Monday, February 21, 2005


Read "Introducing Islam" by Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik in the bath today (it got shivering cold). The style of the "Introducing" series, produced by, is very much like a cross between a child's text book and a comic book. Everything is very clear, without jargon, and surrounded by cartoons and pen drawings. The innovation is that they tackle some really pretty abstruse topics - "Introducing Semiotics", "Introducing Quantum Theory", "Introducing Critical Theory" etc.. Apparently the series has been around for ages and I do vaguely remember picking them up and rejecting them as too simplistic a few times in bookshops. However, my real introduction came a few weeks ago when I was trying to quickly reintroduce myself to Marxism. I bought "Introducing Marxism." Brilliant. In fact, sad to say, it made a bigger impact on me than any book on Marxism I have ever read, except perhaps the Communist Manifesto. (Why didn't Engels do a few cartoons?)

Back to the book on Islam. At first, I found it a bit hard to like because the start was a retelling of the life of Mohammed. It felt a bit like the children's text books I compared the series to earlier. But the middle and end were gripping. It describes in detail the debt Western civilisation owes to Islamic civilisation. The fact that Islam preserved and built upon the legacy of classical rationalism through a period when Europe had its mind on sheep rustling, building much of the foundations of medicine, maths and science: "Five hundred years before Galileo, Al Baruni discussed the rotation of the earth on its axis and Al-Battani measured the circumference of the earth" . This much I already knew, but the book goes into great detail about the precise nature of the intellectual debates among muslims during this golden age and the religious roots of its intellectual energy. But the bit that kept me in the bath was the final description of the modern experience of Islam. It is unblinking in its description of the traumatic experience of being colonised and the West's often rapacious conduct towards Islamic civilisation from the time of the Crusades. However, there is no attempt here to absolve Islamic civilisation for responsibility for its own troubles. We are introduced to an apparently rather lively debate within Islamic civilisation about its own renewal. The book introduces thinkers such as Malek Bennabi, an Algerian social philosopher: "The real liberation of Muslim people, Bennabi argued, will come from addressing the injustices introduced in the thought and body politic of Islam in the late 13th Century."

What a pleasant surprise it was to read the first sentence of the section on "women": "Traditional Muslim thought has been very unkind and oppressive to women". Of course, it is not expounding the kind of ill-informed bollocks which insists that somehow Islam is fundamentally unfriendly to women, but it is not indulging in the boring and unsatisfactory response to that which is that Islamic societies are somehow models of unsexist behaviour, which is manifestly not true.

I shivered from the bath wondering about the interesting contrast between Islamic civilisation's early history, when it was so confident that it ravenously consumed the best that classical civilisation and any other civilisation had to offer, and the lack of confidence among some muslim societies now, which are seeking to purify themselves of the admittedly very unclean West.

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