As we enter the new year, the Qarawiyyin Project summarises four must-reads for this January. Alternating between modern challenges and Islamic history, these books contain the perfect mix of nostalgia and contemplation to stimulate you for the year ahead.
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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
100 years on from the roaring twenties—a decade characterised by frivolity—an examination of the excessive role of entertainment is much needed. Published in 1985, Neil Postman’s classic examines how the role of technology has shifted from a medium to convey information to a producer of information, complete with narratives and imagery manipulated to shape thoughts and opinions more concretely than ever before. Whilst technology has changed immensely since the book’s release, this has only served to make it more relevant. Oppression by addiction to entertainment has a new meaning in the world of reality television; the framing of politics as amusement is epitomised by Donald Trump’s Twitter account, and the preoccupation of the next generation with influencers and Youtubers bodes ill for their future aspirations. Amusing Ourselves to Death serves as useful reminder of the dark side of media.
Length: 184 pages
Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?
From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus, 1193-1260
Of the monumental figures in Islamic history, few have attracted the popularity and mystique of Salahuddin al-Ayubi. His role in turning the tide of the Crusades is nothing short of legendary. But what happened next? The story didn’t stop there—who was left to take the reigns after the liberator of Palestine? How did his legacy affect geopolitical developments? For all the history buffs out there, this fills the gaps!
Length: 528 pages
If, as we have maintained, Saladin’s regime was supported by such a weak instiutitonal framework, what was the “glue” that held his empire together, not only during the years of expansion and triumph, but also through periods of stagnation and defeat? Two plausible answers present themselves: first, that Saladin’s state had a profoundly ethical character, a sense of mission which allowed it to overcome the rampant factionalism and petty ambition of the age; second, that Saladin’s authority ultimately rested on a complex network of personal relationships by which the ambitions of his powerful subjects were inextricably bound to his own career. These two answers are by no means contradictory.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
In the minds of many, George Orwell’s 1984 can no longer be considered a work of dystopian fiction; in a time when our every move is tracked on our mobile phones, our friends and family publicly listed on social media, the conditions of our commute predicted, our shopping list memorised, and a stream of ads linked to our search history ever appearing, the present already seems Orwellian. Shoshana Zuboff’s nearly 700-page work details exactly how big businesses are profiting from it. Yet, “surveillance capitalism”, a force that is as profoundly undemocratic as it is exploitative, remains poorly understood—an ignorance, Zuboff argues, that is central to its strategy. She uncovers the hidden contracts behind our technology, be it the plethora of Pokemon at commercial hotspots to direct players of Pokemon Go, or the nefarious uses Facebook puts our data to. By placing her analysis within economic theory and a wider history of both capitalism and totalitarianism, Zuboff introduces a new angle to the discussion on technological progress, posing this dichotomy as the defining challenge for the next generation. It’s a long read, but well worth a skim.
Length: 691 pages
Two men at Google who do not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercise control over the organization and presentation of the world’s information. One man at Facebook who does not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercises control over an increasingly universal means of social connection, along with the information concealed in its networks.
Ibn Taymiyyah: Makers of the Muslim World
Few figures in Islamic history have left the impact, or controversy, of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah. With a vast collection of literature on Ibn Taymiyyah’s life already written, Jon Hoover’s latest book serves as a good primer to those confused as to where to start. Showcasing the different sides to the famed scholar, who is too often granted reductive labels, gives the exposition nuance and goes beyond the attempts of modern terrorism experts to attribute him to a violent strain of Islamism. Hoover provides a summary deep enough to build a foundational knowledge of Ibn Taymiyyah, but brief enough to sow the seed of curiosity to delve deeper into this brilliant figure.
Length: 176 pages
He did not compose large systematic manuals of theology, legal theory, substantive law, or spiritual practice, and he never wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on the Qur’an. Instead, Ibn Taymiyya wrote to meet the needs of the moment. He responded directly to the controversies and concerns of his time in hundreds of fatwas, treatises, and books. He adopted the terminology of the questions that he was discussing or the texts he was refuting. He shifted registers of language according to his audience and purpose.