Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jonathan Eig's hit job on the character and legacy of Muhammad Ali

Dave Davies, guest-host of NPR's Fresh Air, introduced his guest and subject this way: 
Muhammad Ali may be the most famous American athlete ever. His life is the subject of books, documentaries and feature films. But our guest, writer Jonathan Eig, says he was surprised to discover no one had ever done a complete, unauthorized biography. Eig spent four years researching Ali's life, speaking with his three surviving wives, his managers and hundreds of others.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison

The dark heart of West's Iran obsession

A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran, Elliott & Thompson (April, 2013). ISBN-10: 1908739894. ISBN-13: 978-1908739896. Price US$11.58. 112 pages. 

Reviewed by Peter Jenkins*
A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran is the work of one of Britain's most brilliant political commentators, Peter Oborne, and an Irish physicist, David Morrison, who has written powerfully about the misleading of British public and parliamentary opinion in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs

 Challenging the Historiography of the Rashidun Caliphate?
Tayeb El-Hibri. Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xi + 471 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-15082-8; ISBN 978-0-231-52165-9.

Reviewed by Zohar Hadromi-Allouche (Divinity and Religious Studies -- University of Aberdeen)

This study is dedicated to the historiography of the Rashidun caliphate. El-Hibri states at the outset, that his goal was to "argue for an alternative reading of this history as a largely parabolic cycle of literary narrative" (p. ix). The monograph consists of eight chapters. Within the structural framework of the introduction (chapter 1) and conclusion (chapter 8), the main body of the book is organized chronologically, from the succession of the Prophet (chapter 2) and the reigns of 'Umar (chapter 3) and 'Uthman (chapter 4), through the events that led to the civil war (chapter 5), 'Ali's caliphate (chapter 6), and the rise of the Umayyads (chapter 7). Each chapter discusses various events related to the relevant period and examines their depiction in different narratives. These depictions are usually derived from historical sources (mainly al-Tabari) and religious literature (such as al-Bukhari).Then, El-Hibri discusses these narratives through their connections with other texts (biblical, Qur'anic, or Islamic prophetic narratives); or to events in Islamic historiography, either earlier (e.g., biography of the Prophet) or later (e.g., events in the 'Abbasid period). Such connections are suggested through thematic or linguistic links, such as common keywords or motifs, as well as through direct comparisons sometimes made in the sources.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

'Dead Sea Scrolls' Live On In Debate And Discovery

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the ancient manuscripts dating back to the time of Jesus that were found between 1947 and 1956 in caves by the Dead Sea. Since they were first discovered, they have been a source of fascination and debate over what they can teach — and have taught — about Judeo-Christian history. In his new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, Yale professor John J. Collins tells the story of the scrolls, their discovery and the controversies surrounding the scholarship of them.

The scrolls appear to have been hidden in the desert near Qumran in the West Bank by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes that existed around the time of Jesus. The Essenes were an extreme sect of Judaism and, Collins tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "if they existed nowadays, we would regard them as a fundamentalist cult."

Collins, who was raised Catholic, is particularly interested in what the scrolls tell us about the history of Christianity.

"I've been interested in Messianism," he says. "What kind of Messiah were people expecting? What do the scrolls tell us about that? ... Why does a movement decide to go off and live in the wilderness and — some of them at least — not marry and have all their possessions in common? What's the kind of thinking that goes into that?"

The fact that the Essenes appear to have been fundamentalists, however, does not mean that the Dead Sea Scrolls don't offer insight into life more broadly speaking during that period.

"Nobody can be an extremist all the time," says Collins, "and so if you have a collection of writings held by this extremist group, there will still be an awful lot of stuff in that other people would have shared. They had the same Scriptures as everybody else. They observed the same festivals as everybody else, even if they observed them at a different day."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.


When Kemal Ataturk built the Turkish republic on the ashes of the vanquished Ottoman empire, he invented along with it a new persona: the Turk, who would be cleansed of what he regarded as Arab and Byzantine “pollution”. The Turk spoke Turkish, was Muslim and strictly secular in a uniquely Turkish way. Overt expressions of piety, such as women veiling themselves or men wearing turbans, were banned because they contradicted the Western image on which the Turk was modelled. The omniscient daddy-state led by Ataturk and a string of successor generals dictated the boundaries of political, religious and cultural life and those who dared to contradict them suffered terribly.

Nearly a century on this Kemalist straitjacket is in tatters, and from it has erupted what Jenny White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, calls the “new Turks”. Who are they? In a groundbreaking book that alternates anecdote with analysis, Ms White, a fluent Turkish speaker (and successful crime-fiction writer) draws on her years living among the Turks to provide answers. These matter as much for the Turks wrestling with their identity as they do for their Arab neighbours in the throes of revolution, for whom Turkey is held up as a role model. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Is God Happy?: Selected Essays

The first biography of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, reveals that for a long time he was entirely unaware of the wretchedness of the human condition. A royal son, he spent his youth in pleasure and luxury, surrounded by music and worldly delights. He was already married by the time the gods decided to enlighten him. One day he saw a decrepit old man; then the suffering of a very sick man; then a corpse. It was only then that the existence of old age, suffering, and death—all the painful aspects of life to which he had been oblivious—was brought home to him. Upon seeing them he decided to withdraw from the world to become a monk and seek the path to Nirvana.

We may suppose, then, that he was happy as long as the grim realities of life were unknown to him; and that at the end of his life, after a long and arduous journey, he attained the genuine happiness that lies beyond the earthly condition.

Can Nirvana be described as a state of happiness? Those who, like the present author, cannot read the early Buddhist scriptures in the original, cannot be certain; the word “happiness” does not occur in the translations. It is also hard to be sure whether the meaning of words like “consciousness” or “self” corresponds to their meaning in modern languages. We are told that Nirvana entails the abandonment of the self. This might be taken to suggest that there can be, as the Polish philosopher Henryk Elzenberg claims, happiness without a subject—just happiness, unrelated to anyone’s being happy. Which seems absurd. But our language is never adequate to describe absolute realities.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When Religion and Culture Part Ways

Every winter Fox News, seeking to stir up anger through the land, uncovers evidence of a war on Christmas. Secular humanists ignorant of religion and hostile to its traditions, someone in the studio will declare, want us to say “Happy Holiday” or give Kwanzaa equal standing. But Christmas, as its name suggests, is about Christ. These enemies of Christianity will stop at nothing to get their way. Not even Santa Claus is sacred to them.

Actually, as the brilliant French social scientist Olivier Roy points out in “Holy Ignorance,” it is those defending Christmas who are not being true to their traditions and teachings. There are no Christmas dinners in the Bible, which is why America’s Puritans, strict adherents of what that venerated text offers, never sat down by the raging fire awaiting St. Nick; indeed, they briefly banned Christmas in Massachusetts.

Yule as we celebrate it today owes more to Charles Dickens than to Thomas Aquinas. Our major solstice holiday is what Roy calls a “cultural construct” rather than a sectarian ceremony, which explains why Muslims buy halal turkeys and Jews transformed Hanukkah into a gift-giving occasion. Mistakenly believing that Christmas is sacred, those who defend it find themselves propping up the profane. The Christ they want in Christmas is a product not of Nazareth but of Madison Avenue.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reevaluating Islam and Slavery in the Antebellum United States

Ala A. Alryyes. A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. xii + 222 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-299-24954-0; ISBN 978-0-299-24953-3.

Reviewed by Hilary Green (Elizabeth City State University)

Ala Alryyes has made a valuable contribution to the understanding of the religious and intellectual lives of enslaved persons in the antebellum United States with the new English translation and contextual essays of A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said. This critical study explores the history of Islam in America through the narrative of Ibn Said and its various interpretations by missionaries, proslavery advocates, and  scholars. The work’s main contribution is the new English translation of the Ibn Said’s narrative itself. By presenting Ibn Said’s Arabic text alongside Alryyes’ English translation on facing pages, the book  adds a degree of authenticity to the slave narrative, many of which had been assumed by an earlier generation of scholars to be fictitious accounts written by former slaves in collusion with abolitionists. Moreover, this translation offers insights into the shifting historical interpretations of Ibn Said’s narrative from its publication in 1831 to the Isaac Bird translation that appeared in the American Historical Review in 1925. This translation and the encompassing introductory essay offer further insights into how early historians used  Ibn Said’s narrative to forward particular narratives of slavery, Islam in the United States, slave resistance, and the antebellum religious traditions of African Americans. 

Like the American Colonization Society missionaries, slaveholders, and ethnographers who endorsed Ibn Said’s narrative, Alryyes astutely shows how J. Franklin Jameson and early readers of the American Historical Review translation misread Ibn Said’s narrative by ignoring his use of Arabic, the Quran, and literacy as tools of resistance and subterfuge. Rather, Jameson and other early scholars of slavery used Ibn Said’s narrative, like other slave narratives, to promote a more sanguine image of slavery in which slaves happily toiled on plantations under the guidance of their benevolent Christian slaveowners, who only meted out light punishments when necessary. While the author fails to discuss this popular interpretation of the “peculiar institution” or its overturning beginning in the 1960s, Alryyes convincingly demonstrates the ways in which scholars have continued earlier interpretations, such as viewing Ibn Said and other Muslim slaves in the United States as novelties or as exceptions to the predominant Christian religious culture of African Americans. This definitive study rectifies previous misinterpretations.

Muḥammad the Prophet and Arabia

Uri Rubin. Muḥammad the Prophet and Arabia. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. getr. Zählung (XIV, 346 S.). ISBN 978-1-4094-0846-8.

Reviewed by Konstantin Klein

Der Schwerpunkt der Forschung Uri Rubins (Tel-Aviv-Universität) liegt auf dem frühen Islam und dabei vor allem auf dem Koran, dessen Exegese (tafsīr) und der frühen islamischen Überlieferung (sīra und ḥadīth). Im Jahr 2005 erschien seine hebräische Übersetzung des Korans. Uri Rubin, Ha-Qor’an. Tirgem me-‘aravit ve-hosif he‘arot, nispaḥim u-mafteaḥ, Tel Aviv 2005. Der hier vorgestellte Band vereint fünfzehn Aufsätze und Beiträge aus den Jahren 1975 bis 2009. Rubins Interpretation der 106. Sure (XIII) aus dem Jahre 1984 wurde für den vorliegenden Band komplett neu verfasst. Eine gesonderte Besprechung dieses Querschnitts erscheint vor allem deswegen angebracht, da die Zusammenstellung in sich so kohärent ist, dass es Rubin gelingt, fast wie in einer Monographie ein klares Bild von Muḥammad, seiner Prophetie und vor allem dem spätantik-arabischen Umfeld seines Lebens zu zeichnen. Für den Band von großem Nutzen ist, dass Rubin ein sehr ausführliches Register sowie einen Koranstellenindex angefügt hat. Dies ist bei der Reihe „Variorum Collected Studies“ eher selten, aber angesichts der zahllosen Bezüge der einzelnen Aufsätze untereinander ausgesprochen hilfreich. Die Sammlung ist nicht nur deswegen bedeutsam, da sie maßgebliche Aufsätze eines der wichtigsten Forscher zum frühen Islam an einer Stelle zusammenfasst, sie bietet daneben auch für alle Fachfremde, die sich über das Niveau von Handbucheinträgen und Einführungswerken hinausgehend mit der arabischen Halbinsel des 7. Jahrhunderts beschäftigen möchten, wichtige Denkanstöße. Es können an dieser Stelle nicht alle Beiträge einzeln behandelt werden; es tragen jedoch auch die hier nicht besprochenen Aufsätze maßgeblich zu einem faszinierenden Gesamtbild bei. Eine Ausnahme bildet höchstens der dritte Beitrag, eine ausführliche Widerlegung der Thesen von Günter Lüling, Die Wiederentdeckung des Propheten Muhammad, Erlangen 1981, in der Rubin zwar seine fundierte Quellenkenntnisse demonstrieren kann, die aber als Rezension an dieser Stelle etwas unvermittelt steht.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

In an attempt to reconceptualize the destruction caused by the American Civil War “as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change,” Megan Kate Nelson innovatively combines environmental and cultural history methodologies (p. 9). Using an interdisciplinary approach, Nelson explores how Americans--Northern, Southern, black, white, female, and male--interpreted the large-scale obliteration of cities, houses, forests, and soldiers' bodies. By emphasizing ruin as both a metaphor and a reality, the author proves that the Civil War both destroyed and created, which allowed many Americans to cope with the war and to find a common ground in spite of the national divisiveness. 

To demonstrate that ruin affected all aspects of life between 1861 and 1865, Nelson divides her work into the destruction of urban areas, individual houses, wilderness, and soldiers' bodies, specifically amputees. She aims to show that almost every soldier and civilian encountered the fragments of war in some form. By organizing her work into these four sections, Nelson strives to illustrate that Americans understood these ruins in different ways depending on who they were, where they lived, the type of object destroyed, the moment in time, and the perpetrators. The author illuminates that both Northerners and Southerners reacted in similar or identical ways to wartime ruination. For example, Nelson maintains that all types of ruins (whether they were scarred soldiers' bodies, flattened forests, burned cities, or raided homes) were short-lived and all Americans were able to wipe the ruin from their consciousness and start anew.

Beginning with an environmental history approach, Nelson examines the narratives and images that Americans produced as they confronted architectural ruins--cities and houses. Both soldiers and civilians used the devastation to explain the “savage” nature of men on both sides. Even if the destruction was a result of military necessity and strategy, civilians saw it as barbarity. For instance, Union soldiers destroyed Southern homes as revenge and deterrence against guerrillas. Yet, Southerners saw such as a breach of privacy, humanity, and proof of Union savagery. Likewise, the invasions into the domestic sphere proved that Northern soldiers were barbarians. To Southerners, this was “personal pillage” (p. 79). Nevertheless, as Nelson reveals later, Southerners also used destruction as a form of revenge when they burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. According to the author, both Union and Confederate soldiers, who accidentally or deliberately created domestic ruins, understood such as the expected consequence of warfare. So although they may have disagreed on the motives, many soldiers accepted the debris and found a common ground through destruction and ruin.