November 2009

Loyola Marymount Professor Amir Hussain will be responding to the inaugural lecture of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan at Fordham this coming Thursday. Details below for all those in the New York Metropolitan area.

Annual Fall McGinley Lecture: “Faith and the Possibility of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue”

Inaugural lecture of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., as Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society.

Thursday, 19 November 2009 | 8 p.m.
Keating First Auditorium | Rose Hill Campus

The inaugural lecture of Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., as Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, is titled “Faith and the Possibility of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue.” The lecture will be followed by responses by Professor Amir Hussain of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Rabbi Daniel F. Polish, spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, New York. A reception will follow the lecture, which is open to the public without charge.

For more information, contact Sister Anne-Marie Kirmse, O.P., Ph.D., at (718) 817-4746 or

Stanford University Press has just published Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam, edited by Richard C. Martin and Abbas Barzegar. In this book Political Scientist Donald Emmerson argues for an inclusive use of the term “Islamism” in order to rescue the term from its misappropriation in the media. This is followed by my essay, in which I argue that the term “Islamism” is as tainted as “Mohammedanism” and should be avoided as a replacement for fundamentalist and political Islam. Our two essays are followed by twelve short responses from a variety of perspectives, Muslim and non-Muslim. The contributors include Feisal Abdul Rauf, Syed Farid Alatas, Hillel Fradkin, Graham Fuller, Hasan Hanafi, Amir Hussain, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Richard Tapper, M. Zuhdi Jasser, Bruce Lawrence, Anouar Majid, Angel Rebasa and Nadia Yassine. Given the range of perspectives on one of the hot topics of the day, this volume will be a great addition to courses on Islam or the Middle East.

The publisher’s description is presented below: (more…)

by Gregory D Johnsen, The National, November 12, 2009

Last week, the sporadic five-year long war between the Yemeni government and Houthi fighters in the country’s north finally spilled over the border into Saudi Arabia. The conflict has been steadily escalating since the Yemeni government resumed fighting in August after more than a year of fragile calm. Leaving no doubt as to its intentions, the government calls the present campaign “Operation Scorched Earth”: the fighting has already produced thousands of internal refugees and spread outward from the northern governorate of Sadaa, where the Houthi rebels are based.

Like much of the conflict, the clashes that began on November 4 are clouded by conflicting and contradictory reports. The Houthis claim that they were responding to repeated strikes by the Yemeni military, which was using Saudi territory as a rear base to launch flanking manoeuvres into Sadaa. Saudi Arabia contends that it was responding to incursions by the Yemeni rebels, and both sides insist that the other fired the first shots.

But whatever the sequence of events, the skirmishes mark a major escalation in the messy and murky guerrilla war that has only become more intense – and drawn in an increasing number of players – since its start in 2004. The Saudis deployed troops to their southern border, where they launched air and ground assaults on pockets of Houthi fighters, purportedly to drive them back into Yemen. The intervention was meant to be a limited one – and the Saudis claim they only attacked positions on their side of the border – but it is doubtful, having joined the fray, that they will be able to extricate themselves easily. (more…)

Left to right, Jocelyne Cesari, Dan Varisco, Jens Kreinath, Nadia Fadil, Refika Sarionder at AAR in Montreal

Last Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had the privilege of serving in a “responding” role on one of the first panels on the program. This was a session entitled “Talal Asad and the Anthropology of Islam,” organized by Jens Kreinath (Wichita State University), presided over by Refika Sarionder (University of Bielefeld) and with presentations by Jocelyne Cesari (Harvard University), Nadia Fadil (Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven), Jens Kreinath and Bruce B. Lawrence (Duke University). [Abstracts of the panel and papers are posted at the bottom of my comments.]

Following a typically powerful presentation by Bruce Lawrence and placed in the difficult role of representing Talal Asad (who was not present), I began my remarks by noting that I felt myself between a rock (a solid one at that) and a hard place. Drawing on my anthropological roots, I offered myself in the metaphorical role of Thomas Henry Huxley to Darwin, dubbing my wrapping-up task as akin to Asad’s Bulldog. This is not to say that the papers were overtly critical of Dr. Asad’s work; on the contrary, all expressed appreciation of his work as formative in their own ideas. Yet, in reading over the individual papers I detected several criticisms that stem more from dealing with isolated comments than considering the impressive and expanding corpus of Asad. I decided the best approach was to sum up what I see as some of the reasons the continuing intellectual trajectory of Dr. Asad is useful for those of us interested in something that might be called an “anthropology” of Islam.

Bruce Lawrence at AAR in Montreal


Tarim, a remote desert valley in Yemen with towering bluffs and ancient mud-brick houses, is probably best known to outsiders as the birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father. Photo: Bryan Denton

Tarim Journal
Crossroads of Islam, Past and Present

By ROBERT F. WORTH, The New York Times, October 15, 2009

TARIM, Yemen — This remote desert valley, with its towering bluffs and ancient mud-brick houses, is probably best known to outsiders as the birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father. Most accounts about Yemen in the Western news media refer ominously to it as “the ancestral homeland” of the leader of Al Qaeda, as though his murderous ideology had somehow been shaped here.

But in fact, Tarim and its environs are a historic center of Sufism, a mystical strand within Islam. The local religious school, Dar al-Mustafa, is a multicultural place full of students from Indonesia and California who stroll around its tiny campus wearing white skullcaps and colorful shawls.

“The reality is that Osama bin Laden has never been to Yemen,” said Habib Omar, the revered director of Dar al-Mustafa, as he sat on the floor in his home eating dinner with a group of students. “His thinking has nothing to do with this place.”

Lately, Al Qaeda has found a new sanctuary here and carried out a number of attacks. But the group’s inspiration, Mr. Omar said, did not originate here. Most of the group’s adherents have lived in Saudi Arabia — as has Mr. bin Laden — and it was there, or in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that they adopted a jihadist mind-set. (more…)

[Note: The cover interview of Rorotoko has an essay by historian of Islamic science George Saliba on his fascinating study entitlted Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. Here is the start of the essay, the whole of which can be read at Rorotoko.]

This book started almost ten years ago. Initially, I wanted to know what were the conditions under which a civilization could produce science afresh.

I was trained in ancient Semitics, and mathematics, but I was always interested in these rumors that the general reader knows about, that the great invention of science was a really Greek project. And that everything else is either a shadow or a continuation of the classic antiquity.

Growing up, you assimilate these paradigms. You begin to think that these are the normal things. But then, trained in mathematics, and beginning to read a little bit of what was produced in the Islamic civilization, in science, I grew curious. I grew curious because I began to note that some of the science produced was not a shadow of the Greek project. It was more re-focusing of light, a new way of looking at things, which the Greeks did not know. (more…)

left to right: Michael Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago; Taoufiq Ben Amor,a Tunisian vocalist, percussionist, oud player and Professor of Arabic at Columbia University; William C. Chittick, Professor of Religious Studies in the Asian and Asian American Studies Dept. at Stony Brook

Islam, Sufism and the Heart of Compassion: Living the Teachings of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi

The New York Open Center and the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society will co-present a conference titled “Islam, Sufism and the Heart of Compassion: Living the Teachings of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi” on November 6,7, 2009

This conference will examine the heart of Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings and in the process seek to deepen understanding of Islam here in the West in the light of one of its most profound, original and universally relevant thinkers.The conference will open with a series of talks on Friday evening and Saturday morning and will be followed by afternoon workshops, ending with a concluding presentation including a music ensemble. The presentations will cover such themes as: Ibn ’Arabi and the Quest for Human Perfection; Suffering and Spiritual Growth in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat; The Wisdom of the Heart; Ibn ‘Arabi in Dialogue with the Confucian Tradition; and more. The presenters include some of the leading Ibn ‘Arabi scholars in the world from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. Confirmed speakers include:

• Salman Bashier
• William Chittick
• Sashiko Murata
• Mohamed Haj Yousef
• Stephen Hirtenstein

You can download the symposium brochure here. (This is an Acrobat pdf file, 3.5mb.) (more…)

Selling qât in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. Photo: Bryan Denton

These days if you run across an article on Yemen, it will no doubt feature a scenario of gun-toting tribesmen swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the latest German tourist hijackings or feigned shock at the terrible, terrible addictive drug called qât. At least this was the case in Sunday’s New York Times in another piece of mixed journalistic pablum by roving reporter Robert Worth. Entitling the article “Thirsty Plant Dries Out Yemen,”, the author seems unaware that the site of his posting (Jahiliya) is in fact the Arabic term for the time of “Ignorance” before the rise of Islam. I doubt this reporter stepped out of a Queen-of-Sheba-era time machine and interviewed Abraha about his recent defeat at the “Battle of the Elephant” before Mecca. So where exactly is the fabled posting site of Jahiliya? Ironically, it is part of a World Bank irrigation project. I will leave the irony about IMF money being poured into Jahiliya in the strict sense to the imagination of the reader. And I strongly suspect the posting was made from a fancy hotel in the capital Sanaa and not from a rural internet cafe, while sipping qishr. But for a front page article on a major newspaper, ignorance is no excuse. (more…)

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