Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

51ieCQxz8HL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2016: 

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a colossus among Muslim scholars.  Stephen Frederic Dale gives us a portrait of this extraordinary man in his new intellectual biography, The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man (Harvard University Press, 2015).  “Ibn Khaldun,” he writes, “created the world’s first known example of historical sociology, a philosophically inspired discipline commonly thought to have originated in Western Europe.”

Dale’s book stands out in the large library of books and studies about Ibn Khaldun for its sharp focus on the philosophical foundations of his work.  Philosophy is at the heart of Ibn Khaldun’s method, according to Dale.  He states that Ibn Khaldun “forcefully and repeatedly indicates he has adopted Greco-Islamic philosophical ideas and methodology to revolutionize historical research, which he then employs to produce a comprehensive study of North African Muslims in his era.” Continue reading

by SHERALI TAREEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on AUGUST 10, 2015: 

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

In his lyrical and brilliant new book Who is Allah? (UNC Press, 2015), the legendary scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University, wrestles with the question of Who is Allah? through a dazzling range of textual, aesthetic, and performative registers.

41J+Gw-Y0NL._SL160_Who is Allah? treats readers to a delectable buffet of the breadth and depth of Muslim spirituality. How do Muslims invoke, remember, define, and debate Allah, while seeking to live a life that accords with His norms and template of piety? That is the central question addressed in this book as Lawrence introduces readers to major facets of Muslim ritual life and intellectual traditions-both past and present. In our conversation, we talked about the idea of “performing Allah,” the intellectual history of the idea of Allah, Allah in the thought of the Muslim mystics Ibn ‘Arabi and Bawa Muhaiyuddin, the mobilization of Allah by Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden, Allah online, and the Indian artist M.F Husain. Who is Allah? is a fascinating page turner that will make a great gift to family, friends, acquaintances and indeed strangers, and that should work splendidly in the context of classroom discussions on Muslim theology, Sufism, ritual practice, performance studies, and the fine arts.

LISTEN TO INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE

 
In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN and ISLAMiCommentary is a part), announced its official institutional affiliation with New Books in Islamic Studies — a bi-weekly audio podcast featuring hour long conversations with authors of exciting new research. For an archive see HERE.

“We invoke the name of Allah to bless a meal. We invoke His name before opening a book we are about to read. We invoke His name to anticipate an action. We invoke His name to mark a ritual slaughter. Why do all religions put such a focus on the name of this or that deity, divinity, prophet, saint, or savior? Because the name moves beyond the unbounded, unspecified space that surrounds and engulfs all life, whether human, animal, animate, inanimate, earthly or celestial. For Muslims, Allah is that name beyond all names that becomes the singular, most potent name to be invoked, remembered, and reproduced day after day, time and again, in joy and sorrow, in life and death.” – Bruce Lawrence 

by BRUCE LAWRENCE for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 25, 2015:

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

Who is Allah? No one really knows but many claim to know. In framing my book, I highlight twin needs: to look at Islam with fresh eyes, and to understand Allah with dispassionate insight. The alternative is to settle for journalistic sloganeering, too often sensationalist even when it is highbrow.

The very name Allah is interwoven into the everyday experience of millions of Muslims. While Allah does not belong to Muslims, Allah is supreme for Muslims. In the Islamic tradition, Allah creates, motivates, and sustains the universe as well as humankind. It is a name invoked over 2500 times in the Holy Qur’an. It is the basis of the ‘witness’ (or shahada), a creed as integral to Islam as is the Shema to Jews or baptism to Christians.

19781469620039But Allah is also contested. Believing Muslims advocate the superseding power of Allah, while disbelieving or disputatious others claim Allah as the tribal deity, or moon god, of Arabs.

Is Allah the same as God in Christianity or Yahweh in Judaism? Brahmin in the Hindu tradition, and the Buddha (or Bodhisattva) in the Buddhist tradition? Yes, but that easy identity of celestial doorstops, or ultimate spiritual authorities, does not help us understand the contemporary power of Allah.

What is most needed now is to understand both the historical nuance of Allah throughout the past 1500 years and Allah’s relevance today, in 2015.

For Muslims, as for adherents of other religions, intentions as well as practices are paramount in one’s religious life. While the practice of the heart demonstrates how Allah is remembered in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, the practice of the mind examines how theologians and philosophers have defined Allah in numerous contexts, often with conflicting aims.

It is the practice of the ear that marks the contemporary period, as we hear competing calls for jihad, or religious struggle, within the cacophony of an immensely diverse umma, the worldwide Muslim community. Continue reading

by BRUCE B. LAWRENCE for CRITICAL MUSLIM (Critical Muslim 12 - Dangerous Freethinkers (Oct-Dec 2014): 

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni liked school. No, he loved school.The challenge to read and recite, to count and to calculate was fun, but the real sport was to contest the ideas of others, to engage their motives and call into question their goals. A Muslim, he was also a Persian. And the Persian gene – some would call it ‘genius’ – was to argue, to debate, to advance through active exchange with the ideas of thoughtful others. Not everyone in his community was born thoughtful. Some never went to school. Some went to school and only memorised or repeated what others told them. He only did battle with equals, but he never ceased to find even his equals lacking.

Biruni was privileged to have a private tutor from a very early age. Born in 973, in the outskirts of Khwarizm (hence the name Al-Biruni, the outsider, or suburban), he may have lost one or both parents when he was very young. As a result, his academic tutor, Abu Nasr al-Mansur, also became his familial mentor. He made certain that Biruni learned all the basics of scientific inquiry in Arabic, and literary inquiry mostly in Persian. Abu Nasr also made it possible for his young protégé to undertake experiments on his own.

Biruni was impatient. A devout Muslim, he was also a sceptic about all received forms of knowledge. Continue reading

Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1633 pp., $105
Marshall G.S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, 3 vols., University of Chicago Press, 1974, 1633 pp., $105

Bruce B. Lawrence celebrates Marshall Hodgson’s moral vision

by BRUCE LAWRENCE for MARGINALIA (AT LA REVIEW OF BOOKS) on NOVEMBER 11, 2014: 

Bruce Lawrence
Bruce Lawrence

Marshall Hodgson was both a genius and a visionary. While he may have seemed to be just another university professor, at once restless, innovative, and genial, he was also an academic Übermensch with a global agenda. He wanted to change the world by changing the way we saw, understood, and engaged Islam within world history. Born in 1922, he was drafted but as a Quaker refused to fight in World War II. After serving five years in detention camp, he returned to school, graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhD in the early 1950s. He had been teaching from the notes that became The Venture of Islam for over a decade before his demise in 1968. Forty-six years after his death, and 40 years since the posthumous publication of his magnum opus, his legacy remains puzzling. Was he ahead of his time, or has he been overtaken by the Cold War and its aftermath, including the horror of 9/11, along with its own, persistent aftermath? Continue reading