Monday, January 16, 2017

My Thoughts on The Koran

For this  rereading of the Koran, I read the A. J. Arberry translation. All quotations below are from that version. 

Scholars, politicians, theologians, Muslims and non – Muslims, etc. debate the meaning of the words in The Koran. A look at the way in which this book and other Islamic texts are interpreted by different individuals and groups reveals an amazing diversity of practices and views. Some argue that the Koran is a book of peace and tolerance. Others use it to justify violence and the oppression of others. There are theological disputes that are complex. Both Muslims and non - Muslims have joined in on the discussions. There is a tendency for folks to label interpretations that they do not agree with as “not real Islam”. This argument seems like it is designed to stifle communication and disagreement and to whitewash what are undeniably troubling verses in this book. 

It is common to hear folks tell non - Muslims not to draw their own conclusions about the Koran and to “ask a Muslim”. However, an examination of what Muslims throughout the world have to say about this text reveals vast disagreements. Listening to the views of Muslims is vitally important and useful, but it is not the end of the discussion. 

I am not going to explore the entire cornucopia of views out there.  Instead I am going to paint a picture of my interpretation of this book. Of course I am no expert. But I am capable of reading and drawing my own conclusions. With that, I believe in examining my own conclusions and questioning them based on the views of others, both Muslim and non - Muslim is necessary.

I read the text of The Koran as a particular viewpoint that describes the Universe. Like many other philosophical and religious works, it is an interpretation of reality. It is an attempt to make sense of the world in which we live in.

The ubiquitous underlying message behind this book is that both Old and New Testaments are the word of God. In fact, a large percentage of the Koran consists of a retelling and commentary of Bible stories. There is a particular emphasis on the destruction of cities and their inhabitants.  It is repeated over and over again: the people of various cities and regions were sinful and who ignored the prophets, they brought destruction on themselves. The stories of Lot, Noah and others are referred to numerous times as the text continually to come around to them again and again.

Jesus, who was the product of a virgin birth, was an important prophet but he was not the Son of God. The concept of the Trinity is specifically referred to. Many words are devoted to refuting it. At the same time Jesus is praised as an important prophet. 

It is important to understand the Koran’s view of Christians and Jews. The text refers to both groups collectively as “People of the Book.” 

There is another group mentioned, They are referred to as unbelievers. A simple Google search reveals that there is debate over who should be included as unbelievers. The term clearly refers to people who are neither Muslims, Christians or Jews. But does it also include Christians and Jews? In other words, does it also include People of the Book? 

The text treats unbelievers and People of the Book very differently. Thus I conclude that they are distinct groups without overlap. 

Christians and Jews are usually talked about with some respect, 

“some of the People of the Book are a nation upstanding, that recite God's signs in the watches of the night, bowing themselves, believing in God and in the Last Day, bidding to honour and forbidding dishonour, vying one with the other in good works; those are of the righteous.”

Unbelievers are talked much more negatively. In fact, the text is venomous towards them. Over and over again the text lays out the horrible punishment that they will face on the day – of -  judgment. The below passage is very typical, 

"And thou shalt see the sinners that day coupled in fetters, of pitch their shirts, their faces enveloped by the Fire, that God may recompense every soul for its earnings; surely God is swift at the reckoning."

When not burned in fire the Non – Believers are exposed to boiling water, 

And those who disbelieve — for them awaits a draught of boiling water, and a painful chastisement, for their disbelieving.”  

Muslims are instructed to not even associate with unbelievers,

"Let not the believers take the unbelievers for friends, rather than the believers — for whoso does that belongs not to God in anything” 

The text seems to be somewhat obsessed with unbelievers  They are mentioned scores of times, usually in similar ways to the above. 

A question arises, does this text require that Islam be forced on everyone? A famous quote seems to answer that question clearly,

"No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error."

However, another passage, which refers to adultery seems to contradict this, 

"And when two of you commit indecency, punish them both; but if they repent and make amends, then suffer them to be"

A Google search indicates that there is some dispute in regards to the above words. Some translations specifically call for flogging in the case of adultery. Either way, this is a demand for punishment for cases of adultery. How does this reconcile with the earlier passage that admonishes no compulsion in religion?  It seems that the text is specifying that no one should be forced to be a Muslim, but the rules of as specified in The Koran be enforced throughout society, through coercion. 

So much has been talked about the Koran and women. There are multiple passages that clearly declare that men are superior to women. From inheritance to court cases, women receive less benefits, less credibility and less respect then men. 

Ultimately, men are to rule over women and may use violence to control them as the below passage indicates, 

“Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for God's guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; “

Obviously, there is no place for the above in a free and equitable society. 

There are certainly positive moral points about this work. There are numerous admonitions to be charitable. There is a lot of talk about war, but Believers are usually urged to only wage it defensively.  Infanticide, particularly involving girls, was a practice that was apparently widespread in the region in Mohamed’s time. It is mentioned at several points and is condemned and forbidden.

The Koran is a rich work that is well worth reading. It sometimes encourages its adherents to act ethically.  However, it also urges Believers to engage in immoral activity. As I have illustrated above, it is no guide to morality.  

Of course The Koran is a complex work. I have oversimplified it in the above commentary.  A survey of both serious scholarship and more casual interpretations illustrates a wide range of interpretations. Some of these opinions are not congruent with the views that I have expressed above. Thus, while the above the above is analysis of the Koran not an analysis of Islam as a whole. With that, in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, repressive regimes do use some of these morally untenable beliefs to oppress people. 

The theocrats in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran not withstanding, many folks who call themselves Muslims would likely take issue with the above interpretation. Many would disagree with my take on this text. In the end, I urge everyone to read this book and draw their own conclusions. 

Islam is a vitally important force operating in our world. Despite various interpretations of this book, The Koran is the basis of a belief system that billions of people follow.  A reading of this text is vital for anyone who wishes to begin to understand Islam. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Talking About The Islam

I have recently reread The Koran. Before I post commentary on the book itself, I wanted to write something regarding some trends that are relevant to the worldwide conversation regarding Islam. 

The main point of this entry is to discuss how folks who attempt to have any intelligent public conversation about anything involving Islam are caught between two irrational forces. 

First, there is anti-Muslim bigotry and violence directed at Muslims. For years, there has been hate and violence aimed at people of the Islamic faith. In the United States, this situation has been exacerbated by the results of the recent Presidential election. At this stage, Trump and his surrogates are talking about Muslim bans and Muslim registries. Mosques are being vandalized, and women wearing Hijabs are being attacked all over the United States (There cases where reports of anti - Muslim  violence that have been proven to be hoaxes. However, many more instances appear to be genuine). Even before recent developments, those expressing prejudice against Muslims have used legitimate criticism of Koranic text, oppressive Islamist laws, etc. to paint all Muslims in a negative light. This very much complicates genuine conversation and criticism. 

On the other side is a movement originating out of the far Left that demands no criticism of Islam or The Koran in any way. At its worst, this movement has accused the victims of Islamist murder, such as  the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, of bigotry. They have also set their sites on people who are campaigning for human rights in the Islamic world. Amazingly, some folks who are Muslims themselves have been called bigots for campaigning against honor killings, guardianship laws, forced Islamic veiling, etc. In some cases, it can be argued that some extreme Leftist voices have allied themselves with Islamists who have murdered and threatened critics. Though inconsequential in light of the big picture, I have been called a bigot (and a Trump supporter!) for what has been respectful criticism of text in the Koran, as well as when I criticized oppressive practices imposed by the Saudi and Iranian regimes. I only mention my own experiences to help build a picture of what I am referring to. 

Another important point is that this is a not a one-sided argument. Bigots have latched on to all aspects of this issue and often try to insert themselves into real discussions. Some, who critique the Koran and Islam, while not racist, engage in scathing commentary that naturally incites strong responses. Not all emotional responses to criticism are folks trying to impose de facto blasphemy rules, some of the pushback against critics of Islam is just vigorous disagreement in of itself. Many critics, while not bigots, generalize a lot about Islam, which is in my opinion makes no sense directed at such a varied and diverse faith. There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many of these issues.

Unfortunately, rational and decent folks, as well as human rights advocates and reformers, are caught in the middle between these groups. This issue is relevant both to people talking about human rights in Islamic societies and enclaves as well as to general discussions about Islam and Islamic texts. 

There is also a lesser version of this trend that is not nasty and uncivil and does not automatically label all criticism of Islam as bigotry. Instead it is a tendency to excuse or minimize harm done by Islamists and deny that there is anything negative contained in The Koran. Some just do not want any Islam and/or any religious beliefs critiqued but argue their case without name-calling. Though I do not agree with this line of reasoning, I consider this as an intellectual disagreement and I welcome conversation on this topic.

I should note that, in my opinion, those who disagree with particular criticisms of Islam are not part of the above. It is those who are irresponsibly throwing out the term bigot or Islamophobe that I am referring to. A vigorous, productive and intelligent discussion of various aspects of Islam invariably will involve those who criticize and those who disagree with that criticism. In fact, I often disagree with the criticism of Islam that I read. 

For those who want further reading on this topic, I have compiled a list of sources and evidence regarding this trend here . In regards to my feelings on criticizing religion in general, my post on the subject is here: Religion and Its Critics

The question arises as to what is the motivation and causes of what I can only describe as a hyper-defensiveness towards Islam. I will speculate based on conversations that I have had as well as on opinion pieces and blogs that I have read. First, there is an understandable reaction to the anti-Muslim Bigotry and violence aimed at Muslims. This has become even more of a concern with recent developments in the United States. 

Second, there is a streak of cultural relativism that is popular in some elements of the far Left. This leads to the belief that that non-European cultures and belief systems should be immune from moral and ethical standards and even the standards of logic and reason. I may explore cultural relativism in another post.  

Finally, there seems to be an extreme form of critical race theory operating. There are those who believe all oppression that exists in the world to be perpetuated by white men and colonialism and that any criticism of culture or acts of non-white men is invalid. 

Readers of this blog know that my criticism of religion tends to be directed at specific aspects of it. I rarely, if ever criticize an entire faith. I find all the major religions to be too diverse to generalize about.  I try to be respectful and try to listen and consider other people’s view. I also tend to praise certain aspects to religion in my commentary. I generally to do the same thing on other social media, particularly Twitter. My commentary on the Koran will not be a scathing attacking on the text. It will not be all negative, nor it will not be all positive.  I will not hesitate to express my opinions of ideas found in the Koran that I find reprehensible. 

As I have recently reread the book, I will be putting up at least one more blog on the Koran. As per the above I will include a combination of positive and negative things about the work. I believe that bigots will not likely be able to use it as a tool. As for folks on the other side, I am not exaggerating that there are some, who will label any talk of Islam or the Koran that is not One – Hundred percent positive as bigotry. Regardless of the terrible atmosphere out there, I will share my thoughts. I hope my readers find them interesting and that they spark some stimulating and lively conversations. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Five Year Blogiversary

Today Babbling Books is 5 years old. The first thing that comes to my mind about this fact is what a wonderful experience that blogging has been. 

In past years I have thanked and praised the book blogging community and all of the wonderful folks who comment on this blog and who I interact with. Once again, you all deserve accolades.

The comments section of this blog has been phenomenal. Folks have consistently left insightful and thoughtful viewpoints on virtually all my posts. A few folks have disagreed and challenged my views. I not only welcome this, but I am delighted that people have done so. The road to wisdom includes the paving stones known as criticism and alternate viewpoints. Though I do not want to be so presumptuous to say that my blog promotes wisdom, I want it to represent a few of the bricks in the road that leads to wisdom. 

Several weeks ago, I expressed some question over what form this blog would take going forward. I believe that there is a good chance that the United States, and perhaps the world at large, is moving into a tumultuous time of the type that the world has not seen in very long time. I am not all doom and gloom, yet I think that we must be prepared for unprecedented developments. As I have always attempted to relate my ruminations on books to the world at large, if this turns out to be true, I will continue to tie my some of my posts to real world developments. If events are as consequential as I expect them to be, I will likely reference them frequently. With that, I am mostly here to talk about books. Thus, the majority of my writing will be confined to the words between two covers. 

Another year begins. Hopefully our shared reading adventures will continue to be both intellectually fruitful and fun. Thanks again to everyone who has shared this experience with me. Happy reading everybody!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Talking About Nazis

We hear it all the time. Politicians, world leaders and other public figures are compared to Hitler. Political and social movements are often compared to Nazism. Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all been compared to Hitler. In the United States, it is popular to compare the Republican Party to the Nazis.

There is also a popular backlash against this overuse of Nazi analogies. There is a prevalent wisdom that says something to the effect of “if you call someone a Nazi or compare them to Hitler, you have lost the argument.” (in one of many examples of this argument, Philip Hensher presents it  here.)

Godwin’s law is cited. As per Wikipedia the commonly quoted adage is:

“if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.”

I must note that as of late, we hear a lot of folks calling Donald Trump a Nazi. As someone who has an intense aversion to Trump and everything he stands for, and who thinks he presents a major danger to the United States and to the world, I can say unequivocally that he is not a Nazi. (There are a fair number of self-described Nazis supporting him, however.)

I am in agreement that Nazi analogues are overused, and such comparisons are often unfair, disrespectful and offensive. The mass murder, mass torture and aggression  perpetuated by the Nazis should not be trivialized by invalid comparisons. However, I would argue that references to Nazis and World War II are not always inappropriate. It depends in what context that they are used. Furthermore, in our culture, it is inevitable that people will often make references to Nazis when discussing current events.

World War II and its ghastly details comprise a shared mythology for those of us in the West. As an event, it may be the one incident in recent history that almost every human being has at least a rudimentary understanding of.

So many of our heroic stories find their origins in World War II. From comic books to scholarly discussions of history, literature and art, this terrible human event still has a profound impact upon on our culture and our discourse.

When one mentions the names Pinochet, Pol Pot, or even Stalin, one will inevitably lose some people. This is not so with Hitler and the Nazis. Almost everyone instantly recognizes the name of Hitler and understands what one is talking about when references to him are made. The same thing is true for the term Nazi. That word is far more recognized than Khmer Rough or even Communist.

A Popular Internet Meme
For the reasons stated above, sometimes references to Nazism makes sense. For instance, the Nazis famously burned books. They made great spectacles of their book burnings. However, they were not the only group to do so, nor were they the first. When groups burn books for political reasons, I still hear people ask why that is such a bad thing. I would argue that in such a discussion, a reference to the Nazis may be appropriate. Referring to other nefarious groups that burned books often brings blank stares. With that, it may also be necessary to point out that most people who burn books are not actual Nazis.

Many of our heroic myths also find their origins in World War II. Thus, exhortations to resist current day tyrannies and lesser injustices often make reference to World War II-related events. Winston Churchill’s inspiring words are often used in this context. Once again, this is often the function of a shared mythology rather than misuse of a concept.

Of course, it important to use such references intelligently and responsibly. It is usually wrong to call people or movements Nazis or Hitler-like. It is also intellectually lazy to reference the Nazis and Hitler when other references would serve an argument well. There are way too many such references used in both our formal and informal discourse.

 There is a lot of hyperbole involved with the use of names Nazi and Hitler. However, overuse and misuse are not the entire story. World War II and the fight against fascism is firmly embedded in our collective consciousness.  It is inevitable that when struggles big and small present, we keep reflecting back to its imagery.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

The Fixed Period was Anthony Trollope’s foray into dystopian science fiction. Fans of the author will find this work radically different from his more famous novels in many ways. In my opinion, this is not up to the greatness of the author’s more traditional books or that of the early science fiction pioneers such as H.G. Wells.  With that, I found the novel to be worthwhile exploration of philosophical issues and human nature. 

First published in 1882, the story is set in what was the “future” year of 1980. Britannula is an ex – British colony that had gained independence and become a republic. At the country’s formation all of its citizens were young, recent emigrants. At that time there were no older citizens.  A law was passed called the “Fixed Period”. Intended to save the society the cost of caring for an elderly population, as well as preventing aging citizens from descending into the supposed indignity of decrepitude, the legislation mandated that all citizens be euthanized upon reaching the age of 68. 

One year prior to their end, the citizen would be sent to a bucolic campus called “The College” where the person would live out their last year in comfort and supposed honor. Thirty years after the passage of the law, the first effected citizen, Gabriel Crasweller, is nearing his 67th birthday.

John Neverbend is President of the Republic. Ten years short of his own retirement to The Collage, he is a staunch advocate of The Fixed Period. As his time to retire to The Collage nears, Crasweller as well as many others citizens begin to question the concept of the Fixed Period and there is talk of resistance. Neverbend becomes an adamant defender of the law. 

Crasweller’s daughter Eva, as well as Neverbend’s own wife and his son Jack, are among those who choose oppose the law. A budding romance develops between Jack and Eva further complicating the situation.  

Unfortunately, the usual intricate complexity of character so prominent in Trollope’s other works is absent for most of the characters in this novel. However, Neverbend is still a fascinating literary creation.  He is no firebrand, but can be best described as a calm fanatic. He clings to the idea of The Fixed Period despite all arguments and opposition. At times he even finds that idea of the upcoming euthanizes emotionally wrenching, yet he adamantly stands by the law based upon supposed principle. He also continues to see himself as a noble revolutionary and continually compares himself to both Galileo and Columbus.  Trollope skillfully shows us the immorality and absurdity of the law while painting a picture of a character who honestly believes in it. This is a fascinating character study.

Another reason to recommend this work is how well Trollope examines the way in which ideologies subvert language. If this book had been written after 1948 I would have commented that Trollope’s exploration of language was Orwellian. Yet this book was written years before Orwell’s invention of “Newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty - Four. At multiple points in the text, Neverbend shows his obsession with language and his attempt to control how the Fixed Period is talked about. 

At one point he ruminates on those who are using the word “murder” in relation to the coming euthanizes,

" this the terrible word "murder" was brought into common use. I remember startling the House by forbidding any member to use a phrase so revolting to the majesty of the people. Murder! Did any one who attempted to deter us by the use of foul language, bethink himself that murder, to be murder, must be opposed to the law? This thing was to be done by the law. There can be no other murder.

In the above quote, not only does Neverbend object to the accurate term “murder”, but he seeks to forbid its use.

Later he takes a similar tact with the word “slaughter”

“The word slaughter was in itself peculiarly objectionable

Even in Great Britain, there is a “Minister of Benevolence” who seems to order warships from place to place. Once again, this smacks of Orwell’s “Ministry of Peace” from Nineteen - Eighty Four. In regards to this theme, Trollope seems very insightful and well ahead of his time. 

In addition, the idea of society killing its members at a certain age, while derived from an earlier play called The Old Law by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger, has been used in multiple subsequent science fiction stories, perhaps most famously in William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run. The issue of society struggling with high cost of care for the elderly, also seems prescient. 

This book is obviously different from the usual Trollope fare. Though not an outstanding novel I found it to be a good one.  It contains interesting ideas that are worth are exploring. Though not up to the usual high Trollope quality regarding characters, plot and writing it nevertheless is an insightful character study. It also delves into issues that are to this day relevant. Ultimately this is a thought provoking and worthwhile piece of speculative fiction. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Isolation

This post contains spoilers.

My general commentary on this book is here.

On one level, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a case study on abusive people and their methods. The story’s main character is Heathcliff, who is an abusive man. While he perpetuates physical violence against his targets, his greatest harm might be psychological. He practices both emotional and verbal abuse. Moreover, he plans his cruelty and concocts elaborate schemes that run on for years with a goal of ruining people’s lives. 

One component to his abuse is the way in which he isolates people. Almost everyone who Heathcliff harms is, through his machinations, isolated from people who might protect or support him.  At one point, through complex scheming, Heathcliff manages to reduce Catherine the Younger to the status of a near vassal. He forces her out of her own home and requires her to move to Wuthering Heights, where he can control and mistreat her. Nelly describes the scene when she is forced to accompany him to her imprisonment. 

"He signed her to precede him; and casting back a look that cut my heart, she obeyed.   I watched them, from the window, walk down the garden.   Heathcliff fixed Catherine’s arm under his: though she disputed the act at first evidently; and with rapid strides he hurried her into the alley, whose trees concealed them."

I find the above to be an extremely powerful passage that symbolically describes the isolating process where Catherine the Younger is “hurried” into an alley of concealing trees. 

Heathcliff manages to isolate many other targets. 

When Isabella Linton makes the catastrophic decision to marry him, she is cut off from her family. When he brings her to Wuthering Heights, she is put into the position of a near prisoner. Heathcliff uses this opportunity to treat her with great cruelty. 

At one point in the story, Heathcliff demands that his son, Linton, come to live with him. In the process, Linton is isolated from his uncle and cousin who would have shown him compassion. Subsequently, Heathcliff introduces him to a cold existence that is completely manipulated by his father. 

Likewise, upon the death of Hindley Earnshaw, Heathcliff maneuvers to become the de facto guardian of Hindley’s son, Hareton. Under Heathcliff’s control, Hareton is raised to be illiterate and uncultured.

Both of these children, isolated by Heathcliff, are molded in ways that are harmful to them. Furthermore, Heathcliff attempts to turn them into tools to be used to harm others. 

Catherine the elder, though not really a victim and a generally unsympathetic character herself, is in the end destroyed by her relationship to Heathcliff. Her obsessive connection with him isolates her from any genuine connection with anyone else, including her own husband.

The pattern is consistent throughout the narrative. Heathcliff maneuvers again and again to gain physical and legal control of people. He keeps them as near prisoners or slaves at Wuthering Heights, and he treats them in horrible ways. He typically isolates his targets as a prelude to his abuse. 

When Catherine the Younger establishes a relationship with Hindley, the couple succeeds in breaking out of the isolation imposed by Heathcliff. This is the turning point in the story and seems to be a harbinger of Heathcliff’s decline. 

Heathcliff is a manipulative abuser. His penchant for isolating his targets is very realistic. In the real world, abusive people are often known to isolate and alienate their spouses, children, etc. from family, friends and the world at large. This is a well - known tactic of such personality types.  In this novel, Brontë is portraying an aspect of the real world in a very realistic way. 

Brontë, like many other Victorian novelists, seemed to be a keen psychologist. Her examination of this aspect of abusive people is brilliant. Though he is monstrous, Heathcliff is a complex and nuanced character that one can spend a lot of time and words exploring.   All of this is one reason of many that this book is well worth reading.