Sunday, September 6, 2009


So recently I have started reading Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" alongside reading the Quran. As you can imagine the combination of the two has left my head buzzing, sometimes with confusion and sometimes - surprisingly - with spontaneous clarity. Most often though, I have found myself tentatively grasping an idea or conception but with a nagging sensation that I did not fully understand the implications of the text. I have heard that this is common with some works, and that this should actually be expected with a religious book like the Quran. People return to it throughout their lives enriched with new experiences, and the astute seem to garner a deeper meaning from it each time - but to claim to understand it fully would be foolish. Yet it is a claim that a few make, and a distressingly large number of people believe them.

As a matter of fact, since the Quran is a divinely revealed text, it would be with much hesitation that I would accept another human's interpretation of the content (besides the Prophet, obviously). Rather, I feel it is a direct, very personal mode of instruction between Allah and mankind, and so we should endeavor to understand as much as we can of it individually. As Abdulwahab Bouhdiba said in his article 'The Concept of Man in Islam and its contribution to Philosophy and Culture': "While the revealed text remained always the focal center, the latter was enriched and appropriated by the individual believer, which explains the major statusconferred upon individual endeavor, meditation, and the resort to reason, in Moslem religion." Now that the time of prophecy has passed, it is the exercise of reason which will guide humans and keep them on the path of Islam. Of course, to use reason, you cannot be bigoted, prejudiced or aware of only one side of an issue. Therefore, in relation to Islam, the Quran, the Hadith, etc it is necessary to read what both Muslims and Non-Muslims, at present and in the past have written - but with moderation and critical evaluation. Abdul-Hafez Helmy Mohammad mentions in his 'Islam and the Origins of Contemporary Western Civilization' that the Prophet often warned his followers of making "presumptuous conclusions" and "blindly following predecessors". Muhammad (PBUH) is supposed to have said "If I order you something of your religion follow me, but if I order you something expressing my own view, I am only a human." In this context, there should be no doubt that an ordinary human's interpretation and guidance can be falliable, especially on a transcendental text, and that caution and judgment should be used when accepting other's interpretations or making your own.

Personal interpretations of religion are often viewed with stern skepticism as it is believed that it might lead to its splintering into numerous heterogenous 'faiths'. Yet in the case of Sunni Islam, the space for discourse is very limited when considering the central message of the Quran (that there is one God and Muhammad is his Prophet, etc.) and it only widens when reading the more allegorical passages. So while enlightened Ulama might be able to appreciate the layers of the Holy Book more, the basic message that the simple man comprehends is not any less in value and will not prevent him from getting Suab.

However, if we look at a earthly and voluminous work; Bertrand Russell's attempt at chronicling philosophy from before Ancient Greece down to modern times, we see how much more necessary it is to have human guidance! While it is written in a very clear and witty prose (unlike some of the Philosophers he writes about!) the ideas he covers are not always easily palatable. Guidance for the Quran can only be very limited due to its divine nature, but on the same note, guidance is required for 'The History of Western Philosophy' because of its very human nature. Here it is possible for an academic to have studied more and researched more on the philosophers and their contentions and thereby claim to have a deeper understanding of the issues. Even their basic message might be caught in a web of confusing semantics, unfamiliar social context and the passage of time. The lay reader like me would need help to get out of such a fix! Of course, philosophy is fueled by discourse and commentaries, and in some cases we only know about many ancient philosophers because of critiques of their work by their later successors. An example of this is Parmenides of Elea, most of whose work has been lost to obscurity and all that remains is a fragment of a poem and what Plato has said about him. Without standing on the shoulders of certain academic commentators it might not be possible to understand some works at all! So while judgment also needs to be exercised when reading critiques or articles on this book or one of the philosophers mentioned in it, it is possible to rely on the thoughts of some learned academics, as their opinions can be more developed than mine.

Speaking of Parmenides, this is a philosopher whose work I have been trying to come to terms with recently. BR credits him for giving the "first example in philosophy of an argument from thought & language". The central idea associated with him is that "nothing changes" and this quote summarizes BR's explanation of this:

"When you think, you think of something; when you use a name it must be the name of something. Therefore both thought and knowledge require objects outside themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it ar one time as well as at another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be."

The concept is not as straightforward as the writing is. So I tried to write out what BR said in my own words, with the hope of understanding Parmenides better:

In summary, Parmenides believed that change was not possible, as we cannot conceive that which does not exist; the past or the future. We cannot even articulate it because to do so means that it exists in some form, and of course 'change' is when something comes into being or is lost.

We could concede that historical personages and events live on in the present through memory & recollection but what about that which is imaginary? Like a Unicorn or Hamlet? Our ideas about them are formed by what others or books say. Parmenides would say then that the 'idea' or meaning of those words would exist in some form as they mean something to us; the words remain significant.

BR goes on to contend that words have different meanings for different people. George Washington and what he did has a different implication for himself, his friends and contemporaries, us who only know him through history books and those who have never heard of him. Whatever the name means to us, it is the not the man himself, since we never knew him, but something present in memory or thought. There lies the fallacy of Parmenides' logic.

While the assertion of Parmenides would still seem true here, that George Washington now exists in the form of recollection, it is important to remember that there is a difference between what has happened and the description of what happened; the event happening and the memory of it. As we tend to gloss over these differences for practical reasons and the fact that we give a singular meaning to words, that Parmenides' logic seems to hold: that change is impossible. It is is an illusion.

I am certain that I have not been able to capture all the intricacy of his thoughts in this superficial summary, but it is a preliminary step and maybe with the passage of time and more reading I will be able to refine it. I know that this tangent on Parmenides and what I wrote earlier about the Quran is only loosely tied together by the concept that we approach philosophy and religion differently, but I write this mainly to reflect the intellectual curiosity and excitement that fills me now. I hope this continues in the academic year to come.

If a man's life can be described in terms of historical eras, then I feel that I am going through the Middle Ages - in darkness but on the brink of discoveries.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On War (Not My Own Thoughts)

"There has never been a just one, never an honorable one — on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful — as usual — will shout for the war. The pulpit will — warily and cautiously — object — at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, "It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it." Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers — as earlier — but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation — pulpit and all — will take up the war-cry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open. Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception." - MARK TWAIN (1905)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

"[F] a crucial factor in the creation of a nation (Renan quoted in Loomba 1998:196)
So I just finished this Milan Kundera novel and I must say that it was well worth the time (despite falling behind on course work!). While the theme of 'forgetting' is hardly the most unique with it being prevalent in books as diverse as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Beloved, it was definitely the first book I have read that has shed the action/concept of laughter in such a negative light! Laughter proves to be very cruel and mechanical in the text whether dealing with children giving a presentation on their reading or awkward moments during funeral rites or even during an orgy.

The book is divided into seven parts, and is composed of several short and abrupt chapters - yet there is no discernible plot. As the story flows from a first person narrative to second person and back, the stories of the various characters (often very sexual) and the overarching historical context congeal and become indistinguishable - leaving the reader buzzing with ideas but perplexed about how to explain what they read! Some passages and lines stood out especially which I will record here for future perusal:

"It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" (p.3)

"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assasination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." (p.7)

"Graphonmania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

  1. a high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;
  2. an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant feeling of the isolation of the individual;
  3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this case I find it symptomatic that in France, a coutnry where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel. Bibi was absolutely right when she claimed never to have experienced anything from the outside. It is this absence of content, this void, that powers the motor driving her to write.)" (p.92)

"Litost is a Czech word with no exact translation into any other language. It designates a feeling as infinite as an open accordion, a feeling that is the synthesis of many others: grief, sympathy, remorse, and an indefinable longing. The first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog...Litost is a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one's own miserable self" (p.121-122)

" 'Laughter on the other hand,' continued Petrarch, 'is an explosion that tears us away from the world and drops us into frigid solitude. A joke is a barrier between man and world. A joke is an enemy of love and poetry. So let me tell you again - and don't you forget it - Boccaccio doesn't know a thing about love. Love can't be laughable. Love has nothing in common with laughter.'
'Yes!' said the student enthusiastically. He saw the world as divided in two: half love, half joke. He knew that he belonged, and would always belong, to Petrarch's army" (p.144)

"Over the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods for the city - first in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr Valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it captured the cities of Europe one after the other. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, and journeyed eastward to Budapest, Belgrade and Istanbul. Globally, the blackbird's invasion of the human world is beyond a doubt more important than the Spaniard's invasion of South America or the resettlement of Palestine by the Jews. A change in the relationship of one species to another (fish, birds, people, plants) is a change from of a higher order than a change in the relationship of one or another group within the species. The earth does not particularly care whether Celts or Slavs inhabited Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians occupy Bessarabia. If, however, the blackbird goes against nature and follows man to his artificial, anti-natural world, something has changed in the planetary order of things" (pp.196-197)

"At the beginning of man's erotic life, Jan said to himself, there is arousal without climax; at the end there is climax without arousal. Arousal without climax is Daphnis; climax without arousal was the girl from the sporting goods rental place." (p.204)

"The male glance has often been described. It is commonly said to rest coldly on a woman, measuring, weighing, evaluating, selecting her - in other words, turning her into an object. What is less commonly known is that a woman is not completely defenseless against that glance. It if turns her into an object, then she looks back that the man with the eyes of an object. It is as though a hammer had suddenly grown eyes and stared up at the worker pounding a nail with it. When the worker sees the evil eye of the hammer, he loses his self-assurance and slams it on his thumb. The worker may be the hammer's master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea" (p.209)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thoughts of a Sinophile

Africa. The Dark Continent. The Oil-Rich Continent. The Continent with which China now has trade that exceeds 160 billion US Dollars.

There were three panelists, a blonde South African-sounding, soy latte sipping SOAS PhD student, a soft-spoken but burly (Idi Amin in proportion) ILO Director and a frank and slightly controversial Nigerian diplomat

There was little they said that cannot be garnered from 15 minutes of google-searching, wikipedia-skimming or book-flipping. One and a half hours I suppose isn't enough time to give an introduction and then go into depth. What was interesting though was that each panelist was more sino-oriented than the other. The bleached African from SOAS tried to give a more balanced and academic view of the topic by saying how the multiplicity of both Africa and China (interesting concept of how they didn't act in one voice despite the one party system due to the actions of private entrepreneurs and various regional state actors) prevented outside parties to correctly determine what China's real intentions are and what 'Africa' is really thinking. Also, she made an interesting point about the 'Angola Model' where China's huge credit-line to the country (with no 'conditionalities' except the collatoral of oil) has meant that they have gained a huge foothold there. (Personally I felt that there was a strong Chinese presence in the region since the Cold War and the Angolan Revolution aided by Cuba. ) A similar system has been applied to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where China was able to acquire mining rights for minerals like Cobalt in return for huge sums of developmental/infrastructural assistance and aid. She finished by mentioning that it would be naive to think that China was only trying to help the development of these African nations or that they were simply in it for the resources astute observation, that No-OnE would have come up with.

So besides the banality of the conclusion, there was still food for thought. So China did help construct roads and run rail lines and their conditions for such aid were minimal in comparison to the IMF or the traditional western powers - but why? Is it as simple as Leverage and Capital? It was on that note that the two 'diplomatic' official began their talk. While Idi Amin was more muted in his praise for China, it was clear from the Nigerian diplomat's stance that they both felt that the doorway opened by China was much better and less encumbered with provisions than that offered by multilateral organizations. Memorably, the Nigerian diplomat mentioned how it was the manipulative powers of Western Media that convinced us that the Niger Delta was a dangerous place and an unsafe place to invest - all to scare off all other potential investors. They asserted that when China went to Africa they asked what they wanted rather than being told that they had to do one, two and three. They even conceded that China wanted Africa's resources, but that if it brought along development in their region, it was still worth it (mutual assistance).

Right, now I feel bored and don't want to finish this ground-breaking piece. An interesting statistic to end this though, apparently when asked what they would like money for or help to build, 9/10 times some TPLAC government asks for a football stadium.

Friday, January 16, 2009

End of Man

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed -- love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

William C. Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech