Stacking library shelves

"Stacking library shelves" Continued...

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction: Jonathan A.C. Brown, in Adam Francisco’s words, “accepts unquestioningly some of the most spurious sources as matter of fact. Why? Because this is what the Muslim tradition demands.” Brown does not even mention Ibn Warraq’s The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, which shows that the real Muhammad was probably nothing like the character depicted in the orthodox Muslim story. 

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain: Maria Rosa Menocal writes about “peaceful Islam” and ignores the centuries of persecution Christians and Jews experienced while Muslims ruled and dominated Spain. Dario Fernandez-Morera summarizes the real history in “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 2006.

The House of Wisdom: Jim Al-Khalili argues that Islamic discoveries in science led to Europe’s cultural awakening. Hmm: Muslim scientific discoveries pertained mostly to mechanical devices rather than experimental science. Renowned scholar Bernard Lewis is a better source of information on Islam and science. 

Minaret: The NEH website accurately notes that “Leila Aboulela [is] challenging the perception that Islam is oppressive toward women and incompatible with a Western lifestyle. In their novels, the central female characters find empowerment through their Islamic faith.” Given the dismal facts, another word for Abouela’s attempt: propaganda. 

A Quiet Revolution: The NEH website accurately notes that Leila Ahmed’s defense of women’s veil-wearing represents “a ‘complete reversal’ of her expectation to find that the resurgence of the veil meant a step backward in Muslim women’s pursuit of gender equity.” 

I could go on book by book, but the critiques would be repetitive: You’ll find more descriptions online in a “Muslim Journeys” tab at worldmag.com. Why so one-sided? Eva Caldera, NEH’s assistant chairman for Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives, told WORLD’s Whitten, “There are many negative views in the United States around Muslims and Islam, and I don’t know that those negative views are necessarily based on a lot of information. … What these books offer is some additional sources of information.” 

Caldera said the process of choosing “national scholars” for the Muslim Journeys project was standard NEH—see which scholars are highly regarded by other scholars—and asserted that the books’ emphasis is more cultural than political. Asked why the booklist didn’t include a work by the leading U.S.  scholar of Islam over the past half-century, Bernard Lewis, she said his works are already “very widely available.” 

That’s half-true: A check of 12 public libraries chosen at random from the NEH’s list of Muslim Journeys recipients showed half of them with Lewis’s most accessible look at Islam, What Went Wrong?, and half without. Caldera also said the NEH, rather than ignoring Lewis, had given him its highest award, a Jefferson Lectureship. True, but that was in 1990 during the Reagan-Bush years. Caldera also pointed to one of the 25 books, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, as a work critical of Islamic fundamentalism, and she’s right: It’s an excellent graphic novel that I’ll also discuss at worldmag.com.

Criticism without recommendation is easy—so what are good ways to respond to the NEH’s pro-Islam slant? One member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who learned that Craven Community College in his district was one of the 953 bookshelf recipients, said, “It is appalling to me that a federal agency like NEH is wasting money on programs like this.” He asked the college to add 25 books about Christianity. 

Neither reporters nor other members of Congress backed up Jones, and the story died. But evening the score with 25 books on Christianity wouldn’t give readers better insights into Islam: Local libraries would still offer only one side of the story. 

I’d suggest supplementing the Muslim Journeys books with some that give another side. A starting point is Lewis’s What Went Wrong?, which shows how Islam’s multi-century Middle East decline came because Muslim leaders, instead of allowing individuals to think for themselves, set up obstacles to freedom, economic development, and scientific initiative. Other books by Lewis, including The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years, are also valuable. 

It’s strange that the NEH, looking for great works of Muslim literature, did not include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Palace Walk, the first of Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy, shows life, especially for women, under Quranic social authority. Mahfouz opposed Islamists and contended (through a character in one of his novels) that “they wish to drag us back 14 centuries.” Islamists retaliated in 1994 by knifing Mahfouz in the neck: He recovered, but his right arm was paralyzed until his death in 2006.  

—with reporting by Emily Whitten


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