It feels like I’m spending my life at the library nowadays. There are surely many far worse fates. The LA Central Library’s ALOUD series of free lectures continues to attract me back, with an ever fascinating array of guests. Last week, I had seen Walter Kirn speak on his book Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. That was an enjoyable program, and Kirn is extremely personable; but for this post, I will comment on last night’s talk with Tamim Ansary, who was presented and interviewed by Amir Hussain (a co-presentation of ALOUD and The Center for Global Understanding). The title of Ansary’s book matches his talk: Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.
Of all the talks I have heard at ALOUD, I found Ansary to be the most engaged and fascinating speaker to date.Much of this appeal is personal demeanor, of course. It was really nice to hear someone speak who spoke so authentically and directly to his audience, above and beyond Ansary’s intelligence and knowledge. I felt compelled to buy his book after the talk, and it was nice to have the opportunity to get a copy autographed. On intial skimming, the book also apears to have both depth and accessibility, and I recommend it as well (but you won’t get an inscription… or at least you’ll have to locate Ansary some other time).
Ansary’s book is about what its title says, but he relayed an amusing anecdote of how that title might be misunderstood. Through most of its history, the Islamic world thought of itself as simply “the world.” Although the interactions with European civilization (or European barbarity) were ongoing, those contacts were peripheral to the politics and world view of Islamic empires and states. Ansary related how many Western readers approach him with the assumption that his book might be a history of how the Islamic world has seen the West; the answer there has mostly been that it never really noticed the West. our Western assumption is something like, according to Ansary, a narcissist who speaks of himself for an hour, only to break by saying, “Enough about me: what do you think of me?”
As you might expect, most of the audience questions that ALOUD devotes a large part of its talks to were about current affairs: what is likely to unfold in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. I should note that these audiences are really smart as a rule. Ansary and Hussain both had interesting comments on those matters, often informed by their personal childhoods in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively (if I heard correctly, Ansary indicated that he was among the Farsi speakers of Afghanistan, which may or may not indicate a deeper understanding or knowledge of Iran; he is extremely knowledgeable in general, regardless of that background). One question that one would expect to hear, and that deserves an answer, is about the prospect for women’s rights in the Muslim world. Ansary’s comment was interesting in two elements. On the one hand, Ansary repeated the familiar observation that in historical context of Mohammed, Islam was progressive on women’s rights; being granted testimony in court of 50% value is a move in the right direction from women being barred from testifying at all (to pick a well known example). But Ansary discussed that what is required for equality is much more than that fixed moment got to, and that literalism about sharia is a barrier to many rights and democratic institutions.
In this question he also opened a certain doubt that this type of literalism is a deep feature of the Islamic world. Earlier in the lecture, Ansary had mentioned his own brother, who is a religious scholar (Ansary himself is entirely secular in his beliefs), but whose research urged for what sounds like consequentialist ethics.. His hope is that a look at the spirit of intent in sharia might open way for a more liberal understanding of religion in the Islamic world. The second element was a good history lesson for us mostly non-Muslim Angelenos. In Afghanistan, between 1959 and about 1976, the royal family greatly liberalized the rights and restrictions on women. They did not do this by edict, but by going to the Imam’s and asking for religious evidence for the dress restrictions imposed on women: when this evidence was lacking, the royal family themselves adopted liberal dress habits of women wearing non-restrictive clothing, and this influenced the country (or at least the big cities) to follow. It’s funny to think of Afghanistan as a liberal society, but comparatively it was in the 1960s and 1970s… those darn invasions!
If you are unfamiliar with this excellent series, I urge you to check it out by listening to a podcast or attending one yourself.