February 2008

[This is an excerpt from my article, “The tragedy of a comic: fundamentalists crusading against fundamentalists,” published in Contemporary Islam (2007, Vol. 3, #1).]

The issue of religious fundamentalism has been raised both in the popular media and by academicians as one of the most critical global challenges to a smooth transition into the third millennium. The Y2K alarm over cyberspace as the clock turned over 2000 was only the Book of Revelation in digital imagination. Debating the death of God, especially in the halls of Academe, has had little impact on the perpetual panopticon of apocalyptic scenarios literally decoded out of the Bible. The Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations have largely left behind the baggage of prophecy as contemporary politics, though in the past Christian clerics of all persuasions had no trouble conjuring enemies, including the Ottoman Turks, as anti-christened candidates. In Christianity biblical literalists today are often, and erroneously, dismissed in blanket condemnation as “Fundamentalists” because of what they reject rather than what they believe. The problem with being a “Bible believer” is that this implies rejecting rationalism, modern science and theological reform. The problem with being labeled a “Fundamentalist” is that most people fit into the category do not use or accept the term.

“Fundamentalism” as a term should be of interest to scholars who study the phenomenon not only because of what it is said to represent, but also because it is “our” term – a word coined almost a century ago within American Protestantism to define a self-proclaimed conservative religious movement contra a liberal shift in mainline denominations.(1) (more…)

Editor’s Note: The Baghdad I am referring to is that of the Arabian Nights fantasy and the American is the extraordinary man of letters, Edgar Allen Poe. Among his humorous short stories is a tale called “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherezade,” archived online at http://www.online-literature.com/poe/45/. Here is a taste of the tale, but I suggest you read the whole story online.

Truth is stranger than fiction.
Old saying.

HAVING had occasion, lately, in the course of some Oriental investigations, to consult the Tellmenow Isitsoornot, a work which (like the Zohar of Simeon Jochaides) is scarcely known at all, even in Europe; and which has never been quoted, to my knowledge, by any American — if we except, perhaps, the author of the “Curiosities of American Literature”; — having had occasion, I say, to turn over some pages of the first — mentioned very remarkable work, I was not a little astonished to discover that the literary world has hitherto been strangely in error respecting the fate of the vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade, as that fate is depicted in the “Arabian Nights”; and that the denouement there given, if not altogether inaccurate, as far as it goes, is at least to blame in not having gone very much farther.

For full information on this interesting topic, I must refer the inquisitive reader to the “Isitsoornot” itself, but in the meantime, I shall be pardoned for giving a summary of what I there discovered. (more…)

Belt made of lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian worn by Queen Pu-abi, who was buried in the Royal Tombs of Ur.

The frenzy caused by New York Fashion Week and red-carpet style at the Oscars may give the impression that contemporary society is particularly clothes-obsessed, but the research of Aubrey Baadsgaard, an anthropology doctoral student at Penn, shows that the concept of fashion is as old as human history itself. Baadsgaard is writing her dissertation on how clothing and ornamentation both reflected and helped construct gender and gender roles in ancient Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic Period (circa 2900 – 2100 B.C.), considered to be one of the ‘cradles of civilization.’

For the rest of this article, with pictures, click here.

Yesterday the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a 143 page report, downloadable here, surveying the changing religious landscape of the United States. Based on interviews with some 35,000 individuals and drawing on earlier Pew research specifically on Muslims in America, this report is well worth reading. The findings are suggestive of the decline of strait-laced Puritan and venomous WASP America. Indeed, it seems that the United States is on the verge of losing its Christian Protestant edge, at least by direct affiliation. There has also been a dramatic decline in Catholicism, offset in large part by the fact that twice as many recent immigrants are Catholic rather than Protestant. One of the main findings is that Americans have taken on the habit of changing religions. “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether,” conclude the authors. A full quarter of respondents between the ages of 18-20 are not affiliated with any organized religion. “Honk if you love Jesus” is being bumped off the sticker wars and overrun by “Our Father, who art in Walmart.”

To be sure, the Christian veneer of the United States will ensure “In God We Trust” on our mammon for some time to come. Over 78% of Americans self-identify as Christian, the largest block being the amorphous, and now apparently porous, Protestants and the politically courted Evangelicals constituting the largest Christian segment (26%), just a little larger than the total percentage of Catholics (24%). The 1.7 % of Americans who follow the Joseph Smith/Brigham Young (as opposed to the New Orleans) saints (that most people dub Mormons) accounts in part for the fact that Mitt Romney is not the Republican candidate this year. For a reality check on minority status, the same percentage (1.7) of Americans follow Judaism. Islam is way down the list at .06%, slightly less than the number of Buddhists (0.7%), but almost double the number of New Age enthusiasts at .04 %). Please keep in mind that these figures only refer to “adults” of the age of 18 and over. Since so many Muslims are young, there are in fact many more Muslims overall (as there are many more Christians) than this figure suggests. (more…)

America must be victorious, but victory is out of the question. This is the election-year paradox facing voters. Assuming Obama’s delegate count surge continues through Texas and Ohio, the national campaign will bring the surge issue front and center in the race to replace Mr. Bush, the president who started a war he cannot finish. On the Republican side, John McCain’s resurrected political fortunes will pit the man who believes he has fixed the mopping-up problem in Iraq against the man who can claim in all innocence that he was against the Iraq war from the start. Both candidates support the troops and respect General Petraeus, who came close to being Time Magazine‘s “Person of the Year.” Either McCain or Obama may grace a future cover of Time as the man who ended the war that no one no longer wants but no one also wants to lose. But this is as unpredictable as the eventual success of the “surge” as a strategy to bring about a stable Iraq.

About that surge… Republicans in the main see it as working; democrats tend to see the whole war as a unilaterally Bush diversion from the real terrorists and the surge as a desperate ploy for time, too little and too late. So is the surge working? (more…)

One of the most important German geographers of the late 19th century was Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), whose three-volume Völkerkunde (Leipzig and Vienna, Bibliographisches Institut, 1890) is one of those encyclopedia cultural accounts that circulated just as the discipline of anthropology was getting off (in this case literally “on”) the ground. While now a text for curiosity rather than critical scholarship on peoples and cultures, Ratzel’s work is still a fascinating portrayal of cultures being colonized for both revealing the biases of the day and the then-contemporary illustrations of people and material culture. My university library recently divested itself of uncirculated books in storage and one of these was an 1890 edition of the third volume on “Die Kulturvölker der Alten und Neuen Welt.” Whether it was the eye-watering althochdeutsch script of the volume or the mere fact it was written in German, no student or professor at Hofstra ever checked this volume out.

In salvaging a third of Ratzel’s opus for a mere dollar, I could not help but be drawn to the illustrations, mostly lithographs but with a few beautiful color plates. (more…)

A Sufi qawall offering his devotional music in Lahore

Sufi Soul – The Mystic Music of Islam
U.K., 50 minutes

Director: Simon Broughton

Appearing on Link TV, Saturday, February 23. Visit the site for a preview.

With a dogmatic and fundamentalist view of Muslims increasingly predominant in the Western media, there has never been a more important time to show an alternative view of Islam. Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam that preaches peace, tolerance and pluralism, while encouraging music as a way of deepening one’s relationship with God. This documentary explores Sufism and its music in different parts of the Islamic world, including Syria, Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco.

Sufi Soul reveals the views and beliefs of devotees while examining the growing threat from fundamentalist Islam and showcasing fantastic performances from some of the world’s greatest Sufi musicians.

For a review of the film, click here.

If you are wondering where suicide bombers learn to drive, please note that it is not in madrasa driver’s training, despite what the signs may say.

[Photograph courtesy of Jon Anderson.]

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