Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past opens with the statement: “A life and a legacy are not always the same,” and for good reason. D.A. Spellberg’s...morePolitics, Gender, and the Islamic Past opens with the statement: “A life and a legacy are not always the same,” and for good reason. D.A. Spellberg’s 1994 monograph shows that A’isha Abi Bakr’s place in the Islamic past is constructed. As the favorite wife of the Prophet Mohammad and the daughter of his immediate successor, Abi Bakr, A’isha holds an early, important place in Islamic history. Spellberg argues, however, that A’isha’s legacy was not written according to reliable sources; there remain no written accounts from A’isha’s to draw upon, and the first written account of her life was written some 150 years after her death. A’isha’s multiple roles in the Islamic past—as an “exceptional” female in Islamic society; as a possible adulterous; as a close, honorable companion to the Prophet—make her life a point of contention in continued debates surrounding the true lineage of Mohammad’s successors. Each of her roles are interpreted differently by Islamic scholars, making A’isha’s part in early Islamic tradition very complicated.
Spellberg makes a number of nuanced arguments as to why A’isha remains an exceptional example through which to analyze politics and gender in Islamic history. First, she explains A’isha’s role in the “Battle of the Camel,” or the first schism of Islamic faith and notes how her defeat in this early battle relegated A’isha to a divisive role in early Islamic history. Years later, medieval Muslim authors imposed their own cultural values of women’s place in society onto A’isha’s role in the battle. All of these authors were male, creating a gendered literature bound to increase a level of misinterpretation. Arguments over A’isha’s past have since produced considerable ammunition for the two sects of Islam: Sunnis and Shi’is. Sunni Muslims still hold A’isha in high regard. In extolling her virtues Sunni’s maintain their version of the proper lineage of the Prophet’s successors. Conversely, Shi’i Muslims minimize A’isha’s role in the life of Muhammad, an act that endorses their perception of proper Islamic lineage. These debates frame A’isha’s legacy, even though she forcefully argued for her own place in Islamic history; as the author states so succinctly, “in writing about A’isha, Muslims honed their own vision of themselves” (2).
Spellberg’s final chapter analyzes texts and paintings to show how two other women associated with the Prophet—Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife and Fatima, his daughter—are also extolled as exceptional women. Spellberg’s interpretation of these paintings reveals a hierarchy of female importance in the Islamic faith, one based on interpretations of the past and regional history. Regardless of interpretation of where these women rank in the hierarchy of Islamic heritage, one point remains clear: namely that these women are idealized or defamed per the opinion of later male authors, all of whom simply judge these women in their relation to maintaining the Prophet’s honor in the historical record.
Spellberg’s argument implies that earlier medieval scholarship influences the present and helps inform us why Middle Eastern women are seen as only important in their relationships with male counterparts. This point is one that western feminist scholars will wish Spellberg investigated more fully. Popular journalism and television news often banter about women’s roles in the Middle East in less-than-nuanced fashion. A’isha’s contested place in history remains an excellent example through which to engage those debates, but she never ventures onto “Orientalist” grounds. Spellberg’s book is certainly well written and should be well received by scholars in Middle Eastern history. Her attempt to leave any western perspective out of her discussion, however, makes Politics, Gender and the Islamic Past an intriguing book, but one that could do so much more to explain women’s roles in the modern Middle East. (less)
China & Iran is a history of the foreign relations between these two nations as well as their interactions with the United States. Garver, a profe...moreChina & Iran is a history of the foreign relations between these two nations as well as their interactions with the United States. Garver, a professor of International affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, begins by showing how Persia and ancient China were both highly influential regional powers but were also both overshadowed with impending imperial infiltration into the region. Both nations share a disdain for attempts at western hegemony. Both nations experienced violent revolutions in mid-twentieth century. Yet both China and Iran played the superpowers surprisingly well, maintaining some semblance of autonomy in their respective regions throughout the Cold War. Garver’s book shares an American policymaker’s bias, but curiously the author never focuses on the United States’s role in these affairs. Gavin’s book, at times, sides a bit too strongly for American sensibilities to the point of selective exclusion. For example, one would imagine that a book partially focused on Iranian political history would take into account the Iran-Contra affair and the Reagan administration’s role in bolstering Iranian weaponry during the 1980s. Iran has long been an important piece in the American struggle for a stable middle east—one that, of course, remained sympathetic towards western hegemony and hostile to communism. A comparative analysis that included an Iranian or Chinese perspective, would be more insightful; Gavin’s inspection remains myopically sympathetic with American interests. Garver states that “China is both a partner and a rival of the United States” and “in effect, China has decided not to oppose the United States in the Middle East” as if it were a welcome responsibility passed over. (281, 283) China & Iran speaks only to the amorphous policy decisions of these two nations. Iran and China share something of a common past in their opposition to western imperial motives. Perhaps more than any other commonality, what these two nations share is the ability to frustrate and confuse American policy-minded intellectuals. They defy models of political science and IR theory, and their shifting governments remain firmly rooted in real politic while idealists in the current White House struggle to place these nations a black and white world, one that has only good and evil participants. (less)
In Arabs and Young Turks, Hasan Kayali argues that previous historical scholarship on the advent of Turkish nationalism have been from an outsiders’ p...moreIn Arabs and Young Turks, Hasan Kayali argues that previous historical scholarship on the advent of Turkish nationalism have been from an outsiders’ perspective. Kayali’s work will appeal to political scholars of the region, as it aptly explains Ottoman government policies in Arab populated regions while simultaneously showing the transformation of these policies at century’s outset. Central to this argument is the often overused and little understood moniker “Young Turks.” This title assumes a nationalism inherent in young revolutionaries of the early 20th century. Kayali takes great care to point out this oversimplification, especially by using the example of the Committee of Union and Progress (or CUP). This “conspiratorial constitutionalist society” started the 1908 revolution in Turkey.
Kayali attempts to prove this thesis with a thorough examination of documents from the central government, parliament, and the “capital’s contemporary press.” Also, outside sources add to the argument that outside countries viewed the events in early 20th century turkey as decidedly nationalist in nature, a point of view that obstructs the viewpoints of Arabs in the Ottoman empire. In sum, nationalism was not central to the arguments of Young Turks; instead, the points of view of this and other political organizations were manifold and far from well delineated. Kayali’s argument is well researched and most likely valid, but also boring as hell. He does show how Orientalism has been prevalent in previous scholarship of the incipient Turkish nation-state, but you'll need a lot of Turkish coffee to get through this book. Recommended only to specialists. (less)
The Dervishes remain a group of cultural significance in regions such as Turkey, where they are no longer allowed to practice their religion and inste...moreThe Dervishes remain a group of cultural significance in regions such as Turkey, where they are no longer allowed to practice their religion and instead only perform “cultural” events. Yet in centuries previous darvishes were a rebellious and outlandish sect of the Sufi religion. A Dervish might be seen as a “free-lance beggar, an adventurer…a trickster or a thief,” or one who used religion to endorse his “wanderlust and irresponsibility.” These wandering Sufis have been the focus of much scholarship, but Ahmet T. Karamustafa’s God’s Unruly Friends focuses on Dervish life in a less examined era: the Later Middle Period, roughly from 1200-1550. He argues that these years were the crucible in which Dervishes established a “new renunciation” and a belief system based on rebellion and individuality, two ethics at odds with traditional Islamic Sufism (4-5). Essentially, Dervish groups identified themselves in opposition to institutionalized Sufism. Karamustafa argues that anarchist Dervish groups have been relegated “to the sphere of popular religion and low culture,” a trend with “deep historical roots” (5). He points out how Islamic scholars looked down upon the Dervishes as the riff-raff of society, something akin to gypsies. Karamustafa argues that this trend of denigrating the Dervishes has continued into modern historiography. He also states that scholars have set up a false dichotomy of “high” and “low” religion, relegating Dervishes to the latter, “vulgar” category (9). God’s Unruly Friends challenges these assertions. It is an attempt to aid Dervishes to have more appropriate place in Middle Eastern historiography. Karamustafa states that “Dervish piety stood apart from all other modes of Islamic religiosity through its relentless emphasis on shocking social behavior and open contempt for social conformity” but they did not necessarily appeal strictly to “’lower’ social strata” (10). For these reasons, Dervishes were not a sect practicing “low,” popular religion, but instead a group involved in “high” forms of religion. God’s Unruly Friends provides a compelling historical argument about Dervish culture and religiosity, but it may fall short in providing concrete proof in its assertions. While Karamustafa argues for the genuine piety of Dervishes, one that relied upon a “complete and active rejection of society that was expressed through blatantly deviant social behavior” it remains impossible to understand the motives of particular participants. Certainly, wanderlust (and hashish) may have influenced participants who did not fit into prescribed roles of Islamic society. In other words, exclusively interpreted through historical texts, Karamustafa cannot be certain of his subjects’ motives. Of course, this is the pitfall of doing historiographic work with limited texts. Regardless of how much readers accept Karamustafa’s thesis, this book still adds insight into a previously under-examined period in Dervish history. Karamustafa has attempted to shed light on an early period of Dervishes and shatter false assumptions about these groups, and for these reasons he is to be applauded. Karamustafa’s work, however, leaves much to be desired with regards to prose. Turgid language abounds in God’s Unruly Friends. For example: “While mendicancy and itinerancy remained the norm, the attraction of community life dampened the anchoritic zeal inherited from the ascetic virtuosi of the previous generations.” Such language relegates God’s Unruly Friends to a strictly academic audience, which is a shame, because the history of the Dervishes from 1200-1550 should be explored by even lay-historians of the Middle East. Put simply, if the goal is to give Dervishes a more accurate and pronounced place in history, accessible language would have made Karamustafa’s important more readable. These characters are so colorful—and misunderstood—that they are ripe for a treatment accessible to a more popular readership. (less)
In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that dominant cultures of imperialistic powers are connected through strong ideological ties to their n...moreIn Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that dominant cultures of imperialistic powers are connected through strong ideological ties to their nation. To Said, the artistic is power, and because of this often unforeseen connection, the repression of colonies has been subtly endorsed through poetry, prose and philosophy. Said mostly utilizes works from 19th century English literature to support his arguments. It is important to note that Said does not argue that authors such as Austin and Conrad machinated colonialism as their explicit purpose for writing. Instead, Said argues that the ideology of these authors’ times helped to determine experiences, and thus their stories. It is the nature of their artistic medium—the novel—that helped to both explicitly and implicitly shape colonial thought. For example, Said analyzes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he feels displays an inexorability of European domination as well as the inevitable subordination of those being colonized. But the analysis goes deeper. To Said, it is not simply through what was written that supported imperialist attitudes, but what also what was left out. Akin to criticisms of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which almost completely leaves out the issue of race, Said argues that Conrad’s exclusion of natives and their unique perspectives in the story are proof enough of imperialist attitudes. In other words, this is an extension of how Europe, or any colonizing nation for that matter, represents the “other”: as ineffectual, passive people who become nothing more than a background for dominant actors with agency. Said examines the structure of the novel as a whole. A novel’s structure is equally important as a novel’s themes and topics. To Said, the novel holds a level of omnipotence that almost subliminally subdues the reader into accepting its arguments. Through a strict narrative, readers follow the story instead of question or engage it. Authority is not simply bestowed to the author exclusively, but to the story’s narrator as well. The language of the novel—and the 19th century English novel in particular—speaks with such unwavering confidence that the worldview of its narrator is taken as proper and absolute. Hence, when Kipling writes about India, or Conrad tells about Africa, or even when Coppola appropriates Conrad’s story to represent Vietnam, the reader accepts those representations even though they may have no actual experiences with those places (in some cases, neither have the authors). The framework for such arguments revolve around the definition of the word “culture,” which Said asserts as encompassing all practices of pleasure, which include but are not exclusive to “the arts of description, communication, and representation that have relative autonomy from economic, social, and political realms.” (xi) It is in this loosely constructed definition that one finds issues with Said’s analysis. Said’s lose construction of the term “culture” leaves some holes in Culture and Imperialism’s analysis. The autonomy of culture is a spurious notion at best, and to focus an entire book on the connections between imperialism and culture, such a broad interpretation may not suffice. Any nation’s dominant world view is one often affected through political ideology, and perhaps more notably though the predominance of an economically derived weltanschauung. Culture is most certainly not immune to these influences, and the simple inclusion of the term “relatively” before “autonomous” should not give Said free reign to assert what is “culture”. If in fact the works in question were produced relatively free from outside (read: monetary) influences, one should question the exclusivity of this case study. If these authors could not remove themselves from societal pressures, then perhaps they wrote novels with imperialistic tendencies only by noting the style, and mindset, of their day. In fact, Said goes on to say (on page 83) that the Robinson Crusoe’s protagonist is “explicitly enabled by an ideology of overseas expansion.” This is not to say Said is contradicting himself when essentially stating that culture is autonomous, but his arguments may have been more precise if his definition of culture were clearer. Said makes the bold declaration on page 82 that “without empire, there is no European novel as we know it.” Five pages later, in an attempt to reassert his argument that British power was both “durable and continually reinforced” through 19th century literature, he contends that the novel was not simply “reducible to sociological current[s:]” but also was not a “product of lonely genius…to be regarded only as manifestations of unconditioned creativity.” Furthermore, he states that being a British writer meant something completely different than being an author in France or the United States. But empire and sociological currency aside, one can still read a quintessential English novel mostly removed from these influences: Emily Bronte’s only work, Wuthering Heights. This work fits nicely into Said’s timeframe, and it is an irrefutably “British” (however bucolic) novel, as well as a “product of lonely genius.” To pick and chose works to support one’s argument is only one part of the process, and sources that contest, or like Bronte’s engage his thesis may have been usefully analyzed and utilized to his advantage; its outright neglect may hurt his arguments. (less)