#120: INTRODUCING: THE MIDDLE WORLD. Amid the contentions of the current political world, an understanding of Islamic culture is of incontestable importance, even a duty of a responsible citizen. The task of such an understanding suggests a virtuous slog through academic texts, impersonal and footnoted to the teeth, so that Tamim Ansary’s recent and marvelously readable Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (Public Affairs, 2009) seems an all-the-more-wonderful surprise. Coming in at a trim 340 pages of text, written in colloquial and welcoming language, Ansary covers the Middle World—his term for Islamic culture and its lands of influence—from its first theater of operations in Mecca and Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia to its furthest extensions east into India and China and west into Spain and France, and into the divisions and hostilities of the contemporary world. It’s a massive juggling act, through some of the most contested and misunderstood issues of world history, all conducted with a kind of storytelling ease and a vivid sense of the idealism as well as the ironies and tragedies of the topic. What Ansary captures above all—making it, I think, a just about ideal book of introduction for the general reader—is the degree to which (visible particularly in his account of the Crusades) we must come to see the events, not as the flip side of our own western view, but as a radically different narrative altogether that has chanced to come into collision with our own. In his sense of Islam not merely as a religion, separable in some sense from political stance (as we have come to think in our largely secularized view) but as simultaneously a religion and a social and political project, the distance between western and Islamic views begins to come into focus. All true, but the good news is that Destiny Disrupted is full of color and event, character, lively observation, humor—it’s a terrific and absorbing read, full of things you just didn’t know, history not as fact-packing but as the discovery of a world that runs on entirely different tracks than our own, and for which you may learn a respect, affection and concern you hadn’t before been taught to feel.
Two other books, readable, informative and short-winded as well, are Richard Fletcher’s The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation (Viking 2003) and Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000).
This brings us to the originating text of Islam, which in turn brings us to a particular set of problems. Perhaps with no other religious text are we likely to meet so great an insistence on the haunting, extraordinary and untranslatable beauty of a text’s original language as we do with the Qur’an. Anyone lucky enough to have heard, even without comprehending, the qira’ut, the traditional manner of vocalizing the Qur’an, will recognize the justice of Ansary’s beautiful description: “It’s a sound quite unlike any other made by the human voice. It’s musical, but it isn’t singing. It’s incantatory, but it isn’t chanting. It evokes emotion even in someone who doesn’t understand the words. Every person who performs quira’ut does it differently, but every recitation feels like an imitation or an intimation or interpretation of some powerful original. When Mohammed delivered the Qur’an, he must have done so in this penetrating and emotional voice.” He goes on: “Perhaps this is why Muslims insist that no translation of the Qur’an is the Qur’an. The true Qur’an is the whole package, indivisible: the words and their meanings, yes, but also the very sounds, even the look of the lettering when the Qur’an is in written form. To Muslims, it wasn’t Mohammed the person but the Qur’an coming through Mohammed that was converting people.” I am going to add to this that I speak here with no scholarship whatsoever, no knowledge of Arabic or the original text, and so my recommendation may be worthless—weigh it as you will. I’d tried several different translations of the Qur’an without much pleasure or success, but recently I hit upon M. A. S. Abdel Haleem’s translation published by Oxford (corrected issue, 2010) and feel I have now been given at least some access to “the words and their meanings,” and even a hint of the beauty behind them. Haleem seems always to be intent on clarity—especially in matters of address, who’s speaking to whom—but his sentences have a concise grace. Translation must always, like politics, be an art of the possible, and with the Qur’an especially much must be lost—but whatever portion he was able to carry into English was for me a pleasure and a teaching. A bow to him, and thanks.