May 2008

Hamlet of Mais in central Yemen; entrance is carved through the large rock.
Photograph by Daniel Martin Varisco

By: Khaled Fattah, Yemen Times

Outside observers of Yemen’s social and political life can not avoid noticing many conceptual puzzles and precious particularities. One of the widely known puzzles among researchers with political science background is the surprising fact that although Yemen is the least developed and weakest Arab state that governs a society characterized by fierce tribal traditions and structures, it’s a country with a party pluralism system. Precious particularities of Yemen, on the other hand, are numerous. To begin with, there is a coincidence of almost everything- from geographical and topographical destiny to the patterns of habitation and concentration of sects; and from the shades of experienced ideologies and insecurity of economic resources to the peculiar nature of colonialism and regional power interventions. This sharp multifaceted coincidence is not something of the past. Rather, it is being felt in every bone in the political, economic and socio-cultural skeletons of today’s fragile Yemen. (more…)

[The following is an excerpt from a recently published article in Medieval Encounters 13(3):385-412, 2007.]

In many disciplines, scholars would not dream of taking their terminology from the street. Even if they do not fully succeed in agreeing upon a given set of terms, they recognize that it is essential for each writer to use his terms with precision, and that an attempt to accommodate oneself to popular usage as reflected in a dictionary must be disastrous. Too often, historians (especially in the field of Islamics) still try to avoid recognizing such a necessity and are satisfied to be guided by whatever is ‘common practice.’ (Marshall Hodgson)

Marshall Hodgson, perhaps more than any other historian of the Middle East, knew that the venture of Islam was all the more difficult to describe due to the adventure in trying to escape the strictures of loaded terms. His neologistics, advocating the use of “Islamicate” to distinguish the cultural from the religious dimensions of a regional history, failed to gain a consensus, although his seminal three-volume study of Islamic history remains a valuable resource three decades later. In the current postmodern climate a number of outdated and outsized terms have fallen into disuse among historians. “Muhammadanism,” by the 1960s, and “Orientalism,” since the 1970s, cease to carry weight after being dressed down for their ethnocentric cultural baggage. “Middle East,” moreso than its linguistic sibling rival “Near East,” continues to float across disciplines and the media, in part because Southwest Asia inspires little interest outside geography. But there is still at least one more label that we could all do without.

To be blunt, I suggest that continued use of the term “medieval” in reference to Middle Eastern and Islamic history between the 7th and the 15 centuries, anno dominated, is anachronistic, misleading and disorienting. (more…)

Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi (1903-1979)

By Yoginder Sikand,, May 18, 2008

The late Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (or Ali Miyan as he was also known) was one of the leading Indian ulema of modern times. A noted writer, he headed the famous Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa in Lucknow from 1961 till his death in 1999. He was associated with several other Indian as well as international Islamic organisations, a mark of the high respect that he was accorded among Muslims all over the world.

Maulana Nadwi’s wrote extensively on a vast range of subjects, including on Islam and politics. On this issue, his views underwent a gradual process of change and maturation, beginning with his early association with a leading Indian Islamist formation and later making a forceful critique of some crucial aspects of its understanding of Islam. His views in this regard point to the little-known yet rich internal debate among Indian Muslim scholars about the relationship between Islam and politics, particularly on the question of what Islamists describe as an ‘Islamic state’.

In 1940, Maulana Nadwi came under the influence of Sayyid Maududi, the founder of the principal Indian Islamist outfit, the Jamaat-i Islami. Maududi, along with the Egyptian Syed Qutb, may be said to be among the pioneers of contemporary Islamism. Soon after joining the Jamaat, Maulana Nadwi was put in-charge of its activities in Lucknow. This relationship proved short-lived, however, and he left the Jamaat in 1943. He later wrote that he was disillusioned by the perception that many members of the Jamaat were going to what he called ‘extremes’ in adoring and glorifying Maududi as almost infallible, this bordering on ‘personality worship’. At the same time, he felt that many Jamaat activists believed that they had nothing at all to learn from any other scholars of Islam. He was also concerned with what he saw as a lack of personal piety in Maududi and some leading Jamaat activists and with their criticism of other Muslim groups. (more…)

Note: The following is an excerpt from Gabriele Marranci’s latest book, The Anthropology of Islam (Oxford: Berg, 2008), which is well worth reading for insights on previous ethnographic study of Islam and guidelines for current research.

Books and ‘how-to’ guides about anthropological fieldwork are increasing in number within publishers’ catalogues. Among this large production, it is unusual to find even even chapters addressing the experience of conducting fieldwork among Muslim societies and communities. In the few cases in which some examples have been provided, they describe and discuss what I call ‘exotic’ fieldwork. Even less available is material containing reflections on the impact and issues that an anthropologist may face in conducting fieldwork within Muslim communities, in the west and in Islamic countries, during this endless ‘war on terror’. In this chapter, I have tried to start a reflection and discussion on what it means to conduct fieldwork among Muslims today. In doing so, I have provided examples from the experience of some anthropologists as well as my own. I have suggested that at the centre of a contemporary anthropology of Islam should be the human being even before the Muslim. This is vital if we wish to overcome a certain Orientalism and suppression of self-represented identities, as we can observe in classic works, from Geertz to Rabinow and Gellner. (more…)


“ARABIC TV does not do our country justice,” President Bush complained in early 2006, calling it a purveyor of “propaganda” that “just isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it doesn’t give people the impression of what we’re about.”

The president’s statement, along with the decision by the New York Stock Exchange to ban Al Jazeera’s reporters in 2003, is a prime example of how the Arab news media have been demonized since the 9/11 attacks. As a result, America has failed to make use of what is potentially one of its most powerful weapons in the war of ideas against terrorism.

For proof, in the last year we surveyed 601 journalists in 13 Arab countries in North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. The results, to be published in The International Journal of Press/Politics in July, shatter many of the myths upon which American public diplomacy strategy has been based.

Rather than being the enemy, most Arab journalists are potential allies whose agenda broadly tracks the stated goals of United States Middle East policy and who can be a valuable conduit for explaining American policy to their audiences. Many see themselves as agents of political and social change who believe it is their mission to reform the antidemocratic regimes they live under. When asked to name the top 10 missions of Arab journalism, they cited political reform, human rights, poverty and education as the most important issues facing the region, trumping Palestinian statehood and the war in Iraq. Overwhelmingly, they wanted the clergy to stay out of politics. And, aside from the ever-present issue of Israel, they ranked “lack of political change” alongside American policy as the greatest threats to the Arab world.

Though many Arab journalists dislike the United States government, more than 60 percent say they have a favorable view of the American people. They just don’t believe the United States is sincere when it calls for Arab democratic reform or a Palestinian state, as President Bush did again this month in Egypt.

Make no mistake, the Arab press has many flaws, including being subject to state control; only 26 percent of our respondents said they felt their fellow Arab journalists “act professionally” and only 11 percent said they were truly independent in their work. Nevertheless, Arab news outlets are more powerful and free today than at any time in history. If the next administration is going to try to reach out to the Arab people, it won’t get far by blaming the messenger.

Lawrence Pintak is the director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo and the author of “Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas.” Jeremy Ginges is an assistant professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. Nicholas Felton is a graphic designer in Brooklyn.

The latest issue (Vol 2, No 2, 2006) of Comparative Islamic Studies, edited by Brannon Wheeler, is now available online. The articles in this special issue all deal with Islam and gender. While the articles are by subscription or for purchase, the book reviews can be read for free. Here are the article abstacts.

“Traditional” exegeses of 4:34
by Karen Bauer

Abstract: The beginning of Qur’an 4:34 (Men are qawwāmūn over women, with what God has preferred some over others, and with what they spend of their wealth) is often taken to legislate men’s authority over women. But many questions remain about the history of interpretations of this verse. In what ways have interpretations developed through time? Do pre-modern interpretations of this verse resemble modern interpretations, and what do such resemblances say about the attitudes of the exegetes? And what are the methods that pre-modern and modern exegetes use to arrive at their interpretations?

One way of empirically examining the variety in the pre-modern heritage, the methods of the exegetes, and the use of the pre-modern heritage in modern discourse is through the genre of Qur’ān commentaries (tafsīr al-Qur’ān). This verse has always been a source of controversy: pre-modern exegeses of it are varied. In the first part of this paper, I explore some of the variations in the content and methods of pre-modern interpretation, focusing on the ways in which content and method developed through time. I argue that some of the variations in content between the earliest and later pre-modern exegeses may be due to development in the exegetes’ methods of writing exegesis.


The Ottoman army besieging Vienna (1529). Book Illustration, Nakkas Osman 1588.

The recent controversies over pastoral remarks that pit Christianity vs Islam, whether generated by Pope Benedict or McCain’s jeremiad-in-the-making over Rev. Parsley or Rev. Hagee’s hazardous raising of Hitler and the Holocaust to acts of divine retribution, are not unique. Interfaith harmony and ecumenical amenities have been the exception in a historical trajectory of damning the faith of the other in both monotheisms, not to mention how Judaism has been denigrated as well. An earlier reform-minded Protestant had reason to fear Muslim Ottoman Turks, who had invaded Christian dominions in Europe and who had attracted more than a fair share of converts. A little more than a decade after Ottoman army besieged Vienna, Martin Luther wrote a preface to a German translation of the Quran. In this he targets “idolatrous Jews, Muhammadans and Papists” as instruments of the Devil, the kind of religious intolerance that easily spills over into the secular arena as ethnic hate bating.

Here is Luther’s “Preface to Bibliander’s Edition of the Qur’an” (1543):

Many persons have authored small tracts describing the rites, beliefs, and customs of Jews of this day for the very purpose of more easily refuting their manifest lies and exposed errors and ravings. There is no doubt that, when pious minds bring the testimony of the prophets to bear on the delusions and blasphemies of those people, they are greatly confirmed in faith and in love for the truth of the gospel and are fired with a righteous hatred of the perversity of the Jewish teachings. (more…)

Hometown Baghdad is an online web series about life in Baghdad. It tells the stories of three young Iraqis struggling to survive during the war.

The series premiered on March 19th 2007 and the final episode went live on June 17. All episodes are viewable here.

The series was acclaimed in press throughout the world. See the press page for more.

Hometown Baghdad was produced by global youth dialogue company, Chat the Planet. Find out more about Chat here.

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