Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

All Things Considered (Again)

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Again I was on All Things Considered, a BBC Radio Wales programme, talking with Nadim Nassar, Bishop Angelos, and Harry Hagopian about Muslims, Islamists, Christians, Syria and Egypt. Follow the link to listen (it may only be available for a few days).

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/wales/atc/atc_20140112-0930a.mp3

Written by Barnwalls

January 12, 2014 at 11:16 pm

The End of the World?

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I make some brief contributions to this Channel 4 News film on the apocalyptic resonances for both Muslims and Christians (some at least) of watching Damascus burn. I wish there’d been time to make the more important point: religion and myth add resonance to fighting and dying, but as in Northern Ireland or Palestine-Israel, the religious vocabulary is only a glittering sideshow to the real power dynamic. Al-Qa’ida franchises would be in Syria whether or not the Messiah were due to descend on a minaret of the Umawi mosque: because they turn up wherever there’s an opportunity, and Syria’s geographical and political centrality to the Arab-Muslim world is enough. In any case, such militias compose less than twenty percent of anti-Assad forces. Their influence has been vastly overblown, both by the right and by a left which embraces the very War on Terror discourse (terrorists, al-Qa’ida conspiracies) it resisted so loudly when used by Blair and Bush. The West doesn’t see a genocide, still less a living, breathing revolution, but only an even-matched war between Alawi-secularists and radical Salafists. It seems too late to change this fantastic illusion. The story seems set in the western mind. Just as Assad wants it.

This film was great fun to make, and it provides an interesting look at an interesting subject. But I worry about its context in the news bulletin. It necessarily highlighted the mad jihadist aspect, and it was followed by an interview with a neo-conservative on the dangers of radical Islamism. The problem as framed by the broadcast was clear: apocalyptic-minded Muslims were the problem. But the clear and present danger in Syria is the regime, the regime which is generating the trauma and  extremism, the regime which is committing genocide. Once again that was lost. And we in general are lost, paddling about in superstructure, paying no attention to the base.

Written by Barnwalls

September 11, 2013 at 12:32 am

Blind Orthodoxies

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It’s always dangerous to declare generalised love for a movement or school of thought – including Sufism, because Sufism can be subdivided into spirit and tradition, into various orders and popular customs, into the sober and the drunk, the vocal and the silent, the revolutionary and the tame. Still, I’ll say I love it for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry; because, as Adonis says: “Sufism has laid the foundations for a form of writing that is based upon subjective experience in a culture that is generally based on established religious knowledge.”

My own Islam is closer to deep agnosticism than to literal belief; it’s more spiritual (when I manage it) than religious. As time goes by and political events unfurl I have less and less sympathy for rigidly exclusive forms of Islam, whether modernist or traditional, less sympathy for certainty, and more and more dislike for current Islamic political movements, which are state-obsessed, and divisive, and which seek to reinforce the stultifying, censorial aspects of Muslim cultures. So I happily defend those who shake and shout and dance as they pray, or who remember the names in silence alone, and I defend them more fiercely every time the orthodox tell me I shouldn’t.

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Written by Barnwalls

September 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Islam, Libya

Tagged with

Clan, State, Islamic Polity

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Abdelwahab el-Affendi

Could the root causes of the Arab-Muslim ‘malaise’ be cultural? That’s what journalist Brian Whitaker suggests in his book ‘What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East’. The thesis sounds suspicious, but Whitaker isn’t a cheap Orientalist, and he uses interviews with Arabs as his raw material. The key issues his informants keep pointing to are indeed the issues that, wherever you meet them, young Arabs complain about. These include an undue emphasis on submission and obedience in the education system, at work, and in the home, the social valorisation of conformity, and a corrupt public space.

The personal is the political. The problem in every sphere is one of overbearing authority, and it’s true that this is ultimately family-based, ultimately the result of overly-narrow personal identifications. In fact, I would argue that tribalism, nepotism, sectarianism, even forced marriage and honour killing, are all manifestations of the tyranny of the clan. And the tyranny of the clan is the result of bad governance.

The clan, repeats novelist Rafik Schami, “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” It saved them by providing economic and social solidarity, a sense of identity, and physical protection. This was necessary because over the years, for most of the time, there has been no safe field of activity other than the clan, no civic life free from the depredations of warlords, sultans and foreign colonialists. Society has had no choice but to turn inward. The traditional Arab town house is an architectural embodiment of the phenomenon. It looks shabby from the outside, just a door in a wall – this to deflect a pillager’s attention. Inside there’s a courtyard with a tree and a pool.

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Written by Barnwalls

May 4, 2010 at 10:12 am

Myth-Making

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We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.

Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.

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Written by Barnwalls

February 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Arabism, Egypt, History, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Turkey, Zionism

Tagged with ,

Islam in the Writing Process

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If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.

enjoin the good

Photo by Rehan Jamil

Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.

Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation

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mecca

A slightly different version of this review was written for Prospect Magazine, where it was available free-of-charge for a while, but no longer.

The contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.

“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.

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Written by Barnwalls

August 27, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Hair for the Observer

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Here is an unedited version of an article published in the Observer Woman magazine.

Eid people 3When I first saw my wife she was seated in the middle of a crowded room, she had her eyes fixed on me, and she had a luxuriously unruly cascade of hair. We started talking, and from then on her hair’s startling blackness seemed emblematic of the force of her character.

I enjoyed seeing her hair fanned out around her moonsliver face. I enjoyed touching it, either its natural curliness or its hair-dryered straightness. In a city where half the women covered their hair in public, and just because she had such beautiful hair, Rana’s hair became for me her sign, the feature by which I’d pick her out at a distance, my symbol for understanding her and what she meant to me.

So when, five years into our marriage, Rana decided to cover her hair, I was somewhat bothered. In the meantime we’d moved from Syria via Morocco to Saudi Arabia, we’d had children, and Rana had worked as a teacher and TV presenter. She’d always been an elegantly modest dresser, but here, amid the compulsory dress codes of Saudi Arabia – which annoyed both of us – she’d decided to introduce something new. I grasped for a response.

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Written by Barnwalls

November 9, 2008 at 12:30 am

Posted in Islam

Tagged with

Dawkins or McIntosh

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I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.

The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.

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Written by Barnwalls

August 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

Complex Origins

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Sumerians at prayer

Sumerians at prayer

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

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Written by Barnwalls

August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

A Ramadan Reflection

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Verse 18 of Sura 39 of the Qur’an says:

“Those who listen to the Word (the Qur’an) and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided and those are the ones endowed with understanding.”

Or, in Muhammad Asad’s translation:

Those “who listen closely to all that is said, and follow the best of it: it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are truly endowed with insight!”

Muhammad Asad’s translation is wonderful both for the language and for the erudite and open minded notes which take on board classical Islamic scholarship as well as modern intellectual currents. (Asad, born Leopold Weiss, was a fascinating figure. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a posting to him one day). Here is his note on this verse:

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Written by Barnwalls

September 26, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Islam

Statement of Belief

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kaabaI’m a Muslim in that I feel allegiance to the Muslims as a people. It’s not a blind patriotism. I don’t feel allegiance to any particular sect, doctrine or government. As a member of this cultural group (or groups), somebody who lives with and sympathises with and loves many believing Muslims and their overwhelmingly warm and humane culture, I recognise that the Qur’an is the source text that is crucial to us. We do with it what we can. The range of what we’ve done throughout history is astounding.

There is the Islam of the Sultan and the Islam of the Sufi. The Sultan’s rulebook religion, the god-idol that fits into the human mind. And the Sufi’s tradition of peaceful wandering, of poverty, of shrines and poetry, of Qawwali songs and intoxication. It is the latter that attracts me, the Sufi’s but not the Sultan’s Islam. The Islam of Hallaj, not of the authorities who mutilated and murdered him.

If you ask which Islam is inspired by the Qur’an, I must reply that both are.

I am Marxist enough to believe that religions are for the most part products of the material conditions from which they arise. Islam arose from a culture of Beduin raiding and enforced tribal consensus, and yet managed to move beyond this to something new, still pointing further to possibilities for future development. I believe it is possible, but by no means inevitable, for Muslims of the present and future to make an Islamic society better than the society made by the Prophet’s companions.

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Written by Barnwalls

September 20, 2007 at 8:59 am

Posted in Islam

Tagged with

hijab/ niqab/ blab

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My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.

Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.

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Written by Barnwalls

October 10, 2006 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Islam, Islamophobia, UK

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