every old time Mideast ruler was a sultan. (Some were caliphs. Also, in Persia, the old rulers didn’t go by sultan.)

The Muslims were a radical and fanatical sect. (There have been plenty of Islamic notables who contributed a lot to science, medicine, architecture, and mathematics. They also helped translate Greek Classics as well as had institutions of learning.)

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