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Books and Documents

Books and Documents

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

 

About the only redeeming feature in the recent unseemly furore in India over Joseph Lelyveld’s book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India is that the governments of India and of the states refused to ban it. The only and ugly exception was the government of Gujarat, headed by Narendra Modi, under whose watch a pogrom of Muslims was staged in 2002. He hoped to win kudos for being the first to ban and now finds himself alone and ridiculed. Book-banning is inspired by the same mentality which promotes book-burning. It is no function of the state to prescribe a select bibliography to its citizens and undermine the fundamentals of democracy. Before pursuing this theme, however, one must reckon with a certain trend in the West which justifies wilful intentional insult as an exercise of free speech; specifically insult to the faith of Islam and to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In truth, the trend has only accentuated in recent months; for, as James Carrol recalled, in an article in The New York Times earlier this month, “Contempt towards the religion of Muhammad is a foundational pillar of western civilisation. That it is unacknowledged only makes it more pernicious.” -- A.G. Noorani

The two best books written on Sindh in the last few years have been the works of two writers who are ‘Sindhi by option’ and not by accident. I think this term — Sindhi by option — needs to be explained because it puts the political, social and economic role of the post-partition migrants in Sindh into perspective. both books have been written by Marxist democrats, Syed Mazhar Jamil and Tanvir Tahir Ahmed. In their younger days, they had been at the forefront of the workers, democracy and provincial rights movement. Syed Mazhar Jamil wrote Jaded Sindhi Adab, which was published in 2004. It is a History of Sindhi literature. Mazhar Jamil’s researched work on Sindhi literature, which is in Urdu, has been accepted by most leading Sindhi writers as one of the best contributions. And the research dissertation of Tanvir Ahmed Tahir, Political Dynamics of Sindh, 1947-1977, , for which he was conferred a doctorate. As a true Marxist, Tanvir first dilated on the theory of ethnicity as it puts the political dynamics of Sindh in the right perspective in Pakistan-- Babar Ayaz

The concept of education in Islam is a deeply contested one, Jhingran argues in her conclusion, and a plurality of voices compete with each other, each claiming to represent Islamic authenticity. The traditionalist ulema, she shows, make a sharp distinction between what they regard as ‘religious’ or dini knowledge, on the one hand, and ‘worldly’, ‘secular’ or duniyavi knowledge, on the other, and they privilege the former over the latter. This notion, she indicates, is a relatively new one, which dates to colonial times, and does not apply to the pre-colonial period, when madrasas taught both sorts of knowledge, and produced not just religious specialists but also scientists and administrators. She highlights the arguments of Muslim reformists, who hark back to what they regard as the authentic Islamic notion of knowledge, one that is holistic and is, by definition, opposed to the rigid dualism that the colonial powers introduced, which, following in their footsteps, post-colonial states continue to advocate, and which the traditionalist ulema so fervently uphold in order to maintain their claims of representing Islam and the Muslims. In other words, according to these reformists, what is regarded by the ulema as ‘worldly’ knowledge is also Islamically- authentic and legitimate, and, therefore, is to be willingly embraced, even in the madrasas. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

Sensitively crafted and deeply evocative, Jimmy the Terrorist is about the best novel I have read on the unenviable predicament of Muslims in current times. It describes remarkably realistically, and without being preachy, sensationalist or apologetic, the painful dilemmas that vast numbers of Muslims are today faced with in the wake of mounting Islamophobia and increasing anti-Muslim prejudice, on the one hand, and radicalism and hatred in the name of Islam, on the other. Focussing on the momentous transformations wrought in the lives of members of a single north Indian Muslim family in post-Partition India, Ahmad masterfully brings out the range of social, economic and cultural processes at work behind the frightening demonization of Muslims and their religion, as well as the despair and defiance that these are rapidly engendering.

Remarkably realistically, and without being preachy, sensationalist or apologetic, the painful dilemmas that vast numbers of Muslims are today faced with in the wake of mounting Islamophobia and increasing anti-Muslim prejudice, on the one hand, and radicalism and hatred in the name of Islam, on the other. Focussing on the momentous transformations wrought in the lives of members of a single north Indian Muslim family in post-Partition India. -- Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam.com

 

In northern Nigeria, Tayler encounters Christian and Muslim extremists, whose politics of hate in the name of faith have resulted in the deaths of several thousands in the last few decades. He visits emirs, who rule over their subjects like medieval potentates. In Chad, he encounters African Muslims increasingly resentful of their Arab co-religionists for promoting Arab hegemony under the guise of Islam, and who still harbour bitter memories of being poached upon by Arab slave traders. He encounters Muslims who treat others (Christians and ‘pagans’) as despicable ‘infidels’, being bloated with an irrepressible sense of superiority. In Mali, he finds remnants of the slave trade still alive and thriving, and African customs and traditions of the local Muslims being menacingly denounced by Saudi-inspired Wahhabis, who propagate a brutal, drab and fun-less version of Islam in the name of religious authenticity. In Niger, he discovers desperate poverty, hunger and venial corruption. By the time he arrives at the Senegal coast, at the end of his journey, he seems quite glad to be going back home, although with some fond memories of a daunting journey that few outsiders have undertaken before. -- Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com

 

Someone recalls seeing the ‘legend’ from a distance once at a duck shoot. An Imran Khan sighting generally sent mortal men, women, children and tabloids into frenzy. Not here. As this chap sheepishly admitted, “a fighter pilot’s ego will rival that of a highly sought after cricketing legend”. And so Imran remained seated in the car seemingly oblivious to the trio while they stayed rooted to the spot pretending to gawk at the ducks. No duck has stolen Khan’s thunder before or since. Imran Khan’s popularity can be gauged by a passage that claims that dignitaries from other Commonwealth countries reportedly asked to see two things, one of which was our great Khan and the other was the Khyber Pass. -- By Afrah Jamal

 

Have you heard about Vakkali, the Buddhist sage who attained Nirvana while slicing his own throat? Of all the major faith traditions, Buddhism is often seen as the most peaceful, but Buddhist Warfare exposes its darker side. The eight essays in the collection describe twisted teachings on phenomena such as “Soldier-Zen”, and atrocities carried out by groups such as the Buddhist cult army of Faqing. In 515 AD, Faqing declared the arrival of the new Buddha and led more than 50,000 men to war. “When a soldier killed a man he earned the title of first-stage Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be). The more he killed the more he went up the echelon towards sainthood ... the insurgents were given an alcoholic drug that made them crazy to the extent that fathers and sons no longer recognized each other and didn’t think twice before killing each other; the only thing that mattered was killing.” Buddhist Warfare forms an accurate history of violence in the name of religion. Its most shocking material is the studies of various sutras that justify killing with detailed reference to the Buddha’s central philosophical tenets. The book therefore presents a uniquely Buddhist “heart of darkness”. -- Katherine Wharton

As Esposito explains in the introduction, his goal is “to understand the struggle for reform in Islam, to explore the religious, cultural, and political diversity of Muslims facing daunting challenges in Muslim countries and in the West, to clarify the debate and dynamics of Islamic reform, to examine the attempt to combat religious extremism and terrorism” – in that context – “to look into the future of Muslim-West relations.”

His conclusion?: “The future of Islam and Muslims is inextricably linked to all of humanity.”

What Esposito presents between that introduction and conclusion is one of the finest examples of the study of Lived Religion since Wilfred Cantwell Smith laid the foundations for that methodology. -- Tamara Sonn

In 1999, the Algerian journalist Mohamed Sifaoui settled in France to escape Islamist terrorism. Since then, he has fought against every form of Islamism, often in an objective manner, but, on occasion, he has no qualms about engaging in polemics or provocation. Such is the case with his recently published comic book, a collaboration with the graphic artist Philippe Bercovici, entitled "Bin Laden Unveiled," and, as announced in the subtitle, makes no less a claim than being "a comic book assassination of al-Qaida." Sifaoui employs humour as his weapon to tackle the terror propagated by radical Islamists and to bring his reader to laugh at their most horrible traits – hate, barbarism, stupidity, and fanaticism. And there is another feature to add to this list, their supposed obsession with sex. The comic book alleges this to be one of the chief character traits of Bin Laden – and he isn't alone here. -- Joseph Croitoru

Rauf Ceylan : "The Preachers of Islam"

This treasure chest of a book consists of some 40 interviews conducted by Ceylan. It quickly becomes clear that imams are not some sort of religious robots, having led strictly pious lives since their early childhood. Take the 43-year-old Ismail Z., who recalls with a sigh how he had received offers from the Turkish premier league, but left his dreams of a football career to languish. Under pressure from his father, he became an imam. -- Thilo Guschas

This fascinating book provides a general picture of the status and conditions of women in Muslim communities around the world faced with the challenge of Islamic scripturalist assertion. Shirazi admits that patriarchy is, of course, not a Muslim-specific phenomenon, but argues that the forms that it takes in Muslim communities and Muslim-majority countries makes it particularly problematic and difficult to oppose in that it is generally sought to be legitimised in the name of religion. Hence, challenging such patriarchy is a particularly arduous task as it is easily branded as a challenge to religion itself. -- Yoginder Sikand

Dr Nagi writes that Che, who had entered Bolivia to struggle against the system, was cold-bloodedly murdered by Bolivian agents of the US on October 9, 1967 after being captured, wounded but alive. To emphasise the poignancy of the murder, the author quotes a powerful couplet: “Jis sajh dhaj sey koi maqtal sey gaya woh shaan salamat rehti hei/Yeh jaan to aani jaani hei, is jaan ki koi baat nahin.” The couplet reflects the heroism of the sacrifice of one’s life for an ideal — a feat that Che achieved by struggling for his ideas until the very end. --Dr Amjad Parvez

 
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