Friday, November 15

Orality, Writing and the Image in the Maqamat: Arabic Illustrated Books in Context

This was one of the most interesting articles about an antiquarian book that I have read. This is about a book called as Maqamat of al Hariri, going back to the 13th century, by which time Islam had well established for 2 centuries and Islamic traditions were moving from the violence to the cultured. So this book had elements of art, rhetoric, Islamic jurisprudence, dramatics, legal disputes, charity, painting, politics, etc. etc. It was popular across the world, at least the Islamic World. The book has a series of chapters, each chapter about how a man preaches amazingly on a particular topic and then gets quite a lot of alms and charity and then is exposed as a charlatan. I quote

The pattern established in the first story remains relatively unchanged throughout the text: each new episode is narrated by al-Harith, who witnesses a masterpiece of eloquence by an old or a young man, a woman, a poet, a storyteller, an orator, a person able to read the stars, to resolve grammatical problems, to pronounce authoritatively on legal issues, and so on.5 All of them turn out to be one and the same Abu Zayd, whose performance earns him a generous reward, after which al-Harith discovers the subterfuge; in most cases, he goes on to confront Abu Zayd before both characters part.


What I found amusing was this part.

Besides a solid educational background, the owners of illustrated versions of the work must have boasted some degree of material wealth and deemed pictorial representation acceptable, at least in private, like many people in society appear to have done. In this era, figural art was being deployed on an unprecedented scale in manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, metalwork, statues and figurines, particularly in Iran, Iraq and Syria.30 This phenomenon was, needless to say, not to the liking of all. ‘The angels will not enter a house in which there is a dog or an image’, a well-known religious saying asserted.31 An equally widespread hadith warned that ‘on the Day of Judgement, those who make images (al-musawwirun) will be punished most severely by God’, with some versions adding that they ‘will be called upon to breathe life into what they have created, but they will not succeed’.32

the recent arguments about the Mohammad Cartoons is evidence that so many people still have their heads up the backside of some fundo view of the world. As can be seen, rebellion against this senseless stricture was pretty much widespread across the world and since the beginning. And this is also why accusations of hypocrisy is widespread. I again quote

Such vehement proscriptions did not reverse the societal trends which they implicitly denounced, but one consequence may have been that figural art was generally reserved for private consumption. There is little direct evidence to support this idea, apart from fact that the objects bearing such images were of a private rather than public nature. But it seems likely on the basis of context. The enclosed space of urban homes and their inner courtyards were sheltered from outside interferences by Islamic law. This applied even to houses in which the owners gave themselves over to such unlawful activities as music and drinking, so long as the sound or odour did not blatantly reach outside their walls.35 Theological injunctions against images and legal protection from zealous intrusion thus appear as two sides of the same coin, reflecting a reality in which the norms of religious orthodoxy were plainly ignored by many.


but thankfully as the author says, these wonderfully illustrated books came down history for us to see and admire.



and what’s this???are they kissing? :P



Thursday, November 14

The Islamic View and the Christian View of the Crusades: A New Synthesis

I have been reading up on the Islamic view of the crusades over the past few years and besides it being bloody dry and boring, it was literally the mirror image of what the Christian views were. But I always thought that they were being discussed from 2 different matters. After all, Islamic conquests were imperialistic in nature and they just followed what the Greeks, Romans, etc. etc. did. So this article came as a surprise. I quote the abstract:

Conventional wisdom maintains that the Islamic world and western Christendom held two very different views of the crusades. The image of warfare between Islam and Christendom has promoted the idea that the combative instincts aroused by this conflict somehow produced discordant views of the crusades. Yet the direct evidence from Islamic and Christian sources indicates otherwise. The self-view of the crusades presented by contemporary Muslim authors and the self-view of the crusades presented by crusading popes are not in opposition to each other but are in agreement with each other. Both interpretations place the onset of the crusades ahead of their accepted historical debut in 1095. Both interpretations point to the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily (1060–91) as the start of the crusades. And both interpretations contend that by the end of the eleventh century the crusading enterprise was Mediterranean-wide in its scope. The Islamic view of the crusades is in fact the enantiomorph (mirror-image) of the Christian view of the crusades. This article makes a radical departure from contemporary scholarship on the early crusading enterprise because it is based on the direct evidence from Islamic and Christian sources. The direct evidence offers a way out of the impasse into which crusade history has fallen, and any attempt at determining the origin and nature of crusading without the support of the direct evidence is doomed to failure.

The trip to Sicily in the summer opened my eyes because I never thought about Sicily as part of Italy ever being under Islamic domination but it sure was. The result can be seen all over the island, either in terms of the food or architecture or literature or what have you. A significant amount of architecture and landscape is driven by the Islamic occupation and then the reconquest by the Franks. We stayed in Cefalu which is a classical Frankish town. More interestingly, the Arabic imperialists don't react to the Sicily reconquest in the same way they react to the Spanish reconquest. Interesting.

So this article removed and questioned quite a lot of my previously held conceptions. The crusades did not start by the famous appeal in 1095. As it so happens, the crusades actually started way before when Sicily was reconquered. I quote again.

Six years after the crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, a legal scholar and preacher at the Great Mosque of Damascus, ‘Alī ibn Ṭāhir al-Sulamī (1039–1106), presented an account of the crusading movement in his book Kitāb al-jihād (‘The Book of Holy War’). His interpretation of the crusades came to enjoy canonical status in the Islamic historiographical tradition and was eventually incorporated in the main historiographical tradition of the Middle East.

Al-Sulamī was able to see the crusading movement in its full range. He does not confine crusading to a brief and localized conflict that centred on the Holy Land or the eastern Mediterranean. Instead, al-Sulamī presents the crusades as a Christian jihād against Islam that had three main fronts: Sicily, Spain and Syria. This ‘holy war’ began with the Norman conquest of Islamic Sicily (1060–91), then spread to Islamic Spain, and, by the end of the eleventh century, had advanced on Syria:

A host [of Franks] swooped down upon the island of Sicily at a time of division and dissension, and likewise they took possession of town after town in Islamic Spain [al-Andalus]. When reports mutually confirmed the condition of this country [Syria]– namely, the disagreements of its lords, the discord of its leading men, coupled with its disorder and disarray – they acted upon their decision to set out for it [Syria] and Jerusalem was the chief object of their desires . . . They [the Franks] continued zealously in the holy war (jihād) against the Muslims . . . until they made themselves rulers of lands beyond their wildest dreams.8

hmmmm, makes one think, eh?

Wednesday, November 13

How the British and American Missionaries converted Nagaland

this dissertation is a good overview of how Nagaland moved from a tribal animist society to a Christian society, how the rules of nationhood entwined closely with religions aspects and the prospects thereof.

  I quote

John Thomas’ dissertation, Missionaries, Church and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, 1918-1997, historicizes the formation of Naga political identity. It examines the intersection of religious and national identity in the formation of the Naga self by critically evaluating missionary, colonial, and nationalist representations of Naga political identity. Thomas is critical of a particular theological perspective, produced by American and Naga Baptist missionaries that mediated this identity formation. This theological perspective is based on a particular interpretation of Christianity based on a fundamentalist variety of Evangelical Christianity that emphasizes “ahistorical and fundamentalist reading of the Bible; solely interested in questions of personal sin, morality and salvation; aggressively exclusive in relating with secular ideologies and other religious faiths; and yet supportive of preserving the existing status quo” (p. 10). This kind of fundamentalist, evangelica understanding imposes a particular religious identity on national identity “wherein being an evangelical Christian increasingly becomes a pre-requisite towards being a Naga” (p. 10). Therefore, this theology is limited by a narrow focus on individual salvation, which reiterates a colonial logic of “saving the savage,” thereby taming the understanding of the Naga self. As such, it is inadequate to understand the complexities of the social, political and cultural specificity of the Naga situation, Thomas argues.

More crap is being pumped in across the country further fanning flames in AP, Orissa, etc. etc. But then again, they should be allowed to preach. Freedom of speech is absolute. Still you wonder if this is really helpful when such a complex tribal animist persona is now being subsumed into being seen solely via a fundamentalist christian worldview. Sad

Tuesday, November 12

Contested Nationalisms and Propaganda: Birth Pangs of a Malaysian Nation, 1957-1969

one of my recurrent little moans is the lack of good history books on Malaysia. Whenever I have been to Malaysian bookstores, you never get a good solid feel of the history of the country. So many other countries have absolutely tomes of books on the formation of the country, the background, etc. etc. I mean, its not like Malaysia is unique in terms of the colonial history, the emergence from WW2, the multi ethnic nature of the population, etc. etc. , there are tons of books on Pakistan, India, Bangladesh etc. etc.

So it was interesting to read this dissertation review. I quote

In the first twelve years of Malaya/Malaysia’s independence, there was a fundamental disagreement among the country’s populace about national identity. On the one hand, the Malay majority, basically supported by the structures of government, conceived of a special role for the ethnically Malay population, the Malay language, and Malay culture (including Islam and other cultural trappings). On the other hand, non-indigenous groups, particularly the large Chinese population, imagined a nation wherein all ethnic groups, as well as their languages and cultural practices, would be celebrated and on equal footing. Cheong Soon Gan has chosen the vantage point of propaganda to probe not just the ideological incompatibility of these two visions but even more the practical, daily, lived contradictions in the government.

the reviewer notes that Malaysian history is more about Great man of History like talking about Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, etc. But here its more about Indian barbers, letters to newspapers and reports by Malaysian civil servants, a perspective which will be closer to the ground..fascinating.

Monday, November 11

can you make out what this is?


this is a wall

there are parallel marks on the wall

get it?















this is the photo of the wall inside the Auschwitz Gas Chamber, when the inmates realised they are being gassed and they tried to escape the concrete walls.

Never again.

the full photographs, journals and diaries of the King Tut expedition

I just stumbled upon this site. Amazing.


On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: 'Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramsses VI investigated same & found seals intact.' The subsequent excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun captured the public imagination. The complete records were deposited in the Griffith Institute Archive shortly after Carter's death.

Our aim in publishing this material online is to provide an essential resource for scholars, school children and interested adults alike. This demanding project has taken 15 years and has been directed by Dr Jaromir Malek, the former Keeper of the Archive.