Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman (Book Review #28 of 2016)

Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Perlman.

I enjoyed this book during the 2016 NBA Finals. In some ways, Golden State's small ball run-n-gun is like a throwback to the early 80's Lakers. There is much time and paradigm difference between them, though. The three pointer was a novelty in the 1980s and it's hard to imagine coaches and pundits so blindly unaware of the inefficiency on offense back then. When you have a guy like Byron Scott shooting over 43% from 3-point range but he only takes a few a game, you're leaving points off the board. No analytics back then, alas. Tempo-free statistics would have been helpful to add to this book, it's a lot easier to get a triple-double when there are 120 possessions a game versus only 90. It is also hard to imagine that in the early 1980s the NBA Finals were not televised live on the West Coast so as not to preempt hit shows like the Dukes of Hazzard. Before Magic and Bird, and NBA highlight films by a more savvy media office, NBA stars were not so "super." I read Larry Bird's autobiography Drive which also looked at this era, but Bird's NBA was much less lecherous. This book is a good, sometimes humorous, chronicle of the Lakers' dynasty.

The story begins with the long-forgotten inventor of Showtime: Coach Jack McKinney, who is senile when the author interviews him. He was almost killed in a bike accident during the season and his brain never fully recovered-- he was replaced by Paul Westhead who won the 1980 running McKinney's fast-break style. Jerry Buss had wanted UNLV legend Jerry Tarkanian to be his first hire (or co-hire with Jack Kent Cooke who was passing his ownership to Buss). Tarkanian's agent sealed the lucrative deal but then was mysteriously murdered and discovered to have many ties with organized crime; Tark backed out of the deal and allegedly never recovered emotionally.

It is hard to imagine the era. Supposedly 80% of NBA players (and half the Lakers) were using cocaine. Magic Johnson was the first Buss draft pick and fit into the playboy Jack Buss' lifestyle. Buss lived like Hugh Hefner with multiple women and a party lifestyle; Magic famously enjoyed that lifestyle as well and paid heavily for it later with HIV. It was Buss who invented the Laker Girls and renovated the Forum Club to be an after-game place where players could engage with women and celebrities away from their wives. Magic (and Kareem) didn't drink or use drugs, but Magic was known to host Playboy-style orgies where profligacy was mandated. The cocaine-fueled downfall of Spencer Haywood and other Lakers is difficult and almost impossible to imagine today. Perlman doesn't chronicle it, but the epidemic seems to fade by the late 1980s. At one point, Mark Lansberger, who had an open relationship with his wife and other women, told his wife about his teammates' exploits on the road. His wife gossipped with the others and internal scandal insued. He was ostracized and later traded.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was always reading, never fooled, and unfriendly with outsiders. He was accused of "hating white people," ignored or belittled autograph seekers, and was the opposite of Magic, who he repeatedly scolded to "calm down" his rookie season. He only mellowed one time in the decade, when his house burned down and he lost his carpets and thousands of jazz records. Fans would send him their antique jazz records and he would show appreciation, but later became angry and distant again.

After Westhead won the 1980 title, he imposed his own odd system that was the opposite of McKinney's to the dismay of Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson. (Westhead would require his players to run the same way down the court every time, to run the same set plays where they stood around; the opposite of Showtime.) It took a whole season for the whole team to hate him, eventually Magic was the bad guy for getting him fired. It is interesting to hear of the rivarly between coach-and-players as well as teammates vying for playing time and positions. Norm Nixon and Magic competed both with the same women and at point guard. The 1981 Laker team basically imploded, which led Laker assistant and afterthought hire Pat Riley to be thrust into the limelight as coach, who was announced by Buss as a "co-coach" with Jerry West, which West vehemently denied. The Lakers wanted to force Norm Nixon out and hired private investigators to follow him, at which point he agreed to be traded. Magic was vilified in the media and roundly booed by Laker fans after signing a 10-year, $25 million contract. That lasted for all of 10 minutes as he reminded them what value he was on the court.

It wouldn't be a Showtime story without Magic versus Bird. The Lakers players interviewed for the book even use terms like "underrated" to describe Bird-- he was unstoppable for many of them. The Lakers' most satisfying championship was probably the 1987 one. Much of this part lined up with my memory of the battles from Bird's memory in Drive.

Perlman chronicles a lot of unsung heroes on the Laker teams like Jamal Wilkes. He gives the reader an idea of how weird Kurt Rambis was. AC Green later became an All-Star and stood out like a sore thumb in his virginity and desire to share the Gospel with his teammates. I was glad to hear that he was legit in his lifestyle. Michael Thompson filled in as a solid replacement for Kareem in his old age, and Michael Cooper apparently was accutely paranoid-- always convinced the Lakers were going to trade him and working to prove himself. Byron Scott was both tough-minded and an able teammate, a better shooter and athlete than often given credit for.

While Pat Riley introduced a grueling pre-season camp and physical practices, which the players appreciated, eventually he took it too far as a personality cult developed. He would forbid wives from coming on the road and demand that they have one mission during the season-- keep their husbands happy. Eventually, his ego got the best of him as he became ever more demanding and took every loss increasingly poorly. After he stole a Lakers' player's phrase "threepeat" and trademarked it, he became obsessed with obtaining it. He cost the Lakers' the 1989 crown by hosting a mini-camp before the series where he wore the aging players out, and then a grueling practice with unnecessary drills in Detroit caused an industry to Byron Scott that left the team undermanned. The team mutineed and Riley was replaced by Mike Dunleavy who did a good job getting the aged and worn-out Lakers to the 1991 finals against the Bulls-- the last gasp of Showtime.

The end of Magic's career is chronicled, along with the scare it put into players (his teammates quickly swapped lists of mutual partners), and Magic's young marriage. I enjoyed the insights into the aftermath of the careers of those who took part in Showtime.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of five. As mentioned above, it lacks adding any analytical component. It is a nostalgic look back on the 1980s NBA and a team and rivalry (Lakers-Celtics) that launched the NBA into the modern era. It is profanity-laced and pretty insightful into the personal lives of highly-paid athletes in Los Angeles.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses) by John Esposito (Book Review #27 of 2016)

Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses) - Dr. John Esposito

A glance at the voluminous publications on Islam by the author would seem to make this an ideal person to learn from. But Googling raises some troubling questions about what he tends to leave in and out of his works. There is a reason he's been written up several times on Jihad Watch. At any rate, I thought his lecture series would be an interesting to compare to several other works on the history of Islam and the Middle East I have finished. That list is at the bottom of this post. 

Let's get the problems out of the way first:
It is a bad sign with Esposito states that 9/11 interrupted writing his book The Future of Islam, in which 9/11 did not match up with his narrative, only to return to the book later and finish predicting the future of a stronger reformist Islam...which looks nothing like the future we have now in which (according to surveys on clothing according to Mona Eltahawy) the veil is more prominent on women in the Middle East, Mecca is more gender segregated, Turkey's Islamic-leaning government has become less democratic, Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting two proxy wars against one another, ISIL has run amok among a Sunni-Shi'ia divide and inter-Sunni tribal conflicts, and the Taliban is poised to dominate Afghanistan once again. I'm writing this review a week after the shooting in Orlando, the same city to which just two months prior a conservative cleric known internationally for preaching that "death is the sentence" and that "we should get rid of" all homosexuals was invited to preach at a mosque which may have helped inspire the alleged shooter. Do a search for the source of Esposito's funding at the various conferences he speaks at-- always follow the money.

While Esposito is encouraging of reforms, he does not acknowledge the imprisonment and persecution of many who are actively trying to push for them. He wants his audience to be respectful of the theocratic nature of Islam, but does not acknowledge its implications. He does not acknowledge that he has much greater freedoms in American than any academic counterpart in any country with Islamic-based governance. While he highlights increasingly educated women with stronger voices in Islamic countries, he does not state the context from which they've come from, such as cultures of polygamy, female circumcision, child brides, etc. justified by clerics citing the Quran. You'll hear no mention of Ayan Hirsi Ali or others, these are more of a problem than a solution to Esposito. Reformers that Esposito does single out tend to have been on record advocating violence against Israel. Where is the example of open debate between conservatives and reformers that we can tune in to watch?

One huge contrast with other works on the history of Islam is that when Esposito gets to the 1950s and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he does not even mention Sayyid Qutb, and his works calling for violence that are still influential today. Esposito goes so far as to praise the Muslim Brotherhood without even a "by the way," that it's considered a terrorist organizations by many countries. He completely ignores the Qutb-inspired groups who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and where the terrorists who "hijack" Islam get their ideology. It's not clear what Esposito considers orthodox Islam, but whatever definition he has no paradigm for why his version is rejected by so many today.

For the most part, this series is well-worded and has a coherent narrative. I did not find it boring. The author begins with explaining the root "slm" in Arabic, meaning both "submit" and "peace"-- the Islamic ideal. Esposito gives an overview of the beliefs, the Five Pillars, and the key rituals such as fasting in Ramadan. He explains things largely as they are accepted without comment-- his goal is to explain the religion and not critique or analyze it in-depth. Next is a brief overview of the life of Muhammad. He explains the tribal polytheistic context but doesn't seem to recognize how many rituals already existed around the kabaa in Mecca that still exist today under Islam. You will not find any hypotheses on the composition of the Koran from the Nestorian Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Middle East that Tom Holland gives in his work. Esposito does not acknowledge, unlike Reza Aslan, that Zayd ibn Amr preached monotheism in Mecca about the time of Muhammad's youth. He accepts at face value that Muhammad was illiterate, despite being a man of commerce (Aslan claims Muhammad was a profit "for the illiterate" rather than "of the illiterate," for example). 

Contra Tamim Ansary, who chronicles the early use of the word "jihad" in offensive context, Esposito states that "jihad" was only defensive and had specific limits and specifications in the Koran. Hence, Osama bin Laden's use of "jihad" is in error because he "rejects the rules regarding jihad." (Funny that we don't see many fatwas disagreeing with bin Laden and others' interpretation?) Esposito cites Surra 2: "God loves not the aggressor." He does not bother to examine the claims of bin Laden and al Baghdadi that Islam is under attack, hence they are always on the defensive. Esposito states that Islam is the "oldest of the faiths" because the Quran is eternal. Esposito's lack of reconciling these points for the audience is troubling. During Lecture Four, while he acknowledges the different context between the "Meccan verses" and "Medina verses," he never deals with the logical contradiction of historical context and a document that he tells us is considered to be eternal and un-created according to orthodoxy. In Sura Nine, he examines the "sword verses," showing that if one reads the entire paragraph he can see death was contingent on not paying the required head tax. 

Memorization for the purpose of recitation is important. There is no doctrine of original sin, so no "vicarious atonement" such as is found in Christianity, in Islam each person is held accountable for his own sin. He cites surras that show "no compulsion in religion" and states that one evidence of the empowerment of women in Islam is that they are required to perform the five pillars as well as men. Muslims believe the Christian trinity is "idolotry" but Esposito does not recognize the contradiction of "idolotry" or "heresy" and the respect in the Quran for the "people of the book." How can we reconcile the need and justification to eliminate the idoloters and yet respect/tolerate them as a "protected class" provided they pay a head tax? Esposito's mind never works that hard in these lectures.

Esposito's history of rapid expansion and conquest roughly matches that found in Hoyland's book on the first century after the Prophet. He chronicles the rise of the Ummayads, the appearance of the Harijites (a forerunner of Salafis and Al Qaeda today), and chronicles the greatness of the Abbasids at their peak. In 1258, the Middle East faces being overrun by Mongols, and the Abbasids break down as three sultanates emerge-- In Turkey, Egypt, and Iran.

Lecture Six introduces Islamic law and mysticism (Sufism) and explains some of the pressure between reformist movements. There are the four schools of Sunni ejtihad. Muslim family is one of the central and unchanged aspects of Islamic law since the time of Muhammad. I appreciated the explanation of the origins of Sufism. Ahmad Ghazali, considered the founder or at least the first prominent author, tapped into Muslim's emotions while also passing muster with the Umma in regards to his doctrine. Sufism spread widely and had many aspects of Christianity-- monastic orders, poetry, reflection and meditation on the attributes of God, veneration of saints ("pirs"), etc. Rumi is perhaps the most well-remembered Sufi poet (died in 1273) and Sufi ideas carry on today clerics such as Fetullah Gülen, about whom Espisito has edited a book. Islamic reform movements later target Sufi practices. (I've personally witnessed a revival of this attack in the 21st century in Azerbaijan where Wahabbist groups burned down Sufi pirs.)

More on "revival and reform" comes in Lecture Seven when we see various revivalists and ejtihad. Esposito moves quickly to the 19th and 20th centuries where we find ibn Wahhab and ibn Saud in an alliance against the rival Shi'ia in Iran. Esposito touches on the Mahdi movement in Sudan, Muhammad Iqbal in India/Pakistan, and al-Afghani in Persia. (Some of these strains are the same by Ansary in his book.) Unfortunately, Esposito does not provide the context from which to make sense of Muslim reformers. He does not mention the much earlier details about ibn Hanbal and others in the Abbasid period who rejected Greek ideas of logic, reason, and rhetoric and how such ideas became rejected as anti-Islamic. He notes that modernists have criticized both the mystic Sufis and conservatives who take the Quran literally. He praises the "reform vision" of the Muslim Brotherhood without once mentioning Qutb and his contributions to to the violence that Esposito later claims has "hijacked" the faith. He also praises the Jammat al Islam in Pakistan and explains that these two groups' ideas spread and propogated (without mentioning the accompanying violence such as the seizing of the Grand Mosque).

In Esposito's narrative, both modernists and conservatives have become disillusioned with western institutions via colonialism. He blaims colonialism on the lack of democracy. While he acknowledges that some revolutions had their violent aspects, most of the reformers he hails are from the 1980s' "new elite"-- educated and skilled Islamists. He notes that Islamic-oriented parties in Algeria and Turkey engaged in democratic elections (how has that worked out when they eventually gained power in Turkey and Egypt?). Esposito apparently believes that "religious reform is catching up to political reform." He cites evidence of new Quranic studies and contextual analysis. He does not note, however, that many who have pioneered these efforts have had to hide or flee for their lives, or spend time in jail. Esposito purports that Islam simply hasn't had the time that Christianity had to get to the Reformation and the 30 Years War. He conveniently ignores the recent spread of Wahhabism and the most conservative strains of Islam worldwide, how thousands of educated Europeans have left Europe to join ISIL in Syria, how the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated themselves. Esposito claims that women are gaining ground in terms of scholarship and Quranic interpretation-- without naming examples and flatly contradicting those like Hirsi Ali who have been persecuted for their calls for scholastic reforms. He ignores the increasing use of the hijab and the increased segregation of Mecca, which he claims is desegregated (read The Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed).

Esposito looks at the under-chronicled (IMO) history of the Nation of Islam in America from its foundation to reforms under Louis Farrakhan. It strikes me as odd that the Sunni world can be concerned about orthodoxy in the Middle East but accept the Nation of Islam, which claims the American Elijah Muhammad was the last prophet, as its own. Esposito describes "what assimilation looks like" in Europe and the US while ignoring the thornier issues like whether wearing a burka is a violation of women's rights in France or honor killings and such. Esposito states that since Islam "grew up in a merchant culture" (the Ummayad dynasty) it is therefore compatible with capitalism. The experience of the AKP and parties in Algeria show it is compatible with democracy. Esposito states this without dealing with the fact that Islam was founded as a theocracy, the only legitimate state in the Quran is an overtly religious one based on Islam. There is no obvious possibility for a firewall of church and state-- the church is the state.

For more critiques of Esposito: http://www.meforum.org/3043/john-l-esposito-apologist-for-wahhabi-islam
His troubling statements: http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/6958
"Here the Esposito method was laid bare: thanks to his sponsorship, Saudi money subsidized a U.S. academic product intended to ameliorate the image of Wahhabism, the most extreme fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in modern times, and the inspirer of so-called "Salafi" radicals, from the Muslim Brotherhood through the South Asian jihadist movement founded by Abul Ala Mawdudi to al-Qaeda. In the mind of DeLong-Bas, Wahhabism could be considered, as noted in a review of the book, "peaceful, traditional, spiritual, and even feminist."

For other books I have reviewed recently on the history of Islam:
Tamim Ansary - Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (4.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Tom Holland - In the The Shadow of the Sword (4 stars)
Michael Cook - A Very Short Introduction to the Koran (4.5)
Malise Ruthven - A Very Short Introduction to Islam (3 stars)
Robert G. Hoyland - In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars)
Albert Hourani - History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars)
Peter Mansfield - Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars)
Salim Yuqub - The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 (The Great Courses)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1.5 stars)
The Cambridge History of Turkey vols. 1 and 2.(4 stars)

Also useful in critiquing the part of Esposito's course covering the 1970s and onward is The Seige of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov (5 stars). There are several other books (particularly those by women authors) which detail the complexities of life on the ground in Islamic countries that are worth contrasting to the picture that Esposito paints.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Islam Unveiled by Robert Spencer (Book Review #26 of 2016)

Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World's Fastest-Growing Faith - Robert Spencer

I read this book along with several others by modern authors looking at the origins and future of Islam, including works by Reza Aslan, Maajid and Sam Harris, Tamim Ansary, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Ziauddin Sardar, and others (see list at bottom). This is easily the most Western-oriented and most critical of Islam. The context in which Spencer wrote this book is 2002-2003 when the US was invading and occupying Iraq, ostensibly in part due to a belief that Al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein were linked and somehow complicit for 9/11.

Spencer examines modern thoughts from Islamic scholars and clerics and rather selectively quotes from throughout the centuries on subjects ranging from slavery, to women's rights, to warfare. He is pushing back on the criticisms of himself and others of "Islamophobia," rejecting the same caution about political correctness found on the Left that Nawaz and Harris address in their dialogue on Islam. He is also criticizing the Leftish push toward "multiculturalism" and "plurality" in that it discourages the assimilation needed for everyone living within a border to live under the same laws and have the same rights and opportunities. The "melting pot" of America has had less of a problem assimilating Muslim immigrants than Europe,  where you see places like France have essentially a class system that systematically discriminates against foreigners and limits their opportunities. He rightly addresses the tensions that Hirsi Ali and Mona Eltahawy raise in their books-- is a woman forced to wear a burqa being deprived of her human rights or is it an untouchable topic of culture and religion? A major weakness of the book, however, is that he mostly lumps "Islam" into one category, not recognizing different strains, such as Sufism, that have a diversity of views and practices. He pulls quotes from Islamic scholars throughout history without explaining the context of the quote itself, or what school of thought the cleric came from. This is not a scholarly work, but rather a political reaction.

Early on, Spencer recognizes the need to deal with the text-- do we approach the Quran as Tom Holland does, as a function of the cultural context it was written in or as an eternal non-created document in an eternal language (Arabic) that therefore predates the earth and all other religions (as is orthodox Islamic doctrine since the 800s, before which proponents of this view such as Ibn Hanbal were imprisoned as heretical.) He also brings up the thousands of hadiths and the varying degree to which they are considered reliable records of Muhammad's thoughts and deeds. Spencer could have done well to explain the process by which "western" Greek ideas such as reason and rhetoric were initially embraced by Islamic scholars from the 700-800s and later rejected as the views of conservative clerics tending to more of a Salafist view that the Quran could not be read and interpreted contextually eventually held sway. Spencer recognizes that most Muslims do not deal contextually-hermeneutically with the Quran and therefore picking and choosing verses to back a point is a fair game (there's no such thing as "out of context.") But Spencer seems largely ignorant of historical scholarship and that is not his aim in this book.

In regards to women, Spencer notes that Muhammad had access to many more women than just his wife, bringing up the controversy over Muhammad marrying his adopted son's former wife, which some claim from various hadiths that Muhammad brought about-- he was impressed by her and made it happen. He deals with the history of female circumcision, how rape is only provable if there are four male witnesses attesting to it, and shows various interpretations of the Quranic verse about beating women-- none of which are as light a translation/interpretation as Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God. There is a theme running through many hadiths and writings that hell is filled with more women than men.
Ultimately, Quranic verses dealing with women (such as allowing men to have four wives)and the patriarchal and tribal customs that existed in the time of Muhammad are what drive later legal and and cultural understandings about the rights of women. Among other books I read along with this one were several written by women who were raised in the Middle East and Africa, they do a better job painting the complex realities of women in Islam.

Spencer also raises concerns about the relationship between Islam and democracy. Islam cannot be separated from governance, the Quran is the basis for theocracy, there is no other legitimate government. Hence, Spencer would predict secular democratic countries like Turkey where conservative, Islamic-practicing ministers have been elected, would gradually erode the remnants of the secular democracy and impose more Islamic-based laws that may run contrary to Western definitions of rights and liberties. Many would argue this is what has happened in Turkey since this book was published. Spencer, like many authors, notes that historically the Islamic reaction to stagnation has been a move toward more conservativism (such as at the end of the Abbasid caliphate).

Lastly, the author addresses the idea of "jihad," since he is the founder of a group called "Jihad Watch." Islam's first century was rapid expansion from Africa to India by military conquest, it spread under "the shadow of the sword." Tamim Ansary and Robert Hoyland have pointed out that the concept of "jihad" was used in the seventh and eighth centuries for offensive purposes, while John Esposito would argue that it was misused at that time-- jihad is a defensive concept with Quranic restrictions on its appropriateness. The later "House of War" and "House of Islam" dichotomy has also led to justification of further spreading Islam by force by Salafis and groups like ISIS today. Spencer does not seem to acknowledge that this phrase came about after Muhammad. Spencer writes that all generally agree that Muhammad gave license to kill apostate Muslim converts, but he may not agree that much of the assimilation of cultures in that first century after Muhammad was done non-violently. The largely Arab armies were outnumbered by the locals, therefore concessions had to be made, they did not have a "convert or die" ultimatum as is so often assumed. Where Jews and others claim massacres occured, there is disputed evidence and other counter-examples; every area's conquest was different. In short, there is a battle about the definitions and origins of the word and concept "jihad."

To Spencer's point about how multiculturalism discourages assimilation, "demographics may make jihad unnecessary." His comments here border on xenophobia as he notes how largely-unassimilated Muslims are growing in number in Europe and will soon have influence over various laws and interpretations of laws there; the same in the US where as I write this in 2016 the US Census is reporting that Arabic is the fastest-growing language. There is not an overt proposed solution here, but it would seems Western societies absorbing these populations need to have a good apologetic for why the laws and values for having adopted the constitutions and laws that are currently on the books.

In all, I give this book 1.5 stars. It raises good questions to ask but does so in an unhelpful manner. It is too easy for someone to read this book and draw conclusions without further investigating the history of Islam and engaging with the diaspora of Islamic beliefs.

Other books read concurrently that I recommend above this one:
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Hoyland (4 stars)
Great World Religions: Islam (The Great Courses)- John Esposito (3 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Dialogue with Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes - Tamim Ansary (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (3.5 stars)
The Land of Invisible Women - Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 by Salim Yuqub (Great Courses)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield (3.5 stars)
History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (4.5 stars)
Desparately Seeking Paradise - Ziauddin Sardar (4.5 stars)
What Do Muslims Believe? - Ziauddin Sardar

Friday, June 10, 2016

Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary (Book Review #25 of 2016)

Tamim Ansary: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (4.5 stars)

I found this book to be incredibly readable, insightful, and important. It is ultimately a history of civilization through a modern Muslim worldview.

With 4.5 stars, I recommend it in conjunction with and ahead of a host of books I read consecutively (list at the bottom of the post). Destiny Disrupted is excellent. The author is an Afghan-American who is countering Western textbooks which relegate Islam to a relatively unimportant status. His premise is correct, the best schools in America teach courses explaining where we come from, where our Constitution and basis for liberty developed from the Greeks through Christianity through European philosophers to today. Bypassed along the way is the East, including the Middle East-- or, the "Middle World" that the author defines as "the space between Istanbul and China." He hails from an Afghan heritage that prizes itself on its geneology and its Islamic scholarship. He seems to be most familiar with Shiia and Sufi Islam relative to Sunni traditions. Apparently, his own brother became a radical Islamic fundamentalist of some form, and he challenges readers of all stripes to develop a framework with which to address that mindset.

Ansary makes the important point that modern Islamic jihad (Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) sees the battle as theological-- whether there is one God or many gods. The West, meanwhile, sees these wars primarily in terms of scarcity-- people frustrated with their political and economic conditions. He rejects the "clash of civilizations" cliche arguing rather that it is "two histories" that are crashing. He critiques both sides' purported views and raises the question of how to create a central, shared history that he sees as essential to co-existence.

Many books focus on the early first centuries of Islam's rapid expansion, or the history of the Ottoman Empire, or Central Asia, but Ansary weaves all of the history and geography together over almost two millenia. I learned much from this book and took several pages of notes, too much to provide my usually full summary. I write a more detailed review of my notes on the first half and only summarize the second half below.

The author begins with Zoroastrianism, the struggle between light and dark that never ends and has no predestination. The spread of the Parthians in the 3rd century AD led to a revival of Zoroastrianism (and its off-shoots like Manicheasm later confronted by Augustine of Hippo). Ansary recounts the birth of Islam and the first Calipha. "Islam is more about building community than individual salvation," although salvation is earned by proper interaction with the community. Early battles were relatively small but ascribed in the Quran with theological significance.

Ansary recounts the early struggle between Abu Bakr and Ali, noting that both Ali and Muhammad were raised by the same father. He describes the second Caliph, Omar (583-684 AD), as a "benevolent reformer" who was pious and made an impact on Islamic doctrine and governance as well as was a brilliant military strategist. In 636 AD, Omar's forces routed the main Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk. Perhaps overlooked by Ansary and other authors is that Omar's forces were also fighting Christian Arabs aiding the Byzantines. As the Byzantines weakened, Arab Muslim invaders filled the void as far as Armenia and eventually conquered Sassanid Persia, where Umar was assassinated. Ansary looks at the few writings available in this period to note that "jihad" had begun to be used as a military term in regards to offense, and not just defense as is sometimes claimed by Muslims today. This was justified by the "house of war, house of Islam" line of thought, which supposedly wasn't introduced until the Umayyad Caliphate in 732. Nonetheless, Omar was tolerant of Christians and Jews, allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and giving his blessing. His taxes were less than Byzantine taxes, which helped encourage conversions. Omar forbid the temporary marriages during the hajj (that still exist today for men to release their urges) even while blaming women for men's ills.

The next period covered is 642-661, beginning with Uthman. Uthman was a wealthy merchant who married Muhammad's daughter and governed from 644-656. He organized and compiled the Quran and engaged in economic reform that enriched the Umayyads at the expense of other parties. His tax policies created unrest in Egypt and Uthman was eventually murdered. (Apparently there is some debate among scholars on the source of unrest.) Aisha, Muhammad's formerly young wife, did not get along with Uthman but also spoke against Ali when he was unable to bring justice to the murderers of Uthman. Ali and Aisha's forces fought in 656, one of the first Muslim civil wars. Aisha's forces were defeated and Ali became Caliph from 656-661. Umayya struggled to gain power, refusing to recognize Ali's legitimacy. Muawiyah declared himself Caliph after Ali's assassination in 661 and fought with Hasan for the title, returning the Caliphate to the Ummayad clan of Uthman and firmly establishing the Umayyad Dynasty.

Chapter five chronicles the Umayyad period of 661-737 AD. Muawiyah appointed his son Yazid as successor Caliph, but he was rivaled by Hussein ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson who contested the right to be Caliph. Yazid defeated Hussein's forces at Karbala in 680 and Hussein was killed, thus creating the Sunni-Shiia rift that exists today. The Sunni believe in following the Sunna-- Muhammad's example-- for salvation. The Shia believe in following an Imam, a psiritual figure that is to follow. "Instructions (Sunna) are not enough." The Shia Imam is a "bestower of grace." Belief in Hussein is necessary for a Shia to get into heaven, which is anathema to Sunnis. (I wonder if this is all exactly accurate or a summation of the author's belief or understanding.)

Yazid reigned only from 680-683 and the the Umayyad's consolidated power by fortifying Muslim cities which were growing and prosperous. The Umayyad economy favored the landed classes, Arabic became the official language of government as well as religion, leading to greater Arabization of the conquered territories. That spread eastward into Central Asia and Westward through the Maghreb and into Spain.

The next period, Chapter Six, is 737-963 AD. Ansary introduces the purist Kharijites that modern-day ISIS have been compared to. A Khariji assassinated Ali during the First Fitna, or civil war, these rejected the Ummayad Caliphate. Kharijis rebelled against the Abbasid Caliphate in the late 800s. ISIS apparently rejects the comparison; the Kharijites died out eventually. There were also the Hashemites, descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima, from Iraq who were anti-Arab and anti-Umayyad. Al Abbas was an uncle of Muhammad from whom the Hashemites/Abbasids claimed their heritage. A Third Fitna, civil war, happened in 744 over a dispute over succession after Caliph al-Walid II was overthrown in 744. In 747, Abu Muslim led the Hashimite forces against the Umayyads, flying black banners. While Abu Muslim was really in charge, Abu al-Abbas was declared Caliph in 749 and the Abbasid armies pushed out from Iraq and defeated the Ummayads, finally. Abu Muslim was murdered in 755 over fear of his power as the Abbasids consolidated. The Abbasids supposedly included Persians, Jews, and Nestorian Christians in their governance. Al-Mansur founded Baghdad as the Abbasid capital in 762.

Ansary looks at the development of Islam and culture from 632-1111 AD. He explains the origins of the Five Pillars, the issues dealing with all of the 700,000 Hadiths and controversies, the concept of Ejtihad, the four schools of Sunni legal thought, and more. The Abbasids took great interest in Greek thought, translating (and thus preserving) Greek texts into Arabic. Of interest to me was Abu Yusuf al-Kindi (801-873), who was a philosopher and polymath scholar of the Greek arts. Al Kindi is who is thought of when looking at Arabic contributions to astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc. Al Kindi dealt with logic. Other authors I have read have noted the battle of Western logic having been lost as conservative forces pushed against scholars like Al Kindi. Ibn Hanbal was another influential Iraqi who collected and studied hadiths, compiling an encyclopedia. He founded the Hanbali school of Islamic law which is prominent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states today. Ibn Hanbal was imprisoned for his refusal to bow to Caliph al-Ma'mun's demand that he recant his belief that the Quran was uncreated and eternal. al-Ma'mun subscribed to an applied form of rationalism to Islam, the Mu'tazila. This dealt with the problem of evil, predestination, and other issues that were being wrestled with both in Greek thought and in Christianity as well. Ibn Hanbal's refusal led to his imprisonment, but the empowerment of this doctrine such that a couple of Caliph's later, it apparently became official orthodox doctrine that the Quran was uncreated. Ibn Hanbal had rejected the use of logic and reason in approaching the Quran and Islam and that would ultimately win the day.

I found Ansary's description of Sufis to be intriguing, similar to what was presented by Reza Aslan's book on Islam. Sufis wrote about devoted love of God, passionate love letters that read more like the Psalms or Song of Solomon than the Quran. Sufis developed at the same time as the work of Arabic philosophers who were both critiquing and revising Greek philosophy, trying to relate science and religion with matters of the heart as in Sufi Islam. Conservative forces have tended to drown out these voices.

The second half of the book deals with the rise of the Turks and the spread Eastward. Chapter Eight begins with 737-1095 AD. The Abbasid's great land mass may have made them ultimately weaker. 1071 saw the Battle of Manzikert between the Seljuks and what remained of Rome. From 1031-1381, the Crusades begin, historians count eight separate ones. It is the Crusaders who massacre fellow Christians in Constantinople, Jews in Jerusalem, and Muslims on the battle field. The Crusaders were able to play the Egyptians off the Seljuks off the Abbasids. While Ansary argues (above) "jihad" was used early in Muslim history as it spread by the sword, the term "jihad" against the Crusaders wasn't used for a long time. Attempts to resurrect the word "fell flat." The author chronicles the rise of various cults and splits, like the 1100s cult of assassins who killed clerics and leaders alike. There is the rise of Saladin, who shoed mercy and promised protection of minorities when liberating Jerusalem from the Crusades.

The Muslim world than deals with threat from the East from the Mongols of Genghis Khan, who takes China in 1211 AD and enters the Central Asian steppe in 1218, quickly confronting the Abbasids and trampling Persia.

The next period is 1263-1600 AD, the "rebirth" under Tamerlane the Cruel and the "Back to Koran" movement of conservatives. Ansary speculates that the insecurity that Muslims feel throughout their history as their territory is faced with division and weakness lead to a conservative backlash. Many historians and sociologists agree with this, look at Tea Party conservative politics in America for a recent example. Drawing on the legacy of Ibn Hanbal, who rejected the use of Greek ideas of logic and reason, others like Ibn al-Salah rejected philosophy and rhetoric as degenerate. Ibn Salah and ibn Taymiyyah are considered the forerunners of the Salafi movement. Taymiyyah emphasized that Islam must return to a "pure" understanding of the "salaf," the first generations of Muslims, which is propogated by Wahabbists today. (It strikes me here that perhaps it is at this junction that "Muslim reformers" like Aslan and Maajid Nawaz can make a case against ISIS' treatment of women and minorities: The earliest Muslims were largely tolerant of minorities as they swept rapidly across their lands, preserving churches in places like Damascus and Jerusalem. Khadija, Muhammad's first wife, was a wealthy woman who was influential in his life. Aisha, according to tradition, played an active role in politics and Islamic teaching after Muhammad's death.)

The author takes a swipe at Christianity's view of sex which is a strawman based on a stereotype of unbiblical doctrine. He chronicles the rise of Sufi orders, particularly in places like Anatolia covering the period of 700-1300 AD. There's Rumi, orders of Ghazi "warrior poets," and others. He deals with Ottoman issues like tax farming and regional governance and dealing with ethnic and religious minorities in the region.

There is a return to the Safavids in Persia, rivals with the Ottomans, and an explanation of the further development of Shiia doctrine, including the concept of the Mahdi (which also exists in Sunni islam to various extents). The Mongols largely embrace Islam which spreads from Burma to Afghanistan. A Sufi blend of Islam is embraced in India as it syncretizes well with local Hindu practices and arts. 1600 brings the "nadir" of the Islamic Empire, which is followed by divisions that eventually pave the way for tribal and ethnic breaks.

Next is 1291-1600 Europe:
Europeans develop their navies to facilitate trade by sea around Muslims. In the 12th century, Europeans discovered Arabic translations and Latin translations of Arabic translations of Aristotle and Plato and other philosophers and then began trying to reconcile it with religious thought while never appreciating the Muslim additions and pondering where they came from. Ansary gives a quick overview of the Reformation and its development. Islam made similar scientific discoveries as Europe, but it did not result in a new scientific worldview-- perhaps because of the rise of the nation-state. The Reformation disarmed the nation-state of its church and state unified nationalism that Islam adheres to. It allowed for uniform government across all people and usually in one language.

1500-1850 AD, "The West Comes East" as Suleyman the Magnifienct fails to take Vienna and the Ottoman Empire is finished expanding. The Ottoman economy required constant expansion and extraction, when expansion stopped then things started to stagnate (see Robinson and Acemoğlu's excellent Why Nations Fail). The Great Game ensues as the British Empire encroaches on the Russian Empire's frontier and moves into India. Mohammed Ali comes to power in Egypt.

From 1737-1918 AD there are reform movements. A need for modernism within Islam and the Ottoman Empire is felt. Islamic reforms are related but unrelated to European political and economic reforms and the Reformation. There were three approaches:
1. Wahabbist originalism as seen in Saudi Arabia as Abdul Wahab joins forces with Ibn Saud. This required Mohammed Ali from Egypt to restore Ottoman rule in Saudi Arabia.
2. Syed Ahmad Khan in India called for submission to English rule and colonialism. He believed in a contextualized Quran that needed historical-contextual reading based on Quranic principles. He was clearly opposed by Hindu nationalists and more conservative Muslims. Ahmad Khan promoted Urdu, which is a mixture of Hindi Persian.
3. Sayyid Jamal al-Afghani who believed in Pan-Arabism. Afghani had traveled in the UK and throughout the Ottoman Empire and outside in Afghanistan. After initially being invited to Iran, he is later expelled for preaching against monarch's bowing to Western imperialism and organizing a boycott of English tobacco. al-Afhani embraced Western science but not Western morals, or the perceived lack thereof.

Ansary also highlights other reformers in Iran. The rise of Constitutionalism, Nationalism, Industrialism, and Zionism spelled doom for the Ottoman Empire. 1856 reforms were hailed as the Turkish Sultan increasingly gave way to the increasingly Westward desire found in Istanbul as young Turks studying in Europe for the first time came back and wanted to see reforms and modernization. After lowering of tariffs put Ottoman merchants at a disadvantage against the more advanced British and others, reforms were seen as benefiting primarily Armenians. From 1894-1896, 300,000 Armenians would die. Young Turks and pan-Turkish nationalism rose on the eve of World War I, while the British were promising sovereignty to the Hashemites and the House of Saud in exchange for military support against the Ottomans and later oil. Ansary chronicles the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the six pillars of Kemalism.

The author writes that Wahhabism rising in Saudi Arabia was "as just a new innovation as secularism." Sayyid Qutb, jailed in the early 1960s founds the Muslim Brotherhood and sets off a wave of conservative Islamism at the same time that Nasser and Baathist rivals compete for leadership in the realm of Pan Arabism. Ansary notes this period empowered and energized both secular-leaning nationalist Baathists and religious-leaning Muslim Brotherhood. Islamism would take arms against the USSR in Afghanistan, and then return home demanding Islamist reforms. Ansary writes that the modern jihadist sees the fight against the USSR and the United Stateas as similar to the wars against the Byzantines in the days of the Salaf. Ansary makes the important point that modern jihad sees the battle as theological-- whether there is one God or many gods. The West, meanwhile, sees the problem as primarily one of scarcity-- people frustrated with their economic conditions. He rejects the "clash of civilizations" motif arguing rather that it is "two histories crashing." He critiques both sides' purported views and raises the question of how to create a central, shared history that recognizes all of the above. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Other books read concurrently:
In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire - Hoyland (4 stars)
In the The Shadow of the Sword - Tom Holland (4 stars)
Brief History of the Middle East - Peter Mansfield
History of the Arab Peoples - Albert Hourani
The United States and the Middle East 1914-2001 by Salim Yuqub (Great Courses)
A Very Short Introduction to the Koran - Michael Cook  (4.5)
A Very Short Introduction to Islam - Malise Ruthven (3 stars)
Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz - Islam and the Future of Tolerance (1.5 stars)
Reza Aslan - No god but God - The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars)
Islam Unveiled - Robert Spencer (1 star)
Also recommend: Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz (Book Review #24 of 2016)

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz
This "book" is a dialogue on Islam that started after Harris witnessed an NPR Intelligence Squared (one of my favorite shows) debate on Islam between Ayan Hirsi Ali and Nawaz. Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, 1 star) and Ayan Hirsi Ali (Infidel 4.5 stars, Heretic 4) are friends and compatriots. This dialogue attempts to find common ground and eliminate misconceptions. I find it does little of either.

The dialogue is of little help to anyone wanting to seriously study Islam or even engage with modern "reformers." The audio version contains a postscript conversation about the book that is also unhelpful. You cannot engage in what Islam is without deciding how you approach the Quran and the hadiths: Are the words of the Quran truly eternal and uncreated from an eternal language (Arabic), or (even if divinely inspired) are they a product of an author(s) of a particular context? Both authors seem more ignorant of the history of the religion and research into it than the positive reviews on Amazon would suggest, particularly Harris who knows no Arabic. While they list Tom Holland as a reference, I find they do not engage in a contextual analysis of where the Quran came from the way Holland does in his Shadow of the Sword (4 stars). You can learn much more about Islamic history and the Quran in Oxford University Press' Very Short Introduction series, which I highly recommend. Also helpful in thinking about this dialogue was Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise (4.5 stars), Hoyland's In God's Path (4 stars), and Reza Aslan's No god but God (2.5 stars), among others. Please don't criticize my low esteem of this one until you've read those books.

Harris and Nawaz rightly begin their dialogue with clarifying definitions: "Islamism" is the attempt to impose Islam on the rest of society; "jihadism" is the spread of Islam by violent force. The authors contend, and I agree, that political correctness is stifling the conversation about the role of religion and violence, particularly in regards to Islam. They reference a "tsunami of liberal delusion" that criticizes anyone who speaks harshly of religion, leading to the result that some of the only people "telling the truth about Islam" are dangerous right-wing neo-Nazis who are generally untrustworthy. Meanwhile, "moderates" are "willfully ignorant" about all religions and assume they're the same.

The authors engage in textual criticism to an extent, but not in looking at the book's origin but rather acknowledging their biases in reading the text. This is a silly trick of those on the Left who contend we can't even attempt to understand any text because of the problem of distanciation. Harris admits reading the Quran with his Western mindset in order to condemn it. Nawaz notes that "no text speaks for itself," rightly so, but neither seem to know anything about basic exegesis or hermeneutics. At least Reza Aslan admits that if the text is eternal and unchanging, as is orthodox doctrine, then there can be no interpretation; and you can also quote from it out-of-context because there is none. This central point is missing from the debate, so the debate is useless. Both also ignore Holland's point that when early Quranic manuscripts were discovered in Yemen in the 1970s, scholarly study was quickly forbidden after initial researchers reached a conclusion that they differed substantially from what is now the accepted version. This differs from, say, biblical studies or classical literature where thousands of manuscript fragments are constantly discovered, compared, and critiqued by a wide variety of scholars.

Nawaz is a native Urdu speaker of Pakistani descent, and I have not yet read his autobiography. He claims to have some expertise in Quranic Arabic. Nawaz acknowledges that the archaic nature of the words are difficult to interpret correctly. Do verses seemingly forbidding alcohol consumption literally mean "alcohol" or a specific type, and is it really "haram"? Possibly not (a casual Google search reveals a variety of thoughts on this subject). Harris rejects some Muslims' claims that violent jihad is relatively new. He may be relying on Holland for this point, although there are others; the early Arab-Islamic "civil wars" are largely ignored in modern discourse. That is what makes Hoyland's book on the subject so enlightening. Both authors are making moral judgments on what is "good" and "bad" without identifying the authority each appeals to. As an avowed atheist, Harris has a real logic problem when it comes to "evil." If there is no final arbiter, then who decides whether the violence he condemns is wrong? Ultimately, himself, which he does not admit. (I recently listened to Harris on a podcast talking about how abortion makes him "uncomfortable" because maybe those fetuses really are viable and living baby humans, and if he acknowledged that was the case then it would logically mean it is murder. But he didn't want to dwell on that subject too long, seemingly falling under his own critique above of willful ignorance...) However, Nawaz criticizes the US in particular for failing to make the "values debate." Who determines what is valuable, exactly? They don't say. Why do Nawaz and Harris have more authority than, say, ISIS?

Harris and Nawaz close with thoughts on how to deal with secularism as an attack on religion. In their post-script conversation they deal with the book's reception, their hopes for starting conversations about reforms, and push back on the "New Left" criticism of bigotry to anyone who tries to deal honestly with what religious texts say and religious people do. Unless you just want a better view into these two authors' thinking and their own logical fallacies and contradictions, I cannot recommend this dialogue. 1.5 stars.