The Bedouin Life

 The way of life of the Bedouin was not a mere preamble to a higher civilization: it is a rounded, complete culture in itself. It is a culture no doubt formed and influenced by climate and geography and to a certain extent imbued with what may be described as barbaric notions; but in the last resort it is the outcome of realistic human responses to a human condition reduced to the barest essentials of life and lacking all those incidentals of ease which mould society in softer climes.

The natural environment of the Bedouin is hard and inclement. Steppes and deserts, sometimes traversed by dry riverbeds which carry water only after infrequent rains; the scorching heat of summer days and the biting cold of winter nights; shallow desert wells here and there, yielding scant quantities of mostly brackish water; vegetation so scarce for most of the year that it allows only for the breeding of camels and small cattle; and a tremendous expanse of skies, pale and burning in daytime like molten metal, and infinitely high and majestic, black and starry, by night: all this has contributed to the emergence of a special human type and of moral and social characteristics not to be found anywhere else.

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The Birth & Origins of Islamic Sciences

The golden age of Islam, insofar as the intensity of the religious and spiritual life and the realization of its ideals are concerned, must be identified with the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad- Allah bless him and give him peace- and the first Muslim community at Medina. But just as the seed sown in the ground grows into a tree and finally bears fruit only after the passage of time and the gaining of nourishment from a suitable soil, so did the tree of Islamic civilization bear its intellectual and artistic fruits several centuries after its inception, during which it was nourished by the legacy of the previous civilizations to which Islam became the heir. The arts and sciences, as well as philosophy and metaphysics, reached their zenith of formal perfection and became fully articulated only after Muslim society had become completely consolidated, and only after the tenets of the Islamic revelation had been realized in concrete and tangible forms so as to make the new civilization distinctly Islamic, even when elements of non-Islamic origin had been incorporated into it.

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Education & Culture

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Sitting in a cafe last night with an old friend and student – Dr Khalid Hussain – we had a very insightful and lengthy conversation about education and its purpose. The conversation was interspersed with sweet cardamom tea and added more flavour to the discussion. It propelled me to write today’s blog.

One of the deeply rooted superstitions of our age is the notion that the sole purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach, how we teach, what subjects we encourage, are all utilised for one underlying purpose – “what do the kids get out of it?” And this ignites another more detrimental question – “is it relevant?” – and by relevant they mean “relevant to the interest of the kids.” From these superstitions have arisen a multitude of other problems such as the abhorrence of rote learning. Continue reading →

Rethinking Secularism

Excerpted from chapter one of Rethinking Secularism (Oxford University Press, 2011).

We live in a world in which ideas, institutions, artistic styles, and formulas for production and living circulate among societies and civilizations that are very different in their historical roots and traditional forms. Parliamentary democracy spread outward from England, among other countries, to India; likewise, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience spread from its origins in the struggle for Indian independence to many other places, including the United States with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Manila in 1983, and the Velvet and Orange Revolutions of our time.

But these ideas and forms of practice don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are modified, reinterpreted, given new meanings, in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One such confusion comes from taking a word itself too seriously; the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.

This is evident in the case of the word “secular.” We think of “secularization” as a selfsame process that can occur anywhere (and, according to some people, is occurring everywhere). And we think of secularist regimes as an option for any country, whether or not they are actually adopted. And certainly, these words crop up everywhere. But do they really mean the same thing in each iteration? Are there not, rather, subtle differences, which can bedevil cross-cultural discussions of these matters? Continue reading →