Monday, 21 September 2009

Book review: "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" by Reza Aslan

I have just finished reading Reza Aslan’s book “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam”. I enjoyed it very much. Written in a lucid, precise and highly readable style, Aslan describes how Islam came into being in Arabia, which up to that time had a polytheistic religious culture. The ancient Arabs worshipped many Gods including the God of the Jews and the Christians. Then came Muhammad - the founder of Islam – who, after receiving the Revelation at Mt Hira in 610AD, preached a message of absolute monotheism and declared “there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger.” Aslan narrates the lives of Muhammad and his Companions who established the first Muslim community (“Ummah”) in Medina, their battles with the powerful Quraysh tribe and their eventual victory, and the subsequent evolution of Islam after Muhammad’s death.

Aslan knows his subject very well. It does often read like an unapologetic defence of Islam, which he acquiesces in the introduction, yet he is critical of the rise in Islamic extremism (Islamism) in recent times and sets out some ideas for reform at the end of the book. The diversity of Islam owes to “dozens of conflicting ideas about everything from how to interpret the Prophet’s words and deeds to who should do the interpreting, from whom to choose as leader of the community to how the community should be led.” These arguments often led to conflict, but also gave birth to various sects. Apart from the main Sunni or “orthodox” branch of Islam are the Shia and Sufi sects, both of which came into being as reactionary movements. Aslan goes into some detail about Sufism, the eclectic mystical tradition within Islam.

Muhammad was a very different kind of figure from Jesus Christ (whom he greatly revered), yet he strove to bring about radical religious, social and economic change in pre-Islamic Arabia. Aslan makes some interesting comparisons between Islam and Christianity, although his knowledge of the former is much better than of the latter. He says Christianity is an ‘orthodoxic’ religion; it is principally concerned with one’s beliefs in God while Islam, like Judaism, is an ‘orthopraxic’ religion, where it is one’s actions that makes one an observant follower. The five pillars of Islam are: “salat,” or ritual prayer (performed five times a day); “zakat,” or the paying of alms; fast (“sawn” in Arabic) during the month of Ramadan when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad; the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca; and the “shahadah,” or profession of faith, which initiates every convert to Islam. Only the last pillar requires belief rather than action. Unlike Christianity, Islam is a communal religion; it abhors monasticism and reclusive individualism. The Quran also categorically derides celibacy as being against God’s command to be “fruitful and multiply.”

Aslan traces the roots of modern day Islamic fundamentalism to the influence of people such as Shah Wali Allah (d. 1762) as well as the experiences of the colonial period. Shah Wali Allah’s emphasis on orthodoxy, to strip Sufism of its “foreign” influences (e.g. Neoplatonism, Persian mysticism, Hindu Vedantism) and restore it to a former unadulterated form of Islamic mysticism, sparked a number of “puritan” movements in India like the Deobandi School. What angered political reformers, such as Jamāl-al-dīn al-Afghānī (1838-97) and Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), was the hypocrisy the British showed in preaching the values of the Enlightenment while cruelly pillaging the natural resources of their conquered lands and suppressing appeals for liberation. Al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood, which was conceived to be an Islamic social movement “to present Islam as an all encompassing religious, political, social, economic, and cultural system.” Later, the movement underwent a more radical transformation under the influence of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who asserted the new ideology of Islamism which “called for the creation of an Islamic state in which the socio-political order would be defined solely according to Muslim values,” and he envisioned this process to be a “cataclysmic, revolutionary event.”

The book describes how the puritanical, fundamentalist sect of Islam known as Wahhabism became established in what is today Saudi Arabia. Thanks to oil money and Saudi evangelism, Wahhabism has now infiltrated every corner of the Muslim world, and it is the ideology of al-Qaeda. Aslan says that despite 9/11 and subsequent terrorist acts against western targets, “what is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West. The West is merely a bystander – an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story.” This is not the “clash of civilisations” but a war within Islam between scores of first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, indoctrinated in the democratic ideals of their new homes, and the bigotry and fanaticism of those who have replaced Muhammad.

Being a young boy who fled to America with his family during the Iranian Revolution, Aslan is able to narrate the events of that historic period well and how Iran was transformed into “a fascist country run by a corrupt clerical oligarchy committed to snuffing out any attempts at democratic reform.” Yet he says that democracy in the Middle East is possible because “it is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy,” and Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism. If America, which is “unapologetically founded on a Judeo-Christian – and more precisely Protestant – moral framework,” it should be possible to have Islamic democracy through a path of secularization.

Aslan compares the current conflict in Islam to the cataclysmic events of the Reformation in Christianity. The book ends with the sentences: “The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.” What is happening in Islam, says Aslan, is an internal conflict about who will write the next chapter in its story. It’s an alluring thought and I sense his passion about his own faith makes him believe that this is the case. The book does have its biases, but for anyone who wants a fairly balanced introduction to Islam I recommend this book.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Will Delhi be ready for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?

According to a leaked government report in India this may not be the case, reports the Times of India:
"In what could bring huge embarrassment to the country, key Commonwealth Games (CWG) projects - including games venues, infrastructure for conducting the sports and major city upgrade plans - are running so much behind schedule that there's a real threat of India's showpiece Games turning into a non-event.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, which early this month submitted an evaluation report to the Prime Minister's Office and the sports ministry, has observed that in at least 13 of the 19 sporting venues, the work shortfall is between 25% and 50%. This means all these projects would either miss the deadline or compromise on quality in the haste to finish on time.

That's not all. Sources quoting the report said the Delhi government and some central agencies executing Games-related projects have officially shelved at least six infrastructure projects by delinking them from the Commonwealth Games.

Though the delinked projects are flyovers and bridges that could at best clog up traffic and hamper timely conduct of events, what could actually result in the Games being shifted elsewhere is the organizers' inability to complete sports venues even in the extended timeframe. As per international guidelines, all CWG projects were to be completed by May 2009 and the last year should have been kept for trial runs.

Far from that, sources quoting the CAG report said in the case of Jawaharlal Nehru stadium - the main venue of the Games - even the final designs were yet to be frozen. Authorities executing the projects hadn't received layout details for LAN, CCTV, broadcasting overlays, video screens, scoreboards and signages etc.

The evaluation report says these details, as well as the type of track and turf to be used, were required to be submitted in October 2008. Instead, these have been received by CPWD only recently. The location and the requirements for the photo finish room at JLN Stadium were finalized by the organizing committee as late as May 2009.

Meanwhile, the all-too-familiar finger-pointing is on. CPWD, the project executing agency, has blamed the organizing committee and its consultants for delaying the projects by constantly revising and re-revising designs for every venue, sources said."
This is so typical of the state of affairs in India today. To undertake any major project, there are a countless number of delays and objections, that by the time something is completed, it is either too late or there is a need for something even better. You would have thought seven years is sufficient time to prepare for these games, but not in India.

Contrast India’s struggling attempts to host the event and China’s highly successful running of the Olympics last year. Whether construction work will be completed before the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games is anyone's guess. Even if the government pulls out all the stops to complete construction, there is no guarantee quality won't be compromised. One way or another, it seems India may not be spared the blushes.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

India trip 2009

I have just returned from a short holiday in India. It was an enjoyable and interesting trip in many ways. The last time I visited the country was in 2006, so this holiday enabled me to take stock of changes that have happened since then. This time I was determined to see some places other than my relatives’ houses because having a young daughter, who was born in the UK but has no knowledge of India, I wanted her to come away with a reasonably good impression of the country.

We landed in Mumbai on 14 August 2009, just one day before Independence Day. Mumbai was in a state of panic about swine flu. After disembarking, all passengers on my flight from London were screened for the illness. The screening process was largely a paperwork exercise, which wasted half an hour and left me wondering: was targeting foreigners the best way of tackling the virus given that it had already spread to India?

Despite warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the run-up to Independence Day, I did go out and see some of the major landmarks in the city of Mumbai including Nariman Point, the Gateway of India, the Taj Hotel, Malabar Hills, and Juhu Beach. The Taj Hotel has been largely restored to its erstwhile glory following the terror attacks in November 2008. It is a majestic building, as is the Gateway of India, just a stone throw away. I didn’t like Juhu Beach, which makes much derided Blackpool Beach seem clean. The many new shopping malls in Mumbai are very popular with the middle classes.

Mumbai is a city of striking contrasts. Here you find people from all walks of life, and all parts of India, and their differences are bewildering. The poor are very poor, and the rich are very rich. In Mumbai, people from just about every state in India rub shoulders with each other. The dilapidated buildings of Dharavi contrast with the tall, modern skyscrapers in the heart of the city. It is a bustling, noisy cosmopolitan that never sleeps. Unfortunately the traffic can be a nightmare, due to the burgeoning population, but that is a fact of life in every major town or city of India today.

After spending a couple of days in Mumbai, we flew down to Kochi and headed to Thrissur in the centre of Kerala. Thrissur is Kerala’s cultural capital, having a number of Hindu temples and Christian churches. Every year the Thrissur Pooram festival, held near Vadakkumnathan Temple in the centre of the city, is celebrated with much gusto by thousands of people, featuring caparisoned elephants and fireworks. The city is also famous for gold jewellery, producing 70% of Kerala’s ornaments. A number of new hotels have come up in Thrissur in recent years.

After visiting my in-laws and my mother’s family in Thrissur, we travelled north to Kozhikode by train. Train travel in India is much more comfortable, and less hazardous, than travelling by car. The passenger compartments are not always tidy, the food can be dodgy, but train travel in India is cheap; it is the best way to see the country. Now more of the tracks are becoming electrified, reducing the dependence on that polluting fossil fuel, diesel.

Situated on the Malabar Coast, Kozhikode is a bustling, multiethnic and muilti-religious city. Although Hindus form the largest community there is a substantial Muslim population here, and a smaller Christian community. The city played an important role in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, and even today there is a strong mercantile character about it. The shopping centre has expanded in recent years, with a wide variety of shops selling anything from Halwa to sarees.

We spent a couple of days in Kozhikode, visiting some of my paternal aunties, and then we travelled south to Alleppey. At Alleppey station, our tour operator from Indian Panorama met us and took us to the houseboat jetty. Alleppey is a small town where the main business is fishing, and more recently tourism. I was impressed with the facilities on board our houseboat including an area at the front for sightseeing and dining, an air-conditioned bedroom and en-suite bathroom, and a kitchen at the back for preparing food. The boat was manned by three crew members including the cook.

As our houseboat gently navigated the lotus-filled backwaters around Alleppey and headed toward Kumarakom via River Pampa, we sat and watched the beautiful green Kerala countryside. This was surely the best way to see Kerala, away from the maddening traffic on the roads, unhurried and relaxed. The palm trees arched over the banks of the waterways, their canopies hanging high over the water. The scenary was simply serene, composed of different shades of green, each shade owing to a different kind of crop. As we passed small villages and paddy fields, we saw people going about their daily lives. Women washed their clothes while fisherman ferried their catches in their skiffs.

We passed many other houseboats in the opposite direction, some occupied by foreign tourists, as well as other types of boats and small ships transporting goods to various trading centres in Kerala. The food we ate on board was fresh and tasty. We docked at a quiet spot not far from Kumarakom for the night, and completed the journey the next morning. It was truly a wonderful experience which I will not forget for a long time, and my five year old daughter particularly enjoyed it.

After a visit to St Mary’s Forane Church at Bharananganam, where Kerala’s first Christian saint, St Alphonsa, is buried, we travelled to Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in our pre-arranged taxi. The traffic in Kochi was the worst of all the cities I visited in Kerala. Although many new businesses and people had moved into the city, the transport infrastructure had failed to keep up with the change. The result was heavy congestion especially during the morning and evening rush hours. We just spent a day in Kochi, visiting the homes of two uncles, before heading back to Thrissur where we spent the remainder of our holiday.

This was a most enjoyable holiday and I am very grateful to my relatives for all their hospitality. I have seen a lot of change in the country. Just about every consumer good that you get in the west can now be purchased in India. There is a new confidence among the middle classes with their increased opportunities and affluence. More people seem to know English, the language which enables Indians to communicate with the rest of the world. However, not all change has been for the better. As more and more people flock to the urban areas to get a share of the money pie, the transport infrastructure is struggling to cope. Due to bumbling bureaucracy, appreciating land prices, lack of planning and corruption the infrastructure, particularly the roads, is creaking at the seams.

Climate change is also adding to people’s woes in India. This year’s monsoon wasn’t heavy, especially in northern India, adversely affecting crop production and pushing prices up. India will have to improve its irrigation facilities if it wants to help its agriculture sector. The population continues to grow, putting further pressures on its limited resources, and there are still many areas where illiteracy and poverty are rife. Sectarian violence occasionally flares up in some trouble spots, and caste discrimination is still oppressive in various places, especially in some of the backward northern states. The threat of terrorism, motivated by internal and external elements, is ever present.

The challenges the country faces are indeed huge. Talk of it becoming a superpower, I think, is highly optimistic given India’s current social, political and cultural environment. India will continue to make economic progress, even if that growth is a little lopsided, but it probably won’t be much more than the regional power it currently is. Its success shouldn’t just be measured in pure economic terms. Despite its obvious flaws, what I find heartening is that the majority of its large and diverse population are tolerant of one another’s differences and get along fine. Long may that unity in diversity continue.