Growing up in a family with a large number of Muslims, I first heard the story of Muhammad when I was very young. I would hear of Muhammad’s return to Mecca, his clearing the Kabah of pagan idols, and his fight for social justice and the empowerment of Women. It’s a version of Muhammad I can understand. It fits my family.
“The history of a religious tradition is a continuous dialogue between a transcendent reality and current events in the mundane sphere.”
But this image has become muddled. It’s clear that there are many visions of who Muhammad was and what he means. Much of my life has taken place against the backdrop of a cosmic war — planes flying into buildings, invasions, car bombs and police raids. And Muhammad has been invoked, repeatedly, by all sides. Used to justify all manner of atrocities. This tension has become especially meaningful in the past few months, as gunmen attempt to police his image on our own doorsteps.
“We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades. In the twelfth century, Christian monks in Europe insisted that Islam was a violent religion of the sword, and that Muhammad was a charlatan who imposed his religion on a reluctant world by force of arms; they called him a lecher and asexual pervert.”
So, who was Muhammad? The benevolent and merciful figure that I’ve grown up with? The man who inspires the billion plus Muslims who go about their days peaceably, who we never hear from? Or was he the great Muslim crusader that the Islamic Fundamentalists tout? How about the bloodthirsty tyrant that many of his obstreperous critics claim? As the cosmic war of the past decade is joined by a culture war, increasingly on our own doorsteps, this is a question that needs answering. And so, I turned to Karen Armstrong.
“The work of Muhammad’s first biographers would probably not satisfy a modern historian. They were men of their time and often included stories of a miraculous and legendary nature that we would interpret differently today.”
Muhammad has had many biographers, the first emerging a hundred or so years after his death. However, like many other religious figures, the bulk of our knowledge comes from the scriptures, which in turn rely on an oral history. Armstrong begins the story with Muhammad’s first revelation, when he was forty years old. But she quickly backtracks and takes us through the religious, cultural and economic context of Muhammad’s time. Aspects of his life that are inseparable from his teachings and legacy, but are rarely mentioned now. We learn about his birth into the Hashim clan in Mecca, an important clan in a powerful city. His marriage to Khadijah in his twenties Khadijah was employer and a rich widow with whom he would remain monogamous (not the norm) until her death. And as the short 200-odd pages go by, we follow the slow creation of Islam, the Muslim exile to Medina and their struggle to return. All set in the context of the wider Arabian world that both influenced and was influenced by them.
“Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia, and we need people who are prepared to do this today. His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance. He realised that Arabia was a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
This focus on context is brilliant. After all, Muhammad’s tale is like many other stories from pre-modernity – awful when the context is removed. However, there are also weaknesses with Armstrong’s account. The most obvious is that it is entirely uncritical. Apart from a brief mention at the beginning, there is scarce reference to the fact that the entire story is built upon an oral history of Muhammad’s followers. And yet, it is also written with absolute certainty. There are no questions given to the possibility of bad memory, an incomplete historical record, or alteration through retelling. This problem is especially clear when Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s reputation for honesty and grace – it may be so, but his followers would say that wouldn’t they? And since the scriptures are God’s revelations channeled through Muhammad, from where does this survey of his contemporaries emanate? Even worse, such hagiographic characterisations are often accompanied by literary flourishes and insights into the Prophet’s own mind – what are the sources for these intrusions? I would greatly love to read the tome in which his every sigh and facial expression are also recorded.
“The Qur’an is the holy word of God, and it’s authority remains absolute. But Muslims know that it is not always easy to interpret. Its laws were designed for a small community…”
For those who don’t mind a critical account, there is another big issue – the question of Muhammad’s agency. The context-centric approach means that most of the events are portrayed as a reaction to external cultural and political events. For example; the rival Quraysh clan does something, and suddenly Muhammad is gifted the perfect revelation and strategy. What comes off is both a God and Prophet in thrall to outside events, responding to the world rather than shaping it. Armstrong repeatedly asserts Muhammad’s disdain for metaphysics, but should we come away with such an emphasis on politics? A cynical reading could conclude that Muhammad doesn’t have agency, and that many of these revelations are quite convenient. Is that the intention? If so, who exactly is the target audience of this account?
“If we are to avoid catastrophe, the Muslim and Western worlds must learn not merely to tolerate but to appreciate one another. A good place to start is with the figure of Muhammad: a complex man, who resists facile, ideologically-driven categorisation, who sometimes did things that were difficult or impossible for us to accept, but who had profound genius and founded a religion and cultural tradition that was not based on the sword but whose name — “Islam” — signified peace and reconciliation.”
To answer my conundrum from earlier, Armstrong paints a picture of Muhammad quite close to the one I was brought up with. Only much richer than my family could ever manage. He wasn’t the man claimed by the fundamentalists on either side, but a man of his time. The context she provides is eye opening, and definitely an important addition to our current debate. But Armstrong’s lack of criticism is really the takeaway. It invalidates it for anyone who wants as “true” a picture as possible. Granted, in our current climate it is understandable why Armstrong could not do for Muhammad what Reza Aslan did for Jesus, but Muhammad already has enough hagiographies. Muhammad by Karen Armstrong is the best biography I have found so far. So, for now at least, I will recommended it. But I’m going to keep looking for a more definitive biography.
Author: Karen Armstrong
Pages: 249 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: Muhammad – Prophet For Our Time
I’m writing this on the eve of another Sri Lankan Road Trip. From Colombo, up through Mannar and on to Jaffna. That means for the next week or so, and beyond the pristine beaches, endless coconut trees and elephants; I’m going see dogs. Lots of dogs.
Probably not the dogs that you’re imagining. They’ll be curled up on the side of the road, alone, surviving off scraps or rubbish. Many won’t have just been abandoned, however, but also attacked. The beautiful dog that adorns this page is just one example. Her name is Crumbs, and she was not only set on fire, but stabbed. Repeatedly.
I’ve often wondered about the plight of the miserable souls I see wandering the streets of Sri Lanka. Why are there so many? Why do they look so poorly? Why do so many seem scared of them? How could someone treat the beautiful Crumbs this way? So I set out to find out what was up. And don’t worry, there are some incredible people who are working to fix the mess:
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You can find out more about Aranyani on their Facebook Page
Facebook has become all-pervasive. It screams at me from the laptops of my fellow classmates, tracks me as I traverse the interwebs, draws visitors to my blog and radio show, and invades the real world through my vibrating phone. The draw of its network and the push of it’s firehose has become inexorably linked with the internet itself. However, like many, I ache to escape its grasp. I have all but shut down my profile, installed blockers on everything but my cat, and rarely log on. But perhaps what I want more is to figure it out. And so I found myself opening ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich. You might know it as the basis of ‘The Social Network,’ which was a surprisingly faithful and brilliant adaptation. It is one of the most entertaining business book I have ever read. That isn’t a compliment.
“Nonfictionish” is how I have seen it described in a couple of places. And, really, I can think of no better descriptor. The Accidental Billionaires is a business book written like a novel. Or, as Mezrich put’s it in the introduction; “a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents…”. Now, having read that, I was expecting something along the lines of a Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell tale — a high concept told narratively to keep us plebs interested. Unfortunately Mezrich does not seem to have the deft touch of Lewis or Gladwell, as it’s the drama that wins out over everything else.
From the start, the booze-fueled parties, super-speculative points of view, and bizarre literary flourishes build mountains of melodrama and scant understanding. I really am unsure what insights should be gleamed from Mark Zuckerberg lost in his reflection in a computer screen, Eduardo Saverin – our hapless foil — wondering if he ever really knew Zuckerberg, or the virtuous Winklevoss twins fighting for justice in an otherwise cruel campus. The tension between Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevi does well to build tension throughout, but the space needed detracts from everything else. The real meat of Facebook’s genesis and rise is lost amid the kind of superficial account you’d get from a blowhard at a party. I went in wanting to learn about Facebook, but I’ve come out not quite sure if I learned anything at all. Really, upon reflection it seems like Aaron Sorkin may have toned the book down a bit. I don’t remember the movie being as soapy.
Perhaps this is a Facebook book for a Facebook world. Screaming for attention by airing what was once hidden — the sex, drugs and lawsuits. Hiding the message under layers of drama so we don’t even know we’ve learned something — like putting your pet’s medicine in a treat. If all you want is a passing understanding of Facebook, maybe this is the book for you. The Facebook story is in there, superficially at least. But if you want to know more, about it’s conquering of college campuses and burst into the mainstream, about its rise into a genuine business and global powerhouse. If you are looking for lessons, if you want to understand what drives the pokes, look elsewhere. Two stars.
Title: The Accidental Billionaires
Author: Ben Mezrich
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 2/5
Amazon Link: The Accidental Billionaires
Watching entrepreneurs use now-ubiquitous internet access and smart phones to mine the crowd has been one of the joys of the past decade. But, no matter how wonderful Duolingo’s translated books, Threadless’ T shirts, or Kickstarters’ projects, Crowdsourcing has not really seemed life changing. Game changing, yes, but none of these solved ‘problems’ were anything but inconveniences. Some of the greatest minds of my generation aren’t working on vaccines or rockets, but on ensuring I’m wearing spiffy crowd-designed pyjamas as I fetch my crowdfunded gadget from the postbox.
This is where Be My Eyes really excites. It’s a new iPhone app that allows the visually impaired to call on the eyes of thousands of volunteers around the world. Even today, with all of our attempts to bend the environment to us, there is a lot more to achieve in this area. If you can’t see, how do you ensure your ticket is correct, or the can in your hand is a coke and not something more sinister? Or, as Be My Eyes puts it:
It only takes a minute to choose the right tin can from the shelf, look at the expiration date on the milk or find the right thing to eat in the fridge – if you have full vision that is. For visual impaired individuals smaller tasks in their home can often become bigger challenges. Be My Eyes hopes to change that!
Through a direct video call the app gives blind people the opportunity to ask a sighted volunteer for help, for tasks that requires normal vision. The blind person “lends” the helper’s eyes all through his or her smartphone. The sighted helper is able to see and describe what the blind person is showing the sighted helper by filming with the video camera in the smartphone. That way, by working together they are able to solve the problem that the blind person is facing.
Now, this is an ‘inconvenience’ I very much want to see rectified. To find out more about how the app came to be,how it works, as well as allay some of my concerns (you’re probably wondering the same things I was), I called up Hans Jørgen Wiberg, the app’s inventor. Here is our chat:
In the short while that the app has been live, about thirteen thousand people have signed on as volunteers. But this isn’t enough to even scratch the surface. If you have an iPhone and would like to take part in crowdsourcing eyesight, you can download the app from the Apple Store. Or check out the Be My Eyes website for more details.
Can’t see the audio player? You can take a listen at Soundcloud
(image:Be My Eyes)
In a matter of days Sri Lankans will be headed to the polls, casting a ballot for the most imperial of Presidencies. In the face of slumping approval, the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has called the election a whole two years early. He now faces a field of candidates topped by Maithripala Sirisena, a defector from his own party. The Opposition have coalesced behind Sirisena, sensing their first real chance in a decade. Polling might be suspect in a country where statistical sampling is all but impossible, but everything else tells of a real contest.
Despite the hegemony of the Rajapaksas in recent times, Sri Lankans talk proudly of their democracy and their vote. I know of people who will spend more than four hours next Thursday travelling to the polls. And in a race as tight as this is, expect all the stops to be pulled out. But data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance doesn’t paint a great picture. The last six Sri Lankan Presidential elections have seen a voting age population turnout dawdling around seventy percent, far below the level of the late 90s.
To be fair, the numbers trounce that of the World’s longest and most obnoxious democracy; The United States. In fact, Sri Lanka’s last election saw a Voting Age participation rate almost twenty percent higher than America’s. This is especially staggering considering many of the barriers faced by voting Sri Lankan’s; a thirty year civil war, poor infrastructure and public transport, and, unfortunately, campaigns of voter suppression and violence (etc.).
But is a seventy percent turnout really acceptable? To turn this baby around the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence has launched an amazing campaign. It’s called #IVotedSL, and it’s a non-partisan drive to get people involved. The folks at the CMEV want to remind Sri Lankan citizens of the importance of their vote, the power of their vote. It’s more than “if you don’t vote you can’t complain”, the Sri Lankan Presidency has unbelievable power. The kind of power that haunts the sleep of Libertarians worldwide. Check out this spectacular/horrifying infographic created to kick off the campaign:
Alarmed by the powers afforded to the Sri Lankan President and aware of the trending apathy of the generation this campaign is aimed at, I wanted to know more. So I called up Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of the fantastic blog Groundviews and leader of the campaign. Here is our discussion:
I can’t vote in the Sri Lankan election but I implore all those who can not to squander this opportunity. This will shape the future of your country.
Can’t see the audio player? You can take a listen at Soundcloud.
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