Jenkins presents us with a serviceable and opinionated historical sketch of England from the Anglo-Saxon invasion through the present day. By necessitJenkins presents us with a serviceable and opinionated historical sketch of England from the Anglo-Saxon invasion through the present day. By necessity, this brief book leaps and bounds at full speed through its course. It would be dangerous to read this book in isolation, but it provides a useful big picture view, and I found it a useful framework for pursuing areas of interest for further study. ...more
I remember having a pretty poor experience with Great Expectations in high school, and now that I've gone through another Dickens novel as an adult, II remember having a pretty poor experience with Great Expectations in high school, and now that I've gone through another Dickens novel as an adult, I congratulate my high school self for not listening to my teacher's insistence that we're dealing with a great author here. Good job, younger Barnaby.
Or at least, we have a superlative craftsman, able to order and deliver scenes with clarity and sometimes haunting eloquence. But in my register, his art only partly compensates for his lack of depth.
Scarcely any mention of the Industrial Revolution in England can be made without evoking this didactic novel, which testifies to the social problems associated with this transition. And this is unfortunate, for Dickens goes after the transformation occurring all around him with all the zeal and subtlety of a pamphleteer. I found myself wondering if the William Hogarth was a conscious inspiration, finding echoes of the master engraver's posture of judgement in his "A Rake's Progress" or "Industry and Idleness."
We have something of a moral fable set out in this book. The action is organized in clean lines around three acts. Act one, in which we meet the family Gradgrind, and learn of the obtuse obsession of Master Gradgrind for the world of fact, and for purging human endeavor of all traces of wonder or fancy. Act two, in which his distorted worldview plays out predictably in the lives of his children and their contacts, building toward extreme tension and conflict as the contradictions between the head and the heart escalate. Act three, in which many cathartic speeches are made, various come-uppances are served, and we move toward a clean resolution.
The characters and action move forward like game pieces on a board. We clearly recognize, because it is telegraphed again and again, that the characters are to be understood as types, who exemplify philosophies current in Dickens's day.
But do they? Can there truly ever have been any proponent of any extremist philosophy so patently and transparently misguided as the "Facts, facts, facts!" of Mr. Gradgrind? I doubt it very much.
At the book's worst, which is regrettably often, these characters are ciphers for points of view that have no foundation in human psychology or intellectual history. The villains are so unworthy and duplicitous, the good characters so saintly in their patient suffering, that we can't make contact with any actual subjectivity.
The thing I find most oppressive about Dickens - and it does at times leave me intensely claustrophobic - is the suffocating sense that his characters have no options, and know it. All-too-often they perceive that their lot is their lot, and human dignity consists largely in their capacity to bear it in good stead. If they are born to labor, then labor they must, and they will, and do not seek outside of their station, whatever hardship or suffering it entails.
Clearly this is no acceptable normative posture, unless one is a rather retrograde fatalist. But is it descriptive? Is this how lives really were lived in Victorian England? Was Dickens merely chronicling the lack of opportunity of his day?
I don't really believe it, because Dickens himself was such manifest counter-testimony to that dire vision of history. In classic Dickensian fashion, he lacked a formal education because of his father's incarceration in debtor's prison, which obliged him to work in factories rather than study. Did he bear his grisly lot with the good patience of a saint? No, he refused to accede to the implications of his class and status, and quite overcame his limitations, becoming one of the most famous writers of his day.
So why are all his characters haunted by the grim certitude that if they are born to deprivation, then deprivation they must accept? I can't imagine.
In sum, I find Dickens an author of great craft but minimal insight. He panders to his readers with melodrama consisting primarily of shallow moralizing that is tedious and quite inaccurate. ...more
Often entertaining and sometimes illuminating, this book is an imaginative attempt to ground Shakespeare's works in his times. It will be of special iOften entertaining and sometimes illuminating, this book is an imaginative attempt to ground Shakespeare's works in his times. It will be of special interest to readers who are equally drawn to the history of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare's work, as the purely historical exposition constitutes a large part of the book. Surveys works written in and around 1599, which Shapiro identifies as Henry V, Julius Cesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. I liked some of his closest readings best, and particularly found his reading of As You Like It insightful. I was somewhat disappointed with his reading of Hamlet - he went to some length to set up the context for reading it as about the transition from the old age of chivalry to the new age of modernity, but ended up focusing on revisions Shakespeare made to the play, which was less compelling.
Taken with a grain of salt, it's a worthwhile read. ...more
Arkoun's "Rethinking Islam" is the most useful analysis of the Muslim world I have yet encountered. The book is organized into 24 chapters based on 24Arkoun's "Rethinking Islam" is the most useful analysis of the Muslim world I have yet encountered. The book is organized into 24 chapters based on 24 basic questions (e.g., "When was the Quran written and what does it contain?" and "What is the relationship between Islam, science, and philosophy?"). Instead of presenting simple, didactic answers, Arkoun takes common answers to these questions a starting point for critically reflecting on the origins and legitimacy of common beliefs about Islam, and illustrates how to move forward.
Arkoun is unquestionably one of the most penetrating critical theorists in the social sciences that I've encountered, and his engagement with the often-stereotyped constructions of Islamic history and culture are exceedingly thought-provoking and invigorating.
One of his core concepts is the cultural "imaginay," which describes a collective idea characterizing a complex domain such as "Islam," which is shaped and constrained by the forces of ideology, media, social capital, the irrational unconscious, and so forth. Arkoun regards discourse about Islam today as largely governed by two imaginaries, one coming out of Muslim countries themselves, and a counterpart in Europe and the US.
The typical Muslim imaginary is a reductive account of Islamic society and history which holds that its current forms of expression are a logical and inevitable evolute deriving from a well-regulated and ahistorical set of principles derived from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. This construction is typically articulated and defended by autocratic governments, which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and academes, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced.
For a variety of bad reasons, this highly-distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States who should know better, either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on such simplistic version of history and identity for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity.
Arkoun makes a compelling case for the vital need for a methodologically-sophisticated critical engagement with the history of Islam, principally because such methodologies hold the key (or at least a key) to unlocking the plurality and heterogeneity of Islamic self-constructions that have been in competition since the time of the Prophet and down through the present day.
So this is what I take to be Arkoun's general model. In this book he shows it in action in the context of two dozen fundamental questions which shape our understanding of Islam. In thinking through each question as a problematic that is bursting with possibilities for rich new types of inquiry, he illustrates by example the incredibly fertile new ground he anticipates, shedding much-needed light and fresh air on many of the old saws that are recapitulated again and again to this day (e.g., Islam is essentially antirational; Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered, and on and on).
It should be emphasized that his method is fundamentally dialectical. That is, he does not wish to reduce the analysis of Islam to the subject of European analytical tools and categories. On the contrary, a proper critical engagement with Islam necessarily furthers the project of European post-Enlightenment self-criticism at the same time, and it opens up a new conceptual counterpart to engage reason in self-reflection.
This is an exciting book that I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in social criticism or critical theory, and/or anyone with a moderate knowledge of Islam. It's guaranteed to challenge your thinking on bedrock issues. ...more
Really not the book I was looking for. I was hoping for a historical overview of Hadith, a review of some of the major collections, a look at some theReally not the book I was looking for. I was hoping for a historical overview of Hadith, a review of some of the major collections, a look at some the key compilers, and a discussion of how Hadith material is received and valued by various Muslim societies.
I didn't really get any of that - it's a highly-technical close examination of much more specialized topics, moving breathlessly through long lists of Arabic names and untranslated titles of works. I suppose it's intended for an audience of specialists.
I don't love that the author says nothing about Shia Hadtih, other than he doesn't know anything about it and won't consider it. I don't know, maybe you should find out a bit about it if you're writing this book?
I also fundamentally disagree with its method and criteria. It's written from the perspective of an insider of the tradition, and doesn't employ what from my frame of values are the basic critical tools of scholarship. I do not agree, for example, that we can trust the works from a particular period because it was a time of great piety, and the reasons why are so manifold that I can't imagine arguing the point. I can only say the author is speaking from a totally different set of axioms than I am.
Listened to the superb audiobook, read by the author, in a mesmerizing, top-notch delivery. A fascinating book that considers in fictional form the grListened to the superb audiobook, read by the author, in a mesmerizing, top-notch delivery. A fascinating book that considers in fictional form the growing role of private contractors in intelligence and covert operations. Two rather unlike protagonists at the foreign ministry find that their lives gradually intersect when they both become involved in a shadowy covert op involving a mercenary outfit called Ethical Outcomes targeting a suspected arms dealer. Really first rate stuff. ...more
Have you ever had that experience where you meet someone, and within a few minutes of talking to them you know your going to be friends for the rest oHave you ever had that experience where you meet someone, and within a few minutes of talking to them you know your going to be friends for the rest of your life? That's how I felt after my first few minutes with The Study Quran.
After spending years with Arberry's translation, I still regarded the mighty Quran with equal parts bafflement, alienation, and interest, and now that I've switched over to this as my primary reference, it's easy to see why. The Quran is an extremely complicated text, and for me at least, it demands an extensive commentary for reference, and that's exactly what this volume provides - running commentary several times the length of the work itself. The context in which various statements were made in the various Surahs is necessary for understanding much of the basic sense of the Quran. The commentary is conveniently arranged for easy reference, and is based on a number of prominent commentaries written over several centuries.
I was drawn initially to this edition because of the involvement of the senior editor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and I have not been disappointed. Working my way through its treasures, the world of the Quran has opened up to me like never before, and I'm regularly overpowered by its force and beauty. I feel a much deeper appreciation of how it works, and what its message is.
In addition to the indispensable commentary, this edition includes introductory materials and several excellent supplemental essays written by major interpreters of Islam, such as William Chittick.
Of the many books I've read on Islam, this one is far and away the most important in terms of bringing me into deep personal dialog with the tradition itself, and understanding the majesty and poetry of this masterpiece of our human heritage. ...more
Muhammad Iqbal's Reconstruction is an ambitious attempt to articulate what he takes to be the fundamental message and perspective of the revelation ofMuhammad Iqbal's Reconstruction is an ambitious attempt to articulate what he takes to be the fundamental message and perspective of the revelation of the Prophet in dialog with contemporary European discourse (i.e., early 20th-century) in philosophy and the sciences. I think anyone who engages seriously with a living religious tradition, and who values these forms of discourse, will similarly cobble together an eclectic and idiosyncratic interpretation of their own - I certainly have. But whether or not that mass of material can be persuasively organized to constitute a theory in its own right is another question, and Iqbal's ambitious work is only partly a satisfactory answer.
Its principle weakness is that he spreads himself too thin, leaping breathlessly from mountain peak to mountain peak. On a single page you'll find references to Whitehead, Einstein, Carnap, ibn Khaldun, and even, very occasionally, the Quran. But the more he perceives and attempts to articulate a deep underlying connection unifying all these voices into a common thread, the less persuasive his model appears from the outside.
Of all the many thinkers he considers, I think Whitehead and Bergson are most important. Iqbal articulates a vision of Islam that is turned toward the natural universe and that echoes deep insights into the nature of time, and especially the manifestation of prophetic utterance within the span of time. This far I can go along with him.
Where I have to get off the train, however, is Iqbal's paradoxical embrace of epistemological closure. That is, despite his interest in an unfolding and temporalized interplay of time and eternity, he never brings the subject into critical reflection, and shows a strong tendency to constantly give the sense that his ideas are adequate to the task to which he sets himself.
Now that the book is approaching a century old, the inadequacy of his conceptual toolbox is pretty obvious. I think he would have benefited greatly from systems theory and I'm sorry that he missed it. It would have made a better framework for his reflections on time than Whitehead's dissatisfying process metaphysics, and it would have forced him to consider the framing effects of the subject.
In my view, Islam has benefited far more from the modern voices that emphasize the historicity of its constructions than from those who would argue, in effect, that the Quran anticipates Einstein. The latter approach, combined with an unwillingness to problematize the subject, keeps Islam fixed in a pre-modern idiom, no matter how it's seasoned with theoretical physics. I share his interest in bringing the thought-worlds of Europe and Islam into dialog, but the way he goes about it did not win me over. ...more
In some circles, Arberry's translation of the Quran has long been regarded as the best, and I can understand why. He has a great power of expression,In some circles, Arberry's translation of the Quran has long been regarded as the best, and I can understand why. He has a great power of expression, and an excellent grasp of the meaning of the Arabic text and how to forcefully convey it in to vibrant and expressive English. This much I will grant.
But it's not the edition for me, for two reasons. The first is simply that it lacks virtually any explanatory material, and I really need the commentarial supplement. The Quran is an extremely sophisticated and complex text, and I think most interested English-speaking readers are going to need some support in understanding how it works.
The second and more important reason is that Arberry systematically favors renderings that cast Allah in highly agentive and punitive terms. I didn't realize how much of an effect that had until I turned to another translation - specifically, Sayed Hossein Nasr's "The Study Quran," which I enthusiastically recommend - and found what a relief it was, to find a rendition that did not use Arberry's constant refrain of "chastisement."
For my sensibilities, the images of an angry God standing by with a cudgel waiting to punish bad people like an angry parent punishes a naughty child immediately and strongly took me out of whatever passage I was reading, and it occurs in "Koran Interpreted" again and again. And when I compare passages between Arberry's rendering and others, I find that you can say the same thing in English with a different frame that transforms the entire sense of the thing into far more congenial terms. I would emphasize that the literal meaning of the alternative constructions I'm referring to is the same, but the imagery is different, and the Quran is first and foremost expressive through its images.
So what I'd leave as my final word is the sense of relief and enthusiastically renewed appreciation I've found in moving to other translations, which has been substantial. I appreciate Arberry for the trailblazer he was, but could do without his angry father psychology. ...more
This collection of lovely and inoffensive poems is most striking to me for its unusual syncretism of Hindu and Sufi styles, generally adopting a standThis collection of lovely and inoffensive poems is most striking to me for its unusual syncretism of Hindu and Sufi styles, generally adopting a standard nondualistic and apophatic view of the former, and embracing the ecstatic use of love-imagery of the latter. This syncretism is rarely explicitly thematized, as in this verse:
O Servant, where dost thou seek Me? Lo! I am beside thee. I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash: Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation. If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time. Kabîr says, "O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath."
More typically, the vision of God is advaita, and the poetic style is essentially Sufi.
There is nothing, then, in this translation to indicate that Kabir was particularly innovative either in idea or technique of expression - whatever novelty is found in his verse probably remains in the original. Nor is Tagore's competent rendering particularly groundbreaking, but reminds one of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat, with strongly Romantic patterns.
Once I absorbed its basic vision, for me the poems became fairly repetitive. I have only so much appetite for reading about self-playing instruments, infinite bliss, and million-petaled lotuses of the Beloved's inner chambers. ...more
This book contains translations of two works by the 12th-century master Al-Ghazali - his popular and justly-famous "Deliverance from Error," and his "This book contains translations of two works by the 12th-century master Al-Ghazali - his popular and justly-famous "Deliverance from Error," and his "Beginning of Guidance," included to encompass his basic perspectives on the theory and practice of the Islamic faith, respectively. I'll focus my attention on "Deliverance from Error," which is a far more significant and profound work, the "Beginning" consisting of admonitions with respect to the details of conduct in the daily worship of the faithful.
"Deliverance from Error" contains Al-Ghazali's spiritual and intellectual autobiography, describing his early days teaching and criticizing philosophy in Baghdad, his crisis of faith, and his subsequent pursuit of a form of life that was less abstract, and more directly connected to the spiritual source of his being. Thus he famously abandoned his family and responsibilities and went abroad to practice austerities and mystical contemplations with Sufi masters, until he achieved a satisfying epiphany, and then set about extolling the virtues of this form of life. In essence, his view is that while the philosopher discourses endlessly about piety and God, the mystic directly experiences and embodies it.
Now, there is an interpretation of Al-Ghazali that has been referred to by scholars as the "standard view," which runs something like this - the 'Abbasid Caliphate was a golden age of Islamic learning and culture, perhaps exemplified by its great engagement with the Greek philosophers, but also expressed by its achievements in medicine, mathematics, science, and literature. Then, Al-Ghazali came along and wrote a scathing critique of philosophy, his "Incoherence of Philosophers," and sounded a ringing tone of anti-intellectualism which disparaged study of the world in favor of piety and belief, and this became the prevailing mood of Islam ever since.
This interpretation is as widespread as it is false, pervaded by specious reduction and grotesque over-simplification. Al-Ghazali's actual view, as represented in "Deliverance from Error," is far more moderate, and more persuasive.
Al-Ghazali does not reject analysis or philosophy - on the contrary, he himself mastered the art of philosophy, and writes with scorn of pious fools who reject philosophy without understanding what it is about. Far less does he propound any kind of anti-intellectualism, but writes, for example:
"A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way of either negation or affirmation, and nothing in these sciences opposed to the truths of religion."
The attentive reader will notice that Al-Ghazali uses analytical reasoning and argumentation throughout his works, including his mystical texts, and at no point rejects science or understanding.
What he does firmly reject is the view that philosophy in itself is sufficient to bring about a total experience of God, or an expression of religious life. Instead, it forms a basis for understanding which is a point of departure for a real life of devotion and piety, expressed in conventional forms of worship, and of mystical experience, which delivers true communion with God.
It is perhaps easy to lose sight of the fact that it was a core belief of Neoplatonism that philosophy itself was the best tool to bring the mind to God. And when you come to the philosophical works of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the primary target of Al-Ghazali's polemic, you do indeed find an incredibly abstruse philosopher dwelling at stupefying length on intellectual minutiae as if God is to be found in discerning the various modalities of causality. It's tedious stuff, and I'm in deep sympathy with Al-Ghazali's critique.
The whole of Al-Ghazali's critique, it seems to me, could be summarized as: reason is no substitute for experience, and intellectual understanding is no substitute for piety. I find this exceedingly persuasive, and in general find Al-Ghazali far more readable and sympathetic than Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd.
"The Deliverance from Error" is a short, engaging, and profoundly important work, and it has been ably translated by Watt in this edition - I would very highly recommend it to any student of Islam. ...more
Quite fascinating key text by this great and problematic teacher and polemicist. I've so regularly encountered Al-Ghazali in the context of his critiqQuite fascinating key text by this great and problematic teacher and polemicist. I've so regularly encountered Al-Ghazali in the context of his critique of Ibn Sina and the other Neoplatonic and Peripatetic philosophers of the Muslim world that it was quite nice to see him present a positive vision of his own. Here we find that the cosmos is the interplay of varying degrees of light and darkness, with God as the source of all. Al-Ghazali presents a theory of the abnegation of the ego and the resultant beatific vision in terms that are entirely new to me - the non-existence of the self is, in his view, a reflection of the fact that nothing has within itself any capacity for perdurance or causation whatsoever. Instead, all sovereignty is given to Allah.
His Occasionalist rejection of causation is not new to me, but it's interesting to see it framed in this rather lovely and evocative vision of a graded cosmos formed of the play of light from light, and presented in relationship to the phenomenon of epiphany. A lovely and worthy classic. ...more
Bennison's study of the 'Abbasid Caliphate is a useful survey of the history and culture of one of the great periods of the Islamic world. She offersBennison's study of the 'Abbasid Caliphate is a useful survey of the history and culture of one of the great periods of the Islamic world. She offers an admirable if conventional account of the various peoples, events, and ideas that shaped this pivotal moment in world history. My favorite parts were the early sections focusing directly on historical events, and some of the later discussions dragged a bit.
The book was marred somewhat by Bennison's obvious tendency to read Muslim history in the best possible light at every occasion. One can certainly understand why a specialist in this area working in these times would feel defensive, but here we are, reading this book, after all. Her actual audience probably doesn't need common disclaimers to the effect of "If you think what the Muslims were doing in these times was bad, you should see what the Christians down the way were doing." The tone is at times somewhat didactic, and I ultimately had no choice but to question her objectivity.
The book concludes with the observation that "all those who insist upon the irreconcilable division between the 'West' and 'Islam' would do well to step down from their soap boxes to read a little history." I should say the author might have stepped down from her soap box to write a little. ...more