Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sapiens

Just finished reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It’s an absorbing, provocative history of civilization. However, the attractive features of the book are overwhelmed by carelessness, exaggeration and sensationalism.

For the first half of our existence we potter along unremarkably; then we undergo a series of revolutions. First, the “cognitive” revolution: about 70,000 years ago, we start to behave in far more ingenious ways than before, for reasons that are still obscure, and we spread rapidly across the planet. About 11,000 years ago we enter on the agricultural revolution, converting in increasing numbers from foraging (hunting and gathering) to farming. The “scientific revolution” begins about 500 years ago. It triggers the industrial revolution, about 250 years ago, which triggers in turn the information revolution, about 50 years ago, which triggers the biotechnological revolution, which is still wet behind the ears. Harari suspects that the biotechnological revolution signals the end of sapiens: we will be replaced by bioengineered post-humans, “amortal” cyborgs, capable of living forever.

This is one way to lay things out. Harari embeds many other momentous events, most notably the development of language: we become able to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in ever larger numbers, and, perhaps most crucially, gossip. Then there is the evolution of money and, more importantly, credit. There is, connectedly, the spread of empires and trade as well as the rise of capitalism.

Harari swashbuckles through these vast and intricate matters in a way that is – at its best – engaging and informative. It’s a neat thought that “we did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” There was, Harari says, “a Faustian bargain between humans and grains” in which our species “cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation”. It was a bad bargain: “the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud”. More often than not it brought a worse diet, longer hours of work, greater risk of starvation, crowded living conditions, greatly increased susceptibility to disease, new forms of insecurity and uglier forms of hierarchy. Harari thinks we may have been better off in the stone age, and he has powerful things to say about the wickedness of factory farming, concluding with one of his many superlatives: “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history”.

He accepts the common view that the fundamental structure of our emotions and desires hasn’t been touched by any of these revolutions: “our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers … Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.” He gives a familiar illustration – our powerful desires for sugar and fat have led to the widespread availability of foods that are primary causes of unhealthiness and ugliness. The consumption of pornography is another good example. It’s just like overeating: if the minds of pornography addicts could be seen as bodies, they would look just like the grossly obese.

At one point Harari claims that “the leading project of the scientific revolution” is the Gilgamesh Project (named after the hero of the epic who set out to destroy death): “to give humankind eternal life” or “amortality”. He is sanguine about its eventual success. But amortality isn’t immortality, because it will always be possible for us to die by violence, and Harari is plausibly sceptical about how much good it will do us. As amortals, we may become hysterically and disablingly cautious. The deaths of those we love may become far more terrible

Even if we put all these points aside, there’s no guarantee that amortality will bring greater happiness. Harari draws on well-known research that shows that a person’s happiness from day to day has remarkably little to do with their material circumstances. Certainly money can make a difference – but only when it lifts us out of poverty. After that, more money changes little or nothing. Certainly a lottery winner is lifted by her luck, but after about 18 months her average everyday happiness reverts to its old level. If we had an infallible “happyometer”, and toured Orange County and the streets of Kolkata, it’s not clear that we would get consistently higher readings in the first place than in the second.

An Andalusi Muslim in Early Modern Europe: Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Hajari’s Description of the 17th-Century Netherlands

Ballandalus

Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Qāsim al-Ḥajarī al-Andalusī was an Andalusī Muslim born around 1570 in the village of al-Ḥajar, in the vicinity of Granada. He lived for most of his youth as a Morisco (crypto-Muslim) in Spain before escaping to Morocco around 1598, residing in Marrakech, where he remained until 1636 or so. While in Spain, he learned Spanish and Portuguese in addition to his native Arabic. As a result of his knowledge of the latter, he was enlisted in deciphering the so-called “Lead Books of Sacromonte” around 1588. During his time in Morocco, he entered the service of the Sa’adian Sultan Muley Zaydān (r. 1603–1627) as a translator and secretary. While in the service of the Sa’adian dynasty he also embarked on major journey to Europe, traveling to France and the Netherlands between 1609 and 1611. Around 1636, he departed to the Central Islamic Lands in order to perform…

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Who Speaks for Islam?

I finally got round to reading this important and timely work.

islam

Are we on the verge of an all-out war between the West and 1.3 billion Muslims? When the media searches for an answer to that question, they usually overlook the actual views of the world’s Muslims.

 Who Speaks for Islam? is about this silenced majority. This book is the product of the Gallup World Poll’s massive, multiyear research study. As part of this groundbreaking project, Gallup conducted tens of thousands of interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have significant Muslim populations.

Gallup posed questions that are on the minds of millions: Is Islam to blame for terrorism? Why is there so much anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? Who are the extremists? Where are the moderates? What do Muslim women really want?

Grounded in Gallup World Poll data, not in contentious rhetoric, Who Speaks for Islam? Brings data-driven evidence — the voices of a billion Muslims, not those of individual “experts” or “extremists” — to one of the most heated and consequential debates of our time.

This book could not be more timely. It provides essential insights into the thinking and attitudes of a large part of the global Muslim population on critical issues such as democracy, theocracy, extremism, jihad, women’s rights, and the prospects of cooperation of conflict between the West and the Muslim world.

Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Yunus Jaunpuri’s Passion For Hadith

Pearls of the Elders

Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Yunus Jaunpuri’s[1] Passion for Hadith[2]

 

Translated by Abu Unaysah

 

After discussing Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Yunus Jaunpuri’s standing among contemporary hadith scholars, Mawlana Muhammad Nazim Nadwi writes:

 

“In truth he has remained preoccupied with hadith from the beginning and has immersed himself in it.  He himself relates: ‘Whenever I receive money from someone, I purchase books on hadith with it.  Whenever my respected teacher Qutb al-‘Arab wa ’l-‘Ajam [Imam Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhlawi] offered me money as a gift, I would use it to purchase some of his works.’ His residence contains a private collection of books on hadith, the like of which is extremely rare in the Sub-Continent. In fact, even the largest libraries are bereft of such great works. In spite of this, during his travels for Hajjhe visits bookshops in search of new books. This…

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Charleston Shooting Terrorist Attack, “White” Introspection and White Privilege

CoolnessofHind

“New York white youth were killing victims; that was a ‘sociological’ problem. But when black youth killed somebody, the power structure was looking to hang somebody.”

~ Malcolm X

A white man, Dylann Roof, aged 21, on the 17th of June at 9.00pm rampaged into a historic African-American Church in Charleston, South Carolina and committed a terrorist attack, shooting dead nine congregants and leaving a woman behind to “tell his story”.

This does seem like a case of rinse and repeat on my part when it comes to writing about such horrific incidents. When one witnessed the reporting of the killing of three Muslims by a white atheist at Chapel Hill, and compares them to say, the Charlie Hebdo shooting, or the attempted shooting of UK-banned hate preacher Pamella Geller more recently, there is a consistent disparity in the categorisation and language of the assailants.  This disparity trend is an…

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This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

Yahya Birt

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish – and now perhaps the Saudi – borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men…

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The Mentality of Conquest

The Mentality of Conquest

moon

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo II astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an Old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favour.

‘What do you want they asked?’

‘Well’, said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon. I was wondering if you could pass on an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message? Asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorised it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits know’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorised, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorised so carefully meant ‘don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have came to steal your lands.’

Haroon Ibn Ebrahim Sidat