You all know how I feel about “theme issues” of the New York Times Book Review: they disappoint many readers who wish for a reliable source of general literary edification each weekend. Today’s theme issue is a bracing and ambitious one: “ISLAM”, featuring a scary front cover illustration of a shadowy man fending off what appear to be pikes and branding irons armed with Arabic letters and symbols. Points for relevance and timing, but let’s see if any writers earn points for fresh insight.
An initial breeze-through shows this to be possibly the most self-referential New York Times Book Review ever, since Ayaan Hirsi Ali shows up to review The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment by Lee Harris and is then discussed by Lorraine Adams in an essay called “Beyond the Burka”, while Rashid Khalidi’s review of Hassan Qazwini’s American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America compares the book to one by Tariq Ramadan, who also shows up with his own essay on “Reading the Koran”. This self-referentiality is not a problem, though it reveals how small the circle of Muslim intellectuals familiar to the New York Times and the Times readership is.
I’m disappointed by Tariq Ramadan’s article, which seems to promise an introduction to the Koran for non-Arabic-speaking observers but instead amounts to an abstract and cautionary treatise on how to think about the book. It’s well-written but unhelpful; I own two English translations of the Muslim holy book (one Penguin Classic and one attractive clothbound copy given to me by a stranger at a street fair) but I’ve never been able to read it with any sense of comprehension, and Ramadan’s lofty words leave me feeling still excluded. He hints at his own sublime understanding of the book, but doesn’t help the reader experience this understanding for his or her self.
An array of topical articles is strong on victimization — Jeffrey Goldberg’s review of Matthias Kuntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 is informative and heartfelt, as is Sarah Wildman’s coverage of two memoirs by women who’ve been imprisoned in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat and My Life as a Traitor by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman. But several pieces are weak on originality and insight. “To his credit, Kelsay refuses to whitewash the role of religion in fostering the violence he discusses”, writes Irshad Manji on John Kelsay’s Arguing the Just War in Islam. I guess this must be the “no-spin” zone or something. In fact, there are numerous loud voices in USA who will declare that Islam is an essentially violent and imperialistic religion, and far fewer willing to reflect upon the fact that the patterns of Islamic intolerance are completely familiar in other religions and cultures, and that the real problem is a universal human one.
There are no terrible articles in today’s Book Review, but few memorable ones either. William Dalyrimple’s article on The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a 9th Century Persian epic, is strange; Dalyrimple appears to be an expert on Mughal culture, and refers repeatedly to Mughal or Indian interpretations of this epic. But this is not a Mughal story (though the Mughal emperor Akbar once commissioned a great book illustrating it); it is a Persian story, and the critic does not appear to have strayed far enough from his comfort zone to adequately represent the book on its own terms.
Several historical treatments (Jason Goodwin on Zachary Karabell’s Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Coexistence, Eric Ormsby on David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe) are captivating enough. Max Rodenbeck’s review of Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In) features this pull-quote:
The Muslim conquest created, for the first and only time, an empire based entirely on one faith.
This is patently false, since the Shia/Sunni schism coincided with the period of the Muslim conquest. If Shiite and Sunni Islam count as one faith, than so must Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christianity, and there have been several Christian empires. I also don’t know why Rodenbeck doesn’t consider Europe’s Holy Roman Empire, Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, or Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” to have been religiously monolithic.
There are some worthwhile moments in Tom Reiss’s review of Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt:
In a proclamation distributed in Arabic, Napoleon declared that he was a defender of Islam, come to liberate the Egyptians from tyranny. He took advantage of the fact that most revolutionary French soldiers were deists or atheists to suggest that this meant they were in fact “muslims” – “with a small ‘m'”, as Cole points out — because their rejection of the Trinity meant they had “submitted to one God”.
But this appears to be an isolated high point for this weekend’s publication. After finishing every article in this Book Review, I considered whether any of the critics seemed to have been surprised in any way by the books they reviewed, whether any of them appeared to have changed their own minds about any significant issues relating to Islam based on reading the books they have written about. The answer, unfortunately, is no. They each seem to have closed their books thinking the same things they thought when they opened them. I can think of no better way to explain why the NYTBR’s “Islam” issue turns out to be a disappointment. This is a theme issue about a religion, but it fails to deliver much by way of revelation.