November 2009


MEMO FROM ALEXANDRIA
Harnessing Darwin to Push an Ancient Intellectual Center to Evolve

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN, The New York Times, November 26, 2009

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — It is not that Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution are unknown here. But even among those who profess to know something about the subject, the common understanding is that Darwin said man came from monkeys.

Darwin, of course, did not say man came from monkeys. He said the two share a common ancestor. But to discuss Darwin anywhere is not just to explore the origin of man. It is inevitably to engage in a debate between religion and science. That is why, 150 years after Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government, decided to hold an international conference on Darwin in this conservative, Sunni Muslim nation.

It was a first.

“A lot of people say his theories are wrong, or go against religion,” said Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council. “His ideas provoke, but if we are going to understand each other, we have to discuss things that divide us.” (more…)

Swiss voters, at least those who bothered to show up at the polls, today voted to deny any future building of minarets in their country. As reported on Al-Jazeera:

Of those who cast votes in Sunday’s poll, 57.5 per cent approved the ban, while only four cantons out of 26 rejected the proposals.

The result paves the way for a constitutional amendment to be made.

“The Federal Council [government] respects this decision. Consequently the construction of new minarets in Switzerland is no longer permitted,” the government, which had opposed the ban, said in a statement.

The minaret is, of course, a symbol, but a rather unusual choice. In one sense it is like saying that MacDonalds cannot have a high sign (as is the case in some municipalities) but they can serve all the hamburgers they want. Thus, this ban is not on building mosques, nor does it prevent Muslims from praying in mosques. Since minarets long ago ceased to have functional value, apart from perhaps holding a loud speaker, the minaret is indeed symbolic.

But why the minaret? (more…)


Cows will no longer give milk in Switzerland if minarets are allowed to stand.

The rightwing political parties in Switzerland are up in arms, preparing for a vote on Sunday to save their alpine paradise from the dreaded cultural eyesore of mosque minarets. This proposed ban on minarets comes from the same friendly yodelers in the nationalist Swiss People’s Party that has previously campaigned against foreigners, including a proposal to kick out entire families of foreigners if one of their children breaks a law and a bid to subject citizenship applications to a popular vote. But they have the pure white chocolate science to back up their campaign this time. It is now evident from a pretentious hypothetical analysis that purebred Swiss cows refuse to give milk, even 1 percent, when they see a minaret. This spells the end of Swiss milk chocolate, a loss that would udderly ruin the Swiss economy, not to mention the sense of shame the bovine residents of the country would feel.

Save Switzerland for the pure Swiss, those wily Swiss Bankers who for decades have allowed brutal dictators to launder their money in untouchable Swiss bank accounts. (more…)


Flooding in Mecca in 1941, in which the circumambulation had to be swum

In many parts of the Middle East, where water is not an easily accessible resource, rain is baraka. The Arabic term baraka is only vaguely understood in the English sense of “blessing,” the lexical translation. Context makes this heaven-sent product a blessing some times and a curse other times. Pilgrims to Mecca this year have witnessed torrential rain, dampening the make-shift hotel tents and ihram garb, but perhaps not the enthusiasm of the hajjis and hajjiyyas. An article on today’s Al-Jazeera website notes that about three million Muslims are performing the pilgrimage; as for the number of umbrellas being used, Allahu a’lama. Normally, extra rain in the arid environs of Mecca and Medina would seem something to evoke al-hamdillah from the faithful, but in this case timing is a problem. Some 50 people have already been killed due to these rains, and the fear of spreading disease during an already concurrent high flu season is no doubt troubling to the health officials. The H1N1 flu has already claimed four pilgrims and some 67 have been diagnosed with the virus. Perhaps the Egyptian government missed a few of those dangerous swine of the Christian Zabbalin.

So if one assumes that this ordained ritual is important in the eyes of Allah, an old and nagging question arises: why does the rain fall on the just as well as the unjust. This ethical dilemma played out on the monotheistic stage has a long history. In the Gospels Jesus reminded his followers that God is an equal opportunity Creator: (more…)

An Attempt to Unravel Some of the Confusion
Surrounding Yemen Cancels, Post Office

by Bruce Conde, Linn’s Stamp News, 16 July 1956

In 1926, His Majesty the Imam Yahia, king of the usually closed and forbidden mountain land of Yemen in southwestern Arabia, inaugurated a royal postal service for the first time, without benefit of outside postal advice and completely unaware of the fact that there was anything in the world called philately. Only eight years before, Yemen was still partly occupied by Ottoman troops, whose forerunner postal service (Hodeida, Taiz and Sana’a cancels on regular Turkish stamps for indifferent and irregular mail to Turkey, mostly by the military) had not been available to the population at large.

Two basic stamps, a “1/2 of 1/8 imadi” (5c U.S.), and “1/8 imadi” (10c US), corresponding to small pentagonal silver coins of the realm (40 bogash—1 imadi—80c U.S.) were produced locally by locking 20 individual cliches together in a single frame for each master sheet.


(Seal-type cancels)

(more…)


19th century Cairo mosque illustration from Henry Van-Lennep’s Bible Customs.

Those of us who spend hours using Arabic lexicons would be at a loss without the massive Tâj al-‘Arûs min jawâhir al-qâmûs of Muhammad Murtadâ al-Zabîdî. Completed by this consummate Muslim scholar in 1188/1774 after fourteen years of diligent research, the recent Kuwait edition comprises 40 volumes. Ironically, what took al-Zabîdî fourteen years to write and dictate seems a rapid turn-around, given that the Kuwait edition began in 1960 and was not completed until 2002 [There is a copy available for only £2,463 from Abe Books…, but I suggest you go to Lebanon, where the 40 volume set is only $325 from Fadak Books I am not aware of any online version of Tâj, although Lisân al-‘Arab is available online in searchable format.] Those of us who could never afford to house the 40 volume edition have managed to get by with reprints of the 19th century Cairo edition, funky font presence that it sheds. I remember buying my copy of the thick black-cover volumes in 1981, filling a suitcase with the hefty weight, paying the porter a handsome bakshish for his back-breaking effort at Cairo airport, and then having the suitcase implode from the weight as I crossed the threshhold of my home back in New York. I like to think that my own account would have made its way into al-Zabîdî’s inquisitive notes. (more…)

[Note: The latest book by Anouar Majid, We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades against Muslims and Other Minorities (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) provides a provocative thesis, suggesting that we examine the issue of Muslim minorities in contemporary Europe through the prism of history, specifically the treatment of the Moors (los Moros) in Spain. Here is a sample of his argument (from pp. 3-4).]

Indeed, anyone watching the events unfolding in Europe and the United States in recent years cannot help but be struck by the confluence of the two overriding concerns of these two continental states: the mounting anxiety over coexisting with Muslims and the seemingly unstoppable waves of illegal and nonassimilable immigrants. All sorts of explanations have been offerd about these twin elements fueling the global crisis — bookshelves are filled with books about Islam, minorities, and questions of immigration — but no one seems to be reading the intense debate over immigration and minorities who resist assimilation as the continuation of a much older conflict, the one pitting Christendom against the world of Islam. We are often being asked to ponder “what is wrong with Islam” and “what is wrong with the West,” as if these two abstract, ideological entities suddenly bumped into each other in their travels and were jolted by the shock of discovery. The West encountered an archaic Islam stuck int he primitivism of pre-modern cultures, whereas Muslims discovered a dizzying, fast-dissolving secular West that is guided by the fleeting fantasies of materialism. All of this is by now amply documented. Yet what I propose in this book is that a secular, liberal Western culture and Islam were never really parted, that they ahve been traveling together since (at least) 1492, despite all attempts to demarcate, first, zones of Christian purity and , later, national homogeneity. (more…)


A picture making the news rounds of Major Hasan on the day of the shootings.

[Note: I have just published a commentary on a commentary in Forbes Magazine in which Major Nidal Hasan is said to have “gone postal” in his frenzy. This is published on Religion Dispatches. I excerpt the first couple of paragraphs here, but please go to the Religion Dispatches site, where you can post comments as well.]

If the media frenzy over the Fort Hood killings is any gauge, the ugly specter of 9/11 has again taken its psychological toll. This time, instead of the “bad Muslim” being a bearded terrorist called bin Laden, there is a US Army psychologist who was trained to be a healer of military personnel. He happens to have an Arabic ancestry and is Muslim.

Prominent American Muslim organizations issued statements right away condemning the murders. Debate in the media is now focused on his motivation. Was he a fifth-columnist wolf in military dress? Did his sympathies for innocent victims in our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan overwhelm his common sense of decency? Should the FBI and security arms of the US military have pounced on him when they uncovered his initial links to a radical imam?

One result that I have noticed among those who study Islam, especially my Muslim colleagues, is a growing fault line over the dubious “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binary. As Mahmood Mamdani has eloquently argued, the choice is not between good and bad individuals or citizens, but about being Muslim. Major Hasan is a man who looked very much like a “good Muslim”: a military officer providing therapy to returning veterans. But, now, it seems that at some tipping point he became the “bad Muslim,” the kind who places mosque above state.

For the rest of this commentary, click here.

Daniel Martin Varisco

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