Reading: The Shia Revival

April 19, 2008

Like many Americans, I had heard of Sunni and Shia Muslims but until recently had little idea what difference there was between two. Imam Qazwini’s book American Crescent (see my March 13 post) presented some basic material, but The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr tells much more.

Unlike Qazwini, who treats differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims as fairly minor, Nasr depicts the sectarian conflict between the two as the root of much political and military activity within and among Muslim nations. To Americans who for nearly three decades have associated Islam with the glaring face of Ayatollah Khomeini, it may come as quite a surprise to find out that he was a Shia Muslim, which makes him a member of a sect that is considered heretical if not downright apostate by many Muslim fundamentalists.

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Ashura in Karbala

February 26, 2008

A few weeks ago I might have taken no notice of this headline: Shiite Pilgrims Crowd Karbala. Like many Americans, I knew there were Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims but not quite what the difference was. (I learned it long ago in a high school history class, but at the time it seemed hardly worth remembering once the test was over.) I certainly had no idea what or where Karbala was, or why pilgrims of any sort would be going there.

Then a book in the public library caught my eye. American Crescent: A Muslim cleric on the power of his faith, the struggle against prejudice, and the future of Islam and America is both the personal story of its author, Imam Hassan Qazwini, and an explanation of Islam and its history and traditions for Americans who know little about them. I had read about Islam in books on world religion, but not a description by a Muslim of his own faith.

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Books in Baghdad

January 5, 2008

Perhaps my love of books has always made it easier for me to have a sense of kinship with people in far away places, people whose lives are vastly different from mine. Through books I get an idea – a limited one, of course – what life is like for people of other cultures, other religions, even other time periods (though authors of history and historical fiction inevitably will project some of their own perspective onto the people they portray). I have been fortunate enough to have actually lived in another country (six months in Valencia, Spain, and a year later nine months in Madrid), though Spanish culture in a modern city is far closer to suburban life in the U.S. than if I had gone to, say, the jungles of South America or a village in Africa.

One of my favorite ways to spend time is among books. A library or a store that sells used books (I started to write “used bookstore” – but I hope all bookstores are used frequently) is one of my favorite places to browse, hoping for treasures that I can take home for a few weeks for free, or – for a small price – for a lifetime. And as books play such a significant role in learning and being exposed to new ideas, any place where people can buy and sell books freely has something good going for it.

So I was pleased to read today about a book market in Baghdad that is back in business following a bombing last March.

The bombing wiped out dozens of bookstores, stationery shops and presses. The stench of burned paper and human flesh hung in the air for days. But it did not stop Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish vendors from continuing to work here in harmony.

Read here how an AP correspondent finds Baghdad’s book market reflects the city’s mood.