Saturday, July 29, 2017

Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.   But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.   Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?   Drawing on Thoreau’s copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labor made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.   “The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one,” says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.

Walayah in the Fatimid Isma'ili Tradition

Friday, July 21, 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The 'Ethics of Disagreement' Disagreement

ʿAwwama's "Traditionalist" Ethics of Disagreement                 ʿAlwani's "Reformist" Ethics of Disagreement (Eng)


During my visit to Medina a few years back, I had the opportunity to meet with a prolific writer and editor of works in the Hanafi tradition, Said Bikdash. His gracious hospitality and generosity with his time was equally matched by the vigor with which he defended what he saw as traditional conservative Sunni Islam from what he considered the deviated methods of modernists and reformists. He was a staunch supporter of the concept of taqlīd (defined in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary as 'uncritical and unqualified acceptance of a traditional orthodoxy or of an authoritarian code of a particular religious teacher') and held no sympathy for reformist calls to the practice of its opposite, ijtihād.

He was critical of medieval and modern ʿulamaʾ who had criticized taqlīd, considering them to be a major reason for the decline in authority of the traditionalist scholars. I mentioned medieval scholars such as ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām (1182-1262) and Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (1274-1348) and he cited them as examples of praiseworthy scholars who practiced taqlīd of the Shafiʿī school of jurisprudence. I mentioned that both of them had strong words of praise for the jurisprudential writings of Ibn Ḥazm (994-1064), a medieval scholar whom Bikdash had criticized over his pro-ijtihād, anti-taqlīd position. His response was that this may be an example of a specific praise within a general critique, a concept I had often heard mentioned by the conservative Salafi scholars, rivals to the traditionalists like Bikdash, when referring to medieval Sunni ʿulamaʾ like Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalānī (1372-1449) and al-Nawawī (1233-1277) who endorsed theological positions from the Ashʿarī school rejected in Salafi/Atharī theology.

He directed me to read the book Adab al-Ikhtilāf (Ethics of Disagreement) in order to better understand the manner in which the ʿulamaʾ respectfully handled what they considered acceptable differences of opinion in theology, worship practices, and law. A friend who had accompanied me in my visit said he had read the book and met its author, the late Taha Jabir al-ʿAlwani (1935-2016). Said Bikdash abruptly corrected my friend, and clarified that he was referring to another book of the same title by his shaykh (as well as in-law), Muhammad ʿAwwama of Syria. The book by al-ʿAlwani was considered by Bikdash to contain too many "problems" with respect its pro-ijtihād reformism.

This meeting, in a nutshell, represents the traditionalist/reformist divide within the Sunni ʿulamaʾ class. Al-ʿAlwani's credentials as an Azhari scholar steeped in the Islamic legal tradition would not be questioned by more conservative, traditional ʿulamaʾ and was never denied by Said Bikdash, I must add. And yet, a book on the etiquettes of disagreement has difficulty being accepted when it is written by someone holding the very positions with which one disagrees!

A sampling of the works of Sāʾid Bikdāsh graciously gifted to me after our meeting:

The newly revised and expanded edition of Alwani's Ethics of Disagreement (Arabic):

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ports and Printers Across the Armenian Diaspora with Sebouh Aslanian hosted by Nir Shafir

Uncool Imams

Not too long ago, I had dinner with a Muslim religious leader who works primarily in the suburban parts of where I grew up in the "Gateway Region" of northeastern New Jersey. His traditional education is unquestionable and his knowledge expands into a number of other fields, yet his obliviousness to some important matters in local and foreign history and politics, coupled with a false confidence borrowed from his expertise outside of these fields, was wholly disappointing. During our after-dinner conversation, he was adamant in his assertion that it had been Rachid al-Ghannouchi, intellectual leader of the Tunisian Muslim democrats, who followed the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as President of the Republic of Tunisia, and not Moncef Marzouki. In spite of my conversation partner's adamance, Ghannouchi, founder and president of the Ennahda, Renaissance, Islamic democratic political party, was never the president of Tunisia, and was vocal in both his refusal to run and in his criticism of the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party, aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for nominating a presidential candidate, in the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections.

Even more disappointing, and hitting much closer to home, was his denial that a specific neighborhood in downtown Jersey City now populated by numerous South Asian restaurants and businesses, had historically been a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was an erasure that denied the histories and contributions of a people that included my own parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, who in the 1950s and 1960s populated many of the old apartment buildings and brownstones that still stand today.

This ignorance of the stories and struggles of certain non-white communities, those descendants of the survivors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocides and ethnocides of indigenous peoples who do not fall under the label of "model minority," remains prevalent. A glaring example of this is to be found in a 2016 article by Eboo Patel, which speaks of a class divide that pits privileged Princeton liberals of color protesting racism against working-class whites embodied by the cab-driver who took him from the "Brick City" of Newark to the quaint university town of Princeton.

An excerpt on his conversation with Mickey the white working-class cab driver (click to enlarge):

And yet, had Mr. Patel decided to take the cab before or behind the one fate led him to choose, he more likely than not would have been faced with a working-class black or Latino-American driver, much like my own uncles and cousins and father for a period of time, people that Mr. Patel seems even more unacquainted with than working-class whites. These are a people who often worked in factories like Mickey, or in shipyards like those of the Bethlehem Steel and Shipbuilding Company that employed many of my own relatives for 30-plus years, that also closed up and moved away. The problems faced by these other groups of working-class Americans in terms of job loss, family life, health and mortality rates, etc., are further aggravated by an attitude of white supremacy that still pervades much of white working-class consciousness, best exemplified in the 1848 speech by South Carolina politician and Vice President under John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1832), John C. Calhoun (1782-1850):

"With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them."

A version of what follows was written several years ago. The names of people and places have been removed out of respect for those involved who have passed on and in the hopes that those now in positions of leadership will work towards positive change without feeling shamed in any way.

The Bigoted Imam:

I have attended ****** numerous times between the years 2003-2009. It is an institution, like other institutions, composed of individuals, some who are right for the job and some who are not. This letter is regarding the Imam of ******, a man who, in my estimation, is not worthy of being a leader over even one person.

Here is a man who has said that "Spanish" people are lazy, all the while surrounded by Mexican immigrants working on new construction for the Islamic center of which he serves as Imam. Here is a man of Levantine/shāmī descent (from the area comprised of Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) who said that North African Arabs (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, etc.) were fornicators and adulterers, and that black and Latino men should not be trusted when marrying Arab women, while Middle Eastern men seeking US citizenship were encouraged to marry black and Latina women, hiding information about other wives in their home countries, divorcing the American women of color after becoming citizens, and obtaining sole custody of whatever children were had without any censure. These are the words and practices of an ignorant man.

The Imam needs to be reminded of a few facts regarding the place he now calls home. America has had to suffer a long time with the problems of racism. The Imam himself, in his physical appearance, clearly displays what in Spanish is referred to as mestizaje, mixed racial ancestry, specifically of sub-Saharan African ancestry. If he is ignorant of these facts regarding his adopted country and regarding himself, the burden is on him and those around him to make himself aware, especially since he is in a position of leadership in the Muslim community of ******.

Lot or Allāt?

I do not remember what department(s) and organization(s) sponsored the talk, but some time around November of 2010, journalist Nir Rosen was invited to discuss his new book “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” I decided to read up on some of his work and found his article published in the National in September of 2008 on "Blowback from Iraq - We Run the Road." The original link,, no longer works but a copy of the article has been posted on the website of Steve Clemons, The Washington Note.

There are many things with which one could take issue both in this article and in the work of Nir Rosen in general, but I wanted to point out one mistake I noticed in the piece (click to enlarge):

Sunni militant individuals and groups like those being discussed by Rosen refer to the Shiʿa Islamist militant group Hezbollah as ḥizb al-Lāt, meaning the Party of Allat. Allat was one of the chief goddesses of ancient Arabia and Sunni extremists refer to their Shiʿa rivals with such a term with the intention of making takfīr, declaring the Shiʿa to be non-Muslims, comparable to the polytheistic Arabians of the pre-Islamic period.

If the intention was to make reference to the party, or people, of Lot, the nephew of prophet Abraham who lived in the original 'Sin City' of Sodom-and-Gomorrah, the Arabic term would be qawm Lūṭ.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Forever Brothers: The '71 Pirates Story

FOREVER BROTHERS - OFFICIAL TRAILER from Little Moving Pictures on Vimeo.

"On Sept. 1, 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates made history by fielding the first all-minority starting lineup in Major League Baseball history. Antoine Fuqua presents the often forgotten story of a trailblazing team that became World Champions."

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ibn Hazm of Cordova and His Conception of the Sciences by Anwar G. Chejne

"The Andalusian Ibn Hazm was a humanist par excellence and one of the intellectual giants of Islamic civilization. Professor Chejne's work sheds light on the intellectual history of Islam in general and the position of sciences in Muslim Spain in particular. It deals with the place of Ibn Hazm in this history and discusses his literary and theological contributions as well."

Anwar G. Chejne Papers

"Anwar George Chejne was born on 15 August 1923 in Rahbe, Lebanon. He attended Colegio Del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia from 1939-1941, earning a B.A. and Ph.D. in languages and liberal arts. From 1948 to 1950, he attended the Asia Institute at Columbia University (New York, N.Y.), earning an M.A. in Islamic studies and history. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Islamic studies in 1954. Before joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Chejne was an instructor of Arabic for the State Department (1950-1951) and assistant professor and chair of Arabic and Near Eastern languages at Wayne State University (Detroit, Michigan). In 1965, Dr. Chejne became an assistant professor of Arabic at the University of Minnesota. In 1966, he founded and chaired the Middle Eastern Languages Department (1966-1973). In 1979, he became professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Chejne was known as an authority on Muslim Spain. Anwar Chejne died on 5 September 1983."