Wednesday, 25 February 2009

More on Science and Islam, Arabic loan words in English

One of Jim al-Khalil's arguments in Science and Islam is that Muslim scholars, astronomists and mathematicians gathered the data that Copernicus, Galileo and others used in working out their theories. As Isaac Newton claimed to be standing on their shoulders of giants, so it happened that those before him had stood on Muslim shoulders and those Muslims had been standing on Greek, Roman, Persian and other shoulders.

Looking at the influence of Arabic on other languages, the use of Arabic loan words in English shows the lasting effect of those ideas and concepts which may have either been non-existent or undefined in other languages before being expressed in Arabic. Algebra, alcohol, alchemy and algorithm are all important scientific words coming directly from Arabic.

In his biography Long Walk To Freedom Nelson Mandela uses the existence of

a recurring argument among the political prisoners on Robben Island, on the question of tigers in Africa. One group insisted that tigers were native to India and Asia, and quite exotic to Africa. The others were just as adamant about Africa as the tiger's natural habitat. In fact, they would argue, there were still many of them around; some went so far as to vouch that they had seen tigers in the African jungles with their own eyes. Mandela's view was particularly illuminating:

"I maintained that while there were no tigers to be found in contemporary Africa, there was a Xhosa word for tiger, a word different from the one for leopard, and that if the word existed in our language, the creature must once have existed in Africa. Otherwise, why would there be a name for it?" (source ANC website)

Conservative Christians often claim the Bible condemns homosexuality. It's a difficult claim to defend given that the concept of homosexuality wasn't created until sometime around 1869. Before then there were acts that were prohibited and persons who engaged in prohibited acts. The concept of a homosexual, even though there were undoubtably lots of homosexuals, hadn't been invented.

It is remarkable how different cultures mix, what persists through the ages and why. The following anecdote about how 'Allah' became 'Ole' puts an interesting spin on packed crowds in football stadiums chanting 'Ole! Ole! Ole!' as their team scores a goal.

Then she went on to describe how centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to get together for moonlight dances celebrating sacred entities that would go on for hours and hours. Every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen and one of the performers would be imbued with something transcendent.

"And I know you know what I'm talking about," she said. "Because I know you've all seen at some point in your life a performance like this."

It's as if time stopped, and the dancer stepped through a portal. He wasn't doing anything different than he'd done a thousand times before, but for some reason everything was aligned and he no longer appeared to just move. Instead, he seemed to be lifted from within and below.

"And when this happened, people knew it for what it was," she said. "They called it by its name. They'd put their hands together and would start to chant Allah, Allah. 'God, God.'"

As an aside, she noted that when the Moors invaded southern Spain they brought this custom with them, but the pronunciation changed over the centuries from chanting Allah, Allah, Allah to chanting Ole, Ole, Ole, which is now heard at bullfights and flamenco dances when a performer does something incredible. (Source: Wired)

The strange thing about culture is that all cultures owe a debt to those they have come after, and even to those they are a reaction to.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Americans and torture

58% of Americans are against torture and we're supposed to take comfort in that. The so-called Greatest Nation on Earth, a beacon of freedom, hope and democracy still has 40% of it's population in favour of torture. There are enough people there that think people don't matter. Their rights don't matter. Even though anyone with a clue says torture has no intelligence value. Too many nights spent watching 24 and not even flinching when someone... you know... has to be tortured to reveal where the ticking bomb is planted. Even Slumdog Millionaire makes light of torture. The main character is abducted by the police, held without charge, electrocuted and then, seemingly none-the-worse, set free to go and win 25 crore rupees.

In countries where torture is commonplace and seen as a valuable tool for breaking opposition movements, political dissidents and "enemies of the people", many people look to the United States as a place where these kinds of things can't happen. A place where a tried and true belief in liberty protects people from the state. Yet stories leek out about policemen beating people, shooting innocent citizens in cold blood and planting weapons, killing people held in cells, abusing their power, etc. These are the kinds of things people like to brush off as "rogue elements" or "cops stepping over the line", but maybe they aren't. And they're shielded from punishment by public complacency.

Maybe they aren't Lethal Weapon-style kill-all-the-bad-guys excesses, rugged individualists against the corrupt system crap, but are indicative of something far more corrosive in American society -- that the state knows what's best and people don't matter.

Let's hope Barack Obama and his new administration take a real stand against torture and send out a clear message -- the USA does not torture, will not torture, nor will freedom-loving Americans stand by and allow others to torture.

Friday, 20 February 2009

U.S. policies led to Iran regime change

Recent evidence suggests that the US policies towards Iran created the foundation from which the Iranian Revolution and hence the Islamic Republic of Iran could spring from. In other news, the Pope is a Catholic, water is wet and bears... There's nothing original in that.

It's more interesting to look at the forces within Iran that were contesting for power and the class structure/struggle there. Bazaaris locked out the dollar economy, jealous of a Shah's new upper class, clerics locked out of power, dirt-poor but hopeful believers hoping for the return of the Madhi, etc. As Iranians love to blame "the British" for much of what has befallen them, Westerners love to blame their own governments and intelligence agencies. Iranians were involved, profited from and backed the disturbances that lead to the Constitutional Revolution, the 1953 Coup and the fall of the Shah.

Iranians are not, and have never been, pawns in a grand imperial game. They have their own, diverse opinions, politics and motives. Constantly lumping them into a single homogenous group misreads everything and won't give you any insight into politics and peoples' lives in Iran.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Religious lunatics try to keep women down in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is still going on, but the real war is a civil war between decent Afghan people and religious lunatics trying to keep women down who will stop at nothing to deny them basic rights such as the right to education. We can only hop that groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan still have the stomach for the struggle they're involved in. I suspect they might still have it.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Saudi women make their mark in business

Despite all the crap women in Saudi Arabia have to put up with, many are making headways into the business world. You don't need to be able to vote or drive when you're making hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Women's emancipation has a long and turbulent history, full of contradictions. Whether it's those fighting for universal suffrage, but forgetting their darker skinned or colonial sisters, or those fighting for the right to get into universities and the workplace, there are always less visible struggles. The struggle against the hijab in Iran, for example, maybe gets headlines whereas the struggle to get into the boardroom doesn't.

Friday, 13 February 2009

An American in Iran

One of my favourite Iranian blogs recently ran a short piece by an American in Iran. Despite the extra hoops Americans have to jump through to get into the country, it seems many find it a rewarding experience.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

BBC documentary series Science and Islam

The BBC in the UK has just shown a 3 part series Science and Islam. Parts of the series are available on YouTube (other blogs have all the links, and they're available on certain peer-to-peer filesharing websites. Here is a taster:

Not only was this a fascinating documentary series, well put together, great locations and a nice antidote to the "What did Islam ever give us?" rhetorical questions. That's all despite lots of shots of presenter Jim al-Khalil standing around holding his little brown notepad, staring at exotic looking piles of dirt.

In his exposition of Shi'ite Islam Muhammad Husayn Tabatabaei explains the Islamic sciences as being:

divided into the two categories of intellectual ('aqli) and transmitted (naqli). The intellectual sciences include such sciences as philosophy and mathematics. The transmitted sciences are those which depend upon transmission from some source, such as the sciences of language, hadith, or history. (Shi'ite Islam, trans. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 104-105)

But al-Khalil never really establishes his scientists as Islamic scientists any more than they were Persian, Syrian, Palestinian or Spanish. Their religious identity, or that part of their identity that could be called Muslim, was never really discussed. The result was something less than an insight into Islamic science than an insightful history into scientific contributions from men who just happened to be Muslims/living within the great Muslim empire and seats of learning. Interestingly, the word 'scientist' is a relatively recent creation, whereas mathematics has a much richer history.

In what seemed like a rushed closing, al-Khalil lays much of the blame for the decline of Islamic science, more so than science in Islamic culture, at the door of those countries (Spain, France, Portugal, Great Britain, etc.) expanding into the New World after the discovery of America. He makes no effort to explain the cultural and religious shifts within Islamic countries themselves and brushes away the changes as a reaction to what was happening in the West.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

White, Welsh and Muslim

A fascinating look into the life of Muslim converts in Wales. It doesn't delve too deep into the theology of the converts, but does show the UK public's attitude to the niqab quite nicely. I wish they'd looked a bit more closely into whether they'd originally thought Jesus was the son of God/saviour of all mankind and they were now rejecting that or whether they were only nominally Christian (as in theists raised Christian).

Omer, the oldest of 3 convert brothers is an articulate and affable chap who manages to throw in a little bit of Welsh nationalism too.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The 43 Group - when men were mensch

The 43 Group were (mainly) Jewish and (a few) gentile ex-servicemen and woman who, coming back from the defeat of Hitler and the Fascists in Europe, decided to take a stand against the homegrown Fascists in Britain. Led by the affable Morris Beckman and Gerry Flamberg, they stuck it to the Fascists with fist, boot and brains, defended their areas with passion and discipline and ensured that Fascism never established itself in the UK.

They occupied a small window in time where London large working-class Jewish communities in its East End, the Left and the communists were well-organised, British Jews and ex-servicemen has been drilled and hardened by combat in Europe and many were only just learning of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. This group was a shining example of what it meant to be a mensch (in Yiddish: מענטש).

Here's a much too short, but fitting tribute and insight...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Iraqi resistance recruits women to their cause... by raping and humiliating them

News that an Iraqi woman named Samira Jassam allegedly recruited 80 women to be suicide bombers as part of the "resistance" in Iraq comes as no surprise. One of her recruitment tactics however, shows how the fratricidal "resistance" is can offer nothing more to the Iraqi people than an example of the very lowest that humanity can sink to.

It's not like Koreans thinking electrics fans will kill them in their sleep or people in Tanzania, Botswana and other countries murdering albinos because they think drinking blood and eating albino body parts will give them magical powers. That is the result of religious mumbo jumbo, superstition and misinformation that is hard to stamp out.

French 'collaborator' being publicly branded as such by having her hair cut offBut Samira Jassam's actions are the result of a culture and a movement eating itself and it's own people. What she has done is the cultural equivalent of waterboarding -- setting up a situation in which the body's own, life-saving reflex is used against it. Knowing the immense shame and destruction of a life that would follow she organised for women to be raped and then sent to her. There she would pressure them into becoming suicide bombers to redeem themselves and wash away the stain of their shame.

Shame is a public emotion, turned inwards. Shame is the result of culture, people's actions towards a victim, the turning away of family members. The embarrassment and humiliation of having to look people in the eye. People who know. The strong, powerful feelings of shame and guilt in conservative Iraqi society and other countries in the Middle East lead to such horrific crimes as the systematic rape of women to make them feel the only way they can redeem themselves is through suicide bombing, the murder to Leila Hassan and her daughter Rand for "dishonouring" their family, the victim of a gang rape being sentenced to 200 lashes. This whole notion of crime, justice and right is inverted.

The feelings of self-loathing victims feel and their sense of shame are common worldwide, but most countries don't have the combination of ultra-conservative public morality, fratricidal civil war and desperate old crones ready to exploit them.