Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Hugh Miles and Islam

I recently finished reading Hugh Miles's new book Playing Cards in Cairo, which I've been thinking about using in an interdisciplinary survey of the Middle East I'll be teaching at Colgate. The book brings out a lot of the texture of life in Cairo today, and sets up good discussions of gender issues while exploring the seams of "Islamic" and "Western" culture. The "plot" of what I'm fairly sure is a true story also has a Sex in the City style to it that would probably keep students reading and provide a nice break from denser texts.

The book's glaring flaw, however, is that even though he converts to Islam at the end to marry an Egyptian Muslim, Hugh Miles apparently knows next to nothing about Islam. Throughout the book, he tends to treat it as a static lifestyle and set of beliefs rather than a tradition lived and interpreted over centuries, though he does get at different manifestations such as the television preachers, local shaykhs, and ubiquitous Qur'an reading. However, even at the moment of his conversion he apparently thinks that its teachings amount to obscure points related to ritual cleanliness and that the Qur'an is mainly a series of specific rules interspersed with war-mongering. There's a funny episode where he's afraid having his conversion questioned because the call to prayer occurs when he's waiting at al-Azhar and he doesn't know anything about Muslim prayers.

This isn't a major reason not to use it, as we will have already covered religion by the time I would use this, and I suspect undergraduates at an institution like Colgate are capable of questioning even without prodding whether someone who doesn't know how to pray is the best authority for Islamic faith and practice. There's also probably a case to be made that the Egyptian state generally sucks, and it's not surprising that members of its official state-governed religious establishment also suck. In any case, however, I couldn't help but note the odd gap in perception from someone with a good reputation for understanding the region. (There's a funny paragraph when he comments that other Muslim institutions think al-Azhar allows people to convert too easily; if the rest of the book had anything like the style, I'd say he was trying to subtly illustrate a point about his own total ignorance.)

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