Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Myth of the Islamic Caliphate

Going through my daily news hounding I came across this bit of news (BBC News). Here's a quick excerpt (my emphasis):

Some 60,000 delegates have gathered in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, for a conference hosted by the radical Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

HT has described the conference as the largest ever gathering of Islamic activists from around the world.

However, the group, which is dedicated to the revival of the Caliphate, a single Muslim state across the Middle East, is outlawed in many countries.

Ah yes. The Caliphate. That holy grail of Jihadists everywhere. If only these fanatics would spend half the time they use to chant hate poetry to actually read history. And I mean real history not the watered-down, propaganda-filled version we get in school and children's books.

These Jihadists (and let's be frank here, almost all Muslims) have this oddly skewed view of the Caliphate. They think it was this pristine, fairy tale, almost utopic era. Where fair yet iron stern Caliphs ruled over a land overflowing with pink fluffy bunny rabbits, enforcing Islam to the letter.

Few things could be farther than the truth.

Yes, the Caliphate started great. But it didn't take much time until the Ummayads turned it from a post chosen by committee to a regular hereditary monarchy in all but name. The Islamic conquests were no longer religion driven (at least not in the minds of the Caliphs calling the shots) and anyone thinking otherwise are deluding themselves. The Caliphs themselves were no saints either. They were greatly known to indulge in all their appetites. Great cities like Baghdad had plenty of sinful establishments. Alcohol, prostitution (both female and male) were common. Leaving dry history aside, You only have to read poetry and other forms of literature of the time to realize how common it was. Heck, Abu Nawas who is considered one of the greatest Arab poets wrote openly about his paederastic tastes, and he was far from the only one.

Yet people like to blind themselves to the truth. They even protest when that truth is told and it doesn't conform to the rosy version they believe.

Take last Ramadan. MBC showed a wonderful historical drama called "Al Amin and Al Mamun: The Sons of Al Rashid". Aside from the wonderful direction, brilliant acting, and beautifully recreated sets, "Sons of Al Rashid" was refreshingly honest about its subject matter. It showed Harun al Rashid and his sons as they really were. Flawed human beings. The Abbasids were no strangers to Alcohol and women, and there was no attempt to hide that facet of history in the drama. They showed the Abbasids fighting amongst themselves for power. Regicide, fratrecide, you name it they did it. They even took time to depict Al Mamun's (the drama's main protaganist) prosecution of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and his followers who opposed his Mu'tazilla views. Something most people tend to try to forget. Most surprisngly the director was bold enough to hint at Al Amin's rumored homosexuality.

But of course the truth hurts. People were so used to reading about Harun as this peerless paragon of virtue that they screamed and howled when presented with real history for a change. Don't get me wrong. Harun was a great man. Islamic science and arts peaked during his reign, and the nation was never as strong politically and militarily. But he was a human being, not an angel.

Go read a book people.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Ok, so it took me longer than usual to finish this book. Sue me, I've been busy :P

Anyway, this is a rather hard book to review. Over the years its has gathered up so much hype and expectations it was bound to disappoint in one way or another. Also I'll be trying to keep any spoilers out of my following review, so rest easy all you internet crazies. You can drop those pitchforks.

So does it disappoint?


And no its not all about the hopeful, doe eyed expectations.

Ok I'll try to be more specific, which is pretty hard without violating the holy non-spoiler act. Book 7 is a very dark book, especially when contrasted with the cheery and charming first three books. But people who've read book 4 (or seen the movie) know the dark turn the books had taken. Death, torture and other darker themes became more and more prevalent. And the final chapter is the darkest by far. Its not really a children's book anymore, and has crossed the boundary over to so called "Young Adult" fiction.

Which is pretty good. Until you start looking closer, and all the warts come out. That's when the book betrays its children's books roots. The clumsy world building, black and white characterization (with only a few notable exceptions), the rather immature and cheesy handling of death and other more adult situations, and the prevalent use of handy deus ex machina solutions without so much as foreshadowing.

The book starts out nicely paced at the begining. You can almost feel Rowling's relaxed state of mind. Then the second half starts, and things go high wire. The pace gets more rushed and clumsiness sets in. Its almost as if Rowling had a checklist of things to happen before the book ends, realized that she was almost out of space, then started rushing things through. Dramatic situations are shrugged off, and people die just because they need to die and are then glossed over in the mad sprint to the finish line.

And then comes a rather anti climatic end, and a rather silly epilogue.

Mind you, I still found Deathly Hallows to be a fun book. I mean Harry Potter was never high literature to begin with and that has never changed. For all her faults, Rowling is pretty good at spinning an enjoyable story and fun characters. I just wished that she had taken her time to flesh them out a bit more in this book instead of cramming every secondary and tertiary character in the series into one book.

If you're an established fan of the books I dare say you'll enjoy the book. It's a ... competent ... end to the story. But if you've never cared for the boy wizard from the start, this book won't change your mind.