Saturday, September 30, 2006

Letters from Guantanamo

I caught the whole of this programme on the drive back to Birmingham this evening and was moved. Gavin Esler offers an 'exclusive glimpse of the world inside Guantanamo Bay detention centre, told through the letters of a man currently being held there'. That man is Sami al-Hajj AKA Enemy Combatant 345, Camp 4. Sami's words carry an increasingly rarely encountered weight and poignance but it his dignity in the face of almost five years of incarceration that borders on the inimitable.

Listen to the programme here.

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians by the Greek Alexandrine poet Konstantinos Kavafis (1836-1933) was one of Edward Said's favourite poems. In fact his daughter Najla recited at his funeral service.

Waiting for the Barbarians
by Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933), translated by Edmund Keeley

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Last Mughal

A thousand camels to Hadi Sahib for bringing the following Radio 4 'Book of the Week' serialisation to my attention.

Monday 25 - Friday 29 September 2006

The Last Mughal

By William Dalrymple, abridged by Libby Spurrier, read by Robert Bathurst

An account of the largest uprising the British Empire ever had to face.

The last of the Great Mughals was Bahadur Shah Zafar II: one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his remarkable dynasty, he found himself in the position of leader of a violent uprising he knew from the start would lead to irreparable carnage.

Zafar’s frantic efforts to unite his disparate and mutually suspicious forces proved tragically futile: the Siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad, and Mughal Delhi was left an empty ruin, haunted by battered remnants of a past that was being rapidly and brutally overwritten.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Groundhog Factor

Here we go again...Cut and pasted (plus a brand new addendum) from November 2005.

With the imminent advent of moonfighting committees to diffuse the havoc caused by moonsighting committees, and the launch of the new Conservative manifesto, perhaps it's time to borrow a Tory phrase and get 'back to basics'. The perennial drive to standardise the Islamic calendar may well be blinkering us from the actual ethos behind the act of moonsighting - regaining a sense of perspective.

Hamza Yusuf touches on the issue in his commentary on Sachiko Murata and William Chittick's 'Vision of Islam' by quoting an unnamed Scottish phenomenologist:

There are efforts to standardise the Islamic calendar so that Ramadhan can be started on the same day in different communities. But the relationship of the celestial bodies to the earth is a living thing and every location has its own sky. So why shouldn't religious festivals begin on dates peculiar to different places? The modern mind, however, wishes to generalise and abstract the situation so the phenomena are bypassed. As with the length of the day, the average is calculated and becomes the accepted truth to accommodate the limits of circular wheels in clocks, yet none of the celestial bodies moves in circles.
You can listen to the relevant extract (in mp3 format) from Hamza Yusuf's commentary here.

For the more astronomically inclined of you, check out the following powerpoint presentation outlining the fiqh of moonsighting and/or ths brief lecture on the same.

Iran Uncovered

Watch the provocative season trailer for BBC Radio 4's Iran Uncovered Season here. Catch up with the programme listings here.

I knew it!

It appears as though my seemingly irrational dislike of vegetables is but the phenotypic manifestation of my genetic make up according to the guys overs at Mind Hacks.

Liking for sprouts may be partly genetic:

Nature is reporting that a gene which is involved in a receptor for bitter tastes can predict people's liking for vegetables such as broccoli and sprouts.

It has been proposed that humans are particularly sensitive to bitterness as natural poisons often taste bitter.

Certain versions of this gene may make us especially sensitive, however. So sensitive, perhaps, that we dislike foods that are perfectly safe but have a bitter element.

There's more information in a over at Eureka Alert and the original study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Benedict XVI and Islam

Abdal Hakim Murad preempted Joseph Ratzinger's crude but seemingly calculated comments in this piece originally published in Q-News. He also sheds some light on the various influences that have shaped the Bavarian Pope's worldview or lack thereof.

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy, Muslim reactions to the new pontiff were diverse and confused. Turks were dismayed by his very public opposition to their membership of the European Union, a view rooted in his conviction that ‘Europe was founded not on geography but on a common faith.’ Others pointed to the absence of any mention of Muslims from his inaugural address (a fact welcomed by the Jerusalem Post) as a hint that Vatican willingness to open minds and hearts to dialogue with Islam was now at an end.

...To date, Ratzinger has shown few signs of continuing this theologically-unarticulated but sincere desire to reach out in affirmation. On the contrary, he has already shown himself to be sharply judgemental. He worried Muslims across Europe when, in an August 2005 meeting with imams in Germany who were worried about discrimination against their community, he made it clear that the only issue he wished to raise was ‘Islamic terrorism’. Apparently echoing a standard right-wing claim (made by Joerg Haider, Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen in particular), he has said that ‘Islam is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society.’ Another theme which he shares with the far right is his apparent belief that Muslims in Europe cannot be ‘assimilated’: ‘Islam makes no sort of concession to inculturation.’ (He does not seem to have noticed the immense differences in Muslim cultural style across the world.)

...Ratzinger’s seeming harshness is regularly interpreted as a sign of a larger change of heart that has come over the Catholic church in recent years in response to the growing demographic significance of Islam in Europe, and the rise of Wahhabi terrorism. However he is not primarily a politician. His emerging Islam policy is ultimately rooted in a distinctive kind of theology. In particular, it should be taken in the context of his wider conservative conviction that Catholicism alone can guide human beings to true salvation, a view that his predecessor had seemed less anxious to advertise. Muslims may wince at his opinion of Islam, but his views on non-Catholic Christians have hardly been less trenchant. He was the leading contributor to the ‘definitive and irrevocable’ Catholic declaration Dominus Jesus in the year 2000, which insisted that non-Catholic churches ‘are not churches in the proper sense,’ and implied that non-Catholics are naturally destined for hellfire. He certainly subscribes to the traditional view that the ordination of Anglican priests is ‘utterly null and void,’ making most church-going in England a kind of theatre, a dim groping after a truth that may only be reliably found in Rome. In fact, his formal position, and his habit of mind, are far from any kind of pluralism, and his criticisms of Islam must be seen in this light. It is not quite correct to say, as some Muslims have done, that he has singled out Islam for a unique condemnation; he is, by the logic of his conservative theology, passionately critical of everything that fails to be ‘in communion with Rome’.

...In his understanding of Judaism and Islam, Ratzinger is guided by the same Augustinian pessimism, which he finds ultimately in the letters of St Paul. Rituals of wudu and ibada are essentially worthless, as they lie outside the grace which is only mediated by God’s one true church. As he writes: ‘the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us, otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless.’ Such rituals are ‘slavery’, from which submission to the Church alone offers salvation. The Semitic principle is thus categorically inferior; Jews and Muslims, he seems to imply, are slaves, and their ability truly to please God must be Biblically doubted.
Elsewhere, Madeleine Bunting argues that 'Pope Benedict is being portrayed as a naive, shy scholar who has accidentally antagonised two major world faiths in a matter of months. In fact he is a shrewd and ruthless operator, and he's dangerous.'

Monday, September 18, 2006

"Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty"

Inna Allah jameel wa yuhibbu al-jamaal
Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty

I checked out the V&A's newly commissioned Jameel gallery (the result of a three-year-long renovation and re-design of the V&A's Islamic Gallery) recently and the splendour of the diverse artistic manifestations that surrounded me was overwhelming. The above saying of the Prophet neatly encapsulates the aesthetic ideal that underlies much of 'Islamic art' (the limitations of the term are beyond this brief entry).

The expression of this vision relies on a distinct and threefold visual structure, to which a series of panels in the gallery is very usefully dedicated. The first of these is calligraphy: for the faithful, the graceful ciphers of the Arabic script transmit the voice of the Divine, and are the substance of revelation made visible. In no other art form has the written word taken on such an exalted role; sultans and peasants alike strove to learn its many styles, which became disciplines in themselves, and around which an entire science of numerological symbolism evolved. The second is geometric design, brilliantly exploited in endless variations - intellectually enticing and puzzling at the same time. The third panel offers examples of idealised plant shapes drawn from the natural world: tendrils, vines, buds and flowers, all alluding to the fecundity and abundance of nature, and symbolically linked to the Qur'anic evocation of paradise as a luxuriant garden.

At the simplest level, these elements comprise the fundamental repertoire of the traditional artist; at a profounder level, they celebrate the relationship between God, man and nature. They are to some extent mutable - geometric patterns can form letters, and letters can be used to create pictures - and are combined in almost infinite and sophisticated variations of immense beauty. Great art, according to Ruskin, "is that in which the hand, the head and the heart of man go together"; it is precisely this insight that was so well understood by the traditional Muslim artist, whose finest works simultaneously appeal to the devotional, intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities of the onlooker. The most refined expressions of this exacting discipline - whether carved on to a paper-thin dried leaf or stretched across a monumental facade - are thus transformed from objects of mere visual delight into powerful focuses of spiritual contemplation.
The gallery is housed in the Middle East section of the museum and as such it focuses on Arab (including Andalusian), Persian, Turkish and central Asian artforms. You can stroll past dazzling Uzbek tile-work, admire Mamluk Qur'anic calligraphy, stare into the mesmerising blues of Turkish ceramics but your attention will always return to the centrepiece of the gallery - the Ardabil carpet - a 16th century wonder.

Rebuilding the entire gallery around the 50-square-metre marvel imposed multiple challenges on designers. The greatest of these was to allow the carpet to be viewed horizontally, but to protect it from undue levels of light and dust. The innovative solution has been to surround it with an enclosure of non-reflective glass (be careful - it's almost invisible), free of structural supports. This is made possible by a giant protective canopy above the glass walls, fitted with fibre-optic lighting and suspended by steel cables from the ceiling joists overhead. At long last, the delicate colours and intricacy of the carpet's pattern - created from a staggering 30m hand-tied knots - may now be appreciated at close quarters.

The Ardabil carpet is also a reminder of the days when the appreciation of things Islamic was less eclipsed by political issues. To William Morris, who in 1893 petitioned for its purchase from a London dealer, the "singular perfection" of the Ardabil carpet was an inspiration: "To us pattern-designers," he wrote, "Persia has become a holy land."
My own trip happened to coincide with the 'Iranian Weekend - Poetry, Picnics and Persian Pastimes' which promised much but proved to be a spectacular anti-climax, exacerbated by the free-flowing fizzy dugh - an Iranian carbonated-milk-based form of gastronomic torture.

For those of you planning to visit the exhibition, the challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to discover the tribute to the Seven Sleepers and for bonus points, to determine the name of their canine companion.

For lots more detail including some stunning video presentations of architectural styles from across the Islamic world visit the V&A's site here.