Wednesday, May 25, 2016

No god but God by Reza Aslan (Book Review #23 of 2016)


No god but God: The Origins and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan
This is really two different books together. I give the first half a star and a half due to the disengenous and unscientific nature of Aslan's writing. The second half, however, I find to be much more interesting and informative. I do not recommend reading Aslan's book by itself; I completed this book among several others on the history of Islam and the Middle East and several by modern Muslims highlighting injustice and pushing for reforms. Books regarding the history of Islam include Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars), Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars), Malise Ruthven's Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and Michael Cook's Very Short Introduction to the Koran.  I found Ansary's book to be the most similar to the second half of Aslan's book, probably because of its similar highlights of Sufi and Shiia history since both Aslan and Ansary are quite familiar with those. Reform texts that I read include Heretic by Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars), Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars), and Mona Eltawahy's Headscarves and Hymens (3.5 stars).  I also listened to Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz's interfaith dialogue which I found uninformative (1 star) and Robert Spencer's Islam Unveiled (1 star).

Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), and Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars) were also helpful.

The first half of the book is written as an apologetic of Islam, the Koran, and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Having read Aslan's Zealot, in which he pulls from others invented narratives about Jesus, James, and Paul, I was not surprised to find Aslan's exegetical fallacies in this book; he has only a rudimentary understanding of historical criticism, good exegesis, and hermeneutics. Where he admits "pure speculation" it is only in passing and does not deter him from writing pure speculation as actual, historical fact-- just as in Zealot. His lack of actual exegesis ruined his attempt to analyze the Pauline epistles in his book Zealot, and it ruins much of his early chapters here. The difference is that in Zealot, Aslan set out to demolish the validity of historical Christianity by speculating things into the Bible that do not make logical sense whereas in this work he sets out to affirm the writings of the Koran. He never really engages with the analysis of someone like Tom Holland, who gives evidence of the Koran being a product of its historical context and pre-existing narratives in the Middle East. Aslan repeatedly chooses to tell a story by choosing certain hadiths that fit his preferred narrative, rather than noting that scholars differ as the reliability of the overlapping hadiths.

"The Clash of Monotheism" - Aslan begins with the heated rhetoric after 9/11/2001 and the "surge" of Christian missionaries into the Middle East, of which Aslan highlights a particularly bad anecdotal example. I reject his strawman because I knew missionaries (some of whom lost their lives) delivering aid, building schools, working in hospitals and orphanages, digging wells, and doing all they could to blend into the culture unoffensively, learning the language and respecting customs.

"Prophets have the goal of forming national identity in their prophecies," is a claim that may sound good but does not hold up to historical scrutiny either. Some prophets are lone madmen in the desert. "Religion is by definition interpretation," and while interpretations may by definition be valid "some are more reasonable than others." That is a bit too subjective for my preference, not all interpretations of sacred texts are exegetically and hermeneutically sound. Aslan writes that the Prophet's goal was not only national identity, but "moral egalitarianism" and he labors to prove this point with a mixture of relying on minority interpretations of key words and painting a narrative from his choice of history from hadiths and his own "speculation." Muhammad did not invent ethical monotheism, but Aslan might lead you to believe as such.

The author describes what is known about the region of Muhammad prior to his birth. The Kabaa, central to Islam, is "shrouded in mystery." There were plenty of worshipped polytheistic deities in Arabia prior to Muhammad, worshippers alongside Christians of various sects, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others. One sight in Yemen was already the "hub" of Christian activity in Arabia; a number of Arab tribes had already converted to Christianity. Many of these did not subscribe to the Nicene Creed and there were many unorthodox Christians present at the Kabaa in Mecca. Aslan also gives the origins of Zarathustra.

According to Islam, the Kabaa in Mecca was originally built or restored by Abraham the monotheist, Abraham was chosen not by grace but because he disapproved of his family's polytheistic practices (not explained by Aslan, this is from me for free). Eventually, polytheistic worship at the Kabaa made it a pagan shrine and this drew in the diaspora such that Mecca was a center of festival and trade for many tribes and religions of the region. According to Aslan, a monotheist named Zayd ibn Amr preached in Mecca about the time of Muhammad's youth, and Muhammad was influenced by this and adopted his method later; Zayd became one of Muhammad's first converts. This apparently comes from a hadith but Aslan does not tell of its reliability, and it is unclear to me how widespread this belief is; it is another example of how Aslan takes shaky information and tells it like fact. Aslan also claims he knows the intention of those who wrote about Muhammad. "One must sift through the sources" writes the author (700,000 hadiths?), his way of saying that he takes what makes the most memorable story for book sales.

Aslan gives some details about tribes living around Mecca, which he writes was not a center of trade but rather a center of worship. There was no legal code among tribes, only a sheikh and maybe an arbiter between tribes and loose confederations or agreements along with marriage arrangements. Anything that weakened the tribe was ruled illegal. (We see similarities in the Canaanite cults, intermarriage forbidden, etc.) Hence, Muhammad's code had appeal and would have been understood in its power of ultimately increasing unity. Was Muhammad commanded by Gabriel to "read" or "recite?" Aslan claims that Muhammad is not the prophet of the illiterate (it is claimed he was illiterate), but FOR the illiterate. Muhammad's message was that God could be accessed without idols and the kabaa was unnecessary. What did "umma" mean? These were the early followers, the deciders. Could it mean "neotribe?"

Aslan stretches very far in painting Muhammad's Islam as women-empowering, and cites specific examples and omits others to make his case. He goes beyond too far in claiming that equality of sexes is found in Islam and not Judeo-Christianity. I am not sure what he means by equality and egalitarianism on this point. He neglects that women had property rights in Jewish law, much less that you cannot get far in the Pentateuch without encounting heroines, prophetesses, and judges. He disregards any actions by Jesus or comments by Paul on the standing of women before God. Aslan writes that, in his polygamy, Muhammad was protecting the widows of his fallen soldiers and uniting tribes through marriage. Thus, Muhammad "needs no defense" for marrying a nine year old. Aslan does not address how this is now still justified in Yemen today; read Nujood's book. In his narrative on the subject of Muhammad's marriages, Aslan conspicuously omits the Quran's tale of Muhammad taking his adopted son's wife. Al-Waqidi's early history of this event has been combined with other commentators over the years having various justifications for the action, none of which seem to play well into Aslan's narrative. Aslan claims the hijab came about because Muhammad's house was also the mosque, so people were constantly around and Muhammad wanted his wives to be protected and not to distract. "No other women wore the hijab," seems to be a ridiculous claim as just in the case of the aforementioned marriage of Muhammad to his adopted son's former wife it was because he saw her unveiled when he came upon their house unexpectedly. It was clearly already present in the culture from all sorts of historical sources on the Middle East. Aslan writes the hijab was later used by males to regain the dominance they lost under Muhammad's egalitarian rule. Further, he claims that the archaic Arabic often translated "beat them" actually might better translate as "follow them" or "sleep with them." That the majority of Arabic scholars, and at least every Muslim I've ever conversed with, disagrees with Aslan's preferred translation should be a caution.

Does Aslan deny that Islam spread by the sword in its early days, that Muhammad himself had to engage in bloody battle to bring about a unity of the clans under his authority? Even though Aslan admits there is little known proof or agreement about the massacre of the Jewish Banu Qurayza clan, he denies it even possible under his egalitarian Muhammad. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he writes. Aslan doesn't even note that Abraham sacrificing Ishamel was not established until centuries after the Quran was considered canonized, since the Quran does not explicitly state who was sacrificed-- many Muslim scholars are recording as believing Isaac was sacrificed. (See Bruce Feiler's book Abraham for the history of this scholarship.) To Aslan, the fact that Muhammad mentions the patriarchs so many times is evidence he "revered" the Jews, and not, as Tom Holland and others surmise, that he was copying or co-opting already widely-known stories. In some places the author writes that Muhammad was obeying the Quran and in others he seems to imply that the Quran was written later after Muhammad's death, so which is it?

Abu Bakr succeeds Muhammad as the first Caliph. Thus the rivalry with Ali begins; Bakr appointed another successor rather than leaving the choice to the shura. In 656 AD, Uthman is killed and Ali leads. Ali refused to accept the caliphate and was himself murdered in 661. The Muslim world has never been the same since. Thus ends the first half of the book, remarkably different from the second half which looks more at the socio-political Islamic history since Muhammad.

Theocracy
14 centuries of Islamic thought have been shaped by the Umma, the elite early group surrounding Muhammad and acquainted with his sayings or reported sayings. There is an "inquisition" over the doctrine of the creation of the Quran -- is the Quran eternal or was it created? Current orthodoxy is that the Quran is eternal. Aslan notes that because the Quran is considered eternal, it cannot be interpreted contextually (and all words in it must be considered eternal and not borrowed from other languages present in the region at the time it was written physically). But later he writes that the "Koran was in flux during the life of Muhammad." How do we square something that was "in flux" with something that is eternal? Aslan seems to want to hold the two in tension; you can't.

"The community is the church of the Muslim," which Aslan appears to be ignorant that this is the case in Judaism and Christianity as well-- the Church is not a building. In early doctrinal formation in Islam there were rationalists arguing with traditionalists, predestination versus other views. Aslan chronicles the role of the hadiths in the late 800s. The Hanbali became the most extreme of the four orthodox Sunni schools in the late 800s. From Hanbali later came the Wahabis and Salafis. Aslan covers a bit of the early Arab-Muslim civil war and the development of Shiism, Yazid versus Hussein. The Shiia eventually adopted the doctrine of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam; this doctrine was formulated in the 14th century and is state-sanctioned today in Iran. The Ayattolah Khomeni's belief is that his reign is as infallible as the Mahdi, and his job is to govern the kingdom in preparation for the Mahdi's return. Iran has "tried to merge tradionalism with pluralistic democracy and human rights and failed."

The most interesting contribution of Aslan's book is delving into Sufism; I find most books on Islamic history ignore or skip over Sufism, which is radically different than Wahabbism. I've lived in Central Asia where the "pir," a place where a supposedly holy person was buried and contains mystical powers, is still a large part of locally syncretised Islam. The author gave me greater knowledge of the origin of the pir and let me see the Sufi influence, likely via Shiite occupation, of Azerbaijan. Aslan recounts 13th century parables and the love poetry of Sufism. "Sufi poetry is love letters to God," something you don't see in traditional Sunni Islam where "love" is not one of the 99 names of God. Sufi works sound more like the Song of Solomon than anything else I've seen, and it's a shame Aslan does not make the comparison. The section on Sufism is a good reminder that Islam is not monolithic.

In the 19th century the Young Turks and Egyptian reformers united in an pan-Islamic cause to counter European colonialism. Salafis supported the Islamist movement, but this was later replaced by pan-Arabism as it "seemed easier." Aslan seemingly tries to connect Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb's roots to Sufism. Qutb initially believed in the arts and a diversity of education, and spent two years studying engineeering in America. He became increasingly critical of Western materialism and either through failing health or imprisonment became radicalized toward imposing Sharia through violence-- anything not purely non-Islamic was seen as corrupt and to be discarded. Nasser used the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power, and then quickly turned against it to consolidate his own power. Then, the Brotherhood allegedly split between those who thought social reform was possible by reforming hearts, and those who sought to take power and impose Sharia by violence, the movement we're most familiar with today. After Nasser's crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood moved to Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy despised or was jealous of Nasser's Egypt.

Aslan, like many authors, felt the need to clarify definitions: Fundamentalism = Wahabbism, and Islamism is not the same as fundamentalism. So, he does not reject the term "Islamic fundamentalist." The author recounts the alliance between Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahab, the arrangement between which one would give tacit support to the other and exists in an increasingly fragile state today (as I write this there is a Reuter's article suggesting likelihood for this alliance to remain intact in the face of such low oil prices and economic difficulty is unlikely). In the wake of WWI, the Saudi alliance with the British led to Saudi control over the land from the Ottomans, but then exploitation from the British and the US eager to secure oil. (On these events, Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East is a better primer.) The House of Saud turned Westward and become "corrupt." Abdul Wahab, and later Sayyid Qutb, had a "goal of purging the world of Islamic diversity." Aslan gives the West a warning today relevant in fighting ISIS (and agreeing roughly with Nassim Taleb's Antifragile mentality): "Fundamentalism is impervious to suppression." When you suppress something, it simply grows underground and arises stronger at a time when the suppressant becomes weakened. Aslan does not necessarily give a policy prescription, however, and his words above make it hard to see how to find a reasonable solution, if reason is outlawed in the minds of many fundamentalists.

The author agrees with those who write that the Thirty Years War is a good parallel with what is happening with fundamentlist versus moderate movements within Islam today. "Islam has finally begun its 15th century." There are several "Islamic states" already, which is why the Muslim world takes umbrage at using that term for ISIS, prefering "da3sh" instead. Aslan rejects secularism, "a closed theological view different from secularization where control passes from ecclesiastical to political control." America is 250 years of secularization based on pluralism, not secularism. Hence, the secular atheists are as much a danger to society as closed-minded Islamic fundamentalists. The author notably avoids using the "House of war" and "House of Islam" dichotomy that Muslim scholars use (begun by Sunni founder Abu Hanifa in the generation after Muhammad). As suggested above, Aslan sidesteps how Islam was spread in the early years, the "shadow of the sword" and never thinks to examine Muhammad's motives other than as that of a prophet with a national identity in mind. The second half makes up for the first half, but only just so. He never spells out what the "future" holds, contra the book title. 2.5 stars.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Podcast of the Week (5/15 - 5/21, 2016) Matt Chandler interviews Tim Keller on Reaching Cities & Renewing Culture

"Dr. Timothy Keller joins Matt and Josh to discuss the Rise Campaign, an initiative to see the gospel go forward in New York City over the next 10 years. From there, they talk about the relationship between churches and cities, as well as cultural renewal and what it looks like for churches to bring the gospel to every sphere of life."

This interview has Keller's passion for seeing healthy churches planted across evangelical denominations. Baptist churches planting Presbyterian churches planting Evangelical Free churches, etc. He describes the growth of the Church in NYC in the last decade and goals going forward.I also particularly like Chandler's affirmation of Keller's theology of work and the discussion of how the Center for Faith & Work plays into the RISE movement. There is no such thing in the Gospel as "secular" and "sacred." Don't separate the inseparable.

The interview is from May 12. 

http://www.thevillagechurch.net/resources/podcast-show/

https://my.ekklesia360.com/Clients/download.php?sid=13119&url=http://media.thevillagechurch.net/podcast_show/audio/201605060500FMWC21ASAAA_TheVillageChurchPodcastShow-Episode29.mp3&mediaBID=4189981

Enjoy.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook (Book Review #22 of 2016)



The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read this book and the Very Short Introduction to Islam (3 stars) consecutively, I found VSI: The Koran to be a better work (4.5 stars). The history in this "short" introduction is substantive and it (eventually) deals with modern textual criticism. As a student of Arabic, I enjoyed how the author delves into the development of Arabic language. I listened to the audio version of this, which is helpful in many ways, especially in explaining the Arabic pronunciation and grammar.

In comparison with other books on the history of the Koran and Islam, I recently finished Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars), Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars), and Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars). Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars) was also helpful in explaining the context leading up to the codification of the Koran. This book is a great supplement to any study of Islamic and Arab history.

The following are my notes and gleanings:
You can't understand the Koran without understanding some of the nature and history of Arabic and how the Koran brings unity to the language. Arabic is the only scriptural language to become the language of a worldwide civilization. One cannot attain literacy in Koranic Arabic and colloquial Arabic at the same time, (this would be like akin to obtaining fluency in Latin and Spanish at the same time), so there is a tension between the language, particularly in how to translate difficult or archaic words. The first English "translation" of the Koran was not until 1734, and not without controversy. Only in the 19th century was the Quran actually printed on a printing press, again with great controversy. The codex was already common at the time of Muhammed, and the most influential versions of the text come from early codexes compiled by those close to Muhammad. The physical Koran itself is a sacred object, and the Arabic used is also considered sacred, hence adding markings like diacritics to provide pronunciation, particularly for words or objects not found in modern Arabic, was quite controversial. Adding diacritics came later in Koranic history but is now considered important if the Koran is to be recited correctly, which is an ultimate purpose of the book-- to be recited. (The diacritics [or vocalizations] are colored whereas the actual Arabic text is in black).

Historical criticism, as is commonplace with biblical manuscripts, largely does not exist in Koranic scholarly thought. Similarly, much of Islamic commentary on the Koran involves contextual analysis. There are lists of lawyers and academics critically analyzing the Koran, but these efforts are often criticized as heretical and sometimes these progressives are denounced or pay with their lives. As told in Tom Holland's book, when early manuscripts of the Koran were found in Yemen in the 1970s, the research was cancelled when a German researcher found "aberrations" between the early manuscripts and the official Koranic text today. Cook does not deal with this incedent, but later in the book does mention comparisons of manuscript fragments, some deviations, and later standards that developed. Commentators on the Koran have to deal with the modern post-Western values that the world has adopted through history such as logic, the scientific method, and concepts like universal human rights. The Koran itself was canonized quickly, perhaps helped by the idea that Arabs were already familiar with the idea of canon from Christian and Jewish scriptures. The final redactors edited little, leaving parallel passages in place. Cook compares the Arabic used in various places to note difference is rhyme, suggesting different times for authorship. There are also the obvious differences between what was recorded in Medina versus Mecca, etc. Cook does examine some of the recent scholarly proposals for various sources, perhaps some sayings in the Koran have origins that precede Mohammed.

Cook writes that about 1/4 of the suras begin with an odd combination of letters with unclear meaning. It's clear someone used to know, but like some of the archaic words in the text the meaning or precise definitions have been lost to history. Given the importance of Arabic as the language used by Mohammed to recite, and the doctrine that the Koran itself is eternal, it is impossible to consider the Koranic text as containing foreign words. Reading a Koran is not considered good practice--Muslims have criticized this practice as being Jewish. Instead, only recitation is proper in worship. The Koran must not be read, but chanted. The chanting itself is rule-bound and cannot be musical (note Wahabbists like ISIS and the Taliban ban music but chant the Koran). It is an art form and can be emotional, depending on the school of thought.

The author examines many of the 114 surahs in the book, and I only noted a few. Chapter Two delves into the Al-Fatihah, containing the fundamental principles of the Koran. The goal is the Sirat al-Mustaqim-- the straight path that pleases Allah. Failture to worship Allah alone is the ultimate sin. There is a surah that Muslims are to respond to repentance of enemies with forgiveness and compassion (contrary to what we see with ISIS). Surah 2 says that there is no religious compulion while surah 9 creates the way for the "people of the book" to pay a tax rather than submit to Islam. Surah 113 writes that Allah creates evil. In other places in the Koran, Allah leads people astray. The "satanic verses" in the Koran are mentioned along with their purported history; even the Prophet sinned. Does the verse require a story, or was there a story behind the verse? Mohammed himself is only mentioned four times in the entire Koran, making it difficult to know much about him. Commentators have always resisted any western change to the suras about beating your wife-- acrobatics surrounding the Arabic in this surah are found in Reza Aslan's book.

I learned a great deal about the Koran and even Arabic comitic grammar and nuances in this "brief introduction." I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven (Book Review #21 of 2016)

Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven

I read this book (3 stars) and the Very Short Introduction to the Koran (4.5 stars) consecutively, I found the latter to be a better work. But the history in this "short" introduction is quite substantive. In comparison, I recently finished Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars), Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars), and Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars). Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars) was probably the most helpful, and this book would be a good supplement with it and Mansfield's text. All of these books shaped my opinion of this particular book before I wrote this review.

My notes of interest from this Very Short Introduction:
The author compares the origins of the Koran received by an angel commanding Muhammad to "recite" to that of Joseph Smith Jr.'s Book of Mormon centuries later. Muhammad himself is hardly quoted in the Koran, so the Koran is sort of like the Epistles without the Gospels-- a history of events without the explanation behind the motivations of those events. There is no coherent narrative structure. There is also no concept of original sin, and therefore no Redeemer as in Christianity.
What is generally accepted about the life of Mohammad? Were activities like the Hajj and Ramadan already cultural activities that were present in Mecca in Muhammad's day? Valid questions.
The author explains the concept of Tawhid, the important idea of unity and obeisance to one god. Sunni Islam has no hierarchy, no supreme religious authority. The author makes the case that decentralized legal interpretation tends toward conservative (traditional) interpretations, interpreters being hesitant to add and more likely to rely on previous rulings and the authoritative text. The author then explains the difference between Shi'ia and Sunni interpretation processes in their current form.

Islamic Sharia law has five sources:
1. The Quran, of which only 10% can be converted into law.
2. The Sunna - the verbally transmitted record of Muhammad, later recorded. The author covers the Hadiths and their rank order of authority, examining problems in interpretation and reliability. Shiia include the sayings of the Twelve Imams.
3. Ijma - the community's interpretation, either the community of scholars or the community in general. This has less relevance in Shi'ia Islam but Sunni Islam's different schools consider different generations to be authoritative.
4. Qiyas - The systematic application of things not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, hadiths, or where there may be debate about something mentioned in a less-reliable hadith or a comparison made between statements in the Quran and hadiths. One example of this is the prohibition on alcohol, was it just some alcohol and was it a total prohibition? Analogical or syllogistic reasoning takes place, which some schools of Islam reject.
5. Ijtihad - the struggle for truth - the total expenditure of effort by an individual (a mujtahid), apart from any school, to find truth. This requires in-depth knowledge of the language of the Quran, and a great deal of reasoning (and great trust by the ones who adhere to the independent scholar's thinking).

There are mainly four different schools with different thoughts about whether and when the canon and doors to interpretation are open and whether and when they closed. The author includes some explanation of how Western ideas, including Greek thought, were incorporated into early Islamic scholarship and legal interpretation, including the ideas of logic and reason in interpretation. The modern buildings of Islam were influenced by modern thought, just as politics and theology today deal with different and evolving values and economies. He briefly touches on the theology of the Ayatollah Khomenei as well as the Sayyid Qutub, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and violent jihad in Egypt.

Part V deals with women and Islam, of particular interest as I have been studying the role of women and views of women in Islam, looking at modern thought (by Ayan Hirsi Ali and Mona Eltahawy to name a couple). There are some differences between the Koran and hadiths about the life of Mohammad and his wives. While most accept that the prophet gave sanction to having four wives providing you can show equal attention to all, one hadith records that Muhammad had nine wives in one night. The author, incorrectly in my view, contrasts the sexual pleasure of the Koran and Islam with the asceticism of the Christian church. Perhaps the author is referring to Catholic teaching and ignoring the robust biblical theology of sex. It's clear that cultural applications and interpretations (see the Qiyas) have come into play regarding age of marriage, burqas and hijabs, (along with the Fez for men), and more. Interestingly, the author never mentions Aisha's age at marriage and consummation, seemingly wanting to avoid a relevant topic. He seems to argue that in the 20th-21st century signs of tolerant change toward women are apparent across Islam-centered countries, conveniently ignoring the works of many persecuted women reformers and the lives of women in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia; the growing expectation of women to be covered is something he does not ponder.

Oddly, the author also claims religious minorities are tolerated better in Islam than what is seen in Christianity, noting Papal bulls that excommunicate the unfaithful. As in Hoyland's In God's Path, there is evidence for this in how minorities were pacified and eventually assimilated in the rapid spread of Islam in the century after Muhammad's death. However, one only need to look at the early Islamic civil wars (not really covered in this book) or even turn on the TV to see fatwas and violence among competing schools of thought within Islam today, as well as the illegality of conversion in most Islamic countries. In contrast, it has been a long time since Christian churches have killed people for apostacy. The author's belief that media and the information age are "undermining" Islamic conservatives seems to not imagine an ultra-conservative group like ISIS using social media to recruit tens of thousands from the West to join their strict way of life. Nonetheless, the author admits that "more blood can be expected to be spilled along the way" as Islam moves into the 21st century.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It is a decent companion, but the author reaches a bit trying to find western analogies or going out of his way to criticize the West while clearly ignoring counterfactuals to his claims. Another substantial weakness is the failure to look at Sufism and other branches as Islam expanded Eastward. I enjoyed The Very Short Introduction to the Koran much better than this work for its depth and breadth.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In God's Path by Robert G. Hoyland (Book Review #20 of 2016)



In God's Path  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire Robert G. Hoyland

In an effort to greater understand the history of Islam and the Middle East, I worked through several books and concluded with some of the most recent books on Islamic reform and the rise of ISIS (many reviews forthcoming). In God's Path most closely resembles Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword as well as the first half of Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted. I've also read Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam, but Aslan crafts his story far too selectively from history in the years this book covers. Other books that assisted my understanding of this book are Albert Rouhani's History of the Arab Peoples, the surprisingly helpful Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Ruthven, The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Cook, The Cambridge History of Turkey Vol. 1, and Justinian's Flea for the immediately preceding context up to 565 AD. I also used to live in Azerbaijan which was at an important geographic crossroads of much of the history in this book.

In God's Path is a lightning read, as it is a amazing how quickly nomadic tribes from the Middle East were able to subdue so many lands and peoples in just a couple centuries' time. Hoyland embraces the challenge of examining the scant literary evidence from the time period of 600-800 AD that Islam fanned out across the globe. He gives credence to 7th and 8th century sources as opposed to earlier texts, irregardless of their religious source. Christian texts of the period writing fearfully of Islamic invaders (ie: biased) still have value in dating events into a timeline. Hoyland does not focus much on religious development, except toward the end when Muslims began to write down and codify Islam. Instead he focuses on the battles and the characteristics of the tribal organizations that allowed for the most rapid expansion of an empire since Alexander the Great.

Beginning in the 630s, Hoyland examines the context in which Muhammed the Prophet arose. The Persian Empire had dreams of success over the collapsing Byzantine empire after the time and treaties of Justinian in the 550s. Plague and division had greatly weakened the Byzantine Empire. From 602-628 the Sassanids had pushed back in the Levant and Anatolia, forcing a seige of Constantinople in 626 before Turks in the area actually helped defend the area from the Persian-Avar attack in 627. A Byzantine resurgence and Sassanid civil strife eventually pushed the Sassanids out of their territories in Persia and Jerusalem. The Sassanids were in a weakened state to face a new threat of united tribes of Arab warriors.

The first period is the time before 600 to 640. The author points out that contrary to sterotype, Arabs are/were not all monolithically nomads, some controlled and inhabited cities alongside other peoples, like Jews. There were already a lot of battles around 610 AD between Arab tribes and Persians, Muhammed's own tribe was only one of many attacking Sassanids in both Persia and the west around 625-630, though the details are "lost to history." Muhammed's rise is dealt with rather quickly. He is opposed at Mecca in 622, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, forms an army in Medina, takes Mecca through both battle and marriage, uniting tribes into an impressive force capable of subduing other tribes of Arabic speakers and leading them to conquest. After Muhammed's death, the conquest of Palestine continued under the Rashidun Caliphate, for which Abu Bakr had laid down rules of war from Muhammed's teaching. Actual historical details of battles are not many, but in the 634 Battle of Ajnadayn, Muslim warriors from many united-but-rivalrous tribes outfought Byzantines. A monk in Jerusalem in 634 is recorded as calling for repentance in his city because the "Saracens," the Greco-Roman term for Arabs, were ravaging the area. In 636, the Rashidun Caliph's army defeated the Sassanids at Basra. There were definitely raids, if not battles, throughout Arabia. In 636, perhaps weakened by plague and doubtless out-generaled, the Byzantine force lost the Battle of Yarmouk, and with it Palestine and the Levant, a major blow. Syria, Damascus, and Antioch were written off by the retreating Byzantines. Gaza and Palestine eventually became fully occupied in 637. Historic accounts of the 636-637 seige of Jerusalem by Caliph Umar's forces are "murky." The Byzantines apparently surrendered without a fight. Jews had been both slaughtered and marginalized by the Byzantines, so some welcomed the Arab forces as liberators, as did some Christians-- who increasingly joined the Muslim conquerers for various reasons. Muslims granted freedom to Jews and Christians to practice, although there were varieties to policies in various territories depending on who was in charge fo the area. Conversian was often optional, and large populations of ethnic Christians were left alone provided they did not pose a threat. Later 9th century Muslim scholars adopted a view of spreading Islam by uniting all Arabs under Islam, but in the 7th century there was quite a bit of variety and not everyone in the marauding armies was Muslim.

The next major period is 640-652 AD. In 643, the Christian John of Nikiu chronicled conquest of Egypt by Amr ibn al-Aas, which took only two years. John apparently wrote that the Muslims were harsh on the populace, particular with taxation, but left churches and church property untouched.  (His is a chronicle I'd like to read.) Like other Christian writers of the time, John saw the Muslim conquests as God's judgement on apostate Christians (his church itself was considered un-orthodox after the Council of Chalcedon).

Hoyland then quickly moves to the conquest of Libya and then Iran. Iran had claims on the Caucauses lands since 428 AD, but the Arab tribes moved quickly. (Today, the peoples of the North Caucases are largely Sunni whereas Azerbaijan itself is Shi'ia from later Persian occupation of the land south of the mountains.) In 640, the Arabs had invaded Armenia and were able to set up a buffer zone with Byzantium in Anatolia. History records that the choices facing non-Muslims were not "just submit or be killed in battle" but that a wide range of remedies were applied, the Arab conquerers were often outnumbered by Christians and others, after all. Some were given deals exempting them from taxes upon conversion, which led to quite a few converts-- and quite a few angry converts when those privileges were later taken away once the conquest had roughly ended and the focus switched to governing. Christians still made up the majority in Damascus, its walls were left intact. Many simply thought the Arabic occupation was a thing that would quickly pass at any rate.

While Hoyland does not go into nearly as much detail and speculation as does Holland, he does note that "the Arabic 'Bismillah' is an exact translation of the Greek en onomati tou theou ("in the name of God", p. 101). He notes a papyrus written in Greek and Arabic from 643 AD, the first document we have written in Arabic, which adopts many Greek terms and cutural forms of the area (some of which also come from Syriac). This suggests that there was already a similar Arabic "administrative tradition" as was found in Byzantine areas and that there was already a familiarity among both the conquered and the conquerers in culture, administration, and religion, such as that it may not have been a radically big deal for these groups to be under Arab control. Hoyland writes that we should refer to the conquerers as "muhajirun," whose message was "to conquer and settle" which was part of the appealing message for their recruits (p. 102).

Chapter 4 covers 652 to 685, beginning with the movement toward Constaninople. An Arab fleet sent to blockade the Bosphorous was "miraculously" (to the inhabitants) wiped out by a storm in 654. The Arabs were later able to blockade Constantinople from 668-669. Meanwhile, Arab differences resulted in civil war, allowing Christians a chance to regroup; Armenia restored its ties with Byzantium in 656. From 656-661, there was the first "Arab civil war" (chronicled well by Holland) which resulted in the Umayyads supplanting the Rashidun caliphs. There was increasing debate about who had the right of succession. Arab conquests had reached into what is now Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Hasan ibn Ali submitted to the Ummayads to keep the peace.

Chapter 5, "The Great Leap Forward," covers the Berber-Arab conquest of Spain and an increasing shift toward actual governance circa 685-715. Caliph Abd Al-Malik is credited with the minting the shahada onto coins. Arabs were outnumbered 100 to one in non-Arab territories, so Islam and Arab cultured tended to be absorbed over time, with syncretism common in territories like the Caucasus. The line between ethnic and cultural Arabs became quite blurred. Hoyland writes that conversion became more common in Al-Malik's reign, and the Arab practice of enslavement encouraged conversion to gain more favorable treatment and potential freedom. At the frontiers of the Islamic state, deals were increasingly worked out which encouraged syncretism in order to get local subjugation.

In 703, Armenians revolted against the Arabs in what is now Naxchivan, and between 715-730 there was further "retrenchment and revolt." There is very little about Arab battle tactics or technology during this period and in 732 Arabs gained full control over what is now Azerbaijan. Armenia and Georgia were largely left alone and maintained their Christian heritage, whereas (Caucasian) Albania was not and did not. As the Arabs increased codification of Islam, the practice of Islam as the state religion became codified and minority religions were held protected but subservient. Alms-giving became mandatory around 730 AD. Arab Muslims, interestingly, paid lower taxes than non-Arabs but all were taxed. Initially, exemption from poll taxes encouraged local converts, but when fiscal needs led to repeal of this exemption the local populations across the territory would revolt.

We may often forget that there was no organized clergy or system of religion yet in the 8th century, most people who were writing down sayings of Muhammad or chronicling events were amateurs with other jobs. But Arabic becoming the new lingua-franca uniting the region from North Africa to the Central Asian steppe led to the intellectual boom in the 9th century as trade increased and Greek works were quickly translated into Arabic and disseminated. There were distinct differences between "Gentile Islam" and Arab Islam. While some aspects of codified Islamic law were already present early on, in many cases some local laws were incorporated. Some laws which were rejected were later claimed to have been explicitly rejected by Muhammed. The early civil wars were covered over by later Islamic history, and later scholars overrode the earlier. Only the Caliph ruling from 632-660 had the ability to truly legislate, after that the canon was closed.

The author concludes with thoughts on the success of the spread of the Islam empire, crediting it ultimately with the recruitment of nomads under one central ruler that made it effective. (My own thoughts): In that sense, it is no different than the Mongol invasions from the East-- a centralized command structure over a highly mobile force encountering other tribes and people who were weakened by divisions and plague, and in some cases eager to cast off the yoke of their current rulers. Perhaps unlike the Mongols, Arabs allowed for some tolerance and self-governance, and actually focused on building in place rather than simply extracting resources. It was only later when exclusive and extractive institutions were built, leading to the inevitable decline of the empire. Other books in the list at the top of this post deal more with the decline and psychological effects, Hoylands work deals purely with the rapid expansion. A solid four-star work.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield (Book Review #19 of 2016)



A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield (1991)

One critic has suggested the book "be re-named as A Western History of the Middle East" but I would suggest perhaps "A Political History of the Middle East." It is definitely the view from 10,000 feet, focusing mostly on political maneuvering and power struggles. This makes sense given that Mansfield wrote for papers like The Economist and the Financial Times in the mid-20th century; the majority of the book is devoted to the 20th century. Mansfield largely sets aside theology, almost ignoring any role it may play in dividing relations between Iran and the Saudis, for example. Why are Shia largely repressed and marginalized in Saudi Arabia while Sunnis and Kurds face difficulties in Iran? He devotes a few paragraphs on major Shia-Sunni differences, but only after he reaches the end of the 19th century. What are Alawites, Druze, Coptics? What is the interplay of Lebanese Christians alongside Palestinian Arab refugees and Shia militia? This level of detail is not really found. Given his financial journalistic background you would think he would have included more details on demographics, economic growth, and other such aspects of the Middle East but these are also largely left out.

Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted is a world history through the eyes of Islam, which is a decent book to read in contrast to this work, and is much more detailed in terms of religion and culture. Other books that I read prior to this include Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples, The Cambridge History of Turkey vol. 1 and 2, Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia, Kissinger's World Order, Kinzer's Reset (on relations between Turkey, Iran, and the US), and Salim Yuqub's Great Courses lecture series on The United States and the Middle East from 1914-2001. Yaroslav Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca is also an important work on events in 1979 that have much to do with 2016. All of these provide details that Mansfield book does not, but I find Mansfield largely hits the high points and gives a good overview of life until 1991.

One major weakness of this book is that Mansfield dismisses the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (1960s) and events such as the attack on The Grand Mosque in 1979 by a multiethnic group of Wahabbists as simply dead-enders showing they have nothing large to offer the larger populace and being henceforth rejected and never of any real significance. He writes in the closing chapter that Saddam Hussein proved "Arab nationalism and Islam cannot be mutually exclusive," citing Saddam's ability to muster Arab support for his "jihad" against Iran. His view from 1991 was that oil prices would again rise and the Middle East would again "be important" as its dictators again had oil riches and complaints. As a result, the reader might imagine that the US would end up returning to Iraq to face off against Saddam one day, and that Saudi Arabia and Iran would fight proxy wars someplace like Yemen, but you would not imagine that Saudi-inspired terrorists were already plotting attacks against the US even as this book went to publication or that by 2016 there would be an international war in several countries battling violent Islamists that showed a remarkable ability to recruit internationally by the tens of thousands. (It is similar to the mistake US policymakers and diplomats made in not properly seeing the undercurrents before the Iranian Revolution and being surprised as it unfolded. Even that episode is treated rather politically, Mansfield doesn't bother explaining that Iranians were outraged that the Shah went to America for treatment--an act they saw as an intentional harboring of the puppet.) That is the danger of pulling religion/theology and the underlying values and culture out of a book that aims to be a sweeping history.

The author begins with a rapid run from about 0 BCE to the founding of the Ottoman caliphate. On one hand, it is nice that he does not look at the region in previous times but focuses on the period when the Arabs developed. There is little information available from around the time of Muhammed and rather than speculate, he just speeds forward. On the other hand, many events around the time of Mohammed are important and provide context both to the formation and spread of Islam as well as modern-day struggles (see Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword). Mansfield then gives a decent overview of Ottoman life and policy, highlighting various aspects of the long decline. In 1497, the Portugese bypass the Cape of Good Hope and the New World takes away the monopoly the Ottomans had on trade and the Western economy. Rather than innovate in the face of competition, the structures of the empire impeded progress and as it declined economically the idea of the Caliphate was revived in order to push its influence over Islam in its territories.

There was an ongoing struggle between the Sultan and Mohammed Ali of Egypt which the British and French were able to exploit, as well as the rise of Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who invaded and occupied Syria in 1831. In the midst of this came various Western missionaries who built schools, hospitals, and brought Western ideas (I recommend American missionary Roger Goodell's work on his stay in Beirut during this period) as well as mass-printed books.  (It was not until the late 1800s that the Ottomans allowed the Koran to be printed and the printing press was not used widely in the Ottoman Empire.) The 1838 Anglo-Turko treaty and an increasing amount of Russian meddling in the "Holy Land" eventually led to the Crimean War. During this period, young Turks were finally allowed to travel abroad and study in Western schools; they returned with bold ideas for reform and democracy. The Young Turks pushed constitutional reform on Abdul Hamid II in 1876 only to later see counter-reforms and a strengthening of the autocracy two years later.

According to Mansfield, Armenian revolutionary movements aiming for independence grew during the late 1800s. The slaughter of many in Eastern Anatolia was reciprocated by an Armenian terrorist attack in Istanbul, followed by a further pogrom of Armenians from that city. In Egypt there were likewise nationalist movements aiming at self-determination. There was an open Britain-France-Nationalist-Ottoman struggle for Egypt which eventually led to British occupation because the Suez was too important to fall into enemy hands. Mansfield also mentions the ongoing struggle between Sudan and Egypt, a point of contention between Egypt and Britain.

In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire could not stand long against the Young Turks in Istanbul or the growing Arab nationalism in its territories. Places like Lebanon, inhabited by both Western Christian missionaries, Druze, and others with more ideas of democratic capitalism, the Sultan's stifling grip on either ideas or commerce began to chafe. Hamid brought Hussein and the Hashemites to Istanbul as part of the court in an effort to keep his friends close but his enemies closer. After he pivoted toward Germany for aid and the construction of railroads, the Young Turks managed to overthrow Abdul Hamid in 1908, only to see the further slaughter of Armenians in a conservative counter-coup. Nonetheless, the Young Turks restored the constitution and its reforms, particularly for women's rights and education.

After Mansfield briefly describes the major differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, he explores the history of the Safavid Dynasty of Persia and the development of unique Persian/Iranian nationalism. One of the founders of the Pan-Islamist movement of the late 1800s was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani was invited to Iran by Shah Nasser ad-Din where his popular preaching calling for reforms, resistance to Western influence and a return to Islamic principles, caused the Shah to eventually deport him in 1891. As elsewhere across the Middle East there was a growing movement against Western colonialism, and al-Afghani's disciples would eventually oppose British exploitation of Iran's oil resources.

Once the time line goes to World War I, the British outrage many in the Middle East with the Balfour Declaration and the eventual resettlement of Jews into Palestine under a British Mandate. There is a good explanation of how the mandate worked along with the chronicling of the Arab rejection of various offers for a divided state and the fraught immigration of Jews into an increasingly dangerous Palestine. The rivalry for power and independence in the Levant is well-documented in Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia and other works. The Hashemites versus the French, Ibn Saud, and others. Early on in the 1900s there was not a notion of an Arab nation-state or states in the Middle East, but there was clearly a strong pan-Arab, pan-Islamic tide through which various tribal powers appealed to a common base against Western influences.

Ibn Saud forges his still-so-consequential alliance with ibn Al-Wahhab and Reza Shah taks the throne in Iran and both Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoy selling oil to Western markets and rivalry with one another. In Egypt there is the education of Abdul Nasser and an increase in nationalism. Kemal Atatürk remakes Turkey into a secular democracy while the author really misses Reza Shah's envy of the secular aspect of Atatürk's country as he pays a visit (see Kinzer's work for this subject). WWII simply delays the inevitible as eventually Nasser and Sadat succeed in overthrowing their British yoke in 1952. The British and Americans made sure not to allow Iran slip out of their influence by overthrowing Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. Iraq's nationalist generals cooperated with Germany to move toward independence, but Allied victory in WWII maintained it in the British camp until a 1958 coup installed a monarch who dissolved the Baghdad Pact. Eventually Egypt tries a pan-Arab union with Syria, but Mansfield writes that the bourgeois opposed Nasser's strong socialism and the alliance collapses into Nasser-Baathist rivalry, a Syrian-Iraqi union at Nasser's expense. Meanwhile, Faizal creates a conservative Islamic front in Saudi Arabia against Nasser. The French and British basically withdraw from the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Eventually, America stops viewing anyone who is not in the pro-America camp as a communist; Kennedy embraces Nasser and Johnson continues the support. The incredible defeat of allied Arab forces against Israel in 1967 have wide repercussions, along with ending Nasser's rule and creating more political squabbling among the Arab states. Anwar Sadat tries to get the US to take Egypt more seriously and starts the Yom Kippur war, leading to greater Israeli insecurity and a more hawkish attitude toward the Arabs, particularly in the form of making ties with US politicians. In the 1960s-1970s, everything seems to center around oil. The Saudis have five-year plans for infrastructure and use oil funds to eventually mount a joint effort to build Dubai. OPEC becomes the household word in the West. Jimmy Carter's foreign policy is humiliated by the overthrow of the Shah, which eventually leads to US engagement in the Iran-Iraq war as the Saudis increasingly have to balance the domestic pressures of a growing Salafist movement opposed to the House of Saud with proxy struggles with Iran. Mansfield essentially dismisses the conservative Islamist seige of Mecca in 1979 as the last gasp of the conservative religious movement on the road to greater secularization.

Mansfield cruises through the 1980s, ultimately building up to the 1991 Gulf War, the results of which were not complete by the time the book was published. Saddam had both gathered Arab sympathies in his war with Iran and tried to boost his credibility as a force to be reckoned with by "retaking" Kuwait, perhaps this is similar in Mansfield's eyes as Sadat's attempt to get Western attention via the Yom Kippur War. He speculates on what would happen if the USSR breaks up-- the Middle East and central Asia would likely grow closer due to its pan-Islamic ties, and Turkey would also be involved due to the pan-Turkic relationship. But Turkey looks to be moving more westward than eastward in 1991.

"The Middle East will not be ignored," concludes the author as he forecasts a return of oil prices closer to pre-1980s levels and a return to power of the monarchs and dictators that rule the region in a great rivalry. In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. There is no ancient history, little treatment of the ethnic histories and religious undertones that clearly mean so much today, no understanding of the demands of jihadi fighters returning from Afghanistan, and no imagination that the pan-Islamism we would see just two decades later was one united in a violent struggle not just among Sunnis and Shias but also between Sunni powers.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Podcasts of the Week (4/10 - 4/16, 2016) David Beckworth, Tim Keller, and Andrew Wilson

It's been a while since I've done one of these. This week there were three podcasts that were very much "me," so I want to chronicle/share them below. 

1. I consider David Beckworth and Scott Sumner to be "mentors" in how I think about macroeconomics, particularly monetary policy. Team NGDP level target, FTW. Beckworth, who is on faculty at Western Kentucky, now has a new Macro Musing podcast hosted by Mercatus (George Mason Univ.) and his first interview is with Scott Sumner. If you want to know my economic worldview, listen to this podcast

2. Tim Keller is also a "mentor" in my Christian faith. He's one of the best authors and proponents of a proper theology of work out there. If you want to know what I believe about the role of a Christian in fulfilling the cultural mandate and why I reject the "If you were really sold out for Jesus you'd enter full-time vocational ministry" criticism as bad theology, I encourage you to listen to this sermon-- let him convince you. On Faith and Work (from his RISE series). 

3. Andrew Wilson is a "writer and elder at King's Church in Eastbourne, England" who I was unfamiliar with before hearing him interviewed on The Village Church's podcast. He recently published a book with his wife about dealing with the surprise ups and downs of having two autistic children. He gets to that in the second half of the interview and it's quite good. Listen and enjoy. I will soon own his book.