Thursday, 31 July 2014

Day 2 - Key Thinkers on Space and Place

This is a thick book, and probably one I could never read in a day. Thankfully I had read about half prior and had a good idea of which thinkers I need to read.

It's a useful introduction to human geography (the discipline from which most the thinkers come from) as well as a philosophers, anthropologists, religious studies scholars and political theorists (oh, and a few economists).

For each other it provides a biography overview, key ideas, their unique contributions to space/place, and a list of key works. For someone, like me, who was trying to get an understanding of a field that wasn't his own  - it was incredibly useful.

It's also a good reference book - quite often a journal or another book will reference, in passing, someone's thoughts or ideas on a particular issue in the field. Naturally, wikipedia isn't of much help here and I'm not keen on spending time trying to find their key works to get a feel of what is being referred to - as such, a quick dip into Key Thinkers on Space and Place helped contextualise whatever I was reading.

I'd really recommend it for anyone doing qualitative social science research. The emphasis in qual research often ends up on the people, the words, the actions -divorced from the setting in which it takes place. This book is a reminder that such thinking is misleading. It means we imagine the world as a blank canvas upon which social interaction 'happens'. This unspoken theory means we imagine an action can happen here, or there, with few changes. The argument many of the theorists in this book put forward is that space/place is inextricably linked to social action and agency. Not only in influencing it, but being influenced by it.

We attribute, or perhaps inherit, meaning from places and spaces. We transform them and react to them. One theorist argues the importance of space/place is in that space, is by virtue, limited. One thing can be at one place at one time. Yet the meanings attributed to place are infinite.

The books only drawback, I felt, was its size and its diverse authors. Not every author had the same skill in summarising succinctly a theorisers work. Sometimes I would leave a section feeling an author had conveyed the ideas of a key thinker well, giving me a tangible new idea or theory to take away with me. Other times I completed a section feeling empty-handed, and no better informed on a thinkers ideas or contentions.

That said - great book and one worth reading if you're trying to get a grasp of the field, as I was.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Day 1 - Rhythmanalysis

Rhythmanalysis – Time and Everyday Life
By Henri Lefebvre
Published by Continuum, London: New York - 2004
Lefebvre is a Marxist scholar, one noted for his contributions to sociological understandings of space, the everyday and cities. 

The introduction to this work, by Stuart Elden, notes it is Lefebvre’s final publication prior to his death (he was born in 1901 and died in 1991), and unites much of his prior thinking. ‘Lefebvre shows the interrelation of understandings of space and time in the comprehension of everyday life’ and the importance that the two concepts of space and time ‘need to be thought together rather than separately’ (pg vii). Space-time is already a singular concept in certain (all?) strands of physics – Lefebvre’s argument, perhaps unwittingly, picks up on this.

The author spends sometime considering the nature of rhythm itself, with sometimes difficult prose that slips jarringly into the poetic. I wonder whether it works better in the original French? Lefebvre is one of many French philosophers whose impact in the social sciences is colossal – he takes his place alongside Bourdieu and Foucault. 

The author’s key arguments on rhythm is that they are a product of repitition, and measure, they are mechanical, yet organic. Rhythms can be cyclical (cosmic) or linear (the daily grind). They dominate our lives – from our biological to the social. True to his Marxist ontology, Lefebvre maintains: -
“The commodity prevails over everything. (Social) space and (social) time, doinated by exchanges, become the time and space of market... The everyday establishes itself, creating hourly demands, systems of transport, in short, its repetitive organisation” (Pg 6).

The most valuable chapter, I found, was his description of the street. He argues one cannot appreciate the rhythm of the street while walking down it (“He who walks down the street, over there, is immersed in the multiplicity of noises, murmurs, rhythms” Pg 28) but rather by being within and without, such as standing on the balcony of house on the street, one can take the necessary distance to view and appreciate the rhythm.
Lefebvre describes how the street’s rhythm cannot be viewed simply as random, but an indication of a wider and deeper structural origin. It is here that the transcendental can meet the mundane for the author. By understanding rhythm, you can understand more fully the object of study.

The author concludes with a summary of his terminology (in some cases, borrowed from biology). There is Eurhythmia, the natural rhythms of the human body in harmony (like ‘garland’ or a ‘bouquet’ writes Lefebvre in his distinctive style) and opposite that, Arrhythmia, where the rhythms conflict. There is also Isorhythmia, where several rhythms exist in equal measure.

Rhythmanalysis is a relatively old work, and I’m keen to see how others have built upon it. It’s been on my to-read list for some time. My research is on British Mosques, and the everyday religious life of an observant Muslim is absolutely linked to rhythms - some obvious, some not so obvious. I sense Lefebvre’s writing will have considerable utility for me.  

30 books, 30 days?

I'm entering the final year of my PhD. I'm on a tight schedule to finish in three years flat. I've decided to use this August, as far as possible, to catch up on some reading that fell by the wayside during my fieldwork year.

I have a lot of reading to get done this August however. Among other things, I want to use this month to cover some old ground. I did my undergraduate degree in religious studies, and I'm currently a PhD student in the religious studies department of Cardiff University - but over the past two years I feel I've lost my moorings somewhat. As my PhD employed a particularly social scientific approach, I've spent a lot of time trying to play catch up in sociology (or anthropology... still trying to work out what the difference is to be honest). So this month, I'll be picking up some intro texts to religious studies to make sure I know my basics.

Also, I really want to make sure I make the most of the next year - my final PhD year and, provided I do things right, my final year as a student. So also on my reading list are books on writing and completing my PhD.

The crux of this blog post however? I'm going to try and read 30 books in 30 days. I'm not a bad speed reader, and I think I've developed an ability to pick up and read the most important parts of a book while skipping the non-essential (to me) parts.So each day for the next 30 days, I'll publish a blog post summarising the book I read that day.

I'm hoping that by committing myself (publicly) to reading and publishing - I'll manage to keep up the pace needed. On top of that - I'm a believer in the importance of writing as much as I read, and it's always nice to have someone read what you've written.

My reading list as it stands is below, I welcome any additions however.

1. Guide to the Study of Religion - Ed Willi Braun and Russel T McCutcheon
2. Authoring a PhD -Patrick Dunleavy
3. Critical Terms for Religious Studies - Ed Mark C Taylor
4. The Arts Good Study Guide - Chambers and Northedge
5. Approaches to the Study of Religon - Ed Peter Connolly
6. Stylish Academic Writing - Sword
7. Introduction to the Sociology of Religion - Furseth and Repstad
8. Key Thinkers on Space and Place Ed Hubbard, Kitchin and Valentine
9. Rhythmanalysis by H Lefevrbe

I welcome any suggestions on further reading. My PhD is rooted in religious studies and the social sciences, with a focus on British Muslim studies - but I'm open to reading outside of that particular field if it will be useful.

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Monday, 3 December 2012

Soft Carpets - am I the only one?

You know that feeling when you hear nails on a blackboard, or a fork against a plate, that sound that goes 'right through' you?

Well I get that with soft carpets. Any soft material really. I can barely stand to touch fleece. Woolen jumpers too.

This isn't much of a problem. I just don't wear fleeces, avoid wool and generally all is well. Except in one scenario. Soft carpets.

Soft carpets give me no choice about where I put my feet. The desi etiquette of not wearing shoes in the house mean I'm often forced to feel soft carpets or be unforgivably impolite and keep my shoes on. But again, I don't spend that much time in other people's homes so it is a minor inconvenience at most.

But by far the biggest problem is the Muslim pre-occupation with soft materials for places of worship.

As a child, erroneously convinced that prayer could only be made on a prayer mat (almost all of which use some soft velvet type material) I avoided prayer simply because I didn't want to touch the prayer mat. Once my parents finally understood this, my mother very kindly brought me a cotton prayer mat (one I still use to this day even though I've outgrown it by a few feet).

So again, I've found strategies to deal with soft prayer mats and all is well.

Except for mosques. Mosques insist on soft prayer mats as some bizarre indication of the importance of prayer or something. And generous donors who provide mosques with luxurious, deeply woven, soft, carpets mean any mosque (even the humble 'house mosque') can install them.

I can't explain how much anguish this causes me. Not all mosques have them, some have a thinner, coarser, material that provides no problem.

But the majority of mosques have soft carpets.

This means I often have to mentally prepare myself before going to a mosque. During Ramadan, when I expect to spend more time in a mosque, I usually wear leather socks that shield me from directly touching the carpet (although I still have to ensure I only 'lightly' touch it with my hands).

In 24 years however, I have never found another person with the same problem.

I need a support group. Moral encouragement. Something. Anything.

Has anyone else had the same problem but overcome it?


Monday, 27 August 2012

Citizen Khan: A Step Backwards

 The BBC recently aired its latest sitcom, Citizen Khan, centered around the exploits of Mr Khan, a Birmingham based Pakistani Muslim ‘community leader’. I’ve seen snippets of the character (played by Adil Ray) in sketches and comedy shorts available online, as such I didn’t have high expectations for the show.

Having seen the first episode, many of my fears have been realised. The show is at best an unfunny, dated comedy. At worst, it propagates dangerous and divisive narratives about Muslim and migrant communities in the UK.

To get a sense of why I find Citizen Khan problematic, its best to begin with sub-culture comedy in the mainstream done best. The fantastic Goodness Gracious Me.

The acclaimed ‘Going Out For an English’ skit, voted as one of the greatest comedy sketches in history, is not only funny but challenging and subversive. The sketch holds up a mirror to society. It reminds the viewer racism is not about the colour of skin but about power (or lack thereof) and privilege. It says something about the world we live in, and is also a catalyst for change – comedy genius in the truest sense.

Compare this to the comedy in Citizen Khan. What narratives and ideas does it propagate? The main character is a greedy and stingy (a recycled anti-semitic stereotype often applied to the British Asians). The mother is more concerned with ‘shame’ than the well-being of her children, an unfounded but oft-repeated generalisation of British South Asians. The youngest daughter lives a double-life, religious on the exterior but literally unveiling out of sight of her parents to reveal her ‘true’ self. This one character reinforces the notion that all Muslim women who veil to do, to some extent, against their own will.

The only straight-man in the show is a white British convert to Islam. This may appear as an innocent foil to Mr Khan’s quirks, but it is also a statement that British Muslims are ultimately so different that a British white man is the only way to bridge that gap.

Goodness Gracious Me constantly reminded the viewer of the difficulty of negotiating identity for British Asians. Whether the ‘everything is Indian’ sketch, or the repeated attempts of the Coopers to assimilate wholesale in a perception of middle-class British culture or the tensions in cross-generational understanding of faith, the show never provided a simple answer. It recognised that identity is fluid, changing, individual and most importantly, multi-layered.

Compare once again to Citizen Khan. There is no subtlety here. He is Pakistani, he adorns his car and home with Pakistani flags, and refers to himself on numerous occasions as Pakistani. It repeats the right-wing assertion that migrant communities refuse to integrate, hold their allegiance to foreign countries and are never more than transient visitors to Britain. As the comedy is focused on Muslims, this assertion is even more out of context considering the majority of British Muslims were born in the UK.

One positive of the show is that it avoided the terrorist stereotypes (although Chris Morris proved that this too can be tackled with comedy). 

Yet with such great British Muslim comedians out there such as Hamza Arshad and Imran Khan, it’s disheartening to see comedy take such a step back with Citizen Khan.

NB: Please take the time to visit On Religion - a new magazine (hard copy and online) on faith, religion and society.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Lost Art of Storytelling

First things first, Ramadan Mubarak!

Ramadan is a month of many things - fasting, charity, prayer and more. It is a month of forgiveness, change and reflection. It's also a month of stories.

After a long day of fasting and the refreshing and thirst-quenching iftaar meal; Muslims the world over prepare to go to the evening prayers at the mosque. Following the regular Isha prayer, an extra set of congregational prayers follow.

At some mosques, these prayers will - throughout Ramadan - complete a recitation of the whole Quran. Others will choose specific verses on a particular theme to recite. The Quran is full of many things, and stories are abundant. The stories of Prophets, of the pious and villainous, of past nations and forgotten histories.

For an hour, sometimes more, believers lose themselves in remembrance of God through these stories. I feel justified therefore to call Ramadan a month of stories.

Which takes me to the topic of this post.

Now, a lot of the following is based on second hand knowledge. As I understand, many channels in the Middle East produce high-budget TV shows for Ramadan - as it is a prime viewing month. Often these have a religious theme, sometimes based around the Seerah (life of the Prophet) and subsequent companions. If you've ever watched The Message, you'll get a feel for the genre of historic epic these shows fall into. Controversially, the latest high budget show is based on Omar ibn al-Khattab. This is controversial as Omar ibn al-Khattab is one of the closest companions of the Prophet, and Islam being an aniconistic tradition has objections with the pictoral representation of religious leaders. The notion of actors portraying these key figures has also generally fallen into the same taboo. Nonetheless, the new series on Omar ibn al-Khattab has had approval from a number of eminent scholars whose integrity and knowledge is beyond question.

My gripe is not with the validity of representing key figures, but with the debasement of storytelling.

I am disappointed that storytelling has devolved into something that has so much emphasis on the visual. There is absolutely no substitute, in my opinion, of the power of the oral story. It can be told by a single person but its possibilites are many as each listener receives, understands and transforms it with their imagination into something unique and deeply personal.

This isn't to say Hollywood blockbusters with huge budgets that deliver the visual image to the viewer directly are without merit. They're enjoyable, fun, and an art form.

However, the wisdom of not representing the Prophets and their companions visually in my opinion is to allow the individual to form a direct (spiritual) relationship with the individual. As a child, being told stories of the Prophet Muhammad formed my impression of him. It created within a desire to know him more, to know him better. I can never imagine his face, I couldn't begin to. But I know his character, his speech, his behaviour. I know that if I were to meet him one day, he would greet me with both hands and a warm embrace. He would give me his attention fully, a bright smile on his face and an eagerness to talk to me. I know this because this was how every person who had met him described their meeting with the Prophet.

God forbid one day a TV channel decides to cast an actor for the role the Prophet, and my kids grow up imagining the face and mannerisms of a thespian instead of knowing the Prophet through his character.

There is a flip side of course - television series and movies allow the story of Islam and the life of Prophet and other key Muslims to reach a wider audience. Clearly, this is true.

But is there only one way to create a television series or movie? The Message showed that it could be done differently. It wasn't without its faults, but it tried to develop a new storytelling technique.

Great movies with good stories do not need big budgets. The most gripping movie I've ever seen is called The Man From Earth. Pretty much the whole movie is set in a living room with a handful of actors. Yet the story it tells is immense, and it tells the story in such a way that the imagination is allowed to run wild. The story spans aeons and is epic in its breadth. I would in fact recommend you download it online and watch (completely legally, the director of the movie welcomed it being spread online).

During my undergraduate days, while in the Islamic Society on campus, we decided to tell the biography of the Prophet Muhammad as part of Islam Awareness Week. With the guidance of a visionary director and an amazingly talented stage director, the ISoc put on a two hour play based on the Prophethood of Muhammad. And yes of course, not a single actor portrayed the Prophet or a companion of the Prophet, yet the story was still told and told well. It is possible.

With a bit of consideration and thought, and a whole lot of creativity, I truly believe that the stories Muslims hold dear can be told while still respecting the sacredness of the figures we esteem.

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Value of Art

I'm currently knee-deep in reading for my PhD literature review. Most of the time the words pass by me, but now and again I come across a sentiment so profound I have to share it.

The below are the words of Tim Winter, also known as Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, of Cambridge University.

He speaks about the sociological emphasis put upon the theological reality of what it means to be a Muslim, but in doing so, shared the following thought: -

"[Some argue that] Beauty must wait; because da'wah, the Mission, is more urgent. An odd logic to premodern believers, who assumed that every summons to the Real must be beautiful, and that nothing transforms a society or an individual soul more deeply than a great work of art, a building, a poem, or the serenity of a saint."

Unfortunately is has become a common belief amongst some Muslims that the sciences are of value, important and to be treasured, but study of the arts (of any form) is useless, pointless and not ilm an-nafia or beneficial knowledge.

A trend to be seen in contemporary da'wah too, where heavy emphasis is laid upon the 'scientific proof' and 'rational arguments' but little such consideration is given to the importance of beauty in calling to The Most Beautiful.

In general, I think Muslims would do well to remember the priorities of the 'premodern believers'.