On the Sociology of Islam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On the Sociology of Islam by Ali Shari’ati, trans. Hamid Algar.

Shari'ati Algar On the Sociology of Islam

This collection of eight lectures and articles is offered as a representative glimpse of the work of Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati. A Western-educated Islamist, Shari’ati was enthusiastic about the prospects of revolutionary Iran, but never endeared himself to the resulting theocratic establishment. Throughout this volume the reader can observe Shari’ati’s efforts to regenerate Western academic disciplines on the basis of a profoundly Muslim perspective. These pieces are essentially philosophical discourse attempting to lay a groundwork for sociology, anthropology, and historiography framed by distinctively Islamic premises. 

Shari’ati construes his anthropology on the basis of a “bi-dimensionality” that struck me as having an unwonted affinity to the ancient mysteries. He emphasizes the coordination of opposed principles in the human constitution: “God and Satan, or spirit and clay” (89, c.f. 74, 93), like the Dionysian and Titanic components of the Orphic man. He also uses Eve as a symbol of love–rather than life in accordance with her name–and Satan as a figure of the intellect (95, 124). This latter choice seemed odd and muddled to me, considering that Shari’ati makes Satan the inherently anti-divine impulse in humanity, and yet the project represented in these writings is one of putting the intellect in service of a divine mandate.

His historical theory, which comprehends a political philosophy, is a sort of dialectical materialism distilled through the narrative of Cain and Abel, in which Cain represents the spirit of exploitation and alienation that arose at the beginning of agriculture and has mutated and developed ever since, while Abel is both the perspective of the Edenic communism of primitive hunters and herders, and the striving for a future condition in which the Umma reaches its destination as a classless society.

The sociology that he outlines transposes the Muslim distinction of tawhid and shirk from a religious criterion to a social one, valorizing the unity of society. Likewise, he elevates the hejirah from a historical episode to an interpretive principle, viewing migration and displacement as the critical factor in all social evolution. In his effort to identify the distinctive characteristics of Islam, he engages in some comparative theology, advancing a claim that the Quran alone among prophetic writings addresses itself to the entirety of the people rather than an elite. Shari’ati stresses the allegiance of Iran to the school of Ali, but laments the national ignorance of positive history regarding Shiite origins and early Iranian Islam, and he derides the Shia theory of the imamate (94). He is opposed to Sufism (68, 85), and his glosses of non-Muslim religions (mostly on page 79) are unimpressive. 

With a few exceptions, these selections show Shari’ati engaged in a highly coherent and impressive project of intellectual reframing. It is a short book, but a non-Muslim reader attempting to do justice to its contents will probably find it slow going.

Modern Ruins

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Ruins: Portraits of Place in the Mid-Atlantic Region by Shaun O’Boyle, introduction by Geoff Manaugh.

O'Boyle Manaugh Modern Ruins

Modern Ruins consists principally of four visual essays photographed by Shaun O’Boyle. The subjects throughout are buildings in Pennsylvania and New York that have been untenanted and untended for one or more human generations. 

The “Institutions” of the first essay are views of ruined mental hospitals and penitentiaries, which would seem to have a liberatory undertone, if it weren’t for the knowledge that these bygone institutions have been largely replaced with neglect on the one hand and more efficient facilities on the other. I was surprised at the amount of color among these photos.

The second essay “Steel” shows plants and foundries, mainly the Bethlehem Steel facility, a picture of which is also on the cover of the volume. I was struck by a certain organic quality to the images, as well as the sort of ecclesiastical spiring of the architecture. The Bethlehem Steel plant through O’Boyle’s lens looks to me like an H.R. Giger cathedral.

The “Coal” essay is as focused on the ruins of communities associated with the moribund Pennsylvania anthracite industry as it is on industrial structures themselves, but offers some images of the great “breakers” buildings that were used to process the coal. 

The final essay is “Arsenal,” treating Bannerman’s Island on the Hudson River. This site was the commercial and residential home of a premiere arms merchant in the early 20th century, and the architecture embraces a Scottish Gothic conceit, putting me in mind of Macbeth taking a summer holiday with his family. 

Each photo essay is prefaced by a text from a different contributor, offering historical backgrounds on the sites photographed. I read the volume in slavish obedience to the pagination, front to back; but especially after reading the interview with O’Boyle that concludes the book, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more effective to read the historical texts after viewing the photos, so that the images could provide the sort of lure of the unknown and sense of mystery that the photographer claims to prize in his own effort to capture them. 

The book also includes an overall introduction by Geoff Manaugh, which reflects on the entire photographic genre of ruined modern architecture, and the nature and sources of its allure for 21st-century viewers. The entire package is relatively compact, with only about 120 pages all told, of which fewer than twenty are text, but it deserves to be taken in at a slow pace over multiple sittings.

This was either the worst truth I’d ever encountered or the biggest pile of bullshit. I had no idea which I liked less.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust truth or bullshit

The Populist’s Guide to 2020

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left are Rising by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti.

Ball Enjeti The Populist's Guide to 2020

The Populist’s Guide to 2020 is a digest of the texts of video monologues by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, the hosts of the YouTube-carried daily television show Rising. Despite the title, it actually collects pieces from 2019, with fresh retrospective introductions for each that were written on the eve of 2020. This book was published before the resolution of the Democratic presidential primary this year, so it holds out some hopes that have since been dashed. The fact that it predates both the novel coronavirus epidemic and the civil unrest first touched off by the death of George Floyd makes it seem like it was from a simpler time; yet its critiques of the political and media establishments still hold.

Ball identifies with the left and Enjeti with the right, but they both distance themselves from the elite neoliberalism and neoconservativism that often manifest as bipartisan consensus in US national politics. The book’s afterword contains a single-paragraph ideological program statement from each of them, and it might have been better to put these at the front of the book. A distinctive feature of their show is that they make their left-right split a matter of complementary perspectives rather than antagonistic ones. Both are interested in imagining political discourse that legitimately centers the interests of working-class Americans.

The book groups their individual monologues (what they call “radars” on the show) into four sections. “Core Rot” is a set of diagnoses of US political institutions and ideologies. “Media” discusses corruption and myopia in mass communications. “Identity” is mostly concerned with jockeying in the early phase of the Democratic Presidential primary. (To their credit, Ball and Enjeti had already pegged it as ultimately a race between Sanders and Biden, but their analyses of other candidacies and the establishment reactions to them are interesting.) “Theories of Change” looks for openings out of the customary patterns of US mis-governance.

All of the intro/monologue chapters are short and read quickly, while having some real meat to chew on. They are often interrupted with citations of text news articles that the hosts referenced in their presentations. This book is not materially elegant, and it has more than its share of typos–evidence that it was the product of “a Christmas break to assemble and edit,” for which the acknowledgements express thanks. It was clearly intended to be an ephemeral print spinoff of the continuing show. The Populist’s Guide sold very well on its release in February 2020, and while much has changed during the seven months since, it is still very much worth the remainder-level price that it now commands in online retail.

Night’s Sorceries

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Night’s Sorceries by Tanith Lee. And, hey, check out that typo in the book title on the cover image! On the same cover it appears correctly in the pull quote. Did that make it into the print run?! It’s even on the Penguin Random House page for the book, as I write this. And this book was published in 2017! Has no one noticed in the interim? Oh no!

Lee Night's Sorcereies(sic)

This last of Tanith Lee’s Tales of the Flat Earth books consists of seven distinct stories, set mostly in chronological parallel to the novel Delirium’s Mistress that preceded it. Thus it returns to the looser form of the earliest books of the series. The Lords of Darkness and their ladies make occasional cameos among the first five tales of this book, but there is no development of their larger biographies. Lee does expand her fantasy cosmography a little, notably with an adventure on the moon. Among these stories, the ones I found most enjoyable (and which would probably best stand on their own as examples of Lee’s work in this series) were “The Prodigal” and “Black as a Rose.”

Only with the final two stories does Lee take up and extend the ending of the story of Atmeh that she had reached at the conclusion of Delerium’s Mistress. Accordingly, in both form and content, this book feels like a relaxation and a winding down from the climactic antepenultimate volume of the series, but there is no slackening of quality. The human protagonists are a robust mix of types, and the story resolutions vary widely from happily-ever-afters to catastrophic demises. The prose is measured and beautiful, and the plots satisfyingly exercise deep tropes of traditional storytelling without becoming predictable.

The final story of the book is “The Magician’s Daughter,” and the first of its five chapters involved magical eugenics in a way that reminded me of Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild. Where these books generally seem to occupy a somewhat eroticized band of the Dunsanian part of the fantasy spectrum, this story added some of the the style and substance favored by Clark Ashton Smith. Witness the sentence: “None of the windows or doors would give save at the recitation of a particular vernacular rhomb” (240).

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who had enjoyed its predecessor volumes. Although composed of short stories and novellas with their own plot arcs, it relies on the prior mythopoeia of the other books, and I’m not sure it would serve so well as a starting point. It does bring the full series to an over-brimming richness of super-completion.