August 2012



The angel Israfil from the Aja’ib al-Makhluqat of al-Qazwini, Mamluk, period. Illustration in the British Museum

[The following is part six of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part five, click here.].

Concluding Remarks

The most important part of any lecture, assuming one is not completely turned off in the first minute or two, is supposed to come after the words “in conclusion.” In conclusion. This means there must be a need to conclude something. Regarding the Quran as a great book, there is little need to conclude anything. The mere fact that this talk was scheduled and that you came shows that a sacred scripture commanding the attention of so many people on earth warrants consideration. Regarding how Muslims view the greatness of their Great Book, there is too much to conclude, too great a gap in experience, too challenging a call for empathy. Rather than try to tell you what the Quran is in a nutshell, I would simply ask that sometime soon you try reading it or at least a selection of excerpts. A good place to start is the superb translation of select texts by Michael Sells’ Approaching the Quran.

However, having raised the issue of The Satanic Verses in a lecture on the Quran, a final comment does need to be made. If I were to simply tell you that most Muslims approach their sacred book quite differently, as I see it, than others approach their scriptures, you would probably say “alright, so things are different, so they have a right and we have a right, so what?” Even if the statement of faith outlined in the fatiha or the line of reasoning articulated by a brilliant scholar like Ibn al-‘Arabi is instructive, you would probably still walk away tonight basically unchallenged and unchanged. (more…)


Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses

[The following is part five of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part four, click here.].

The Struggling Believer’s Novel and the Text

I could easily continue this discussion of the views of Ibn al-‘Arabi for hours, days, or weeks (how long would it take to simply read 17,000 pages in his major work?) It is valuable to probe with a believer like this great scholar into the depths of his own meaning-rich search through the language of the Quran. But much has happened in the past 750 odd years in the Islamic World. Muslims, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in a broadening discourse defined in large part by the overtly Christian West, even though any distinctive Christianness may have largely eroded. In contrast, Ibn al-‘Arabi lived in a world in which the Quran’s detractors — those who did not grapple with this Arabic text as a revelation — were few and far away. To be sure there were debates over the form of the revelation, although these were tilted to orthodoxy rather early on. But in his day there was no viable reason in the Muslim context not to accept the Quran as revelation.

Muslims over the past couple of centuries have been compelled to defend the Quran against what they believe is a secular war aimed at the integrity of their religion. The heartland of Islam since the 16th century has been dominated by Ottoman Turks (Muslim converts, it must be remembered) up until this century, with European colonial powers nibbling away at the often frayed edges of the Sublime Porte. The more recent raw power politics of this century, be this the regimen of Western-trained military elite takeovers, the imposition of secular Israel in a predominantly Islamic Middle East, the cleric-driven drive for a militant, rejectionist radicalism in Iran and Afghanistan, the dirt-poor rage of simple Egyptian fundamentalists, the cold war Sadaamizing of Kuwait, the collective blinking as Bosnia bleeds non-Christian blood — these events have sharpened the frustration and anger of Muslims wherever they are. And at least three out of four Muslims are not in the Middle East. While we only rarely see these events on our evening news, for Muslims they are far more than ubiquitous sound bites; they are rather like pages torn without mercy, without compassion from their great book. (more…)


Cover of Ibn Al’ Arabi’s The Bezels of Wisdom (The Classics of Western Spirituality)
edited by R.W. Austin


[The following is part four of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part three, click here.].

The Devout Scholar and the Text

In Islam there have been and continue to be both conservative and radical “theologians,” those whose wisdom almost anyone can benefit from and those who leave for posterity mainly the marks of their own highly strictured ignorance, mystics who dare to see beyond the literalist trap imposed by an all-too-human language and unthinking clerics who cling to tradition for little more than tradition’s sake.

From the wide array of Islamic scholars, it would be impossible to say who has been the wisest, the most respected, the most influential. But certainly on the short list we would find Muhyi al-Din Muhammad Ibn al-‘Arabi, an extraordinarily well-traveled man of the late 12th and early 13th centuries A.D. Born in Islamic Spain, he traveled that seemingly vast symbolic distance across the Mediterranean Sea to Tunis, made the pilgrimage to Mecca (Islam’s sacred capital) in 1202 CE, and after traveling throughout the central lands of the Islamic Empire, eventually settled in Damascus, where he became a highly respected teacher for the last eighteen years of his life. He himself had studied with over 90 masters and produced (we are told) an estimated 700 distinct texts (some 400 of which are still preserved), several of which could rightly qualify in this series as “great books” in their own right. His magnum opus, called Futuhat al-makkiya (The Meccan Openings) is a vast encyclopaedia of Islamic knowledge and Quranic interpretation; it would cover perhaps some 17,000 pages in a formal published edition. (more…)


A 9th- or 10th-century leaf of the Qur’an in Kufic script


[The following is part three of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part two, click here.].

1. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds

If there is a phrase in Arabic as frequently used as the bismillah, it is no doubt the hamdillah. Since God is perfect, God alone has the right to receive praise from humanity. God deserves this verbal praise because this mercy comes of his own volition; it was not forced, it was freely given. We are also reminded in these opening words that God rules; he is the rabb of the worlds that be. The word rabb in Arabic has a number of related connotations, including master or lord, chief, determiner, provider, sustainer, rewarder, and perfector. The worlds, perhaps better rendered straightforwardly as the universe, indicated here encompass the material and the immaterial, of flesh-and-blood and of spirits, of those who are well guided and those who are misguided. Whatever is, God is the ultimate master of it. While a non-believer might read this as a base for fatalism, a Muslim sees it differently as a fundamental reason for hope. God’s will will be done, but this hardly frees the believer from doing his or her part, particularly when no one can speak definitively as to what God’s will is in a given matter. The meaning of Islam, after all, is submission.

2. The Compassionate, the Merciful

3. Master of the Day of Judgement

The term malik is that which is used in Arabic for the master of a slave, the owner of property, and the king or sole ruler. For the Muslim, God is the ultimate master of all things. He is not just a judge dispensing justice; God renders reward and punishment (the implication of judgement day) because He alone is the authentic source for such judgement. Who else has this kind of authority, but the one who creates everything and sustains everything? We are reminded quite literally as well that Islam preaches a final judgement, one beyond the grave, a future resurrection of the dead – an idea hardly unique to this revelation. But the Muslim is consoled by the realization that no matter how bad things are (and in many Muslim countries, things are pretty bad right now) God will be the ultimate judge. (more…)


Quran in Naskhi script written by the celebrated Turkish calligrapher Hamd Allah (15th century, Topkapi Museum


[The following is part two of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part one, click here.].

So why am I here?

Let me begin with my discipline. I am an anthropologist by training and experience and a life-long student of Arabic (as a dynamic language and as an extraordinary corpus of folklore and formal literature). You may wonder why an anthropologist would stand before you to discuss a great book, an anthropologist who should seem to be more at home studying “primitive”, non-literate people (who can sadly boast of no “great books”.. Perhaps we should have a “Great Oral Traditions” series).

You see, as an anthropologist, I do not so readily discriminate between societies with books and societies technically without them. More specifically, as a cultural anthropologist, my ethnographic research (that is, my personal observations and documentation of what people do, say they do, or don’t do and think they should do) was in the Arab Islamic country of Yemen (located southwest of Saudi Arabia across the horn of Africa from more newsworthy Somalia). While many of the Yemeni men and women I knew in the field were not formally literate, they were clearly part and parcel of a religion of the book; as Muslims with an impressive local history they all related to the Quran as a vital text and they all (even if unschooled) knew by heart portions of the Quran, at a minimum the fatiha I recited at the start. To talk meaningfully about the Yemen I observed and studied and not to know something reasonably substantial about the Quran that Yemenis revere, would seem to me absurd, or at the very least the sloppiest sort of scholarship. (more…)


The fatiha in an Arabic manuscript of the Quran


[The following is a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993].

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ

In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.

What I have just recited in Arabic is the Quran’s opening or fatiha, consisting only of seven short verses, the first of some 114 chapters of varying length. This is the most oft repeated part of the Quran, recited daily by millions of Muslim men and women during each of the five regular prayers. So integral are these opening words in the revelation of Islam that they have been called the “essence” (literally “mother”) of the Quran (Umm al-Quran ), or as some say, “the Lord’s Prayer of the Muslims.” This fatiha is the opening salvo of a scripture revered as God’s most basic message by more than one billion people on earth today. For these Muslims, most of whom live outside the Middle East, the Arabic Quran is not only a great book but quite literally “the” great book. While non-believers would not approach this book as a true revelation, no one can deny that it is a scripture that has been influential in shaping history across continents for almost 15 centuries and will continue to influence the lives and politics of many of the world’s peoples for a long time to come.

My interest tonight in talking about the Quran differs somewhat from most of the lectures in this series. I feel no need to convince you as an audience in an academic setting that the Quran is a significant text, one of those few great books that we cannot afford to ignore. This is made even more poignant in light of the perceived threat by many in our society of a so-called “militant” Islam on the march against Western Civilization. In our collective cultural ignorance, the Quran is portrayed only as a manifesto, not because non-believers do not take the time to read it carefully but simply because Islam has been branded as a hostile and uncompromising worldview. (more…)


gold chariot from a hoard found near the Oxus River in Central Asia ca 500 BCE, British Museum

Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, Biologists Say
By NICHOLAS WADE, New York Times, August 24, 2012

Biologists using tools developed for drawing evolutionary family trees say that they have solved a longstanding problem in archaeology: the origin of the Indo-European family of languages.

The family includes English and most other European languages, as well as Persian, Hindi and many others. Despite the importance of the languages, specialists have long disagreed about their origin.

Linguists believe that the first speakers of the mother tongue, known as proto-Indo-European, were chariot-driving pastoralists who burst out of their homeland on the steppes above the Black Sea about 4,000 years ago and conquered Europe and Asia. A rival theory holds that, to the contrary, the first Indo-European speakers were peaceable farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, about 9,000 years ago, who disseminated their language by the hoe, not the sword.

The new entrant to the debate is an evolutionary biologist, Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He and colleagues have taken the existing vocabulary and geographical range of 103 Indo-European languages and computationally walked them back in time and place to their statistically most likely origin.

The result, they announced in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, is that “we found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin.” Both the timing and the root of the tree of Indo-European languages “fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago,” they report.

But despite its advanced statistical methods, their study may not convince everyone. (more…)

Here is the continuation of a previous post the story of Habib the knight from Jacques Cazotte’s Mille et une fadaises, Contes a dormir debout (The Thousand and One Follies, Tales to Sleep Upright), which was later translated into English. The English edition published in the year of his death is available in that magical resource for book lovers: archive.org. There are several volumes, but the excerpt here is from volume 3. Enjoy.

For the continuation of the story, you will need to consult volume 4 on the archive.org site.

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