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Friday, March 27, 2015

Halal Monk: A Broader Perspective on Islam

When I saw the title Halal Monk by Jonas Yunus Atlas in an e-book freebie list last month, it stood out for me.  Theology is an abiding interest of mine.  I consider myself a student of all religions.  I wanted to know more about Islam as it is currently practiced.  Atlas is a Christian who shares my interest in 21st century Islam.  He  had been conducting interviews with Islamic figures and posted them to the Halal Monk Website but decided to publish them in book form.   When I first looked at the Amazon page for this book, I saw only one review from a reader who seemed rather close-minded.    So I was determined to blog reflectively about this book.


Many of Atlas' interviewees are Sufis.  I was very impressed by a Sufi Universal Worship Service that I attended a number of years ago.   Perhaps this ceremony, which attempts to include all religions, contributes to the idea that Sufism isn't really Islamic. Though I understand that the Universal Worship Service is performed by only one lineage of Sufis.  Dispelling the idea that Sufism is heretical is a focus of some of these interviews.  Although some participants in Atlas' project wanted to promote the idea of Islamic diversity, others seemed to want to promote Islamic union.  Yet the interfaith perspective of the Universal Worship Service promotes dialogue between religions which is crucial in the face of Western hostility toward Islam.

This is why I was interested in the Cordoba Initiative of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf which he deals with in his interview with Atlas. His intent for the "Ground Zero Mosque"  in New York that never manifested was to create a community center that would facilitate communication between members of different religious traditions.   I was glad to discover on his website that he seeks to internationalize this effort.

Unfortunately, the spirit of  pluralism can be fragile.  Rauf named the Cordoba Initiative after a city that was supposed to have been a model for religious tolerance when it was under Islamic rule.  Alas, that is not the entire story of Islamic Cordoba.  I have studied the life of the great Jewish scholar Maimonides.  So I know that although Cordoba was his birthplace, he and his family eventually fled Cordoba to avoid forced conversion to Islam.  To learn more see this Brief Life of Maimonides. What happened to Cordoba?  The Umayyad Dynasty that had ruled from Cordoba collapsed.  The Berber Almohads later emerged as the new rulers of Cordoba, and eradicated the Umayyad policy of tolerance toward non-Muslims.  So perhaps we can build bridges in the current generation, but history shows that the future is always uncertain.

When I was reading Atlas' interview with Koran translator Mohammed Abdel Haleem, I was perturbed by his comparison of the translation to the original.  Haleem said that some words in Arabic have multiple connotations.  As a result, the original text of the Koran has layers of meaning.  He felt that the English translation is inferior because it can only be read on one level.  Perhaps native English speakers experience it differently.  English also has words with multiple meanings. One of the challenges of teaching English is that word usage can be very complex.  In most languages, older words have accumulated connotations and associations over their long history.  I have not read Haleem's English translation of the Koran, but it's possible that its language can be interpreted in ways that Haleem never intended.

I am always pleased when a book offers me research opportunities.  In Halal Monk, the mention of  Abdul Ghaffar Khan caused me to consult Wikipedia.  He was a Pathan political activist who was a friend of Gandhi. He  practiced satyagraha which was Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence.   He was arrested during the Salt Satyagraha which seems to have been India's equivalent of the Boston Tea Party.  It was a non-violent protest against the British tax on salt.  I would like to read the biography Nonviolent Soldier of Islam to find out more.  I would also like to read Pathan Unarmed which is about the Khudai Khidmatgar, the movement of nonviolent Muslims that Abdul Ghaffar Khan founded.

 This is the most interesting non-fiction book that I've read so far in 2015.   I recommend it to those who want to see a side of Islam that isn't well-represented in Western media.




Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Pipe Woman Chronicles Omnibus: Five Urban Fantasy Novels in One Volume

When I reviewed Seasons of the Fool by Lynne Cantwell on Amazon and Goodreads, she asked me if I wanted an autographed print copy.  Since my space for print format books is extremely limited, I declined.  Instead I accepted a free digital copy of The Pipe Woman Chronicles Omnibus for review.  After finishing it, I realized that I had some observations to make about the books in this series that were worth a blog entry. 

The central character of this series is lawyer Naomi Witherspoon whose practice focuses on mediation.  Naomi is a very likeable lawyer.  She loves to help people and wants all parties in a case to benefit.  Mediation is more compatible with Naomi's ethos than litigation where there are always winners and losers.

 As the series opens with Seized, Naomi is a mediator for a corporate law firm in Denver.  Her life changes drastically after she attends a sweat lodge run by Ute medicine man Looks Far Guzman.  Looks Far is a remarkably eccentric character who I found delightful, and he has an enduring connection with Naomi.

Unfortunately, there was an element in the sweat lodge ceremony  which was portrayed inaccurately.  I did suspect that Cantwell might have thought that her readers would be uncomfortable with a more authentic description.  Yet later in Annealed Book #5, she didn't flinch from portraying a traditional Lakota Sun Dance which would definitely make New Age readers uneasy.  So I'm not  entirely certain why she sanitized a practice of the Native American Church in Seized.

I found what I consider to be errors in portraying figures from Scandinavian mythology throughout this series.  I think the fundamental  misconception on which many of these errors are based is the idea that there is only one Scandinavian pantheon.  There are actually two pantheons.  One is the Aesir of Asgard headed by Odin, and the other is the Vanir of Vanaheim headed by Njord.  These two pantheons have made an agreement, and have become allies.   There are also the Jotuns who are primordial beings that pre-exist both of these pantheons.  In English, Jotun is translated as giant.   The Jotuns will be the opponents of the Aesir at Ragnarok which is the Scandinavian apocalyptic struggle.  Loki is a Jotun.  He is not part of Odin's family of deities.  Odin is called the All Father because he is the creator of humanity.  He didn't create all the other Scandinavian Gods.  In fact, Odin himself had parents. 

The Vanir are never even mentioned in these books.  This became particularly problematic in Tapped Book #3 when Cantwell  needed to find a Scandinavian God who might be responsible for an agricultural experiment and picks the wrong one.  You see, Freyr of the Vanir  is the God of agriculture.  It's probably just as well because this agricultural experiment was extremely misguided. After millennia of experience, Freyr would know better than to be involved in it.  Human corporations have a record for engaging in these sorts of shenanigans.  Why blame it on a God?  Yes, it's true that the God that Cantwell chose corrected his mistakes in Tapped, but I find it hard to believe that he would have made such a mess in the first place. This is a God who is known for being clear-sighted. 

I would have expected to see Freyr at the crucial culminating mediation between Gods in Annealed because Freyr is also the Scandinavian God of peace.  Since Freyr loves peace, he would have very much wanted to represent his pantheon at that mediation. 

My favorite book in this series was Gravid which is Book #4.  Cantwell is at her best when she is dealing with family, friendships and the spiritual commitments of mortals.  I also liked the way Cantwell deals with both inner conflicts and interpersonal conflicts.  She understands human beings far better than Gods.   The character dynamics in Gravid were wonderful.    I loved the introduction of the journalist, Antonia, who is associated with the Greco-Roman pantheon.  Antonia is a strong woman who knows what she wants and how to get it.  This is also the only book in this series where I thought that all the spiritual/mythical content was well-handled.

I was ambivalent about the resolution in Annealed.  I enjoyed Cantwell's portrayal of Jesus.  I liked the fact that a positive resolution in the mediation between the Gods was reached.  Yet it seemed like complex world problems that should each have required separate mediations were being resolved too simply.  I don't think all the stakeholder perspectives were being considered in the Middle East, for example.  When the boundary lines were drawn, how was the problem of fair access to Jerusalem holy sites by all the Abrahamic faiths resolved?

After the text of all the novels in The Pipe Woman Chronicles Omnibus concludes, Cantwell reveals that there will be a new trilogy that is a continuation of this one called Land,Sea,Sky and provides an excerpt of the first one. It is my hope that she will continue to deal with the problems of  complex human characters, their relationships, their spirituality and their paranormal gifts.  If she does bring the Gods and mythology into her work, I hope that she consults multiple sources about them.  Having a more complete picture will improve her portrayals of divine beings and mythological figures.



Monday, March 9, 2015

The Burning Land: Interesting Themes in a Fantasy Context

This is a review that I wrote for Book Babe that I decided to copy to this blog because it's the sort of review that I most enjoy writing and best represents the sort of fantasy that I want to read.

The Burning Land is the second book I've read by Victoria Strauss.  I read and reviewed her historical fiction Color Song on Book Babe here .  I happen to be a fan of fantasy as well as historical fiction and the description of this one sounded like it might deal with interesting themes.  I received The Burning Land from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


Like another review that I recently saw on Goodreads, I originally thought that Victoria Strauss was re-creating Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in a fantasy context.  There were indeed some parallels, but there were also some key differences.  The first one I noticed is that Strauss' fictional religion, Aratism, is messianic.  It's a central tenet of Buddhism that anyone can become a Buddha.  There are Bodhisattvas who strive to awaken others to their Buddha nature, but each Buddhist is actually still the one engaged in his or her own salvation.  So there are no messiahs in Buddhism. Another seriously critical difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Aratism is that Tibetan Buddhist monks practice non-violence.  The Brethren of Arata don't adhere to such a code.  In fact, violence among Aratists is central to the plot.  The sort of violence that occurs is reminiscent of historical conflicts between Christian sects. I came to the conclusion that Victoria Strauss has constructed a syncretic religion composed of elements from Buddhism and Christianity.  It's East meets West in a fantasy world.

The male and female protagonists are both complex.  Gyalo, the male protagonist, evolves in an unexpected direction while still maintaining the essence of his character.    I don't agree with the Goodreads reviewer who seemed to think that Axane, the female protagonist, had been "ruined" by traumatic events.  For me, the strength of a female character is demonstrated by how she reacts to trauma.  Axane is severely impacted by trauma, but she's a survivor.  She is eventually able to move on with her life.  I appreciate that sort of portrayal of a female character.

The fantasy aspect involves paranormal powers.  Strauss confronts the issue of ethical responsibility in the use of paranormal powers through the differing approaches of Aratist sects.  Can this decision be safely left up to the individual who possesses such powers?  This issue reminded me of the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz which also focuses on whether the paranormally gifted can be trusted to use their powers ethically.  Both Strauss and Kurtz answer this question in a complex fashion.  Some individuals are more trustworthy than others, but persecution increases the likelihood of the abuse of paranormal powers because survival usually trumps ethics.    So how should societies respond to the threat of unethical use of paranormal powers?  The Burning Land shows us that there are no easy answers.

Another related issue that Strauss deals with in this book is whether religious belief makes a difference in adherence to ethics.  Again,  this varies among individuals.  In The Burning Land, people who have an internalized sense of ethics continue to be ethical even if they lose their faith.  People who are only ethical because of the expectations of their religion, will discard ethics along with their faith when catastrophic events rip their beliefs from them.  I agree that whether someone worships one deity, ten thousand deities or none isn't a determining factor when it comes to ethical behavior.

The Burning Land is a thoughtful book that I recommend to readers who are interested in compelling fantasy that addresses religion and ethical responsibility.    


Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fan Girl's Guide To The Galaxy: Reaching Across My Fannish Generation Gap

I attended my first science fiction convention in the 1970's.  My contacts with fandom were either in person or through the mail.  Being a fan was very important to me.  It was central to my life and identity.  In addition to attending cons and meetings of local fan organizations, I wrote for printed fanzines and APAs (Amateur Press Associations).  I would write a zine for the APA on a typewriter, get it copied at a copy shop and send it to the Central Mailer, who would collate everyone's zines, add a cover with art created by one of the members and mail out the stapled together publication to everyone on the members' list.  It was a different world.  For the author of The Fan Girl's Guide To The Galaxy and the generation that this book addresses, it really was their grandmother's fandom.

 I eventually switched to online fandoms in the 1990's.  I participated in newsgroups and discussion boards, and I posted my fics to e-mail lists and websites. Then I decided to become a librarian and no longer had any free time for participation in fandom.  I gafiated.  That's a verb form of the fannish abbreviation GAFIA (Getting Away From It All).

I don't like to feel that I'm out of touch, but I've been discovering that the fannish terminology that I knew has altered drastically.  Some terms have morphed.  Others have been newly created to represent fannish institutions that didn't exist when I was last active in fandom.   I realized that I needed to re-educate myself.  That's why I entered a giveaway for The Fan Girl's Guide To The Galaxy on Booklikes and was delighted when I won.


I feel that it's important for me to state that I have never identified with the "geek" label.  I remember when the only connotation it had was negative, but I understand about reclaiming words and giving them a positive connotation.  This is a very common practice in identity politics.  Yet I regret to inform you that I'm still not comfortable with calling myself a "geek".  I don't mind if my readers do identify with that label.  It's just that I'm from another generation.    So I have no anxiety about being called a "fake geek".  This was not an issue in the fandoms in which I participated.  I wrote fic in overwhelmingly female fandoms,  and the male fans that I associated with in science fiction book fandom tended to be pro-feminist.

As a feminist, it definitely angers me that women and girls have been ostracized in contemporary fandoms.  This demonstrates that the battles that feminists must fight in order to attain equality are far from over.  I  was pleased to see a section on feminism in The Fan Girl's Guide To The Galaxy.

My original fandom was Star Trek: TOS which brought about a major influx of women into science fiction fandom in the 1970's.  I had read science fiction beginning in the 1960's, but I was first introduced to fandom by a Trek fan.  I wrote my first fic for her zine.   I have a sentimental attachment to Star Trek: TOS, its characters and to the original cast.  Nevertheless,  my favorite Trek series is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which I feel had more complex characters and better developed alien cultures than any other science fiction show that I've seen. To women, it offered Kira and Dax who I consider totally awesome.  It bothered me that DSN wasn't even mentioned in this book.  I understand why Sam Maggs emphasized Star Trek: Voyager.  Captain Janeway was a milestone, but it seemed to me that she had almost no background or character development.   Seven of Nine certainly had a more interesting character arc.

I also had a problem with "stan", an abbreviation of stalker fan, being used to mean true fan.  Maggs says in the book "A good stan is a respectful stan."  Real stalkers have no respect.  They terrorize actors.  I was involved with a TV fandom in which the star was stalked by a woman who was a PI. Even after she was caught and arrested,  the experience was devastating for the actor and had a negative impact on the fandom as a whole.    He became wary of fans.  He hired bodyguards.  This changed the entire atmosphere of the fandom.   I don't think that real stalkers should be encouraged to think that their criminal behavior is considered acceptable.  

I think that the interviews in this book should have been more personalized.  Asking the same questions to each interview subject didn't necessarily make for an interesting interview.   Specific customized questions for each subject would probably have caused the interviewee to open up more.  This would have given us more insight into their activities and their role in fandom. 

On the other hand, the overviews of particular fandoms, and the complete list of websites for all the different needs of "girl geeks" were wonderful.   Those features made The Fan Girl's Guide To The Galaxy a very useful reference.