Review of The Search for Beauty in Islam

September 24, 2008

Alternate title for this review: Lament of a Bookseller

Minutes before closing time at Wardah on a Saturday evening, in walks a young man who seemed to me to be in his late teens. He scans the books on our shelves, pausing now and again at some of the more exotic titles: his expression was one of bemusement. Ah, it’s a familiar feeling for any bookseller – my selection is being sized up. Judgement is not for in coming. He finally turns to me and says, “Why do you have all these books?” Needless to say, I was puzzled, and my momentary silence must have successfully communicated this. “Why do you have books on philosophy, Islamic science, Islamic art… and all of that,” he elaborated, waving at the ‘Sufi’ section.

“Because this is a bookshop and this is our selection of books we think are good and are worth reading,” was my reply.

“But you don’t need all of this because the Qur’an has everything.”

My mind reels. It was as if I was in a dialogue with someone from a different civilization. It is true that the Qur’an is the Word of God and it is true that it contains everything one could possibly need and much more. But it does not follow that there is no need for books. The Qur’an – The Book – ignited an efflorescence of creative and scholastic output, sparked florid expressions of divine love, and established the most literate (and literary) civilization history has ever seen. Histories, biographies, devotional litanies, qasidah, treatises, Qur’anic commentaries, scientific discoveries, all, transmitted from one generation to another through, you guessed it, books! Then somehow, 14 centuries later, we say we don’t need books?

But all I managed to say to my young questioner was, “Scholars, Sufis, Poets have written thousands of books and…”

He cut me short, saying, “Its too bad that you think that way.” He turned and walked out.

I sighed and briefly thought about my predicament. In my bookshop, booksellers are sitting ducks, waiting for anyone to take aim and fire pot shots – zingers in their mind. Booksellers never have the last word, I’m afraid.

My eyes gaze down the bookshelves, and stop at one of the book spines: The Search for Beauty in Islam – The Conference of the Books by Prof Khaled Abou El Fadl. Prof Khaled did once ask – to no one in particular – “Why are our ideas imprisoned by the very words we use to express them?” I was not feeling very lucid or eloquent that evening. Perhaps I needed to silence my inner thoughts and listen to the deliberations of the Conference of the Books.

I remember Prof Khaled visiting our shop on a night like this in 2005. He too had cast his eyes over the books in this shop. But he was different. I could see that he felt completely at home before our shelves of books, and even kicked off his shoes and sat on the floor – he was completely absorbed, drowned even. Just so you have an idea of how drowned he was, he wrote in our guestbook later (in Arabic): ‘May Allah be praised for the poverty of my knowledge’.

During his visit, I nervously stood by, conscious that Wardah’s selection of books was being scrutinized by the greatest bibliophile of our generation. In the end, he turned to me and delivered his deadpan verdict: ‘This is the only Muslim bookshop in the world that does not have books of the Wahhabiyyah.’ My lips moved to thank him but no words came out (this seems to be a trend with me). Although I was happy that I had heeded Shaykh Hisham Kabbani’s admonishment many years ago to not allow Wahhabiyyah books on my shelves, the professor’s praise, which I take in good faith, must have been bittersweet for him. He had spent all his life in a jihad (wrestling?) against the puritans, the literalists, the pedants that reduce the splendour of Islam to legalistic obfuscation and chauvinistic decrees; yet for all that, only one bookstore on a tiny island in the Far East – with sitting-duck booksellers – refuses to stock their books.

I try to still my mind again and reach out to the Search.

Prof Khaled does not write in this book, rather he bares his soul. At times I wince at the immense dilemmas he routinely (nightly) subjects his God-given intellect. He struggles with the issues of the day, finding solace, nourishment, enlightenment, direction, yes, and even, disenchantment from a great library of Islamic civilisation. He writes with an intellectual honesty and sincerity that elicits in the reader not just cerebral stimulation but invigoration.

The chapters are short, but devastating. Each is a meditation on Islamic heritage played out in modern predicaments: timeless wisdom in apposition to contemporary absurdities; ethical, moral heights against farcical legalistic lows. Beauty and the beast. The Search must continue. The Conference must not stop. We have been ordered: Read!

Note: This review is written in the style of Prof Khaled’s Search, perhaps with limited success. But the purpose is to give you, dear reader, a taste. Goodnight and may you have a good conference – you will know what I mean when you read the book.

You might be interested in these:

  1. Straits Times Interviews Prof Khaled About The Great Theft
  2. Excuse Me, Have You Seen Beauty?
  3. Conference of Insights
  4. Knowledge and Wisdom — Mini-review
  5. An Overdue Review: The Islamist

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