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Hobson-Jobson clarified-more or less.

Reza Aslan

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam

Random House, 2005. 310pp. $25.95 (cloth)

Christopher de Bellaigue

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran

Harper Collins, 2005. 283 pp. $36.95 (cloth)

"Hobson-Jobson" refers to a law of linguistics by which speakers of one language adapt (i.e., garble) a word or phrase from a different language to make it fit the patterns of their own. The Indians said "otchuck," and the whites heard "woodchuck." Other Indians said "Reckawackes," and other settlers heard "Rockaway." As for "Hobson-Jobson," it's a wild distortion of "Y_Hasan! Y_Husayn!"--the cry of mourning for Muhammad's grandsons who were slain at Karbala, Iraq on Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in 680 (their father Ali Ibn Ali Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, having been assassinated in 661). Englishmen in colonial India had no idea what Muslims were shouting about; no more than most Americans did when, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they watched on TV pictures of pilgrims to Karbala rhythmically lashing themselves in honor of Hasan and Husayn. The sight of the bloodied worshippers, some of them mere boys, was bound to strike First-World observers as barbaric and weird. What could those frenzied Muslims be thinking about?

Enter Messrs. Aslan, an Iranian living in the U.S., and de Bellaigue, a Brit living in Iran, to shed a good deal of light on this and similar "oddities." Aslan's sweeping subtitle might sound like a stretch for a mere doctoral student (in the History of Religions at U.C. Santa Barbara); but this book is one of the most reasonable and accessible introductions to Islam in print; and its author is quite a package. He must be the only person ever to simultaneously get an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa while teaching there as an assistant professor of Religious Studies. And, as his recent appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart demonstrated, he's also remarkably handsome, with a charming, self-effacing demeanor to match. A star is born.

Aslan's approach is ecumenical and, for lack of a better word, liberal. Few Muslim explicators of Islam ever say things like, "The Prophet himself sometimes openly suppressed or negated older verses"--in a process called naskh--"considering them to have been replaced by newer ones. That is because Muhammad did not consider the Quran to be a static Revelation, which may be why he never bothered to authorize its collection into a codified book." This means that the Quran is a "living text," and so both it and the Shariah have to be interpreted rationally, in the cultural context of 7th century Arabia and the contemporary world. Traditionalist views of the Shariah, Aslan argues, have to be "fused with modern principles of democracy and human rights." Some Muslim countries (Afghanistan under the Taliban and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia) have tried to erase modernity and return to a timeless past. Others (Egypt and Pakistan) give lip service to Shariah, but don't apply it to anything except certain aspects of family law. Only one country has sought to build a "genuine Islamic democracy dedicated to pluralism, liberalism, and human rights." And that country is ... Iran?

Yes, but Aslan (a Shiite, of course) means the Iran first galvanized by the original ideals of Islamic Revolution, not the Iran stifled in the constricting coils of the Guardian Council. Aslan sees as the central issue facing the Islamic world today not the much-touted "clash of civilizations," the doctrinaire war against the West, but the internal struggle of traditionalism vs. reform. Not the least of his book's many virtues is that Aslan grounds the case for that reform in the history of Islam and the work (unknown to most westerners) of reformers like Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

But will that reform succeed? Judging from the accounts of Christopher de Bellaigue, a gifted young journalist married to an Iranian woman, the prospects are dubious. Almost inevitably, de Bellaigue's book begins (in Iraq) and ends (in Iran) with Ashura, the sacred memorial (dating from the mid-8th century) of the man whom Iranians call Imam Hossein (Husayn) and venerate with particular tenderness. As an outsider (though he speaks Farsi and has studied Persian culture at Cambridge) and an unbeliever, de Bellaigue views the flagellants skeptically. "This is no act of atonement, but a sentimental memorial. Iranians weep for Hossein with gratuitous intimacy. They luxuriate in regret--as if, by living a few extra years, the Imam might have enabled them to negotiate the morass of their own lives. They lick their lips, savour their misfortune." (One can hear Aslan grumbling in the background and quoting a 16th century Quranic scholar, "[Paradise is awarded] to anyone who weeps for Husayn." But de Bellaigue doesn't believe in Paradise.)

All this is by way of de Bellaigue's backing up his impression that Iranians rarely smile. That sounds like a highly subjective judgment, but by the time we've met the many Iranians, of all ages and conditions, whom the author visits and quizzes--especially veterans of the Iraq war and victims of the failed and betrayed Islamic Revolution--it looks as if Iranians have precious little to smile about.

Echoing Aslan, de Bellaigue quotes disillusioned fighters who are still suffering from Iraqi gas attacks and who gave their blood and body parts to usher in a true democracy, only to see it degenerate into a clerical dictatorship. He has gripping conversations with an emigree painter named Parastu Forouhar, whose parents were brutally murdered by government goons, and who now travels back and forth between Germany and Iran in a risky, quixotic attempt to bring to justice the men responsible for the killing. Everyone in Iran knows that the second half of the war, featuring Khomeini's demented invasion of Iraq (after most of Iran's lost territory had been recovered) and the horrific loss of life from hurling thousands of untrained youths across minefields and up against far superior troops, was a pointless catastrophe. Everyone knows that the current regime is fanatical, incompetent, corrupt, and unrelentingly cruel. Everyone knows that public morals have gone down the sewer (there's been an epidemic of drug addiction and prostitution, among other things); and, in an Animal Farm denouement, the instigators of the Revolution have become as greedy and shameless as the men they overthrew.

Still, de Bellaigue doesn't despair. In his whirlwind journeys across the country (his title refers to a war memorial in the beautiful city of Isfahan, whither he repeatedly returns) he keeps running into extraordinary individuals: brave, thoughtful, honest, tough, resilient. Now if only they could be set free to rebuild the country ...

Aslan and de Bellaigue, with their contrasting perspectives, complement each other beautifully. For all his scrupulous accuracy, Aslan is still an apologist for Islam. He praises the protected status of "the People of the Book" (the dhimmi), but doesn't mention that this was a decidedly second-class citizenship. He points to positive roles for women in early Islam, but glides over the huge misogynistic problem-areas in contemporary Islam. By contrast, de Bellaigue (despite his evident rapture over his Iranian wife) is the sort of hard-bitten, sharp-eyed reporter most Americans feel comfortable with. He's far more interested in nitty-gritty politics and recent history than Aslan, who neatly covers the vast areas of theology and religion that de Bellaigue ignores. De Bellaigue is vivid and immediate where Aslan (who would be a fine writer even without his MFA) provides a solid long-distance overview. Taken together, they fill in gaping holes of western ignorance, of the sort that led a much older generation to concoct such absurdities as "Hobson-Jobson."
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Title Annotation:No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam; In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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