Like What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text and Commentary, The Hidden Origins of Islam is a collection of essays written by scholars who have subLike What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text and Commentary, The Hidden Origins of Islam is a collection of essays written by scholars who have subjected the source texts of Islam to the same critical examination that Christian and Jewish texts have endured. As well, some of these authors have marshaled recent (and, in some cases, not so recent) archaeological and numismatic evidence to reconstruct the Middle East of the 7th and 8th centuries (Christian era) with surprising results. The general reader be warned: Some of these papers are written for the specialist and are largely meaningless to a dilettante like myself. Other essays are accessible, however, and offer a fascinating glimpse at a radical reinterpretation of the accepted history of Islam’s first three centuries.
The synopsis I offer below is primarily based on the most reader-friendly essays:
“The Early History of Islam, Following Inscriptional and Numismatic Testimony,” Volker Popp “A Personal Look at Some Aspects of the History of Koranic Criticism in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Ibn Warraq “Syrian and Arabian Christianity and the Qur’ān,” Karl-Heinz Ohlig
Islam, as we understand the word – i.e., a distinctive religion based upon a revelation vouchsafed to a Meccan merchant named Muhammad in the first decades of the 7th century AD that called for a return to the pure worship of a transcendent, unitary God – is the product of a radical revisionist program instigated by `Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad ruler from AD 685-705.* This rewriting of history rivals the one undertaken by Josiah (and subsequent post-Exile priests) in regard to Israelite history (if true), and its lay in the political and religious history of the region.
In the religious sphere, ever since Constantine had made Christianity the state religion, the Roman Empire had been troubled by controversies over the nature and role of Jesus Christ. Was he fully human? Was he fully divine? Both? Was he a man inspired by the Holy Spirit (& thus “son of God” only in a figurative sense)? Was he God incarnate? What is the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection? And other questions, which stoked a vibrant cauldron of intellectual ferment. It also created a volatile political situation that weakened Roman control over its Middle Eastern provinces and Egypt in the 6th century. The Sassanians, successors to the Parthians and masters of eastern Iraq and Iran, took advantage of Constantinople’s troubles to evict the Byzantines and rule the region for the next 30 years or so. In 622, in a culmination of a remarkable Roman recovery, Heraclius (610-641) inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Persians, who were forced to retreat. The empire, however, was unable to restore direct control over its former provinces, with the exception of token garrisons in the more important religious and population centers like Jerusalem and Alexandria. Heraclius was forced to rely on Christianized Arabs, who had been filtering up from Arabia proper over the previous centuries, to maintain order (dynasties like the Lakhmids and Ghassanids). Unfortunately, from the Byzantine POV, many of these Arabs were heretics – Monophysites or worse.
These religious divides, coupled with a growing sense of a distinctively Arab political identity, had grown so wide by `Abd al-Malik’s day that he could break entirely with Constantinople and establish an Arabic empire. The succeeding Abbasid rulers (from whose scholars we get our first written sources for Islamic history and religion) continued the historical rewrite that enshrined Mecca as the holy city of the new religion and created (out of whole cloth) the figure of Muhammad (until then, as these papers argue, the words “muhammad” (“praiseworthy”) and “rasul” (“prophet”) had referred to Jesus).
I do not have the background to competently assess how solid these researchers’ footing is. I think they do make a good case that the received history needs significant reinterpretation – it did not happen the way Muslims and non-Muslims have believed (at least since the 9th century AD). Whether or not it happened along the lines presented in the three essays I summarized above is the open question. Not every author in The Hidden Origins of Islam would whole-heartedly agree with these papers (cf., “Pre-Islamic Arabic – Koranic Arabic – Classical Arabic: A Continuum?”, Pierre Larcher). But the point is that Islamic studies deserve the same level of scholarly investigation that Christian and Jewish studies have received, and that when such tools are used, a clearer understanding of the social, political and intellectual histories of the era becomes possible.
As these are essays, it should not come as a surprise that full arguments cannot be made but all of these essays have very complete notes, and some have bibliographies nearly as long as the paper they accompany for anyone interested in pursuing further research.
I found this book fascinating not only for the particular history it recounts but also for its illustration of how fragile historical memory is, and how easy it is to erase and to change.
Recommended cautiously to amateur historians.
* For simplicity, any dates referenced in this review are AD....more
Unfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made upUnfortunately, I listened to this on Audio CD in the car and was unable to take even cursory notes so what follows is a list of impressions it made upon me and "things" that stuck in my mind.
* As a whole, the book looks at the relationship between violence and religion. Carroll argues that religious practice developed because humans had to reconcile the necessity of violence (if only in killing animals to live) with the pangs of conscience that arose within them. That need to sacralize violence only became more important after the Agricultural Revolution c. 12,000 BC, which saw the rise of sacrificial cults. (He interprets the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac as a myth justifying the end of human sacrifice, for example.)
* But religion is like a game of whack-a-mole. It doesn't eliminate violence, it channels it into socially acceptable actions. It's in this context that he discusses the development of Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, setting it against the near constant state of revolt that afflicted Roman Judaea from about 60 to 138, when Bar Kochba's rebellion was savagely suppressed. The Jewish Christians were eliminated along with their nonbelieving Jewish cousins (the Romans not being big on doctrinal distinctions) and the Gentiles and Hellenized Jewish converts of the Diaspora carried on Jesus' legacy. The disastrous consequence (in Carroll's argument): Two millennia of anti-Semitism.
* I wish he would have spent more time on a notion he raises in discussing America's relationship with Jerusalem and that's the infantilization of religion as an unintended consequence of the US's separation of church and state. This is common to Western civilization as a whole as the apparent separation between knowledge and faith becomes more pronounced but is most evident (according to Carroll) in America.
* I was also fascinated by his discussion of how the notion of not sacrificing the youth of a nation (his interpretation of Abraham & Isaac, see above) was turned on its head to justify just that, particularly in the context of the First World War, Zionism and the current Islamist reliance on suicide bombers.
In the end, I enjoyed the book (though not enough to track down a physical copy - not at this time, anyway). Philosophically, Carroll and I are often on the same page, and his idea of "good religion" mirrors my own. But I think that's its problem when it comes to speaking to a broader audience. Carroll can be very persuasive in his interpretations of what the Bible is "really" saying but - in the end - he can muster no greater justification for them than others whose interpretations differ. I'm reminded of Stephen R. Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter, where that author argues that the "God" of the world's major religions is not the same entity. And even within a religious tradition, "God" means different things to different people. Carroll's "God" and his "religion" will appeal to certain people but will remain unconvincing - if not downright blasphemous(1) - to others.
Recommended if only because of the provocations Carroll offers to our considered understanding of religion. In that regard, he's particularly good for the ancient Israelite material and the European Reformation; he's relatively light, however, on Islamic and doesn't even consider non-Western Christian movements.
(1) In his final chapter, Carroll gets all New Age-y and mystical, writing statements of seemingly profound wisdom that turn out upon reflection to not say much at all. And - to the dismay of Christian readers, at least - rejects the need for salvation entirely. This last part is the weakest section of the book, no question....more
Craig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries wCraig Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly is an unassuming collection of events at five Italian convents spanning the late 16th to the early 18th centuries whose inmates asserted themselves against the severe boundaries that delimited their lives. Despite its title and this picture which graces the back of my edition’s dust jacket –
there’s little that’s salacious. Anyone hoping to read about orgies or demonic rites a la The Monk will be disappointed. In fact, in regards to sex and convents, Monson writes:
“Those who would spin nun-priest fantasies in the world, whether today or in eighteenth-century Bologna, would be surprised and probably disappointed to learn that contacts between male and female celibates in post-Tridentine Italy usually centered on less salacious intimacies than those that might take place in bed. Often characterized by words such as amicizia (friendship, amity), intrinsichezza (intimacy, close inwardness), domestichezza (familiarity, acquaintance, conversation), these relationships commonly involved activities that seem positively “domestic” by most notions of shocking behavior. Cooking treats, mending clothes, sewing, washing, passing letters, exchanging gifts – these were the “crimes” the church often considered scandalous. Or, of course, there were the expected incidents of carnival silliness. All in all, when the post-Tridentine cloister wall became virtually impregnable, interpersonal preoccupations seem generally to have shifted from the more explicitly lascivious to what was more realistically practical. While some of these relationships might borrow elements of secular courtship or marriage, evidence suggests that in most cases the relationships were scarcely physical, much less overtly sexual.” (pp. 169-70)
Monson is a professor of music at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, and I found it interesting how he came to write this book. He ran across a manuscript of songs sung by nuns and was surprised to discover verses like this:
“You who’ve got that little trinket, So delightful and so pleasing, Might I take my hand and sink it ‘Neath petticoat and cassock, squeezing.” (p. 2)
From there, he descended into the Vatican archives and uncovered a trove of stories about convents and their often tumultuous relationships with the Roman Church hierarchy. Most of the stories are incomplete, fragments of transcripts that break off mid-investigation, leaving the reader without a resolution. Monson managed, however, to piece together the five cases presented here. Neither Monson nor his protagonists have any agendas. Monson is not arguing that these cases represent a proto-feminism in early Modern Italy. And the nuns have no motives beyond trying to exercise some control in their own lives.
Chapter one is an overview of convent life in Catholic Italy, and I enumerate below some of the interesting things I learned:
1. Respectable women were either married or in a convent, which was the “sink” for a family’s otherwise useless daughters. (Dowries went from the bride’s family to the groom’s, so a surfeit of girls could impoverish even the wealthiest of families.)
2. Because of #1, a city’s population could comprise a large number of nuns (14% of the citizenry of Bologna c. 1630).
3. Not surprisingly, most nuns did not have a real vocation.
4. Despite vows which forbade contact with the outside world, these women kept in touch with relatives and friends and the gossip of the city via the parlatorio, a grated window to the world, and the convent chapel.
5. In the 1500s, convent singing expanded beyond the plainchant to the polyphonous chants their male brethren were singing, much to the dismay of many (male) churchmen.
6. Convent choirs and individual singers, for a variety of reasons Monson touches upon, became popular tourist attractions in many Italian cities, even getting mentions in the “Lonely Planet” guides of the period.
7. A convent was nearly the only place a reputable woman could sing.
8. Convents were divided into two classes of nun: the professe – the upper class/aristocratic daughters of the well-to-do who labored at the more genteel arts of weaving and such, and the converse – the daughters of commoners who kept the cloister running.
9. Despite the lack of real vocations and their severely restricted lives, many professe had – potentially – more fulfilling lives than their secular counterparts. (A relative measure, of course, since they were still powerless outside of the convent’s walls and wards of their male superiors.)
As a quick and dirty primer on conventual life, I found this part of the book very useful. The remaining chapters are self-contained case studies about individual convents, beginning with the scandals that plagued San Lorenzo in Bologna in 1584. For lovers of Gothic romances like The Monk, it’s this first case and that of San Niccolò di Strozzi that come closest to the sordid escapades one finds in that genre. At San Lorenzo, the inquisitor discovered evidence that the sisters had conjured a devil to help find a missing viola (unsuccessfully). But they were restored to a respectable state after a mild penance. (Monson points out that it is ironic that an inquisitorial investigation operated under stricter guidelines and almost modern models of investigation than its secular counterparts.) At San Niccolò, an ill-considered conventual establishment and a clash between the nuns and an obnoxious archbishop culminated in arson.
At the end, this glimpse into the lives of these women fascinated me and I would recommend it. It also left me melancholic, seeing so many lives stunted by the social and religious demands of their culture. E.g., in the eyes of Cardinal Paleotti, the corruption at San Lorenzo began when the nuns were allowed to sing to adoring public audiences. In answer, he forbade any songs other than plainchant and then only in the privacy of the cloister. Or that in 1703, Pope Clement XI banned carnival and opera for five years, hoping to avert the wrath of God for Italy’s licentiousness (expressed in a recent series of earthquakes). In 1708, Santa Cristina della Fondazza’s young singing star and opera fanatic, Christina Cavazza, defied her vows to attend performances at the reopened Teatro Malvezzi and endured ten years of house arrest and imposed silence for it.
In his epilog, Monson mentions modern-day examples of Catholic nuns (and congregations in general) defying the male hierarchy: In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond Burke excommunicated three sisters for getting ordained, excommunicated the board of the city’s Saint Stanislaus Kostka parish for refusing to relinquish control of the church and its endowment, and he forbade Saint Cronan’s parish from hosting in its sanctuary a Jewish rabbi (female) whose synagogue had played host to the ordination mentioned in the first item. (The parish got around the prohibition by sponsoring the rabbi in a tent pitched in the church’s front yard; and Saint Cronan’s church experienced a surge in attendance as the faithful expressed their support against inordinate episcopal pressure.)
It should come as no surprise that Archbishop Burke has since gone on to become head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern Inquisition).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I quote some graphic excerpts in the review below. If you have a low threshold for such, skip the blockquotes. You’ve been warned.
It is impossible forI quote some graphic excerpts in the review below. If you have a low threshold for such, skip the blockquotes. You’ve been warned.
It is impossible for me to objectively review this book for the reason that I do not think it’s possible for any sane human being to justify war, violence, or any culture or tradition that denies a voice to half of our species if they read this book. (Or similar ones: From my own bookshelf I can list The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East and Vietnam at War, and there are more.) When you read books like this, it’s also difficult to swallow what passes for reasoned discourse in our public sphere where you see the appalling arrogance, ruthlessness and ignorance of our governing classes (who are only too happy to keep the hoi polloi equally arrogant, ruthless and clueless).
In War Is Not Over When It’s Over, Ann Jones argues that war is only the most visible face of violence and that its consequences destroy lives well after any peace accords have been signed and all the politicians have gone home. Even when it’s over, war ingrains the habits of violence and dehumanization, which leak over into civil life. Jones doesn’t address the issue in relation to the U.S. but you can easily find stories about increasing domestic violence and rape perpetrated by returning veterans or by soldiers in the field.
The origins of this book come out of Jones’ work with the UN and the International Red Cross (IRC) in their efforts to aide and protect refugees and the victims of the myriad wars afflicting our planet. Jones visited several countries where she organized groups of women who would photographically document their lives. It wasn’t meant to be a witness to the atrocity of violence (though that was a part of the project) but the women were meant to document their communities’ needs and the positives in their lives. At the end of the projects, the women hosted an exhibition displaying their efforts. In every case, Jones found that the experience made its participants more confident. In some cases it helped bring about real change. For example, in one village in Côte d’Ivoire, its chief, Zatta, declared that the violence documented in the photos must end and began including women in his council (which he continued to do even after the UN mission left, according to Jones). Among the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai border, the women learned to document rape and abuse cases and have made some progress in having offenders prosecuted. Both examples point up to the forces of inertia and tradition women struggle against. Everywhere she went, Jones faced societies that relegated women to second-class status and blamed their oppression on them (an attitude the enlightened West still falls prey to all too often).
I’ve written enough – let a few representative excerpts speak for themselves now:
From Sierra Leone:
“Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers who gang-rape old women, then chop off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy soldiers’ bet on its sex. A brother is hacked to death and eviscerated; his heart and liver are placed in the hands of his eighteen-year-old sister, who is commanded to eat them. She refuses. She is told that her two children and her sister have been abducted. She's taken to the place where her sister and two other women are held. She sees them murdered. Their heads are placed in her lap. Such crimes deliberately violate primal taboos; they aim to crush not only the individual victims but also those who physically survive the violence. They are meant to destroy a way of life and the values that inform it. Yet the individual victims are important in their own right, and in most cases they are women and children.” (pp. 96-7)
“Charlotte had become a leader in CFK, working on the cases of young girls who had recently been raped, not by militiamen but by civilians right there in Kamanyola. A twelve-year-old girl was raped by her teacher. A nine-year-old was raped by a young boy. A seven-year-old was raped by a middle-aged man. An eleven-year-old was raped by her father. A seven-year-old was raped by her pastor. Charlotte was one of the women who visited the parents, persuaded them not to compromise, and helped them take their child’s case to court. But the rape of these young girls by civilians – by teachers, pastors, fathers – this was something new in the community, since the war, and the women of CFK were struggling to understand it. Later I told Charlotte and others about the way the habits of war carry over into peacetime, the way the habits of soldiers are taken up by civilians. I told them about the civilian rapes of little girls in Liberia, snatched even from church, and in Sierra Leone. Unknown before the war, civilian rapists and child rape in Kamanyola – like gang rape – were becoming normal.” (pp. 146-7)
And two examples from our “glorious liberation” of Iraq:
“The violence done by ordinary men to other ordinary men like Othman and Sayed destroys the victims. Men told me of being kidnapped as teenagers, beaten, confined without food or water, and coerced to provide sexual gratification to their captors. They spoke without apparent feeling, having retreated behind some psychic barrier where safety lay. Although most men won’t tell - `A raped man is not a man,’ one said – UNHCR in Amman had recorded nearly three hundred cases of sexual violence against men. Captivity and torture of men in Iraq always seemed to have about it this peculiar quality of homoerotic sadism, the effluence of a culture that adores men far more than women yet sets them officially out of reach.” (p. 215)
“Mona was attacked in her Baghdad home by a gang of men in black who broke down the door at four o’clock in the morning. They dragged her about by her hair and slapped her around, demanding to know where her husband was. She told them the truth, that he had fled to Lebanon for fear of kidnapping. She said she had stayed behind so that her children could finish school…. They told her to write down the names of people in the neighborhood and whether they were Sunni or Shia…. She refused. They broke her arm, they ripped off her nightclothes, they twisted her broken arm behind her back, and they raped her. She begged for mercy, saying, `I am Muslim, like you.’ One of them said, `You are a Sunni infidel. If you were a Muslim you would not let your daughter do gymnastics.’… `They raped my sister, too,’ she said, gesturing toward the corner where a skeletal figure lay on the floor, staring at us with vacant eyes. `She was an invalid; she couldn’t use her legs. The rape finished her. All those men. Now she just lies on her mat and pisses herself.’ That night, Mona feared for her children, but after the men left the house, the two little boys crept out of the cupboards, and she found her daughter on the roof, hiding in the water tank. She phoned her husband, and he blamed her. A year later, long after her brother helped her move the family to Damascus, her husband came to join her. He raped her too, and she became pregnant, but before long he beat her so badly that she miscarried. He left again for Lebanon and sent notice of their divorce. Her daughter was not able to finish school.” (pp. 223-4)
Jones also points out the iniquities and hypocrisy of the U.S. government. In Iraq we’ve (the U.S.) managed to refuse a significant number of refugees by the simple expedient of accusing them of violating the PATRIOT Act: “Families that had redeemed relatives from kidnappers were excluded on the grounds that paying ransom amounted to providing `material support’ to terrorists…” (p. 232). Refugees in Jordan get more aid than those “fortunate” enough to reach the U.S., and many of those advise their relatives still in Iraq to reject the U.S. if they can.
When you’ve come to the end of a book like this, the inevitable question is, “What can I do?” It’s a depressing situation, and it seems intractable. On my part, inadequate as it may be, the IRC has joined the list of charities I support. It’s amazing what they manage to accomplish in the face of misogynistic tradition and political indifference. And I’m going to pester my representatives to stop frakking around with our obligations under the UN and international law, and to support family planning even if it does include (gasp!) abortion counseling. (I’m fortunate in that all my reps are Democratic women so I hold out the hope that they might listen – an admittedly faint one, I’ll grant you.)
There are a few flaws in the book that, I believe, weaken its impact (and make it a 3- rather than a 4-star on my shelves):
There’s a certain lack of passion or connection in the first few chapters that only begins to lift when we reach Congo and makes the second half more intense and memorable. Perhaps Jones had a more personal interest invested in these later venues. Whatever the case, the greater passion she’s capable of while still maintaining the necessary distance makes me want to see what she’s written about her experience in Afghanistan – Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan.
Not enough photos. I don’t mean that I wanted to see photos of torture or rape victims but I did want to see more evidence of the conditions these people endure and of the good things they were able to find in their lives.
I wish there was a section dedicated to resources and sources. They are there but buried in the Notes section.
These are decidedly minor quibbles and certainly shouldn’t deter you from reading this important witness to the atrocity of violence....more