Britishmisk's Blog

Category: Books

Book Review: ‘The Mountain Shadow’ by Gregory David Roberts

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Back in 2011 (seems so long ago now), I read Gregory David Robert’s debut novel Shantaram and I absolutely loved it. So much so, that when I found out the sequel ‘The Mountain Shadow’ was being released I reread the original, something I’ve not done with a novel before. Reading it again I still enjoyed it.

Unfortunately that also gave insight into seeing how far the sequel is from the original. Whereas Shantaram was the story of escaped convict Lin discovering a new country and embracing its culture and taking a reader along for the ride, this novel makes it feel like Lin has become the typical gora in India, living in a world of controversial art exhibitions and fetish parties. Lin in Shantaram was a man looking for his place in Bombay, which he finds amongst new family and friends in the slum, in his best friend’s village in rural Maharashtra, with his Godfather-esque mentor Khaderbai and his mysterious love interest Karla.

Now there’s none of that, Lin has settled into place in Bombay and has become complacent. With that the plot suffers, whereas before we discover that nearly all the events that happen to Lin in Shantaram are the result of Khaderbai getting him ready for his mission in Afghanistan, here there is no drive or goal to what is happening. One minute Lin is taking a friend out of a drug den, the next he’s making his hustler rounds in the city, the next he’s fantasizing about Karla (which becomes a bit much at times), the next he’s on a smuggling mission to Sri Lanka, the next he’s having philosophical discussions with Khaderbai’s guru, and then the cycle goes back to the beginning and it starts all over again. There’s no drive or goal to the story, at the end of it it felt like it was just a fantastical white man’s imagination of what life might be like living in the criminal underworld of Bombay.

It pains me to say that, because Shantaram was based largely on Robert’s own experiences of India. Reflecting the author in Lin, it felt like this was someone who embraced the culture they were living in, as opposed to having a voyeuristic and shallowly excitable attitude that many westerners have when visiting other countries. The Lin in The Mountain Shadow seems to have gone past that and now is just living his life as a permanent tourist, occasionally visiting the slums to deliver medicine or needing a favour.

This is apparently the second part of a trilogy. On its release Roberts announced his withdrawal from public appearances. Given the amount of time and dedication he spent on this novel it feels like he was trying too hard to make something on the same level as Shantaram and as a result lost sight of what he was trying to achieve. I hope for the third part a more relaxed attitude will bring about a more nuanced novel. We will see.

Book Review: ‘The Book of Wisdoms’ by Shaykh Abdullah al-Gangohi translated by Andrew Booso

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‘The Book of Wisdoms’ presents The Aphorisms (al-Hikam) of Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari in Arabic accompanied with the English translations of Victor Danner and the translated commentary of Shaykh Abdullah Gangohi. As The Hikam gains popularity in English speaking countries the number of its translations is slowly increasing, but given the abstract nature of some of the wisdoms translating the main text itself is no easy task, let alone a commentary. Andrew Booso has kept an exhaustive piece of work as simple as possible by keeping Danner’s translation and sticking to translating Gangohi’s commentary. What we end up with is a text that for many first time readers can be quite daunting becoming more accessible. Gangohi’s commentary explains in simple language the meaning of every single wisdom, the few exceptions that were missing from the original text Booso has taken from Ibn Ajiba’s commentary.

The book has an in-depth introduction focusing on the individuals who were behind the original work, and gives an informative insight into the culture and times of the Deobandi tradition and Islam in pre-partition India, particularly their scholastic regimes and their approach to Sufism.

As the number of Arabists in the west slowly increase, and before the Muslim communities become familiar with Arabic, this is hopefully be the first of many translations of commentaries of the Hikam into English. While although this one is highly beneficial, the nature of the Hikam is like that of a sea, it can be interpreted, viewed and analysed in any number of ways without end. Shaykha Aisha Bewley already has a translation of Ibn Ajiba’s available for free online, the late Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti also had a series of televised lectures on the Hikam which he compiled into a four volume series of books, some of the classes are available online with English subtitles. For those looking to read the Hikam and may not be ready to understand the subtle meanings of some of them, this text is recommended to offer a clear insight and understanding and prove a useful aid.

Book Review: ‘Return of a King’ by William Dalrymple

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Reading a book about the first Anglo-Afghan war and the British’s attempt to install a puppet ruler may sound like dense reading, but the gift that William Dalrymple has to offer is that it’s far from it. Although I may be a little biased given my interest in Islamic and South Asian history, Dalrymple’s book is a fascinating insight into western interventionism that unfortunately still lives on today, and he doesn’t hold back any punches in making the similarities between the past and the present clear.

Dalrymple starts his book with explaining the build up to the first Anglo-Afghan war which was a result of the rivalry between the Barakzai and Sadozai clans conflicting claims to the emirate of what is modern-day Afghanistan, and the ‘Great Game’ of Anglo-Russian political rivalry in Central Asia. The book follows a chronological ordering of events and uses material from British, Afghan, Russian and Indian sources to build a comprehensive analysis of the events that took place.

The importance of this time period, and the subject at hand, is made clear by Dalrymple in that he feels that the invasion and subsequent management of Afghanistan after 2001, bear so many similar hallmarks to the first Anglo-Afghan war, that it is amazing that despite what history has taught us, the British have yet again entered into a diplomatic farce of which they can hope for no positive outcome. Aside from pointing out the obvious problems with colonialism and interventionist foreign policy, the book itself is a riveting read for those, such as myself, who have little knowledge of the Anglo-Afghan wars. Given the wide range of sources and the removal of a possible bias you’re presented not only with an impartial historical analysis, but you follow the stories of individuals from all the different sides of the conflict, more so from those who penned their experiences to paper and lived to tell the tale.

As I mentioned before, anyone who has an interest in the topic would do well reading the book. Given its pluralist nature of sources it also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the many sepoys and military units in India at the time, with some of the experiences quoted quite horrific in their details. It’s nonetheless an easy to read and interesting book, that leaves you wanting you to find out what happens next. It looks like it will tie in well with Dalrymple’s next book on the East India Company, and I’m very keen to follow up on where this book leaves off.

Book Review: Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel

After reading Annemarie Schimmel’s excellent ‘And Muhammad is His Messenger‘, I was keen to read more of her work. This and the aforementioned title are her most prominent publications. The two books tie in well as they are both related to the subject of Sufism, whereas the other title deals with the particular aspect of the Prophet ﷺ in Sufism and Islam in general, this one gives a broader overall study of the history and development of the science of spirituality within the Islamic tradition.

The book feels in many ways as though it was the first real appreciative book by a western orientalist on the subject. And despite the fact that things have moved on and changed in the world since its first publication in 1975, as a study of historical, and in particular medieval Sufism, it is still a relevant and useful work. Schimmel deals with the development of Sufism over time, particularly around the era of 10th Century Iraq, concentrating around Baghdad, and then carries on chronologically looking at the different influential figures in Sufism, ending with Muhammad Iqbal, arguably her favourite mystic-philosopher to whom she makes numerous references to throughout her different works. The most interesting aspect to the Schimmel’s research is the way she ties in different theories and ideas across periods and thinkers and then tracks down the one person who made it famous. The best example being on the section of Ibn Arabi’s theosophy, how his ideas of Unity of Existence and the Muhammadan Reality were around before him, something that I myself was not aware of. The ideas and legacy of Hallaj are also another example.

While this is an excellent study of the topic, to me it still felt as though it can be considered an “orientalist” work, Schimmel only deals with aspects of Sufism that have been discussed and studied in the western world, and she makes numerous references to certain things that require western appreciation. I think in today’s more globalised age there wouldn’t be such a disconnect by having a binary oriental-occidental worldview. Today if there is a work that has yet to be translated into a European language, or examined by someone in a thesis, does not mean that there should be a barrier to having it accessed and appreciated. Another minor criticism is that Schimmel only discussed Sufism in the place of cultures she has familiarity with, namely Turkey, Persia and the Sub-Continent, she makes references to other parts of the world, but there is no section dedicated to them as there is for the ones mentioned. I think to make this a more exhaustive work (not that it is in any way lacking in its depth as it is) it should really have delved into areas of the Muslim world where Sufism has a big part to play in its theological discourse, such as North & West Africa, the Levant and South East Asia.

While this is certainly not a “beginner’s” introduction to the topic, it’s an excellent way for people who have a good grounding in Sufi ideas to learn more about its concepts and history.

Book Review: The Last of the Lascars – Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012

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Aside from Islamic theology, my other keen reading interest is on Muslims cultures and societies (yeah I know it’s not that great a jump). I read a book last year called Bengali Harlem which traced the roots and history of South Asian migrants, mostly from the Bengal, to the United States. What made that book interesting was it talked about a community that has been greatly overlooked by American historians and sociologists, and broke fresh new ground and provided the way for ordinary peoples’ stories and struggles to be brought out into the open and appreciated.

In the same vein comes this book, ‘The Last of the Lascars’, this time discussing the British Yemeni community based mostly in Cardiff and Sheffield. For a lot of people interested in British Muslim culture, the Yemeni community comes up as one of the oldest, if not the first established immigrant Muslim community in Britain. I first found out about this in articles on the BBC and Saudi Aramco World, and this book provides more in depth details and history about Yemeni sailors who came to settle in this country: The issues they had to face, how their community developed, where they are now, and where they’re heading.

As a British Muslim, it helps to understand the context of the society and the environment we are currently in. Reading some of the newspaper excerpts from 100 years ago mentioned in the book about the sailor riots after World War I, it didn’t seem to far off from what we read in The Daily Mail regarding Muslims today. It provides us with a context and understanding of how little some things have changed in a century, and by looking with how our predecessors dealt with those problems provides us with ideas of how we can deal with similar issues in our time.

The book is very thoroughly researched, and quite in depth. Its style is written in a chronological order, starting from the first beginnings of the British Yemeni community in the Victorian era to the present day. It’s an interesting read for those who are interested in the kind of topic. After this and Kube Publishing’s other book on Abdullah Quilliam I look forward to further interesting works from them on the British Muslim community.

Book Review: Muhammad The Best of Creation – A Glimpse of his Blessed Life

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Any book by al-Sayyid Muhammad bin Alawi al-Makki comes recommended by me. This is recent translation of another seerah of the author’s (There are quite a few others). This particular one is a very simple breakdown of the Prophet’s ‎ life, and works by compartmentalising different aspects of the noble biography. So for example there is a section on the lineage and family of the Prophet ‎, and then gives separate lists of his wives, his uncles, his children, his wet-nurses and so on. Then there are lists of his companions who had certain tasks and duties, and who did what for him ‎. The second section of the book details main events in the life of the Prophet ‎ on a yearly basis after the first revelation.

The main benefit of this book given its style is that it will provide minute details that are otherwise lost in most other seerahs, as they will try to cover the most important topics and events as perceived by the author. This book works very well as a reference guide, and as a teaching aid for children. The only concern I would have is that for non or new Muslims, context isn’t really given for certain things, so it may raise questions that the book does not provide answers for. To that end it may be worth reading the author’s other seerah ‘Muhammad – The Perfect Man’ alongside this. But aside from that this is a great little book that is recommended for all Muslim households.

 

Book Review – Lost Islamic History by Firas Alkhateeb

Growing up in the UK, I didn’t learn anything very interesting in history before GCSEs, the curriculum in schools is based mainly around UK/European history, such as the Romans, Greeks, Tudors, Victorians etc. It was only when I reached my teens that I began to appreciate history on a more global scale, particularly the breadth and depth of Islamic history. Back then the Internet was still growing and beginning to snowball into web 2.0, Wikipedia came quite late on in my adolescence, and at this point articles on Islamic history were quite a dire affair. (Islamic theology still very much so). So my acquirement of Islamic knowledge was quite a slow thing a decade ago.

Recently Firas Alkhateeb started the Lost Islamic History blog, a great initiative that explores, delves and discusses numerous topics related to Islamic history (However as with most great websites don’t bother with the comments sections). And to accompany the blog now comes the eponymously titled book.

The book brings together the key aspects and events of the last 1400 years related to Islam and the cultures tied to it. It’s a great book for people who want to be introduced to the subject, it’s also something that’s suitable for young readers, particularly teenagers, a skill I think Alkhateeb has picked up given the fact he himself is a history teacher. Who knows what the consequences would have been if I had this when I was 14.

The book is different in the sense that it’s not written by a western non-Muslim academic, so it doesn’t have the sense of orientalism that nearly always comes with their works. It’s also very subtly written from the perspective of Sunni orthodoxy, which for me is not a problem, but others may take issue with a work of history not written in a critical/dismissive style, which is the standard for most works in English regarding Islam and the “orient”. Which unfortunately a lot of Muslims fall into the style of when tackling Islamic history. Saying that however, Alkhateeb still covers heretical and heterodoxical sects well, and avoids controversy and overt favouritism, it stays largely on point in remaining unbiased when discussing different Muslim empires of varying natures, and offers criticism where it is deserved.

My only real qualms with the book was the absence of footnotes and references, which was surprising for a work of non-fiction. There were times I came across something new and would have liked to look into it further, but unfortunately not much is given to help you along the way. There are also a few minor spelling and grammar mistakes, but I suppose this is expected in a first edition. Hopefully these things will get looked at in subsequent editions.

The book is quite brief, but to cover the amount of topics, geographies, time periods and people as Alkhateeb has done is quite an achievement. It is an introduction so it acts as gateway for people to find out more going forward. To that end people can make use of the site linked above which is quite regularly updated with new articles. There is also a series by Abu Ja’far al-Hanbali which is quite in depth.

Book Review: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

ImageI heard about ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ after it was mentioned by a number of people in the social media sphere. It was only after I received the book, and looked at the front cover (I had a different edition to the one pictured) did I realise that all the people talking about it online were hijabis, this realisation coupled by the cover I was looking at made me realise, this is a woman’s book. Reading the blurb only confirmed my suspicions, a story about a lonely housewife looking for love etc. Although I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t realise any of this beforehand I still decided to read it to find out what all the commotion was about. I was however a little apprehensive about what my fellow commuters on my daily journeys would have thought.

The story is essentially two-fold, the main storyline regards Ella, a lonely housewife in Massachusetts who starts reading a novel called ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ which forms the second storyline and involves a fictionalised account of the relationship between Mawlana Rumi and Shams-i-Tabriz. Through reading the novel she examines her life and reflects on the lack of love she has. She eventually develops a close relationship with the author who helps her to make a change to her life based on the Sufi tradition.

For myself personally I enjoyed the novel ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ contained within the main story itself. Although it is a fictional account, much of what happens in the story is based on many purported incidents between Rumi and Shams. It follows the transformation of Rumi from a traditional jurist into a spiritual master based upon Shams’s teachings. As the story progresses Shams reveals his forty rules of love to different characters along his way from Central Asia to Anatolia, and the story both begins and finishes with his murder. One point I would make, and it may be considered nit-picky, is that the author seems to imply there was a dichotomy between Sufism and traditional Islam, and I picked up a similar feeling from ‘My Name is Red‘, the only other Turkish novel I’ve read. While this may have been true in some periods of time and in some areas, it wasn’t so much after the impact of Imam al-Ghazali on Islamic scholarship, who is credited with bringing together both scholastic and spiritual dimensions of Islam. This effect would have been most apparent in Central Asia and present-day Turkey where the novel is set. Aside from that this side of the novel is a very good Sufi story and I enjoyed it. It made me reflect on myself in my current state and I took away some interesting lessons from it.

Now the other side of the novel is the story of Ella, unfortunately this part of the story was as I suspected a very female affair. Perhaps it was me as a man but I was unable to connect to Ella as a character, it’s difficult to determine why she’s so sad with her life when she keeps trying to cheer herself up by looking at the good things she has in life (minus the cheating husband which she doesn’t do anything about). To me it seemed the problem with the character was she was a boring human being with no self-esteem, as she admits herself when she reflects on her past. (Spoiler:) It further undermined the character when she decides to leave her family to be with Aziz, the author of Sweet Blasphemy, she has three children, two of which are teenagers and she gets up and leaves them simply because she doesn’t feel “love” in her life. Which to me made her seem shallow and self-centred, someone just looking for excitement at the expense of others. Ironically the novel finishes with the fortieth rule: “Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western“. Well if that were the case why didn’t she just stick with her mundane material Western love!(End spoiler). For someone such as myself who is keen on the spiritual dimensions of Islam, it bugs the hell out of me when the works of divine love, such as those of Rumi, are used to reflect on superficial worldly love. It reminded me of a very pertinent tweet I saw earlier this week:

While it may help certain individuals reflect on the works of Rumi within their own personal lives, it didn’t really work for me, and may be again that’s because I’m a man who can’t connect with a very feminine story, or it may be because I’m a traditionalist, I’m not entirely sure. I would have preferred the novel to have just been Sweet Blasphemy, but the author would have then risked writing a story that many readers would be unable to connect to, I can see Ella’s story acting as a bridge to Rumi, but it risks losing the appeal of certain readers such as me, but it may be that the author was looking for a story for women to connect to. God knows best.

Book Review: ‘Endless Nobility of The Ahl al-Bayt’ by Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabhani trans by Arfan Shah al-Bukhari

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Literature on the status of the Ahl al-Bayt, or the Prophet’s (ﷺ) family in the Sunni English world is unfortunately very hard to find. This translation of a work by Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabhani comes as a long awaited addition. Shaykh al-Nabhani, for those who do not know, was an ‘ashiq or ardent lover of the Prophet (ﷺ), he is sometimes considered by some to be the equivalent of Imam Ahmad Rida Khan in the western Muslim world, (albeit without an ensuing sectarian divide).

The book gives details of the passages from the Qur’an and numerous hadith, from various collections, on the status and rights of the Ahl al-Bayt, to this end it serves as a poignant reminder for many people who would otherwise be unaware of their rank within our tradition. My main concern with the book however is not with the text itself but the quality and typesetting of the print that has been published. There are numerous spelling mistakes, both within Arabic and English, a number of passages from the Qur’an are unvoweled, and in some cases appropriate highlighting indicating verses from the Qur’an are absent. There is some vowelling here and there, but it’s very sporadic, making it seem as though the text was arranged in a haphazard fashion. The same verse from the Qur’an or a particular hadith is quoted in Arabic an incessant number of times. As this book is in English it is a given that the readers are very likely not to be fluent Arabic speakers (otherwise they would just look to obtain the original text in Arabic), repeating the same Arabic quotation is unnecessary, especially if it’s unvoweled and therefore unhelpful for the non-Arabic reader. It could be argued it serves as a reference to the Arabic if needed, but this can be done by quoting the Arabic once and then further simply making reference to where the quotation was first given.

I would hope a revised edition would follow this one, as this is an important piece of literature that was long overdue. The efforts and intention for those behind the project should not go unnoticed and I hope there is more to come in filling the gaps within our literature that are highly needed.

Book Review: The Invocation of God by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya

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Al Wabil al-Sayyib min Kalim al-Tayyib was a book recommended by our resident Hanbali scholar of East London Shaykh Abu Aliyah at a seminar discussing the life and work of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya at SOAS last year, I have only just got round to reading it. The book is relatively quite brief, and discusses the benefits of the remembering of God, or performing dhikr.

The main benefit of this book is that people from different Islamic persuasions will find benefit in it and will not be put off as they would be by many overtly esoteric texts of a similar nature that are available. Of course for anyone who has studied the life of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya will know his vocabulary and attitude are reminiscent of a very Sufi nature, and it cannot be denied that both he and his infamous teacher Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah were no strangers to the spiritual tradition, as can be seen very evidently in this text as well. A very similar book that came to mind was Ibn Ata’illah’s Taj al-‘Arus, which Dr Sherman Jackson adeptly titled his translation of as ‘Sufism for non-Sufis’ (See my review of it here).

This was a very enjoyable read and quite beneficial, it contains a wide range of benefits and advice for seekers. One can use it to ascertain one’s spiritual level and what the next level of progress should be. My only minor point is that Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya takes a brief moment to criticise wahdat al-wujud, but for anyone who has any background to the author and his teacher, this can be very easily overlooked.