Monday, 5 December 2016

The people who shaped Islamic civilisation A new book celebrates the achievements of early Muslims, and dispels some myths along the way

Nicolas Pelham | December 5th 2016
Published in The Economist - Copyright, All Rights Reserved
 
Coverage of violence and Islam often go hand in hand. So it comes as a relief to be reminded that historically, culturally and intellectually, Islam is less a nihilistic creed than a global civilisation. A new book by Chase Robinson, which includes 30 pen-portraits of significant figures in Islamic history, is an elegant digest of the many colourful, creative and technologically innovative manifestations that the Prophet Muhammad inspired from his seventh-century oases in the Arabian peninsula.
Majestic The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
The warriors and potentates are there, of course. Starting with Muhammad and ending with Shah Ismail 900 years later, they bookend the narrative. But in Robinson’s telling their martial arts are secondary to their aesthetic ones. Muhammad is celebrated not for his battlefield victories but his verse. Abd al-Malik, the caliph who took Cyprus, was better known to Islamic chroniclers for building Jerusalem’s majestic Dome of the Rock and, less appealingly, halitosis so severe it could kill a fly. Mahmoud of Ghazni, the jihadist who conquered the Hindu kingdoms of north-western India, was admired for decorating Islam’s eastern periphery with gardens. (“You have strung the wild rose with patterns of pearls,” oozed a court poet.) Timur, the Mongol “sheep-rustler and world-conqueror”, built towers of skulls but also the soaring, sublime mosques of Samarkand. Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, was “a renaissance man”.

As fascinating as the fighters are the characters in the courts they patronised. Robinson’s cast includes free-thinking physicians and biologists, calligraphers, cartographers (including Muhammad al-Idrisi, below), historians and poets. Though Muhammad himself was illiterate, his tradition was steeped in letters. One of his Suras, or Koranic chapters, was called “the Pen”. By tradition, the first man, Adam, fashioned the first pen, and Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law and successor, coined his own Arabic script.
Tycoons and businessmen are present, too: in the ninth century, as now, manufacturers were complaining of the Chinese dumping mass-produced kitchenware on their markets. Women also make an appearance, as mystics, courtesans and scholars.

Beneath the arches of Mecca’s mosques, Karima al-Marwiziyya led Koranic study circles for both sexes. After all, she might have noted, many of the Prophet’s companions and preservers of Islamic traditions were themselves women.

What emerges is a civilisation that was a marketplace of ideas as well as goods. “Urbanisation and literacy was said to be a distinctly modern phenomenon,” says Robinson, “but that is wrong”. Rather the Islamic world, he says, epitomised “globalisation before its time”, “cultural cosmopolitanism”, “a world of cross-pollination” and capitalism. Rich from trade, its cities were the world’s finest.

In the ninth century, Baghdad mushroomed as rapidly as Manhattan a millennium later, with intrigue, sex and irreverence no less a part of its makeup. Thirty thousand gondolas plied the Tigris. Another Islamic capital, Cordoba, was the greatest city in Europe and produced some of the greatest minds: without the 12th-century rationalist, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whose defence of Aristotelian philosophy against orthodox theologians influenced people like Thomas Aquinas, the Enlightenment might never have happened.

Through his portraits, Robinson debunks two modern myths about Islam. Salafists, the puritans who dominate 21st-century Islamic discourse, champion the Prophet Muhammad as the founder of a pristine, uniform faith which every Muslim should aspire to replicate. In Robinson’s rendition, the Islam the Prophet bequeathed was amorphous, inchoate and confused. Bereft of their founder, the Muslim community squabbled over not just the niceties of law, but who should rule and how. Muhammad’s favourite wife and his son-in-law fought pitched battles over his succession. The faith was also deeply syncretic: it expanded by absorbing the traditions of the peoples who fell under its rule. Its first rulers saw nothing incompatible between an upright Islamic existence and wine-drinking. Too often the source material was too skimpy to answer basic questions. The literalist Andalusian politician and scholar, Ibn Hazm, for instance, argued against the biblical death penalty for homosexuality, saying that nowhere was it prescribed in the Koran. (Ten lashes, he suggested, might be more fitting.) Only centuries later did the faith congeal into something akin to today’s orthodoxy.

The second myth Robinson punctures is one often propounded by orientalists: that the tightening grip of orthodoxy led to Islam’s supposed inexorable decline. In the tenth century, Abu Bakr al-Razi, a Persian alchemist and physician, wrote a tractate, “On the fraudulence of prophets”, asserting the primacy of reason over revelation and deriding the prophets as imposters and storytellers. Only his defence that reason was a gift of God spared him charges of blasphemy. The following century, Al-Biruni published perhaps the greatest classical account of comparative religion, citing Greek, Persian and Sanskrit aphorisms alongside the sayings of the Prophet. Five centuries before Daniel Defoe, Ibn Tufayl wrote a story about a boy who grew up on a desert island. Without revelation, his metaphor shows, humans develop as rational beings. 
Three centuries before Columbus A reproduction of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s world map in the Book of Roger (1154)
By the 14th century, Islam’s centre of gravity had shifted to Istanbul, but its courts continued to attract the world’s leading scientists and artists and remained at the cutting-edge of medical advances and military technology. After a familiar bout of devastation, Mongol rule ushered in fresh investments in science, particularly its 13th-century observatory at Maragheh, whose findings underpinned Copernicus’s models of the universe. Multiculturalism, perhaps even trans-confessionalism, remained a familiar trope of Islamic rule. Alternating between Sunni and Shiite rites, the Mongols’ faith felt remarkably fluid.

Uljeitu’s vizier was Rashid al-Din, an Iranian-born Jewish convert to Islam, who assembled a warehouse of global researchers near Tabriz in the 14th century and set them to work on “an industrial-sized” history of the world, the “Compendium of Chronicles”. Its encyclopaedic breadth is a composite of texts drawn from Hebrew scholars (apparently translated by Rashid al-Din himself), Kashmiri monks, Chinese envoys and perhaps the most sympathetic account of Buddha in a non-Buddhist text. More than 2,000 miles away in Tunis, Ibn Khaldoun penned a social history which for the first time ditched the composition of court chronicles to examine the causes behind historical events.

There are, of course, characters closer to the caricatures of modern-day Muslim fundamentalists. Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th-century judge in Damascus and Alexandria, railed against the Mongols for favouring Shiism and applying their own yassa law, not Sharia – a sin which, he declared, rendered them apostates. When the Sunni Mamluk authorities he favoured overlooked a Christian’s insults against the Prophet, he agitated the mob to demand his beheading. A bit-player in his time, the Salafists have elevated him to centre-stage today, ranking his teachings alongside the Prophet’s in Saudi Arabia’s core curriculum. Islam’s most zealous detractors and practitioners alike could do worse than to recall Robinson’s other 29 characters too.

Islamic Civilisation in Thirty Lives by Chase Robinson, published by Thames & Hudson
 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

International Islamic scholar to speak at Centenary College - Louisiana - USA


Press Release

November 7, 2016

https://www.centenary.edu/news-media/story/international-islamic-scholar-to-speak-at-centenary-college/

SHREVEPORT, LA — Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork in Ireland, will visit Centenary on Wednesday, November 16. His presentation, “Islam between Text and Lived Realities: a Conversation,” highlights some of the tensions that Muslims face living in the modern world as they uphold ancient texts and traditions.

Dr. Spencer Dew, Chair of Religious Studies at Centenary, will serve as Dr. De Sondy’s conversation partner. The 7:00 p.m. event in the Whited Room in Bynum Commons is free and open to the public.

“Centenary is indeed privileged to welcome Dr. De Sondy to our campus and to Shreveport,” says Jenifer K. Ward, Provost and Dean of the College. “It is fitting that we should deepen our understanding of one of the great world religions as part of our ‘Religion Matters’ series, and the form of the event—a conversation—signals Centenary’s commitment to open inquiry and exchange. As a college related to the United Methodist Church, we welcome the opportunity to find points of connection in the beliefs and values of our different traditions.”

De Sondy joined the faculty at University College Cork in 2015. He previously taught Islamic Studies at Ithaca College and the University of Miami in the United States and at several Scottish universities, including the University of Glasgow where he earned his Ph.D. in 2009.
De Sondy’s first book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2014 and is the first monograph on the construction of manhood in the Qur’an and South Asian history.

His research connects the study of Islam to key themes of gender, ethnicity, race, and pluralism, and he has written on gender and sexuality in classical and contemporary Islam in relation to Islamic practice and the Qur’an. Additionally, De Sondy specializes in Muslims in Celtic lands (Scotland and Ireland)/Europe/Pakistan and Religious Education (RE) in high schools in these global locations.

Centenary’s “Religion Matters” series is a set of lectures designed to generate wide-ranging conversations about the intersection of religion and other cultural issues across the larger Shreveport-Bossier community. De Sondy’s visit to Centenary is generously underwritten by the Attaway Professorships in Civic Culture Program.

The Beauty of Islam Brought Me Out of the Closet - By Drew Harper November 3, 2016

Published in 'Vice' - All Rights Reserved, Copyright

I grew up in suburban St. Louis, where my father was the pastor of our small evangelical church. My mother is a pastor's daughter; my uncle is a pastor; my grandfather taught Sunday School for decades. When researchers finally confirm the link between a highly churched background and growing up to be a major homo, I will be both case in point and the least surprised.

As a teenager, my devotion to American Christianity through youth group, gospel choir, and summer jobs at Christian camps gave me joy. It also kept me plugging away in "ex-gay" conversion therapy from sixth grade through most of high school. It was the summer between my junior and senior year that altered the straight-to-heaven course on which my life was set: In 2006, I went to Egypt and fell in love with Islam.

In Egypt, the Gothic spires and stained glass windows I idolized in America were rendered gauche next to the domes of Fatimid Cairo, the glazed tiles of her mosques. The songs and dances of Sufism, Islam's mystical cult, awoke within me the same religious passion I'd felt at my most charismatically evangelical moments. And on the final night of my summer-long trip, atop a pony perched on the moonlit sands beneath the pyramids, the 4 AM call to prayer from 10,000 minarets took me on a mystical night journey of revelation like the Prophet's (Peace Be Upon Him). I was one confused little Jesus fag.
I fought this sudden Halal romance as fiercely as I could. I remember befriending one ultra conservative hijabi girl in Cairo who loved to debate religion. The arrogance of my American Christianity, swollen by 17 years of immersion in theology, history, and biblical hermeneutics, got her hot to trot. As a man, she wouldn't shake my hand, but she'd waltz all night through arguments on the evidence for God's existence or how the Council of Nicaea changed the early church. The fearless apologetics she espoused for her Islamic faith left me unnerved. I ended up respecting the hell out of her, which scared the shit out of me.

Added to these aesthetic and intellectual encounters with Islamic religion was the way maleness in Egypt's Muslim society gave the finger to American gender norms. Male beauty—indeed, prettiness—was ubiquitous and celebrated. Boys in skintight pink polos with long lashes and expertly twisted curls blew kisses at one another across the street, or promenaded down the lane arm-in-arm. They held hands and whispered giggling confidences. Nobody was gay, of course, but to my American eyes, everyone seemed pretty damn gay-ish. The visual paradox of these highly un-American homosocial interactions planted seeds of doubt in my mind: If the sureness of my religious superiority could be undermined, what about my sexuality?

It was in Egypt that I encountered, for the first time, male interactions outside the ironclad Western binary of gay/straight. I had been equipped through years of ex-gay ideological brainwashing to dismiss American gay male identity, with its vapid materialism, its promiscuity, and its idolization of youth, wealth, and sex appeal. But tender touches between married men that were neither wholly sexual nor un-erotic was not covered in my American ex-gay boot camp.

And yet, it was the beauty of a religious expression outside American Christianity that opened me up to doubt, and to change. To live in Cairo was to feel Islam in my daily rhythms and physical surroundings, and I, thank God, was an impressionable teenager. Equipped to dismiss heresies of theology, I was unprepared for heresies of the human variety: Sweet-voiced Qur'anic recitations floating like cigarette smoke through the taxi radio; the fierce self-confidence of a veiled girl who loved her own religion as deeply as she knew the tenets of mine; the beauty of a million people putting their day on hold to wash themselves and pray together. It was heresies of the senses and of the soul that got me.

In Cairo, both America's religion and her gender norms were revealed to be fallible, though the former had to be unmasked to permit the latter. My prior shame-filled experiments with gay sex and gay love were not nearly enough to liquidate, as the old hymn calls it, my "firm foundation." But if Christian superiority could be questioned, so could everything else. The dehumanization of Muslims in my American Christian experience wasn't something I'd even been aware of until I got to Egypt. If Muslims were human beings with full human dignity and equal access to the Divine, maybe gay people were, too.

Thankfully, my experience in Egypt arrived in time. I quit conversion therapy upon my return to the States and told my evangelical parents to fuck off. Islam, and the unshakable implications of that pluralistic awakening, became the yeast that gave rise to my embrace of queerness. Without it, I can't imagine my course ever being so altered. Rather, had I never gone to Cairo, I could see myself instead ending up at a hipster-approved NYC megachurch—one where the worship leaders wear queer-derived fashion while they wring their hands over their choir members' "sinful" gay relationships

By the time I was 17, I had seen a pride parade, but never a communal Friday prayer. One didn't change me, but the other somehow did. After spending years arming myself against the insidious gay agenda, whaddya know—Islam brought me out of the closet. I could have never seen it coming.
Today, watching the blood-soaked popular conception of Islam and Muslims get pitted against Western ideas of gay identity and gay people feels strange. And sad. And infuriating. It's not like I don't understand the homophobia within Orthodox Islam, but then again, I know all too well the homophobia of Orthodox Christianity.

My young experience of Islam and Muslims had been the very thing that liberated me from that. And what's more, I know enough about the interactions of classical Muslim society and Europe to know that we were the ones who brought homophobia as a practice to the Arab world in the first place. It's a complex history, but the long and the short of it is that nobody really gave a shit about men sucking one another's dicks before colonialism got there in the first place. Ironic.

I do feel lucky, though. Because when a nightclub gets shot up, or a bomb explodes in one of New York's gayborhoods, I don't share in the desire to go fuck up some dudes in beards and caftans. I would rather put on some Qur'anic chanting, light a Marlboro, drool over my hot neighbor who left his blinds up, and thank Baby Jesus that he sent me to Egypt while I was still young enough to be turned gay by it.

Drew Harper is the author, with his father Brad, of Space at the Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son.

The Secret History of Elizabeth I's Alliance With Islam Catholic Europe shunned England so the Protestant queen traded with its enemies—and changed her country's culture forever.



In 1570, Elizabeth I was in a bind. She had been excommunicated by the Pope, and her country was shunned by the rest of Europe. To avoid ruin, England needed allies. The queen sought help from a surprising source: the Islamic world.

The Tudor period has supplied endless popular entertainments—from Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth movies to the television series The Tudorsbut this story has rarely been told. Jerry Brotton explores the forgotten history of English-Muslim alliances in his new book The Sultan and the Queen. Speaking from his home in Oxford, England, Brotton explains why Elizabeth believed Islam and Protestantism had more in common with each other than with Catholicism and how this cultural exchange may have inspired Shakespeare’s plays and turned the queen’s teeth black.

Queen Elizabeth I of England reached out to Islamic leaders "for hard-nosed political and commercial reasons," says author Jerry Brotton.

From Donald Trump to Brexit supporters, many Westerners view Muslims as a threat and want to close the borders. But 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I made alliances with the Shah of Iran and the Ottoman Sultan. What can Elizabeth I’s relations with the Islamic world teach us?

A lot. They can teach us that there’s a form of pragmatic exchange and toleration and accommodation, which trumps ideology. One of the key stories in the book is the issue of trade and the way trade collides with religions. The reason Queen Elizabeth develops this relationship with the Islamic world is theology initially. She’s establishing a Protestant state and England has become a pariah in Catholic Europe. So she reaches out for alliances with the Islamic world.
What flows from that is an exchange of trade and goods, regardless of sectarian and theological differences. Elizabeth is not reaching out to Sultan Murad III because she’s a nice person and wants religious accord. She is doing it for hard-nosed political and commercial reasons.

Elizabeth’s alliance with Murad III was essential to her self-preservation, yet this story has largely been left out of Tudor history. Why do you think that is?

In the last few years, there’s been a parochial identification of the Tudors, reflected in the way they have featured in recent TV shows, like The Tudors. It has become an index of Englishness, connected to whiteness and Christianity. But it never tells the wider story of what’s going on internationally. I started working on 16th-century maps and what the maps were telling me was that there was an exchange between the Islamic and Christian worlds, which wasn’t being told in the official histories.

Look at Tudor portraits. It’s all Orient pearls, silk from Iran, or cotton from the Ottoman territories. The English language changes, too. Words suddenly enter, like sugar, candy, crimson, turban, and tulip, which have Arabic or Persian roots. They all come in with the trade with the Islamic world.

These paper animations will take you on a journey through the city's history—from the Stone Age to the present day.

Elizabeth did her best to convince Sultan Murad that Protestantism and Islam were two sides of the same coin and that the true heresy was Catholicism. I’m confused …

What she does very shrewdly, when she starts to write to the Sultan in 1579, is say: Look, you and I have many similarities in terms of our theology. We do not believe in idolatry or that you should have intercession, i.e., a saint or a priest will get you closer to God. Protestantism says you should read the Bible and then you will be in direct contact with God. Sunni Islam says the same: You have the Koran, the word of the Prophet, you do not need saints or icons.
Elizabeth is doing this politically. What she’s saying is, you’re fighting Spanish Catholicism; I’m fighting Spanish Catholicism. What nobody mentions, of course, is Christ. [Laughs] Islam believes Jesus is a prophet, but not the son of God. So in all the correspondence, they step around this issue. They always talk about the fact that they both believe in Jesus but not how they believe in Jesus.

The first recorded Muslim woman to enter Britain was called Aura Soltana. She has an amazing story, doesn’t she?

She does. Another extraordinary figure, Anthony Jenkins, one of the earliest Englishmen to establish diplomatic and commercial connections with Persia, is on his way back to England, traveling up the Volga River, in what we now call Greater Russia. In Astrakhan, he buys this woman, Aura Soltana. It’s not clear whether this is a slave name or the name of the place she’s come from, but he takes her back to England.

At around this time, a similar figure is established as a lady-in-waiting in Elizabeth’s court. If it’s the same person—and I believe it is—she becomes a kind of fashion adviser to the queen, telling Elizabeth how to wear certain kinds of shoes or materials. Her exotic background made her exactly the kind of person to whom Elizabeth could say, “Oh, you’ve just come back from Moscow, what are the latest catwalk fashions?”

The subject of this painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger may have been the first Muslim woman known to enter England. (right)

There’s a tantalizing painting of an anonymous woman by Marcus Gheeraerts, called The Persian Lady, which some people speculate is of this woman. She’s dressed in a very opulent, oriental fashion. It could be our lady Aura Soltana, a slave who ends up in Elizabeth’s bedroom, dressing her. It’s an amazing story.

Among other goods, English merchants imported over 250 tons of Moroccan sugar into London every year. Is it true Elizabeth’s love of sugar turned her teeth black?

Yes! [Laughs] We have accounts by European travelers, who describe Elizabeth as a small woman with blackened teeth from eating so many sweet meats and candies. The predominant importation of sugar at that time was from what we would now call Morocco, as a result of Elizabeth’s Anglo-Islamic alliance with the Saadian Dynasties. It’s quite ironic. The Moroccans are fighting the Spanish while Moroccan sugar is destroying Elizabeth’s teeth, and English armaments are helping the Moroccans kill other Christians. [Laughs] Elizabeth liked anything sweet. Candied fruit was a big thing. Everything is just steeped in sugar!

Today, ISIS forcibly converts non-believers. Elizabethan merchant Samson Rowlie experienced a similar fate, didn’t he?

He did. The issue of conversion with somebody like him is fascinating. He’s a merchant from Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, who travels on an English commercial venture in 1577 to the eastern Mediterranean. Turkish pirates capture him. He is castrated, turned into a eunuch, and taken to Algiers. He converts, takes the name Hasan Agar, and becomes the chief eunuch and treasurer of the head of the Ottoman controlled city of Algiers! The English write to him about ten years later, about issues of trade. They say, “We believe you are probably still a Protestant. Would you like to come back?” Rowlie replies, “No way! I have a palace in Algeria. It’s nice weather here. Why would I want to go back to Great Yarmouth?” [Laughs]

You have many similar stories of people converting to Islam or, in the language of the time, “turning Turk.” It’s relevant to the current situation in the Middle East because, invariably, it’s Christians and Protestants who are embracing Islam, not the other way around. There are accounts of people who willingly embrace Islam because, in contrast to the way in which we see that culture today, the Muslim world is seen as tolerant and embracing difference.

Murad III, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, wrote letters to Elizabeth that were dusted in gold. (right)
Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd, Alamy
 
You write that, “London’s playhouses were in the grip of a fascination for staging scenes and characters from Islamic history.” How was this reflected in Shakespeare’s plays?

Shakespeare is fascinated by Moors, particularly. He’s also using the language of Turks and Persians throughout his plays. One of the earliest plays he writes, which we usually date around 1592, is Titus Andronicus. The main agent of evil, the baddie, in that play is called Aaron. He is described as a blackamore, which means he’s from northwest Africa, from the Barbary States. He causes all the chaos: bloody rape, pillage, mutilation, absolutely awful! People say, “Oh, that’s the predominant view of the Muslim in this period.”

Four or five years later, Shakespeare writes The Merchant of Venice. Another Moor pops up there called the Prince of Morocco. He’s a rather benign, elegant figure who’s a suitor to Portia, the heroine of the play. So Shakespeare is playing with different versions of these Muslim, Moorish characters. You get the evil Aaron and the rather noble Prince of Morocco.

Around 1601 Shakespeare then writes Othello, which draws on both versions. He is the irrational, violent, racist figure of the black man. He’s also this very elegant, powerful military commander: The Moor of Venice. Shakespeare is not moralizing. He’s drawing on this history of Anglo-Islamic relations to say, who is this man? Do we trust him? He might save us but he might also kill us all in our beds.

Post 9/11, it is one of the most frequently performed tragedies because of the complexity of its relationship with religion and ethnicity, which we are now seeing in North Africa and the Middle East. It’s become about much more than simply a black man destroyed by a white man.

Prince Charles laughs with Muslim students in Bradford, the city in northern England where author Jerry Brotton grew up. (right)
Photograph by Phil Noble, Reuters

You grew up in one of England’s most multicultural cities, Bradford, in Yorkshire. Talk about your early life—and how it inspired your interest in this subject.

For me it is profoundly personal because I am not from an elite background. My father was a deep-sea fisherman; my mum was a barmaid. I went to a state school just outside Bradford, where I was born. There was a multiculturalism we embraced, which was my version of Englishness. I played cricket with Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims; we were in the same religious studies classes. Post 9/11 and 7/7, when London was attacked, it was a real shock for me. What had gone wrong? Growing up at that point, those issues of sectarian differences were never in play.

What was the biggest surprise for you in researching this story, Jerry?

Following characters traveling through a world that is now in meltdown. They’re moving through places currently under control of the so-called Islamic state. What they’re doing at that point is encountering an Islamic world that is powerful, sophisticated, and superior to the culture that produced them: Protestant English culture. There’s an attempt to understand and accommodate, and to get on with each other.

That was the real shock and surprise for me, in a good way. There are Elizabethan Englishmen talking about the distinction between Sunni and Shia in the 1560s, when many people today don’t understand the distinction. So, hopefully the book is one little attempt to offer another kind of story of toleration and accommodation.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

‘The Art of the Qur’an,’ a Rare Peek at Islam’s Holy Text


 
 
Visitors studying a folio from a large Quran dating to about 1400 in the exhibition “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here, is the first major United States display of handwritten copies of Islam’s holy text. It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.

Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.


A binding of a Quran made from wood and leather dating to the ninth century. It was transferred from the Great Mosque in Damascus to Topkapi Palace in 1911, and to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in 1913. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.

The word Quran (or Koran) is derived from an Arabic verb for speaking from memory or reading aloud. And the book originated with the sound of a voice heard by a man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah near Mecca, the city in what is now Saudi Arabia. A trader by profession, he was in the habit of spending periods of reflection in a cave outside of town. On one visit, in A.D. 610, when he was 40, he heard a command, seemingly coming from nowhere, in Arabic:
Recite! In the name of thy Lord,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man what he knew not.
Fearing for his sanity, he fled the cave. But he returned, and the voice, which belonged to the Angel Gabriel, spoke again, bringing a message from God. The message named Muhammad prophet of a new monotheistic religion and explained its tenets and beliefs to him. He began to share what he’d heard, but encountered violent resistance, and had to move to another city, Medina. The voice followed him there and would continue to speak until Muhammad’s death in 632.

By that point, the new religion, called Islam — “submission, surrender” — had found its footing and attracted followers, though the words Muhammad heard had been only partly written down. With the prophet himself gone, and his closest companions aging, there was fear that the revelations would be lost. So a great effort of copying, collecting and collating began, and by the end of the seventh century, the Quran acquired something like a final shape.


A museum visitor studying one of the holy books at the exhibition. Over the centuries, the Quran became increasingly treated as an aesthetic object and a ritual instrument. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

A curious shape it is. About the length of the New Testament, the book has 114 chapters, or suras, all but one beginning with the same invocation: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Some chapters run several pages; others are just a few lines. Many of the shortest are urgent and rousing: They seem to record what Muhammad heard in those first hair-raising sessions in the cave. Yet they tend to come toward the back of the book, while longer, later passages — about communal practicalities and social justice — are placed up front.

There are many theories addressing this ordering, but no final explanation. The Quran, like all foundational religious texts, is a tangle of ambiguities and mysteries, to which endless annotations can be, and are being, written.

And the pen, along with the voice, became the book’s primary medium. The physical act of copying the text was thought to bring blessings — baraka — to the writer, though the earliest example in the show looks like a quick-and-dirty job. Dating from the late seventh or early eighth century, and found in the archives of the Great Mosque in Damascus, it’s a time-stained parchment folio covered almost edge to edge with Quranic passages. Written in an informal script, with chapter divisions barely acknowledged, it looks more like a personal letter than like a religious text.


The first of a two-part volume of the Quran, dating to 1028. This volume was copied by al-Husayn ibn Abdallah, most likely in Cairo. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Over time, though, highly refined penmanship styles, visual equivalents to the cadences of the spoken word, were designed specifically for the Quran, and masters of those styles were revered as cultural stars. So wide was the fame of the 11th-century Baghdad artist Ibn al-Bawwab (“son of the doorman”) that his signature was routinely forged, as is the case with a Quran in the show that bears his name but was copied by someone else.

One of his 13th-century Baghdad successors, Yaqut al-Mustasimi, was comparably celebrated. When a Mongol army laid waste to the city in 1258, his life was spared so that he could work for the new rulers, which he did for years. Although very few genuine examples of his work are now known, the show has one.

Largely because of its Quranic association, calligraphy came to be regarded as the greatest of Islamic art forms, sacred or secular. Spilling out of books onto wall tiles, ceramic vessels, glass lamps, textiles, mosque domes and building facades, it was both a sensual and ideological unifier, totalizingly utopian in the way that Mondrian’s environmental Modernism would be.


A volume from before 750, in ink and color on parchment. The binding is wood and leather. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Yet calligraphy was not the only elaborating gloss applied to the Quran. After the introduction of paper from China in the eighth century, copying the text on parchment — animal skin — fell into disfavor, and all kinds of experimentation came into play.

Multivolume Qurans — 30 volumes was a typical number, corresponding to the days of Ramadan — became more common as paper made them easier to produce, and compact one-volume versions gained in popularity. Size increased. The show has two pages from one of the largest Qurans on record. Probably made for the Mongol emperor Timur around 1400, they’re the equivalent of six-foot-high billboard advertisements for institutional power: the power of rulers, patrons, artists, religion, the Quran itself.

Over the centuries, the holy book became increasingly treated as an aesthetic object and a ritual instrument. Symbols were introduced to orchestrate the all-important recitation of its contents: indicators of where to pause, where to place emphasis, how to pronounce words. These signs, exquisitely painted, wreathed the text in networks of florets, medallions and arabesques, done in lapis-lazuli blue or light-catching gold.


A single volume of the Quran, dating to around 1580. This volume was copied by Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Shiraz, Iran. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Material preciousness became an end in itself, turning Qurans into prestige objects and political currency, valued as diplomatic gifts, as war booty and as pious, grace-earning donations to mosques and mausoleums. Many Qurans in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts’ collection were transferred there from royal tombs at the turn of the 20th century, when Europe was plundering Turkey for art.

The impression of the Washington exhibition is of splendor, not just from book to book and page to page, but within individual pages, with their nested divisions, their lustrous ornaments and their sprouting, rolling, singing Arabic phrases, which form the ethical heart of a faith and a culture. In a short video at the start of the show, we learn how these elements work together: A male voice intones one of the suras; simultaneously, an animated version of the Arabic text appears, spelled out in gold, on the screen, with an English translation below.

Once inside the show, though, we don’t have the voice, and we only occasionally have translations. What we have are the written words, which, for those of us who don’t read Arabic, we must accept as examples of text-as-design. Is that enough?


Visitors at the exhibition, which displays more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets. Credit Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

The day I was at the museum, there were just a few late-day visitors, and of those, several were women wearing hijabs. I watched them as they looked intently at the manuscripts arrayed around us, and I knew they were seeing things I couldn’t see, and feeling things I couldn’t feel, because they could read the words.

I was aware — and this is an easy perception — of the larger barriers of unknowing that stand between art and understanding, and of the barriers that stand between cultures, barriers that have, among other things, led our United States president-elect to propose banning entry to this country for women like these, who cover their heads and read a book that most of us don’t, and can’t.
Soon that president-elect will take up residence mere blocks from the Sackler. This show will still be on then. Will he see it? We can hope. But whether or not he does, some of us did, and stayed a long time, looking at, and lingering over, miraculously beautiful things and sharing, in different but not so different ways, the blessing that beauty brings.

“The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” continues through Feb. 20 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington; 202-633-4880, asia.si.edu.

Monday, 7 November 2016

'The misrepresentation of Muslims in the Irish media is a problem' Amanullah De Sondy, UCC's Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, joined George on the show today to discuss Islam depiction in the media



UCC's Amanullah De Sondy joined George Hook on High Noon today, unimpressed with how the Irish media continues to depict the Muslim faith and culture.

He said, 'it's a big problem'.  He continued, 'Muslims are depicted as monsters'.
The Immigrant Council of Ireland held a seminar today on the misrepresentation of Muslims in the Irish media.

Despite being one of the largest minority groups in the country, still Muslims, like Dr. De Sondy, feel that there is little visibility of their religion and culture in the mainstream media today.

October 25th 2016

Friday, 28 October 2016

Jerusalem, Halloween and Traditions


BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Friday 28th October 2016
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland


Israeli archaeologists have discovered an ancient wine ledger papyrus, said to be over 2,700 years old, they believe contains the earliest written reference to Jerusalem outside the Bible.  This announcement came just as UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organisation, adopted a second resolution in a week that Israel said denied Judaism's ties to some of Jerusalem’s holiest places. 

Reading about the archealogical discovery took me back to my masters degree on Jerusalem studies.  Jerusalem is clearly linked to the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  I was often quite confused by conflicting views from various academics who would raise one religious tradition’s connection and dismiss the other.  Yet this ancient wine ledger adds another layer to the traditions of Jerusalem outside of the three faiths as we know them.  It makes me wonder about the way in which traditions, be they religious or otherwise, are layered upon previous traditions or customs.   

Halloween is a perfect example.  Some would say it is purely a Celtic harvest festival with Pagan roots whilst others claim it solely as a Christian festival. 

There are more positive examples of shared sacred spaces.  Back in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a place connected to traditions of Jesus’s crucifiction is shared by at least six different denominations and if that wasn’t enough sharing – the keys of the Church are held by two Muslim families who have been known to keep the peace between the different Christian denominations.   
  
I see these overlaps as a positive. That living out may come from following different traditions but are we not all connected to each other? Diverging paths from the same source offer colours and diversity to what makes up the world we live in.  No matter how we try and separate our claims to traditions or sacred spaces, the challenge is to appreciate these differences and to share them peacefully.    

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Muslim magic – Islam has always dabbled in the occult through works of outstanding beauty – from sacred shirts to geomanic dice – this Ashmolean Museum exhibition demonstrates how seamlessly the Islamic faith shaded into stranger traditions

15 October 2016
9:00 AM

In 1402, when the Turkic conqueror Temur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, was poised to do battle with the mighty Ottoman Sultan Bayazid I, the greatest power in the Muslim world, he called in the astrologers. Knowing which side their bread was buttered on, the court officials duly pronounced that the planets were auspiciously positioned and gave a green light to attack. Temur was victorious. Not for nothing was he known as lord of the ‘Fortunate Conjunction of the Planets’.

Half a century later, in 1453, Bayazid’s great-grandson Mehmet II stood at the gates of Constantinople. Anxious to galvanise his siege-weary troops, he summoned court astrologers, diviners and holy men to do their business. They predicted Muslim victory over the perfidious Christians and rode through the Ottoman camp spreading the good news. On 29 May, the city that had resisted so many sieges finally fell and the Byzantine Empire breathed its last.

If these are historical reminders that the Islamic world was broad enough to accommodate traditional, pagan and pre-Islamic practices at the highest level, the Ashmolean’s exhibition Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural provides sumptuous visual evidence of the intersection between Islamic faith and superstition over the centuries. Here are the miniature and the monumental, richly decorated Qurans and finely wrought geomantic tablets and dice, astrolabes, magico-medicinal bowls, seals and scrolls, gemstones and jewellery, each artefact charged with religious and supernatural power.

Leaving aside the argument that all religion is a form of superstition, the exhibition demonstrates, through works of art of outstanding beauty, how seamlessly the Islamic faith has shaded into the supernatural and occult, especially at the popular level.

The leading light in the world of Islamic ‘magic’ was Ahmad ibn Ali al-Buni, a 12th-century author whose Luma’at al-nuraniyya (Brilliant Lights) investigated the occult properties of the 99 names of God and advised the faithful how they could harness their supernatural power through amulets and talismans. The manuscript here is just one of many highly coloured texts illustrated with tables and diagrams guiding the reader towards supernatural and divine succour.

As Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art, explains in one of several compelling essays in the show’s catalogue, amulets and talismans were frowned upon as a continuation of the pagan Arab tradition of wearing a stone on a chord around the neck to protect the wearer from evil, but the addition of Quranic verses and Islamic prayers on the objects rendered the practice more acceptable. In time it became completely commonplace for many Muslims, from royals to ordinary men and women. It is worth noting that two of the supporters of this exhibition are Qatari and Malaysian royals.

Talking of talismans, those with a keen sartorial interest will gravitate towards the extraordinary talismanic shirt, every square inch of which is superbly decorated with Quranic quotes, sacred invocations, holy names, squares and symbols. This striking garment recalls the letter from Hurrem Sultan to her husband Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1530s imploring him to wear the special shirt she had sent him, which would ‘turn aside bullets’ and keep him alive on the battlefield. Perhaps it worked. Suleyman proved to be the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan of all, subduing much of the Middle East and North Africa and taking his fearsome armies as far west as the gates of Vienna. You get your divine assistance where you can.

In their consistent interest in astrology, Muslims are no different from those of other faiths. Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi explored the zodiac in his Kitab al-Mawalid, or Book of Nativities, of which a fragmentary chapter about ‘People Born in the Third Decade of the Sign of Taurus’, probably from late 14th-century Baghdad, features here alongside Muslih al-Din al-Sururi’s Wonders of Creation with its charming illustration of the ‘Phases of the Moon’.

Power and protection, as the title of the exhibition suggests, were completely central to the fusion of the Islamic with the supernatural, and found their ultimate martial expression in coats of armour, swords, sabres and standards. One of the most striking exhibits is the 17th-century banner from India, a whopping triangle of cotton inscribed in coloured inks that measures almost 3.5 metres long. The border consists of 16 verses from chapter 48 of the Quran, the famous ‘Surat al Fath’, ‘The Victory’, in which Muslims are assured of God’s support for those fighting in His cause.

Away from the battlefield, Islam and the supernatural frequently met — and still meet today — in the use of sacred words and phrases to cure the unwell, offering users ‘a powerful reminder of the value traditionally attributed by Islam to sustained supplication and remembrance of God’, according to Francesca Leoni, the exhibition’s curator.

Islamic calligraphy is an art in its own right. A particularly beautiful example is the gilt copper finial of a falcon formed from the words of a classical Shia prayer calling on Ali in times of distress.

Anyone who thinks that, however artfully elaborated and embellished, all this is medieval mumbo-jumbo long since consigned to history, should pay a visit to Istanbul’s shrine of Eyup, an early hero from one of the 7th-century sieges of Constantinople. Here, among other delights, they will find enthusiastic vendors offering everything from blue beads to ward off the evil eye to fridge magnets offering one-stop-shop talismanic protection with representations of the Prophet’s seal of prophethood, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and their dog Qitmir, and 35 bismillahs fanning out from the name of God for good measure.

One of the most popular symbols of protection, for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, is the human hand. Perhaps its most recognisable form in the Islamic world is the Hand of Fatima, a classic symbol to ward off evil influences seen in exquisite jewellery, prosaic door-knockers and tourist tat from Morocco to Malaysia. Few come as extravagant or as colourful as the late-18th or early-19th-century finials from India made of gold on a lac core, riotously decorated with rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls. Goldfinger doesn’t even come close. Shia Muslims also mark the hand as a poignant reminder of the severed limbs of Abbas, half-brother of Husayn, who was slaughtered at the fateful Battle of Karbala in 680, a conflict that did so much to divide the Islamic world into Sunni and Shia, and which still resonates bloodily across the Middle East 14 centuries later.

Power and Protection raises another important and controversial point. The numerous glorious miniatures and illustrated manuscripts from India, Iran and Turkey, among other places, together give the lie to the common assumption that Islam proscribes figurative art. They represent a triumph of art over zealous ideologues. They may remind some visitors, too, that for all its demonisation in modern western discourse, Iran is an ancient repository of culture and learning, sophistication and nuance.
Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural is at the Ashmolean Museum until 15 January 2017.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Comment: The future looks inclusive - University College Cork (UCC) - Religion and Homosexuality Event



The UCC LGBT Staff Network was set up in 2007 and publicly launched by the University’s President in 2008.

The initiative actually came from the University’s Equality Officer – I lauded this as the essence of inclusiveness: being invited to join instead of pounding on the door demanding admittance.

I’d personally experienced this a quarter of a century earlier in 1980 when as a student I was elected President of the Students’ Union and we founded a student GaySoc. The then Governing Body refused us recognition – it wasn’t until 1989 that the student society achieved recognition. We felt the sense of exclusion very personally.

So, in 2007 when an e-mail was sent from HR to all staff inviting interest in founding the LGBT Staff Network, it felt all the more inclusive.

Those of us who were interested subsequently founded the network with the HR department’s support. Dr. Michael Murphy as University President went out of his way to be present at the launch. Some of the senior members of the Administration also attended – so we were pleased with this signal that it was being taken seriously.  There are photos from the day on our website.

Over the years since we’ve organised a variety of events. In 2009 we held a conference on LGBT workplace networks in UCC. We’ve arranged several literary readings – Emma Donoghue in 2011 and Jamie O’Connell in 2014. We hold regular coffee mornings and a meet and greet for new staff at the start of each academic year. We organised a book club for a number of years and we’ve taken part in Cork Pride and arranged summer outings.

In 2015 we played an active role in lobbying for same-sex marriage in the national referendum.  This year we’ve been actively involved through the University Equality Committee in joining GLEN’s Diversity Champions.  Recently we’ve liaised with our fellow networks in TCD and UCD with a view to strengthening links. We were really pleased that UCC achieved the Athena Swan Bronze Award.

We have an e-mail discussion list, which is the main indication of membership. The energy ebbs and flows and as it does, so do our levels of activity.  This year we’ve got a very energetic officer board – led by Dr. Laurence Davis as Chair - which is ensuring we’re more visible and active than ever.  The future looks bright – and inclusive!

Cathal Kerrigan, Assistant Librarian, UCC and Co-Founder of the UCC LGBT Staff Network.
The UCC LGBT Staff Network will present a discussion on Religion and Homosexuality on Monday, October 10, from 6 to 8pm, at the O’Rahilly Building (Room G27). Speakers will include Dr. Andrew Yip, Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham; Dr Alana Vincent, Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies, University of Chester; Dr Richard O'Leary of Changing Attitude Ireland and previously Queen’s University Belfast; and Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam, UCC (Chair). All welcome.