Writing approaches for scholars of Middle East and North Africa to enlighten the Western reader


Richard Peres

My three years of living in Turkey, researching and writing Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still, [*] was a transformative experience. With each passing month my preconceived notions of the Middle East and generalities about Islam were shed, replaced by a more complex and nuanced reality of cultural practices, religion and politics. Each day I involuntarily compared and contrasted America and Turkey, discovering stark differences and strong commonalities at every turn. These insights were helpful in my writing and research, as I tried to enlighten Western readers via a recent event in Turkish politics relating to Islam and religious freedom.

However, during my visits home the opposite occurred. A mere half-day trip on Turkish Airlines immersed me in a different world coloured in broad powerful strokes by the entertainment media. Zero Dark Thirty grossed more than $100 million and received many film industry awards; similarly, the television series Homeland garnered many plaudits from critics and was highly popular. Both works seemed to personify Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis of twenty years ago in which he noted that the fundamental problem for the West was Islam. Since 9/11 the ‘thesis’ is exacerbated in a context where the mainstream media in the West typically employs language rife with negative connotations and misnomers, particularly relating to Islam when reporting on the MENA region.

How can we as students, teachers and contributors to the field of Middle Eastern Studies counteract this trend that is fueled by a flood of communication? If I limit myself to the communication world only, for one thing, relevant academic writing in the field of Middle Eastern Studies should also benefit and influence a world that is for the most part clearly non-academic. Put another way, academics are not going to help the world much if they mainly talk to each other and do not interact effectively with the rest of the world, a world that is rife with religious prejudice and political conflicts along the secular-religious divide.

I also suggest that MENA scholars, in extending their sphere of influence in their academic lives making their works accessible to non-scholars in language and writing style, should take part in activities, conferences, presentations, and publications that go beyond the academic world. Garnet does that also by its multiple imprints. We have our differences, for sure, but the cultural–religious–political conflicts that exist in the world are far greater and more dangerous.

The challenge seems overwhelming because the CNN commentator who fuels post-9/11 prejudices with sloppy descriptors when reporting on an uprising in Egypt, for example, reaches more people in a few minutes than a hundred or perhaps thousand academic lifetimes.

Another communication approach is to consider the human component in research and writing regardless of the extent to which one’s work is based on data collection and analysis. In Headscarf: The Day Turkey Stood Still I increasingly focused on humanizing and personalizing the experience of Merve Kavakci, the first headscarved woman elected to the Turkish Parliament, because I was struck by the vast gap between her vilified public persona on the part of secularists and Kemalists in Turkey, and the kind, educated and sympathetic person I knew. Not unlike Islamaphobic people in the West, they viewed her as a fundamentalist, radical Islamist and agent provocateur when, in fact, she only wanted to take the seat to which she was duly elected. Would this approach negate her venomous image among half of the Turkish population? While it’s difficult to counter simple notions with complexity, I adhered to my approach. Even when I got the chance to explain my book in person to those who disliked her, I was pressed hard to overcome their skepticism.

A further approach for MENA scholars is a simple but oft-forgotten one: always define your terms. I think the most misused terms regarding the MENA region is ‘Islamist’, i.e. a devotee of ‘Islamism’, meaning political Islam. In Wikipedia there are 17 definitions of Islamism and, in fact, dozens of other variations based on different degrees of incorporating Islam in the political sphere and support for a myriad of Islamic philosophers and political leaders over the ages. The Prime Minister of Israel refers to the Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and his party as Islamist and yet Erdogan advocated a secular government during a recent visit to Egypt, which was greeted with jeering from the crowd, and during his ten-year rule has not implemented any aspect of so-called Sharia law. The term without further definition and explication has the same meaninglessness as ‘Christianist’ when referring to the Democratic Party in the US or the Labor Party in England.

Until our academic publications regularly become ‘best-selling movies’, we can play a significant role making this a more peaceful world by fine-tuning our approach to communications.


[*] To be published in paperback this summer by Garnet Publications

The Druze: Lifting the shroud of secrecy


Ithaca Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of the world rights to The Druze by Abbas el Halabi.

Unlike traditional Islam, Druze doctrine has a mystical character that makes its truths openly available only to a select few wise initiates. This has led to their reputation as being secretive, ritualistic and mystical, which in turn has lead to misunderstanding and persecution throughout their history.

In this book, Abbas el Halabi attempts to shed light on the historical, religious, cultural and social heritage of the Druze, in order to present an accurate picture of them to the world. In the author’s words, he has sought to ‘lift the shroud of secrecy, refute the exaggerated fables and restore the truth by presenting a contemporary cultural approach’.

The Druze examines various aspects of the life of the Lebanese Druze community. In Lebanon, Druzes’ commitment to their religious identity has always been accompanied by a powerful historic and patriotic awareness of their status as Lebanese. The esoteric aspect of their faith and the Esprit de Corps that has bonded them in the face of threats to their identity, land or culture, have made them a fascinating case study on the survival of religious minorities in the Middle East.

Abbas el Halabi, himself a member of a prominent Lebanese Druze family and closely involved in Druze public affairs in Lebanon, attempts to separate facts from misconceptions, to elaborate on their political role in the history of the region, and consequently to evaluate their chances of survival going forward, in an era where religious tolerance and political democracy are still at a nascent stage.

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A Brave New World of Middle East Politics


Ithaca Press is pleased to announce the acquisition of The Changing nature of Shia Politics in the Contemporary Middle East, by Anoushiravan Ehteshami  and Mahjoob Zweiri.

This highly topical book provides a thorough and dispassionate study and account of Shia politics in modern times, and is based on the premise that Shia politics matters more to the Middle East now than at any time since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. It also chronicles the complexity and diversity of the challenges posed by sectarian divisions within the Muslim world.

Although Shia communities have always played a crucial role in the Middle East, they have traditionally suffered from being marginalized in comparison to Sunni Islam. However, the Shia’s role has developed and increased due to recent events, and has become more prominent in both Western and Arab Agendas in consequence.

The Changing Nature of Shia Politics in the Contemporary Middle East by Anoushiravan Ehteshami Imprint: Ithaca Press Authors: Anoushiravan Ehteshami , Mahjoob The Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw the emergence of Shia politics as a national and regional force, as the process of centralizing Islam led to an increase in Shia activity in the region. This was further enhanced following the Iraq war of 2003, which lead to the rapid empowerment of Shia forces to replace the Ba’athist regime, and out of which came a growing perception of the Shia as a key component in the building of a new Middle East. Shi’ite Hizbollah’s military prowess in defending the Arabs against Israeli aggression during the 34 day war in Lebanon in 2006 was a further factor in the emergence of Shia as a central player in the politics of the Middle East. All of these events have enabled the rise of Shia as opposed to Sunni, but have nevertheless presented a negative perception of Shia politics in the West.

The impact of 9/11 on the changing fortunes of the Shia, and particularly on the changed perceptions of it in the West, cannot be underestimated; the fact that all of the attackers were Sunni Muslims meant that Sunni Islam became ‘demonized’; the Shia took the opportunity to present themselves as the good guys of the Muslim world, who could be trusted by the West to combat radicalism and fundamentalism in the Middle East.

Most recently, the authors argue, the Arab Spring uprisings have had a dramatic effect on the politics of the Arab world, providing new space for Muslim political forces to influence the radical changes taking place. The book has a chapter devoted to the future role of Shia in the political process during this extraordinary period of rapid and turbulent change.

The book also examines the relationship between Sunni and Shia Islam, and discusses the various attempts which have taken place since 1945 to unite Sunni and Shia against secular forces in the Middle East, as part of a shared objective to establish Islam politically in the region. Following on from this, there is also a chapter which examines internal contradictions in Shiism, which could lead to instability, and one which provides an analysis of the changing relationship between external actors and the Shia in the Middle East, as the Shia has gradually become a more trusted force.

[Read More Here]

Two articles analysing the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascention to Heaven


The Familiar and the Fantastic in Narratives of Mu[hdot]ammad’s Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres

Peter Webb, Middle Eastern Literatures: incorporating Edebiyat, Volume 15, Issue 3, 2012

The story of Mu[hdot]ammad’s Night Journey and Ascension to the Heavenly Spheres is perhaps the most fantastic episode in the Prophet’s biography, and its fantastic aspects became widely accepted as historical facts notwithstanding the misgivings of early Muslim scholars. This paper investigates the narrative function of the fantastic in Ibn Kathīr’s extensive accounts of the story within a comparative framework. By examining his version of Mu[hdot]ammad’s Journey against narratives of utopia in western literature, it is possible to see the striking similarity in their narratives’ patterns, always beginning with the ‘familiar’ departure, then moving into the ‘remarkable’ journey, and ending in the ‘fantastic’ arrival, where the traveller comes into contact with the source of special knowledge. This paper proposes that Muslim al-Isrā’ wa-l-Mi‘rāj and western narratives of utopia follow a fairly universal structure, what I would call ‘utopian travel rubric’, which blends the ‘familiar’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘fantastic’ to engender a sense of plausibility for both the Heavenly and Utopian journeys.

Read the rest of the article here

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The Space Between Here and There: The Prophet’s Night Journey as an Allegory of Islamic Ritual Prayer

Simon O’Meara, Middle Eastern Literatures: incorporating Edebiyat, Volume 15, Issue 3, 2012

This paper commences with an analysis of Qur’an 17:1, the Prophet’s alleged night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, which it interprets as an allegory of Islamic ritual prayer. By way of this interpretation, the paper subsequently reviews Islam as a particularly spatially oriented religion and proposes a spatial reading of the word ‘Islam’ itself.

Read the rest of the article here

Early Contributions to the Theory of Islamic Governance: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī


This paper deals with the political understanding of one of the early masters of fiqh, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī (d. 157/773), as manifested in his biography and what can be substantiated of his legal scholarship. It argues that, although the principles of Islamic governance were systematically formulated and laid down by later generations, the corresponding concepts were well established and acted upon in the generation of this famous Syrian scholar. The paper draws on primary historical source material that has hitherto been largely underused. It sheds light on the scholar and his time, his evaluation of political events, his attitude to and relationship with people in power and his views on the legitimacy of rulers.

Early Contributions to the Theory of Islamic Governance: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Awzāʿī Journal of Islamic Studies (2012) 23(2): 137-164 first published online March 19, 2012 doi:10.1093/jis/ets041, http://jis.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/2/137.full

Cultural Engineering Under Authoritarian Regimes: Islamization of Universities in Postrevolutionary Iran


The purpose of this article is to analyze the efforts that have been made to Islamize Iranian universities, specifically since the emergence of hardliners in 2005. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Islamic regime relentlessly intensified its efforts to Islamize universities to train a new generation of ideologically driven students. In the three decades following the Revolution, three major periods of university Islamization have been implemented. The Cultural Revolution, which started in 1980, was the first step in the Islamization of Iran’s universities: to cleanse the higher education systems from students and professors who criticized the new established Islamic regime. By increasing the number of students and the development of universities throughout Iran in the Rafasanjai era, the second wave of the Islamization of the university was triggered by Ayatollah Khamenei in 1994. During the reform era, the Islamization of universities slowed because of the many confrontations between the Supreme Leader and the reformist administrations. With the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, the Islamization of universities intensified. While there are a few publications about the Islamization of universities, they mainly focused on the first and second decades following the 1979 Revolution. Focusing on the third period, this article will investigate the different strategies and tactics for the Islamization of universities, as well as reasons for its failures.

Digest of Middle East Studies: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1949-3606.2012.00124.x/abstract

Redeeming Sunni Islam: Al-Qa‘ida’s Polemic against the Muslim Brethren


The appearance of al-Qa‘ida at the beginning of the 1990s challenged the modern Islamic discourse by bringing the struggle against the ‘new Crusaders’—the United States and Europe—to centre stage. Impelled by frustration with the meagre record of Sunni radicalism in achieving substantive political change, and by its own aspiration for leadership, the organisation singled out the non-violent, influential Muslim Brethren as a main rival and a prime target for polemics. The formative basis for this polemic was provided by an essay written by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Hisad al-murr [The Bitter Harvest], around 1989. The essay, which has not been dealt with in the research literature until now, constitutes a biting attack against the Brethren. It undermines their historical legacy and goes so far as to shatter the image of their charismatic founder, Hasan al-Banna. More broadly, al-Zawahiri’s essay reveals the close affinity between historical memory and politics, and illuminates the clash within modern Islam.

British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13530194.2012.659442

Between Logic and Mathematics: al-KINDĪ’s approach to the Artistotelian Categories


What is the function of logic in al-Kindī’s corpus? What kind of relation does it have with mathematics? This article tackles these questions by examining al-Kindī’s theory of categories as it was presented in his epistle On the Number of Aristotle’s Books (Fī Kammiyyat kutub Arisṭū), from which we can learn about his special attitude towards Aristotle theory of categories and his interpretation, as well. Al-Kindī treats the Categories as a logical book, but in a manner different from that of the classical Aristotelian tradition. He ascribes a special status to the categories Quantity (kammiyya) and Quality (kayfiyya), whereas the rest of the categories are thought to be no more than different combinations of these two categories with the category Substance. The discussion will pay special attention to the function of the categories of Quantity and Quality as mediators between logic and mathematics.

Arabic Sciences and Philosophy: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0957423911000099

Reform in the Middle East Oil Monarchies

Considerations of the Nature of Democracy and Reform in the Arabian Peninsula


Reform in the Middle East Oil Monarchies, Ithaca Press, Editors: Anoushiravan Ehteshami , Steven Wright, ISBN: 9780863723230, New Edition, Feb 2012

Oil – essential to the economy of the Middle East – is central to current unrest in the region, and is therefore inextricably linked to any consideration of wider political reform.
This collection of articles features contributions by eminent academics and government officials, through which it addresses issues surrounding reform specifically in the oil-rich countries and states of the Arabian Peninsula.
These oil-rich monarchies are frequently dismissed as having no democratic systems compared to most other regions of the world. However, recent consideration has shown that these countries and states are perhaps not as autocratic as they have traditionally been perceived to be.
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Early Arabic Poetry: Select Poems by Professor Alan Jones


Ithaca Press is pleased to announce the publication of Early Arabic Poetry: Select Poems by Professor Alan Jones. This new edition of Early Arabic Poetry combines the two volumes first published in 1992 and 1996, bringing them together with a new foreword and introduction by Professor Jones, which covers the major background problems faced by students of early Arabic poetry. The book will appeal to academics and students in the fields of Middle East Studies, Arabic, literature and poetry.
The book is divided into two main sections: the first section contains a study of fifteen poems from two of the more vivid genres: laments and poems by the outlaws. The second section focuses on famous odes. The poems are analysed in minute detail, providing the student with all the information needed to understand the texts and to consider each poem’s overall thrust and purpose.
The study of early Arabic poetry is a difficult one for a number of reasons; it is the work of people of a very alien milieu – the great composers were camel-dependant nomads; its grammar has many complications that do not survive in the later language; its texts were transmitted orally for up to two-and-a-half centuries; and there are serious problems about authenticity. It is nevertheless a fascinating and rewarding area of study, from which all later Arabic poetry stems.
This book provides unique insights into ideas prevalent in the region at the rise of Islam. In his introduction, Professor Jones describes how ‘Poetry had a number of facets that took it into the realms of magic’. As well as the inspiration of the poet by his own spirit, and the magic of the sound of poetry recitation, poetic utterances were believed to contain magical forces, particularly when the poem was intended to denigrate or curse. Thus the book transcends mere analysis of poetry to provide a rich critique of the complexities of the subject and the era.
Alan Jones taught Arabic, Turkish and Islamic Studies at Oxford from 1957 to 2000, when he retired from his post as Professor of Classical Arabic. Amongst his special interests are pre-Islamic poetry, the Qur’an, and the early growth of Islamic studies. He has also published key works on the poetry of Muslim Spain. His translation of the Qur’an was published in 2007.
FURTHER INFORMATION
For more information about Early Arabic Poetry or to request a free review copy, please visit http://www.ithacapress.co.uk or contact: Pamela Park, Production, Sales and Marketing Manager,
Garnet Publishing Ltd., 8 Southern Court, South Street, Reading, Berkshire RG1 4QS, UK. Tel: 0118 959 7847.
Email: pamelapark@garnetpublishing.co.uk

Ithaca Press is pleased to announce the publication of Early Arabic Poetry: Select Poems by Professor Alan Jones. This new edition of Early Arabic Poetry combines the two volumes first published in 1992 and 1996, bringing them together with a new foreword and introduction by Professor Jones, which covers the major background problems faced by students of early Arabic poetry. The book will appeal to academics and students in the fields of Middle East Studies, Arabic, literature and poetry.
The book is divided into two main sections: the first section contains a study of fifteen poems from two of the more vivid genres: laments and poems by the outlaws. The second section focuses on famous odes. The poems are analysed in minute detail, providing the student with all the information needed to understand the texts and to consider each poem’s overall thrust and purpose.
The study of early Arabic poetry is a difficult one for a number of reasons; it is the work of people of a very alien milieu – the great composers were camel-dependant nomads; its grammar has many complications that do not survive in the later language; its texts were transmitted orally for up to two-and-a-half centuries; and there are serious problems about authenticity. It is nevertheless a fascinating and rewarding area of study, from which all later Arabic poetry stems.
This book provides unique insights into ideas prevalent in the region at the rise of Islam. In his introduction, Professor Jones describes how ‘Poetry had a number of facets that took it into the realms of magic’. As well as the inspiration of the poet by his own spirit, and the magic of the sound of poetry recitation, poetic utterances were believed to contain magical forces, particularly when the poem was intended to denigrate or curse. Thus the book transcends mere analysis of poetry to provide a rich critique of the complexities of the subject and the era.
Alan Jones taught Arabic, Turkish and Islamic Studies at Oxford from 1957 to 2000, when he retired from his post as Professor of Classical Arabic. Amongst his special interests are pre-Islamic poetry, the Qur’an, and the early growth of Islamic studies. He has also published key works on the poetry of Muslim Spain. His translation of the Qur’an was published in 2007.
FURTHER INFORMATION
For more information about Early Arabic Poetry or to request a free review copy, please visit http://www.ithacapress.co.uk