Friday, May 6, 2011

Understanding Islam


I thought I would read the Koran during my one-year deployment to the Middle East.  It was boring, and the literary commentary and criticism I sought out to help me through it was so uneven or obviously biased that I ended up selling the book to a captain who worked in C-130 Ops.

If you really want to understand not so much Islam, but it's history, its people and the cultural milieu that stretches from Turkey to China, I recommend three sources:  Anything written by Bernard Lewis; The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai; and and The Arabian Nights, unexpurgated edition.

In addition to these works, you should read the history of whatever area or era you are interested in.  Muslim culture and its history is rich and varied.  Reading a book on the Taliban and saying you understand Islam is like saying you read a book on 1930's Germany and now have an understanding of Christianity.  The Muslim world and it's varied cultures and history is a vast topic.

Bernard Lewis, now 95, is the West's leading Middle Eastern scholar.  He understands the culture and can explain it quite well.  Of the current uprisings...
"I think that the tyrannies are doomed.  The real question is what will come instead."

"We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want." (WSJ - The Tyrannies are Doomed)
Lewis is no Muslim hater.  Just the opposite.  He has written essays in an attempt to explain the Muslim point of view to fellow westerners.  His overarching themes in these works is that their ways are not our ways.

Indeed Muslims have tried "our ways" in the form of authoritarian statism and fascism.  It's been a poor fit to cultures that were historically steeped in decentralized government where even kings and sultans must consult with the various guilds, tribes and scattered interest groups.
Iranians' disdain for the ruling mullahs is the reason Mr. Lewis thinks the U.S. shouldn't take military action there. "It would give the regime a gift that they don't at present enjoy—namely Iranian patriotism," he warns.
"We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it's done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?" he asks. (WSJ - The Tyrannies are Doomed)


The Arab Mind, written in 1973, has come under sustained attack since 9/11.  The neocons read it and the military used it, so it must be bad!  Dr Patai is a cultural anthropologist, and this is a well-documented and scholarly work.  His downfall is that he sometimes takes specific knowledge from a narrow part of the Middle East and extrapolates it out to the whole.  The Arab world is such a large and varied place that many generalities just don't fit and end up smacking of stereotype.   

He also engages in some amateur cultural psychology that so many anthropologists are guilty of.  So it may not be the definitive work it was once thought to be, but it is still a good jumping off point to at least get yourself oriented.


Arabian Nights is a collection of highly entertaining folk tales from Arabia and South Asia.  Some of the stories take place as far away as China.  You'll recognize some of the characters:  Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor (Who was actually a merchant from Basra, Iraq), Aladdin, as well as scimitar-wielding warriors, sultans and Genies (Jinn).

It is not history, it's folklore, so any facts you garner will be incidental.  Regardless, you will gain enormous insight into the history and culture of the Islamic lands of the Near East.  Read the unexpurgated version, and you'll get the tales complete with the murder, mayhem and ribald randiness missing from the tales you enjoyed as a child.

27 comments:

Always On Watch said...

Years ago, ignorant as I was, I assigned my class of Christian homeschoolers to read Arabian Nights. It wasn't long until one of the parents complained. I believe the objectionable passage was one about cutting off a woman's breasts because she had done something to offend Allah -- or her husband, who was executing the will of Allah.

An Arab neighbor of mine told me that Arabian Nights isn't literature, but rather fairy tales. The tales are worth reading as long as one reads the unexpurgated edition.

Shortly after 9/11, I bought and read The Arab Mind. I recall one sentence, probably word for word: "The West has always been fascinated by all things Araby." Indeed, the West has because "Araby" is exotic. Well, now "Araby" has immigrated to the West and isn't so damn fascinating any more.

The Koran is a boring, boring book -- and confusing too because the material isn't arranged chronologically. Honestly, it's no wonder that Moslems have a twisted sense of logic.

Silverfiddle said...

Yeah, there are a few rough areas like you describe, as well as some randy scenes, though tastefully narrated and not turned into porn.

Speaking of chronology, I think it is Patai who talks about how Arabs in general have chronology and time problems, not being able to put events on a linear timeline, etc.

I love this line of yours. Oh so true:

Well, now "Araby" has immigrated to the West and isn't so damn fascinating any more.

T.L. Winslow (TLW), the Historyscoper (tm) said...

If you really want to master the history of Islam along with its terminology and ideology, the best place is my free online Islam history course, the most powerful ever devised since it uses the Internet to link to hundreds of Web sites with more info.:

http://go.to/islamhistory

Jack Camwell said...

You make a really good point Silver, one that I've been trying to make for a while now to some of my more, ahem, conservative friends.

We see that there are peaceful Muslims in the world, so how can we say that Islam is violent? I have posited that it's more about Arab culture being harsh and violent than the religion itself.

Few people realize just how rich the history of it is as you point out.

Silverfiddle said...

I'm not necessarily celebrating the culture, but it is interesting.

I've seen it up close, and I think much of it is horrible and completely incompatible with Western civilization and our constitutional liberties.

How much is attributable to culture and how much to religion is hard to say, since in every society the two are intertwined.

I am not one of those who condemn the entire religion, however. If you live and let live I don't care how you worship.

Leticia said...

As far as women are treated in this religion it is abhorrent. They are merely objects of ownership. They have no free will, they are treated as slaves and much worse, much, much worse.

I have never read the Arabian nights, and glad I don't plan to. I will stick with my Star Trek and Christian fiction.

Silverfiddle said...

Leticia: It's not for everyone, but it does provide interesting insight.

Always On Watch said...

Yes, it is Patai who discussed the strange view that Islam has of the timeline and of past tenses in general.

Jack Camwell said...

We actually owe a lot to Islamic Arab culture.

During the Middle Ages, while European Christians were sleeping next to their livestock, shunning anything that didn't have to do with the study of God, or bloodletting, the Middle East was brimming with cultural advancement.

Muslim scholars transcribedpreserved, and translated all of the ancient texts from Plato to Cicero. They made huge strides in sanitation, medicine, and mathematics.

When the Renaissance came about, we turned to them to get the knowledge back that we had lost. Also, where would mathematics be if not for the Arabic number system?

And Leticia: the less you read outside of your own cultural experience, the less you will know about other cultural experiences, and the less you will understand about the world. Not a jab at you, but we can't expect to understand this thing called humanity if we close our minds to the entirety of the human experience.

MK said...

What about Robert Spencer, Ba'at Yeor and the like.

Silverfiddle said...

Jack: It says something that you have to go back 1000 years to find a culture's contribution to humanity.

Also, I remember reading that European monks preserved much literature as well.

It is obvious who advanced and who didn't.

MK said...

"And Leticia: the less you read outside of your own cultural experience, the less you will know about other cultural experiences, and the less you will understand about the world."

Jack, not a jab at you, but have you ever asked this of people of other cultures, or is it only us westerners who have this problem of closing our minds to the world outside our own.

Silverfiddle said...

Also, studying other cultures is often more interesting than useful. I don't know anything useful one would gain from studying islamic culture.

If anything, the more I learned the more I became convinced that our cultures were incompatible.

Finntann said...

Yes Jack, during the middle ages when Europeans were sleeping with their livestock, shunning anything that didn't have to do with the study of God, or bloodletting, the Middle East was sleeping with their livestock, shunning anything that didn't have to do with the study of God, or bloodletting.

The history of Islam is a history of warfare and conflict, starting with Muhammad and the battle of Uhud in the sixth century, culminating in his lifetime in the conquest of Mecca and Arabia.

This was followed by the Ridda Wars, or Wars of Apostasy and the conquering of Oman, Northern Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and the establishment of the Rashidun Caliphate.

This was followed by the conquest of Persia and Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern India, Hispania, Septimania (French Med Coast), the Caucusus,Nubia, Southern Italy, Anatolia, Byzantium, yes, the history of the religion of peace is a history of warfare.

Mind you, I'm not try to discount the contributions of Islamic society to the world at large, but to attempt to paint them with a different brush than Europeans of the same timeframe is disingenuous, and illustrates any real grasp of European history.

Shane Atwell said...

Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq is also excellent on the history of Islam, its sources in other religions, various branches throughout the centuries, etc. etc. Debunks the "contributions of islam" line as well. Those contributions were mostly from people living in muslim countries, who were persecuted by the muslims.

Jersey McJones said...

This was a rather thoughtful post, and I appreciated the opportunity to read it.

It REALLY helps to understand Islam if you can manage to actually get to know a few Muslims.

I was never in the military, let alone stationed abroad, but I grew up in the NYC area, where I lived and worked until only 5 years ago, and I knew many Muslims.

They're really like anyone else, for all intents and purposes. Their religion is not the definitive be-all-end-all of who they are. Only an idiot would think otherwise.

Most all people are like that. Most people live their lives without tending all that much to their religious faith.

There was a study out just recently that showed atheists knew more about Christianity than Christians. Back to the point, Christians rarely behave all that "Christian." I mean, they really don't even study their Bibles at all.

Most Christians, like anyone else, work, raise a family, try to pay the bills, try to get ahead a little, try to have a little fun, etc. They're just people like the rest of us. They don't have the resources to make the world a better place.

Muslims are the same.

Yes, the Koran is a unique tome. It is written in that dry, hot, foreboding style that befits the dry, hot, foreboding place it came from. It's not "boring." It's just very different from what we Westereners read.

I read a great version of the Thousand ane One Nights when I was a child - many times over. It was wonderful. It's a great place to start. But then, try to get to know a Muslim. You'll see what I mean.

JMJ

Jack Camwell said...

Finntan, I'm fairly certain you're wrong. Cities in Muslim control actually had water sanitation systems while the Europeans were dumping their crap into the streets.

And like I said, the Muslims transcribed and preserved secular works. How was that shunning things that didn't have to do with God?

The history of humanity is a history of warfare. I mean c'mon, Deus Vult? The Inquisition? And I suppose all the wars of conquest in Europe, started by Christians, some of them by Popes, were all different somehow? I think my grasp of European history is just fine.

MK: I ask that of people of every culture. I am not an apologist for the narrowmindedness of any culture.

And Silver: Yes, it is sad that we have to look back so far to find their contributions, but when you look at history as a whole you find that their contributions were fairly significant. Surely you know why we write 1 2 3 4 5 instead of I II III IV V, and what impact that has had on mathematics. Also, many Renaissance thinkers had to turn to Muslims for the preserved manuscripts of the classical writers. Without that I shudder to think what the Renaissance might have been.

Finntann said...

Jack, Europeans had sanitary sewers long before Muhammed was ever born.

You seem to overlook the Carolingian Renaissance in the 8th century, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hanseatic League, the 12th century renaissance, and so forth. The dark ages weren't as dark as you think they were.

The major difference today is that we left the middle ages behind us and they did not.

You also seem to overlook the fact that the territories that were traditionally 'European'; that is the original Roman territories surrounding the Mediterranean basin had been conquered by succeeding Muslim Caliphates. Much of what made the dark ages dark in southern Europe was Islam itself.

Islam and Europe had been in perpetual military conflict for three hundred years before the first crusade.

You also seem to ignore the fact that most of what you claim Islam preserved, was what they seized in the sacking of Byzantium. You also ignore the fact that much of what was preserved was preserved in Christian monasteries, particularly in Ireland.

I am not claiming that Islam has not made significant contributions to science and the arts, but that you seem to paint the caliphates in a golden light that they don't deserve. Honestly, Islamic civilization in the middle ages wasn't that much different than European civilization in the middle ages. Especially in those areas not subject to Muslim conquest.

Jack Camwell said...

I didn't overlook or ignore anything. I knew that the Romans had sewers, but life in the medieval city wasn't exactly sanitary.

And the Carolingian Renaissance was fairly small and short lived if I'm not mistaken. I'm not trying to denigrate what was accomplished (is that when Carolus Magnus standardized the alphabet?).

Clearly your grasp of European history is better than mine, as I've forgotten a lot of it.

It was Charles Martel that drove the Muslims out of Spain yes?

I know that the dark ages weren't that dark. There was a lot of major ideas that came out of it. I didn't mean to convey that I thought they were dark.

Admittedly, my focus in history in college was American history, but I try to make due on the older stuff.

Silverfiddle said...

Wow! I just learned a whole bunch from Finntann and Jack!

Jack: I think many of us are just rubbed raw by the whole "Muslim contribution" thing. Yes, they did preserve literature and they do have a wonderful history, but they also still have open sewers, and they kill "disobedient" women and homosexuals.

Past glory does not make up for the present grotesque horror show that is much of that culture.

Jersey: You are right that people are people. Culture has much to do with it. This is why in a post the other day I said only half-joking "Our Muslims are better than their Muslims."

Jack Camwell said...

Oh I understand Silver. It would be like saying because the Romans contributed to our form of government and way of life that Mussolini and the Italians were okay to be Fascist.

Like you, I'm not an apologist for radical Islam, but merely one who advocates awareness of the history of Islam and Arab culture.

You brought up a point that I've made elsewhere, that is that while western civilization progressed and advanced, at some point Arab culture stopped and stayed in the Middle Ages.

A friend of mine I knew in the Navy was Muslim. He was from Morocco, and he and I had some very deep discussions about radical Islam. The way he explained it to me was that radical Muslims were relics of the past who had a warped interpretation of the Koran. They shun western culture and believe that technological advancement is evil. As he understood the Koran, it actually promotes technological advancement because it has the potential to improve the quality of life.

In contemplating the three Middle Eastern religions, I've noticed that there's one chief difference in the history of the three. Judaism and Islam both seem to focus primarily on life and how to live it. Christianity, somewhere along the line, became unconcerned with life and started focusing more on what happens after life.

The Catholic Church believes more along the Judaism line: that life is a gift from God, and we are supposed to enjoy it and be happy in it. Protestantism seems to focus more on the afterlife; that this mortal life is just a pesky step to the next one. That's why Catholics have a crucifix and Protestants have a bare cross.

Something to think about, I think.

Silverfiddle said...

I've had some Muslim friends as well and my experiences were similar to yours and Jersey's.

I don't have a problem with Islam. I do have a problem with 7th century obscurantists bringing their illiberal bigotry, hatreds and nursed grudges to the United States.

I firmly believe, based upon the evidence before us, that the vast majority moved here to get away from that crap, and I am glad that those Muslims are here.

jez said...

Nobody hates illiberal bigotry more than me.
I've ordered arabian nights, and while I was there I grabbed Grimm's Fairy tails, which I naively imagine to be the rough equivalent in European culture.

Silverfiddle said...

A smartass comment, Jez, but you help make my point.

Grimm's fairy tales do indeed reveal Central Europe's cultural fears, hatreds, biases, and superstitions.

That's what myths and stories do. They are an insight into the culture they spring from.

Thanks for chiming in!

jez said...

smartassery not intended, I assure you! (I really did order those books for those reasons, and I thank you for your recommendation!)

jez said...

unintentional, i assure you. I really did get both those books, for those reasons. Thanks for you recommendations!

Silverfiddle said...

You're welcome. I think you'll find Arabian Nights much more rewarding and entertaining They really are fascinating tales.