March 2012



Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations. University of North Carolina Press, 2011

by Kristian Petersen, New Books in Islamic Studies, February 27, 2012

Recent events revolving around the Qur’an, such as the accidental burning of it in Afghanistan or the intentional provocations of radical American Christian pastors, suggest that Westerns often still fail to understand the role of the Qur’an in Muslims lives. On occasion, the mere suggestion of having Westerners read the Qur’an in order to gain a better understanding of its message has incited anger and lawsuits, as was the case at the University of North Carolina in 2002.

The inability to bridge these cultural differences and the many inherent challenges the Qur’an possesses inspired Carl W. Ernst, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, to write his new book How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). He wondered how should the non-Muslim read the Qur’an? This comprehensive introduction presents a literary historical approach that enables the reader to understand how the Qur’an’s initial audience encountered it through a chronological reading, traditionally understood through the early Meccan, later Meccan, and Medinan periods of Muhammad’s career. It introduces a reading that understands the structure and form of the text as informing the meaning. Thus, Ernst examines the symmetry and balanced composition of verses, the tripartite structure of certain chapters, intertexuality within the Qur’an, and uses rhetorical analysis and ring composition as a means to approach and understand seemingly contradictory religious claims. Ernst’s text is engaging and informative while achieving its goal of making the Qur’an accessible to the non-Muslim. His new book will certainly motivate a future group of Qur’anic studies scholars and will allow the uninitiated reader to better understand what the previously veiled text says about the cosmos and Muslims position in it.

Note: To hear an audio interview with Carl Ernst about his book, click here and scroll to the bottom.


near al-Tawila, September, 1978; Photo by Daniel Martin Varisco


Lady Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Francis Burton

[The following is an excerpt from The Romance of Lady Isabel with her reflections on visiting Jedda on the way to India in 1876. The entire book is available online.]

I was delighted with my first view of Jeddah. It is the most bizarre and fascinating town. It looks as if it were an ancient model carved in old ivory, so white and fanciful are the houses, with here and there a minaret. It was doubly interesting to me, because Richard came here by land from his famous pilgrimage to Mecca. Mecca lies in a valley between two distant ranges of mountains. My impression of Jeddah will always be that of an ivory town embedded in golden sand.

We anchored at Jeddah for eight days, which time we spent at the British Consulate on a visit. The Consulate was the best house in all Jeddah, close to the sea, with a staircase so steep that it was like ascending the Pyramids. I called it the Eagle’s Nest, because of the good air and view. It was a sort of bachelors’ establishment; for in addition to the Consul and Vice-Consul and others, there were five bachelors who resided in the building, whom I used to call the “Wreckers,” because they were always looking out for ships with a telescope. They kept a pack of bull-terriers, donkeys, ponies, gazelles, rabbits, pigeons; in fact a regular menagerie. They combined Eastern and European comfort, and had the usual establishment of dragomans, kawwasses, and servants of all sizes, shapes, and colour. I was the only lady in the house, but we were nevertheless a very jolly party. (more…)


Burton in Aden

Today is March 19. Exactly 191 years ago, at 9:30 in the evening in the British town of Torquay in Devon the future Sir Richard Francis Burton was born. Like his 2oth century acting namesake, Burton was a character for the ages. He reveled in adventure and eroticism, for which he was much reviled in public and no doubt admired in private. If any one word can be used to described the persona that Burton pursued it would be “swashbuckling” in life as in spirit. My point today is neither to praise this flamboyant quasi-Victorian Caesar nor bury him (his grave is indeed a monumental site to behold). May his dry bones rest in the kind of peace he never seems to have found in life.

Burton’s biographers are numerous, as befits someone who is remembered as larger than life. His prolific corpus is now almost entirely online in various formats, but the place to start is burtoniana.org. There is much to question and quibble about in Burton’s exploits. Was his surreptitious entry into Mecca, disguised as a pilgrim, a travesty of Islamic values? Did his fascination with erotica in an age of gentlemananged taboos overstep ethical bounds? Was he the bad kind of “Orientalist,” a discourse cum intercourse voyeur that warrants calling him “Dirty Dick”, as Edward Said does in Orientalism (p. 190)? Was he, perhaps, a bit mad in that ubiquitous England manner?

Whatever you might think of the man, it is probably because of what you have read about him rather than what he actually wrote. Regardless of what he is saying, it must be noted that he had an extraordinary capacity for learning languages. Below is a list of the languages and dialects he is said to have mastered to some extent:

English, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, Jataki dialect (he wrote a grammar), Hindustani, Marathi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Pushtu, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Icelandic, Swahili, Amharic, Fan, Egba, Ashanti, Hebrew, Aramaic, Many other West African & Indian dialects

I suspect he would get into Harvard, no matter what his SAT score.


Indonesian women’s rights groups said they were outraged by the comments and called for a stop to the demonization of rape victims

Why is it that men blame women for their own failures? Whenever I hear a variant of the phrase, “Well, he couldn’t help himself,” I can’t but think that this excuse is in need of a lot of help. In Indonesia there is a bill being considered in parliament that would ban female lawmakers from wearing provocative clothing, such as miniskirts. Given that the number of Indonesian lawmakers wearing miniskirts must be a whopping minority, why is this needed? Here is the rationale:

“We know there have been a lot of rape cases and other immoral acts recently, and this is because women aren’t wearing appropriate clothes,” house of representatives speaker Marzuki Alie said.

“Women wearing inappropriate clothes arouse men, so it needs to be stopped. You know what men are like — provocative clothing will make them do things.”

So men rape women because women wear miniskirts. I have not seen the statistics, but I suspect the majority of women in Indonesia do not fall for the idea that all they have to do is dress conservatively and there will be no danger of a man raping them. This notion that the male rapist cannot really be blamed because “provocative clothing will make them do things” is not limited to any national or religious group. What is rather bizarre in this case is that the ban would only be to protect male lawmakers and not for the public at large. So either there is an epidemic of male lawmakers raping female lawmakers in Indonesia or these males are so easily aroused that the ban need only be to stop those provocative female lawmakers. I guess once outside the parliament building, male lawmakers can contain themselves. (more…)


by Iona Craig, The National, January 9, 2012

A Swedish adventurer crossing Yemen by camel hopes his journey will encourage tourists to see beyond the political turmoil and violence that has engulfed the country for nearly a year.

Mikael Strandberg set out on December 7 on a 380-kilometre trek across the treacherous highlands, the first leg of his Yemen venture, to disprove the purveyors of pessimism.

“I don’t know what they [the tourists] are waiting for … it is such a wonderful country with great potential,” he said, after arriving in Sanaa after a two-week march through the toughest terrain in the Arabian Peninsula.
Along with two Yemeni companions, Mr Strandberg is in the initial phase of a journey that will cross the country from the western coastal plains of Hodeida to the edge of the world’s largest sand desert, the Rub’ Al Khali, or Empty Quarter, and beyond to Oman.

The explorer, 48, who fell in love with both the country and his wife Pamela, an American, during a visit to
Yemen three years ago, holds fond memories of Sanaa and the Yemeni people.

“We decided to go and try to make a difference and give a different perspective from the one portrayed by the media,” said Mr Strandberg. (more…)


There are a number of issues on which Christians and Muslims agree, despite the historical antagonism that Islamophobia and Sectarianophobia perpetuate. For example, boycotting the power drink “Red Bull” in South Africa. A recent ad showed Jesus walking on the water after he drank “Red Bull”, stepping gingerly on the rocks that he could see beneath his feet in the water. The only miracle was in the drink, if you follow the ad. While the advertisers did not expect people to take the ad literally, gulp down their “Red Bull” and promenade without their water skis, the premise of the ad indeed denies the miracle, a denial that many Christians accept post-Hume with little problem. As reported in The Washington Post and picked up by a number of Muslim media outlets, such as Cii, South Africa’s Roman Catholic hierarchy told the faithful to give up “Red Bull” for Lent. And then, South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council, in solidarity, joined the boycott by saying that an affront to the Prophet Issa (Jesus) is an affront to Muslims.

From the Catholic perspective, at least one that focuses less on “turn the other cheek” and more on “Get thee behind me, Satan,” the moral outrage is understandable. Think of a possible amendment to the catechism as follows:

Question: “What would Jesus do if a television commercial made fun of his miracles?
Answer: “If you believe that Jesus walked on “Red Bull”, then render unto “Red Bull”, but if you believe Jesus walked on water, then don’t drink this whited sepulcher of a beverage during Lent. Remember that at the wedding in Cana Jesus turned the water into wine, not “Red Bull.”

Although I have not found any specific news accounts, I suspect that the Bible-believer missionaries will forego “Red Bull” as well, even if they don’t hold fast to the Lenten fast.

But the fact that a major Muslim organization in South Africa has joined in condemnation of the ad is a cautious welcome sign, no matter what you think of the ad itself. (more…)

So many scenes of tanks and blood-soaked Syrian bodies, although there seem to be few good Samaritans willing to stop and heal the wounds. But there is also art, the spirit of which bullets can never penetrate …

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