Too Much Tafsir and Tarikh

The following little story is related in al-Sharazuri’s entry on the famous exegete and  historian al-Tabari. As you could gather from the story, al-Tabari’s two most renowned works were his massive tafsir and his equally massive history (tarikh) of the world, with a particular emphasis upon the parts he knew best, of course (the image above is taken from a later, partially illumined copy of his history). As the humorous story below demonstrates, he could have made both far longer. That, at least, was the perception of later scholars (like al-Sharazuri, who lived hundreds of years after al-Tabari) who had come to see al-Tabari as one of the crowning jewels of Muslim scholarship- though, this story might also insinuate, such an ability might be more than ordinary scholars could handle…


Al-Qadi Abu ‘Umar ‘Ubid Allah ibn Ahmad al-Samsar and Abu al-Qasm ibn ‘Aqil al-Waraq said that once Abu Ja’afar al-Tabari said to his disciples: ‘Are you in the mood for commentary on the Qur’an (atanshatun li-tafsir al-Qur’an)?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ He said: ‘Thirty thousand pages,’ to which they replied: ‘This would use up entire lifetimes before it could be completed!’ So he condensed it to approximately three thousand pages. Then he said to them: ‘How do you feel about a history of the world from the time of Adam up to our own time?’ They replied: ‘How long is it going to be?’ So he said what he had said about the commentary, and the replied in the same way, to which he said: ‘Good Lord! Ambition is dead.’ So he condensed it in the same fashion as he had condensed the commentary.

Al-Sharazuri, Ṭabaqāt al-Fuqahāʼ al-Shāfiʻīyah

Academic Labors

‘Similarly, we know from our own experience that one who is wise does burden himself with late hours and hard work, reading books, taxing his mental powers and discernment, to understand. But this is no injustice and not wrong in the least on his part. As the prophet said, “Out of the toil of his soul shall he see and be sated.'”

Saadiah, The Book of Theodicy

‘I know that very often I understand many things in the sacred writings when I am with my brethren, which, when alone, I could not understand… Clearly, as this understanding is given me in their presence, it must be given to me for their sakes. Hence God grants that understand increases and pride decreases, while I learn, on your behalf, that which I teach you. For, really, very often I hear what I am saying for the first time, just as you do.’

St. Gregory the Great, Homily on Ezechiel

On Literacy

These days it is pretty much cliché to write about the decline of literacy. However, while there are counterpoints to the argument, the cliché exists because literacy really is on the decline, and has been for some time- though the extent of that decline and its implications are still open to debate. Likewise, it is cliché to talk about the debilitating impact of television on literacy, and intelligence overall: but here also the cliché is grounded in reality. Caleb Crain examines the much-vaunted decline of literacy, and, most interestingly, discusses how literate reading influences the way we think and act, in his article in the New Yorker, Twilight of the Books. The article turns quite depressing at the end, as Crain contemplates a post-literate world:

And he may have even more trouble than Luria’s peasants in seeing himself as others do. After all, there is no one looking back at the television viewer. He is alone, though he, and his brain, may be too distracted to notice it. The reader is also alone, but the N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs, and volunteer. Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

I might add that a loss in literacy is not only dangerous for democracy- it is dangerous and destructive for human culture as a whole. Reading is an engaging activity: it demands that the reader employ his imagination and rational thought in constructing the images given by the words and arranging the arguments presented. The literary world is one open to the reader for examination, for digestion, for expansion. Good literature will not only engage the reader in the text itself: rather, it will compel the reader to act on her own. Good literature inspires, in the true meaning of the word, further creative activity as the reader goes out from the text with new visions, ideas, and a sharpened intellect.

Craig mentions the possibility that the internet will continue literacy, but notes that the increasing preponderance of streaming media- a la YouTube- is seriously undercutting that possibility. Besides this, while I obviously enjoy the internet and think it a valuable asset for a literate culture, it simply is not a replacement for more traditional forms of literacy. Serious digestion of involved arguments and ideas is considerably more difficult via a computer- if only because reading a screen is- to me anyway- much more wearisome than reading printed text. But more importantly, the ease of access that the internet entails also means that the reader’s attention is more easily distracted, and less able to focus upon a single narrative structure or protracted line of argument. The internet serves many useful purposes, but I doubt that even in its text-based, “traditional” form it can replace the written, published text.

At any rate, I plan on being a part of the “reading caste” for as long as my eyes can make out the text on the page, and I will continue to purchase books- including those ridiculously long nineteenth century British novels- as long as they’re sold. Which reminds me of one advantage of being a reader: books- quite good books- can still be had very cheaply, much more cheaply than cable or satellite or a ticket to the cinema- an advantage of increasing importance in an economy of ever-rising prices. Reading is a cheap hobby, but the payoff (excuse my elementary-school teacher cliché-ness!) is immense.

Hadji Murad

A decade or so before his death, Leo Tolstoy completed a novella (published posthumously however) derived in part from his experiences in the Russian military during Russia’s drive to conquer the various predominately Muslim tribesmen of the North Caucasus region. Titled Hadji Murad (available here for free if you don’t mind reading long on-line texts) after its protagonist, the story is tightly crafted and reflective of a mature novelist- for despite its brevity, Tolstoy manages to construct, a la War and Peace, a number of stories within the overall narrative, with several developed characters whose lives all, in some way or another, intersect with that of Hadji Murad. Hadji Murad himself is a Chechen warrior whose varying fortunes and clashes lead him to fight other Caucasus factions, then the Russian invaders, before aligning himself tenuously with the Russians in an ultimately tragic bid to save his family from a powerful Chechen imam.

While Tolstoy is careful to offer little interpretative commentary within the story, his sympathies quite clearly lie with Hadji Murad first, then the Chechen people, and finally the conscripted Russian soldiers sent into the war. The closest he comes to outright moral proclamation within the narrative itself lies in his subtle and not-so-subtle digs at Russian- and by extension, Western- society are quite evident as he describes the moral habits- or lack thereof- of various levels of Russian society, culminating in a deliciously scathing portrayal of Czar Nicholas:

Although the plan of a gradual advance into the enemy’s territory by means of felling forests and destroying the food supplies was Ermolov’s and Velyaminov’s plan, and was quite contrary to Nicholas’s own plan of seizing Shamil’s place of residence and destroying that nest of robbers — which was the plan on which the dargo expedition in 1845 (that cost so many lives) had been undertaken — Nicholas nevertheless attributed to himself also the plan of a slow advance and a systematic felling of forests and devastation of the country. It would seem that to believe the plan of a slow movement by felling forests and destroying food supplies to have been his own would have necessitated hiding the fact that he had insisted on quite contrary operations in 1845.

But he did not hide it and was proud of the plan of the 1845 expedition as well as of the plan of a slow advance — though the two were obviously contrary to one another. Continual brazen flattery from everybody round him in the teeth of obvious facts had brought him to such a state that he no longer saw his own inconsistencies or measured his actions and words by reality, logic, or even simple common sense; but was quite convinced that all his orders, however senseless, unjust, and mutually contradictory they might be, became reasonable, just, and mutually accordant simply because he gave them.

Tolstoy’s depiction of Islamic society is generally sympathetic and carries very little “Orientalistic” baggage; there is a sense of determinism throughout, but this is perhaps as much for Tolstoy an aspect of history in general as it is a mirror of “Oriental fatalism.” One of the strengths of the book lies in its depection of Chechnya and the war there as being complex, consisting of all sorts of cross-currents, as subject to change as the people making them up- an element that in some ways struggles with the theme of tragic determination. While it’s rather cliche to speak of contemporary relevance, it’s also hard not to notice it: the present conflicts raging in various parts of the Islamic world- including Chechnya- are multi-faceted, tragic affairs. Hadji Murad presents, on one level, a “clash” of East and West: but Tolstoy is far to insightful to imagine even a morally neutral clash of civilisations. Instead, he presents clashes within civilisations, across cultural lines, alongside bonds formed across cultures, as in the friendship formed between Murad and a Russian soldier, Butler:

With the arrival of Hadji Murad and his close acquaintance with him and his murids, Butler was even more captivated by the poetry of the peculiar, vigorous life led by the mountaineers. He got himself a jacket, cherkeska and leggings, and he felt he was a mountaineer too, living the same life as these people.

The narrative structure of the novel itself reflects the complexity of reality in the Caucasus: people, groups, and conflicts all collide, collude, and collide again. Certainly, Tolstoy rejects the Russian imperial project, but he does not pretend the Chechens are immaculate, quietist victims of imperialism, or even noble militant resistors of an unjust war against them. Instead a wide range of motives, tactics, and ideologies inhere in the various peoples making up the cast of Muslim characters. Yet despite a recognition of complexity, Hadji Murad emerges as a hero- a tragic (in the proper sense of the word) and flawed hero, but still a hero, struggling against fate in a convoluted world. And Tolstoy’s stance towards war is equally evident, as in this scene that comes in an interluding vignette describing the Russian campaign of “pacification”:

Sado and his family had left the aoul on the approach of the Russian detachment, and when he returned he found his saklya in ruins — the roof fallen in, the door and the posts supporting the penthouse burned, and the interior filthy. His son, the handsome bright-eyed boy who had gazed with such ecstasy at Hadji Murad, was brought dead to the mosque on a horse covered with a barka; he had been stabbed in the back with a bayonet. The dignified woman who had served Hadji Murad when he was at the house now stood over her son’s body, her smock torn in front, her withered old breasts exposed, her hair down, and she dug her hails into her face till it bled, and wailed incessantly.

Sado, taking a pick-axe and spade, had gone with his relatives to dig a grave for his son. The old grandfather sat by the wall of the ruined saklya cutting a stick and gazing stolidly in front of him. He had only just returned from the apiary. The two stacks of hay there had been burnt, the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched, and worse still all the beehives and bees had been burnt. The wailing of the women and the little children, who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle for whom there was no food. The bigger children, instead of playing, followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out.

Book, Film, & Music

Some stuff I’ve had the pleasure to peruse lately:

Monastic Visions: Wall Paintings in the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea: The Monastery of St. Antony was established upon the site St. Antony, the venerable Father of Monasticism, lived upon his withdrawl to the Inner Desert; both his tomb and the cave he inhabited are preserved there. Very early in its history a little oddly domed church was built, which still stands at the core of the monastery complex- which has survived all manner of travails down through the centuries. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the monks commissioned wall paintings, which over time were heavily obscured by smoke and grit buildup, and some less than artful overpaints. Recently, however, a team of art conservationists, working in sync with the monastery, restored these wall paintings. Part of the project included the publication of this book, which is a real jewel (though out of my price range at present; I merely checked it out of a library). Besides the numerous photos of and commentary on the incredible iconography, the book also details the history of the monastery, includes an essay on the role of icons in Orthodox life by one of the monks at St. Antony’s, and an essay on the role of the monastery in contemporary Coptic Orthodox life in Egypt. The writers approach the monastery and its icons not as mere artifacts to be looked at but as part of an onging tradition of spiritual life, for both the monks themselves and the wider Coptic Church.

Turtles Can Fly: This film by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi had been recommended to me some time ago; I only lately got around to purchasing and viewing it. Set in a village on the Iraq-Turkey border in Kurdistan, the film opens with a visually stunning- and quite comic- scene of Kurdish villagers hoisting aloft TV antennas, trying to get information on the impending war between the US and Iraq. In the midst of this scramble for news is an orphaned refugee boy nicknamed Satellite, after his knack for manipulating information technology. The story revolves primarily around his experience within a war torn society on the verge of yet another conflict. Thus the narrative view is that of a child and his fellow refugee companions (many of whom he has organized into brigades to collect and sell land mines). It would be easy enough for such a film to falter in sentimentalism, but Ghobadi carefully avoids both sentimentalizing and propogandizing. Instead, the pervasive impact of war is, in turns, brutally and hauntingly portrayed- though actual combat scenes only enter in flashbacks. Despite a very limited budget and less than optimal conditions- it is the first film made in Iraq after Hussein’s overthrow by the US- the cinematography is excellent, and the story’s development and movement works very well, with only a few detours and misplaced pieces. In all, Turtles Can Fly is a superb, emotionally challenging and rewarding work.

Amassakoul: Southern Saharan folk music meets Mississippi blues. The second album by the group Tinariwen, hailing from the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali, the group- composed of musicians from the traditionally nomadic Touareg people- roll out some simply incredible music, that is at once set in the traditional music of the Touareg and the electric guitar riffs of the blues. Chorus repitions and a smattering of traditional instruments join some pretty rousing electric guitar work in what comes out as a very nearly seamless ‘fusion’ of styles and influences. The musicians that make up Tinariwen spent some time in training camps run by Khadafi, then fought in a rebellion against the government of Mali, before settling for peace and playing music full time. They were eventually discovered by a French band and through a series of events ended up on the world stage. Great stuff- my favorite album right now.

I have to mention in closing a somewhat similar group, Afrissippi, which I got to see perform live a few months back in Hattiesburg. Taking a similar tack of style fusion, the band formed after Guelel Kumba moved from his native Senegal to North Mississippi, met some area musicians, and started playing with them. The result is a blend of West African trad and North Mississippi hill-country blues. Some really fine and surprisingly beautiful, even sublime music.

What I’ve Been Reading

With school winding down- and my BA in sight, in a few days actually, hoorah- I’ve been able to get in a decent bit of reading, of books of my own choosing and not mandated by any class. Here is a brief overview of some things I’ve worked through over the past couple weeks.

The Servile State, Hillare Belloc: nice overview of some problems in modern capitalism, and some tenative views of solutions in a broadly distributivist order. The work is rather dated, obviously, and some of his historical arguments are overly-simplified, but his observations of how a “servile state” arises in ostensibly democratic states are just as relevant for the contemporary world. Desire for “security” is an easily employed thing for those who would further centralize economic and political power, and it is particularly powerful, it seems, in the developed world where governments and corporations can seemingly guarantee a considerable degree of comfortable security. Belloc doesn’t go into great depth on how to accomplish a Distributivist-minded order, though arguably making such a detailed case for Distributivism isn’t really his object in this book.

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton: second read, just as enjoyable as the first time: it had been a while so I had forgotten exactly how it worked it out in the end. Chesterton’s prose is at once accessible and beautifully crafted, which makes for wonderful leisure reading. If you have not read this small masterpiece, it is well worth a couple of afternoons. Anarchists and duels and stolen elephants- what’s not to enjoy?

‘Comrades,’ he began, as sharp as a pistol-shot, ‘our meeting tonight important, though it need not be long. This branch has always had the honour of electing Thursdays for the Central European Council. We have elected many and splendid Thursdays. We all lament the sad decease of the heroic worker who occupied the post until last week. As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organized the great dynamite coup of Brighton, which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygenic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow. Cruelty, or anything approaching to cruelty, revolted him always.’ 

Life & Times of Michael K, J. M. Coetzee: A slender novel, Coetzee presents a fairly straightforward, Kafka-esque tale of a somewhat mentally handicapped man who ends up alone in a war-racked South Africa. All of Michael’s attempts to live out his simple life are thwarted as he journeys from the city, to the countryside, to the wilderness, and in and out of various camps, until finally ending up back in the city. Coetzee’s prose carries well through most of the novel; at times he comes off as a little too polemical, and the second section of the book- an interlude delivered in the first person narrative of a doctor- sounds a little stilted. The strength of the book lies in Coetzee’s general willingness to follow the relative “simplicity” of Michael, in his perception of the world and his desires and hopes.

Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoelaces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness into firelight to announce himself. He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.

The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Traditions, James Turner Johnson: Not quite finished with this one; so far a decent overview of what holy war has meant in both Western (with the principal meaning here being Western European) and Islamic cultures. Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly no attention is paid to Eastern Christian ideas on the subject (but then if I had a nickle for every time Eastern Christendom is overlooked I would be a considerably richer man); appraisal of Roman Catholic and Protestant theories and practice is quite good however. Some interesting points on the similarities and differences: both traditions eventually have rather similar conceptions of holy war, with similar regulations concerning the conduct of war, holy and otherwise. However, in Christianity the embracing of war for any purpose takes a few centuries, and it is not until the First Crusade that anything approaching a codified idea of holy war develops. In Islam holy war is present from the beginning, and indeed forms what is, in more ways than one, part of the existential core of early Islam. Likewise prohibitions upon killing or maiming noncombatants develop differently in the two traditions. The most obvious divergence between Western and Islamic views of holy war, however, is the rejection of war in the name of religion by Western secular states (though, as the author notes, wars of state ideology- often followed with as much, if not more, furvor as any religion); Islam has by and large yet to follow a similar course.

The Faith of Shia Islam, Muhammad Rida Al-Muzaffar: a slim little tome written by a twentieth century Islamic scholar from Najaf, Iraq. A decently accessible introduction to Shia Islam and its distinctives from the perspective of a Shia scholar. Al-Muzaffar places considerable emphasis upon the importance of reason and rationality in the practice of faith, and makes several arguments on the nature of God that His attributes must be interpreted rationally: such that God cannot be supposed to command evil or desire evil, as it would contradict His revealed attributes.

On Reading

The role of literature is to mess with time, to establish its own time, its own rhythm. A new agenda for literary studies should open up the time of reading, just as it opens up how the writer establishes his or her rhythm. Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.

What I am asking myself to do is to step out of the grid of time, to experience works of literature anew. What I am asking you to do is to slow reading down, to preserve and expand the experience of reading — at any level, be it in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, or graduate seminars. What I am asking for is a revolution in reading.

Time for Reading



Finished today a nice little tome, Ornamentalism, by David Cannadine, in which he argues, contra (well, under a mitigated contra really) Edward Said that British views of ‘the Orient’ were not all based upon race and the ever-abiding sense of ‘the Other.’ Instead, much British Imperial policy- particularly, if not primarily after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857- was structured around ideas of class and hierarchy. Guided by a fusion, on the one hand, of pre-Enlightenment ideas of rank and hierarchy, which had little to do with race or ethnicity, and on the other an emergent British Imperial ideology, Imperial policy sought to recognize native aristocracy and hierarchies. These native hierarchies could be collaboraters with the British, who often saw themselves as protectors of native tradition, as Western capitalism engulfed the East. British Tories saw in native societies parallels with their own traditional, rural, aristocratic order; they also saw in such native societies a means of perpetuating the traditional ideas associated with such orders. Hence the British approached native culture and pre-existing hierarchies with a greater degree of respect and appreciation than Said would suggest. Most importantly, they saw in these societies a self-image, a reflection of their own traditions.

The problem- or rather, one of the problems- was that British constructions of native societies were often poorly drawn. They saw aristocracies and classes where there were none, or not as the British wished to percieve them. Not only that, but they tended to neglect the contingencies of native societies and their maleableness- prefering to see them as ancient and unyielding. The British found themselves unable to engage and confront the developing nationalist narratives and agitations in the rising educated middle classes- fueled by the sweeping technological change and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- of their holdings; nor did they consistently secure the adequate cooperations and collaberation of the native elite. All of these elements, Cannadine argues, contributed to the eventual failure of the British project in regards to native hierarchies- and the Empire in general.

Cannadine makes compelling arguments, considering the brevity of the book. His arguments for the importance of class and hierarchy in contrast to preoccupation with race are quite compelling, though, as he himself notes, the full reality of British Imperial imagination and activity is a mixture of both elements.

The salient point of Ornamentalism is, I think, its deconstruction of the radical separation and antagonism so often depicted as existing between ‘colonizer and colonized,’ ‘East and West,’ and so on. Instead, the historical reality in British Imperialism- especially in regards to India- is, as anywhere else in history, quite complex, with overlapping levels of Anglo-Indian relations and understandings. This is reflected in literature for example- the more I read of period writings from British India the more struck I am with the complex, multilayered relation of the British to the subcontinent and its subculture. Today I browsed through a volume of ‘Asian Miscellanies,’ which included, among other things, English translations of Mughal love poetry and two hymns to Hindu deities composed by an Englishman. Such example of ‘hybridity’ can be extended much further. William Dalrymple’s excellent book White Mughals presents a masterful examination of one such extension, in which a British official, James Kirkpatrick, married a high-class Indian, Khair un-Nissa (the idea and importance of class vis a vis race is prominent throughout, incidentally); in the process he converted to Islam.

In short, the interaction of ‘East and West’ is not and has never been simple or dualistic, much as some would like to think. This should be obvious enough, but we have a tendency, expressed in historical study and elsewhere, to desire easy systems and simplifications. History- and especially massive cultural interaction such as experienced in empire- cannot be easily systemized or simplified.