Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Guidère: Au Commencement était le Coran

May 8, 2018

61lnfOoUoKL._AC_US218_This is a very useful little book, and it’s a shame that things such as this don’t seem to get written in English. I’ve been interested in Islam for a long time, and have read fairly widely in what is available, and up until now Karen Armstrong‘s book Islam: A Short History has been the best thing I’ve come across.

This book is written by a Western expert; it’s very clearly written, and carefully balanced, taking no sides, but clarifying much that might seem obscure and mysterious to the ordinary (non-Muslim) person who tries to keep up and understand, without offending – I hope – anyone in the process. There’s a very wide scope: various schisms in Islam are explained, as are the various different versions of the Qur’an, its history, and various changes and alterations which have occurred. I even understood fully the controversy about the Satanic Verses for the first time (I did read the novel, and found it unremittingly tedious, I’m afraid).

Guidère explains the different currents in Islam and in Islamic jurisprudence; he clarifies the past and shows how it operates in and affects the world today. The complexity of the various rules (and various interpretations of them) regarding sexual behaviour, and the covering of women’s bodies, are examined.

He also points out that much of the knowledge which he is sharing is not widely known in the Muslim world, and it is very clear that there are real dangers for Muslims who would like to read, explore, analyse and challenge; to a considerable extent the Qur’an is a book imprisoned in its past, and he finds this sad.

For me, the most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of abrogation or annulment. This was new to me, the idea that one injunction that had been divinely revealed in one place in the book was annulled and superseded by another one that was revealed later. There’s a certain (human) logic to this, but then by the time Guidère explains the concept and exemplifies it, he has already made clear how much is unknown and uncertain about the compilation of the Qur’an, including when various parts of it were given to Muhammad. So, in short, what supersedes what?

Developing greater understanding of the complex issues that shape and trouble our world is a necessary and valuable enterprise: this book helps do that.

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Paul William Roberts: Journey of the Magi

July 4, 2017

41TF4DFJVCL._AC_US218_A recent read that I found very interesting and thought-provoking explored some of the early history of Christianity: Paul William Roberts’ book also does, although from a very different perspective and in a very different way. He sets out on a physical journey, beginning in modern-day Iran, to retrace the journey made by the Magi at the time of Jesus’ birth; they were Zoroastrians, a faith that predates Christianity by at least five centuries and which the author demonstrates to have had major influences on early Christianity as well as Judaism as it exists today, and on Islam too. He contrasts Roman Christianity as basically established by St Paul and dependent on faith, with early, gnostic forms of Christianity based on personal experience of God and the individual search for truth: the early church clearly soon divided and it was the Pauline version that won the day, aided in the fourth century by the power of the Roman Empire itself.

Roberts’ travels through Iran, the places he visits and the various people he encounters, are very interesting and thought-provoking; he moves from Iraq into Syria and then to Jordan and Israel, as you might expect given the nature of his journey, but his accounts grow thinner the further he gets until they become quite cursory: it’s clear that the major interest was Persia and the Zoroastrians, and this part of the journey provides the bulk of the book.

The material he presents can be seen as quite controversial in many places, and he is clearly well-educated in his field and very widely-read. So I did find it pretty inexcusable, whether it was his decision or his editor’s, that there are no notes, and even worse, no bibliography: I did not want to take everything just on his say-so. Add to this a somewhat cavalier tone and attitude to details, irreverence at times, and the rather broad-brush approach generally, and you can see why I was often rather irritated. Certainly, it does not have to be like this – Carrère’s book which I read recently and refer to above, is referenced and supported without any of the apparatus getting in the way of the general reader. At times the book reminded me of various odd-ball texts of the past, like Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos.

Clearly the book adds further evidence to the picture of the origins of Christianity being very complex indeed, much more than I knew, even though I’ve already read quite a lot: much is still mysterious and unclear, and much has evidently been deliberately obscured or even eradicated in the intervening two millennia… there are links between Zoroastrianism, early Christianity, Manichaeans, the Essenes, and even the Cathars, who came along much later, find their place in the jigsaw. I also found the evidence Roberts presents for the ultimate interconnectedness of all faiths quite comforting somehow.

He travelled and wrote in the mid-1990s, so I found his rapturous descriptions of the glories of Palmyra in Syria very saddening, given what has happened in that benighted land so recently. I think you will have gathered that I found the book both fascinating and frustrating. And I will moan again about any publisher who thinks it’s acceptable to publish travel writing without providing maps…

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

Parrinder: Jesus in the Qur’an

February 25, 2014

9781851689996Firstly, this is a very curious book. The publishers have made a rather ham-fisted attempt to conceal the fact that this is a reprint of a book originally published in 1965; only the copyright details acknowledge this.  But a little detective work: the strange pagination, with even-numbered pages on the right (!), the absence of a bibliography (there must have been one, given the detailed footnotes in the text, but it has been removed), the quotations taken from two very old translations of the Qur’an and no mention of many recent ones, the dated fonts contrasting with the modern font used in the blurb inside the front cover… what were they thinking?

However, it’s also a very good book, in terms of the content, and detail, from a writer who clearly was very familiar with his subject matter. I came away saddened as I realised that we all seemed to have gone backwards since 1965, Christians and Muslims alike, in our knowledge and understanding of each other’s faiths and beliefs. From my own earlier reading I had been aware of links and connections between the sacred writings of these two religions, but did not realise how close they were in their earliest days, given that the Qur’an was revealed in a land surrounded by Christian lands, lands which had been the cradle of Christianity, where there was daily close contact between Jews, Christians and early Muslims. Parrinder lists and explores many very close links between various aspects of Christian theology, and its central characters, and references to all these in the Qur’an.

The book obviously begins from a Christian perspective, and is structured around the person of the historical Jesus, the Christian understanding of God,  and the development of the Christian Churches, but Parrinder is careful to recognise that references to Jesus and to Christian ideas are only a very small part of the Qur’an. I found his approach very thought-provoking, and his response to Islam very sensitive; he lists many references to research by Muslim scholars into the early connections between the two faiths; these were new to me, and the picture he paints is of two great religions much closer to each other in many ways, ways which do not seem currently to be recognised very widely.

I have never forgotten, as a child some fifty years ago, my first meeting with a Muslim, and the reverence with which he treated his holy book when he brought it along to show our family; I remain fascinated by the connections between the two religions, and in an age in which it is fashionable to mock and scorn religions, I feel that they do have real messages and good advice to offer us today, even if it is far harder, or impossible, for us to have the faith that people used to have. For my readers who have not yet met it, I commend a poem – Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold. He said it better than I can.

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