Tight composition, fast pacing, authoritative tone: it’s no surprise it was a bestseller. Of politics and history it is a good introduction for the non-muslim. But if the intent was to present a vision of how muslims should understand their faith under the challenge of modernity, it falls way short. Even presuming the raft of hostile orientalists he draws from represented the most neutral and authoritative of western scholarship on Islam, the author’s own tone and framing make it needlessly more odious. We are informed the Prophet was “indecisive”, an “empty vessel”, a “hooked nose” Arab, that the Quran *was dictated by* its environment, that the 5 daily prayers are apocryphal, and for that matter the entire hadith corpus should be thrown out the window, etc. I’m not reverse Fox-News-ing him and saying he must be a staunch muslim to write a book on Islam. I’m just saying this book is speaking to and from a position so far removed from the Islamic scholarly tradition that I can make no use of it.
Three very interesting lives in interesting moments of history. The author assumes a specialist’s level of background knowledge. I would have preferred a lot less academic argument and more storytelling.
by Amin Maalouf Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs! Documentation of rampant cannibalism among the Franj comes from the Franj themselves, but the historical accounts from Arab witnesses are what makes this book so enjoyable: the cannibalism, the elective surgery by battle-axe, the trials-by-ordeal,all described by genteel observers shocked at the barbarism of the blond peril. The book covers a long period where many rulers come and go, but major figures like Nur ad-Din Zangi, Saladin and Baybars are presented in good detail, and there are many colorful digressions that fill in a picture of the times, among the major battles and changes in leadership. I especially enjoy the tone of anthropological distance from the historians quoted, as with Ibn al-Athir upon the unexpected death of Frederick Barbarossa, King of the Germans: His army dispersed, and thus did God spare the Muslims the maleficence of the Germans, who constitute a particularly numerous and tenacious species of Franj.
A basic treatise and theological defense of sufism and its practices; fine, but not much different from a lot of similar material available from
other tariqats. I would have enjoyed learning more about the history and activities of the Tijaniyya, who are said to be the most active Islamic missionaries of West Africa.
The memoir of a British lieutenant in WWII Malaya who conducts guerilla warfare against the Japanese. It’s not a very gripping story. All the successful guerrilla work takes place in the first quarter of the book, and from there on it is one long anticlimax of malaria, dysentery and thrashing through the jungle. Managing not to die in the jungle for a few years is a pretty good feat for a foreigner but he’s surrounded by locals who do it with less effort, and he doesn’t have much interesting to say about it beyond the bare facts. His major accomplishment between all the not succumbing to illness is training up the Malayan Communist Party cadres in tactics. The book ends with the war so I’m left wondering to what degree the post-war MCP insurgency against the British was more effective because of the good lieutenant’s training.
I’ve been trying to read more books about Malaysia. It hasn’t been easy. There are surprisingly few of them, at least what shows up on Amazon. Of those that I’ve found, very few have anything to say about Malays. Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy novels didn’t have one sympathetic Malay character. Likewise TJIN: there isn’t a single named Malay in the whole book. What ‘s a good book about Malaysia I should read next? Any genre welcome.
Ivan Illich was an influential theorist in the decade I was born. I had heard of his most famous work, Deschooling Society, and it had been recommended to me more than once I’m sure, no doubt because I homeschooled in the 6th and 12th grades. But I had only a passing awareness of the man and his work when I stumbled across Medical Nemesis, his critique of modern medicine and its role in society. I was thunderstruck. Reading Medical Nemesis I discovered a scholarly explanation and defense of the values I was raised with, ideas that I accepted and took for granted as just the way our family lived, yet ideas I was aware were and still are in fairly stark opposition to most people around us. Reading this book, I realized: my father and mother had read this and were influenced by it, and no doubt many of their friends, the parents of my closest and truest friends. This book shaped an important part of who I am, although I had never read it.
In any time and place there are a cloud of active ideas wafting around, some are elevated and canonized, some are cast down and ignored by the larger society, but those spurned ideas perpetuate through generations even after their originators and their books are long forgotten. Maybe I’m making a lot out of a simple truism. But like a lot of cliched proverbs or expressions, the depth of meaning doesn’t appear until you “taste the salt”, as the Malays have it. Des’ree was probably just heralding wisdom from her mother when she said, “Read the Books Your Father Read”, but I heard it from her first, and now I think I know better what she means.
A great deal of Illich’s work is available freely on the web.
A recent review of Illich’s ideas about technology in The Atlantic
I’ve returned from my vacation to the US. I couldn’t get any critical distance from which to write or observe while I was there; I was too busy enjoying being back. I did manage to take a lot of pictures though. You can view them in this Flickr set, America 2007. The most pleasurable aspect of the trip, after reunion with loved ones, must have been hearing and speaking my native English. Effortless communication – How we take it for granted! My friends were kind enough to get me up to speed on contemporary slang that I may have missed during my absence. Like, what do you call that tattoo, usually of a butterfly, that women get on the small of their back just above their low-riders?
A tramp stamp! ………………………Ok, I’ll stop now.
The trans-pacific crossing went smoothly enough, but I was nervous about clearing immigration. Last time I was in country it was the INS at the border, so this was going to be my first time meeting the Homeland Security folks. The officer I got turned out to be of Chinese origin, and likely a naturalized citizen by his accent. He was civil enough as he stamped my and my daughter’s passports, though he asked me four questions about my time spent abroad, something that never happened before. That was ok, though. But when he swiped my son’s, he looked troubled for a moment and then told me he can’t authorize my son’s entry and that we have to follow him into the Back Room. I sure didn’t want to visit the Back Room, but of course I followed him. There were various unhappy, pensive looking people around the room sitting on benches, while a different officer at the counter was busy giving the third degree through a translating officer to a Mexican grandmotherly-type lady. It wasn’t coarse or abusive, but Lord it wasn’t friendly. He paused in his work to take a quick two-second glance at my son and the passport, stamped it, and said “there you go have a nice day”. I was really itching to know what had triggered the first officer to pass me back to this guy,
but I doubted he would tell me and my desire to get the heck out of there overcame my curiosity. I took my son’s passport and split. Looking back on it, Long’s record must have been flagged because my son is a) born abroad, b) living abroad, c) male and d) muslim. And clearly he passed second review on account of being a little kid. That’s great, this time. But I can easily imagine that 6-7 years down the road, Officer Friendly is going to want more than just a quick glance at him.
Once in the country, I didn’t feel like that much had changed, but I was struck by some differences I had forgotten about, most significantly the wealth that was in evidence at every turn. Money just dripped everywhere you looked. It wasn’t bling necessarily, but more often the little things that jumped out at me, like the two or three thick fluffy napkins given without asking at the restaurant or the triple-stitched, reinforced backpacks folks carried at the airport. Meijers was so dazzling I had to take a picture. It’s not that you can’t find such opulence in Malaysia – it’s that it is found only in the centers of town in the elitist stores.In the US, it’s at Meijers in every small town you pass.
My kids picked up on it right away. KakNgah walked down the hallway of my friend’s nice but by no means extravagant brownstone flat on the first day we arrived in Chicago, muttering to herself, Ini orang kaya ke ini orang kaya?!”.
Another difference had more to do with me. My blood had definitely thinned during my years in Malaysia. My children and I were wearing sweaters and jackets well into June, and I never felt hot, even when my companions were sweating. You can get used to anything, I guess.
Beyond that, the trip was uneventful in the extreme, and that was fine with me. I took great pleasure in meeting friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in years, soaking in the beauty of Three Roods Farm, and eating bread, real bread, bread with crusts.
I returned to Malaysia in time for the arrival of my new child, an armload of new books my biggest prize. Personal favorites have been both Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican and his translation and commentary on the Faysal al-Tafriqah of Imam Ghazali. In the former, Prof Jackson frequently cites the work of Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race. That turns out to be a two-volume academic tome that I would never get around to buying, so luckily I was able to benefit from the online annotated summary of Invention provided by Prof Allen himself. Other good ones include American Islam by Paul Barrett, which I liked so much I ordered a copy for my Grandpa and which includes a great chapter on the Naqshbandi Order; Gifts for the Seeker translated by Mostafa Badawi, a popular religious text in Malay; and Musa Furber’s translation of Etiquette with the Quran. There are so many good Islamic books coming out that I just can’t keep up.