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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 3   16-30 June 2013

Professor A. R. Momin

Was Australia Really Discovered by Europeans?

The oldest inhabitants of Australia are the Aborigines, whose ancestors are believed to have arrived on the continent from the Malay Archipelago some 40,000 years ago. The credit for the discovery of the Australian continent is generally given to European explorers and navigators. A Dutch navigator, Wilhelm Janszoon, was the first European to reach the Cape York peninsula in Queensland in 1606. In 1770 James Cook, a British sea captain, landed on the east coast of the continent and claimed the land for England.

The history of Australia’s discovery is likely to be rewritten with the recovery of some ancient coins that were minted in East Africa in the 10th century. The story began to unfold at the end of World War II when an Australian soldier, Maurie Isenberg, who was posted at a radar station at the Wessel Islands in Australia’s north coast, spotted some ancient coins on the beach. He picked them up and kept them in a tin and nearly forgot about them. He happened to remember the coins in 1979 and decided to send them to a museum for identification. The museum’s numismatic experts found that four of the coins dated to 1690 and belonged to the Dutch East India Company. The remaining five were minted at Kilwa, now in Tanzania, between the 10th and 14th century.

An Australian anthropologist, Ian McIntosh, who is based at Indiana University, Indianapolis, USA, has taken up a project, funded by the Australian Geographic Society, to investigate the site at the Wessel Islands where the coins were discovered and to explore their historical and geographical context. Professor McIntosh will commence his project in July this year and will be joined by a team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists and Aborigine rangers.

McIntosh has in his possession a 70-year map of the Wessel Islands, located about 130 kilometres off Australia’s northern coast, prepared by Maurie Isenberg, which might throw some light on the geographical context of the coins. McIntosh is exploring several possible explanations for the discovery of the coins. A plausible explanation lies in the extensive trading network that linked southern and eastern Africa, India, China and the Spice Islands that goes as far back as the 10th century. McIntosh is inclined to believe that Australia was part of this trading network. “This trade route was already very active, a very long period of time ago, and this may be evidence of that early exploration by people from East Africa or from the Middle East,” McIntosh added.

Trading Networks and the Land of “Zanj”

The advent of Islam on the East African coast can be traced back to the 8th century. One of the earliest mosques on the coast, constructed at Shanga in the Lamu archipelago, is dated between 780 and 850 A. D., and it survived until the early 15th century. Early Islamic influences on the coast came mainly from Yemen and Hadramawt.

In Arabic historiography, Bantu-speaking black Africans living on the east coast of Africa are described as “Zanj”. As far back as the 9th century, there existed extensive maritime trading routes that linked East Africa, Arabia, India, China and the Spice Islands. The celebrated historian and chronicler Abul Hasan Ali al-Masudi (d. 956) writes that there were Muslim communities living in the land of “Zanj” in the 10th century. This area covered the present-day Mogadishu, Tanzania and Mozambique. The Swahili city states were first established by Muslim traders. The coastal cities in present-day Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique were vibrant trading hubs from the 10th to the 16th century, where African, Arab, Indian and Chinese traders met and exchanged goods and commodities.

Kilwa Sultanate

Kilwa is an island in present-day Tanzania and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is said that the earliest settlers in Kilwa were the followers of Zayd ibn Ali (d. 122 A. H.). They were subdued and overthrown by a Persian prince from Shiraz, Ali ibn al-Hasan Shirazi, in 975. The rule of the Shirazi dynasty lasted until 1277, when it was succeeded by an Arab dynasty headed by Abul-Mawahib. The Arab dynasty lasted until 1505 when it was overthrown by the Portuguese.

During the sultanate period, Kilwa emerged as a flourishing trading centre, attracting merchants and sailors from distant lands, including Arabia, Persia, India, China and Achen (Indonesia). The Kilwa sultanate established its supremacy over the entire east African coast up to Mombassa, Zanzibar, Malindi and Mozambique. In the 12th century, Sultan Sulayman Hasan captured the port of Sofala, which was renowned for the export of gold and ivory. During its heyday, Kilwa was one of the principal trading ports in the Indian Ocean, trading gold, ivory, iron, cloth, jewellery, amber, porcelain and slaves. Gold was mined at Great Zimbabwe and carried by caravan and then by boat to Fatimid Cairo. It appears plausible that sailors and traders from Kilwa visited Australia’s northern coast in the course of their travels. Interestingly, an Aborigine legend mentions a secret cave, located close to the beach where Isenberg found the coins, which is believed to be filled with doubloons and ancient weapons.

Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in 1331 and met the sultan. The first Portuguese naval expedition to the Indian Ocean, under Vasco da Gama, reached Kilwa in 1497. The Portuguese sailors were highly impressed by the expertise of seafarers in Kilwa and admired their navigational instruments. Archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of a mosque, porcelain and glass that have been dated to the 9th century. Arab chroniclers report that when the Portuguese began arriving in Kilwa in the early 16th century, there were nearly 300 mosques in the sultanate.

Most of the coins minted at Kilwa during the sultanate period were copper-based. Some of these coins are preserved at the British Museum and at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. An exact replica of one of the coins found by Isenberg, which was issued by Kilwa’s Sultan Sulayman ibn al-Hasan in the early 14th century, is at the British Museum.

Archaeological excavations, historical investigations and geographical and geomorphic surveys, to be carried out by McIntosh and his colleagues in the next few months, might lead McIntosh to the conclusion that Australia was discovered by Muslim seafarers and navigators from Kilwa almost nine centuries before European explorers set foot on the continent.

Growing Insecurity and Turmoil in Ingushetia

The Russian Federation has the largest Muslim population – estimated at around 23 million – in absolute numbers in all of Europe. Islam is the second largest religion in the country, and Muslims make up about 14 per cent of the population. Russia’s Muslim population is concentrated in a few regions, including Dagestan, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygyea. Some 600,000 Muslims live in Moscow.


Ingushetia, located in the North Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas, was conquered by Russia in 1832 and became a part of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1944, when World War II was nearing its end, Russian authorities falsely accused the Ingush and Chechen people of secretly collaborating with Germany’s Nazi regime. Joseph Stalin ordered the mass deportation of the entire Ingush and Chechen populations to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. More than a third of the population perished in the course of the journey due to cold, starvation and disease. After their deportation, their lands and properties were taken over by Ossetians and ethnic Russians. The European Parliament has classified the deportation as genocide. The Ingush and Chechens were finally allowed to return to their homelands in 1957. Ironically, they were forced to buy back their own properties from Ossetians and Russians, who had usurped them.

The Ingush and Chechen people have close historical, cultural and religious linkages. Following the Caucasian War (1817-1864), Chechnya was annexed by Russia. Ingushetia was joined to Chechnya under Soviet rule in 1936. The Chechens have resisted Russian imperialism for nearly two centuries. In 1991 the Chechens declared independence from the Soviet Union, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the Russian authorities. Violent clashes between Chechen fighters and Russian security forces took place in Grozny between 1994 and 1996. In 1999-2000 Russian premier Vladimir Putin ordered Russian security forces to storm Grozny. The capital city was laid waste and several thousand people, including Chechen fighters and civilians and Russian troops, were killed. The crackdown dealt a deadly blow to the Chechen independence movement.

When Chechnya declared independence in 1991, Ingushetia decided to sever ties with the Chechen-Ingush Republic and to join the Russian Federation. The violence in Chechnya and endemic conflicts with Ossetia have severely undermined peace and stability in Ingushetia. In 1992 ethnic clashes between the Ingush and Ossetians broke out, following which more than 60,000 Ingush people were driven out of their homes in North Ossetia. During the Russia-Chechnya war of 1994-1996, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Chechnya and Ossetia arrived in Ingushetia.

Ethnic Ingush make up more than 94 per cent of Ingushetia’s population of 500,000. Ingushetia is one of Russia’s poorest regions. Rampant corruption, crime, violence and violation of human rights have become the distinctive features of the region. For over a decade, Ingushetia has been engulfed by escalating violence, including abductions, extrajudicial killings, assassinations and suicide bombings. The culture of violence has been fuelled by Moscow’s authoritarian and repressive rule, corrupt and high-handed local administration backed by Kremlin and the resurgence of militancy in a section of the Ingush population. The surveillance of civilians by the FSB, the present incarnation of the dreaded KGB, is a routine affair in the region. The Ingush militants are fighting for the establishment of an independent Caucasus Emirate, where a puritanical and rigid vision of the Shariah will provide the cornerstone of state and society. The outlawed Caucasus Emirate launched a series of deadly attacks on government officials in Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria in September 2008. The group has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people in 2011 and the train bombings in the Moscow metro in 2010 that killed 40 people.

There have been more than 500 cases of kidnapping and some of the abducted persons were later found dead. In June 2004 militants stormed Ingushetia’s main city Nazran and killed scores of security officials. In August 2009 a suicide bomber rammed a truck into Nazran’s main police station, killing 24 people and seriously wounding more than 160. On June 22, 2009 the presidential convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber that left the president, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, grievously wounded.

On October 25, 2009, Maksharip Aushev, an Ingush businessman and opposition leader, was shot dead by unknown gunmen. The Ingushetia police shot dead a prominent journalist and anti-Kremlin campaigner, Magomed Yevloyev, in 2008. The killing triggered widespread public outcry and agitations. In April 2013 Russian security forces killed four suspected Ingush fighters in the village of Dolakovo in Ingushetia. The victims of violence include Ingush militants and civilians, Russian security forces, policemen, government officials and human rights activists. Dozens of human rights activists have been killed or mysteriously disappeared in the past few years.

Ingushetia’s ruling regime has been a puppet in Kremlin’s hands. In 2002 Putin appointed Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB general, as Ingushetia’s president. Zyazikov turned out to be extremely corrupt, brutal and highly unpopular. He was sacked by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 and replaced by an ex-general, Yunus-bekYevkurov. Though there has been some improvement in the security situation in the region, the large majority of Ingush continue to live in an atmosphere of insecurity, fear and apprehension.

Tunisia: Facing Challenges from Within

After more than two years since the former Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted, Tunisia continues to grapple with the arduous task of creating a democratic polity and forging a nation-wide consensus on fundamental issues. The most formidable problems and challenges faced by the country include the delay in writing the constitution, caused by intense differences of opinion and contestations, the growing tensions between the moderates, represented by the ruling Ennahda Party, and the ultra-conservative, hardliner Salafis, and issues relating to women’s rights. In addition, there are fierce debates about the structure and constitution of the state, the place of secularism in the constitution and the compatibility between Islam and democracy.

Ghannouchi’s daughter, Intissar Ghannouchi, who was raised in London and studied at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics, acts as her father’s spokeswoman. She has said: “The inspiration for our values is Islam, but we are concerned to address the modern daily concerns of Tunisians, within the context of modern culture. We are a political party, not a religious party, just like the Christian Democrats in Germany. Ennahda also speak of Turkey as the model to follow: A predominantly Muslim country, with a moderate Islamist government in a strictly secular republic. (In Tunisia) no one will be forced to do anything. Women are free to wear the veil or not wear it as they please. Gender equality in the workplace – including equal pay for women – is part of our programme.”

A seemingly formidable challenge before Tunisia is the growing chasm between the ruling establishment and the Salafi groups, which are becoming increasingly aggressive. They have seized control of nearly 500 mosques after the fall of Ben Ali and appointed radical preachers. In September 2012, a group of Salafis ransacked a hotel in Sidi Bouzeit that served alcohol. In October 2012, Salafi militants set fire to the shrine of Leila Manoubia, a 13th century female saint. They have threatened to raze the mausoleum of Sidi Sahabi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, arguing that visits to such shrines are akin to idolatry. They have burned down a school, smashed cinema halls and harassed women who did not wear the veil. Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has witnessed numerous clashes between the Salafis and the police. The Tunisian government has imprisoned about 800 Salafi activists on charges of inciting and indulging in violence.

A radical Salafi group in Tunisia, Ansar al-Shariah, announced that they would hold a large gathering in the city of Kairouan on May 19, 2013. Tunisian authorities banned the meeting on the grounds that the group had shown “disdain for state institutions” and was “a threat to public security.” Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the ruling Ennahda Party, warned that the government would not allow the gathering to take place. However, the group vowed to hold the meeting. On May 19, the police cordoned off all roads and streets in and around Kairouan and prevented the supporters of Ansar al-Shariah from entering the city.

Finding the city of Kairouan cordoned off by the police, Ansar al-Shariah urged its supporters to gather at Ettadhamen, a Tunis suburb. Some 500 supporters of the group gathered there. The police tried to break the gathering, which resulted in a clash between the Salafis and the police. The police fired tear gas shells and the protesters pelted stones at the police. At least one protester died and dozens of others, as well as police, were wounded.

Persian Carpet Sold for Record $33.8 Million

Museums, international exhibitions on Islamic art and culture and global auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have played an important role in the growing appreciation in the West of the grandeur of Islamic art.

A 17th century Persian rug was sold by Sotheby’s in New York on June 6, 2013 for a record $33.8 million. The carpet, along with other art objects, was bequeathed by William Clark, an industrialist and US senator, to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 1926.

The previous sale record was $9.6 million for a Persian carpet sold by Christie’s in London in April 2010.

Obama Urges Myanmar to Stop Atrocities Against Muslims

Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, visited the White House on May 20, 2013. During the meeting, US President Barack Obama expressed his appreciation of the political and economic reforms initiated by Sein’s government, but urged the president to stop atrocities against the country’s Muslim minority. “I also shared with President Sein our deep concern about communal violence that has been directed at Muslim communities inside Myanmar. The displacement of people, the violence directed towards them needs to stop, “Obama said. President Sein assured the US president that his government must and will ensure “not only that inter-communal violence is brought to a halt but that all the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Barely a week after Obama’s warning to Thein Sein, officials in Rakhine State decided to enforce a law whereby Rohingya Muslims would be banned from having more than one wife and more than two children. The two-child restriction has been in place since 1994 but has been enforced by officials only after the recent spate of violence in Rakhine. The decision to enforce the policy was taken after a government-appointed committee found that the growth of Muslim population was one of the reasons for the violence that broke out in Rakhine last year.

The decision to enforce the two-child limit on Rohingya Muslims has triggered an outcry from human rights groups. Human Rights Watch said that the policy will add to the hardships faced by Rohingya Muslims who are already suffering from restrictive and discriminatory rules, like getting approval for marriage from the authorities. Rohingya couples often have to wait for extended periods of time – sometimes as long as two years – before getting permission. The opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has so far maintained silence over the atrocities on Rohingya Muslims, told reporters she could not confirm whether the policy was being implemented, but if it was, it was illegal. She added that the policy was discriminatory and “not in line with human rights.”

Despite President Sein’s assurance to US President Barack Obama, the attacks on Muslims show no sign of abating. On May 29, 2013, Buddhist mobs, that included Buddhist monks, set fire to a mosque, an orphanage, a Muslim school and Muslim-owned shops in the city of Lashio. Mobs of young Buddhists on motorcycles roamed the city with swords, iron rods and long bamboo poles, defying prohibitory orders, destroying Muslim shops and terrorizing the hapless minority. As usual, the police looked the other way and refused to confront or apprehend the rioters. Journalists and photographs who tried to take pictures of the rioting mobs were assaulted and their cameras smashed. A local journalist, Khun Zaw Oo, said he was hit on the head with an iron pipe as he photographed mobs ransacking shops.

The continuing violence against Rohingya Muslims raises doubts about the ability or willingness of Thein Sein’s government to restrain the Buddhist majority from launching attacks on Muslims and to bring the culprits to justice.

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