Book Review: “Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam” by Robert Hoyland

I don’t know about you, but I often have a hard time looking at new books and getting excited to buy them. I walk through bookstores or libraries and find my enthusiasm smothered by the wealth of catchy titles and artsy covers. All that packaging doesn’t tell me what I want to know about the books. It has stopped meaning anything to me. And then I realized, the books that I find “sexy” now all tend to look like this:

Okay, publishing world, it’s not you, it’s me.

But what a great title! It immediately tells you its content: probably informative rather than narrational, with a scope of material so big that you can expect a lot of generalizations inside. This books sells not because its packaging piques your interest but because it’s immediately recognizable to someone so interested. And that is my case. I’m wanting to get a grip on who the Arabs were before the rise of Islam, and what kind of world and heritage they lived in. I’d already read two books by Robert Hoyland and was impressed with his work, so this book was an easy sell to me. Did it pay off its dry title?

Review in short: A great introductory resource for anyone who wants to understand this generally overlooked part of the ancient world.

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Book Review: “Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings

Books on Islam are expensive. In learning any biographical material about Muhammad, one will invariably hear mention of the first-known biography of Muhammad, The Life of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq. Of course, that resource no longer exists in its original form, and what we have comes to us through Ibn Ishaq’s student, Ibn Hisham. If you want an English translation of Ibn Hisham’s The Life of the Prophet, you’ll have to open your wallets and pay… $76! Or pay the expense and time to become fluent in classical Arabic and get the Arabic edition for upwards of $25. And while I would like to do both of those things, I’m also starting from a beginner’s place and partly just need an orientation into the early sources. After all, there’s more than Ibn Ishaq out there.

Any search for information around Muhammad’s biography will bring up results including Muhammad: His Life Based on the Early Sources, by Martin Lings. And hey, it’s affordable! So I bought the ebook early on to orient myself in an Islamic view of Muhammad and…

My bad. Metaphorically, I walked into a restaurant for a culinary lesson. Instead, they served me a sausage and now I’m demanding to know “But how was this sausage made?!”

Review in short: This books is a reassuring resource for the pious, but has no other value.

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Surah 41: It Detailed

Here’s something new: this surah is named with a verb! There’s one other surah ahead with such distinction, and it’s fascinating that there are these two exceptions to the conventional naming scheme of proper nouns (even last surah’s “Forgiver” was used as a proper noun.) I like the idea of something being titled for what it is doing; it communicates that the text is alive in a way. The verb in question is “fuṣṣilat,” which is a finnicky word to translate into English. Let’s parse this: the roots f-ṣ-l connote parting; the morphology of doubling the middle consonant into f-ṣ-l makes the verb causative and/or intensive, thus “made parted,” or “parted further”; the -at at the end signifies the past tense and indicates that the one doing is feminine/neutral, as all Arabic verbs build in pronouns to connect them to that which is doing. So in English we could translate this idea as “it parsed, subdivided, dissected,” and keep the etymological root of separation and parting, though unfortunately those verbs often are confined to some technical area like linguistics, math, or anatomy. “Distinguish” could be a great fit etymologically, except that it doubles to mean the elevation of something and that’s not meant here. The usual translations of this title is “explained in detail” but I’m going to take issue with that option. It looks like an adjectival phrase and not a verbal one. We need to include the pronoun to preserve the verbal nature of it. The verb “detail” is… okay for the purposes of translation. It comes to English through French and derives from the idea of cutting things into pieces, so not terribly different in base concept from “parting.” So “detail”…meh. Fine, it’ll do.

So what does Surah Fuṣṣilat detail?

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Surah 40: Forgiver

Surah Ghaafir, “Forgiver,” opens with some royal titles for God in ayah 3: “Forgiver of Sin and Acceptor of Repentance, Severe of Punishment, Owner of the Abundance…” These titles aptly start a chapter which includes some very strong statements about God. God’s forgiveness is declared and the alternative to His forgiveness is explicitly given. This surah speaks to Muhammad and the believers about the disbelievers, making a moral out of them. It is in most ways a very typical surah.

Sometimes this surah is called Surah al-Mu’min, “The Believer,” because its longest stretch is devoted to the compassionate appeals of one Egyptian who believed Moses. This is distinctive in a document characterized with so many special heroes. Though the protest of the prophets is always “we are men like you,” in some ways they are not. They’ve had an interaction with the divine and received direct revelation. They’ve become named characters and centralized actors in their stories. But today’s believer goes unnamed, has no direct experience with the divine, and is operating from second-hand revelation. How far can ordinary faith get you in God’s earthly schemes?

Take a read and see.

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Book Review: “The Mute Immortals Speak,” by Suzanne Stetkevych

What do we know about the Arabs to whom Muhammad was speaking? In truth, not much. Though we have some archeological findings and external testimonies, the transmission of their oral culture was interrupted and overwritten by the transmission of the Quran, the way of Islam, and the Arab conquests. Only a few cultural favorites survived long enough to be preserved as the Arab culture morphed into a literate one, and of these it was primarily the poems that survived. So if I want to know anything about the outlook of Muhammad’s audience, I know I’m going to have to get into their poetry.

First it must be said: I have no talent for poetry. I love language, yet to me poetry looks like the art of writing potent, incomplete thoughts. I’m very basic, just wanting a fun meter and rhyming scheme, and thus have never graduated beyond Shel Silversteen. So what is the likelihood that I’m going to understand the high poetry of another culture, another land, another century? Pht! Arabic classical poetry is full of place and people names, culture references, and trope imagery that I’ve had no exposure to. I know what a hyena is, but do I know what the Arabs of the 600’s thought a hyena was? So I needed a book to guide me and teach me some keys for interpretation. I chose The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual by Suzanne Stetkevych.

My review in short: very compelling analysis and insight into the pre-Islamic culture and the post-Islamic memory of it. The book is highly academic and you’ll have to be familiar with lots of specialists and their jargon (or else have to keep Wikipedia open) in order to understand it. Also, you should understand at least the basic logic of the tri-consonantal roots system in order to engage with her analysis of the Arabic, though the more Arabic you know, the better you’ll be able to follow the book’s analysis.

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Breaking the Static Friction

A post! I’m writing a post! I’m publishing a post! It’ll be a very small one, but I need to publish something.

We bought our house back in September, and for the first three months my energy has been devoted to the process of ripping it apart and putting it back together as a home. It’s not really done –the stairs are still raw plywood– but it’s beyond the point of needing my all-consuming attention. It’s been past that point for a while, and though I’ve turned my attention to blogging I just…haven’t…sat…

It takes me about ten hours to write a blog post. I thought that if I wrote something a little more personal that didn’t need research I could turn something faster. Four hours later and that post is still in my draft bin, with at least another six hours of attention required before it’ll be fit for other eyes. This post today mightn’t be much, but it’s fast, and it’s a little step towards getting myself on screen and accountable again. It gives me a reason to do that bad thing of returning to my blog dashboard again and again for the hit of a few new views. And in returning to my blog and spending time on it again, I’m getting myself back into the swing of scheduling some life this way and returning to my regularly scheduled programming.

One thing that’s I’ve been surprised by is that traffic through this blog has been pretty steady, even in my absence.

Which kinda sends me the wrong message, don’t you think?

I’m not entirely convinced that those visits are not just bots sweeping the web for a sucker, since the views are often of random posts even when from the same “visitor.” But given how dead traffic to my blog has been for the previous three years, does this mean that mere longevity is moving my blog to a different category in the database algorithms?

Oh well. The random clicks aren’t particularly interesting to me since they don’t provide feedback. Sometimes I can take a guess by the timing and origin of a view that there is a real person on the other side who actually follows my blog. (Hi Pakistan friend!) But I do enjoy seeing my world map get colored in. Here’s my map for 2020, and all the countries (and VPNs) from which a person or bot has viewed my page.

And that’s the trivial but fun kind of carrot that helps reward me in this blog. I hope this year that I might hear from some of you!

(Time to write this: 1.5 hrs.)

Be Back Soon

I have good news: I’m moving into a house! It’ll be the first time I live in my own property.

Bad news: it’s a fixer-upper, which means it’s been taking a lot of my time to get the place move-in ready. (Though I love it.)

I haven’t had much time at my computer (or sofa) recently, so I haven’t been able to prepare any blogs posts for this week. Or for next week. It might be another month before I have the ease of time to write some new posts. I always try to write ahead and have a stockpile reserved for times like these, but never have been able to get more than two posts ahead (and usually it’s for one surah alone and thus gets published out fairly quickly). So if you’re just visiting TwoPennyPosts for the first time and like what you see –but are worried the blog has recently died because of no recent updates– worry not, I’m still here, still thinking up opinion pieces on the Quran and other things. I’m just not in a place to fix those opinions into text for a while.



Late Night Black and Blue

I’ve always wanted to be a morning person. There is to that idea an aura of virtue. The morning person catches the purer, cooler hours of the morning to be productive. The morning person goes to bed and finds sleep ready to embrace them. But alas, I am not a morning person, despite trying. Upon coming to grips with this, it has become apparent to me that I’ve never been a morning person. I was very much the child who knew over feature of my headboard and texture of my bedroom wall in the long wakeful lonely nights. Even napping is hard for me, except in the rare occasions where a sudden onset knocks me out for a full sleep cycle and no less.

So it is tonight that I yet again, even after a full day of physical labor, cannot make myself sleep. Which perhaps is good, as I don’t have a blog post finished for tomorrow and I’m feeling guilty about that. So with these unwanted extra hours, I shall do something productive and tell you a serious reflection about another wakeful night a couple of weeks ago. It features a very drunk man, a wrong door, and two cops. Though that sounds like the setup to a joke or anecdote, I’m sorry to say that it was a serious incident, and so here is where I’m going to process it.

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Surah 39: The Groups

Here’s a weird word: زمر, zumar, from which the title of today’s surah, “The Groups,” comes. It’s not a word with strong connotations or nuances, and indeed is so different from its seeming relatives that I might suspect it of being a word borrowed from another language. Other words built from the roots z-m-r I would judge to have connotations equivalent to the English words “piping” (as in “piping hot”) or “reedy” (as in reedy voice). It’s a root primarily about flutey-screechy sounds and things. The word zumar doesn’t get used in the Quran beyond this surah –a distinction that makes it fit for a title by Quranic standards– and doesn’t even have any relatives present in the Quran’s concordance. The zumar, “groups,” of today’s surah have nothing to do with high-pitched, screechy things or musical instruments, but are by all seeming context and intentions the two opposite groups of believers and unbelievers, entering their respective afterlives in successive waves.

Yes, it’s another surah about there being only two kinds of people in the world and their fates in the hereafter. It’s 75 ayat, take a read.

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