Friday, January 26, 2007

Modern Islam The Search for Cultural Identity by G.E. von Grunebaum

This book is a collection of scholarly papers collected in 1962. You might ask why on earth would I bother reading something so old—the Middle East has changed a lot since then. The big noise then was Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism. Oddly enough, those are still around to some degree. The lurker in the shadows was Islamic reassertion.

And that’s the reason I was interested. The landscape was quite a bit different, and yet still very much similar. The Saudis had not yet succeeded in dominating the Islamic landscape, but the Muslim Brotherhood was already tagged as the main opponent of Arab nationalism in Egypt. But then, as now, the Arabs were hostile to the West.

Grunebaum’s main focus was Egypt, probably because Egypt was the center of culture and learning. The problem addressed in the book is that

  • The Arabs (and Egyptians, and Berbers, etc) understand their extreme backwardness in science and technology and social organization, and resent it.

  • They try to semi-Westernize themselves to acquire the powers of the West (which to some extent includes the social organization of the nation-state and the fashions of democracy).

  • To assert themselves they need to reach back into their traditions to find something to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, something that will make them superior.

  • These traditions often conflict in important ways with Western ways of thought. They look back to an ideal (usually imaginary) and canonical age which needs to be imitated. This universal tendency is magnified by Islam, which generally looks back to the era of the rightly guided caliphs as an example for the ages. An example of assassination and revolution, btw.

  • Islam in particular, with its focus on eternal law that can only be studied and not developed, conflicts with Western notions of analysis and refinement and redesign; and with Western notions of democracy. The intellectual framework of Islam doesn’t mesh well with that of the West.

Grunebaum studied the various approaches people used. Some people invent history. Russians and French did this in earlier centuries, the Arabs and some Africans were doing it in the last century. (Similarly Black Studies in the US is larded with lies.) Since few Muslims over the centuries had bothered to learn much about the West, making up history was quite easy. Some the Muslims concluded that their predicament was because of infidelity, and worked to try to renew Islam—notably the political aspects of forbidding and commanding. I’m aware that there are a lot of pietists, but that’s not his concern here

The Arab nationalism theorists, in the process of trying to define themselves as nations, incidentally showed clearly how central Arabs and Arabic is within Islam. Non-Arabs are second-class religionists (though the Arab nationalists were willing to consider them as honorary Arabs if they wanted to be).

Grunebaum cited other researchers as noting that newly formed nations, especially those that have recently thrown off a foreign yoke, are generally imperialist. Subsequent history of the Middle East suggests that this is indeed common (Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc) but not universal. He reminded the reader of what the most cursory reading of Middle Eastern history will reveal: that Muslims don’t care nearly as much about a universal caliphate as they say they do—Egypt and Persia and Iraq have been national rivals within the umma for over a thousand years. The family matters, then the tribe, then the tribal cluster (nation). They idealize the caliphate, but much prefer that their tribe run it.

He pointed up the irony that it was the West, which alone among civilizations has tried to achieve self-understanding by understanding other cultures, that gave the lands of the Middle East back their ancient literature and glories. The Muslims preserved Aristotle for the West, but then lost it again themselves.

The book is larded with footnotes, some amusing (see earlier post). It is larded with quotes from French and German as well. I don’t read German, but I didn’t find the French to be amazingly better phrased than English translation. Sometimes Grunebaum turned a felicitous phrase, but on the whole the book is heavy slogging.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Oh are you, now?"

NPR ran a report this morning on the deterioration of medical conditions in the West Bank. The public hospitals run out of supplies, the doctors and nurses went on strike because they weren't paid, medicines have to be purchased privately, if available, and so on. NPR story The first interviewee said "I'm a Palestinian citizen. I'm supposed to have these services provided to me." He went on to blame respectively the EU, Israel, and the US--a unique ordering.

I must have missed the place in the contract that says that the rest of the world is obligated to fund his medical care. Whether I feel obligated to help out or not is irrelevant--he does not have the right to demand money from me. The people he wants to rule him prefer to use money to shoot each other and are quite open about hating me and my country. This isn't calculated to encourage generosity, and as it turns out I'm not obligated to pay the jizya.

You want free health care? Take it up with the folks you voted for.


Another NPR story was about professors at Southern Methodist University objecting to having the GW Bush presidential papers in a new library. They worry that Bush doesn't reflect the values of the University, and are afraid that diversity of opinion will be injured. (Apparently without any cognitive dissonance, too.) I'd have expected they'd be happy that there could be a cottage industry of researchers finding the roots of all the disasters he was responsible for (not all scholars would work through the terrifying "independent institution"). But perhaps they're afraid a researcher might find out Bush was right about something, and they don't want to think about that frightening possibility.

The anti-Oath

The Madison City Council has decided that they don't like the way the people of Wisconsin voted and so will encourage an auxilliary oath of office complaining about the referendum and promising to try to overturn it. Officials won't be required to take this auxilliary oath, of course, but ...

Bow before our betters; their ways are higher than our ways, and their judgments past finding out.

Monday, January 15, 2007


In his “Bleat” today Lileks noted how many cultures over the years had taken Rome as their nominal model. We don’t seem to have quite that urge here in the US (novus ordo etc), and they seem to have finally lost it in Western Europe (though it is hard to tell from a distance, with me not being familiar with the literature). We’ve pretty well passed them on almost all counts by now.

Rome held the imagination for a long time, and it isn’t too hard to see why.

They were rich. They could build houses and cities and roads in almost an offhand way that couldn’t be equaled through the years of chaos, and even the years of the new nations until fairly recently.

They were great builders whose relics endured, so there were always plenty of reminders. In addition, most of those relics were buildings of peace. The intervening years had plenty of castles, but until those became merely quaint they were grim reminders of the ubiquity of war. In A Distant Mirror Tuchman calls the builders of the Coucy keep “the greatest builders since Rome.” They weren’t, really—they were specialists in castles, and wouldn’t have known how to cast a concrete harbor or build an aqueduct to save their souls. Roman engineering was surprisingly good for people who didn’t have calculus. (Or did they? So much has been lost, and Archimedes came so close, that I would not be shocked to learn that Greek and Roman math had gotten as far as Newton.)

After so many years it was easy to forget that most Roman battles had been in civil wars, and remember only that for centuries a man could travel unafraid, protected by unseen distant forts. That must have seemed a golden age to travelers later.

And it was easy to forget the many lapses from the ideal, and remember only the ideals of justice. Our fashion is to detail the failures and injustices, but perhaps the happy memory is more fair. Without trust you have little trade and many fortresses. Without at least an attempt at administering uniform justice there is no trust. That ideal, and the attempt to achieve it, seems to have created that necessary order and trust that lasted for a surprisingly long time in the face of bureaucratic ineptitude and draconian economic laws. Without the ability to make and enforce contracts you cannot build an enterprise much bigger than a family. They did.

Add to these the fact that, for whatever cynical political reasons, Rome tried to care for its poor, providing bread and water and sewers. Who had that luxury after it fell? The skeletons tell us that the rich and powerful during the centuries of chaos after the collapse lived worse than peons under Rome.

Nothing lasts forever, and I suspect that includes the current civilization of the West. In everything but longevity it has surpassed Rome. I wonder if it will pass the torch gracefully, or shatter and leave behind a thousand-year yearning for vanished glory.

Friday, January 12, 2007

New dish

I was hungry, and went to Coreana to try something new. I like the bibimbap, but maybe something with noodles ... Aha--here it is! Oops. The gol-dong-myun was gol-dang salty.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What Elysian land is this?

And who were the people who saw it that way?

". . . that part of the world whose long years of civilization had taught the nations the folly of war, whose people lived in splendid houses, free alike from the dangers of fire and robbery, and whose rulers devoted themselves entirely to benevolent plans for the welfare of their subjects."

An unhelpful hint: this is from a footnote (p127) in Grunebaum's Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

The hope of Youngest Son

Snow days, snow days

Please give us two-in-a-row days

Squabbling and fighting to drive Mom nuts

Or video vegging on lazy butts

Till she yells at us “Go

And play in the snow”

Where snowmen just beg to be rolled.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Threaded wisdom?

Youngest son asked what the difference between male and female fittings was. I explained that the male threaded fittings were like screws and the female threaded fittings were like nuts: the male fit into the female and the female fit around the male. He replied that he’d thought the male and female went in opposite directions. I told him there was some wisdom in that…

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Infernal music

OK, this is cool. A Vatican composer will stage an opera based on Dante's Divine Comedy, using a variety of musical styles. Guess where rap fits. (Not Purgatory...)