Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamed.

Untitled-1Changez’s personal journey of transformation and the conflicts driving it were believable enough I guess, but not particularly dramatic or striking (and lacking almost entirely in fundamentalism). His critique of American society/empire was also fairly tepid. I suppose that’s where the “Reluctant” comes from in the title, but it made the novel somewhat bland, like Confessions of an Economic Hitman Lite. On the other hand, the unusual narrative style worked well and kept me interested in the identity of the American agent till the end. I also liked the nuanced images of Lahore, Pakistani society and Changez’s position in it. So I think I’ll still pick up Moth Smoke or Rising Asia which play to RF’s strengths, taking place entirely in Pakistan and featuring experimental styles of narration.

Goodreads page.

No God But God

No God but God and Reza Aslan is the Author

… and Reza Aslan is the Author.


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.

Review: Crusades through Arab Eyes

by Amin Maalouf
crusades thru arab eyes
 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.

Goodreads page

Raffles: Invasion of Java

Raffles and the British Invasion of Java

Raffles & the British Invasion of Java

by Tim Hannigan

The book covers a fascinating, obscure moment in colonial history: the launching of Stamford Raffles’ career with the five-year invasion of Java. Those five years are rich with material that Hannigan presents with a fresh eye, sensitive to the Javanese side of the story. The author sometimes seems to be nursing a grudge against his subject – the treatment of Olivia Raffles is downright mean – but the cloud of myth around Raffles is apparently pretty thick, and the author cuts through it with some sharp observations. The moments of contact between the British and royal courts are particularly entertaining. According to the Raffles’ legend, an armed standoff in the court was defused by his skill in the Malay language. Instead, Hannigan convincingly shows, “For Raffles to start griping in Malay over the seating arrangements would have been equivalent to him berating George III in the idiom of a fishwife”.  There are many episodes that get similarly perceptive treatments. The 5-year occupation marks the transition to high colonialism, and Raffles appears to have won his reputation not for being a liberal reformer but for being the imperialist’s imperialist just as the Empire was getting into full swing.

It is great material and great analysis, but the writing sometimes was distracting. There is a lot of overdescription and the alliteration jumped out all over the place: “… a few feverish friars, fast forgetting their catechism …” Once you notice it you can’t stop noticing it: “… begun plotting to place a pliant puppet…” You wish an editor had said something along the way.

All in all, I enjoyed the material and the author’s analysis a great deal. Recommended to anyone interested in the archipelago.

Tim Hannigan’s Footnotes and Sidelights from the Story, including Malaysia’s famous Munshi Abdullah writing about Englishmen riding the green horse:

their mothers would say, “Be quiet, the drunken Englishman is coming,” and the children would be scared and keep quiet.

R&TBIOJ Goodreads page.

Removal of Confusion: Review

Removal of Confusion

Removal of Confusion

by Ibrahim ibn Abd-Allah Niasse

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.

Removal of Confusion at GoodReads

A Short History of Malaysia

ShortHistoryMalaysia by Virginia Matheson Hooker.
Straightforward introduction to Malaysian history; key individuals, important dates, broadest themes. It feels comparable in depth to what I remember of high school US History class. A good preparation for further reading, I hope.

 Goodreads Link

The Jungle is Neutral: Review

The Jungle is Neutral

The Jungle is Neutral
, by F. Spencer Chapman

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.