The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change

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The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change
The Islamic Middle East- Tradition and Change.jpg
AuthorCharles Lindholm

The book The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change combines historical knowledge and anthropological theory in an elegant and high-powered manner.

About the author[edit | edit source]

Charles Lindholm, born in 1946 in Mankato Minnesota, is a University Professor at Boston University, before which he taught anthropology at Barnard College and at Columbia and Harvard Universities. His research, though often built upon exotic or extreme material, always aims to bring anthropological insight into the existential dilemmas of modern life, where, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air.” his present interests include the continuing his study of the anthropology of emotion as well as writing a life history narrative based on the autobiography of one of his Swati friends.

About the book[edit | edit source]

This book published in Wiley-Blackwell; 2nd edition (October 11, 2002), has 356 pages and best sellers rank of 4,384,932 in Books.

The present book is a thought-provoking account of the origins, nature, and evolution of Islam that provides a historical perspective vital to understanding the contemporary Middle East.

Abstract of chapters[edit | edit source]

Part I: Introduction[edit | edit source]

1. The Middle East: Assumptions and Problems.

In this part the author describes the culture of the Middle East as a conglomeration of random individuals, each unique, separate, irreducible and impenetrable, as a postmodernist approach might indicate. The Middle  East  has at  its core  many of the values  that  are presently  believed to be essential characteristics of the modern western world: egalitarianism, individualism, pluralism, competitiveness, calculating rationality, personal  initiative, social  mobility,  freedom; but  these  are set within  a distinctive historical  context  based upon  chivalric  honor, female seclusion,  and patrilineality and  that  also favored invidious  distinctions between men and women, whites and blacks, tribesmen and peasants,  nobles and commoners, free men and slaves.  

Part II: Preconditions for Egalitarian Individualism[edit | edit source]

2. Ways of Living.

3. Traditions of Authority and Freedom.

4. The Social Construction of Egalitarianism.

This part considers, in brief outline, the social, historical, and ecological context in which the special value system that is shared with the Middle Eastern cousins arose and prevailed. The author shows that the currents including a faith in the essential equality of persons, and a belief in the potential for individual empowerment and honor in the face of arduous odds which have been the pervasive undercurrents of Middle Eastern culture, have a very long history indeed. He argues that the mercantile   ethnic of egalitarianism, social mobility, competitive individualism   and puritanism has always opposed the aristocratic ethic of display and hereditary authority. He believes that the Middle Eastern sense of asabiyya is expressed in the idiom of kinship, which gives men and women a way of conceptualizing their relationships with one another, and favors a flexible structure of alliance and segmentation that is highly egalitarian.

Part III: State and Society: Prophets, Caliphs, Sultans and Tyrants[edit | edit source]

5. The Prophetic Age.

6. Early Struggles for Authority.

7. Sacred and Secular Rulers.

8. Novelties and Continuities.

So far, we received a portrait of the Middle East in which all forms of secular authority have always been questionable and un- stable; obedience is won by the strong and clever, and asabiyya is the sole restraint on personal force. The author in this part tries to escape from this condition by introducing the rise of a sacred leader who could unite all the warring tribes under a God-given mandate and who sought to overcome the divisiveness of clans and the coerciveness of rulers by establishing the government of God on earth.

Part IV: Sacred Power: Reciters, Lawyers, Incarnations and Saints[edit | edit source]

9. The Essentials of Islam.

10. Recapturing the Sacred Past: The Power of Knowledge.

11. The Partisans of Ali.

12. Sufism in Practice.

13. The Contradictions of Saintly Authority.

In this part, the author wants to address the manner in which the community of Islam has dealt with the question of authority after the death of the Prophet and the dispersal of the original community. In this context, the state,  at  its worst,  is a catastrophe to  be avoided if possible, suffered  if necessary;  at  its best,  it  is a protector of the  peace  and  a useful mediator  balancing  out local disputes,  although  everyone knows these decisions  are manipulated by those  in power for their  own  ends. Small wonder then that the realm of politics has lost its appeal for many Muslims, who have found   their refuge instead   in religion; a refuge, however, that also reflects the tensions and contradictions of an egalitarian social order.

Part V: Dilemmas of Subordination[edit | edit source]

14. Slaves, Eunuchs and Blacks.

15. The Ambiguities of Women.

16. Escapes from Distinction: Love and Friendship.

This section deals with the issue of slaves in the Middle East. It has often been observed that the Muslim Middle East was unique in world history in the pervasiveness and importance of slavery within its boundaries. As in the West, the slave in the Middle East was bought and sold, could not testify in court, was sexually available to the master, and so on. But unlike the western slave who was valued primarily for hard labor, many slaves in the Middle East were employed as servants in the house, as concubines, and, most importantly, as soldiers and administrators at the center of power.

To this point, the author’s narrative was almost exclusively male in outlook, reflecting Middle Easterners’ own conventional vision of the public world, where men reign and all deeds of real importance are thought to take place. But here he tries to bold the woman's world which was secret and private, bounded by the walls of her father's house, and then by the compound of her husband and his family.

Part VI: Conclusion[edit | edit source]

17. Problems and Possibilities.

As the author draws, cultural heritage of the Middle East, is structured  by  an ancient  antagonism between  unstable urban  civilizations and armed  peripheries.  This fluid and unreliable setting has favored an entrepreneurial ethic of risk-taking, individual initiative, adaptiveness and mobility among opportunistic co-equals who struggle over ephemeral positions of power and respect, constrained only by participation in a framework of elastic patrilineages. In this final section, the author does not wish to dispute the conventional wisdom,  but  merely suggest  some historically-grounded hypotheses that  flow from the cultural  premises he has sought to elucidate in the previous chapters.

Source[edit | edit source]