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Book Reviews

Book reviews and abstracts

Jonathan Eig’s hit job on the character and legacy of Muhammad Ali

Jonathan Eig’s hit job on the character and legacy of Muhammad Ali

Dave Davies, guest-host of NPR’s Fresh Air, introduced his guest and subject this way: 

Muhammad Ali may be the most famous American athlete ever. His life is the subject of books, documentaries and feature films. But our guest, writer Jonathan Eig, says he was surprised to discover no one had ever done a complete, unauthorized biography. Eig spent four years researching Ali’s life, speaking with his three surviving wives, his managers and hundreds of others.

The author, Jonathan Eig, tried to build credibility for his work thus describing it:

Based on more than 500 interviews with almost all of Ali’s surviving associates, and enhanced by the author’s discovery of thousands of pages of FBI records and newly uncovered Ali interviews from the 1960s, this is the stunning portrait of a man who became a legend.

The conclusion of this “meticulous” research, according to Mr. Eig, reveals that Muhammad Ali was “a flawed rebel who loved attention.” 

Here are some basic facts that readers (and listeners) ought to remember. First, Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3rd 2016–just two ago. Second, the book “Ali: A Life” was published October 3, 2017. Third, the author claims that he spend four years researching his subject matter, Ali. This means that work on the book must have concluded sometime late 2016 or early 2017 to allow for the technical review and production of the manuscript. That would suggest that Mr. Eig was doing his research about Muhammad Ali when Ali was alive. But Ali’s perspectives are absent in this work because the author did not sit down with the subject of his book. The book is filled instead with psychoanalytical statements, hyperboles, assumptions, and baseless interpretations intended to smear a figure towering above even those who hated him. Mr. Eig could not have sat face to face with Ali because Mr. Eig is a coward who would like to profit from telling a fake life story about a giant with the courage and sacrifices that no one can dispute–
after his death.

Neither Ali nor those who loved Ali claimed that Ali was a saint. To write a book telling the readers just that is most telling about the character of the author and to some extent, NPR staff who gave such an opportunist fame seeker space to delegitimatize a symbol of Black Americans’ struggle for dignity and personhood.

Revisionist history is common. This work gives revisionist historians a bad name. It is especially common for members of the elite to destroy the image of leaders of marginalized racial groups. This work do so without shame and with total lack of sensitivity to the family of the deceased. 
Building negative narratives about Black Muslim Americans is swift. It is also callous. This hit job on the character and legacy of Muhammad Ali, taking place when the dirt of the earth in which Ali’s body is buried is still fresh and when most of the people who loved Ali are still mourning, is offensive and bigoted. This is just another building block in the long history of white elite Americans telling Black Americans who their real leaders ought to be and why the leaders that Black Americans chose are flawed.



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A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison

A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison

The dark heart of West’s Iran obsession

A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran, Elliott & Thompson (April, 2013). ISBN-10: 1908739894. ISBN-13: 978-1908739896. Price US$11.58. 112 pages. 

Reviewed by Peter Jenkins*
A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran is the work of one of Britain’s most brilliant political commentators, Peter Oborne, and an Irish physicist, David Morrison, who has written powerfully about the misleading of British public and parliamentary opinion in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

This book will infuriate neoconservatives, Likudniks and members of the Saudi royal family but enlighten all who struggle with what

to think about the claim that Iran’s nuclear program threatens the survival of Israel, the security of Arab states in the Persian Gulf, and global peace.

Writing with verve and concision as well as with the indignation that has been a feature of good criticism since the days of Juvenal, the authors spare the reader potentially tedious detail so that the book can be devoured in a matter of hours.

Their purpose, stated early in the work, is to argue that US and European confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities is unnecessary and irrational. Insofar as some concern about Iranian intentions has been and is justified, that concern can be allayed by measures that Iran has been ready to volunteer since 2005 and by more intrusive international monitoring.

An international legal instrument, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has a starring part in the story. This treaty, one of the fruits of the detente following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, has been remarkably successful in discouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. Iran has been a party since the NPT entered into force in 1970.

In 1968, a senior US official testified before the US Senate that the newly drafted NPT did not prohibit the acquisition of nuclear technologies that could be used for military as well as civil purposes (dual-use).

It was assumed that parties would have an interest in complying with a treaty designed to limit the spread of devastating weapons and that those tempted to stray would be deterred by frequent international monitoring of the use of nuclear material.

Iran’s troubles began with India’s 1974 nuclear test. Although India had not signed, let alone ratified, the NPT and had used plutonium to fuel its device, the United States and Europe interpreted the explosion as evidence that the NPT’s drafters had blundered in failing to prohibit have-nots from acquiring dual-use technologies such as uranium enrichment.

They formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and set about making emerging states’ acquisition of such technologies progressively harder – in a sense, amending the NPT without the consent of most of its parties. Then, in the 1990s, Israeli politicians began to claim publicly that Iran had a nuclear weapons program and was only a few years away from producing warheads.

As a result, when Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic claimed in 2002 that Iran was secretly building a uranium enrichment plant, many UN members were ready to believe that Iran was violating or was about to violate the NPT. Such was the sense of danger generated by the United States and some of its allies that people overlooked the absence of evidence that Iran had even intended the enrichment plant to be secret.

Instead, Iranian admissions that scientists and engineers had engaged in undeclared nuclear research led people to assume that Iran’s obligation to declare the enrichment plant 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material (and not earlier) would have been ignored had it not been for the opposition group’s whistle-blowing.

Iran’s travails since 2004 – condemnation by the IAEA board of governors and the UN Security Council, ever harsher sanctions, US and Israeli military threats in violation of the UN Charter – would have been both logical and rough justice if there had been evidence that Iran was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

That is not the case, however, as Oborne and Morrison make plain. On the contrary, since 2007 US intelligence estimates have stressed the absence of an Iranian decision to use its enrichment plants to make fuel for nuclear weapons; the IAEA has repeatedly stated that Iran’s known nuclear material remains in civil use; and the only nuclear weapon activity in Iran for which there is evidence is the kind of research that many NPT parties are assumed to have undertaken.

Trying to account for this irrational handling of the Iranian case, the authors posit a US determination to prevent Iran from becoming a major Middle East power.

That view may be the most questionable of their judgements, as possible explanations exist elsewhere: intensive lobbying in Washington, London and Paris by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a regional rival and need to justify the strategic demands they make of the United States, the influence of counter-proliferation experts obsessed with closing an imagined NPT loophole, the Islamic Republic’s terrorism and human-rights record, and antagonisms born of bitter memories.

The hypocrisy of politicians is, rightly, a target of the authors’ indignation. In 2010 then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defending the imposition of sanctions, proclaimed: “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government … without contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.”

In 2012, President Barack Obama, seeking re-election, boasted: “We organized the strongest sanctions in history and it is [sic] crippling the Iranian economy.”

But the authors’ fiercest indignation is reserved for the mainstream media, whom they indict for embedding in public discourse the idea that Iran has or is seeking nuclear weapons by ignoring facts and serving as a conduit for anti-Iranian propaganda.

By endorsing the proposition that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be curbed by sanctions or the use of force, the mainstream media risk repeating their past mistake of failing to question the Bush/Blair case for war on Saddam Hussein.

A Dangerous Delusion was written before Iran’s June presidential election, begging the question of whether the re-emergence of pragmatic diplomatists in Tehran will encourage Western politicians to heed the “plea for sanity” with which Oborne and Morrison close.

“It’s time we [in the West] asked … why we have felt such a need to stigmatize and punish Iran … Once we do that … we may find it surprisingly easy to strike a deal which can satisfy all sides.”


*Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, ADRgAmbassadors, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems.
(Inter Press Service)

Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs

Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs

Tayeb El-Hibri. Parable and Politics in Early Islamic History: The Rashidun Caliphs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xi + 471 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-15082-8; ISBN 978-0-231-52165-9.

Reviewed by Zohar Hadromi-Allouche (Divinity and Religious Studies — University of Aberdeen)

This study is dedicated to the historiography of the Rashidun caliphate. El-Hibri states at the outset, that his goal was to “argue for an alternative reading of this history as a largely parabolic cycle of literary narrative” (p. ix). The monograph consists of eight chapters. Within the structural framework of the introduction (chapter 1) and conclusion (chapter 8), the main body of the book is organized chronologically, from the succession of the Prophet (chapter 2) and the reigns of ‘Umar (chapter 3) and ‘Uthman (chapter 4), through the events that led to the civil war (chapter 5), ‘Ali’s caliphate (chapter 6), and the rise of the Umayyads (chapter 7). Each chapter discusses various events related to the relevant period and examines their depiction in different narratives. These depictions are usually derived from historical sources (mainly al-Tabari) and religious literature (such as al-Bukhari).Then, El-Hibri discusses these narratives through their connections with other texts (biblical, Qur’anic, or Islamic prophetic narratives); or to events in Islamic historiography, either earlier (e.g., biography of the Prophet) or later (e.g., events in the ‘Abbasid period). Such connections are suggested through thematic or linguistic links, such as common keywords or motifs, as well as through direct comparisons sometimes made in the sources.

In order to reinterpret the available Islamic sources for the Rashidun period, El-Hibri suggests viewing this material in the wider context of Islamic historiography and applying a literary approach. In so doing, he claims to be following earlier revisionist studies of the past decades, especially in the field of religious studies; however, no specific references are given for these. The texts, he argues, should not be read on a literal level alone, as representing the historical events of that specific time in Islamic history; rather, they should be analyzed using literary tools, such as intertextual readings with biblical and Islamic narrative and parabolic paradigms. Such readings, El-Hibri argues, would reveal additional themes relevant for the ‘Abbasid period, such as, for example, the question of succession (e.g., of Harun al-Rashid); the scope of central government; or the reduction of revolutionary messianic elements. Indeed, El-Hibri suggests that the history of the Rashidun and of other early rulers should be regarded as background for reading ‘Abbasid history. This approach is justified in that most classical sources for the Rashidun period date from the mid-ninth century, and thus the events and spirit of the early ‘Abbasid period should be considered when analyzing representations of the Rashidun period. El-Hibri stresses the uniqueness of this approach, in contrast to other historical studies that consider the Rashidun period as a subject to be studied in itself. El-Hibri, on the other hand, while regarding the historiographical narratives regarding the Rashidun period as historically valid, emphasizes the significance of applying intertexual and literary approaches to these texts to complete our understanding of them.

For El-Hibri, the starting point of Islamic historiography is the genre of the stories of the prophets, since Islam is a continuation of earlier forms of monotheism (p. 1). The sources used by Muslims narrators include biblical accounts, sometimes modified, and other texts within the Islamic textual tradition. Therefore this historiography should be read as reflecting biblical patterns of tragedy and Qur’anic paradigms of biblical stories as parables. A main paradigm in this context would be that of sin and punishment, which is demonstrated, for example, through the use of the term fitna. This term, which is commonly used in relation to the fall of ‘Uthman, can be traced back to the fall of Adam and Eve (pp. 4-5). The use of such textual structures might be useful for reflecting and relating to events both prior to the Rashidun times, as well as to later periods, such as the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid eras.

These styles of parabolic narrations, El-Hibri suggests, were the basic narrative used by both Sunni and Shi’i writers, who later processed these texts to suit their theological agendas. Thus, these earlier narratives are not one-sided, but contain what can be perceived as both Sunni and Shi’i perspectives. Since both orthodoxies used the same basic narratives, which they later processed, the original texts portrayed key figures as round ones, rather than as completely “good” or “evil.”

El-Hibri further argues that there was a unified story of the events of early Islam, which had a specific plot; its manifold meanings were represented intertextually when read with other texts (p. ix). This argument, however, needs further support than demonstrated in the present work. He suggests that during the ninth century, the accounts regarding the Rashidun period became fragmented, and the meanings (political, polemic, etc.) of the unified narrative became vague. This was because Sunni and Shi’i orthodoxies narrowed the historical narratives into factual reports; but it was also due to generic differences that developed around this time.

According to El-Hibri, the Muslim historiographical sources use biblical models of messianic cyclical history in their presentation of the companions and their struggles for political power. Parallels are made between their lives and the lives of earlier prophets. However, this theme of parabolic biblical paradigms was blurred in the literature. El-Hibri explains this generic difference in the need of hadith compilations to maintain the positive image of the companions and hence their authority as transmitters of prophetic hadith and sunna (pp. 8-9). He thus stresses the significance of using various genres in the research of early Islam, rather than a single genre, which he criticizes as the compartmentalization of Islamic studies (p. 18).

El-Hibri argues that the story of the Rashidun period is best understood as a reflection of themes relevant to ninth-century ‘Abbasid society, the time during which the main historiographical sources were narrated. This view, however, seems somewhat problematic, both in light of the above argument regarding the texts as having been created, and losing some of their meanings, during the ninth century; but also as the application of this view throughout the book is not systematic, and is only demonstrated to a limited extent. Some of the narratives that are discussed are indeed understood as reflecting ‘Abbasid themes–for example, the similarities between the descriptions of the consultations regarding caliphal succession in ‘Abbasid time, and those of Harun al-Rashid in regards to overthrowing the Barmakid family (p. 68). But, in many other cases, the parallels made are with biblical or sira stories and themes, with no particular reference to the ‘Abbasids. For example, when discussing the reign of Abu Bakr (chapter 2), El-Hibri indicates several themes that are prevalent within the existent narratives, such as the negation of women’s involvement in politics; the portrayal of Abu Bakr as similar to the Prophet Muhammad; the depiction of Abu Bakr’s character as soft (an investigation into the possible motives for portraying him in this light would have also been of interest); and the continual symbolic identification of the leader of prayer as the leader of the community. While intertextuality to various events during the Rashidun period is indicated here (p. 40), little connection is demonstrated to the ‘Abbasid period.

The case for the ‘Abbasid context for reading Rashidun texts seems stronger, though, in some other parts of the monograph. In the case of ‘Umar, for example, his image as the keeper of law is to be understood, according to El-Hibri, through the use made of this image by later ‘Abbasid caliphs and jurists in gaining legitimacy for political practice (p. 79). ‘Umar is understood as representing the Arab element of the Islamic state, and the identification between Islam and Arabism, whereas ‘Ali is taken to represent, to an extent, the Persian element, and the significance of the relationship between these two elements for the ‘Abbasid caliphate is well known. The Arab image of ‘Umar is further stressed in chapter 7, where it is used as a point of reference for the discussion of the rise of the Umayyads. El-Hibri’s comment that the theme of ‘Umar’s Arabism is easily overlooked (pp. 84-85) seems a bit odd, though, as ‘Umar was well known in the sources for  discriminating against non-Arab Muslims financially.

It would thus indeed seem useful to read the Rashidun narrative in the wider context of Muslim historiography, so as to gain a fuller understanding of these texts and their meanings; however, such meanings should not, perhaps, be taken as entirely dependent on the framework of the ‘Abbasid period. Similarly, the theme of biblical parables, which El-Hibri considers as underlying the companion-related narratives as a whole, is in some cases well demonstrated, whereas in other places it is less so. So, for example, Ka’b al-Ahbar’s conversation with ‘Umar about the Israelite king and the warning prophet, a story that was used to inform ‘Umar of his forthcoming death, is correctly related to the biblical prophet Nathan (pp. 114-115). However, the king in this context is better identified with David than with Solomon; and a further analysis of this parallel would have been of much benefit, as Nathan informs David of the forthcoming tearing of the kingdom from his heirs, similar to El-Hibri’s understanding of ‘Umar’s actions as leading to and foretelling the rise of the Umayyads. In another case, however, the parallel drawn between the preconquests Arab delegation to Persia and the Israelites in front of Pharaoh (p. 89) is again of interest, but would have been better supported by a textual reference.

In terms of sources, this monograph makes strong use of both historical and religious primary sources, both historical and religious, to support its arguments. The presentation is easy to follow, as it is mainly chronological, and follows the main events connected to the Rashidun. But the extensive citations within the text of full narratives from primary sources make the discussion and arguments more difficult to follow. A more ordered presentation of the author’s main statements and arguments would have helped as well. The glossary at the end explains basic terms such as sunna and fitna, and suggests addressing a more general audience, such as students and/or the general public. However, the many unexplained and/or untranslated references to Arabic terms and phrases would make it a challenge for such an audience. Further, it might have been useful, in a literary study that focuses on al-Tabari, to also refer to Boaz Shoshan’s deconstructionist reading of this source in Poetics of Islamic Historiography: Deconstructing Tabari’s History ( 2004).

As for methodology, El-Hibri defines this work as a revisionist reading of the early medieval Islamic chronicles, in a way that challenges both Muslim traditional versions as well as academic understandings of the history of early Islam (p. x). While his suggested reading can certainly expand this understanding, as it suggests additional levels of meaning for the texts, “challenging” may be too strong a word. For, while El-Hibri accepts that the “pivotal political events” of the Rashidun period “are true as told” (p. ix), it remains unclear to what extent he reads these texts as historically valid, and which criteria he follows. For example, whereas he maintains that there is little reliable information on how Abu Bakr charted his policies (p. 62), he also holds that al-Tabari’s narrative of the assassination of ‘Umar “does not seem to lack a credible context” (p. 110). These and similar statements are not explained, or supported by further evidence. This work is valuable as it emphasizes the benefits of applying a literary approach to historiographical literature that is generally perceived as historical. In applying an intertextual reading to presumably historical texts, additional meanings are often revealed, giving additional significance to an otherwise flat text.

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‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Live On In Debate And Discovery

‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ Live On In Debate And Discovery

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the ancient manuscripts dating back to the time of Jesus that were found between 1947 and 1956 in caves by the Dead Sea. Since they were first discovered, they have been a source of fascination and debate over what they can teach — and have taught — about Judeo-Christian history. In his new book, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography, Yale professor John J. Collins tells the story of the scrolls, their discovery and the controversies surrounding the scholarship of them.
The scrolls appear to have been hidden in the desert near Qumran in the West Bank by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes that existed around the time of Jesus. The Essenes were an extreme sect of Judaism and, Collins tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “if they existed nowadays, we would regard them as a fundamentalist cult.”
Collins, who was raised Catholic, is particularly interested in what the scrolls tell us about the history of Christianity.
“I’ve been interested in Messianism,” he says. “What kind of Messiah were people expecting? What do the scrolls tell us about that? … Why does a movement decide to go off and live in the wilderness and — some of them at least — not marry and have all their possessions in common? What’s the kind of thinking that goes into that?”
The fact that the Essenes appear to have been fundamentalists, however, does not mean that the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t offer insight into life more broadly speaking during that period.
“Nobody can be an extremist all the time,” says Collins, “and so if you have a collection of writings held by this extremist group, there will still be an awful lot of stuff in that other people would have shared. They had the same Scriptures as everybody else. They observed the same festivals as everybody else, even if they observed them at a different day.”

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.

Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.


When Kemal Ataturk built the Turkish republic on the ashes of the vanquished Ottoman empire, he invented along with it a new persona: the Turk, who would be cleansed of what he regarded as Arab and Byzantine “pollution”. The Turk spoke Turkish, was Muslim and strictly secular in a uniquely Turkish way. Overt expressions of piety, such as women veiling themselves or men wearing turbans, were banned because they contradicted the Western image on which the Turk was modelled. The omniscient daddy-state led by Ataturk and a string of successor generals dictated the boundaries of political, religious and cultural life and those who dared to contradict them suffered terribly.
Nearly a century on this Kemalist straitjacket is in tatters, and from it has erupted what Jenny White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, calls the “new Turks”. Who are they? In a groundbreaking book that alternates anecdote with analysis, Ms White, a fluent Turkish speaker (and successful crime-fiction writer) draws on her years living among the Turks to provide answers. These matter as much for the Turks wrestling with their identity as they do for their Arab neighbours in the throes of revolution, for whom Turkey is held up as a role model.
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