June 30, 2004


F. Scott Fitzgerald, in the novel whose success made him Fitzgerald (I'm referring to This Side of Paradise, has his hero, Amory Blaine, commit a faux pas in a literary discussion. Asked if he's read Oscar Wilde, he replies that no, he hasn't read it, not realizing that Wilde is a writer rather than a book. When I read Fitzgerald's novel at the tender age of 16, I had little inkling of who Wilde was -- I too might well have made the same mistake.

My silent obsession continues -- I read a review of Alla Nazimova's 1922 film Salome (not to be confused with the lost Theda Bara version), and learned that Nazimova's Salome was based on the play by Wilde. I picked up the DVD and watched it Saturday night -- the silent film seems faithful to both Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, who illustrated the work.

While I was in the bookstore, I picked up a volume of Wilde's journalism. Reading these old pieces, I was reminded of an astonishing assertion of Jorge Luis Borges:

Reading and rereading Wilde through the years, I notice something that his panegyrists do not seem to have even suspected: the provable and elementary fact that Wilde is almost always right.

Borges cites some of Wilde's essays and dialogues, as well as his journalism. Judging from what I've read so far, Borges' assertion is apt, even in small matters. Here's Wilde in 1884, responding to a letter to the editor from a woman who criticized his criticisms of women's fashion:

She makes two points: that high heels are a necessity for any lady who wishes to keep her dress clean from the Stygian mud of our streets, and that without a tight corset 'the ordinary number of petticoats and etceteras' cannot be properly or conveniently held up. Now it is quite true that as long as the lower garments are suspended from the hips, a corset is an absolute necessity; the mistake lies in not suspending all apparel from the shoulders. In the latter case a corset becomes useless, the body is left free and unconfined for respiration and motion, there is more health, and consequently more beauty.

The Wilde wit is also in evidence, particularly in this reaction to a cookbook that faults English food for its blandness:

...the British cook is a foolish woman who should be turned, for her iniquities, into a pillar of that salt which she never knows how to use.

In his essay on Wilde, Borges goes on to write,

His perfection has been a disadvantage; his work is so harmonious that it may seem inevitable and even trite. It is hard for us to imagine the universe without Wide's epigrams; but that difficulty does not make them less plausible.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

June 29, 2004


I've updated the blogroll, and am happy to announce that Glenn Frazier...er, or is it Mac Frazier? -- is back. Or, as he puts it,

First was Mac's Temporary Blog. Then came GlennFrazier.com. Now, welcome to Mac Frazier's Place...same old American neoconservative Neochristian anti-idiotarian author, but with all new pastrami-scented news, commentary and reviews...et barbarisimus delenda est!

I'm hoping he'll write some more on Michael Servetus in the near future...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:18 PM | Comments (1)

History teaches

I remember reading in an introduction to a collection of his essays, Medievalist Lynn R. White told an anecdote about the reaction from his academic advisor to his decision to concentrate his studies on Medieval science. "There wasn't any and Roger Bacon got in trouble with the Church for working at it," White recalled the man as saying. I always loved that quote.

Over at the always invaluable Cronaca, David notes that professional historians sometimes get things wrong, that popular historians are on another order, and then there are the out and out crackpots: Follow the links.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:06 PM | Comments (1)

June 28, 2004

2 Qutb 10c

Over the weekend, I read Tragedy of Korosko, an Arthur Conan Doyle thriller about a fictional raid on and kidnapping of a party of European and American tourists by Mahdi's army. The sole reader review of the work on the Amazon page notes,

This is a very significant book about the general opinons of Western people about middle eastern-arabs at the end of 19th century. The tale is about how tourists on a steamer have been taken hostage by a gang of arabs, and how "the heroic" british army saved them. What is behind the tale is what has been codified by kipling: "the burden of the white man". The superior civilized Anglo saxons and their mission toward uncivilised barabarians. The depiction of natives in mild racists words is what, unfortunately, has not changed so much in western opinions (even if hidden behind layers of politically correct). Very instructive for whoever is interested in the root of racisms, as described by E. Said in "orientalism". A very funny part of the book is the contrast between the arrogant french tourist who at the begining criticizes the wise brits, but by the end is grateful and convinced. Replace brits with americans, and the book could have been written in 2001.

I'm not sure this review is entirely accurate; Conan Doyle was writing a thriller, and interrupting his tale for a long disquisition on the distinctions that Europeans made among the various factions of Middle Eastern Arabs they encountered would tend to slow down the narration. As to the racism -- the stoutest advocate of British imperialism (which, it is true, is presented by some of the characters as a positive thing without the slightest qualifications) admonishes a fellow tourist on the efficiency and lethalness of the African soldiers in British ranks, and three of the tourists slated for execution by the raiders are saved by enterprising soldiers of the Mahdi's army who reject his fundamentalism. That said, the book is a product of its time, and there are a few passages that made me wince as I read them, particularly a conversation between an American and the advocate of British imperialism in which the latter asserts that one day soon the United States will have to rule from Mexico to the Cape, and another in which a character suggests that certain cultures are incapable of producing decent governments. (It's not clear to me, however, that this is exactly a racist attitude, although it's not a particularly enlightened one either).

Conan Doyle made no attempt to differentiate between branches of Islamic thought, which, as I've tried on occasion to note, are as broad and distinct as any you'd find in the West. Islam is by no means monolithic, something that forms a fairly important subtext to the tenth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones. It's important to recall that Qutb is writing to an Islamic readership, and that there were and are various rivals to his own program.

We need not rationalize Islam to them, need not appease their desires and distorted concepts. We will be extremely outspoken with them: "The ignorance in which you are living makes you impure, and God wants to purify you; the customs which you follow are defiling, and God wants to cleanse you; the life you are living is low, and God wants to uplift you; the condition which you are in is troublesome, depressing and base, and God wants to give you ease, mercy and goodness. Islam will change your concepts, your modes of living and your values; will raise you to another life so that you will look upon the life you are now living with disgust; will show you modes of living such that you will look upon all other modes, whether Eastern or Western, with contempt; and will introduce you to values such that you will look upon all current values in the world with disdain. And if, because of the sorry state you are in, you cannot see the true picture of the Islamic life, since your enemies-the enemies of this religion -are all united against the establishment of this way of life, against its taking a practical form, then let us show it to you; and, thank God, its picture is in our hearts, seen through the windows of our Qur'an, of our Shari'ah, of our history, of our concept of the future, whose coming we do not doubt!"

This is the way in which we ought to address people while presenting Islam. This is the truth, and this was the form in which Islam addressed people for the first time; this was the form, whether it was in the Arabian peninsula, in Persia or in the Roman provinces, or in whatever other places it went.

Islam looked at them from a height, as this is its true position, and addressed them with extreme love and kindness, as this is its true temperament, and explained everything to them with complete clarity, without any ambiguity, as this is its method. It never said to them that it would not touch their way of living, their modes, their concepts and their values except perhaps slightly; it did not propose similarities with their system or manners to please them, as some do today when they present Islam to the people under the names of 'Islamic Democracy' or 'Islamic Socialism', or sometimes by saying that the current economic or political or legal systems in the world need not be changed except a little to be acceptable Islamically. The purpose of all this rationalization is to appease people's desires!

As an aside, it's worth noting that appeasing people's desires -- and we are essentially speaking of the desire of Muslims -- is not particularly high on his list of priorities. Elsewhere in the chapter, he writes,

In the beginning, people may dislike this method of giving the message, may run away from it, and may be afraid of it. But the people disliked it, ran away from it, and were afraid of it when Islam was presented to them for the first time. They hated it and were hurt when Muhammad - peace be on him-criticized their concepts, derided their deities, rejected their ways of behavior, turned away from their habits and customs, and adopted for himself and for the few believers who were with him modes of behavior, values and customs other than the modes, values and customs of Jahiliyyah.

Once again, Qutb makes explicit his notion that his Islamicist vision is Islam, and that those Muslims who do not follow it follow Jahiliyyah, the paganism of pre-Islamic Arabia. He goes on to say that converts to Islam in the time of the Prophet were ardent believers -- of this there's little doubt. But he assumes that his proposed revolution, his radical, almost nihilistic destruction of the existing order, to be supplanted with -- well, what he's never quite clear on -- is the equivalent of and has all the moral authority of the Prophet's own mission. This of course begs the question -- what happens if Qutb is wrong, and the people don't fall into line?

Just as for Conan Doyle's fictional tourists of the Korosko, this is not a hypothetical question for us in the West. Qutb's ambitions go beyond reforming the Ummah. In attacking those who believe Islam is compatible with, and has something worthwhile to offer to modernity (a view I happen to share), Qutb returns to his sojourn in America:

A person who feels the need of defense, justification and apology is not capable of presenting Islam to people. Indeed, he is a person who lives the life of Jahiliyyah, hollow and full of contradictions, defects and evils, and intends to provide justification for the Jahiliyyah he is in. These are the offenders against Islam and they distract some sincere persons. They confuse Islam's true nature by their defense, as if Islam were something accused standing at trial, anxious for its own defense.

During my stay in the United States, there were some people of this kind who used to argue with us-with us few who were considered to be on the side of Islam. Some of them took the position of defense and justification. I, on the other hand, took the position of attacking the Western Jahiliyyah, its shaky religious beliefs, its social and economic modes, and its immoralities: "Look at these concepts of the Trinity, Original Sin, Sacrifice and Redemption, which are agreeable neither to reason nor to conscience. Look at this capitalism with its monopolies, its usury and whatever else is unjust in it; at this individual freedom, devoid of human sympathy and responsibility for relatives except under the force of law; at this materialistic attitude which deadens the spirit; at this behavior, like animals, which you call 'Free mixing of the sexes; at this vulgarity which you call 'emancipation of women,' at these unfair and cumbersome laws of marriage and divorce, which are contrary to the demands of practical life; and at Islam, with its logic, beauty, humanity and happiness, which reaches the horizons to which man strives but does not reach. It is a practical way of life and its solutions are based on the foundation of the wholesome nature of man."

These were the realities of Western life which we encountered. These facts, when seen in the light of Islam, made the American people blush. Yet there are people-exponents of Islam-who are defeated before this filth in which Jahiliyyah is steeped, even to the extent that they search for resemblances to Islam among this rubbish heap of the West, and also among the evil and dirty materialism of the East. 

I don't know whether Qutb was actually so ill mannered in America, but if he were, I can well imagine his hosts blushing awkwardly over lack of civility. Be that as it may, Qutb's tirade is far more extreme than anything Conan Doyle puts into the mouths of the fanatics of the Mahdi army.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:58 PM | Comments (0)

June 24, 2004

Lost Salome

I'd mentioned before that very few of Theda Bara's films are extant; this story tells us that one might have been saved:

The movie's subject, Henri Langlois, may be unknown to many -- though it's a name any movie-lover should revere. Langlois, born in Turkey, was the longtime director of the Cinematheque Francaise, which he founded in 1936 (with filmmaker Georges Franju), nurtured under great difficulties through WW II and brought to world prominence in the '50s.

Langlois decided, initially without government aid, to assemble a film library. At first he did it selectively, preserving what conventional wisdom considered the classics. But after he let a print of actress Theda Bara's silent "Salome" get away (a film now lost forever), he decided that conventional wisdom might be wrong, that it was best to try to preserve and show as much as possible. The official critical establishment might have missed some classics.

Indeed. And here is a gratuitous Theda Bara photo, I believe in the role of Salome:


Posted by Ideofact at 11:36 PM | Comments (0)

June 23, 2004


Electrical engineering relies not on science or technology, but is rather a historical religious phenomenon that was a product of a certain cultural context and drew on Islamic notions of the Qur'an, Medieval interpretations of neo-Platonic philosophy and reacted against the formalized architecture of rabbinical teachings characterized by the Mishnah.

The previous sentence is every bit as accurate as the characterization of Kabbalah that, according to this article, Madonna and presumably others have cottoned onto.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:40 PM | Comments (1)

Three versions of da Vinci

Zack Ajmal of Procrastination liked Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code, which reminds me that I've been doing a bit of procrastinating myself -- I started the book a while ago, but put it aside. My objections to it had little to do with its religious content; rather, it was the unorthodox means by which the detective investigates the murder that occurs in the first or second chapter. I think this is a literary device, but it's not especially a good one. When the detective brings someone who certainly would be a murder suspect to the crime scene, allowing him to see the disposition of the body, all the evidence, and what not, and asks his help in solving the crime, it seemed too much of a stretch to me.

Zack finds the controversy over the book curious -- so do I, although I suspect it probably has something to do with Brown's clumsiness as an author: his insistence, on the opening page, that the framework of his fiction is fact. Jorge Luis Borges created what I think may well be one of the most innovative heresies ever in a short story entitled "Three Versions of Judas," which can be found in a few of the anthologies of his stories (I prefer the translation in Labyrinths, only because it was the first I read). The piece reads more like a scholarly article than a short story -- and Borges approaches his subject matter with a detachment that makes the reader far more receptive to the ideas of Nils Runeberg, and all the horror they entail. By contrast, Brown's assertion that his fiction is something other than a fiction invites some fact checking, although I imagine the book's controversy hasn't hurt sales too much.

The plethora of books challenging Brown are probably as much a function of economics as theology -- there seems to be a market for them. Add in the fact that there's nothing especially novel about Brown's take on Christian theology -- Umberto Eco's magisterial Foucault's Pendulum covers much the same ground, although with a good deal more skepticism -- and one can conclude that such books aren't particularly difficult to produce. Nevertheless, it's gratifying to see the vigor of the debate sparked by Brown's book, and one of these days I'll have to finish reading it.

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

June 22, 2004

Politics of Nosferatu

Yes, I'm on something of a silent film kick lately. I read something about Nosferatu that I found rather astonishing. But first, I should note that I greatly admire the film -- for me, it remains the vampire film. I think Roger Ebert, of all people (I'm not a fan of his reviews generally) said it best:

To watch F.W. Murnau's ``Nosferatu'' (1922) is to see the vampire movie before it had really seen itself. Here is the story of Dracula before it was buried alive in cliches, jokes, TV skits, cartoons and more than 30 other films. The film is in awe of its material. It seems to really believe in vampires.

Max Schreck, who plays the vampire, avoids most of the theatrical touches that would distract from all the later performances, from Bela Lugosi to Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. The vampire should come across not like a flamboyant actor but like a man suffering from a dread curse. Schreck plays the count more like an animal than a human being...


Not everyone found the film quite so engaging. The somewhat disappointing Ultimate Film Guide: Nosferatu does note one rather odd contemporary review:

The only hostile response to Nosferatu came from a socialist newspaper Leipziger Volkszeitung (15 March 1922), which accused the film of being an 'ideal means to turn workers away from any excessive and undesirable political activity'. It condemned the film's 'occultism' as a sad symptom of the war, but more importantly as a 'supernatural fog' through which workers would be 'unable to see concrete reality any longer'.

It seems to be almost a parody of some of the ravings of Noam Chomsky, but it predates his nonsense by several decades.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

2 Qutb 10b

In my last post on the tenth chapter of Milestones by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist polemicist who's been described as "the brain of Osama," I left off with a passage from Qutb asserting that Islam historically did not mix itself with jahiliyyah (traditionally the period of paganism and ignorance prior to the preaching of the Prophet, transmogrified in Qutb's reading to everything that does not conform to his novel and radical redefinition of Islam). Qutb goes on to confirm this in his next two paragraphs:

Jahiliyyah is the worship of some people by others; that is to say, some people become dominant and make laws for others, regardless of whether these laws are against God's injunctions and without caring for the use or misuse of their authority.

Islam, on the other hand, is people's worshipping God alone, and deriving concepts and beliefs, laws and regulations and values from the authority of God, and freeing themselves from servitude to God's servants. This is the very nature of Islam and the nature of its role on the earth. This point should be emphasized to anyone whomsoever we invite to Islam, whether they be Muslims or non-Muslims. [emphasis added]

I find it interesting that Muslims must be called to Islam -- presumably, if they are Muslims, by definition they have already submitted; Qutb seems to rather explicitly conflate his own political preferences with Islam.

Next, Qutb contrasts Islam with desire:

Islam cannot accept any mixing with Jahiliyyah, either in its concept or in the modes of living which are derived from this concept. Either Islam will remain, or Jahiliyyah: Islam cannot accept or agree to a situation which is half-Islam and half-Jahiliyyah. In this respect Islam's stand is very clear. It says that the truth is one and cannot be divided; if it is not the truth, then it must be falsehood. The mixing and co-existence of the truth and falsehood is impossible. Command belongs to God, or otherwise to Jahiliyyah; God's Shari'ah will prevail, or else people's desires. 

Desire is a theme which recurs throughout the tenth chapter, and Qutb's assumption throughout is that human desire is in conflict with Islam:

Islam did not come to support people's desires, which are expressed in their concepts, institutions, modes of living, and habits and traditions, whether they were prevalent at the advent of Islam or are prevalent now, both in the East and in the West. Islam does not sanction the rule of selfish desires. It has come to abolish all such concepts, laws, customs and traditions, and to replace them with a new concept of human life, to create a new world on the foundation of submission to the Creator.

This is rather interesting -- to what desires, selfish or otherwise, is Qutb referring? The ascetism that replaced martyrdom as the highest sort of piety to which a Christian could aspire after Constantine's declaration of the Christian Empire is largely foreign to Islam (indeed, in Social Justice in Islam, Qutb, either out of ignorance or for polemical purposes, argues that true Christianity demands such withdrawal from the world, and, if I'm remembering this corectly, that secular government and churchgoing citizens is a betrayal of the religion's tenets. By way of contrast, he notes that Islam is a religion of the world, to which ascetism is an alien concept.) So it is unlikely that Qutb is suggesting an Islamic monasticism or mortification of the flesh.

My suspicion is that Qutb is referring to the "selfish desires" to which he refers is the desire to live under a decent government rather than Qutb's vision of a pure Islamic theocracy, ruling with an iron fist.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:31 PM | Comments (1)

June 21, 2004

Myths of Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari -- or, if you prefer the German title, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari -- premiered at the Marmorhaus, the most fashionable theater on the ritzy Ku'damm in Berlin -- on February 26, 1920. In other words, in the age of mass media, in an era of newspapers, recorded interviews, archives and libraries. Most of the major figures involved in the production have spoken about it (the one exception appears to be Robert Wiene, the director, who died in 1938). If you click on the Amazon link above, you'll see the date of the film given as 1921; if you click on this Amazon link, for a different edition of the DVD, the date is given as 1919, as it is in a page from this book.

I'm often amazed by how much we get wrong, whether "we" refers to reporters, historians or just the average joe in the street. The facts, presumably, are out there, somewhere, but finding them out isn't always easy. (The February 26, 1920 date I cite comes from film historian David Robinson's short book on Caligari; he might well be wrong as well; the reference isn't footnoted for example. If he'd cited a review from a Berlin newspaper from February 27, 1920, I might be a little more comfortable in following him on this. (Here, for example, we find the date as February 25, 1920.)


Some of this is quibling, I know -- Amazon isn't a bibliography, and the companies releasing DVDs are in business primarily to profit, not for historical accuracy. The book reference is more troubling, but really, these are minor points.

But it's hardly the only point of contention, or confusion, surrounding the film. Robinson relates numerous myths from various sources -- that public reaction in Berlin was negative, forcing the film to close (quite the contrary); that protests over the film's artistic style forced it to be withdrawn in Los Angeles (the protests were over the cheapness of a film produced in Weimar -- Hollywood feared losing jobs); that the two script writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer, specified the film's distinctive sets (the sole remaining script has no such specifications from the script writers, and one of the designers recalled that it was Robert Wiene, the director, who decided in favor the film's look); that the company that produced the film resisted its artistic daringness (the producers felt that it would be cheap to produce, and that its novelty would be a big attraction, even if the effects didn't quite work).

What interested me most, however, is the myth that the writers had created a political fable -- the idea that Caligari represents unbridled authority, while Cesare, the somnambulist ordered to kill, represented the helpless population. Wiene, by changing the framing device to make Caligari triumphant in the end (we discover that the narrator is an inmate in an asylum, and the doctor his psychiatrist) reversed the film's meaning, making it an ode to authority (to see how prevalent this kind of critique is, see here:

Following its 1920 premiere in Berlin, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was hailed as "the first really artistic film drama." The story, written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, concerns Caligari (Werner Krauss), a crazed psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to maintain absolute control over the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and to force him to commit murder.

The writers intended to make a political statement about Germany's abuse of power during World War I, but director Robert Wiene negates this implication by restoring authority at the end of the film.

Robinson, however, points out that the political interpretation only arose after the 1947 publication of Siegfried Kracauer's book, From Caligari to Hitler:

Between 1920 and 1947 innumerable commentators and admirers wrote about Caligari without declaring any misgivings about accepting it as a madman's story, or suggesting that some symbolic meaning had thereby been perverted. Significantly, two of Caligari's most enthusiastic champions, Paul Rotha writing in 1930 and Lewis Jacobs in 1939, happened to be highly politicised radicals; yet nether sought any political meaning in the film. Hermann Warm recalled that neither Wiene nor Mayer ever spoke of any political meaning in the film, and said that his own head spun at Kracauer's notion that the slow iris from the designer's twirling umbrella-carousel symbolised the social chaos to come. Janowitz's sense of betrayal must have been at least to some extent heightened by hindsight.

A few critics of the time did object to the presentation of the story as the hallucination of a madman, but on rather different grounds. The critic Herbert Jhering was the first to complain that the film portrayed Expressionism as the vision of a madman. The Swiss novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars echoed him, charging that the film 'casts discredit on modern Art because the discipline of modern painters (Cubist) is not the hyper sensibility of madman but equilibrium, intensity and mental geometry.' The objection has been frequently raised since; but the view seems somewhat blinkered. We can equally argue that, far from being shown as the vision of a madman, Expressionism is demonstrated as a graphic style supple and expressive enough to depict that vision.

Nor is the meaning of the film's present denouement as unequivocal for present-day perceptions as it was for Janowitz and Kracauer who considered that it 'glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness'. In an era of endemic scepticism in the face of authority, a fin-de-siecle audience does not so easily accept the ending at its face value. A modern viewer can readily interpret the ending of the film from the position that Franzi's story is true and that the demonic Caligari has used his wiles to have him incarcerated as a madman. Given this reading, the end of the film has the enveloping, inescapable terror of Kafka or Gaslight or the last scene of The Vanishing.

A mere 27 years separated the premier of Caligari and the political interpretation of the film. Of course, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War, and the Holocaust were all parts of that time frame. And Caligari, when it comes down to it, isn't an especially important text, if I can apply that word to it (certainly not as important, in terms of historical impact -- including negative impact -- as, say, Mein Kampf). But the imposition of a different interpretation upon Caligari -- a decidedly political reading, which I've encountered dozens of times -- suggests that perhaps we get far more wrong than we realize, and reminds me of others who would impose their own political interpretation on a somewhat older text.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)

June 18, 2004

Poetry of the silent era

Thanks to the wonders of Amazon (how on earth did we ever survive without Amazon and its used book equivalent, the excellent alibris?), an essay by film critic and historian David Robinson on the great German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, if I'm not mistaken, was once described as the first horror film. (Certainly untrue -- Edison's film company made a short version of Frankenstein in 1910.) But it's probably the first great horror film.

Wonderful as the essay is, I bought the volume because it offers a translation of the script in the back of the book. I've read a fair number of stage plays, a movie script or two (for talkies), but never a script for a silent film, and was curious to see how Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, the two writers, put the story of Caligari on paper.

At this point, I haven't gotten to the script itself yet, because Robinson's essay is so engaging, and dispels so many of the myths that had grown up around the film, something I might write a bit about later, with reference to the great Washington Irving short story, The Adventure of the German Student, the text of which is online here. But back to scripts --Robinson quotes a few excerpts from the Caligari script in his essay, and they are not particularly impressive as literature:

A spectral-looking old man, in a dark, flying cloak and high cylinder hat, trots along the street, following the procession. His hands, clasped behind his back, hold a walking stick. His head recalls that of Schopenhauer. He stands still for a moment, and before going on, solemnly leafs through the pages of a large book which he takes out of his coat pocket. Then he appears satisfied and goes on his way.

Janowitz went on to make a career out of claiming that Robert Wiene, the director of Caligari, ruined or even "raped" their script. Mayer went on to develop a style of writing for silent pictures that seems poetic in its own right. Robinson provides an exerpt from a 1925 script he did for F.W. Murnau, who had directed Nosferatu in 1922, for Tartuffe:

Closer shot: The first floor.
Darkness of night.
But! Descending the first flight of stairs;
like a shadow; at first unrecognizable.
It is. He stands.
Only a black shape.
Does he look upwards, slightly?
Slow pan
upwards: Above Tartuffe's door:
A second door.
Attic door.
Lit from behind.
And there: The shadow of Dorine.
Combing her hair.
Then: suddenly: the light
Has it gone out?
It has.
And so!
Closer shot: Tartuffe.
Returning his gaze.
This way.
Slowly. Pale in this
black night.

I can't quite reproduce all the spacing of the original -- it looks better on the printed page -- but even so, the passage seems so evocative, the language so strong. I've never seen Murnau's Tartuffe, but I've added it to my list of things to do...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:57 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2004

2 Qutb 10a

I've read the tenth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones a few times now, and it's hard to pick the proper place to start -- perhaps it's best to begin at the beginning:

When we invite people to Islam, whether they are Believers or non-believers, we should keep in mind one fact, a fact which is a characteristic of Islam itself and which can be seen in its history. Islam is a comprehensive concept of life and the universe with its own unique characteristics. The concept of human life in all its aspects and relationships which are derived from it is also a complete system which has its particular characteristics. This concept is basically against all the new or old jahili concepts. Although there might be some details in which there are similarities between Islam and the jahili concepts, in relation to the principles from which these particulars are derived, the Islamic concept is different from all other theories with which man has been familiar.

What Qutb claims for Islam -- that it offers a "comprehensive concep of life and the universe with its own unique characteristics" -- is certainly true, but this is equally true of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Christianity or Judaism. Within the broad category of Islam, there are sects and sects of sects with their "own unique characteristics" as well, but I don't necessarily want to engage in semantics at this point. Qutb goes on to write,

It is not the function of Islam to compromise with the concepts of Jahiliyyah which are current in the world or to coexist in the same land together with a jahili system. This was not the case when it first appeared in the world, nor will it be today or in the future. Jahiliyyah, to whatever period it belongs, is Jahiliyyah; that is, deviation from the worship of One God and the way of life prescribed by God. It derives its system and laws and regulations and habits and standards and values from a source other than God. [emphasis added.]

Yet history shows precisely the opposite -- that Islam was a short-lived phenomenon that ended with the death of 'Ali and the rise to power of the Umayyad Caliphate. The great flowering of this jahili culture -- which produced the likes of al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina -- had nothing to do with Islam, which was strangled in its infancy and cast off by Mu'awiya and his successors; by the Abassids, the dynasty that displaced the Umayyad; by a wave of weak converts who overwhelmed Islam -- Seljuk Turks and Mongols. There was the catastrophe of Andalusia in the West and the Crusades in the center; the rise of the Ottoman Empire (which relied on the qanun -- a cognate for canon, a body of laws developed by the hated "Roman" Byzantines but which nevertheless functioned as a legal code for the Ottomans) concluding with the European conquest. The Islam of Qutb -- the comprehensive system -- has not existed anywhere in the world since the seventh century. Incapable of co-existing with the jahili, it ceased to exist more than thirteen centuries ago.

I don't agree at all with the preceding paragraph -- but I can cite some quotations from a writer of some interest who does:

The Umayyads were a family united by their desires and their ambitions, but divided by their cupidity and their greed; they were without a trace of morals, religion, or conscience.

It was a calamity that broke the back of Islam.

The territory of Islam was certainly increased during the period the ensued, but the spirit of the faith was undeniably lost; and what is the value of territory if the spirit is lost?


When the Abbasids grasped the succession, they did so as kings, so that the Muslim world was corrupted and the people lost touch with the duties of the faith, such a divorce and such a wide gulf had the Umayyads succeeded in placing between the people and their religion. The Abbasid kings were no better than the Umayyads, for one and all they represented a tyrannical monarchy.


It was this situation [the increasing wealth of the realms of Islam during the period of the four rightly guided Caliphs] that gave the Islamic community over to tyranny and hatred, in a holocaust that was not to be extinguished before it enveloped the whole spirit of Islam in its smoke. Through it the Muslim community was handed over to the power of a tyrannical monarchy that had no foundation in Islam.


As for the suggestion that the Islamic system does not provide by nature adequate safeguards against disruption, for one thing we must bear in mind that this system was assailed by disruption before it had properly struck roots; and for another thing we must remember that that in practice no system has any real such safegaurds.


We must now examine quickly the more important blows that befell Islam and mark their influence through the following centuries.

The first of these is to be found in the rise of the Abbasid state, with its reliance on elements newly converted to Islam. The attitude of these peoples to their new religion was never whole-hearted because of the national loyalties whose roots remained strong within them. As time went on, the Abbasid state deserted these elements on which it had been founded, and which were now beginning to acquire a tincture of Islam for others whose hearts were closed to Islam, Turks, Circassians, Dailamites and such like. So this dynasty continued to find its support in elements that were opposed to the spirit of Islam and to which it gave a favored position because it relied on them.


Then followed the destructive raids of the Mongols, bursting with savage ferocity on the Islamic world. Without delay Islam turned aside the force of the onslaught, swallowed it up, assimilated it. Yet this was not accomplished without causing in the spirit of Islam itself a profound upheaval in which the practices and traditions of the religion were forcibly modified.


The writer of these passages is none other than Sayyid Qutb. Of course, he does not regard Islam as a historical footnote (I took some liberties) although it's fairly clear that he views most of history -- including portions of the earliest period of Islamic history -- as being un-Islamic. Yet in the hearts of believers, despite all the jahili surrounding them, Islam thrived. I don't agree with Qutb's historical definitions of what was jahili and what was Islamic (for example, the Muslim philosophers strike me as Muslims interested in and contributing to the same intellectual tradition begun by Plato and Aristotle from a decidedly Islamic perspective), but if you accept Qutb's definitions, then you must admit that Islam has spent most of its existence compromising and coexisting with jahili systems, and not faring too badly.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2004

A nice Jewish girl

The name still conjures something magical for me: Theda Bara. It's an anagram for Arab death, although that was dreamt up by Fox's publicity department later, when they concocted a fanciful and entirely fictional biography for Bara, who between 1915 and 1919 was one of the three most popular stars in the nascent medium of movies.

When I was 11 or 12 years old, I spent a few weeks of summer afternoons at a film class offered at one of the private schools in my home town. Regrettably, I can hardly remember the young man who ran the classes, but despite various limitations -- this would have been 1976, before the advent of VCRs, meaning that we couldn't see most of the films we were learning about -- there is much I remember. He focused on the birth of film, and I remember the only visual aids he had were a few books he'd pass around as he spoke of the silent cinema, and a super 8 projector (if I remember rightly, he had a few Buster Keaton and Keystone Kops shorts).

He was most interested in comedy, and particularly in Chaplin, but my tastes ran toward horror. I remember the photos of Cesare, asleep in Caligari's cabinet, of the menacing claws of Count Orlock -- Nosferatu -- and Lon Chaney in a few of his thousand faces. Yet none of those images were quite as hair raising as the tales of Theda Bara.

She may well have been the first sex symbol, and her screen persona introduced the word "vamp" into the English language. Bara played, for the most part, characters who were dangerous to men, who ruined them, who played with them for her own satisfaction. Here is a fairly typical publicity still of her:


She played Cleopatra and Salome, but these films, along with most of the 38 others she made, were lost in a warehouse fire -- only 3 full films remain.

Fox Studios, which went on to become Twentieth Century Fox, dreamt up elaborate tales for her past -- she was conceived and born in Egypt, near the Sphinx, the offspring of an Italian father and a French mother, but the reality, as my long ago instructor assured us, was far more mundane. As a child I found the studio tales far more intriguing, and wished they were true -- as an adult, I find reality far more compelling:

...a little research reveals that Theodosia Goodman was really born in Avondale (a wealthy, largely Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati) on July 29, 1885.

Unlike so many silent stars, Theda (a childhood nickname) had a happy childhood. Close to her parents and two siblings, she even went to college for two years, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of those times. Aggressively intellectual, Theda remained a voracious reader for the rest of her life, especially enjoying philosophy and psychology.

She was also enamored of the theater, and dropped out of school (to her father's dismay) in 1905 to pursue an acting career. It's embarrassing but necessary to admit that Theda Bara did not have whatever it took to become a stage star. From 1905 through 1914 she labored mightily in New York and in various travelling stock companies, but was never able to rise above playing bits on Broadway or supporting roles on tour. She was already pushing 30 when director Frank Powell cast her as The Vampire in William Fox's film version of the Broadway hit A Fool There Was (released in January, 1915).

(A Fool There Was, incidentally, is about the only one of the three extant Bara films readily available.)

I had a vague recollection that, like Valentino, or more likely like Fatty Arbuckle, Bara's career was cut short by an early death or scandal. I was right (there was a scandal), but not one of her own making. After years of playing the vamp, she got a part in which she played the innocent. Going against type isn't what turned off movie goers, however:

By 1919, William Fox had lost interest in Theda, who was actively campaigning for better films and more varied roles. The straw that broke the camel's back was Kathleen Mavourneen, the film Theda hoped would be her ticket to a contract at another studio. Instead, Irish and Catholic groups protested not only the depiction of Ireland, but of a Jewish actress in the leading role. The film was yanked after several movie-theater riots and bomb threats.

If living well is the best revenge, Bara had it -- by all accounts a happy marriage and a long, happy life -- no Nora Desmond madness for her. She was, at heart, as she once told an interviewer, a nice Jewish girl.

Note: There's a wonderful gallery of Bara photos here, from which I took the photo for this entry.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

June 14, 2004

2 Qutb 9

In the ninth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones, the Egyptian Islamist sometimes referred to as the "brain of Osama" offers a series of propositions, supported with quotations from the Qur'an and one Hadith, in support of his central dichotomy. For Qutb, there is Islam -- which, he avers in Social Justice in Islam exists nowhere in the world -- and the Jahilayyah. The latter term traditionally referred to the state of the pre-Islamic Arabic tribes, which practiced polytheism; one of Qutb's innovations was to apply the term to the West and to those Muslim countries that failed to live up to his notion of a theocratic society (that is, all of them). Qutb states this in his conclusion:

The callers to Islam should not have any superficial doubts in their hearts concerning the nature of Jahiliyyah and the nature of Islam, and the characteristics of Dar-ul-Harb and of Dar-ul-Islam, for through these doubts many are led to confusion. Indeed, there is no Islam in a land where Islam is not dominant and where its Shari'ah is not established; and that place is not Dar-ul-Islam where Islam's way of life and its laws are not practiced. There is nothing beyond faith except unbelief, nothing beyond Islam except Jihiliyyah, nothing beyond the truth except falsehood.

In the first part of the chapter, Qutb begins by stating that a Muslim's nationality is Islam -- not Egyptian, or a subject of the Ottoman Empire or the Mamluk Sultans, for that matter. And Islam, for Qutb, is one thing and one thing only...

In the world there is only one party of God; all others are parties of Satan and rebellion.


There is only one way to reach God; all other ways do not lead to Him.

Of course, within Islam there are any number of parties of God -- there are variations among Sunnis, Shi'ites and Sufis, to begin with, and myriad sub-sects and schools of interpretation. If there is only one way to reach God, which way is it?

Qutb next turns to the question of children and parents, arguing that a believer owes his allegiance to Islam first. If your mother had her heart set upon your becoming a dentist, and you want to heed the call of Jihad...

Qutb makes this far more explicit further down, suggesting that if your country is ruled by someone who believes in equality for all minorities, for religious freedom, for freedom of the press and women's rights, it's perfectly okay to treat him as your enemy, even if he's a Muslim and even if your parents are grateful to live under his rule:

Any country which fights the Muslim because of his belief and prevents him from practicing his religion, and in which the Shari'ah is suspended, is Dar-ul-Harb, even though his family or his relatives or his people live in it, or his capital is invested and his trade or commerce is in that country; and any country where the Islamic faith is dominant and its Shari'ah is operative is Dar-ul-Islam, even though the Muslim's family or relatives or his people do not live there, and he does not have any commercial relations with it.

There's a shot at the Jews, then the conclusion. I imagine this was written primarily with an eye to persuading young would-be Jihadis to join the cause.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:18 PM | Comments (3)

June 10, 2004

Tyranny and the Press

I found this passage, from Denis Mack Smith's Mussolini: A Biography, striking:

Just as foreign diplomats in Italy could be declared persona non grata if they kept in contact with the opposition, so the new undersecretary of state, Dino Grandi, operated an 'intimidation department' against foreign journalists and occasionally they were assaulted by fascist hooligans. Foreign editors who wanted to keep their correspondents in Italy were given stringent rules to obey; failure to comply with these would result in cables arriving so garbled as to be meaningless or held up on some pretext until the story was too old for publication. On the other hand, foreign correspondents who obeyed the unwritten rules were given privileged information and allowed to send their news without payment through the official telegraph wires; some of them were bribed with a monthly cheque from the press office and the more amenable were exempted from paying taxes. On sensitive issues like the murder of Matteotti, they were strictly forbidden to send anything except the official press release. Threats and bribes thus helped Mussolini not only to conceal from foreign readers the extent of his brutality, but also to convince many people abroad that he had saved Europe from bolshevism and that fascism had a social philosophy worthy of consideration.

It's a good and noble thing to risk one's life to publish the truth, and a contemptible thing to take money to puff up a tyrant. The press, unfortunately, has always had the latter types as well as the former.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:49 PM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2004

2 Qutb 8 note

In last night's post, I inadvertently suggested that the Qur'an had little to say about economics. The passage in question, which appears after quoting a bit from Qutb in which he cites various Qur'anic verses and a Hadith to support his contention that the political experiences and experimentation of the West -- of Christians and Jews to be precise -- should be ignored by Muslims (I'm taking liberties in paraphrasing it -- perhaps it''s better to read the whole thing) reads

...these quotations are hardly on point -- if you go to the context of the passages themselves, it's fairly clear that the injunctions not to follow Christians or Jews refers to matters of religion, and not, say, politics or economics. Regarding the latter, neither the Qur'an nor the life of the Prophet offers any clue as to how to proceed...

I wrote in haste, and didn't mean to imply that the Qur'an has little to say about economics (there's a good deal on distribution of wealth, injunctions against usury and admonitions to set aside wealth to care for the poor, and the like). As to the political question (to which I was referring), well, I don't just pull these statements out of my hat. Here, for example, is a quotation from Nazih Ayubi's book Political Islam:

...the original Islamic sources (the Qur'an and the Hadith) have very little to say on matters of government and the State. However, the first issure to confront the Muslim community immediately after the death of its formative leader, Prophet Muhammad, was in fact the problem of government, and Muslims therefore had to innovate and improvise with regard to the form and nature of government. Indeed, the first disagreements that emerged within the Muslim community (and which led to the eventual division into Sunnis, Kharijites, Shi'ils and other sects) were concerned with politics. But theorising about politics was very much delayed, and emerged when the political realities that it addressed were on the decline. Furthermore, most of what emerged, at least within the Sunni tradition, was also produced 'in the shadow of the State'. The State had sanctioned a certain 'methodology' of writing, based on linguistic explanation (bayan) and on reasoning by analogy (qiyas), and had also sponsored the juridic elite that wrote on political subjects. The result was an elegant and elaborate body of jurisprudence, and a formal theory of the caliphate that, through monopoly and repetition, had become altogether entrenched in the 'Arab mind'.

With the passage of time, subsequent generations have found it extremely difficult to distinguish between what was meant as a description and what was meant as prescription within this literature. Furthermore the elegant body of jurisprudence has been elevated almost to the level of the Shari'a (religious law) itself. Today, when most salafis and some fundamentalists call for the implementation of shari'a, what they really have in mind is the implementation of the jurisprudence formulated by the early jurists. This jurisprudence has now been extracted from its historical and political context, and endowed with essentialist, everlasting qualities. The point is thus overlooked that this jurisprudence was in the first place a human improvisation meant to address certain political and social issues in a certain historical, geographical and social context. What is also often overlooked is that the main body of the official jurisprudence fulfilled a certain political function by imparting religious legitimacy to the government of the day, which had usually come to rule by force or intrigue and which, in its daily conduct, was not generally living up the Islamic ideal.

...the neo-fundamentalists, or the proponents of political Islam, have actually introduced some novel, and radical, changes in the way the Islamic political tradition is understood. While they want ot preserve the close link between religion and politics that the traditional jurisprudence had developed, they want to reverse the order within this link. The traditional jurists had forged a link between politics and religion by giving a religious legitimacy to political power. The political Islamists maintain that religion and politics cannot be separated, but because they are now in the position of resisting the existing State, not of legitimising it, they are seeking the politicization of a particular vision of religion that they have in mind. To achieve this purpose, contemporary Islamists are often inclined to be more innovative and less textual in their approach. They do, of course, invoke the text and quote the source, but in doing so they are highly selective and remarkably innovative. Political precedence is of practically no interest to them, neither is the main body of jurisprudence, apart from a few exceptions such as Ibn Taimiya...

...political Islam is a new invention -- it does not represent a 'going back' to any situation that existed in the past or to any theory that was formulated in the past. What it keeps from the past is the juridic tradition of linking politics and religion. But even then, it seeks to transform the formalistic and symbolic link that the jurists had forged between politics and religion into a real bond. Furthermore, political Islamists want to reverse the traditional relationship between the two spheres so that politics becomes subservient to religion, and not the other way around, as was the case historically.

This gibes with a good deal of the history I've read of the early Islamic period (much of which, of course, has no interest in contrasting the realities of the period to Islamists like Qutb). But beyond that, it doesn't take a particularly perceptive genius to see that a system that can only cope with its rulers by assassinating three of the first four hasn't devoted much thought to the art or science of governance. As I noted in a comment to the previous post, the silence on politics is a strength rather than a weakness.

And yes, I think the subject is important enough that I sat here typing this lengthy passage while balancing the book on my knees (and the book, I should add, is wonderful and well worth buying and reading, even if the country profiles are about 15 years out of date).

Posted by Ideofact at 11:33 PM | Comments (4)

June 08, 2004

2 Qutb 8f

If this post seems repetitive (the previous one is here), it's only because the eighth chapter of Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones is itself rather repetitive. Qutb cites a series of Qur'anic verses and one Hadith to justify his contention that a "Muslim cannot combine these two sources-the source of Divine guidance and the source of Jahiliyyah - for his education" -- the interesting thing to me is how he couches it:

God Most High says in general terms concerning the ultimate aims of the Jews and Christians against Muslims:

"Many among the People of the Book wish to turn you back from your faith toward unbelief, due to their envy, even after the truth has been known to them; but forgive and excuse them until God brings about His decision. Indeed, God has power over everything." (2:109)

"The Jews and Christians will not be pleased with you unless you follow their way. Say: "Indeed, God's guidance is the true guidance'. And if, after this knowledge has come to you, you follow their desires, then you will find no helper or friend against God." (2:120)

"O you who believe! If you follow a party of the People of the Book, they will return you to the state of unbelief after you have believed." (3:100)

As reported by Hafiz Abu Y'ala, the Messenger of God- peace be on him- said: "Do not ask the People of the Book about anything. They will not guide you, In fact, they are themselves misguided. If you listen to them, you might end up accepting some falsehood or denying some truth. By God, If Moses had been alive among you, he would not be permitted (by God) anything except to follow me."

After this warning to the Muslims from God concerning the ultimate designs of the Jews and Christians, it would be extremely short-sighted of us to fall into the illusion that when the Jews and Christians discuss Islamic beliefs or Islamic history, or when they make proposals concerning Muslim society or Muslim politics or economics, they will be doing it with good intentions, or with the welfare of the Muslims at heart, or in order to seek guidance and light. People who, after this clear statement from God, still think this way are indeed deluded.

Yet these quotations are hardly on point -- if you go to the context of the passages themselves, it's fairly clear that the injunctions not to follow Christians or Jews refers to matters of religion, and not, say, politics or economics. Regarding the latter, neither the Qur'an nor the life of the Prophet offers any clue as to how to proceed -- the Prophet named no heir, nor did he specify a means for choosing one. And certainly, regarding metaphysical speculation and free inquiry into the sciences, Qutb is merely offering his (usual) reactionary, xenophobic opinion, which was not shared through much of Islam's history or among contemporary Islamic thinkers. God Most High's general terms are the best Qutb can offer, but, as Erasmus said in an extremely different context, "The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible, and in many things leave one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters." An Izetbegovic sees no conflict between the metaphysics of Aristotle, the novels of Herman Hesse or the Reformation's emphasis on individual conscience with Islam; Qutb rejects all these things.

In ending the eighth chapter, Qutb again returns to Europe:

There is a strong relationship between faith and all those sciences which deal with the universe and natural laws, such as astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and geology. All these sciences lead man toward God, unless they are perverted by personal opinions and speculations, and presented devoid of the concept of God. Such a regrettable situation actually occurred in Europe. In fact, there came a time in European history when very painful and hateful differences arose between scientists and the oppressive Church; consequently the entire scientific movement in Europe started with Godlessness. This movement affected all aspects of life very deeply; in fact, it changed the entire character of European thought. The effect of this hostility of the scientific community toward the Church did not remain limited to the Church or to its beliefs, but was directed against all religion, so much so that all sciences turned against religion, whether they were speculative philosophy or technical or abstract sciences having nothing to do with religion [ Refer to the chapter, "Al-Fisam al-Nakad", in the book The Future Belongs to This Religion.]

The Western ways of thought and all the sciences started on the foundation of these poisonous influences with an enmity toward all religion, and in particular with greater hostility toward Islam. This enmity toward Islam is especially pronounced and many times is the result of a well-thought-out scheme, the object of which is first to shake the foundations of Islamic beliefs and then gradually to demolish the structure of Muslim society.

There is one fairly obvious answer to this -- science is verifiable. The laws of thermodynamics are as binding on Muslims as they are on Infidels, and an atheist's experiments can be repeated by any Taoist with the proper equipment. Theories are open to speculation and debate -- I think of the rich trove of scientific literature spawned by Darwin -- and they rise or fall as new evidence is accumulated.

One note to end on: It's odd that Qutb thinks a good deal of this is directed at Islam -- by the 19th Century, Islam was eclipsed as a political power, and most of the scientific-religious controversies concerned Christianity. The Qur'an, for example, wasn't part of the closing arguments of the Scopes Monkey Trial. I've noted as well that Qutb and a few other Islamist authors regard Voltaire, who was quite scathing in his writings on Christianity in particular but also wrote (comparitively few) nasty things about Islam as being especially an enemy of Islam. I suppose claiming pride of place as the target of the enemies of religion must salve some wound, but it always rings incredibly false to me.

Sorry this has been so rambling, but I've probably spent too much time with Qutb's eighth chapter. On to chapter 9...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:50 PM | Comments (2)


At a later time there were earthquakes and floods of extraordinary violence, and in a single dreadful day and night all your fighting men were swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis was similarly swallowed up by the sea and vanished; this is why the sea in that area is to this day impassable to navigation, which is hindered by mud just below the surface, the remains of the sunken island.

Plato, Timaeus, translated by Desmond Lee

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

June 07, 2004

Mountains of the Old Man

Those interested in the Assassins -- the heretical branch of the Isma'ili sect that feature in various books ranging from histories of the Crusades to Bernard Lewis to Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum -- might enjoy this photo essay on the sites of some of the mountain fortresses occupied by the sect, from the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:54 PM | Comments (0)

2 Qutb 8e

It's been awhile since I last wrote about Sayyid Qutb's work Milestones (the whole series can be found here). I've enjoyed the respite, and I was thinking of giving up Qutb altogether, but the brain of Osama, as he was once called, remains a popular search term in the referrer logs, the Cranky Professor has honored me (I think) with the label "difficult blog" for the effort, and frankly, there's a bit of a fascination reading Qutb that I can't quite explain. So let's return to the eighth chapter of Milestones, in which Qutb explains that whenever he hears the words "non-Islamic culture," he thinks of the "tricks of world Jewry".

Qutb is faced with something of a dilemma. The fruits of technology, of the scientific revolution, and of manufacturing have disproportionately been developed by and have benefited those of us living in the Jahiliyyah (the term had traditionally been used to distinguish the pre-Islamic, pagan Arabic time from the period of the revelation of the Qur'an; Qutb's major innovation was to apply the term to all non-Muslim societies and to all Muslim societies that weren't governed according to his liking -- that is, all of them from the death of the last of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs in the 7th century AD). Qutb explains the phenomenon thusly:

One ought to remember the fact that the experimental method, which is the dynamic spirit of modern Europe's industrial culture, did not originate in Europe but originated in the Islamic universities of Andalusia and of the East. The principle of the experimental method was an offshoot of the Islamic concept and its explanations of the physical world, its phenomena, its forces and its secrets. Later, by adopting the experimental method, Europe entered into the period of scientific revival, which led it step by step to great scientific heights. Meanwhile, the Muslim world gradually drifted away from Islam, as a consequence of which the scientific movement first became inert and later ended completely. Some of the causes which led to this state of inertia were internal to the Muslim society and some were external, such as the invasions of the Muslim world by the Christians and Zionists. Europe removed the foundation of Islamic belief from the methodology of the empirical sciences, and finally, when Europe rebelled against the Church, which in the name of God oppressed the common people, it deprived the empirical sciences of their Islamic method of relating them to God's guidance.

Thus the entire basis of European thought became jahili and completely estranged from the Islamic concept, and even became contradictory and conflicting with it. It is necessary for a Muslim, therefore, to return to the guidance of God in order to learn the Islamic concept of life- on his own, if possible, or otherwise to seek knowledge from a God-fearing Muslim whose piety and faith are reliable.

This is, to say the least, an interesting reading of history -- its brevity is such that we should dismiss it out of hand as serious analysis (I don't know what Europe rebelling "against the Church" means -- the Protestant Reformation? -- hardly an irreligious movement -- the Enlightenment? -- with its emphasis on freedom of religious conscience -- Darwin?). What interests me are the two things Qutb blames for the decline of Islamic science (which was formidable in the theoretical realm, but never as dynamic as Europe when it came to technological innovation): 1. Turning away from Islam. 2. Christians and Jews.

I've noted before a quote from the late Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia, in which he wrote,

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.

Neither Qutb or Izetbegovic offers an entirely satisfactory explanation for the decline, but it's worth comparing them. For Izetbegovic, metaphysics and the natural sciences are areas that should not be forced to conform to the theological preconceptions -- why bother to ask questions if you already know the answers. For Qutb, the opposite holds -- metaphysics is off limits, and the natural sciences must be carefully circumscribed -- one can study them "as long as these last- mentioned sciences limit themselves to practical experiments and their results, and do not go beyond their scope into speculative philosophy." Qutb cites Darwin as an example of what must be avoided:

Darwinist biology goes beyond the scope of its observations, without any rhyme or reason and only for the sake of expressing an opinion, in making the assumption that to explain the beginning of life and its evolution there is no need to assume a power outside the physical world.

Obviously, Western science has proceeded with that assumption in many realms beyond evolution. But a more interesting question to me is how Qutb knows about Darwin. He offers a hint:

The person who is writing these lines has spent forty years of his life in reading books and in research in almost all aspects of human knowledge. He specialized in some branches of knowledge and he studied others due to personal interest. Then he turned to the fountainhead of his faith. He came to feel that whatever he had read so far was as nothing in comparison to what he found here. He does not regret spending forty years of his life in the pursuit of these sciences, because he came to know the nature of Jahiliyyah, its deviations, its errors and its ignorance, as well as its pomp and noise, its arrogant and boastful claims. Finally, he was convinced that a Muslim cannot combine these two sources-the source of Divine guidance and the source of Jahiliyyah - for his education .

Sayyid Qutb was hardly the first to dabble in foreign books and conclude that his own faith provided far more sustenance. But there's a bit of "Do as I say, not as I do," in his argument that no other Muslim should attempt what he has.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:49 PM | Comments (4)

June 06, 2004


I've updated the blogroll, and spent the rest of the weekend goofing off. I saw Van Helsing, which wasn't nearly as bad as I expected (perhaps all the terrible reviews lowered my expectations so much that I could only be pleasantly surprised); I will say that I found the scene in which Frankenstein's monster quotes the 23rd Psalm particularly effective, although some of the other theology was deeply troubling.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:55 PM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2004

The strange example of Arius

Sometimes I should just shut up and keep reading. In Timothy D. Barnes' Constantine and Eusebius, he notes that in 332, the Emperor Constantine issued a letter declaring that Arians should be called Porphyrians, after the pagan writer whose works Constantine ordered to be burned. Constantine also ordered Arius' works to be burned, adding that anyone who defied the order by keeping a copy was liable to summary execution. (I noted the Porphyry business here.)

Arius, of course, was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Nicea in 325; in the interim, however (327), Constantine examined the heresiarch, pronounced his views orthodox, and ordered that he be returned to the Church. Athanasius refused, and, in 332, Arius fired off an angry letter threatened to create a schismatic Church. Hence Constantine's order, which, it appears from Barnes' treatment, was as much occasioned by Arius' impudence as it was by any theological controversy. Constantine demanded an interview with the heresiarch; Barnes notes that the outcome of the meeting is unkown, but Arius next turns up in 335 headed to Jerusalem to receive communion, suggesting that he had perhaps once again persuaded the emperor that his positions were orthodox, or that he had cleverly made his positions to appear so, or that he had recanted to Constantine's satisfaction.

A murky business, indeed -- while Arius was on his way to Jerusalem, Athanasius was charged by his theological opponents with various wrongdoing, including murdering a man who turned up alive, and was on the lam. Not quite the situation Pagels, who wrote...

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offence. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.

...describes, when the orthodox Athanasius was a fugitive from justice, and the heresiarch was offered communion in Jerusalem...

Note: thanks to Gary Farber for correcting my spelling -- for whatever reason, I usually invert the final e and o in "emperor" when I type it -- even when I'm typing in a passage from a book and have the word properly spelled in front of me.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:41 PM | Comments (4)

June 02, 2004

Burning heresy

Awhile back, I noted what appeared to me to be something of an inconsistency in Elaine Pagels' erudite and thought provoking work, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Specifically, she suggested that Athanasius, writing in 367 A.D., offered the first ever list of New Testament books. I noted two things: that Eusebius of Caesara, writing more than 60 years earlier, provided a similar list (although Eusebius is vaguer -- he refers to the "Pauline epistles" rather than listing them, and he raises doubts about the authenticity of Revelation), and that Athanasius' letter, at least what portion of it I could find online, did not, contra Pagels, explicitly or implicitly call for the destruction of heretical texts. In a comment to that post, reader Steve H. wrote,

Somehow, the image of some early church authority clamping down on (and burning?) 'unauthorized gospels' seems to haunt modern re-tellings of church history.

This may be another instance of that idea. Is there any direct evidence that book-bannings (or book-burnings) ever happened? Especially against the wishes of the common believer?

To be honest, I had the same impression. Timothy D. Barnes notes, in Constantine and Eusebius, that Constantine ordered copies of a work by Porphyry, a pagan polemicist who wrote a tract called Against the Christians, to be burned, and it does not seem unreasonable that heretical works would have been condemned to the same fate at some point, either by lay or ecclesiastical authorities. But I'm not aware of a similar order regarding the likes of the Gospel of Thomas.

Pagels assumes that the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of gnostic texts dating to the mid to late fourth century, was buried to protect it from flames. In The Gnostic Gospels, for example, Pagels cites the work of Irenaeus and Hippolytus -- two anti-heretical polemicists who wrote long before Constantine's conversion and ascension to power (that is, at a time when they had no authority to ban or burn books they didn't like) -- and goes on to write,

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offence. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.

Constantine certainly attempted to suppress heretical sects (although he allowed the Arian sect to flourish in the East), confiscated their property, and so on, but I haven't encountered any indication that, aside from Porphyry, he ordered books to be burnt.

I tend to trust Pagels, and I imagine that if I devoted some time to this, I could find the orders to burn the sacred texts of Donatists and gnostics and what notsics, but whether they came from religious or temporal authorities is an interesting question as well.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:39 PM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2004

A simple philosophy

I'm still making my way, slowly, through Constantine and Eusebius by Timothy D. Barnes, which is a fascinating read. At one point, he notes,

A Platonic philosopher writing about 300 prefaced a critique of Manichean doctrines with some observations on the state of Christianity which presumably reflect conditions in that city. He characterized Christianity as a simple philosophy, chiefly devoted to ethical instruction, which tells ordinary people how to behave and thus inculcates genuine virtue, piety, and desire for the good. He complained, however, that Christianity lacked a proper theoretical basis, either for theology or in ethics. Since they had no agreed basis for deciding theological issues, the leaders of sects sought novelty for its own sake, thereby converting a simple philosophy into something hopelessly complicated and ineffectual.

The philospher in question was Alexander of Lycopolis, a footnote tells us, and his work was Critique of the doctrines of Manichaeus. I was reminded of this quote from Erasmus, albeit about the Arian heresy:

You will not be damned if you do not know whether the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son has one or two beginnings, but you will not escape damnation, if you do not cultivate the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mercy, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity ... The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible, and in many things leave one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters, and man suffers from this almost congenital disease that he will not give in when once a controversy is started, and after he is heated he regards as absolutely true that which he began to sponsor quite casually...

The characterization raises numerous questions on my mind -- the notion of the pursuit of novelty by sects leaves open the question of whether Alexander considered all believers to be in sects or whether he saw sects as diverging from a mainstream -- but I suppose that and other queries can't be answered without tracking down the book.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (2)