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Books and Documents

Books and Documents

High-profile tragedies like the one chosen to be this book’s centerpiece have complex backgrounds, and unresolved endings. Isolating a single bloodcurdling note from a lavish production can be restrictive. Here, however, life and death are constants — one brings the city’s narrative to a standstill but also spawns multiple plotlines — and as the writer will demonstrate, not all with tragic beginnings. This unorthodox approach invites readers inside the epicentre of an ethnically torn heartland, to a venal world where many might fear to tread and few would want to. It helps unearth the different faces of (political, religious, ethnic) terror and the numerous challenges of living in an instant city — viewed as being “stable in a massively unstable way”. The Karachi that Steve Inskeep encounters with its witch’s brew of problems, obfuscating officials and rich heritage thrives in the midst of this horror. The jump back in time to the city’s “short but crowded past” — combined with a striking cameo courtesy of its murky underworld is topped off with a generous mention of the city’s irrepressible spirit and its spiritual centre. In this compassionate group portrait of thirteen million odd citizens, one can find the peculiar characteristics shared by the typical Karachi-wala living on the edge and governed by fear — that of finding amusement in the grimmest of circumstances. -- Afrah Jamal

 

No maps. Zero photography. Lousy editing. Not enough hierarchical detailing. A bunch of convenient deletions. But with ample khaki muscle to be read cover to cover, especially if your nightmares feature that garrison town of Rawalpindi. Caution is advised. "Inside the Pakistan Army" is a book that military sycophants will enjoy and GHQ critics will want to burn. But both those passionate clans will probably forget about it soon enough. "Inside the Pakistan Army's Mess Hall" may have been a more suitable title, where anyone who has had the privilege of dining will agree that - much like the book's content - the food is bland, but the atmosphere is, literally, to die for. Now, some context. Carey Schofield has been where no woman (or man) has been before, at least not for seven years: Inside the belly of the beast that is the Pakistan Army. Interestingly, by default or design, she has managed to slip in an important sliver of information here or there in 10 chunky, broad chapters that shouldn't have taken 7 years to be processed, but then again, Islamabad (correction, Rawalpindi) is rife with rumours about the personal friendships and palace intrigues that may have hindered Ms Schofield's concentration. -- Wajahat S Khan

 

On May 9, 1958, an assassin's dagger pierced through Dr. Khan Sahib's heart and snuffed a life of devotion to the service of down trodden and deprived people. Sir Olaf Curoe author of the famous book "The Pathans" recorded that once when he asked the Doctor who was his role model instantly he replied Sher Shah Suri whose name shines in history for building roads, Sarais and wells for welfare of common people. President Iskander Mirza, his lifelong friend, paying homage to Dr. Khan Sahib described him as "the greatest Pathan of his times, a great leader and a gallant gentleman whose life-long fight in the cause of freedom, his sufferings and sacrifices for the sake of his convictions and his passion to do good to the common man were the attributes of a really great man. -- Syed Afzaal Hussain Zaidi (Photo: Dr. Khan Saheb)

 

Seeing the kind of interest the poet generates among the literati and the spell he casts over connoisseurs, one can safely say Ghalib was not off the mark when he predicted his immortality. Remarkably, Bijnori heaped laurels on Ghalib when he said that there are only two divine books in India: the Veda and Diwan-e-Ghalib, Ghalib's collection of poems. Apart from his huge poetic oeuvre (11,000 couplets in Urdu, 6,600 in Persian), Ghalib has left behind a great body of letters. He is justified when he congratulates himself on inventing a new style of letter-writing in Urdu. Simple, direct and conversational, Ghalib's letters mirror the poet's personal angst; his taste for the good life; and the "travesty" of the times he lived in. Addressed to his countless friends and pupils in far-flung areas, his letters contributed immensely to the evolution of modern Urdu prose. Based on his letters, the book focuses on Ghalib's "lesser-known relationship" with Gujarat. Comprising 61 letters—many of them addressed to the Imam's ancestors (the Nawabs of Kamadhia) and dated between 1859 and 1869—the book shows how Ghalib loved Gujarat and its people. -- Adab Nawaz

 

Pamela Constable, foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post puts the nation under intense scrutiny, identifying the war for Pakistan’s soul “with one set pulling it forwards towards a modern international era, the other back toward a traditional and ingrown world”. Her new book knits disparate elements of Pakistani society extracted from various testimonies into a grotesque tapestry littered with bloodcurdling tales of injustice and violence. Segments from crisply titled chapters — Hate, Khaki; Talibanisation; Honour; Siege — read like a dystopian novel where a society is slowly being unravelled by its own prejudices and “where no cause (is) too noble to subvert, no beneficiary too humble to cheat and no martyr too scared to exploit”. But at the same time it is hard to deny the disturbing trends where “an accusation of blasphemy — however vague and unsubstantiated — has the power to sweep away reason and objectivity even among officials charged with enforcing law and administering justice” or the closet Taliban mindset that allows the real deal to thrive. Or the fact that the sole noble laureate Abdul Salam, an Ahmedi, is seldom mentioned and whose achievements she insists “were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmedis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted and despised”. -- Afrah Jamal

 

Nowadays, when we talk about Arab countries, the conversation generally centres on issues like oil, terrorism, revolution, democracy, or human rights. "Science" doesn't usually get a look in. It's no wonder, really. For centuries the Arab world seemed to be disconnected from modern science. A few centuries ago, the shoe was on the other foot. Back then, researchers from the Arabic-speaking world made contributions to science that remains very important to this day. The Iraqi-born British physicist and science journalist Jim Al-Khalili has written a book about this very subject entitled The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. So when Jim Al-Khalili writes of "Arabic" science, he is referring to scientifc findings that were written down in Arabic, regardless of the nationality of the authors or whether they were Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian. While Europe was in the Middle Ages – the "Dark Ages" – and was devoting comparatively little time to science and research, the area that is now modern-day Iraq in particular was developing into a scientific hub. Jim Al-Khalili draws our attention to the East, to the period of the ninth and tenth centuries, to a flourishing civilisation that was ruled by the Abbasids and gave the world some incredible geniuses.

 -- Anne Allmeling

 

Eight o'clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air, floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. ‘For God's sake hurry up, Francis,' he said irritably. ‘The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren't you ready yet?' Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold spectacles, waved his black hand. ‘Yes sir, yes sir,' he bubbled. ‘All is satisfactorily prepared. The hangman is waiting. We shall proceed.' ‘Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can't get their breakfast till this job's over.' -- George Orwell

The Myth of the Holy Cow
Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam

‘The central fact of Hinduism,’ wrote MK Gandhi ‘is cow protection’. Gandhi was not alone in making such a claim. Like him, most Hindu ideologues insist on the centrality of the cow to Hinduism. For them, the cow is not just a four-legged beast but, rather, the goddess Gau Mata, or even, for some, the repository of all the millions of Hindu deities. Worship of the cow, so it is argued, is a cardinal principal of Hinduism, along with vegetarianism. The supposed holiness of the cow and the Hindu ban on beef-eating, Hindu ideologues claim, go back all the way to the period of the Vedic Aryans. The first available textual evidence of cow-slaughter and beef-eating as being an integral part of the Indo-Aryan culinary tradition is present, Jhan informs us, in none less than the Vedas, which modern Hindus regard as containing the essence of ‘Hinduism’......

“The far wider Muslim world is increasingly rejecting extremism,” Ms. Wright argues. “The many forms of militancy — from the venomous Sunni creed of Al Qaeda to the punitive Shiite theocracy in Iran — have proven costly, unproductive and ultimately unappealing.” Rejecting the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” she argues that “even as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as ‘others,’ particularly after 9/11, most Muslims were increasingly trying to integrate into, if not imitate, a globalizing world.” “For the majority of Muslims today,” she says, the central issue is not a war with the West, but “a struggle within the faith itself to rescue Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority.” She argues that for a growing number of Muslims, “Islam is often more about identity than piety, about Muslim values rather than Islamic ideology.” A popular comic-book series about a group called the 99 — created by a Kuwaiti psychologist named Naif al Mutawa — features superheroes who are anti-jihadis, preaching a code of nonviolence and pluralism. -- Michiko Kakutani

However ambitious President Barack Obama's domestic plans, one unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any reform efforts he might launch. Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in our relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it. The failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities. -- Chalmers Johnson

 

The rise of Hindutva as an ideology and political force in recent decades is a major challenge to the project of Indian democracy, secularism and social justice. Being based on Brahminical supremacism, Hindutva, as numerous scholars and activists have correctly argued, is as much, or even more, of a danger to the historical victims of Hinduism—Dalits, Adivasis and other oppressed caste groups arbitrarily included within the rubric of ‘Hinduism’—as it is to non-Muslims, such as Christians and Muslims. How, then, does one account for the alarming spread of Hindutva among the oppressed castes, whose interests it is viscerally opposed to at the same time as it rhetorically claims them as fellow ‘Hindus’? What factors have facilitated the large-scale participation of Dalits, Adivasis and other such groups, who have for centuries been oppressed by ‘upper’ caste Hindus in the name of Hinduism, in the Hindutva project? Puniyani argues that it is the Dalits, rather than Muslims, who are the major target of Hindutva forces, because ‘upper’ caste hegemony, which Hindutva is geared to promote, is premised on continued Dalit subordination. Using Dalits against Muslims is Hindutva’s strategy of perpetuating the oppression of the Dalits, deflecting their attention from their struggles for liberation that pose a great threat to the oppressor castes/classes.-- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

 

The modern origins of the plethora of Islamist movements that pepper the globe can be traced back to 1928, when the Egyptian schoolteacher and imam, Hassan Al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. This was primarily in response to British colonialism. Al Banna was assassinated in 1948 and the Egyptian state continued with its repression of the group through the 1950s and 1960s. Oversimplification of the issue has also been a constant theme. But in his book, Tabarani displays not only an expertise in the subject matter but also explains a complex issue in a dispassionate, impartial manner. Oversimplification of the issue has also been a constant theme. But in his book, Tabarani displays not only an expertise in the subject matter but also explains a complex issue in a dispassionate, impartial manner. Apart from looking at extremism in Islamic societies, Tabarani also tackles the issue in the West. -- Omar Shariff

 

Religion and the truths that it claims to contain are undoubtedly among the most profound, and, at the same time, most perplexing dilemmas that humankind has always faced. Humphrys speaks for millions of people today when he honestly confesses to be an agnostic—or, as the title of this enormously absorbing book announces, a ‘failed atheist’ who doubts, although without adamantly denying, the existence of a personal god and the truth claims of various god-centric religions. This book grapples with a range of burning questions that reflect the author’s painful struggle to provide ultimate meaning to human life by engaging with the claims of god-centric religionists and atheists alike. Brought up as a Christian, and then, in his younger days, having turned into an atheist, Humphrys explains why and how he now finds himself torn between the temptation to believe in a creator god and the intellectual and moral reasons for his inability to do so. Neither believing in nor denying such a god, he envies both religious believers and atheists for the comfort they enjoy in the surety of their respective faith positions. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

Aurangzeb may be a hero in the sight of many a Muslim across South Asia, but in the Pakhtun tribal history he goes down as a villain as he is epitomised in Khushhal Khan Khattak’s poetry Mr Mubarak Haider’s arguments and assumptions about the Pakhtun tribes in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region do not concur with the region’s history as well as the current reality since 9/11. There is a lot that one can mention in this regard but I will elaborate a few points and some examples from the region. The tribal clashes with the Mughal empire were not rooted in any civilisational narcissism of the Pakhtun tribes, but a response to the oppressive divide and rule of the tribes policy of the empire for strategic considerations as well as a reflection of certain disputes among the tribes. Some of the fieriest clashes were led by Khushhal Khan Khattak, Aimal Khan Afridi and Darya Khan Afridi against the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. None of the three tribesmen were religious, but secular in outlook. -- Farhat Taj

The book is psychoanalysis of the Muslim mind that has turned dangerously narcissist. Muslims, according to the book, think Islam is a complete, definitive and final code of life and there is no need for the Muslims to excel in knowledge through hard work, reason and logic. They believe they have the God-given right to rule the world and can use brute force, if necessary, to subjugate non-Muslims. They scream over perceived injustices to Muslims caused by non-Muslims, but simply deny widespread atrocities committed by Muslims against fellow Muslims. They simply lack a positive consideration of others no matter how reasonable and logical it might seem. The BBC Urdu website presented several articles on the book. In all media discussions the book has been appreciated and the writer, Mobarak Haider, presented as a scholar who has rightly indentified the personality disorder of Muslims, especially those in Pakistan. It is, however, striking to note that none of the media discussants pointed to a serious flaw in the book that can make it controversial in the sight of those who agree with the basic thesis of the writer. -- Farhat Taj

This is a racy read, one damning account, from cover to cover, of how and why Islamic militancy has gained currency in Pakistan — to the point that it is so well tolerated, even aided by the powers that be. No wonder the writer had to pay with his blood for knowing the details of the many sinister plots hatched and executed without a hinder, and for writing on the subject. This is the last book of Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistani investigative journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in May.

Shahzad was well-entrenched in the workings of Islamic militants of all hues — al-Qaeda, Taliban, their various killer squads, splinter groups and facilitators, which, according to him, have now infiltrated the ranks of Pakistan’s armed forces.

The book is the stuff thrillers are made of, but here the cast tragically includes real people, some occupying intriguing positions of power and prestige even as we speak. Everyone in the plot seems committed to the idea of doom and annihilation, through which to enter the gates of Muslim paradise. If this indeed was the world Shahzad inhabited, he’s better off out of it. The only tragedy is that he wasn’t given the choice to press the eject button himself.-- Murtaza Razvi (Photo: Book Cover)

Last three decades have been the worst as far as negative projection of Islam is concerned. Globally the US Empire, after the decline of Socialist block, was on the lookout for unhindered control on oil resources. In order to dominate West Asia for the sake of oil wealth, it designed mechanisms to demonize Islam as a cover for political control in the region. These attempts of Empire peaked after the 9/11, 2001 when US media coined the word Islamic terrorism. Popular perceptions about Islam as religion and its various aspects were so modulated to present them as if the followers of this faith are moving around with bombs and swords.It is in this background that Asghar Ali Engineer’s popular work, seeped in profound scholarship comes as a breath of fresh air, presenting the truth of the religion as propagated by Prophet Mohammad in the war torn tribal society of Saudi Arabia. Engineer, a multifaceted scholar activist, has been one of the major contributors to the enrichment of humane values in general and has been elaborating the values of Peace and Justice in Islam in particular. -- Ram Puniyani (Photo: Book Cover)

So, writes Balwant Singh Charvak, a noted Ambedkarite scholar from Uttar Pradesh, in a book which I recently came across appropriately titled Ayodhya Kiski? Na Ram Ki, Na Babar Ki (‘Whose Ayodhya? Neither Ram’s Nor Babar’s’). Echoing several other Dalit ideologues who have made similar claims, Charvak argues that the disputed spot in Ayodhya belongs neither to Hindus nor to Muslims, but, rather, to an ignored third party—Shudras and Buddhists. This spot, he claims, is where a grand Buddhist temple, dedicated to a Shudra Rishi, Lomash (later identified, so he says, as a boddhistattva or Gautama Buddha in one of his previous lives) once stood. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

It remains to be seen how effective this gora with a Jewish last name is in advising western governments, in particular the British government. Even though he has received fairly good reviews all round, his detractors do try and put him down as the “Pakistan military’s guy”. Nonetheless, what he says in the book is difficult to find issue with (for any other military either). His fair and balanced views in the International Herald Tribune, his comments on Pakistan on British radio channels and his unusual understanding of this country in seminars on terrorism should be ample testimony to his academic integrity. He says, “We should also not dream — as US neo-conservatives are apt to do — that India can somehow be used by the US to control Pakistani behaviour. The truth.... is exactly the opposite”, and furthermore, that “a balance needs to be struck between the economic and security benefits to the West of closer ties to India and the security threats to the West stemming from a growth of Islamist militancy in Pakistan.” -- Dr Farah Zahra

 

Two new books set in the South Asian subcontinent focus on female Muslim characters and Islam. The Convert is a well-researched and intriguing narrative of one Maryam Jameelah’s life by acclaimed biographer Deborah Baker. The Good Muslim is a beautiful novel by Tahmima Anam set in the turmoil of post-Independence Bangladesh. Despite their chalk-and-cheese appearance, a few commonalities that struck my reading as a young Muslimah with a decent grasp of my religion. We like our share of laughs, our silly and often risqué jokes, our music, our sports, our books. What is it about burqa-clad/veiled Muslim women that get so many people’s goats? Such condescension, such disdain! Especially from women, and surprisingly to me, from Muslim women who choose not to wear the veil.

 I don’t hold it against you that you don’t want to wear something — why must you hold it against us if we do? Or rather — and this is what I’m getting at — what gives anyone the right? -- Sabbah Haji

The book (Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 By Syed Saleem Shahzad) vividly describes the nuts and bolts of al Qaeda’s game plan like its emphasis on raising awareness in, and thus recruiting, the indigenous holy warriors or ‘ibnul balad’ (sons of the soil) from across the Muslim world, who would rally under al Qaeda’s banner and join its ‘khuruj’ — the revolt by pious Muslims against the heretical or un-Islamic regimes. The work emphasises that the centerpiece of al Qaeda’s ideology is a concept termed ‘takfeer’, which literally means declaring other Muslims as infidels and thus liable to murder and terror attacks, if they do not conform to what al Qaeda perceives as the definition of a pious Muslim. It is almost as if Saleem was on a quest to find Keyser Söze from among the line-up of the usual suspects. But like in Bryan Singer’s movie, Keyser Söze may have slipped from Saleem’s hands saying: “And like that, he’s gone.”-- Dr Mohammad Taqi (Photo: Syed Saleem Shahzad)

Islam Without a Veil is a notable study by an author who has a deep understanding and respect for Islam and for Muslim tradition and culture. It should be helpful reading for anyone who professes to know anything about Islam or Kazakhstan. During his assignment in Astana, Mr. Salhani interviewed most of the country’s leadership, and spent countless hours talking to Kazakhstan’s religious leaders, as well as everyday people in the streets. He discovered that Kazakhstan was very active on two fronts, two topics he had spent decades covering as a journalist with a degree in conflict resolution: religion and terrorism and how they interact and how they can be utilized to explore a solution to the current dilemma.  After the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the emergence of Islamophobia, Muslim bashing became common. -- Isidore Rogalski

 

Anyone abandoning themselves to the pain of love to the same extent as Nadia, heroine and narrator of Nemat Khaled's novel "Henna Night", will inevitably become a prisoner of their own emotions. Nadia's cousin Djalal was once the man of her dreams. They were together for a brief and happy period, the wedding was about to take place, but Djalal could not be faithful. And while one day Djalal leaves his city and his country behind and cuts Nadia out of his life forever, Nadia cannot forget him. She thinks about him all the time, conducts imaginary conversations as though this might be a way of calling him back, and feverishly consults her dead great aunt Hassna, who had herself been similarly unhappy in love almost 60 years previously. Instead of being able to celebrate the ubiquitous henna night, which traditionally takes place before a wedding, Nadia sinks into a desolate "henna night of desperation" from which she is no longer able to find a way out. -- Volker Kaminski

 

The causes of Muslim backwardness are multiple. Some are rooted in history, while others are related to contemporary factors, such as discrimination on the part of agencies of the state and the wider society as well as the neglect of Muslim leaders of Muslim substantive interests—such as economic and educational empowerment—and an overwhelming focus on emotive, identity-related and religious concerns instead. In contrast to caste Hindu localities, the Muslim-dominated slums, the book notes, enjoy miserably low levels of public service provisioning—schools, drains, electricity, drinking water, hospitals and so on.-- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

Ms Lodhi is pretty brutal in her criticism of successive governments, including the two she served in. She was at the heart of Pakistan's foreign policy establishment in the Musharraf regime in the run-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, first as Ambassador in Washington from 1999 to 2002 and then in London from 2003 to 2008. Before that (between 1993 and 1996) she served Benazir Bhutto's government as its top diplomat in Washington. Yet, in her account of their failings she comes across simply as a passive bystander. Arguably one of the best pieces is historian Ayesha Jalal's, “The Past As Present”, a withering examination of what she calls the “reality deficit” of Pakistanis and their “tendency for paranoia” — a result of years of peddling of “myths” as historical truths in an attempt by the Pakistani state to assert an imagined “Islamic superiority”. -- Hasan Suroor

 
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