April 1, 2013 § 3 Comments
i posted some quick thoughts on Anne Norton’s new book at AUFS, here. In the weeks since it has been growing on me, once i realized it is not meant to be a monograph and that the shape of its argument is different from what i first anticipated. It has been growing on me for its capacious imagination, the generosity of the vision it offers. This can be gleaned by the following quote she discusses from al-Farabi (d. 339/950) describing the democratic city, which also serves as epigraph to the book. What it means, in short, is that the questions of democracy and the future are held in common if answered variously, and that the anxieties that coalesce and congeal around the figure of the Muslim simply need not. And the relief this offers is immense, as it replaces the current frame of politics with another. The quote:
On the surface, it looks like an embroidered garment, full of colored figures and dyes. Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it, and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages…. Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents. All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it…. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses. (133)
And i found myself reminded of this quote and this book an afternoon last week, when i dropped off a shoulder bag to be mended (i tore off its strap a couple of weekends ago while wandering a maritime city). The soft-spoken, middle-aged tailor squinting at his sewing machine was playing a recording of Qur’an recitation in his shop as the raucous throngs of foul-mouthed teenagers off from school jostled each other as they passed the corner outside. He had pictures up in his shop of his daughter smiling surrounded by flowers in front of a snowy mountain peak in Iran. And as i left the shop for campus a few minutes later (a seven minute bus ride from this neighbourhood of rich white families then a half-hour subway ride from a station marking the boundary of a strongly immigrant-Bengali stretch of a thoroughfare on the other side of the tracks) i was reminded of what struck me about this city when my sister and i first visited for a week in February 2008. It was its plenitude, the fact that among the grime and recycled air of any subway trip you will hear multiple languages. Of course English is the imperial medium and there are a host of racialized class politics that structure this plenitude, but they do not determine it. “In the diversity of your tongues and hues…,” recites the Qur’an (30:22), and also “and We have made you tribes and families…” (49:13). This inspires that vision.
The counterpoint to this image and promise of the cosmopolis, which Norman O. Brown argues is essentially a theocratic structure and prophecy the response to its corruption, is glimpsed in these pictures a friend shared on FaceBook recently. They are pictures of the teeming skies above cold dark cities. They ask: what if the city is not the vital site of plenitude and forms of life? What if the city is not illuminating? For as in these lines of a poem by Jan Zwicky, lines that have stayed with me in the years since Lara first showed me them, “evil is not darkness, / it is noise. It crowds out possibility, / which is to say / it crowds out silence.” What if the languages of the city are only so much noise? This is a matter neither of light pollution nor some organicist concept of community corrupted nor a phonocentric resentment of mediation. These pictures are an instance of prophetic critique.
April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The month of March, among other things, was very busy. i edited ten articles submitted as a journal special issue, three chapters of a biography, two chapters of an edited volume, three dissertation chapters, and a dozen smaller publications (reports, grant applications, final proofs, reviews, dissertation proposals, CVs). i took two weekend trips, continued attending two editing courses, wrote a conference paper. This post registers both my relief that the month is over (and i met most deadlines) and continued appreciation that this freelance work is in fact a viable work option.
April will be lighter, with further work on an edited volume, the Qur’an encyclopedia, one conference paper, a manuscript of transcribed lectures, another journal issue, and hopefully the formalization of this freelance work into a business proper. Every once in awhile i anticipate time to work on my own projects (three article drafts in disarray, reading lists, more broadly thinking ahead to fall PhD applications), but i’ll see how far i get. i find these days i’d rather go on a walk and dream about Alberta than try to read/write in any disciplined fashion.
On a different note, Alexander Key recently posted a helpful annotated bibliography on the topic of Arabic poetics. It’s a topic i find myself absolutely fascinated by though know very little about.
February 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment
After lunch today, with the five-hour stream of piano students and their parents starting up the stairs, i left to work elsewhere. Ended up six blocks west at the local branch of the public library, where i generally sit at the large table in front of the big windows. By the large-print books and the meagre CD stacks. Already distractable and halfway through editing an essay on autopilot, i started drifting. i fell asleep and for five seconds dreamt of Saskatchewan. And then i woke up and found myself staring at MS Word again.
But this Saskatchewan was not the prairie province we rode through on our continental train trek two months ago (the polar express bearing Christmas), the province that later swallowed my new gloves whole at the family gathering. Instead it offered a five-second vision of undulating pasture sharply cut by a coolie. And beyond its furthest reach against the clumps of grass and a rail fence the impassive prairie sky. It looked more like the hills you hit halfway back from Milk River than anywhere i remember in Saskatchewan. Yet dreams are a form of revelation, stretching between the prophetic and imaginative faculties.
February 7, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Listing books that caught my eye forthcoming through June, i need to first recognize that after years of work, volume 1 of the Qur’an encyclopedia project is finally complete. Unique in English-language scholarship, it is intended as a contribution to, as well as an authoritative reference work on, (Sunni) Muslim scholarship on the Qur’an. It reflects the prejudices of the commentary traditions, as opposed to somehow standing outside them. See here to “look inside”, 18 pages picked from across the first volume. It is due to arrive back from the printer’s in a few weeks. wal-hamdu li’llah.
In any case, that list:
- Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (IB Tauris, February 2013)
- Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question (Princeton UP, February 2013)
- Stephen P. Blake, Time in Early Modern Islam: Calendar, Ceremony, and Chronology in the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman Empires (Cambridge UP, February 2013)
- Behnam Sadeghi, The Logic of Law Making in Islam: Women and Prayer in the Legal Tradition (Cambridge UP, Feburary 2013)
- Aron Zysow, The Economy of Certainty: An Introduction to the Typology of Islamic Legal Theory (Lockwood, March 2013)
- Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard UP, April 2013)
- Marion Holmes Katz, Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice (Cambridge UP, April 2013)
- Janina Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Cornell UP, April 2013)
- Mohammed Hamdouni Alami, Art and Architecture in the Islamic Tradition: Aesthetics, Politics and Desire in Early Islam (IB Tauris, April 2013)
- Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (Stanford UP, April 2013)
- Sidney H. Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: The Scriptures of the ‘People of the Book’ in the Language of Islam (Princeton UP, May 2013)
- Bonnie Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge UP, May 2013)
- Marianna Klar, Interpreting al-Tha’labi’s Tales of the Prophets: Temptation, Responsibility and Loss (Routledge, May 2013)
- Samir Haddad, Derrida and the Inheritance of Democracy (Indiana UP, June 2013)
- Aziz Esmail and Abdou Filali-Ansary (eds), The Construction of Belief: Reflections on the Thought of Mohammed Arkoun (Saqi, June 2013)
December 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Toronto, still. It’s been months now that I’ve been wanting to write about this and how or when it happened, but all I can say for certain is that things have changed since when, a month before getting married, in a prairie town in southern Alberta, I told someone that we were going to move east across the country. A graduate student from Toronto himself, he promised we would love it. It’s not really a city, he said. There is no “Toronto” – rather Torontos, because more than anything it’s a city of neighbourhoods. I mumbled something in reply then but later, in Edmonton, to friends around a summer evening firepit (one of many gatherings altogether ritually comprising my “long goodbye” to that river city of champions), with laughter and shared food and perhaps music or boardgames or poetry in the offing, I retold that exchange and mocked his answer and confessed my anxieties about moving, somewhere between Simmel and Corb Lund.
This comfort with this city (this city in particular) isn’t something I expected, and of course it is determined entirely by the how and wherefores we live (walking distance to the lake, a ten kilometre bike ride eastward from the heart of downtown, juggling schedules but maintaining a fragile and treasured independence). And of course there are still days I itch for the prairies, or miss people across the country, and more often than not I sigh relief after crossing the Don Valley homeward. But those have less to do with this particular confession – and so two and a half years later and older I can only offer an apology to those whose attachments to this city I then condescendingly set aside.
It is mid-December now, and in a week we pack our boxes into Union Station for the train trek across the continent like Russian emigres seeking winter.
October 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
And I heard him say – God be pleased with him: “The Syriac language is diffused within all languages the way water is diffused within wood, because the letters of the alphabet in every word in every language are elucidated in Syriac and in Syriac they have been given special meanings that were referred to earlier.”
And I heard him say – God be pleased with him: “If someone observes closely the speech of small children, he’ll find much Syriac in their speech. The reason for this is that learning something in childhood is like an inscription in stone. Adam – peace be upon him – spoke to his children when they were small and calmed them down in Syriac and he told them the names of different kinds of food and drinks in Syriac. They grew up with the language and taught it to their children, and so it continued. When change occurred in the language and it became neglected, among the adults nothing of it remained in their speech but among the children what remained of it has remained.”
- Ahmad b. Mubarak al-Lamati, Pure Gold (al-Dhabab al-Ibriz) from the Words of Sayyidi ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Dabbagh, trans. John O’Kane and Bernd Radtke (Brill, 2007), 425 and 427-428.
This Syriac (suryani) is of course not the Syriac we know today but the primordial angelic language whose echoes still deeply resonate in the human languages we know today. The pen has been lifted and the ink has dried, the vessels are broken and their shards darkly gleam.
September 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
First, the fine folks at AUFS put up (with) some thoughts of mine on Derrida and the study of Islam as part of a mini-book event on Michael Naas’s fine Miracle and Machine. Read those notes, following posts by Adam Kotsko and Dan Barber and Anthony’s introduction, here.
Second, I’ve been indulging in some histrionics as I pack up boxes of books for storage before we move into a smaller apartment (we haven’t needed the space we’ve had these two years past, but it’s certainly been nice). I obstinately insisted we bring nearly all the books when we moved out east two years ago, and now, packing many of them up again, feel like there may be a lesson in there, perhaps (but can’t quite tell where). In any case, catching up on some work after being sick, I decided quickly to survey the boxes again. Although I hope to fanangle access to U of T or Ryerson library stacks for the next year (being out of school but employed in a minor capacity by each), it’s not a certain thing. And so the criteria for which books to keep here has been strangely anticipatory, speculating on what might be necessary for things I may want to read or write a year from now. Last weekend I did most of this sifting, but today sorted out a few more to add to the overfull bookshelves to keep here, books that last weekend I decided to go without but today receive anew: a pastel-coloured copy of Imam Ghazali’s Ayyuha’l-walad (with sporadic notes in pencil from Damascus of blessed memory, where a brilliant young teacher in Jami’ Khuzayma read it with me in spring 2005), Novak’s Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (for reading certain tafasir as midrash), Brown’s Edgework (for her thoughts on critique), Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millenium, Ofrat’s Jewish Derrida, Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, Foucault’s Use of Pleasure, Kamrava’s Innovation in Islam, Massad’s Desiring Arabs, Levinas’s God, Death, and Time (his last two lecture courses at the Sorbonne, a birthday present from Dan: “because your titles are too broad already”), and Abu-Lughod’s Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (bought in a cavernous bookstore in Lethbridge, home this month to prairie grass fires). This handful of titles also kept here with me, a few others weeded out to be sold, and the rest are saved for the future. There’s the Doctor Who “Silence in the Library” pun I was searching for.