All posts filed under: Islam & The Islamic World

Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (Brian A. Catlos)

I read this book, about the history of Spain under Muslim rule, hoping it would be less biased than Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I found to be too polemical in its criticism of Islamic domination. This book was closer to neutral, on the other side of neutral, but the author, Brian Catlos, has taken a fascinating period of history and made it boring. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that he takes a kitchen sink approach that loses the reader in minutiae, with so many dramatis personae that there is no drama. Still, Kingdoms of Faith is useful as a reference work, and in addition, I think that the history recounted here has much to say about conversion of Muslims in lands reconquered by Christendom, past and future.

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Martin Mosebach)

This book is, brought to the temporal sphere, Revelation 20:4. “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Martin Mosebach’s The 21 is an exploration and explanation of the twenty-one Coptic Christian migrant workers killed by Muslims in 2015 for refusing to to apostatize from their Christian belief, a martyrdom made famous by the slickly produced video through which the killers broadcast their bloody work.

From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Sohrab Ahmari)

This is not a Muslim conversion memoir. Yes, Islam shows up quite a bit in the discussion, as it must in any book that discusses cultures in the Middle East. But Sohrab Ahmari’s conversion was from atheist materialism, the religion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, to Christianity. True, he had converted to that new religion as a teenager, earlier abandoning formal observance of an inculcated Shiite Islam. So Islam, the politics of Islam, and politics in general do show up here. Mostly, though, this book is an simply a well-written and compelling personal narrative of the author’s search for, and finding of, the triune God, and adopting His worship in the form embodied in the Roman Catholic Church.

Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives (Mark Miodownik)

Liquid Rules, like most good books in its genre, explains in an interesting way why certain things are the way they are. This is popularized science, and such books tend to fall into one of two categories, straight science or politicized science. I could have, if I had wanted to read the latter on vacation, picked instead The Uninhabitable Earth, a recent screed on global warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fortunately, however, I chose wisely, and therefore learned a few things while enjoying myself, instead of choking on the dry and boring leftovers of global warming alarmism.

A History of Venice (John Julius Norwich)

This long but smoothly written book, by the very recently deceased John Julius Norwich, scion of English nobility, covers more than a thousand years of Venetian history. Nowadays Venice is mostly known as an overloaded tourist destination, or as a victim of environmental degradation, rather than as the world power it was for most of its history. Norwich, who loved the city and talks in detail not only about its past but also its architecture, often tying the two together, ably restores the place of Venice in history. And in so doing, he manages to both be interesting and to show us viable alternatives to the dead end into which “liberal democracy” has led us.

Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Mark Sedgwick)

This book is an academic study of an obscure movement, Traditionalism.  The name has a specific meaning; it does not mean traditional forms of belief, that is, generically, conservatism.  Rather, “Traditionalism” is a type of Gnosticism, holding that a core of hidden knowledge, contained within all true religion, is the cure for what ails the modern world.  I certainly think that the modern world needs curing, though I don’t think that Traditionalism is what the doctor ordered.  Still, the pull of Gnosticism across time and space must mean something.  But what?  Mark Sedgwick’s book helps us begin to answer that question.

Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (Etienne Gilson)

Etienne Gilson is one of those men who shot across the sky of the West in the first half of the twentieth century, and were mostly forgotten by the end of the century, thrown overboard in the general wreck of Christendom.  He combined in his thought any number of now-unfashionable currents:  a love for Roman Catholicism and high medievalism; a focus on Thomistic thought; a dislike for the downsides of the modern world; and many more.  No wonder he has slipped from our memory, or more accurately, been erased by neglect.  But, as with other thinkers from his vanished time, from Carl Schmitt to Henri de Lubac, there are signs his star is rising again (though to some it is a baleful star), so I am here to summarize a little of his thought.

Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook (Edward Luttwak)

Given that zombie survival manuals and similar how-to books are today all the rage, on sale at every Costco, Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook seems like a selection from the same genre.  Namely, of somewhat jokey books that purport to tell you what to do in a strange, disastrous situation, while effectively acknowledging that if you do end up being chased by zombies, hurriedly turning to the index, finding the entry “When Being Pursued,” then scrambling to locate page 102, isn’t probably the best tactic for survival.  But instead, this book is the real thing, I think—an actual practical handbook on how to overthrow the state.  More precisely, how to overthrow a weak state, a banana republic, though I will give some thought to relevance in the modern American context.

The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (Timothy Ware)

As I and my family continue our inevitable pivot toward Orthodoxy, I have been reading more works on, you guessed it, Orthodoxy.   This book, by the English theologian Timothy Ware, who as a bishop uses the baptismal name Kallistos, is a classic introduction to Orthodoxy.  It was first published in 1963 but has more recently been revised, so it is fully up to date on history—and doctrine has not changed in Orthodoxy since 1963, or 963, for that matter.  I’ve actually owned the book for several years, but have only now read it, having been told by several people that it is very much worth reading.  And they were right—it is an excellent book.

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (Robert Louis Wilken)

I think Robert Louis Wilken is fantastic, but this is the weakest book of his that I have read.  It is not that it is bad, or wrong, or stupid, in any way.  It is that it falls into the genre I call “capsule history,” where many short chapters cover different happenings, and only a loose framework connects the chapters.  The result is that a reader can learn something, or can even learn quite a bit, but the experience is too much like reading an encyclopedia.  On the other hand, the book does consistently excel in one thing—communicating the loss suffered when Islam dominated or exterminated Christianity in its lands of first flourishing, from northern Africa to Mesopotamia.  And if you’re looking for a factual overview of the first thousand years of Christianity, you’ll certainly get it here.