October 2006

Note: One of the most important books written for a Western audience about “modern” Islam is Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s Islam in Modern History, first published almost fifty years ago. It is worth revisiting today not because of the accuracy of its predictions (this was not the purpose of the book), but as a model of how Islam should be approached as a religion recreated in the daily lives of Muslims and represented in shifting fashions of rhetoric against a backdrop of political change and economic ups and downs. Here is a brief excerpt from the close of the book.] (more…)


[Illustration by Nazli Madkour for Arabian Nights and Days.]

One of my dear friends in New York City is Sid Shiff, a retired investment banker who runs the Limited Editions Club (LEC). Founded by George Macy in 1929, the LEC has become the finest private press in the US under Sid’s guidance. They have published volumes such as Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell with illustrations by Robert Mapplethorpe, an edition of Cosi Fan Tutte with illustrations by Balthus, and poems by Octavio Paz illustrated by Robert Motherwell. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Sid wanted to do something to promote art from the Muslim world. For me, that was a profound gesture, reacting to hate with compassion, not simply returning the hate. (more…)

[Today’s Sunday magazine section of the New York Times has an interesting article by Elizabeth Rubin, entitled “In the Land of the Taliban.” The whole article is worth reading, but here is an excerpt…]

I went to Afghanistan and Pakistan this summer to understand how and why the Taliban were making a comeback five years after American and Afghan forces drove them from power. What kind of experience would lead Afghans to reject what seemed to be an emerging democratic government? Had we missed something that made Taliban rule appealing? Were they the only opposition the aggrieved could turn to? Or, as many Afghans were saying, was this Pakistan up to its old tricks — cooperating with the Americans and Karzai while conspiring to bring back the Taliban, who had been valued “assets” before 9/11? (more…)

by JASON SZEP, REUTERS NEWS AGENCY, Oct. 14, 2006. 01:00 AM

BOSTON—In Saudi Arabia, a gawky teenager is transformed into a hulking creature. In Paris, a historian chases legends about mystical gemstones. In South Africa, a boy discovers a sparkling rock with healing powers.

The characters are from a new genre of superheroes endowed with Muslim virtues and aimed at young Muslims in a comic book series called The 99. Launched in July, it is being billed as the world’s first superhero project drawn from Islamic culture. (more…)

In an eye-opening commentary in yesterday’s New York Times, Jeff Stein (the national security editor at the Congressional Quarterly) clues us into the clueless state of this administration’s national security apparatus. “Can you tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” he asked a number of counterterrorism officials and members of Congress. The responses, often dumbfounded “I dunno” looks, reveal one of the reasons the so-called war on terror is going so badly. “Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting. And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.” Anybody, it seems, but our self-assured Bush League presidency. (more…)

“Burqa to Britney,” artwork by Emily J. Brondsema

To attentive readers (from this part of the so-miscalled West) of news about culture and religion in the Middle East, it is becoming clear that something is going on. First a British General, not so explicitly but more than implicitly, admits the total failure of the war in Iraq, while explicitly concluding that Britain needs to withdraw its forces from Iraq as soon as possible. Then Mr Blair (on his last political legs) seems to agree with the military chief, indirectly admitting his incompetence as Bush-led Prime Minister. At the same time, an unprecedented campaign against the Islamic hijab and niqab is spreading throughout Europe as well as in some secularised (and not-so democratic) countries such as Tunisia. (more…)

[”Oil of Sulphur per campanum,” illustration from The Art of Distillation by John French, London, Aldersgate, 1651]

by Michael Sells
John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature
University of Chicago Divinity School

What a week we had back around the fall equinox! Even as the Pope Benedict controversy escalated, President Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly to denounce Iran, one of the nations he depicts as part of an Axis of Evil. Iranian President Ahmadinejad takes the same stage, to denounce the control of the Security Council by a few powers, and followed his speech with interviews reiterating his
deliberately provocative views on the Holocaust. Venezelan President Hugo Chavez takes his turn on the General Assembly podium to reiterate Ahmedinejad’s critique of U.N. Security Council. After pronouncing the words Il Diablo, Chavez makes the sign of the cross, holds his hands together in the traditional posture of Catholic devotional prayer, and rolls his eyes upward toward heaven. He pauses to allow an oratorical split-second pass, then remarks that podium on which he was standing and at which Bush had spoken not long before still reeks of sulfur. Chavez’s performance has enraged, discussed, amused, and inspired different members of his worldwide audience. (more…)

by Omid Safi

Over the last few months, there has been a slight increase in the number of Muslim figures who are willing to publicly proclaim themselves as champions of a “moderate” or “liberal” Islam. Yet their interpretation differs radically from the 170 year old tradition of Islamic reform that goes back all the way to the Tanzimat reform of the Ottomans, through Afghani and Abduh, Iqbal and Fazlur Rahman, all the way forward to the modern feminists and progressive Muslim intellectuals. (more…)

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