Tales from The Quran and Hadith

When my best friend from school came a-visiting recently, she asked me what I wanted from India. I resisted asking for mangoes, choosing instead a copy of Rana Safvi’s Tales from The Quran and Hadith. I am both an atheist-agnostic and a reluctant reader of fiction or stories, but I am curious about the nature of faith and about religions, especially to understand human beings and their motivations better. Further, Rana Safvi is blessed with an amazing ability both to regale stories and to make them accessible through her prolific writing, as evidenced by a recent award bestowed on her.

To invoke a cliche, the book is a breezy read. The stories are narrated quite simply and the prose is evocative. I am aware of several Islamic — Shia, Sunni, Sufi — traditions and artifacts such as the Sword of Ali. The stories in the book put flesh on the bones of my knowledge of some of those.

Mohammad’s marital life was one of the most fascinating threads for me. His first wife, Khadija, was a successful business woman, his employer, a widow, and an older woman. This, by any modern standards, is a pretty remarkable woman, not least because she chose him as her husband. Further, in contrast with the practice of the time, he did not take another wife while Khadija was alive. He did subsequently take eleven wives, according to the book, most of whom were widows or slaves or women captured as prisoners-of-war, and some of whom proposed to him. I know this book did not promise that it would dwell on why these narratives of open-minded and forward thinking have gotten lost but I would have liked to read more stories of the social transitions. Perhaps Rana Safvi will write another book.

The book has several stories of women with self-determination and independent thinking such as Asma bint Abu Bakr. I was quite taken aback by the story of Zulaikha, where the protagonist’s passion for a younger, handsome servant is the theme. I was reminded of Irawati Karve’s Yugant, where she writes about Mahabharata from the women characters’ point of view, and Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, that is told in Draupadi’s voice. It is hard to read Tales From.. without often thinking about why it is crucial that we have more female narrators, modern day trobairitzes.

The book brought several personal delights for me, which I concede may be minor or unimportant for others. One of these was that I learnt how names of prophets and angels travel across various Abhrahamic religions. Another was to learn the etymological roots of certain words e.g. muhajir, meaning migrant, hijrat, meaning migration, and Hajj, the pilgrimage, all of which are related to the story of Hajira and her sacrifice.

One of the things that made the book easier to read is that the author chose not to write PBUH each time Prophet Mohammad’s name was invoked. I feel however the book would have been improved with the inclusion of an appendix with some kind of timeline to explain some of the key events in Islamic history, as well as an index with the names of the key characters in the stories so that the stories could be re-read, for instance, to create a fuller narrative of a specific character’s life.

Some sloppy editing, both grammatical and usage related, lets the book down. This was avoidable.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I would delight in gifting copies of the book to my curious atheist friends as well as to any others, who love reading stories culled and curated from books they may otherwise not stretch to reading.

The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’¬†were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.