An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Friday, November 15, 2002
While doing a Google search this afternoon, quite by chance I came across a term I hadn't heard or thought about in years (specifically, since my undergraduate days when I took the odd class in archaeology): bell beaker. A bell beaker (there are some pictures here) is a clay pot in the shape of an inverted bell; they were associated with a culture that spread across Europe, from the Iberian penninsula to the Danube, from Poland to Scotland, roughly between 4000 and 2000 B.C.E (some place the starting point later, limiting the period from 3000 to 2000 B.C.E.). A pair of archaeology enthusiasts give this description of the culture:
Beaker people express the transition between Stone Age and Metal Age cultures. The culture is a product of the people, not the technology, so it is really immaterial that they used metals except that it does show a greater appreciation and use of the more advanced technology.My memory of these things is hazy; tomorrow I'll dig through my old books to see if I can find a good summation of the Beaker People, but I seem to recall that this brief description gives a fair accounting of what little we know of these people. The material remains of the culture -- the axes, knives, remains of textiles, settlement patterns, house patterns, burials, etc. etc., all suggest more uniformity than variation over an incredibly long period of time. Consider the difference between, say, the year 2 A.D. and today, or if you prefer the shorter time span, the year 1002 and today. Or if that's too much to contemplate, consider the difference between 1932 and 2002. Perhaps most fascinating, aside from the beakers and some metalwork and burial mounds, they left little behind to tell us who they were, what they believed, what tyrants they feared, what battles they fought, their tragedies and triumphs, all the anguish of their desires. Which for some reason puts me in mind of the line from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Belloch says to Indiana Jones, "You and I are just passing through history. This is history." The bell beaker people passed through prehistory -- some 2000 years of it -- and left not even a name by which they can be called.
Thursday, November 14, 2002
One of these days I have to fix the blogroll to the left, maybe even organize it alphabetically or something. But for the record, Dodgeblog is now defunct, although the old Dodgebloggers are now posting at Sasha Castel's site. i330 has also closed up shop, MuslimPundit has been on a lengthy hiatus, Winds of Change is taking what I hope is a short hiatus ... Of course, some might misinterpret this to mean that an Ideofact blogroll link is a bad omen...
I've been reading Benson Bobrick's fine book, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. I found this passage, on the battle Thomas More waged against translations of the Bible (particularly Tyndale and Luther) arresting (I wrote about the subject here):
More had a horror of free speech as we know it, and objected to any interpretation of the Scriptures -- even by "scholars of standing" -- unless it proceeded under episcopal license. Nothing appalled him more than the idea that the Bible might soon be available to all, to be disputed in taverns "for every lewd [ignorant] lad to keep a pot-parliament upon."I've always wondered why More has enjoyed such a sterling reputation as a humanist.
Mongols, Caliphs and Osama
H.D. Miller gives a fine history lesson on the latter years of the Caliphate. He also expresses skepticism about the authenticity of the latest bin Laden tape:
Oh, by the way, after listening to a brief excerpt of this current tape, and reading an Arabic version of the transcript, I'm unconvinced that this is Usama (in case you hadn't already figured this out). Usama strives for a certain level of poeticism and historical allusiveness that this rant lacks. That's all I've got to go on, well that and a pretty firm belief that Usama is already buzzard food.For what it's worth, I find this a far more persuasive analysis than this assessment relayed by the Washington Post:
After an initial analysis of the tape using computerized voice-matching technology, a knowledgeable Bush administration official in Washington said the voice on the tape "sounds like bin Laden's voice."I hope all our high tech equipment can do more than determine that a recording "sounds like bin Laden's voice."
Belated update: Michael Tinkler wrote on this subject as well.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Xavier Basora, who really ought to provide a link to Babelfish for those of us who have enough trouble with our native language that we've never mastered another, noted the same ArabNews story calling for an immaculate English language translation of the Qur'an, which I commented on here. Xavier mentions another one-man translator: St. Jerome, who produced the first complete Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments (not in that order). Of course, Erasmus produced the second, about which the Catholic Encyclopedia is less favorable in its review:
His edition of the Greek original of the New Testament, "Novum Instrumentum omne" (Basle, 1516), no model of text-critical scholarship, was accompanied by a classical Latin translation destined to replace the Vulgate. Among the notes, partly textual criticism, partly exegetical comments, were inserted sarcastic slurs on the ecclesiastical conditions of the period. In a general introduction he discussed the importance of the Scriptures and the best method of studying them. Although the Complutensian edition offered a better text and was also printed, but not published, at an earlier date, yet the edition of Erasmus remained for a long time authoritative on account ofhis high reputation, and became the basis of the textus receptus or received text. No less instrumental in preparing the way for the future Reformation, by setting aside the scholastic method and undermining the traditional authority of the Scriptures, were the "Paraphrases of the New Testament" (1517 and later). This work was dedicated to various princes and prelates, e. g. the paraphrases of the Evangelists to Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, and Ferdinand I. In these publications the attitude of Erasmus towards the text of the New Testament is an extremely radical one, even if he did not follow out all its logical consequences. In his opinion the Epistle of St. James shows few signs of the Apostolic spirit; the Epistle to the Ephesians has not the diction of St. Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews he assigns with some hesitation to Clement of Rome. In exegesis he favoured a cold rationalism and treated the Biblical narratives just as he did ancient classical myths, and interpreted them in a subjective and figurative, or, as he called it, allegorical, sense.If I recall David Daniell's excellent biography of William Tyndale correctly, he used Erasmus' Greek edition and Latin translation of the New Testament to produce his own incomparable English translation. Much of the controversy over the translation came down to the rendering of a few words: Where St. Jerome and the Vulgate had "Church," that is, the institution, the Greek original (and Erasmus and Tyndale) used "congregation," that is, a group of believers. Where the Vulgate had priest, the Greek, Erasmus and Tyndale used elder. By doing so, Erasmus and Tyndale challenged the institutional authority of the Catholic Church. Tyndale himself said he would translate the Bible into English so that the average farm boy would know more Scripture than the priests and prelates of his day. And this represented, not an advance, but a setback to the Church.
In the first essay in Gershom Scholem's On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, he writes,
All great institutional religions have shown a marked distaste for lay mystics, that is, the unlearned mystics who, fired by the intensity of their experience, believe they can dispense with the traditional and approved channels of religious life. ...I am not certain that Tyndale fits the definition of a mystic, although the "personal relationship with God" inherent in some Protestant theology comes close to the definition Scholem offers. And Tyndale, for his efforts, was tried as a heretic, condemned to death, and mercifully strangled before his body was burned at the stake.
His crime was his translation.
Corrections: Xavier points out that St. Jerome actually had some help in his translation (Tyndale might have had some minor assistance in his as well). And Erasmus' Latin translation was of the New Testament only -- he didn't know Hebrew.
Monday, November 11, 2002
One of the points that Sayyid Qutb returns to occasionally in his work Social Justice in Islam is the notion that, in Islam, all races are equal before God, and believers are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnic origin. In the eighth chapter of the work, translated as "Present State & Prospects of Islam," Qutb quotes a pair of European writers to make this point; I'll reproduce one of the quotes:
Islam still has in its power to render a conspicuous service to mankind. There is no other society which can show such a record of having united various races in one unity based on equality. The great Islamic community in Africa, India and Indonesia, the small community in China, and the still smaller community in Japan, all show that Islam has still the power to completely to reconcile such divergent elements as these of race and class. ...I won't comment on this claim, beyond making the point that it is an ideal, and human beings have shown through history that they fall short of the ideals by which they intend to live, but that does not invalidate the ideals themselves. It is interesting to note, however, that Qutb has little respect even for the ideal as expressed in history. The expansion of Islam brought non-Arab peoples into the fold as converts (and I tend to reject the notion that this was accomplished primarily by the sword); indeed, some of the most famous Islamic scholars and scientists were not Arabs. This was undoubtedly a strength -- the ability to assimilate and benefit from the talents, ideas and efforts of non-Arab Muslims. For Qutb, this was a disaster for the faith:
We must now examine quickly the more important blows that befell Islam and mark their influence through the following centuries.Perhaps it's the translation, but it appears that Qutb is arguing that Turks, Circassians and other new converts to Islam are inferior in their faith to the original converts, the Arabs. Of course, none of them are as bad as those who hailed from Europe. Qutb notes several theories that have been advanced to explain the setbacks of the Islamic world, ranging from the West's financial power to Anglo-Saxon guile. He'll have none of it:
All these opinions overlook one vital element in the question, which must be added to all other elements, the Crusader spirit that runs in the blood of all Occidentals. It is this that colors all their thinking, which is responsible for their imperialistic fear of the spirit of Islam and for their efforts to crush the strenght of Islam. For the instincts and the interests of all Occidentals are bound up together in the crushing of that strength. This is the common factor that links together communist Russia and capitalist America. (emphasis added)So it's in the blood. The opposition of Christendom and Islam is not the result of a series of historical contingencies, of invasions and repulsions, of territories gained and lost; rather, it is genetic. Just as the hearts of Turks, Circassians, Dailamites and such like are closed to Islam; their conversions were among the "more important blows" that befell Islam and marked their influence through the following centuries. For Qutb, descendents of believers are worth more than converts, Arabs are more purely Islamic than non-Arabs, and Occidentals, by virtue of their blood, are permanently hostile. I don't know how Qutb reconciles his views with the ideat that Islam has "...a record of having united various races in one unity based on equality."
I had a large number of emails in my inbox that were undeliverable. Turns out they were from my email address, and were selling some kind of "get rich quick" sort of scam. I can't figure out who got the emails (my hunch is they're probably not people who regularly email me), but the reply address was: Bob123@hotmail.com, and the email lists one other address as a contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. I wrote to them in the same crappy style of their ad, offering my services as a copywriter. And if you have a service you'd like to offer to Bob and Bart, feel free to contact them.
In any case, if you did happen to get an email from me that appeared to be some solicitation, or an offer to send $60 million to you from the stash my Nigerian oil minister father socked away for a rainy day, well, it's not me. But feel free to send along your bank information just in case... (actually, don't bother. I wouldn't know what to do with it anyway...)
Update: Both emails bounced back to me. No word on how they did this. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to email my bank account number to Onuigbo Baldwin Gozie, the manager of the Lagos Branch of Diamond Bank, so he can send me $60 million (and I get to keep half!)...
Sunday, November 10, 2002
Speaking of books, I noted that this piece on ArabNews, about the need for an immaculate English language translation of the Qur'an, contains a fairly grievous error:
“When the Christians translated the Bible they set up a committee of 100 scholars as they wanted to convey their message as effectively and intelligently as possible,” he said.I presume he's referring to the King James edition of the Bible, linked to the left. But the King James version is largely based on the translations of one man, the great William Tyndale, about whom I've written, among other places, here. In any case, a quick reading of Tyndale New Testament passages alongside the King James will show that individual translators tend to do better than committees.
All my wishes end...
...where I hope my days will end, at stately Ideofact manor. I took the Which Founding Father are you? quiz, and was both pleased and perturbed to find that I'm most like (if an eight question quiz means anything, and I have my doubts) the Founding Father I idolized when I was six years old:
There is one trait I most definitely share with Jefferson (and to which my bank balance attests): an inordinate fondness for consumption. Worst of all are the number of books I buy -- at a rate far faster than I can ever get around to reading them, particularly given the fact that I'm a careless reader, and keep having to go back to books I've finished to see if they said what I thought they said.
I first read Social Justice in Islam, by Sayyid Qutb, in February 2002. I have to admit I read it the first time carelessly; it wasn't until I got to the eighth chapter, translated as "Present State & Prospects of Islam," that I began to think of blogging it. Like the other chapters, I started breezing through it, but slowed down and began taking notes on it, none of which are useful for my purposes here, but nevertheless helped me begin to get my bearings. I've reread it now five or six times, and each time I can't help thinking two things: 1) that Qutb has a very low opinion of humanity; and 2) that this is matched, or exceeded, only by the low opinion he has of Islam itself, which for Qutb is apparently a delicate flower whose petals will wilt from the slightest breeze from non-Islamic culture generally and the West specifically. Even Muslims themselves can do grievous damage to Islam. (Actually, reading this sentence, it occurs to me that someone could argue that I don't necessarily disagree with Qutb on this point -- that I merely disagree with Qutb on which Muslims do damage to Islam. However, I would tend to argue that Islam itself cannot be damaged by anything that, say, Islamist terrorists do in Islam's name, any more than, say, the Gospels can be damaged by Ku Klux Klan members burning crosses. Perhaps that's the subject for another post...)
Qutb begins by saying that his mission is to call for a renewal of Islamic life, and noting that it is not enough that Islam was a force in the past. Given that his program has not been adopted, one can reasonably conclude that Qutb would argue that, for the more than one billion Muslims in the world today, Islam is not a living force. He goes on to make two points:
1. That Islamic society today is not Islamic in any sense of the word. ...It is worth recalling that for Qutb, the date at which Muslim society ceased adhering to Islam was roughly 680 C.E., and what followed was a series of disastrous political leaders (and there is more on this subject later in the eighth chapter). To clarify his position, Qutb also notes that he is speaking strictly of politics; that while the polity of Muslims of ceased to be Islamic in any real sense quite early on, the religion itself thrived in individuals, and that it was solely the Umayyads, who introduced rule by hereditary succession (rather than by acclamation of the faithful), who were responsible for the political disaster.
I began this series of posts by making the following conjecture (I'm grateful, as always, to Aziz Poonawalla, who's quoted the words with which I began this series, thus saving me the bother if fishing through my archives for them, and indexed the whole series as well):
...I tend to think the main problem of the Middle East is tyranny. ...A moment ago, I mentioned acclamation -- the process by which Muslims in the 7th Century C.E. chose their first political leaders (the first four Caliphs). It is somewhat analogous to an election (and analogy is one of the means by which Islamic religious scholars and jurists adapt the past to the present). Qutb himself describes the ascension of Ali, the nephew of Mohammad and the last of the four rightly guided Caliphs. After having been chosen by the faithful, Ali said, according to Qutb:
O people, I am only a man like yourselves, with the same rights and obligations; I will lead you in the path of your Prophet and will enforce upon you what has been enjoined on me. ...in justice there is an ampleness of life, and whoever feels that he is constrained by right, let him remember that he would be more so by tyranny.This is not quite Jeffersonian (Jefferson wrote that one of his proudest achievements was the Virginia bill establishing religious freedom, which, he noted, protected the beliefs of "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."), but nevertheless is suggestive of concepts we hold dear under our democratic/republican system (both with small letters): the accountability of a ruler chosen by the people to the rule of law. If Qutb is interested in the political failings of Islamic culture, then one would assume he offers some system, derived from Islamic sources and using analogy, to suggest a mechanism by which Islamic society could ensure it was ruled by those who respected right rather than tyranny. Instead, Qutb writes:
As for the suggestion that the Islamic system does not provide by nature adequate safeguards against disruption, for one thing we must bear in mind that that this system was assailed by disruption before it had properly struck roots; and for another thing we must remember that in practice no system has any real such safeguards. Where, for example, are the safeguards of democracy in Europe? This is a strongly entrenched system, which has achieved a definite form, and which has had time to establish itself and to spread its influence over a long period into every quarter of life. Yet where were its safegaurds at the time of the Nazi coup d'etat, or the Fascist, or the Spanish?I will leave aside the dubious assertion that democracy was "strongly entrenched" in Italy, Germany, or Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, and also the fact that, rather than rely on Islamic sources for analogies to further his arguments, Qutb chooses to draw on (for him) recent European history. What he seems to be saying is that the best Muslims can hope for is a Mussolini, a Hitler or a Franco, or a system fragile enough to allow their ascension to power.