May 30, 2004

They always forget

For a change of pace, I picked up Dennis Mack Smith's Mussolini: A Biography to read. It was in the window of our nearby Borders, and the cover had this promising quote from George Steiner, one of my favorite writers and thinkers: "A model of its kind...for the general reader, it is difficult to believe that the Mack Smith portrait either needs to be or can be improved upon." That was enough to incline me toward the bio.

It's well written and fast paced, although I was surprised to find I already knew quite a bit about Mussolini, largely from Churchill's monumental work on the The Second World War and a high school class I took on the same subject (thank you, Mr. Deaner).

Among the interesting things worth noting -- during the First World War, when Mussolini, already out of the military and already plotting to lead some sort of movement -- left, right, it didn't matter -- considered the American entry into the war a decisive event ensuring that the allies would win, since America's soldiers and economic and industrial might would overwhelm the Germans. Two and a half decades later, according to Mack Smith, he had a decidedly different appraisal of the Americans:

In the following months, encouraged by this success, the Duce was more confident he had 'bet on the right horse'. Victory would soon place Italy at the very top of the hierarchy of nations where she would be able to 'direct the whole life of Europe', and the bigger the war became, the greater the reward of booty and reparation. He said it was just the kind of renovating bath of blood that fascism had been seeking, and anyone who disagreed with him on this point should be expelled from the party. The Americans, he repeated, would pose no serious problem; they were interested in making money, not in fighting, and rumours of their huge production of armaments were mere propaganda.

And what did those months follow? The September 1939 invasion of Poland? Munich? Perhaps the Blitzkrieg in France?


Pearl Harbor.

Because they always forget, it's best that we remember those who, time and again, have proven the tyrants wrong.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2004

Cheap shot

Don't get me wrong, I have tremendous respect for some aspects of the tenure of Pope John Paul II, and I recognize that he's frail and ailing, but when he says something like this:

The American church "is called to respond to the profound religious needs and aspirations of a society increasingly in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots and yielding to a purely materialistic and soulless vision of the world," John Paul said.

...I can't help wondering what planet he's on. With all due respect, it appears to me that Europe has moved far further toward yielding to "a purely materialistic and soulless vision of the world" if organized religion is the benchmark by which this is measured. And this unfortunate comment,

"Taking up this challenge, however, will require a realistic and comprehensive reading of the 'signs of the times,' in order to develop a persuasive presentation of the Catholic faith and prepare young people especially to dialogue with their contemporaries about the Christian message and its relevance to the building of a more just, humane and peaceful world."

...only reminds me that of the rather unwelcome attention that some in the American church paid to youth in the past, which I'm not entirely sure the Pope was all that interested in dealing with at the time.

Yes, I know, it's a cheap shot from me, but I think suggesting that America is "a society increasingly in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots and yielding to a purely materialistic and soulless vision of the world" is every bit as cheap, and far less grounded in reality.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:07 PM | Comments (4)

May 27, 2004

Four Enclosed Walls -- I.

Zack Ajmal of the excellent Procrastination blog has a post well worth reading -- and be sure to follow the links. I won't say any more, but it provides a rather important contrast to a lot of the kinds of writing by Muslims I've spent my time with of late. Thanks, Zack, for posting it, and much else of value as well.

A while back, Zack wrote a post on the confusion surrounding the term "Islamist," in which he noted that the late Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina during its first, war-torn years of independence, is often labelled an Islamist along with Sayyid Qutb. In fact, if you click here, on the table of contents page of Qutb's work Milestones, and look in the lower right hand corner of the page, you'll find Izetbegovic listed along with Qutb, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, and others of their ilk. I admit, it's a disturbing juxtaposition, and, I think, an entirely erroneous one.

I've quoted from Izetbegovic's Notes from Prison, 1983-1988, before, but allow me to do so again:

The principal characteristic of the Reformation (and Luther's teachings): man achieved independence in religious issues. Luther deprived the Church of its authority and transferred it to the individual. This contributed significantly to the development of political and spiritual freedom. But, what might seem rather incompatible with this is that Luther, in his works, stated that man's nature is evil and vicious and he can only be saved by God's mercy. A similar seeming contradiction can be found in the Qur'an. Both man's responsibility and God's mercy are true.


Around the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D., Islamic theology split to assume two aspects: (1) as the dogmatic and formally rational theology of kalam and (2) as a speculative theology of sufism. Later on, theology will monopolize the entire area of metaphysics and even of cosmogony, denying the right to free research of the cosmos and nature. This way of thinking condemned Islam to scientific and political stagnation.


Democracy, by its definition, contains as well the possibility of misuse of democracy. Who attempts to "cure" democracy from this danger kills with this cure democracy itself. Freedom should be accepted as such, with all of its risks. There is no choice here.

Izetbegovic writes approvingly of the innovative power of American small businesses, of Herman Hesse ("I noticed that he was absorbed in the same thoughts as myself, except that he was better at expressing them"), of the philosophy of Aristotle ("How deep Aristotle's metaphysics"), of the compatibility of Hellenistic culture and philosophy with Islam, of the universality of Western concepts of human rights -- and yes, of his Islamic faith. Contrast that with Qutb, who wrote, in the eighth chapter of Milestones,

However, a Muslim can study all the opinions and thoughts of jahili writers, not from the point of view of constructing his own beliefs and concepts, but for the purpose of knowing the deviations adopted by Jahiliyyah, so that he may know how to correct these man-made deviations in the light of the true Islamic belief and rebut them according to the sound principles of the Islamic teachings.

Philosophy, the interpretation of history, psychology (except for those observations and experimental results which are not part of anyone's opinion) ethics, theology and comparative religion, sociology (excluding statistics and observations)-all these sciences have a direction which in the past or the present has been influenced by jahili beliefs and traditions. That is why all these sciences come into conflict, explicitly or implicitly, with the fundamentals of any religion, and especially with Islam.

For Qutb, Islam precludes Aristotle; for Izetbegovic, it confirms him.

The unfortunate byproduct of spending too much time with Qutb is that one begins to forget what a crackpot he is -- one begins, however unconsciously, to accept his premises and descriptions of Islam, one ends enclosed within the walls of his thought, in that very tiny space he has constructed for Islam. Reading Izetbegovic, who believes that Islam too is an heir of the same intellectual heritage that produced Socrates and Luther, Kafka and Averroes, is a useful corrective.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:02 PM | Comments (2)

May 26, 2004

More on Yezidis

I can't quite figure out what had in mind when it published this -- chapter excerpt? essay? -- by Mehrdad Izady, who is probably the most authoritative scholar on the indigenous Kurdish religions, but I'm glad nevertheless that it did. I've noted that Yezidi, along with Alawite and Druze, is among the search terms that most frequently bring new visitors to the site, and I can understand why -- there's not an overwhelming amount of information about them on the Web.

Izady tells us, among other things, that the Yezidis, who are quite few today, were once more numerous:

The relative smallness of the current Yezidi community can be misleading. At the time of Saladin’s conquest of Antioch, the Yezidis were dominant in the neighboring valleys in the Amanus coastal mountains, and by the 13th and 14th centuries Yezidis had expanded their domains by converting many Muslims and Christians to their faith, from Antioch to Urmiâ, and from Sivâs to Kirkuk. They also mustered a good deal of political and military power. In this period, the emirs of the Jazira region (upper Mesopotamia) were Yezidis, as was one of the emirs of Damascus. A Yezidi preacher, Zayn al-Din Yusuf, established Yezidi communities of converts in Damascus and Cairo, where he died in 1297. His imposing tomb in Cairo remains to this day. Of 30 major tribal confederacies enumerated by the Kurdish historian Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi in Sharafnama (1596), he contends seven were fully Yezidi in times past. Among these tribes was the historic and populous Buhtans (the Bokhtanoi of Herodotus).

The whole piece is worth reading, although I wish it had been better edited.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

May 25, 2004


Lately I've been reading about Eusebius, about whom I've written before -- for whatever reason, the father of ecclesiastical history is someone whom I find endlessly fascinating, even though, as Photius, a 9th century patriarch of Constantinople put it, his style of writing is neither agreeable nor brilliant.

Specifically, I've been going through Timothy D. Barnes' book, Constantine and Eusebius, which, incidentally, is one of the works cited by Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas in her discussion of the Council of Nicea, which I mentioned here. To recap, Pagels wrote,

From that meeting and its aftermath, during the tumultuous decades that followed, emerged the Nicene Creed that would effectively clarify and elaborate the "canon of truth," along with what we call the canon -- the list of twenty-seven writings which would become the New Testament.

I'm a fan of Pagels' writings, but I couldn't help questioning this assertion. Later in the book, she amplifies on the "tumultuous decades that followed":

After listing the twenty-two books that he says are "believed to be the Old Testament," Athanasius proceeds to offer the earliest known list of the twenty-seven books he calls the "books of the New Testament," beginning with "the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John," and proceeding to the same list of writings attributed to apostles that constitute the New Testament today.

Athanasius wrote the letter in question in 367 A.D.; part of the text can be found here (search for "XXXIX" -- it's the 39th Festal Letter). Pagels quotes part of the text of the letter, writing that "since heretics...

have tried to set in order for themselves the so-called apocryphal books and to mix these with divinely inspired Scripture .... which those who were eyewitnesses and helpers of the Word handed down to our ancestors, it seemed good to set forth in order the canonized and transmitted writings...believed to be divine books.

Pagels omits the preceding paragraphs of Athanasius' letter, in which he notes that the heretical works have taken the names of saints or apostles in order to fool the gullible into believing in their authenticity, and that this is why he needs to address this (he even writes, " I beseech you to bear patiently, if I also write, by way of remembrance, of matters with which you are acquainted," before launching into his list).

Was Athanasius' list the earliest? In his Ecclesiastical History, in a passage completed most likely before 303 A.D., Eusebius writes, in the third book,

It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of the gospels [by which Eusebius means Matthew, Mark, Luke and John], followed by the Acts of the Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paul's epistles, and after them we must recognize the epistle called 1 John; likewise 1 Peter. To these may be added, if it is thought proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I will set out when the time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet are familiar to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and 2 Peter, and those called 2 and 3 John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.

Among Spurious Books must be placed the 'Acts' of Paul, the 'Shepherd', and the 'Revelation of Peter'; also the alleged 'Epistle of Barnabas", and the 'Teachings of the Apostles', together with the Revelation of John, if this seems the right place for it: as I said before, some reject it, others include it among the Recognized Books. Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the 'Gospel of Hebrews', a book which has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the tradition of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Andrew, John, and other apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer in his writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as the forgeries of heretics. It follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale.

A few thoughts. First, it's odd that Pagels didn't reference Eusebius' list, which predated Athanasius'. While not as precise as Athanasius, Eusebius does spell out a canon that doesn't differ all that much (it would be nice if Eusebius would have listed the individual Pauline epistles rather than lump them together, for example). It is also fairly clear that Eusebius, like Athanasius, rejected the gnostic gospels, including Thomas -- which, of course, is the subject of Pagels' very interesting book.

In her discussion of Athanasius' list of New Testament works, Pagels writes,

It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius's order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve them, and buried them near the cliff where Muhammad 'Ali would find them sixteen hundred years later.

Yet in Athanasius' letter, or at least the portion of it I can find online, there is no order to burn heretical books, only a statement of those books which are divinely inspired. So what would those Nag Hammadi monks have been defying? Juxtaposing Nag Hammadi, where a large cache of gnostic gospels were found, with Athanasius' setting forth of the canon creates something of a misleading impression -- that until Athanasius' letter, those works were part of mainstream belief, and that, in order to fortify Athanasius' newly formed Canon, they were suppressed. I'm not sure that's quite the way it happened...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:28 PM | Comments (1)

May 21, 2004

Black foam

I've found it exeedingly difficult to get a clear idea of what's going on in Iraq of late. Here's the lede of a Wednesday story in the Washington Post:

BAGHDAD, May 17 -- With stunning brazenness, pinpoint timing and devastating force, the suicide car bomber who killed the head of Iraq's Governing Council on Monday gave shape to a feeling among Iraqi and U.S. officials and common citizens that the country is almost unmanageable.

The following day, on the same paper's front page, I read, in the second paragraph of of a story, that

The assassination of Izzedin Salim in a suicide car bombing Monday appeared to have crystallized months of frustration with the U.S.-led occupation across the Iraqi political spectrum. In interviews after Salim's funeral, his colleagues on the council said the violence had imperiled efforts to form an interim government and, by extension, the future stability of Iraq with just six weeks before the nominal end of the occupation.

Clear as these two paragraphs are, I can't help wondering, in the journalistic canon of "who, what, where, when, why, how," whether "[giving] shape to a feeling" or "[appearing] to have crystallized" are precise enough terms.

I'm reminded of something the French poet Jean Cocteau wrote in Opium: Diary of a Cure:

I suppose that many journalists do not want to lie but lie they do, in the effort to obtain style, by using the mechanism of poetry and history, which gradually distorts. This distortion, applied directly, has the effect of a lie. Now I do not know if this lie, to which facts eventually owe their prominence, is useful without perspective. I believe that facts, faithfully reported when they are still fresh the following morning, would have a thousand times more force.

I don't mean to suggest that the Post's fine reporters are lying, but I do think they are attempting to use the mechanisms of poetry and perhaps also history in their reporting, and it makes it all the more difficult, as a reader, to get a sense of what is going on. I trust very few poets (Cocteau is one), and can think of no journalist I've known whose poetry I would read.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:01 AM | Comments (2)

May 18, 2004


I posted something a while back on an article on IslamOnline about Islamic rules on warfare, which tells us, among other things,

The corpses of the enemy must not be disgraced or mutilated.

Corpses of the enemy should be returned.

"These are the rights that Islam confers on combatants," the article tells us, rather definitively (I should say "among" the rights, since I truncated the list here). The same site has a discussion of the prohibition on mutilating corpses:

it is permissible to mutilate the dead only in case of retaliation. If anyone cuts the ear of another, his ear is to be cut in return. If he inflicts any physical damage on anyone, he should be retaliated against in the same manner. In case of war, Muslim are allowed to take vengeance for their mutilated dead mujahids (fighters) in the same way it was done to them. Almighty Allah says: "If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient" (An-Nahl: 126).

This verse was revealed when the polytheists mutilated the corpse of Hamzah ibn `Abdul-Muttalib (may Allah be pleased with him). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) swore to mutilate seventy corpses of the polytheists in retaliation for what they had done with Hamzah's body. Hence, this verse was revealed to indicate that punishment should be done in the same manner without any sort of transgression, so that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was permitted to mutilate only one corpse of the polytheists. However, the verse also shows that patience and refraining from retaliation are better in Allah's Sight. Thereupon, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) refrained from it and did not mutilate anybody.”

The piece goes on to note that it's preferable for Muslims not to mutilate corpses.

Incidentally, I looked up Hamzah ibn `Abdul-Muttalib in my New Encyclopedia of Islam, which tells us that he was the uncle of Mohammad, an early convert to Islam, and a fierce fighter who died at the Battle of Uhud in 625. Neither the entry on Hamzah, nor the entry on the Battle of Uhud, mentioned mutilations of Hamzah or polytheists, and my little Penguin translation of the Qur'an suggests that the significance of the battle -- the lesson to be drawn from it -- was the necessity of constancy in faith (some Muslim fighters deserted; others -- a group of archers -- disobeyed their orders and left their station to get an early start at divvying up the spoils, leading to the loss at Uhud). I couldn't find much on mutilation, in other words, though a cursory Google search yielded this piece, which I skimmed, but couldn't find any reference to mutilatiting the bodies of 70 polytheists.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (4)

May 17, 2004

Civil heresy

Every now and again, the question of whether Wahhabism (they prefer the term "Salafism," but I think there's some danger in conceding this point -- rather like allowing the minority of communists who followed Lenin to call themselves "Bolsheviks") can be compared to the Reformation -- with Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the role of a Luther or Calvin. I have by and large rejected the comparison (most recently here, here and here). Somewhat in this vein, although probably closer to the article cited here, is this piece I mentioned last week, which argues that Wahhabism is a heresy, the root cause of Muslim terrorism specifically and, by implication, of Middle Eastern tyranny generally, and that its closest correlative are various Christian heresies, ranging from the Cathars and Bogomils to the Ranters and the Free Spirits, with the flagellants thrown in for good measure. Orthodoxy, zealously asserted, is stipulated as the corrective.

The article, "Heresy and History" by Angelo M. Codevilla, contains some odd ideas, or perhaps what appear to be odd ideas because of his trying to cover roughly 800 years of heresy in a few thousand words. Still, I read the parts on the Crusades a couple of times and still can't figure out whether, when he writes, "Medieval Muslims, after all, gave orthodox Christianity a big, indirect hand by defeating the Crusades," he means that the benefit was an end to the ad hoc, and in some cases heretical, groups that sprung up around the Crusades to slaughter Jews in Europe (not an entirely unorthodox thing to be doing, at the time) or an end to a series of religious wars sanctioned by the orthodox authorities. Similarly, lumping the Cathars in with, say, Thomas Muntzer's Anabaptists is equating the victims of religiously motivated violence with the perpetrators.

I'll finish quickly, because this has already gone on too long, but I find it odd that Wahhabism is the focus of the article to the total exclusion of the political Shi'ism of Ayatollah Khomeini, which I suppose could be counted as another heresy, although the author doesn't even bother to reference it. Secondly, it's strange that orthodoxy is upheld as a means to ending religious strife, when it was the acceptance of heterodox religious beliefs within a secular framework that by and large defanged religious motivated warfare in the West (though there are holdouts -- Ireland being the prime example). Walk into any Borders and you can find, yes, the Bible, but also the Qur'an, the Upanishads, and half-baked demonologies and astrologies and books on witchcraft, to name but a few. Yet despite all these "heresies" in the West -- some of which have formed their own political advocacy groups -- we maintain a fairly peaceful civil society.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:22 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2004

Doubting Doubleday

It's been reasonably well established that Abner Doubleday did not, in fact, invent baseball at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. There are earlier references to the game, to begin with -- this one notes that,

The July 13, 1825 edition of the "Delhi (N.Y.) Gazette" (on microfilm) has a notice listing the names of nine men challenging any group in Delaware County to a game of baseball at the home of Edward B. Chace for $1 per game. (The notice came from Hamden, New Jersey.)

Now, via the North Adams Transcript (circulation -- around 8,500), comes news of a 1791 ordnance in Pittsfield, Mass., banning the playing of certain games near the town hall:

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Before the newest birthplace of baseball could be verified, Kate Duffy had quite a bit of work to do.

Duffy, a department head of analytical services at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, spent about two weeks backtracking through time in order to authenticate a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw that banned playing baseball near its meeting house....

The mention of America's pastime in the bylaw makes it the first known document recognizing the sport in the country.

Previously, the earliest known mention of baseball was in two newspapers that stated the game was played in Manhattan, New York in 1832, according to the Associated Press. ...

And this bylaw -- aimed at preventing broken windows in the meeting house -- forbid anyone to play several games, including baseball, within 80 yards of the building, did just that.

Handwriting, the materials used in the paper, and other authenticators were all used to help determine exactly where the document belonged in history. And all signs pointed to 1791, Duffy said.

The paper's watermark linked the type of paper to that which was produced by Taylor Clement Jr. in Kent, England from 1774 to 1791. Taylor Clement Sr. also produced paper with the same watermark but he made paper from 1741 to 1762, according to the analytical report on the document written by Duffy.

Fascinating to think they may have been playing baseball during Washington's first term. Meanwhile, my team, the Phillies, has slowly crawled its way back to respectability...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:21 PM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2004

The Wahabi Heresy

Well, not to bed just yet.

Here's an interesting piece, some of which I disagree with profoundly, that attempts to find parallels between Medieval and Renaissance-era Christian and modern Islamic extremists. I'll have more to say about it tomorrow...

Posted by Ideofact at 12:07 AM | Comments (0)

May 13, 2004

Cat & Capek blogging

I've spent most to the night putting books on shelves, and I've all but run out of shelf space but still have any number of books to find places for. It's been a demoralizing experience, because I'd much rather be reading them than dusting them off and trying to figure out some kind of order for them (quick -- does Nabokov belong with the Russians or the Americans?). But it's been a useful exercise in one respect -- a number of volumes I assumed had been long lost are in fact still among my books.

I was particularly happy to find that a collection of Karel Capek's writings, Toward the Radical Center, was not lost, after all. Capek, a Czech, was a brilliant writer, and the "radical center" perhaps accurately describes his outlook. My favorite piece from the book was the first one, translated by Dora Round and revised by the volume's editor, Peter Kussi:

From the Point of View of a Cat

This is my man. I am not afraid of him. He is very strong, for he eats a great deal; he is an Eater of All Things. Give me some!

He is not beautiful, for he has no fur. Not having enough saliva, he was to wash himself with water. He meows in a harsh voice and a great deal more than necessary. Sometimes in his sleep he purrs.

Let me out!

I don't know how he has made himself Master; perhaps he has eaten something sublime.

He keeps his rooms clean for me.

In his paws he carries a sharp black claw and he scratches with it on white sheets of paper. That is the only game he plays. He sleeps at night instead of by day, he cannot see in the dark, he has no pleasures. He never thinks of blood, never dreams of hunting or fighting; he never sings songs of love.

Often at night when I can hear mysterious and magic voices, when I can see that the darkness is all alive, he sits at the table with his head bent and goes on and on, scratching with his black claw on the white papers. Don't imagine that I am at all interested in you. I am only listening to the soft whispering of your claw. Sometimes the whispering is silent, the poor dull head does not know how to go on playing, and then I am sorry for him and I meow softly in sweet and sharp discord. Then my Man picks me up and buries his hot face in my fur. At those times he divines for an instant a glimpse of a higher life, and he sighs with happiness and purrs something which can almost be understood.

But don't think I am at all interested in you. You have warmed me, and now I will go out again and listen to the dark voices.

Elsewhere in the volume, Capek compares human and cat societies, and notes that cats do not trust one another. "And you know, we human beings cease to be savages only as long as we trust one another. ...If I distrusted my fellow passengers on the streetcar, I would have to keep my back to the wall and spit like a cat to frighten them; instead of which I hand peacefully onto my strap and read the paper, offering them my unprotected back."

Capek concludes the essay,

Well, I will go now and stroke my own pussy cat. She is a great comfort to me because she trusts me, although she is only a little grey beast who has strayed in from God knows what corner of the unknown wild of Prague's back alleys. She starts purring and looks up at me. "Man," she says, "do rube me behind my ears."

And now it's time for me to track down my own cat, who's outside, most likely hunting down some fo the first trickle of cicadas or glowering at one of his neighbors, get him inside and get some sleep.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:35 PM | Comments (1)

May 12, 2004

2 Qutb 8D

In last night's post, I apparently used some intemperate language -- "passing strange" and "hooey" are two examples -- that led one longtime commenter here on ideofact to accuse me of prejudice (presumably against Muslims) and of ranting. I also stand accused of regarding Islamists as being "powerhungry hypocritical ignorant nonthinking beings." I certainly regret the lack of precision in my words -- reading over the post, it's hard to see whether I had a point or not.

To clarify a few points, I don't consider Islamists to be hypocritical, ignorant or nonthinking -- or at least, not their leaders. Qutb is certainly the architect of a complicated system of thought requiring a good deal of artistry to make it appear compelling; it's not that I think it's characterized by ignorance or hypocrisy or a lack of thought, rather, that his prescriptions are profoundly wrong. Bakhunin, a Russian anarchist (and if the phrase "Russian anarchist" brings to mind a wild-eyed radical in baggy black clothes clutching a bomb with a lit fuse -- well, that actually was Bakhunin) once told Karl Marx that if his system ever got off the ground, monopolizing both force and economic power in the hands of the state, it would end as the cruelest regime in the history of man. He wasn't too far off.

I'm still in the process of putting books on shelves; the other night, I came across The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, the father of historiography and a great historian in his own right. One could draw a superficial comparison between Ibn Khaldun's attitude toward Greek philosophy (he faulted Avicenna and al-Farabi for incorporating metaphysical notions derived from Greek philosophers -- primarily Aristotle, although Ibn Khaldun's characterization seems to incorporate a bit of Plato -- into their theological speculations) and the passage from Qutb I quoted at the end of last night's post. Ibn Khaldun was certainly a believer; he objected to the idea that the source of evil was ignorance, or that man through education and enlightenment could arrive at a just society or a moral code. For the 14th century historiographer, revealed religion was the sole source of moral authority, and absent that, one was fishing around in the dark with no hope of finding the truth.

That's a religious opinion -- entirely respectable. And while holding that view, he was simultaneously able to astutely describe the politics, the foibles, and the human weaknesses of the Caliphs. He did not confuse the transcendant or the divine with the all too human believers who tried, and failed, to rule. Ibn Khaldun recognized the distance between mere mortals and the revealed religion he cherished.

One could be charitable, and suggest that Qutb was merely a utopian dreamer, who believed in an Islamic millenium, the coming of an ideal society in which people simply would not want to sin, but given his fondness for the quote of Uthman, that men are better guided more by the whip than the Qur'an, I think that's a too charitable assumption.

I should probably end this here, but since I'm not writing what I originally intended to write -- on Islamists and culture -- I thought I'd give a brief preview here. One of the major themes of Reading Lolita in Tehran is the universality of great literature, because it speaks across cultures to the human condition. F. Scott Fitzgerald is every bit as relevant in Tehran, Azar Nafisi argues, as he is here in his native United States. Contrast that with Qutb, who wrote in the eighth chapter of Milestones:

...a Muslim can study all the opinions and thoughts of jahili writers, not from the point of view of constructing his own beliefs and concepts, but for the purpose of knowing the deviations adopted by Jahiliyyah, so that he may know how to correct these man-made deviations in the light of the true Islamic belief and rebut them according to the sound principles of the Islamic teachings.

I don't think I'd be particularly interested in a critique of Gatsby that concluded that if only Daisy had worn an abaya, none of the rest would have been necessary.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)

May 11, 2004

2 Qutb 8c

Today I came across this article on IslamOnline on the proper treatment of prisoners of war:

“Treat the prisoners of war kindly.”

No, this is not a statement in the Geneva Conventions summarizing the rights of POWs. This is the Prophet Muhammad’s instruction to his Companions more than 1400 years ago. Islam has set down rules for warfare, detailing when Muslims should fight, whom they should fight, and how they should fight.

The linked article on the rules of warfare tells us,

These are the rights that Islam confers on combatants:

No one should be burned alive or tortured with fire.

Wounded soldiers who are neither unfit to fight, nor actually fighting, should not be attacked.

Prisoners of war should not be killed.

It is prohibited to kill anyone who is tied up or in captivity.

Residential areas should not be pillaged, plundered or destroyed, nor should the Muslims touch the property of anyone except those who are fighting against them.

Muslims must not take anything from the general public of the conquered country without paying for it.

The corpses of the enemy must not be disgraced or mutilated.

Corpses of the enemy should be returned.

Treaties must not be broken.

Muslims are prohibited from opening hostilities without properly declaring war against the enemy, unless the adversary has already started aggression against them.

These articles were posted, not in response to horrendous execution of a U.S. civilian in the clutches of al Qaeda (about which the site, as of this writing, is silent), nor the mutiliation of the remains of six Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza (there is a story on the killings, which oddly enough makes no mention of the failure of the mention of the mutilations). Rather, the passages excerpted above are part of the site's indignation over the despicable behavior of some U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. Passing strange is this Islam, some of whose adherents seem to believe that its moral strictures are binding only on the infidels, and not the faithful.

In any case, the above list of proper war conduct, as far as I can tell from historical and religious sources, is a bunch of hooey, for the most part. Captives taken in combat were reduced to slavery, and it was permissible to kill polytheists who did not accept Islam. And no less an authority than ideofact's old friend Sayyid Qutb, in Social Justice in Islam, notes that while plunder of the infidels was a significant revenue stream for the Caliphs, modern Islamists had better look elsewhere for money, at least until they're militarily able to bring Jihad to the lands of the nonbelievers.

The link within the first quoted passage begins with this blatantly false assertion:

Prior to the revelation of the Qur’an fourteen hundred years ago, there was no concept of civilized behavior neither in war nor of the rights of enemies. Yet Islam decreed humane rules of war, many centuries before such ideas were put into conventions and agreements in the West.

A while back, I mentioned Sophocles' play Antigone in connection with the barbaric killing and subsequent corpse mutilation of four contractors in Fallujah. The play revolves around Antigone's effort to give her brother a proper burial; Creon, the ruler of Thebes by default (her father the king has blinded himself and gone into exile; her brothers have slain one another in a war of succession) will offer a proper burial only to the brother who was considered the rightful heir; the usurper is left to rot. Antigone rightly provides her brother with last rites, and is condemned by Creon. I suppose I shouldn't be too troubled by the appalling lack of a classical education on the part of the writers and editors of IslamOlnine, but one would hope that a fact checker there might have been alert to the mistake.

But is a classical education of any relevance to an Islamist? In the eighth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones, he writes:

A Muslim cannot go to any source other than God for guidance in matters of faith, in the concept of life, acts of worship, morals and human affairs, values and standards, principles of economics and political affairs and interpretation of historical processes. It is, therefore, his duty that he should learn all these from a Muslim whose piety and character, belief and action, are beyond reproach.

Therein lies the poverty of the Islamists, which will be the subject of my post in this series.

Update: Brian Ulrich of Brian's Study Breaks notes in a comment that IslamOnline has posted a story on condemnations by some Islamic scholars of the killing of Nick Berg. Here are the second, third, and fourth paragraphs of the story:

"Islam respects the human being, dead or alive, and cutting off the American's head was an act of mutilation forbidden by Islam," Ibrahim Al-Fayoumi, a member of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, told

He cited a number of verses from the holy Qur'an which affirm giving due respect to dead people regardless of their race or religion.

However, Fayoumi suspected the whole episode was "an American propaganda to divert attention from the scandal of the U.S. military abuse of Iraqi detainees".

The rest is okay, so far as it goes. I also note that there's no condemnation of the mutilation of the corpses of Israeli soldiers.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (9)

May 05, 2004

The flotsam and jetsam...

...of my life hardly seems worth blogging about, but since I've been so erratic in my posts of late I should perhaps explain. This week has been devoted almost entirely to inconspicuous consumtion. Yes, the major renovations to stately ideofact manor were completed a few weeks ago, but I hardly had a moment to take advantage of the new fashionable digs. The basement, beautifully refurbished, had not a stick of furniture in it -- what had been there was mostly stuff I'd accumulated in my bachelor days, broken down and busted up bookcases, a desk that had seen far better days, bizarro chairs (one or two of which were left by the home's former owners), and other assorted crap all of which my wife was only too happy to be rid. So, these last couple of days, I've loaded up my pitiful little Saturn with all sorts of stuff -- the elegant little desk I'm typing at now, some sparkling new bookcases, and so on. My wife has graciously consented to allow me to buy what I want, which for her is a huge concession -- I freely admit I have terrible taste, or rather that while I have reasonably good taste about individual things, it's just that I have a great deal of trouble putting them together in any coherent way. When I accompanied her on an outing to pick the tiles, fixtures, and what not for the remodelled bathrooms, I felt a bit like Salieri in the scene in Amadeus when he assists Mozart in writing the Requiem:

"Two different shades of blue, white, yellow, a simple white sink -- you're going too fast, I don't understand..."

The effect certainly isn't on a par with Mozart, but it's pleasing nonetheless.

So I've been spending a fair amount of time at furniture stores, including a few stints at Ikea. I wonder how many relationships have ended there. Standing in the checkout counter with my bookcases the other day, I couldn't help noticing how many young couples there were looking sourly not so much at the collected merchandise in the cart, but at one another. One can sense the tension in the showroom. Blessed are those indeed who share one another's tastes, or, in my case, are smart enough to realize that the other partner's taste is well worth deferring to.

So my hands are beaten up -- nicks and cuts, blisters, aches and pains -- from assembling furniture. Tomorrow, the books return from their exile in a closet to being easily accessible. Life should be returning to normal after this months long disruption -- well, at least until the cicadas show up...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:28 PM | Comments (2)

May 03, 2004

Mysteries of the Internet

I'm approaching a milestone of sorts -- I thought I'd hit the 100th banned IP address tonight, but fell short by just three. For the last few days, I've had a trickle of comment spam, just about all from the same company, pushing the same product, the enlargement of something specific to the male anatomy. Six or seven on Friday, four or five on Saturday and Sunday, and a flurry of a dozen today, just about all from different IP addresses.

What I can't understand is what possible reason these people (or, more probably, this person) could have for doing this. On a six month old post on some typically obscure ideofact topic like, say, Alawites or Nabateans, our mysterious commenter will leave a remark on the order of, "Man is the missing link between apes and humans," or "In Washington, second guessing is second nature," or even the simple, "Like your site, I'll have to get one." In the field at which the commenter can leave a URL, he (or she) puts in the link to the site offering the product referenced obliquely above (hint: vocabulary isn't the correct answer), and for the email address, there's usually some bogus listing (in any case, the few I've tried always bounce back as undeliverable). So to what possible end could such comments be posted? Let's say a reader googled Alawites, or Japanese Pirates (oddly, one of the more popular search terms that draws googlers to ideofact) or some such and somehow landed here. Let's say that the reader manages to slog through whatever entry I've written and actually glances on the comments -- would a line like any of those I've quoted persuade someone to click on the highlighted name to see their Web site? Assuming our gentle, hypothetical reader had managed to make it through my nonsense, would the comment nonsense appear so intriguing that a reader would think, "Let me know more about how this person thinks!" And, if this ideal reader clicked through, would he (for the sake of argument, let's continue to pretend that our reader is a he) think, "Not only do they offer insightful platitudes that have nothing to do with the subject I was interested in, they offer to enlarge a part of me which is a source of joy to me second only to that generated by my enormous, throbbing vocabulary"? Not very likely.

So what is the business model? Why would anyone invest the time (or, if such comment spam can be automated, the resources) on such a limp advertising strategy? It occurred to me that this might have some other purpose than driving traffic to a Web site, something to do with google rankings, perhaps, but if one's business is dependent upon one's nearness to the top of google, leaving a half dozen or so comments on my particular blog, only to see them deleted within hours, along with a half dozen or so other comments on other blogs which most likely will also be deleted within a matter of hours, is hardly the best strategy. Blogspot, as far as I know, still offers free blogs, and one can set up multiple blogs from a single account. The same commenter at my blog could be posting hundreds of links at hundreds of blogs of his own, without fear of deletion or censure. It seems like the effort could hardly be more demanding than that of leaving comment spam, but I suppose there are probably reasons why that would be no more effective. In the meantime, I'll keep weeding through the comments.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:37 PM | Comments (4)