World Religions: Islam – Lecture 4 by John L. Esposito

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 4: God’s Word: The Quranic Worldview

According to the Muslim faith, The Quran is the literal and uncorrupted word of God; it was sent to the world as a correction to the Bible which had become tainted by the hand of man.  Primary among the Quran’s concerns about the Bible is that it allows for idolatry in the form of the worship of Jesus Christ.  Christianity is not considered to be properly monotheistic because of its recognition of the Trinity.

Finally collected in written form in 650, the Quran was written in Arabic and has been preserved verbatim.  From a textual standpoint, it is considered the single greatest written work in the Arabic language even today and stands as a perfect literary example.  It has even been said that some people have spontaneously converted to Islam after hearing and understanding it even once.  The Quran is the only miracle of the prophet Muhammad.  In Muslim countries reciters of the Quran are viewed as great celebrities and have been known to fill stadiums.

The Quran is 114 chapters or suras and designated as either Meccan or Medinan depending on where the prophet happened to be living when he uttered them.  The arrangement is not chronological but basically lists longer suras first followed by shorter ones.  Typically the Meccan suras cover religious practice while the Medinan ones revolve around daily life non-religious aspects of the faith.

Islam recognizes a few different classes of beings.  In no particular order:

  • Allah – God, the center of creation.  His nature is revealed through the world around us and he is merciful and just but souls will be judged.  The only truly unforgiveable sin is idolatry unless you repent before death.
  • Angels – Recorders and messengers between Allah and the rest of the world.
  • Jinn – Spirits with free will that are either good or evil.
  • Devils – Fallen angels who have been disobedient to God
  • Humans – Have special status and have been given the Earth in trust from Allah.  While Muslims believe in The Fall they do not believe that every person born since has Original Sin but that each person is judged for his or her actions in life.  Humans are therefore not saddled with guilt for past misdeeds but encouraged to simply repent and return to the path of righteousness.

The Quran speaks at length about several key topics but among the most important:

  • Society – The primary crux of the Quran is that of social justice.  All people are bound by Islamic law and as such are part of a whole that is responsible for care of the poor, widows and children.  Even charging interest is forbidden as its seen as taking advantage of the poor.  Muslims, therefore can neither earn interest from savings accounts nor pay interest on a mortgage, for example.
  • Women – The Quran abolished the ownership of women and established their rights to own property and to be financially cared for in the event of divorce.  It also established rules for when divorce was appropriate and forbade infanticide.  The most telling of quotes on the status of women is: “The best of you is he who is best to his wife.”  Previously the status of women in Middle Eastern society was tenuous at best.
  • Religious Tolerance – There is to be no compulsion for conversion of other religious faiths.  All were made different by Allah intentionally but the Muslims are to act as an example to other faiths on the right way to run a society.  Christians and Jews are “People of the Book” and therefore share a single God.  All who do right and live a righteous life will be rewarded in Heaven.  Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries are welcome but must pay a tax similar to the 2.5% that Muslims themselves must donate to charity.
  • The Lesser Jihad is a physical struggle to right injustice.  For example, if you are kicked out of your homeland, you may fight to get it back.  The Quran is very clear though that fighting is only a means of last resort:
    “[2:190] You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors.”  It goes on to detail rules for the treatment of prisoners and other specific situations in which the Lesser Jihad is appropriate.
  • The Greater Jihad is the struggle to stay on the path of righteousness and uphold the five pillar so Islam that have been previously detailed in another lecture.

Lastly, there is a brief discussion of what have been deemed the “Sword Verses” which many use to justify the categorization of Islam as a warlike faith.  The lecturer points out that these verses are taken out of context and incompletely quoted.

 

 

 

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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 3 by John L. Esposito

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 3: Muhammad as Prophet and Statesman

Before Islam, the Middle East was a pretty rough place.  The Persians and the Byzantine Empire fought over the trade routes that crisscrossed the region while the locals formed tribes that raided each other for material wealth.  These raids avoided bloodshed if possible but still degenerated into open warfare from time to time.

Religion at the time was polytheistic centered on sacred objects and local Gods.  Even at this time, however, the tribes already had a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to venerate the kaaba which contained 360 idols, one for each day of the year.  Even Allah was already installed as the head of the pantheon of Gods.  The Christian and Jewish faiths too existed in the region.

Muhammad lived from c570-632 and was an orphan who grew up to become a business manager for caravans.  It wasn’t until 610 that the angel Gabriel called to him in what has come to be known as the Night of Power.  Muhammad denied Gabriel twice but on the third time he understood and complied with Gabriel’s requests.  Afterwards he thought himself insane but his wife reassured him and believed him and she is said to be the first convert to Islam.

For 22 years Muhammad received the revelation of God and all that he said was first carried by oral history and then written down in the form of the Quran as we know it today.  At the time, what Muhammad had to say was distinctly unpopular.  He stood up against the polytheism and avarice of the times and advocated for a complete revolution of society.

In particular, he fell afoul of the Meccans themselves.  They profited greatly from the influx of pilgrims each year and Muhammad stated quite clearly that these people should not be used as a vehicle to line the city’s pockets.  As a consequence, the Meccans starved Muhammad out of town and bankrupted him but not before Gabriel came to Muhammad with a mystical steed.  Together they traveled to Jerusalem and then to heaven where the prophets and Allah himself instructed Muhammad on how the faithful should pray five times a day.  This event of revelation is known as the Night Journey and occurred in 621.

Bankrupt or not, in 622 Muhammad is invited to Medina to act as an arbiter in a dispute.  Muhammad and his people travel to Medina and there start the first Muslim community.  This event is known as the hijra or migration and marks the official beginning of the Muslim faith.

Having established himself in Medina, Muhammad begins to move militarily against Mecca.  In 624 the Battle of Badr occurs and the Muslims rout the Meccans but the victory is only temporarily as in 625 at the Battle of Uhud the Muslims are defeated and Muhammad is wounded.  Resolution is not reached until 627 at the Battle of the Ditch at which the Muslims fend off the Meccans and come to an uneasy truce.

During this time Jewish and Christian faiths are welcome in Medina and each person need only pay a small tax.  However at the Battle of the Ditch the Jewish population is seen to side with the Meccans and Muhammad has them slaughtered for their treason.

The truce between the two great cities carries on until 630 when some skirmishes between neighbors escalate and eventually Muhammad conquers Mecca entirely.  He is magnanimous in victory, however, and Mecca is incorporated into the Muslim community and Islamic law.  By 632 at Muhammad’s death, the entire Arabian peninsula is united under the Muslim faith.

Terms:

jahiliyaa – Term for pre-Muslim society in the Middle East.  Also used to describe the decadence of the current age.

 

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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 2 by John L. Esposito

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 2: The Five Pillars of Islam

Despite having a very diverse population with many distinct local customs, the five pillars tie the entire Muslim community together.  The pillars are what make a Muslim a Muslim.

I. The Declaration of Faith, or shahadah

“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of God”

Allah, or God in Arabic, shares many of the attributes of the Christian God: omniscience, merciful, mighty, holy, etc.  Unlike the Christian observance of God, Muslims seem much more concerned about idolatry so you don’t see visual depictions of God of any sort.

Muhammad was the final prophet of God.  He was a perfect human and defines an example life for all Muslims to pattern their lives after.

II. Prayer, or salat

Muslims pray five times a day at the sound of the muezzin, often from a loudspeaker at the spire of a mosque.  These times are dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening.  Often prayer is accompanied by a recitation from the Quran and Muslims must kneel (whether it be inside, outside or on a plane) and face the Kaaba (house of God) in Mecca.  Muslims are encouraged to pray in groups if possible to add to the sense of kinship and brotherhood.

Once a week on Friday the juma is observed, a congregational prayer held in the mosque.  In the mosque a mihrab (a niche along one wall) indicates the direction of Mecca and the sermon is conducted from the minbar, or pulpit.  Before entering the mosque visitors must wash their feet and remove their footwear.

III. Zakat – tithing or Almsgiving

Personal wealth is considered a gift from God so Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their total personal property including money, stocks, bonds and land each year.  While this is mandatory most countries don’t collect it by force and individuals instead make proper donations on their own.  Specific branches of Islam have additional taxes but these are largely voluntary in nature.

IV. Fast of Ramadan

Timing of the commencement of this fast reflects the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.  From dawn to sunset for a month Muslims must not eat, drink or have sex but only if they are physically well enough to do so safely.  The purpose is to encourage reflection and contemplation rather than representing a hardship.

After sunset, a light meal or breakfast is consumed and then later in the evening a larger and more opulent meal is served.  The night is also accompanied by prayers and often the entire Quran is recited 1/30th each night.  At the end of the month the Eid al-Fitr (Feast of the Breaking of the Fast) is observed and gifts are given and general jubilance ensues.

V. Pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca

Beginning 60 days after Ramadan around 2 million Muslims make their way to Mecca from all over the world.  Any Muslim who is physically and financially able must make the trip at least once in their lifetime.  While there, pilgrims dress identically regardless of social class to dissolve class boundaries and create a sense of egalitarianism.  Various religious observances and reenactments take place, many from the Old Testament.

At the end, all pilgrims gather on the plain where Muhammad gave his last sermon.  The Feast of Sacrifice takes place and a sheep or other animal is slaughtered.  This tradition is observed not just at Mecca but all over the world at this time.  Once a pilgrim has made his Hajj, he may suffix his name with ‘haji’ in observance of the event.

Jihad

Many in the West believe that Jihad is the sixth pillar but this is simply not true.  Literally, Jihad is “the struggle” and represents the struggle to lead a virtuous life and obey the tenants of Islam.  While there are situations in which Jihad may be a call to violence, they are extremely specific and will be outlined, so I’m told, in a later lecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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World Religions: Islam – Lecture 1 by John L. Esposito

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

 

Lecture 1: Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

This is just an introductory lecture so most if it centers on the question of “what exactly is this course about?”  As it turns out, it’s about the basic fundamental questions that people tend to have about Islam and aims most keenly to clear up a lot of misconceptions that people have about the religion which is described by many as “THE misunderstood religion.”

Scope and practice of the religion: Worldwide it is the 2nd most practiced religion and arguably the fastest growing.  It is the 3rd most practiced in the U.S. behind Christianity and Judaism.  While we tend to associate it with Arab countries, only 20% of Muslims are Arabs.  Most Muslims are from Asian countries.

Origins: More on this later but the high level is that Islam has its roots in the Old Testament.  Those of a Christian bent may recall that Sarah and Abraham could not bear a child so Abraham bedded his servant Hagar (this was common practice in the day).  Hagar bore a son named Ishmael.  Unfortunately for Ishmael, not long after, Sarah conceived on her own and sent Hagar and Ishmael away to “Arabia.”  Those of Muslim faith are said to be descendants of Ishmael.

Key similarities between Islam and Christian religions: In Islam, God is seen as having given the Earth to man as a trust.  Christian thoughts on the topic aren’t far off, at least as I understand them.  Both have the concepts of angels, Satan, Prophets, judgment, Heaven and Hell.  Also, like Christianity, the writings of the prophet are interpreted by Ulamas or religious scholars rather than taken verbatim.  Finally, Islam is a vast and complex religion with a variety of local practices and variations just like Christianity.

Key differences between Islam and Christianity: In Islam, religion, government and personal lives are much more tied together.  Christians seem to take their faith much less seriously as a general rule.  Muslims observe Islamic law in every facet of their daily lives and while they recognize Jesus as one prophet among many they do not give him special divine status.

Western view of Islam: During the professor’s youth in the 60s Islam was a bit of an unknown and unstudied backwater, lumped in with Eastern religions despite its clear associations with Christianity.  Now, the West views Islam through the lens of the Iranian Revolution and sees every Muslim as an extremist.  From the other side, Muslims look at the Christianity and have some rightful historical misgivings dating from the Crusades to the current day in what is referred to as American Neo-Colonialism.  Add to this the American tendency to side with Israel and the support of the British colonial occupation of Pakistan (which is almost entirely Muslim) and … well, you get the picture.

A few key terms:

Islam – In Arabic, “Submission to God’s will”
Muslim – Also in Arabic, “One who submits”
Salaam – peace
Ummah – term for the transnational Muslim nation.
Ulama- a Muslim religious scholar

 

 

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Book Reviews: Ashes by Timothy R. Lyon Jr.

As is often the case I received this book in exchange for a review. Also as usual I’ll be completely honest because readers and authors both deserve that much at least.

The overarching concept here is that we’re looking at a steampunk novel with a rather dark and ominous theme to it.

To the positive, I love the setting and the plot the author has chosen. If you look past the book’s issues you can see a delightfully dark and entertaining plot unfolding.

Unfortunately, to the negative, the author’s writing stumbles terribly. While the author has a great story his choice of words is contradictory and distracting. It really subtracts from the novel as a whole and leaves the reader struggling to stay focused on what he’s really trying to say. A few examples:

p8: “Nathaniel raised his hand and scratched his beard stubble … His beard was long enough to not be stubble…” — is it stubble or not?

p38: “a lady, casual by glance, stood next to a pillar looking with intent” — is she casual or is she intent? And I’m not sure what ‘casual by glance’ even means??
p38: “… steps as precise as her casual garments …” — precise and casual are near antonyms so it seems an odd comparison
p38: “… each step nearly shattering the floor …” — shattered is a bizarre choice of words unless you’re walking on a glass floor which the character is not

p60: “*lots of tense build-up* … the whip extended with excellent craftsmanship…” — Author is building a sense of mood or tension but then diverts rather oddly to talk about the craftmanship of the whip and that breaks the mental flow of the passage.

So in summary, it’s a shame. It’s like a cheese sandwich that’s burned on one side. You know there’s good stuff in there and you really want to love it but that one burned side is a distraction and you just can’t get past it. Suggest a good sound editing to clean things up.

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The Stumps of Flattop Hill by Kenneth Kit Lamug

They dared Florence to enter the haunted house on top of the hill. She is frightened, but Florence musters the courage to go inside. As she makes her way up to the top she finds many ghastly things along the way. Will she make it back out or be turned into a stump forever?

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is a macabre tale of a little girl who enters the town’s legendary haunted house in the face of fear. A dark tale for children in the tradition of the Brother’s Grimm, it calls to mind the provocative illustration style of Edward Gorey. Scary and entertaining, this book challenges the idea of what children’s books can be.

Visit the book on Amazon.com

Textually, this one was a bit of a challenge. I read it through once and then started recording. The video is one continuous recording and by about half way through I was starting to think I was going to make some terrible flub but I think I made it. Any rate, enjoy and go buy the book if you’re so inclined

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Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant

As is usual I received this book courtesy of somewhere or other, this time Shelf Awareness.

The nutshell on this book is summed up in the subtitle rather tidily. The author investigates, in very readable fashion, the connection between our mental well being and our physical well being in every facet of interpretation which can be applied to the phrase. She starts with the placebo effect but makes her way eventually all the way to belief in God and new age medicines.

To the positive, the book is fairly well balanced while remaining upbeat and optimistic. I came away pondering how such concepts could help people I know get a better handle on their own wellness. The author is detailed and helpful but also puts the brakes on when appropriate to keep her readers from going off any dangerous cliffs. She cites numerous studies but doesn’t become bogged down by them. If I had to sum up each chapter in a few words:

Chapter 1/2 – Placebo Effect
Chapter 3 – Pavlovian Conditioning
Chapter 4 – Illusory physical performance barriers
Chapter 5 – Hypnosis
Chapter 6 – Pain Management through distraction
Chapter 7 – Impact of human connection on health
Chapter 8 – Impact of stress
Chapter 9 – Meditation
Chapter 10 – Health benefits of Friendship and Social connectedness
Chapter 11 – Vagus nerve stimulation
Chapter 12 – The Role of Religion

To the negative, the last half of the book really does begin to slide downhill and by the time you get to Chapter 12 you’ve really had enough. By the conclusion I was skimming and the last bits seemed somewhat glued on and accessory.

In summary, the author does a wonderful job of achieving balance between promoting new and somewhat unfashionable ideas and protecting readers from the quackery that has popped up in this realm as of late. I really do believe that some of the techniques in this book could be terrifically helpful and have earned further research.

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