Thu, 1 Aug 13 at 13:28   | comment No Comments Yet

Not In The Koran — Islam’s Medieval Gangsters


Perhaps not historically accurate

There’s a certain kind of fantasy novel that I’ve been reading lately. You know: the cover has a man in a hood, brandishing an edged weapon. The hero is an assassin, or a rogue thief, or a mercenary. There’s an evil priest, a fallen woman with unexpected skills (either paranormal or martial), and a lot of dusty, ancient streets.

Fun, right? Escapist summer fare. Hey, it’s not all I read.

But it turns out there’s real, genuine history that is just as interesting as these made-up stories. Smithsonian has a fascinating article up describing the Banu Sasan, “Islam’s medieval underworld”:

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise.

Every bit as well organized as Western criminal guilds, if not more so, the Banu Sasan were blessed with several chroniclers. One work in particular, the 13th-century Kashf al-asrar, has thirty chapters detailing techniques and scams used by the underworld. From moneychangers wearing surreptitiously magnetized rings to deflect their scales’ indicators, to burglars’ tricks for breaking into mud-walled houses, we can see the full range of criminal endeavor.

Why did the Banu Sasan evolve to this point — arguably ahead of and better than their European counterparts? Urbanization might have been the key. Eastern cities were larger and older, supporting a much broader variety of trades and professions than the still predominately agrarian West. Inevitably such increasing specialization included more devious pursuits. Someone is always thinking outside the box; in the flowering Islamic empire, they had more opportunity.

Oh, and the turtle …? Click here to find out why it was part of the burglar’s kit.

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