Global Context Series: 20 (or So) Books for the Globally-Minded Christian to Buy (and Read)

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Over the past few years, we have posted approximately twenty installments in the “Global Context Series.” In this series, we posted notices or reviews about books that help Christians get to know the global scene as a whole, or a particular region or country in particular. We want to reissue this series in a single post so that you can perhaps find the right book for the area and people of the world that most interests you. The links below follow the titles of the original posts in the series.

The books are not necessarily the best books available on a particular subject, but they are among the best books that I have read on that subject. I try to tell you a little bit about the author, the style of the book, its readability, and of course a little bit about its content. I hope that you will find this series helpful. I hope you will enjoy the books, and will find them to be a stimulus to love God as you learn about, and learn to love, the people in God’s world.

Preface

International:

“The Clash of Civilizations”

“The World is Flat 3.0”

“Hot, Flat, and Crowded?”

“A New Christendom With New Faces”

“The Post American World”

Africa:

“An Obsession with Power and Control”

Central Asia:

“The Ayatollah Begs to Differ”

“The Great Game”

“The Ayatollah’s Democracy”

Central Asia / Afghanistan:

“The Kite Runner”

“A Thousand Splendid Suns”

“Ghost Wars”

East Asia / China:

“Chinese Lessons”

“Out of Mao’s Shadow”

Europe:

“Europe, Islam, and Christianity”

“The Penguin History of Europe”

Europe / Russia:

“Stalin’s Children”

North Africa / Middle East:

“How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future of the Globe”

“The Crisis of Islam”

“The Arabs in History”

South Asia:

“Freedom at Midnight”

“On India, Calvinists, and Cow Dung Shampoo”

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Global Context Series (Central Asia): The Ayatollahs’ Democracy

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By: Philip O. Hopkins

[Editor's Note: This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.]

About a year and a half has passed since the controversial reelection of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election and the protests that followed focused Americans’ attention on Iran in ways not seen since the hostage crisis some 30 years before. In The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, Hooman Majd helps to open America’s eyes to a country that many fear and know little about. Majd delves into the inner workings of the Iranian political system to show that the “Twitter Revolution” or “green revolution” was not a revolution (or the beginnings of one) at all: it was Iran’s “first real civil rights movement,” (43) and not a rejection of the Islamic ideals upon which the Republic was founded in 1979.

Majd’s belief that the occurrences that happened after the election were more of the beginnings of a civil rights movement than a revolution arises in part from his extensive contact with Iranians in country. Unlike many of the Iranian Diaspora, Majd, a US citizen born in Iran but educated in the West, travels frequently to Iran and knows people in high places in both the conservative and reformist camps. All the political players are committed to Shia Islam even those in the Green Movement. “Shiism, born out of a sense of injustice perpetuated by tyrants” Majd notes, is “central to the thought of the reformists who see power vested in the people but guided by the social system of Islam” (87), which, as Majd makes clear through summarizing Iran’s political system and weaving history into the discussion, is essential to understanding Iranian thought.

Majd notes that the idea of equality is essential to Iranians, which is why civil rights are important to the people. Protests occurred after the elections because Iranians believed that these rights were violated. This is also why the nuclear issue is important. Iranians of all stripes believe nuclear power is their right; a right they seem willing to sacrifice (even Ahmadinejad) if equal conditions are met. Ironically, Ahmadinejad’s defense of this right against the West has gained him respect even among those who despise him.

Much more could be said about The Ayatollahs’ Democracy. Majd’s interaction with America’s involvement with Iran betrays his politically liberal bias (though he does criticize all parties). Even this insight is helpful as his explanation is an accurate reflection of many (if not the majority) of Iranians’ perception of American politics. While not necessary, it would be helpful to read Majd’s first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (reviewed on this site), before reading this one as Majd assumes that Westerners, Americans in particular, now, after the elections and protests, understand to some degree that Iran is not some monolithic terrorist country in which the entire population hates the United States; the opposite, in fact, is true. Finally, I should note that Majd’s language is a bit salty (nothing that one would not hear in any PG-13 movie, but it is worth noting).

Hooman Majd, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge (NY: Norton, 2010), 282 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-07259-4. $26.95. Reviewed by Philip O. Hopkins.

Global Context (NAME): The Arabs in History

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This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History is was first published in 1958, revised in 1993, and is still fruitful for the beginning student of Arab history. It is a very concise history, weighing in at only 240 pages, and therefore necessarily does history by a “broad-brush” approach.

For those who have read introductory material about Islam and have been exposed to current affairs in the Middle East through the media, but are not able to put such knowledge in historical context, Lewis’ book is perfect. He begins by giving a brief treatment of Arabia before Islam, which helps uninitiated reader to understand the Middle Eastern context into which Muhammad was about to walk. The second chapter introduces Muhammand and describes the early rise of Islam. In the remaining eight chapters, Lewis gives a lucid and concise exposition of the major events, people, and patterns in Arab history, never failing to show the interconnection of Islam and Arabia.

Lewis’ detractors repeatedly berate him for his essentialist view of Islam and his belief that Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, and reviewers of this book have been no exception. I’ll put my cards on the table here and say both “yes” and “no” to his detractors (with an emphasis on the “no.”) As for essentialism, Muhammad intended for Islam to have an unchanging essence, and expressed his intention very clearly in the Qur’an and in the hadith. Islam is a “religion of the books,” firmly standing on the shoulders of the Qur’an and the hadith. The Qur’an and the official collections of hadith will never change and unless Muslims forsake their belief in authorial intent, original Islam will always be accessible to Muslims through those texts. This does not mean that Muslims and Muslim societies will always look the same across the reaches of the globe or the eras of history. Muslim societies and cultures are necessarily affected by the contingencies of historical, geographical, and chronological context, and further some Muslims are willing to tamper with “original Islam.” For this reasons, Muslim beliefs and practices vary (sometimes wildly) depending upon such contingencies.

As for whether or not Islam is fundamentally anti-modern, “original Islam” is fundamentally anti-modern, primarily because of the intersection of two characteristics of the religion: (1) Islam is not only a religion but a socio-cultural and political system. The religious, socio-cultural, and political cannot be separated while remaining faithful to Muhammad’s message. (2) Islam was founded as an early medieval religious, socio-cultural, and political system and must fundamentally alter itself if it is to be at home in the modern world.

This book is highly recommended as a basic introduction to the Arabs in history.

Book: The Arabs in History (1958, 2002)

Author: Bernard Lewis

Region: North Africa & Middle East

Genre: History

Length: 240 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate