-Middle East Quarterly
Virgins? What Virgins?: And Other Essaysby Ibn Warraq
In this wide-ranging collection of insightful, controversial, and often witty essays, Ibn Warraq-the renowned author of Why I Am Not a Muslim-has created a representative selection of his best work on the Koran and various problems posed by the interaction of Islam with the West. The title comes from his now classic article, originally published in the London
In this wide-ranging collection of insightful, controversial, and often witty essays, Ibn Warraq-the renowned author of Why I Am Not a Muslim-has created a representative selection of his best work on the Koran and various problems posed by the interaction of Islam with the West. The title comes from his now classic article, originally published in the London Guardian, on textual studies of the Koran that suggest, contrary to a longstanding Muslim belief about the afterlife, a harem of beautiful virgins may not be waiting for the faithful male departed in heaven.
This expansive collection includes articles that consider the totalitarian nature of contemporary political Islam and explore the potential for an "Islamic Reformation"; Koranic criticism excerpted from his books; and the best of Warraq's journalism, including a critique of reputed Muslim reformer Tariq Ramadan, a defense of Western culture, an article about the Danish cartoons that provoked widespread Muslim outrage, and even a commentary on the naive politics of heavy metal musicians. For the many readers of his books who have long wondered about his background, the pseudonymous Warraq includes a personal sketch about his upbringing.
-Middle East Quarterly
- Prometheus Books
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- 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)
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VIRGINS? WHAT VIRGINS?AND OTHER ESSAYS
By IBN WARRAQ
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Ibn Warraq
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOn Becoming English
A number of readers, reviewers, and journalists but also some friends acquired since writing my first book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, have regularly expressed their disappointment that the one question I do not answer in the book is why I am not a Muslim, or how I abandoned the faith I was born into. Many journalists are even more disappointed when they finally get to meet me, disappointed that I am not more exotic, with tales interspersed with the correct guttural pronouncements of Arabic words and names (particularly the "h" in Muhammad) of my years spent memorizing the Koran in madrassas, flirting with fundamentalism, or taking part in some jihadi exercises. Not knowing anything about the real man behind the pseudonym, writers and journalists, in an attempt to contextualize the "brave apostate," were obliged to fit me into certain molds. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, wrote in 2003, "My favorite book on Islam is the rationalist critique Why I Am Not a Muslim, published under the pseudonym Ibn Warraq and written by a recovering Pakistani ex-zealot who was originally shaken loose from his faith by the Rushdie affair." Now, I am truly beholden to Hitchens for these three lines-I am sure they helped boost the sales of my book, and also brought it out of the shadows, lending it some sort of respectability-but "a recovering Pakistani ex-zealot"? For Andrew Stuttaford, writing in the National Review in 2002, I am Indian: "Brought up a Muslim on the Indian subcontinent, Mr. Warraq is a slightly old-fashioned figure, a shabbily genteel man with more than a hint of India's mid-20th-century intelligentsia about him."
Here is the real context of the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, in the form of a short memoir of how I acquired a love of things English-and perhaps an English identity too.
My family belongs to a distinct group of Indian Muslims known as Khatris, who first appear as a Hindu subcaste in the fifteenth century. This caste of dyers of cloth converted to Islam in the sixteenth century and eventually settled in the Rann of Kutch and the Sind, gradually becoming merchants and traders. My mother tongue is Kutchi, a dialect linguistically related to Sindhi. There are ninety families in this subcaste, and my real family name is Valera. I do not know why my father changed it when applying for our passports.
I was born in 1946 into a Muslim family in Rajkot, in the state of Gujarat, a town where Gandhi grew up (though he was born in Porbandar, also in the Gujarat). The year is significant: one year later, my father, his mother (my own mother had died of tuberculosis a few months earlier), my brother (a year older than I), and I moved to Karachi, the capital of the newly created country of Pakistan, a creation Salman Rushdie once described as resulting from a failure of imagination. I grew up in Karachi. My earliest memories are of my circumcision and of my first day at Koranic school. I only have the vaguest of memories of learning rote-fashion at the age of seven or eight the Fatihah, approximately fifty words that comprise the opening chapter of the Koran, which is often described as the Muslim equivalent of the Lord's Prayer. My brother and I carried some sections of the Koran called sipirahs-the Persian term for the thirty juz, or divisions, of the Koran-in a simple bag we hung round our necks and shoulders. We learned to read the Koran rather easily, for the following reason: The national language of Pakistan was Urdu, with which we were already familiar. Urdu, an Indo-European language, was written in a slightly modified Arabic script, though the Arabic language itself belonged to a totally different language family, the Semitic. We had already mastered the Urdu alphabet, and our reading of the Arabic Koran was entirely with an Urdu pronunciation, with, for example, the Arabic "th," as in "think," becoming "s," as in the English "sweet." We had to follow our teacher with our fingers on the Koranic text as he read aloud from the Koran. We did not stay very long at the Koranic school and were soon enrolled at a secular school, where I do not remember receiving any religious instruction.
Sending us to Koranic school was a surprising decision on the part of my father, since he himself was not at all religious-though he always took pride in the achievements of Islamic civilization-most of his friends in Rajkot were Hindus, whom he found more progressive, and he attended the mosque only during religious festivals such as Eid ul-Fitr. He nonetheless had a particular horror of Christian symbols-once removing the two arms of a cruciform letter opener-and his office had framed verses of the Koran hanging on the walls, as well as photos of the Kaaba, the cubelike structure draped in black cloth in the center of the mosque at Mecca. Yet he profoundly shocked my grandmother when he ripped off a miniature Koran she had hung round my neck, saying he did not want his sons being brought up on religious mumbo-jumbo. My grandmother went into a frenzy of prayers, wails, and imprecations, invoking Allah's mercy, understanding, and forgiveness for my father's impiety. But we did imbibe something of Islam from my grandmother, who recited entire verses from the Koran without understanding a single word of them, and who taught us Arabic prayers, which we, the two brothers, did not understand either.
Islam and religion were always associated in my mind with my grandmother. I watched her often on her bed as she posed the Koran on its traditional kursi, a little X-shaped chair or stand, and began to rock back and forth while reciting parts of it. She seems also to have organized religious meetings that took place in our small apartment, attended by women only, with guest speakers. If I passed through when such a meeting was in progress, I was called over by my grandmother, who insisted on showing all those present what she believed was the Arabic letter alif in the middle of my forehead, since she believed this was a sign that I was especially favored by God. We also accompanied her to a shrine to a holy man on the outskirts of Karachi on the road to the port. I think orthodox Islam frowns upon any prayers that smack of "saint worship," but these are in fact common, as ordinary believers seek to create and pray to mediators between themselves and the remote and rather forbidding God. We also, of course, attended the mosque, especially on Fridays and during religious festivals, always in the company of adults. My father took us to a public garden not far from our flat for a service attended by thousands of believers once a year at the end of the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. We were delighted to be with the adults, and we knew that at the end of the day the Eid presents would come from uncles, cousins, and family friends. (Eid is sometimes described rather inaccurately as the Muslim Christmas, but this description does correctly indicate the atmosphere of festivities, with exchange of Eid cards and gifts.)
I also have vivid memories of the various Muslim festivals, the religious significance of which, as children, we had no idea. There was Bakra Eid, held in memory of Abraham's offering of his son. Mainly goats and sheep are sacrificed, ritually slaughtered in the Muslim manner to render them halal (or kosher). Our servants carried out all these gruesome duties in the backyard of our apartment building, where the festering and stinking stomachs of the slaughtered beasts were left for months. The only other vivid memories I have related to Islam concern the Shiite festivals of Muharram. (We were Sunnis.) They were very disturbing but at the same time fascinating, since they involved colorful processions and bloody spectacles of self-flagellation, with chains, whips, and razor blades, as each participant tried to outdo his companion in the quantity of blood he could draw from his back or tongue.
We had a surprising amount of personal freedom and virtually had the run of the whole city, free to roam wherever we chose, even though we were only eight and nine years old. One of our first schools was not far from the Karachi Zoo, then called the Gandhi Gardens, and we often dawdled there, to see jackals or perhaps hyenas fighting each other in the cages, a bloody spectacle witnessed by crowds and crowds of people, or to gather tamarind from the tamarind trees on the grounds. More often we took the cycle rickshaws back, and to this day I remember that it cost eight annas to get to our flat in Lawrence Road, in the early 1950s still surprisingly carrying the name of a British official from the time of the Indian Mutiny, now called-I think-Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road. We had no television and for many years we did not even have a radio. Our pastimes were playing gilly-danda, a game where one tries to send a short stick (gilly), pointed at the both ends, as far as possible by hitting it with a longer one (danda); the game led us all over the city. Flying kites and engaging in aerial kite fights was also a national passion. Telegraph wires in Lawrence Road were entangled with colorful kites and their equally colorful tails, and their threads. Of course, the real national game was cricket, and I was besotted with it. Our school, unfortunately, did not have organized sports, and in fact I never played cricket properly until I arrived at my prep school in England, where I quickly became the school captain, as wicket-keeper-batsman. But I did collect photographs of cricketers, and, as cricket is a heaven-sent gift for those obsessed with statistics, I knew by heart the batting and bowling averages of the leading players. My father had many journalist friends who passed onto him original photographs of various test matches and cricketers; I cherished them like any schoolboy with a hobby.
We attended two schools before leaving Karachi for good. The classes were large and chaotic. The first of these is fixed in my memory thanks to a bizarre episode: A drunk man came into one of our classes and the headmaster tried to have the drunk thrown out, in the process ripping off the latter's shirt sleeve. The second, New Era High School, situated behind one of the major cinemas of Karachi, seemed more organized and discipline was greater. I remember that the mathematics I learned at the age of nine was several years ahead of what I learned in my English prep school. But all schools were poorly equipped and manned by unqualified teachers who had no clear guidelines about the curriculum. Hopes embodied in the name of the school-New Era-were not likely to be fulfilled, thought my father.
Thus, at the age of ten I was suddenly sent, with my brother, to an English preparatory school in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire. On the plane, the two of us were asked by another passenger-an adult-where we were going. He then asked us if we had enjoyed the duck that had been served during the in-flight meal. We did not know if we were permitted to eat duck-whether it was halal-and so had played it safe by refusing. My father, who was very fashion conscious and spent considerable time and money on his choice of clothes-he once stood, waiting for admiration, in the courtyard of our apartment block decked out in his latest purchase from the United States: a shirt with the front page of a newspaper printed on it-had dressed us in heavy, double-breasted, white silk suits (though in the streets of Karachi we hardly ever put on shoes and dressed very simply in shorts and shirts).
My father had picked the school, St. Michael's, from a number of prospectuses he had written off for. He was eager to get his sons out of Karachi, for he saw no future for us in Pakistan, and though he made fun of the British Empire he once told a friend that whatever their sins, the English at least "had an ethical way of doing things." As noted earlier, my father was not particularly religious, and I doubt many educated middle-class intellectuals like my father were either. He always feared that populist politicians would turn Pakistan into a theocracy, and he always felt uneasy about the political instability of Pakistan. Every time martial law was declared, riots, looting, and general violence resulted. The religious fervor of the masses made him apprehensive, as he had witnessed the massacres in the Gujarat in 1947; he always blamed religion for India's endemic violence. Lawlessness, political instability, and the threat of religious fanaticism convinced him to get his sons out of Pakistan, sending us to a country he had always admired from a distance.
We were met at the airport by a representative of St. Michael's named Mr. Cole; we noticed how very ruddy his cheeks were-something uncommon in Karachi. He took us to our hotel in one of the Regency terraces near Hyde Park. In the morning, after a night spent for the first time in a bed of my own, I was taken with the sight of milkmen putting out milk bottles on doorsteps. Mr. Cole came to see us after breakfast and took us for a walk in Hyde Park; he pointed to a pigeon and asked us if we knew what that was called in English. We replied, "Dove." We had never spoken English; we had learned it for a few years at school, but the language used for instruction was Urdu, not English. We belonged to a film club at a local cinema, the Nishat Cub Club, where all the films were in English, and many of the young members were English boys-sons of expats working as advisers or businessmen-who taught us the expression "Don't push" while waiting in a rather unruly queue.
From the parched streets of Karachi-a dirty, sprawling concrete nightmare that I recollect having left only once in my ten years, where I spoke only Urdu and Kutchi-I found myself in green Worcestershire, in the small market town of Tenbury and ivy-covered St. Michael's College itself, founded in 1856 by Sir Frederick Ouseley to "promise a course of training, and to form a model, for the daily choral services of the Church in these realms, and, for the furtherance of this object, to receive, educate and train boys in religious, secular and musical knowledge." It was a place so English that Sir John Betjeman himself, the laureate of Englishness, was enchanted, writing rapturously of it:
[T]he unique atmosphere of St. Michael's College, Tenbury. I shall never forget my first impression of the place. There was the climb up from the little market town of Tenbury whence some of the lay clerks make their twice daily journey to Mattins and Evensong to lend men's voices to the boys' choir, and there before me stretched an enormous common. In the far corner, in a land of blossoming orchards and backed by the blue distance of Clee Hill, rose a chapel, seemingly as large as Lancing. Attached to it were Warden's house, school buildings, cloister and dining hall, all in a style of the fourteenth century, re-interpreted in local materials for the nineteenth century by the genius of its architect, Henry Woodyer. After Evensong, where the music was equal to that of the best cathedral choirs, and a walk round the buildings in the quiet of a Worcestershire evening, I visited the large dormitory, which runs almost the whole length of a building parallel with the chapel. Here Christopher Hassall read his poem to the boys and held them spellbound as the stars shone through the narrow Gothic windows in the gabled roof ... The unique quality of St. Michael's persists.... It would be impossible for any boy not to be influenced by the morning and evening thanks to his Creator which he hears so perfectly sung in this tall chapel among the orchards of Worcestershire.
Excerpted from VIRGINS? WHAT VIRGINS? by IBN WARRAQ Copyright © 2010 by Ibn Warraq. Excerpted by permission.
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Ibn Warraq is the highly acclaimed author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, Virgins? What Virgins?, and Defending the West. He is also the editor of The Origins of the Koran, What the Koran Really Says, Leaving Islam, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and Which Koran?.
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