September 5, 2009
The Pied Piper raises his flute to his lips, casts a knowing backward glance, and leads the children away. All our children have gone, yet there are no mourners and no one regrets not paying the Piper his due.
The flattening of society’s hierarchies, the marginalisation of literacy in adult life and the levelling effect of television and other electronic media have ushered the disappearance of childhood. This might be an oversimplification, for surely the decline in nurturing family life has accelerated the transition from booties to stiletto heels, but the heart of the matter is that children are disappearing because the period of incubation before adulthood where, hitherto, children had to acquire the tools of literacy in order to function in the adult world, quite frankly is no longer required. As Neil Postman explains in The Disappearance of Childhood, reading is an act that transforms the child into an adult by ‘acquiring the sort of intellect we expect of a good reader: a vigorous sense of individuality, the capacity to think logically and sequentially, the capacity to distance oneself from symbols, the capacity to manipulate high orders of abstraction, the capacity to defer gratification. And of course, the capacity for extraordinary feats of self-control.’ But these hallmarks of rational adulthood are obsolete. To live in the modern world, one no longer needs to be literate, disciplined, or even responsible. Take voting for example. It is assumed that adults, having gone through the rigour of school where skills such as logical analysis and the ability to either construct or debunk concepts are (it is hoped) honed, have the requisite discernment to elect a worthy political representative. But do adults do this now? And is this even expected of them? The charismatic persona is more important than the rhetorical point. The television demeanour is more important than the policy discussion.
Perhaps the surest sign of the disposability of literacy in the adult domain is the ubiquitous use of cartoons to explain government policy – well if you put it like that, any kid could understand CPF. You see, the adult world has been kiddie-fied and the child, fed on a staple media diet of sex, drugs and rock&roll, is adulti-fied to the point that she or he has cast off childish curiosity for precocious indifference (What-ever!), or worse, arrogance.
There are other signs of the Piper’s handiwork. Violent crime among those below the age of 16 has increased so much that in some states in the United States – and this was in the 1980s – legislators contemplated dismantling juvenile courts altogether in favour of hearing these cases in the main courts. And then of course, there’s sex. Pre-teen sexually transmitted disease is on the rise, and the only segment of society where pregnancies are increasing is among girls below 17.
So, what, are we as parents to do? Well, Postman recommends going against almost every single social trend by rebelliously teaching our children manners, delayed gratification, deference to elders, and by taking up the mantle of literacy-empowerment that schools have cast off in the misguided attempt to make learning ‘fun’. Postman’s most radical suggestion is to limit children’s exposure to mass media and to supervise closely whenever they are exposed to media. Echoing Frithjof Schuon’s proposition that only the complete child can become a whole adult, Postman contends that children thus nurtured (and protected) in a kind of monastery of media abstinence will, in the short-term bring about adults that are mature, upstanding and intelligent; and in the long term, preserve human civilization and dignity. It is a service we owe to our ancestors who toiled for what we take for granted today. To look at it another way, just as books transmit ideas to another place and another time, our children are messages we send to generations we will never see. We need to do our fard kifayah by slipping a coin to the Pied Piper and giving childhood its due.
The Disappearance of Childhood
June 26, 2009
This is not the usual Wardah book review. In fact it is not even a book I am reviewing, but Art Fazil’s new album, Syair Melayu.
I first saw Art Fazil at the DBS Auditorium way back in the late 1980s. It was a simple gig: Ramli Sarip, some percussionists, a guy with an ocarina, and tenderfoot Art Fazil. I distinctly remember them playing the blues standard, ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Of all the performers on stage, Art looked the least at ease with himself – perhaps because it was an improvisational encore ‘jam’.
Fast-forward twenty years to the present: Art releases his second album with Life Records. Art is now a mature musician, comfortable in his own skin, literally.
The album features 10 tracks of Malay folk songs that would be familiar to Malays and Peranakans who grew up in Singapore or Malaysia. Apart from the music, which is beautifully produced by the way, the album’s liner notes includes a short essay by Dr Hadijah Rahmat, Singapore’s expert on rural Malay social history. Lyrics (in Jawi!) and short synopses of the songs are also provided. Overall, this album is a real gem in a neat package.
Listening to the CD brought me back to the days of primary-school classroom singing, catching fish in Changi creek and experiencing the hubbub of Geylang Serai market. So much has changed, but thankfully, Art’s nuanced interpretation of these perennial Malay songs reminds us that culture is not something to be stashed in a time-capsule and banished to the past but is rather a living, timeless matrix of shared memories, joys and hopes.
Art’s collection brought a smile to my face and a lump in my throat. No wonder he was ill at ease singing about ‘sweet home’ Chicago. His heart was pining for Nusantara all along.
1. Kampong Pasir Berdengung
2. Bangau O Bangau
3. Air Pasang Pagi
4. Ikan Kekek
5. Lagu Tiga Kupang
6. Syair Hang Nadim
7. Nenek Si Bongkok Tiga
8. Geylang Si Paku Geylang
9. Lompat Si Katak Lompat
10. Injit-injit Semut
11. Rasa Sayang
(And yes, it is available at Wardah Books)
January 27, 2009
Trends of 2008
Last year was very much a year for large reference works, mainly on the Qur’an, such as Routledge’s The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia (a very readable reference book, despite its 800 pages); FonsVitae’s magisterial ‘Great Commentaries of the Holy Qur’an Series’ starting off with translations of Tafsir al-Jalalayn, Tafsir Ibn Abbas, Tafsir al-Tustari, and al-Wahidi’s Asbab al-Nuzul. Another development that is making (sound) waves is the CDs of home-grown label Sout Ilaahi.
On to the best of 2008 (in no particular order)…
1. The Qur’an: A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (2008 re-issue)
Oxford World’s Classics
This translation comes highly recommended by Shaykh Khalil Moore who honoured us by visiting our little shop in 2008. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem has taken great effort to make the English rendition of the Qur’an lucid and clear, and it is wonderful to see the language cascade seamlessly from image to image. This should be on the bookshelf of everyone for whom English has become a first language. While we still maintain that the best translation is the Nawawi Foundation’s The Majestic Qur’an (now sadly out of print), we praise M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s work for its accessibility, flow and beauty.
2. Book of Tauhid: A Manual for Learning the Six Pillars of Faith (Second Edition)
Abdul Shakur Hadi
The first priority is knowledge of Allah.
Finally. A work that explains and describes the six pillars in a systematic way has been produced in the English language. Most of us who grew up in the Malay-speaking world would probably have had some exposure to the works (kitabs) of the Malay shaykhs of the past which describe the Sifat 20 (20 Attributes), list (and describe) the archangels, the prophets, the books of Allah and so on. This book does just that and is essentially a primer on the doctrine of Ahl Sunna wal Jamaah.
3. Grand Saint of Singapore: The Life of Habib Nuh al-Habsyi
Ustaz Ghouse Khan Suratee
This is another long-overdue work. It is the biography of Habib Nuh al-Habsyi, the saint widely celebrated to be THE saint of Singapore, who lived and died in Singapore in the early 1800s. The book narrates the life of Habib Nuh and surfaces many anecdotes from his saintly life. This book is certainly a first in Singapore (a first that is even recognised by the President of Singapore, S.R. Nathan) and we hope that this landmark publication spurs other works that document the Islamic heritage of Singapore and the region.
4. The Masnavi: A New Translation by Jawid Mojaddedi (Vols I & II)
Oxford World’s Classics
Oxford World’s Classics scores another homerun with this translation of Mevlana Rumi’s Masnavi, which is widely recognised to be the greatest Persian Sufi poem. As with M.S.A. Abdul Haleem’s translation of the Qur’an, the language is strikingly beautiful. Not only do the verses rhyme, they also have a cadence that is all the more pleasing when recited – a rare achievement for a translation. And that’s not all, for Jawid Mojaddedi also manages to convey, as the original does masterfully, Sufi teachings cloaked in irony and humour. Wonderful.
5. A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar
Amadou Hampate Ba
This work, originally in French and now available for the first time in English, is divided into three parts. Part One deals with the life and milieu of Shaykh Tierno Bokar of Mali. Part Two deals with his words (his culture transmitted knowledge primarily orally) and Part Three deals with his teachings. Shaykh Bokar (1875–1939) was a spiritual leader of the Tijani tariqah who, despite having to live in a time of political upheaval and sectarian unrest during West Africa’s colonial period, was a beacon of spiritual intelligence, love, charity and tolerance. This is a surprisingly relevant work in our own age of extremism (arising from either religious or secular fundamentalisms) that has given rise to increased intolerance and exclusion.
6. The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad (s.a.w.)
This is not a work of a historical person. It is a work that describes the central figure in the life of each Muslim – Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. To Muslims, the Prophet is not a personality of the past, but a reality that is ever-contemporaneous, and this book captures this essence in a way modern readers (both Muslim or otherwise) can understand and appreciate.
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 Ã‚Â– 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.
August 2, 2008
Don’t worry. I won’t be asking you to throw away your tv. That would be naive. And naivety is what the author Neil Postman says is what we are all guilty of with regards tv. To understand tv and to respond to its pervasiveness appropriately, we need to appreciate the earlier paradigm-shifting, epoch-making invention: the printing press.
But don’t worry, I am not going to give you a lecture on Johann Gutenberg’s invention in 1450, or its impact on literacy and on social and political change. I leave you to read the book for that. I will however, bring out a little anecdote from the book:
Abraham Lincoln, when he was canvassing support for his senatorship, perhaps sometime in the late 1850s, used to speak and debate with his opponents for hours in front of huge audiences. The audience hung on every word, followed complex and carefully worded arguments. In one of his debates, Lincoln suggested a break for dinner, and to resume afterwards. Everyone came back after dinner to listen to more speeches and debates. Those who were unable to attend read transcripts that were faithfully printed the very next day in the newspapers. This was the era when words—be they spoken or written—made the difference, not the image. Images, visual or still, may evoke emotions, but have they the ability to stimulate the intellect as powerfully as words?
In 1985, when Postman wrote this—incidentally the year after the Orwellian 1984—tv was not yet the force it is today. Today one can hardly wait for the MRT without watching an ad about some incredibly wealthy person pay for something with his freshly minted credit card, nor can one check email without some well-meaning friend forwarding a youtube.com link. Generations of children are growing up on the uncritical companionship of tv and the internet: amusing themselves to death.
Tv is pervasive and affects even our off-viewing lives. Everything is now entertainment—and is valued according to the amount of entertainment it provides. Serious public discourse is non-existent; all we want to hear is the soundbyte and the slogan. Complex arguments are presented in bullet points or worse, cartoons. Context and nuance are just too much detail. Everything is entertainment. Cooking is entertainment. Politics is entertainment. Sex is entertainment.
Even education needs to be fun. Children expect their schools to be like Sesame Street. No culture on earth before the advent of mass entertainment ever characterised education as ‘fun’. Education is hard work that requires discipline, drive and motivation on the part of the learner. We no longer want to learn, we want to be entertained. Entertainment is now the opiate of the masses. By the way, religion is now entertainment too, so Marx was, in this context, correct.
Live your life. TV, the internet or your video game does not provide you with experiences, it deprives you of it.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
March 9, 2008
The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left
To Islamists and Fundamentalists, Islam is a Political Movement, the Quran a Manifesto, the Ummah a Utopia and tradition is a distracting Opiate. Adaab (noble comportment) is jettisoned for the sake of Revolution. Yes, Islamism has more in common with atheist Communism than with Gnostic religion. That Islamism—and the IslamistÃ‚Â—is disconnected from Islam is all too clear in the memoirs of Ed Husain.
Ed relates in his book about how he was brought up a traditional Muslim; he even had a Sufi shaykh whom he looked upon as his grandfather. However, upon entering higher education, his desire to learn more about Islam led to a downward spiral that turned an open-minded, intelligent, practicing Muslim into a bigoted, violent activist.
What was unsettling for me was that the course of events that led to his radicalization seemed unavoidable. Perhaps it is a trick of the narrative format in which the book is written, but it is clear that his traditional, Sunni upbringing as well as his early education in a primary school where he mixed freely with non-Muslims, were no safeguardsÃ‚Â—at least not initially.
It is for this very reason—the notion of the inevitability of radicalization—that I believe this book is an important work. It sends a strong signal to Muslim parents as well as educators of the need to be pro-active in steering their charges away from the crooked path that leads to extremism, chauvinism, and ultimately violence and terrorism. No one is immune.
So is there no cure for this ailment? Perhaps the best course of action is prevention.
Ed Husain’s book raises many important questions. But at least there is some small comfort that people like Ed are coming to the forefront, calling a spade a spade and forcing Muslims to look within to bring about change. More must be done by the Ã‚Â‘silentÃ‚Â’ majority. Why do we put up with fundamentalists who distribute their books, blare on their microphones, and lure our children with free education?
Traditional Islam, drawing upon 1400 years of scholarship, spiritual flowering and artistic elaboration is more that well equipped to deal with this aberration in Islamic history. The question is, are Traditional Muslims drawing upon their heritage effectively and saying ‘No, not anymore’ to the Islamist who claims to speak for Muslims.
Perhaps we need to reflect on the words of Martin Luther King Jr: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
I applaud Ed’s bravery in writing this book.
May the bane of Islamism be short-lived and its chapter in world history be thin.
February 13, 2008
Each year we do a roundup of the best reads. Last year, there was a relative drought of captivating reads, but one book stands out. It is a book by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. An attempt at a review is given below. May I present Wardah’s pick for the best of 2007.
The Garden of Truth
The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
This breathtakingly well-written, erudite summary of Sufism, its cosmology, methodology, and above all, its relevance, is an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in, or aspires to be a traveller towards God.
Thankfully, Nasr has published it with Harper, one of the largest international publishers, thus ensuring that this book will be available from every major book retail chain throughout the world. It is time, as Nasr hints at in his introduction, that people are introduced to Islam through the window of Sufism.
Nasr had set out to write a modern, classical treatise on Sufism—and has succeeded. This is a book which will be read and re-read by many. And I believe it will spark renewed interest in Sufism as well as Islamic metaphysics, poetry and sacred art. It is a summary, or rather a map of the Sufi cosmos and places each bit of information in its proper place, thus yielding an enlightened understanding of the whole. Reading this book is an experience unto itself; though a poem Nasr quotes several times in the book admonishes: “The Book of the Sufi is not black ink and words, It is none other that a pure heart, white like snow.”
The book is unique in that it is written for the modern reader whose Western education has created certain intractable habits of mind. Nasr obliges the reader by exploring various philosophical questions such as ‘Why is there evil?” and “Why does God judge us by our actions on Earth when it is our Souls that return to Him?”; each time giving a response from within the Sufi tradition. He obliges also by giving a historical account of the flowering of Sufism over the centuries—all the time reminding the reader that the reality of Sufism is metahistorical. That said, his account of the history of Sufism (actually an appendix of the book) is the best I have come across. He not only describes the various luminaries, schools and tariqah, but also demonstrates their inter-mixing and interactions that gave rise to the rich, mature tradition we observe today.
Appropriately, he ends his book with an invitation “to transform theoria into actual experience”. In our modern world, according to Nasr, we need, more than any time in human history, to integrate the contemplative life and the active life. The Sufi path is not so much a path of discovery, but a path of restoration and recovery. To become who we really are.
The Garden of Truth is available at Wardah
January 4, 2008
If you find yourself becoming desensitized to the news and the images on television, start worrying now. Your humanity is at stake. In his title, Jonathan Glover is referring to this meaning of ‘humanity’—the quality that makes humans, well, ‘human’. To put it another way, the meaning here is the opposite of ‘inhumanity’. I did not realise the subtlety of this meaning the first time I picked up the book. I thought it was a book on twentieth century history, and expected a light read on twentieth century human endeavour on the topic of morality. What I instead got was an unflinching look at the horrors of the last century: Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Rwanda, Hiroshima, Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia, Vietnam, and of course Iraq, seen through the eyes of a moral historian.
Cruelty, torture and barbarism are inhuman. Humans see the value of honesty in relationships, generosity amongst friends, warmth towards children and creativity in work. But why is it that humans as a group behave so horrifically inhuman? The disparity is chilling. What caused the students in Mao’s China to inflict such unspeakable cruelty to their teachers and parents? What caused the American soldiers to go on a rampage and kill innocent villagers in My Lai? Why was there little restraint in the decision to bomb Nagasaki?
Senseless as all these might seem, there are some patterns that history instructs: the erosion of moral identity, tribalism, the Hobbesian trap, utopian projects and the desire to create mankind anew.
As depressing as it all is, there is hope. The first step is to not look away but to learn from the past. John F. Kennedy had read The Guns of August, a book that details the way Europe drifted into a war that no one wanted. When confronted with what was later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was certain that no matter what happens, he was not to repeat the mistakes of the leaders of Europe in 1914. Both he and the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev, knew they were in a trap that ordinarily would have escalated into war. Khrushchev too wanted to avoid war and wrote to Kennedy thus: ‘You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut’. Both men found a diplomatic solution and nuclear war was averted in the fall of 1962.
Perhaps Humanity is the Guns of August for the entire century: a compendium of errors that led to the horrors of the recent past. My only hope is that it is read by all who are in a position to decide ‘not to tighten the knot’. After the missile crisis, Khrushchev was reported to have said, ‘Don’t ask who lost or who won. Mankind won’.
Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century
September 30, 2006
This is perhaps the best introduction on Islamic thought for general readers (non-specialists). Recommended for anyone who wishes to have a broad understanding of the subject.
Transmission of Religious Knowledge and Islamic Thought
• early trends
• dissemination of knowledge
The Qur’an: The Primary Foundation Text
• as revelation
• major themes
• understanding and interpreting
• schools of exegesis
The Sunna of the Prophet
• anatomy of hadith
• hadith scholarship today
• shari’a and fiqh
• early development
• sources of law
• schools of law
• islamic law in modernity
• development of kalam
• early theological debates
• Imami Shi’a theology
• decline in kalam
• kalam in the modern period
Mystical Thought: Sufism
• development of sufi orders
• critique of sufism
• sufism today
• art and representation
• music and singing
• architecture and mosques
• greek and roman philosophy
• near eastern philosophy
• indian and persian philosophy
• muslim philosophy
• muslim philosophical trends
• great muslim philosophers
• modern philosophical thought
• historical context
• debates on imamate and leadership
• separation of religion from politics
• state and citizenship
Renewal, Reform and Muslim Modernism
• premodern reform movements
• colonialism and jihad movements
• muslim modernism
Trends In Islamic Thought Today
• legalist traditionalist
• political islamists
• secular muslims
• theological puritans
• militant extremists
• progressive ijtihadis
Title: Islamic Thought: An Introduction
Author: Abdullah Saeed
June 10, 2006
From cover to cover filled with love.
This book truly is a gem. Sheykh Muzaffar has paved the way in showing us how to live in a multi-faith society. Filled with shobets (spritual discourses), every page has wisdom and melts the heart with the flame of love. You can see that many were touched by the warmth of Sheykh Muzaffar’s love.Gregory Blann must be thanked for putting the reader face to face with Sheykh Muzaffar (may Allah Bless him). — submitted by Muhsin
Title: Lifting the Boundaries: Shaykh Muzaffer Efendi and the Transmission of Sufism to the West
Author: Gregory Blann