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Why I Am Not a Muslim
Why I Am Not a Muslim
by Ibn Warraq
Edition: Paperback
Price: 16.99

36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sweeping survey that calls for toleration and freedom, 23 Nov 2009
This review is from: Why I Am Not a Muslim (Paperback)
Bertrand Russell's "Why I'm not a Christian" was a short set of essays, starting with a rather civilized debate about proving the existence of God. Though taken from that title, Warraq's book is an altogether larger exposition that is hardly a tea time discussion given that thousands of people have been killed and continue to be killed in the name of Islam, and that there are serious issues to explore including layers of history and the growth of learning and the intellect in the Islamic world, up until today. The book describes several historical schools of the faith and also chronicles the lives of several poets, free thinkers and philosophers from the Islamic world. It culminates in the thorny issue of what Islam represents in the West as well as in its heartlands such as Pakistan, where a woman is raped every three hours. Warraq himself originated in Pakistan and has had enough exposure to an Islamic education to tease out what is effectively a polemic against dogmatic religion of any form, monotheism in particular, with his ire focussed against Islam. The book is often a literature review with passages from several authors, mostly from sources that are out of copyright. Not all the sources are unimpeachable, though there is enough material to create a body of evidence to make his points. The book indicates that the word Islam is complex and one ought to distinguish between what Muslims are and do as against the set of teachings they are expected to practice. This book is not an attack on Muslims but a treatise that investigates the origins of Islam, the creation of a politicized empire building creed and its consequences in history.

This book is suitable for Muslims to understand their history and faith and non-Muslims alike. So long and comprehensive was the book (c. 360p) with ample sources and references, that I feel I have learned all I wish to with regards to Islam and the Koran (for the time being) in a critical light. It encompasses history, geography and biographies of notable Middle Eastern Intellectuals, many of who suffered for their heretical positions. It also offers trenchant researches on the origins of Islam and Koran. Since this book, Warraq has made tremendous contributions to Islamic scholarship and study, stimulating debate and reform movements. Readers can follow up the leads and references offered to draw their own conclusions. I found the book a very interesting read and have made a meal of reviewing it by chapters given there was much that was new in it. I think that Warraq writes impartially unlike Robert Spencer and his treatment overall is more scholarly, though Warraq states that he is not a scholar as such, and his is as much a literature review as much as a polemic.

At the introduction the book states that Islam can be classified three ways. It is what the prophet of Islam and the Koran taught. It is what was made of this teaching in terms of commentaries, interpretations and Sharia law. Finally it is Islamic culture and civilization in general. Islam 3 has many good points that sometimes contradict Islam 1 and 2. E.g., art and music are features of Islamic civilization although art is frowned on in Islamic texts. Female circumcision on the other hand and the wearing of veils for all Muslim women is not in the Koran, though they have been historically applied as Islamic.

Chapter 1 - The Rushdie Affair; Chapter 2 - The Origins of Islam; Chapter 3 - the Problem of Sources; Chapter 4 - Muhammad and his message; Chapter 5 - The Koran

A Jew Ibn Kammuna in Bagdad wrote a book in 1284 critical of Muhammad. This caused so much uproar, that he was smuggled out in a box and his career was over. Having being condemned to death, his life in exile was short. This compares well with events in 1989 when Muslims were in uproar about a chapter in Salman Rushdie's book and wanted it banned for blasphemy, a grave Islamic sin. Several people were killed in the process and history repeated itself (not for the second time). The Rushdie affair spurred Warraq as an ex Muslim to speak out about Islam and reveal to most of us, why such a fuss was created and justifications behind this. There was generally and still remains a climate of ignorance about Islam and Warraq has set out to expose the myths, hypocrisy and provide a context to account for the hurt displayed by some Muslims.

Warraq catalogues a number of ancient and modern scholars who dared to question, criticize or try and liberalise Islam and the sorry fate that awaited many of them, from losing their jobs, their lives or having to flee their homeland. Warraq poses the problem as a serious threat to scholarly and intellectual freedoms in the Arab world and asks sincerely as other scholars have, whether Islam has any place as a system of truth or a workable political system in the modern world. He tries to ask if Islam can represent moderation quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeni:

"Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! ... Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! ..."

Apparently, here is a dictionary definition of Jihad or holy war. Warraq then explains that several Iranian intellectuals were highly supportive of Rushdie (understandable in the context of Khomeni's bile) and wrote letters in his support. Ironically, it was Western intellectuals and commentators who seemed to support the fatwa on Rushdie's life as opposed to intellectuals in the Islamic world.

Chapter 1 summarises the rise of Islamic scholarship in the West with serious attempts made to understand the faith, from the 17th century to early 20th century explorations, including the views of Voltaire, Carlisle, Gibbon, Schopenhauer, Popper and (later on) romantics like Burton who translated the Arabian Nights. Warraq explores several views concerned with Islamic tolerance or lack, teasing out historical and scientific criticisms, particularly in contrasting and comparing Islam against Christianity.

Warraq starts by exploring the relationship between Islam and pre-Islamic cultures. Islam is seen as syncretistic in the light of allied Semitic and Aryan influences. Pre Islamic Arabic deities, associated rituals and customs are explored including the pilgrimage at Mecca. Warraq reveals connections between these and other elements such as Zoroastrianism, the Sabians, Indian religions with a brief exploration of prevailing traditions. The Jinns in the Islamic tradition still represent an undercurrent of poly or pantheism, a tradition that Muhammad seems to have accepted. Islam is particularly indebted to Christianity and most solidly Judaism, with which an extensive comparison is made. It transpires that the Koran contains much that is in the Jewish tradition and the more authoritative tradition (with regards to certain passages) rests on Jewish sources of which the Koran is an incomplete, disjointed facsimile, e.g., Jesus's mother Miriam is conflated in the Koran with Miriam, the sister of Moses.

The sources of Islam starting with the Koran are explored, together with a listing of its commentaries and dates. The available sources for the life of prophet Muhammad are also listed with dates, along with the names of the compilers of the Hadith such as Al-Tabari and Ibn Ishaq. There follows a review of critical Western scholarship of Islam that concludes that much of the Islamic canon was still in evolution as late as the eleventh century with its roots in the eighth or ninth century, around two centuries following the prophet. There is a great deal of interesting history and geography here with some radical reassessments on the prophet's biography.

The theses of Cook, Crone and Hinds from the 1970s is picked up that traces the origins of Muhammad not to Mecca but to the area around Palestine. Non-Muslim sources reveal a radically different if sketchier Muhammad who was effectively linked with Samaritans, united Jewish tribes and may have proclaimed the coming of a Messiah. He split off a new movement from traditional Jewry, in a parallel move to the traditional Muhammad's alleged shift from Jerusalem to Mecca. This Muhammad probably lived a little later than the Arab Muhammad, indicating the theoretical possibility of a false tradition and ideology emerging in the Hejaz later.

Warraq begins by contending that the Non-Muslim Muhammad may be more complimentary to Muslim interests given "the picture that emerges [from Muslim sources] is not at all flattering. Furthermore, Muslims cannot complain that this is a portrait drawn by an enemy." Chapter 4 explores the history of Muhammad based on Islamic sources.

Once more, Western historical studies are analysed and the traditional life of Muhammad is scrutinised in the light of the state of pre-Islamic Arabs, in contrast with the post-Islamic hegemony. Several sources point out to the emergence of Muhammad as a relatively peaceful monotheist, eventually turning into powerful, intolerant despot. His battles, assassinations and treatment of Jewish tribes is recounted, representing an unprepossessive portrayal with very little to admire in his treatment of opponents or even mild critics. He seems to have exulted at receiving the heads of his enemies. Muhammad's fallibility at times is exposed with a serious questioning of the revelations he pulled out to justify much of what he did in love/lust, war and punishment. No other warrior seems to have had recourse to so much divine sanctions to justify his every action that seemed questionable, even to his followers at the time.

The Koran (Chapter 5) is almost certainly one of many alternative versions that must have existed and perhaps an incomplete rendition of a fuller set of books. Muslim and scholarly narratives are compared. There is some unnecessary commentary contrasting Koranic revelation with science putting to the test that the Koran is regarded as the immutable final word of God for all time. Given that several verses in the Koran were later abrogated with alternative verses, it is clear that Allah could change his mind, often from a softer message later abrogated to a more vituperative tone. It consists of about 80,000 words and some 6,200 verses divided into 114 chapters.

Scholarly explorations into the origins of the New Testament are compared with Koranic studies and the dogmas and values espoused in the Koran are explored. Apparently there is little that is original in the Koran except poetic diction, but there appear to be Arabic linguistic errors that could be improved or corrected. Most of the doctrines of the Koran such as the unity of God, divine punishments, judgement day and its largely Jewish characters such as Abraham/Ibrahim are explored.

Chapter 6 - the totalitarian Nature of Islam; Chapter 7 - Is Islam compatible with Democracy and Human rights? Chapter 8 - Arab Imperialism, Islamic colonialism; Chapter 9 - The Arab Conquests and the Position of Non-Muslim subjects

The above chapters are relatively harrowing descriptions that explore Islamic doctrines, laws and their historical consequences. This applies not merely in the treatment of Jews and Christians and other unbelievers but to within subsections of Muslims themselves including women. Sunni Islam looks down on Shia Islam and Arab Islam dominates much of global Islam in general (non Arab Muslims are in some ways less equal to Arab Muslims, e.g., the Berbers of Algeria and their culture has been eclipsed and by Arab culture).

Chapter 6 explores Islam as a form of political rule with its attendant laws. Chapter 7 takes the arguments further comparing Islamic principles against the codes of Human rights. Women and Non-Muslims are not equal to Muslim men within strict Islamic legal systems. In Sharia, women's movements are restricted and they are not permitted to marry non-Muslims. Muslims in general are condemned to death for choosing to leave the faith. Non-muslims or atheists do not have the right to life and may be killed freely. Unbelief is worse than murder, theft or adultery.

Examples are given of these strictures in practice. The Ahmadis, a sect of Islam within Pakistan historically, have effectively been banned by recent legislation. A Shia Muslim was beheaded for apostacy in Arabia in 1992. Non-muslim objects of faith or open practice of religion are banned in Arabia.

On the other hand, a quote by Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) seems pretty out of place and jingoistic: "Western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state often have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist or Orthodox Cultures."

Warraq's faith in Western methodology and Science is sometimes sycophantic, though his tone is measured and he brings in several sources of which Huntington's is the most ill judged. Chapter 7 continues with a critique of Human Rights vs islam along with Democracy, Western and secular free thinking in general.

It is clear that non-Muslims would have a very hard time if Islamic laws were enforced at pain of slavery, taxation, intimidation or even death given they have no rights whatever under Sharia. Waraq makes a plea for secularism in government.

Chapters 8-9 are the most painful to read for non-Muslims exposing historical bloodbaths, enslavement, destruction and general and cultural demolition in the name of Islam. These seem to have been just as bad if not worse at times than Western imperialism:
"When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives." Koran 47.4

Several early Muslim conquerors were not persuaded by Islam or its doctrines, though they exploited and embraced the doctrine of Jihad to expand their empires. Much of the Christian, Jewish and Zorastrian Middle East including other traditions were effectively erased with a horrific loss of life and associated destructions including the loss of entire libraries of books and manuscripts, particularly in Egypt and Persia. This treatment was similarly meted out to Hindus and Buddhists in Islam's Eastern expansion.

Only Akbar the Great, the sixteenth century Mughal emperor and some of his descendants excluding Aurangzeb stand as beacons of tolerance though not necessarily as examples of what it means to be a proper Muslim. There is a vast amount of literally bloody history to get through that sometimes makes compelling reading.

Chapter 10 - Heretics and Heterodoxy, Atheism and Freethought, Reason and Revelation; Chapter 11 - Greek Philosophy and Science and Their Influence on Islam; Chapter 12 - Sufism or Islamic Mysticism; Chapter 13 - Al-Ma'arri

These chapters are of historical interest tracing the development of schools of Islamic thought, its contacts with classical civilisation and the free thinkers and poets in the Muslim world, many of whom were killed or avoided this through luck or artifice. Chapter 10 considers the historical lineages in Islam and the attendant splits from the first Caliphs, the Umayyads around 661, through to the Abbasids who overthrew them around 750. The Kharijites were an early lineage within Islam that was vindictive but tolerant of infidels. They helped Muslims to consider their faith rationally. Even more advanced in progressing Islamic liberalism were the Qadarites and Mu'tazilites ("fifty doubts are better than one certainty") who eventually began to question the sanctity of the prophet. Some of these reformers rejected revelation as necessarily good and preferred the notion of absolute standards of morality, dictated by reason. They moved to the position that the Koran was created, i.e., man made (Muslims tend to believe that the Koran is uncreated, with an identical copy in heaven). This was sadly turned into a dogma used to eliminate dissenters, which probably unravelled a movement towards tolerance. Unfortunately, these unorthodox movements were heavily proscribed later and do not seem to have established themselves to be of lasting influence.

The life of Mani (216-276) is discussed, founder of Manichaeism, perhaps heavily influenced by Indian ideas. Mani promoted asceticism and being vegetarian. Mani continued to influence some "heretical" movements within Islam.

Zindiqs and Zandaquas represent free thinkers who often feigned to be believers but were followers of pre-islamic or other religions (such as Manichaeism) or were outright atheists. Several of them are listed, many executed upon discovery.

Amongst them were Ibn Al-Muqaffa, a Manichaen who dared to attack Islam. He made several translations of books from Persian and Sanskrit to Arabic. He was executed in c. 760. Al-Mutanabbi (915-965) is considered the greatest Arabic poet but expressed heretical views but escaped with his life. Ibn Al-Rawandi (c. 820 ...) was a scholar and author who eventually became an atheist and attacked all religions. Such figures reveal that there were rational humans here after all who dared to dissent.

In Chapter 11 Warraq contends that much of Islamic civilization owes heavily to Greek thought and Byzantine architecture, especially the domes on Mosques that would have been unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia. There is a similar listing of Islamic and non-Islamic scholars and philosophers who were instrumental in transmitting and translating Greek thought and ideas to Caliphate dynasties and eventually to the West. Some of these individuals once again were executed for heresy. Despite innovative thinkers like Avicenna (Ibn Sina), later scholars like Al-Ghazali seemed to despise philosophy as a source of "infidelity". Warraq contends that Al-Ghazali was detrimental to Islamic thought and learning eventually.

A subsequent wave of Islamic philosophers such as Averroes (1126-1198) are discussed, many of them advocating views against traditional dogma. Averroes was taken up in the West but forgotten in the Islamic world. Warraq expands on the contribution of Muslims to Western science, particularly in areas like trigonometry and a lexicon of new words and substances like alkali, zircon, talc, Altair, zero and coffee. Much of the scholarship came from Christian and Jewish individuals as well as Muslims. It is clear that the subsequent rise of orthodox Islam choked further evolution in scientific learning in the Middle East until recently.

Chapter 12 dwells on Sufism, representing the mystical side of Islam. Sufis evolved independently of the Koranic tradition and broke away from Sharia enforcement. "I'm neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Muslim" sings one mystic - the status between belief and non-belief became less important. Unfortunately, many Sufi mystics were executed for heresy. Warraq concludes that early Islam was fundamentally intolerant of heresy, analysing the concept of bida or innovation. Whereas Islamic texts offer much ambiguity for interpretation, their enforcement as a political creed could not bear dissent. State and Church were not separated that led to a prosecution of heresy and an attack on dissent, unless royal patronage was in favour of certain individuals who lived off their wits, learning or talent. Examples are given of thousands being executed for heresy.

Chapter 13 explores the life of Al-Ma'arri (973-1057), a Syrian free thinker who was a great poet and something of a nihilist. "This wrong was by my father done, To me, but never by me to one." In other words, procreation. He was a critic of religions as "noxious weeds". Several examples of his poetry are given and amongst his sins were parodying the Koran. This remarkable individual believed in kindness to animals and became a vegetarian at 30. He managed to escape prosecution for heresy despite being charged with it. Warraq is a fan.

Chapter 14 - Women and Islam; Chapter 15 - Taboos: Wine, Pigs and Homosexuality

Chapter 14 is a long treatise debunking the notion that Islam raised the position of women in Arabia. Prophet Muhammad's main innovation was the prevention of female infanticide that took place before his time. Whereas women have been characterised as guilty or sinful in such books such as the Perfumed Garden translated by Richard Burton (19th century), I don't think Warraq has compared such texts against similar texts in other religions. Textual criticism of women, composed by men is very common in history. The real damage is represented by the sanction of rape, female slavery, mutilation, honor killings and the treatment of women to be often confined in houses or stifling garments. As Warraq points out, women now spearhead most Islamic reform.

The chapter explores the position of women in Islamic texts, laws and history. Towards the end, there are galling conclusions coming from his native country Pakistan. Its founder, Jinna, never intended Pakistan to be a Muslim state but a secular one. General Zia-al-Huq Islamicized the country in his bid to consolidate dictatorial control. The mullahs and landowners benefited tremendously and acted in tandem, and the position of women fell to below that of pets or servants in some instances. Warraq is critical of Benhazir Bhutto's appeasement of the Muslim fundamentalists in a narrative composed well before her assassination. One woman gets raped every three hours in Pakistan and the men get off scot-free given the woman needs four witnesses to obtain any justice, otherwise, she would be guilty of adultery and theoretically subject to lapidation or imprisonment. Consequently, most rape victims could even be raped again by the police as happens regularly if they attempt to launch any allegations for the sake of justice. Thanks to Islamic tradition there is no lower limit in age for marriage and young girls may be forced to marry against their will. A man may divorce his wife on a whim and may have as many women as he chooses (if he can afford it). Firstly, he can marry four wives, and can divorce them freely to marry again. Secondly, he could have sex with as many slaves as he liked. A woman on the other hand is restricted in her movements and is effectively the property of her husband. She should give in even on the back of a camel at the risk of going to hell at death. Women in Saudi Arabia apparently tend to be quite insecure, in fear of divorce. Several related topics such as the hijab and female circumcision are explored. Many Muslim women would obviously argue with Warraq's stance but many of these would not be living in Sharia controlled countries and would be free to argue.

In Chapter 15 we learn that drunkenness and alcoholism were often tolerated (praised by poets) in Islamic cultures as was homosexuality, more so than in Europe in a historical context. There is a detailed examination on the restrictions against eating pork amongst other animals and exceptions are examined. Judaism and Islam are held up as backwards in the treatment of animals, particularly during slaughter where the animal must be fully conscious during death. Irrational aspects associated with certain taboos are explored such as the consideration of dogs as unclean animals.

Chapter 16 - Final Assessment of Muhammad; Chapter 17 - Islam in the West

Whereas Muhammad's strengths are assessed, his eventual impact on history is analysed in the light of the historical consequences of Islam. Chapter 17 dwelling mostly on the UK, contains some telling passages of modern Muslim supremacist ideology that many politicians tend to overlook, along with an analysis of multiculturalism and several legal concessions made to Muslims with regards to the slaughter of animals and alteration of dress codes.

This final chapter makes clear that there is no war between Muslims and the West but rather between secular free thinking based on pluralism verses a politically correct, stifling multiculturalism that would open the gates to dogmatic groups to take over and assert themselves. This chapter represents a warning about what would happen if too many concessions are made to organisations like the Muslim Parliament in the UK that is effectively bent on spreading Islam with a strain of intolerance to other creeds and Western civilisation and science, democracy and human rights in general. "Therefore, [Warraq concludes] the final battle will not necessarily be between Islam and the West, but between those who value freedom and those who do not."
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 13, 2014 9:44 PM BST

The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change
The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change
by Irshad Manjii
Edition: Paperback

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars God is greater than dogma, 26 Oct 2009
This is an easy read "as smooth as milk" and equally digestible. Manji prosecutes a fairly rigorous and comprehensive analysis of the problems associated with modern Islam in particular, one that is of tremendous relevance given the hundreds killed by suicide bombers almost on a daily basis. Muslims kill other Muslims in the main in order to defeat their stated enemy, typically Jews or Americans though the ire could equally focus on any group that is seen to threaten Islam, though of course the logic of killing your own kind to avenge your enemy seems to be a bit lost. Manji's catalogue of problems associated with Islam may have applied to Christianity in the past, but I don't think any other modern mainstream religion including Judaism can be compared in the context of violence and treatment of the "other" to Islam (despite claims to the contrary). Tribal religions can vaunt themselves over others arrogating for themselves the God given right to pillage and destroy whomever or whatever they please (in the name of God and self defence). Thus we see the superior Sunnis killing the Shias as infidels and the pacific Sufis marginalised into the periphery, also regarded as infidel material. And that's just intra Islamic violence. Manji's book is quite old now. Since then, we have witnessed Islamic beheadings of innocent people be they Hindus, Buddhists, Christians or Jews as well as burning people alive, proudly placed as videos on the web. "Let me propose this much: equality can't exit in the desert, not if the taxonomy of the tribe is to remain intact" argues Manji in one of the most forceful sentences in the book.

She effectively describes a plethora of problems in general and in particular, teasing out history and examples of her encounters with other cultures including a trip to Israel and the trouble she had seeing Islam's holiest shrines as a woman. As an example, Manji queries the lack of an outcry to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha's from a Muslim feminist: " `Manji, do you know what's happening to Muslims in Palestine?' .... Somebody return me to earth or transport my butt to a part of the solar system where we distinguish between justice and justification."

I enjoyed Manji's treatment of the Palestinian conflict and her trenchant analysis of freedom and openness in Israel compared to her neighbours. By playing the victim card, Muslims seem to have lost out so far. Each and every time something terrible happens, the finger seems to be pointed at the Jews and Americans. Make no mistake, the Middle East convinced themselves that 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy in all earnestness. There is nothing new here, the Jews were accused of spreading lies as far back as 1848, the scapegoats of choice for any calamity in the Islamic world. The exploration of anti-Semitism from a relatively short Islamic golden age to the present is telling.

Irshad scorns and chastises the rise of Whabism from Saudi Arabia and highlights the spread of this brand of Islam thanks to petro dollars. More than the West, it is Arab culture that has colonised global Islam. The author exposes hypocrisy on several fronts and scorns the culture of ignorance that Wahabism and what is described as "foundermentalism" in particular has created. We learn about Turkish observatories that were torn down shortly after construction because of complaints from the Mullahs and free thinking philosophers like Ibn Rashd who were assassinated for expressing themselves. Saudi Arabia has been busy obliterating historic Muslim architecture in case it encourages idolatry and Muslims are kept ignorant about the Jewish roots of their faith (or at least, these roots are not emphasised).

Yet Manji remains a Muslim, beloved by many other Muslims sick of the lengths to which hatred is espoused on the basis of the Koran and Hadiths. A different kind of interpretation is possible, toning down the violent rhetoric, begging the question as to what constitutes a Dhimmi or a Believer? A reformed Islam is surely possible and Manji's is probably the first major book exploring reasons for hope within the Islamic diaspora, particularly in the West.

Manji explains that Allahu Akbar does not mean so much "God is great" but that "God is greater", Greater than my petty views and opinions and the potential need to kill and destroy in His name.

I think that the length of her essay does not permit enough room to explore the solutions in bringing about reformation - one topic explored in some detail is women's empowerment. We see that Manji is passionate for the accommodation of Muslims by civilisation at large, and they should at least be grateful (given many don't like this book) that she explains the need for Muslim immigration into the Western or Developed world if they are to maintain their productivity. Manji talks passionately about the need to educate the disenfranchised young in Muslim countries via media programs: "Whoever denies these kids economic and civic participation will incite a degree of chaos capable of convulsing much of the planet". She seeks the participation of anyone with resources to help Muslims to think independently, outside the box. She calls this Itjihad, too long swept under the carpet by theocratic governments.

The author is a powerful communicator and activist and has obviously started something. Having appreciated this book I can only hope it will influence Believers in a positive way but Manji's epistle probably falls largely on deaf ears. At least she may be a Cassandra forewarning her kindred and us poor infidels as to dangers ahead. This surely rates as a document of its time, worthy of dissemination and discussion now and in the future. Its impact if any, remains to be seen.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 15, 2013 10:47 AM BST

A Thousand Splendid Suns
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Afghan Dickensian dystopia with little room for hope: very informative, 18 Sep 2009
I started reading this book and it did not grip me. The chapters were short and self contained. A few chapters on, I was hooked. I finished it almost on the same day, from 11AM to 12PM and maybe 1 hour the next morning. It seemed important to find out what happens.

There are two main female protagonists Mariam and Laila, their lives are brought together by marriage to the same husband. Also featured are Nana, Mariam's mother, a key player who sets the tone for the whole story. Everything she says turns out to be true and we sense it, even though Mariam finds it so disagreeable, that Mariam is actually a bastard child and has no place in that society's system of ethics and hierarchy.

Mariam is married off to Rasheed to get rid of her, by her stepmothers and stepfather. Classic fairy tale material. She will never find a prince though.

Tariq is Laila's boyfriend, he's a sort of prince though is more a background character. And there are so many educated folk and sensitive people brought to the fore, against the backdrop of a worsening political situation in the country that is narrated fairly faithfully, true to history. We get a commentary from the pre Soviet invasion all the way to 9/11 and beyond.

There is a spotlight of the oppression of women under Islam's strict Sharia laws as imposed by the Taliban and lesser fanatics, though a kinder face of that same culture is also brought forth, in the pre Soviet era in particular.

My special highlight was a tour of the Bamiyan Buddha's when Laila is a young child.

We get an insiders look at life in Kabul and what it may be like to wear a burka. The grim treatment of women and their predicament under sharia is highlighted as they are so powerless against the male dominated justice system. Sadly, the situation under the Taliban is now been replicated in Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Indonesia - the epidemic of Sharia is spreading.

Mercifully here, there is room for hope at the end, but after a lot of suffering and unresolved politics. Hosseini is a brilliant story teller and a credit to his people. I just hope that women like Mariam get the justice and recompense they deserve.

A Step In The Dark
A Step In The Dark
by Judith Lennox
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From colonial India to a whodunnit, 5 Sep 2009
This review is from: A Step In The Dark (Paperback)
From the moment I picked it up, I could not put it down. Hard though it was, I was compelled to finish it off from one afternoon to the next morning at the cost of a few social engagements. Bess Ravenhart is guilt ridden at having abandoned her son to Cory Ravenhart, who steals him away from her. A loss that Bess will regret to the end of her days. She remarries again and again producing a happy brood of children with tales of romance largely set in Edinburgh. Her son returns to her unexpectedly with a brooding castle in Perth as part of his inheritance. Into this steps his grown up half sister and tales of passion as Britain drifts towards the second world war.

Weaving the backdrop of history from Colonial India to the First World War, to the strikes and the economic depression of the 30s, Lennox weaves a rich tapestry of information centered on families, romance and relationships. The one point I may question is her assertion of the Luftwaffe bombing radar stations - had they invented radar that early?

Convincing, page turning moving from romance to a detective tale and satisfyingly, the ends are all tied together, almost too late as the book draws to a close given its long rambling, yet good humored style.

Lennox writes with the skill of Iris Murdoch, a tale of India, cold Scotland, a large estate and the chief protagonist, Bess from around 1914 to perhaps 1965 or so. This book is about the UK, about the British at their best except for when they seem to drink too much. There is much darkness and intricate beauty in the characters, especially the female ones that Lennox skilfully conjures up.

Yes, she conjures most of it up cleverly, in a rich, historic yarn of love and colour.

Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery
by Steve Nicholls
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 22.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enchanting new world - a record of natural abundance and our response over half a millennium, 17 July 2009
A plague of Rocky Mountain Locusts around Nebraska in 1875 was estimated to cover 198,000 square miles, over twice that of the UK. Despite the largest ever single species swarm determined in history, the locust was soon extinct. It is just one of several examples covered here, cataloguing abundance in nature in the North American continent and its demise following Columbus, half a millennium ago: "Columbus didn't discover America; he simply ran into a continent already occupied by countless nations as varied in their lives as the ecology of the land they occupied." Here the author is swift to dismiss America as a pristine wilderness unchanged by man, rather it was wilderness in relatively stable balance with human communities, who had already modified or continued to manage nature to their ends.

British wildlife film maker Steve Nicholls is at pains to tease out why collapse in natural abundance is so poorly regulated by science and politicians, given the skewed nature of our baselines as to actual abundance: we estimate abundance based on a limited perception long out of date. Copious records exist from European contact, to gain a relatively complete picture as to what happened when a mercantile capitalist civilization was unleashed on paradise found; a chain of events repeated elsewhere but scarcely revealed in such vastness of scale: "The hugely abundant natural world of North America provided the raw capital to fuel the birth of new nations. Those same historical documents that allow us to build up a picture of past natural abundance also provide a stark and sobering illustration of the last five hundred years of our relationship with nature."

Far from an unfurling tragedy, Nicholls is a canvas strewn with bounty and grandeur incorporating native communities like the Calusa who never farmed. They lived off an incredible marine productivity. Combining history and personal narrative, there is a pointed lack of illustrations or maps. Depictions work through our imaginations as we glimpse the late Great plains as Lewis and Clark convey from 1803: "this scenery already rich pleasing and beautiful was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe, deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be compreed at one view ...(sic) "

Of twenty chapters, over a third is given over to aquatic habitats including the oceans and their exploitation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There are complimentary, referenced sources as with oyster harvesting off Chesapeake bay: "the Lord put them there so we could get them ... Get it today! To hell with tamar. Leave it till tamar, and somebody else'll get it." As is now dawning and highlighted, ocean abundance has probably fared worse than terrestrially, hidden in invisibility and subject to assumptions of infinity: "These animals are found at all times of the year everywhere around this island in vast numbers ... could [yield] plentifully from them with both fat and meat." - concerning Steller's sea cow that became extinct a record 27 years after discovery.

Despite examples of dramatic recovery in certain species, (beavers, elephant seals and the cahow, from Bermuda that was restored from presumed extinction by a determined governor) this is more a witness narrative than a call for change given wildlife literature and warnings about collapse are nothing new. As Nicholls observes "Almost as soon as the New World was discovered, it was connected to an enormous market ... These markets sucked up American resources at extraordinary rates." starkly illustrating a carnage disguised along our supermarket aisles. The further we are separated from the source and nature of exploitation as with fishing on the high seas, the more we consume in ignorance, with profligacy. Historical natural abundance is now unimaginable. Suggestions to reform globalised capitalism are indicated.

Leaving a litany of extinctions, Nicholls attempts to grapple honestly with infinite abundance that greeted Europeans to the new world, not just in the beginning but through several waves of exploration and spread following history from East to West. He tries to pin it down and bring us face to face with it. There is an exposure to the value systems the Europeans brought with them, so ill suited to the preservation of biodiversity: primarily a strong belief in a self serving God and that all the abundance discerned was the Lord's great gift for the new pilgrims to pillage as they wished; that the wolf and its ilk was the devil incarnate and worst of all, a rapine capitalism where everything was potentially available to kill and destroy on the cheap and sell dear - money money money. We meet crystal clear waters carpeted in oysters, mussels and abalones. Seas and rivers aplenty with whales, seals, turtles, sirenians, otters, birds, walruses and fish. We move from the Atlantic through the Eastern USA and then south, north ... from the Caribbean to the Mississippi, from the wastes of Canada to the warmth of Florida. From giant forests to the great plains. From sea to sea, coast to coast and from the Vikings to the 21st century. What has been lost is not simply species, but abundance and richly evolved ecosystems, in many ways lost for ever - like vast cities of prairie dogs up to five billion strong ...

"I offer this book as a time machine." Nicholls "time machine" is warmly inviting - a detailed and lavish expose in an unfinished (his)story.

Casio Men's Combi Bracelet Watch AQF-100WD-9BVES
Casio Men's Combi Bracelet Watch AQF-100WD-9BVES

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Useful but, 19 Mar 2009
This watch has everything I could ever want in a watch ... problems include the fact that the thermometer registers a higher temperature than ambient as it does not compensate for the warmth of the wrist. You have to take it off for a while to register an environmental temperature. This particular watch has no scratchproof glass. Worst of all, it is very difficult to adjust the time and some of the other controls - it has no simple time setting screw knob like most simpler watches. Without the instructions, you'd be lost in setting the time. However once set, it works after getting wet, indicates moon phase accurately and also shows time in at least two places, one for where you are and one for any adopted country. Casio or the competition, please improve the watch setting features. No other brand does a moon phase dual time watch as economical as this.

The Origin and Evolution of Mammals (Oxford Biology)
The Origin and Evolution of Mammals (Oxford Biology)
by T. S. Kemp
Edition: Paperback
Price: 43.00

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A staid performance, 25 Jan 2009
This is a major reference book, presumably essential for a specialist but I found that it assumed too much prior knowledge and was totally wedded to the dogma of cladism making it difficult to work out the status of the groups described. I also found that in the references, giants like Alfred Sherwood Romer or for that matter, authors on mammal evolution like Derek Yalden scarecely get a mention.

It should perhaps be retitled the origin and evolution of amniotes leading to the mammals given that about half the book deals with mammal like reptiles. Some of this treatment would be essential but there was far too much on basal tetrapods. When it came to even these, there was no real fire about really interesting organisms like Dimetrodon, or any particular story to light the mind given that as a scientist Kemp is cautious.

The weak classification provided is my main problem with the book. Given that so many of the taxa are unranked in classical cladistic fashion, you don't really know what you are dealing with - whereas the traditional orders of mammals are described as such, supraordinal and subordinal taxa are difficult to make out in the context of rank or major grouping. You end up with hierarchical lists and have to try and work out a great deal of it yourself. I'd find the classification of Benton from Bristol (another major author in the field) far more useful and user friendly.

There is no great enthusiasm shown for any of the scenarios or organisms/taxa in question (except some early amphibians and amniotes) and the illustrations could have been more informative. Kemp argues that the collision of India with Asia could have happened earlier than the Eocene but offers little justification. The contribution of Indian mammals if any from the Cretaceous period is alleged but the discussion is uncritical in the light of violent vulcanism on the subcontinent during the KT boundary.

Sorry, but I would have preferred Romer (VP and evolution) or Carroll's update of Romer. I'd really like a similar book on slightly more traditional lines and hope it turns up. In the meantime, this remains a reference for citing purposes. (ps try K. Rose, The beginning of the age of mammals)

Frogs Flies and Dandelions: The making of species
Frogs Flies and Dandelions: The making of species
by Menno Schilthuizen
Edition: Paperback
Price: 36.71

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best guides, sadly out of print, 25 Jan 2009
This book was gripping and a joy to read and convinced me even more about evolutionary processes in the context of speciation. It was also terse, punchy and easily understood. The author has done the spadework and interviewed lots of scientists to put this part Journalistic guided tour together.

This book starts with Mayr and the definition of a species - perhaps the best part, and goes into great depth about allopatric speciation before moving onto sympatric modes, polyploidy in plants and instances of possible instant speciation with animals as well.

There are really good examples provided from the Galapagos, Indonesia and Australasia, the lake Chichlid fishes, Banana flies, Insects and yes dandelions. Most of the examples are quite varied and easily appreciated.

I could not fault this extremely informative and enjoyable read. You would find is useful if you need to brush up on the mechanisms of species formation but don't have time to wade through a Mayr or a more expensive and dull textbook.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science
The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science
by Jonathan Haidt
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars You can really discuss this book with your coffee partner, 25 Jan 2009
Haidt says there are three ways to change your state of happiness: drugs, meditation and psychotherapy. This book is a effectively a good dose of psychotherapy and has some really excellent stand alone chapters particularly on love and romance and highlights in the study of what makes people happy, particularly based on scientific research from the 20th century. This book is an exploration of happiness that is anchored in ancient wisdoms we may be familiar with - Roman stoics, a bit of Greek philosophy, Buddhist and Hindu ideas, Lao Tzu and teachings from the Bible.

Not all may agree with Haidt, especially on the utility of antidepressants. I also go along with the criticism that he may have generalised too much. As G. Johnson points out above, Buddhism is more complex than Haidt's analysis. The notion that Buddhism teaches inaction, passivity and simple detachment does not take into account that Buddhism does describe at least 11 kinds of happiness from sensual pleasures to extraordinary happiness in the third Jhana (at least in theory). Buddhism could be dichotomised into lay practice vs monastic practice and a Mahayana vs a Theravada approach. The Mahayana and Lay Buddhist practices emphasize a proactive endeavor to assist those who may need it. But, as the Theravadin's point out, it's probably better to deal with your own problems first. Haidt's Dhammapada quotations from Mascaro as translator should be regarded as a pretty poor rendition of an ancient text.

There is also this peculiarly American division between liberals and conservatives, one that is unique to the US and can only be seen in an American context by those of us English speakers not from the USA.

Haidt sometimes uses ancient Wisdom in caricature so that he can state a different more advanced philosophy for the technologically sophisticated times we enjoy. At this level, I think he has it pitched about right to suit cultured, middle class and educated societies trying to encapsulate for themselves, the nature of happiness and how to get it in a generally secular context.

I especially enjoyed his graphs in the relationship chapter showing a distinction between visceral short term affection vs long term companionship based affection. He has also introduced with great simplicity some profound ideas of modern psychological studies from Freud to ? ... We certainly have little time to study the copious alternative treatises and this is definitely a good place to hunk down and research. So real happiness consists of Flow States of mind where you get absorbed in an activity rather than the short term thrill of winning something ... meditation is simply extending the flow state of mind to a deeper level.

I would recommend this modern appraisal of the nature of happiness as explored by the new science of psychology and certain ancient thinkers. Haidt's is an impressive short compendium rich in references. I think it is refreshing that he is so open to teachings alien to himself including Buddhism and this is a book that could get many of us started on our own explorations.

I find it disagreeable that our baseline happiness may be set by our genes and would endeavor to strive to increase it - this to me is an aspect of being human even though it may be very difficult to overcome the genetic conditioning. Even genes like some God cannot be all powerful and deserve to be brought down to size.

Saving the Earth as a Career: Advice on Becoming a Conservation Professional
Saving the Earth as a Career: Advice on Becoming a Conservation Professional
by Malcolm L. Hunter Jr.
Edition: Paperback
Price: 22.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to be an environmental scientist, 25 Jan 2009
I've often thought about jobs or careers that can help save the planet. This book seemed to help, but not necessarily in helping me to save the world, but perhaps succeeding as a Grad student engaged in research. Career wise the aim, a "conservation professional" is defined to begin with. Most of the books' eleven chapters, (however) are about scientific work as a student - for careers in a governmental, academic or conservation body. Field work, ecology and resource management are stressed though much of this book could readily be translated into general biology: the advantages of postgraduate work, applying and funding, research, conferences, producing a theses and scientific papers.

The book is leavened with excellent cartoons, themed conversations and real life quotations reflecting solutions to issues like tutors, deadlines and launching publications.

Few people reading this book will have most of the options described let alone the choices, particularly in the context of academia - getting suitable research, funding or adequate supervision. E.g., PhD students in an American context are advised about hiring research helpers, a luxury many students will only dream about.

The last two chapters address finding a job and making a difference - "you may be the only one at the table that speaks for those who cannot speak ... non-human animals and ecosystems" with emphasis overall on volunteer work and sharing your findings with the world.

This book will not help you in becoming a David Attenborough and even less, Chico Mendez but is a manifesto in launching a career. It is ideally suited to budding researchers with tips and pointers to the compromised majority about keeping faith and shifting career gears in an age when conservation is yet to be considered a grown up discipline. More could have been said about non academic routes to helping to save the planet given that the greatest conservationists have not necessarily been scientists but often hunters, farmers and that rare breed - an enlightened politician.

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