Wednesday, August 31, 2011


James Shapiro's Contested Will proved to be an easy, fascinating read. And it's made me spend the day thinking of how easily we can be mistaken about things we regard ourselves as being experts in. And how difficult we find it to admit to our mistakes. Indeed, how fundamentally impossible this is when we know we are right, even when we're wrong.

Scary. Very.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Still Going

Hari Raya Puasa, Eid ul-Fitr; 1 Syawal 1432

Attended prayers with Fuad, Yasser and Ayiem at the small mesjid down the road this morning. Then managed a few visits, including one to the cemetery next to the mesjid. Now we're preparing to make our way south as it's work tomorrow. It's all go and I feel almost all gone!


Back safely, after a melancholy drive through rain, the evening light fading to black. Actually missing fasting, or rather the joy of breaking the fast. Never mind - tomorrow I shall have a cup of tea after teaching my first lesson and all shall be well, isha'allah.

Monday, August 29, 2011


29 Ramadhan 1432

Resurrection ends with yet another moment of startling insight for Nekhlyudov, and a promise of more to come: How this new chapter of his life will end, the future will show. Tolstoy didn't make good on this particular promise, but it's the perfect ending as we sense that this is what Nekhlyudov/Tolstoy will keep doing for the rest of his life - discovering answers that call into question the whole of his existence, and then find out that as answers they are inadequate to the complexity of the human condition. Isn't this just what Pierre does, and Levin?

The final sections of the novel were superb, by the way; they have an almost hallucinogenic power rare in Tolstoy - much more like something out of Dostoyevsky.

And as Ramadhan comes to a close I'm reminded of the fact that it represents the possibility of a new beginning, but one grounded in the practicalities of life moving on in largely the same old way. You change, but gradually, imperceptibly. And when you stop changing I guess that's a sign things have pretty much come to an end for you.

It must be strange to arrive.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


28 Ramadhan 1432

One day left, said someone as we were breaking the fast today, and I was childishly pleased to note that I wasn't the only one counting down the days. But even as this month of fasting draws to its inevitable close I'm aware, given God's mercy, we'll have this all to do again in the not-so-distant future, and repeating it will lead to rediscovering what will have been easily forgotten by that time - and needful of remembering.

We are forgetful as a species. Sometimes this is a blessing. And sometimes you read something like Tolstoy's Resurrection which alerts you to the catastrophic dangers of being forgetful of others. Being born again sometimes requires only a mindfulness of others' suffering, which changes everything.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Something Different

27 Ramadhan 1432

We headed north today, to prepare to celebrate Eid with family in Melaka. I should find the peace and quiet I need here to complete my Ramadhan reading and move on.

It was quite a relief to turn to Karen Armstrong's Muhammad - A Western Attempt To Understand Islam after dealing with the gratuitous misunderstandings of any kind of religious sensibility in The God Delusion. Yet an agnostic reading of the Prophet's life (peace be upon him) is not difficult to sustain from the writer's treatment of her material. She manages this without upsetting a Muslim readership (the book is frequently made available in bookshops catering to a Muslim readership) simply by treating her subject with understanding, sympathy and admiration. I'm baffled by anyone unable to bring these qualities to the subject, since this man's life would seem to demand such a response from any sensible reader, but it is nonetheless a relief to actually find them, since they are so obviously missing from so many whom you would have thought should know otherwise.

Ms Armstrong is supremely good at dealing with the religious experience of others in the context from which it emerges. She avoids importing judgements from the outside, or other alien sensibilities. A simple example: it's remarkable how the Prophet's success in Medinah manages to upset so many of his less sympathetic biographers. It's as if the sign of a true mission must be some kind of failure in this world. So the Messenger's stunning success, an indication to Muslims of his authenticity, is taken as quite the opposite, a compromising of himself and the Message.

What is fascinating to this biographer, and this blogger, is the way success was achieved in this world through an application of the essentials of the Message. It is as if we have a religion that is of this world, and triumphantly so. Whatever else, it seems to me that what took place in Arabia just over fourteen hundred years ago was something quite extraordinary in human history and worth our close attention if only for that reason.

Friday, August 26, 2011


26 Ramadhan 1432

Lighting up the holy month.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Holding It In

25 Ramadhan 1432

I was quite angry about something today - except, of course, I couldn't actually be angry for that would have breaking the fast. So I repressed the anger, consciously, deliberately and, surprisingly, successfully. Now according to the dominant psychological models of our age such repression should have resulted in problems for me somewhere. But, as far as I can tell, this didn't happen. In fact, I now feel pretty good about the whole thing, and my sense of anger seems childishly petty.

Islamic models of the mind are deeply unfashionable yet remarkably efficacious.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In Appreciation

24 Ramadhan 1432

The transcendent wonder of a nice cup of tea after three and a half hours of teaching only truly reveals itself when you can't have one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lower Depths

23 Ramadhan 1432

Moving into the second half of Tolstoy's Resurrection. Astonishingly different from the big earlier novels. Sometimes an almost Dostoyevskian quality, largely a result of the focus on the lower orders of Russian society. Though only Tolstoy could have done Nekhlyudov - a lacerating self-portrait.

It's remarkable how those nineteenth century coves attempted fictions that genuinely encompassed the whole of their societies. Can't think of anyone with that range today, not offhand anyway.

Seeing things from below alters everything.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking The Fast

22 Ramadhan 1432

I broke another kind of fast yesterday by buying my first books of this year. To be more precise, I got them using the book tokens I'm given for doing my now annual workshop at the Literature Seminar organised by the Ministry of Education. This year there was a cut-back in the value of said book tokens and I was quite glad of this as I have no great desire to add more books to my over-flowing shelves. (The plan is still to get some sort of e-reader device once I complete the un-read tomes, of which there are still a fair few - with four more now added.) I gave half the tokens to Fifi and Fafa, to match the amount they usually get, so now they are possessed of even more fictive vampires, teenage angst and Nancy Drew mysteries.

My four purchases, in no particular order, were: Richard Wigmore's Faber Pocket Guide - Haydn; The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins; James Shapiro's Contested Will - Who Wrote Shakespeare?; and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me - forty new Fairy Tales edited by Kate Bernheimer. The last of these I got based on a recommendation by Trebuchet (if I remember rightly), and also influenced by the fact it's got some intriguing names amongst the assmbled writers. I've been looking for a copy for a little while, and it's been a similar story regarding the little Haydn book. I'm not entirely sure why or how but Haydn has come to mean more to me than almost any other composer. When I bung anything by the great man on the turntable it always feels right somehow, but I know next to nothing regarding what the cognoscenti have to say about him, so now I'm going to find out.

The Shapiro was a no-brainer after his 1599, and having read some glowing reviews. And I thought I'd read some of Dawkins doing what he does well to compensate for ploughing through what he does not-so-well. But that's a bit unfair. I didn't really plough through The God Delusion, finding it quite easy to read - but it did irritate due to its limitations. In fact, I've been avoiding picking holes in it since it seems so petty to do so. I'm hoping for something illuminating based on the prof's genuine sense of wonder rather than the dully polemical stuff he sometimes gets bogged down in.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Still Counting

21 Ramadhan 1432

We're over the two-thirds mark of the fast, nearly at the point when I start saying to myself: This is the last Monday of fasting; and tomorrow will be the last Tuesday - though not there yet. The reason why I keep such comments to myself is that they're so childish. I suspect, in fact I know, that they never occur to Noi who generally and sensibly loses count of where we're up to.

My only excuse is that I never did this as a kid, so the kid in me is doing it now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Weighty Matters

20 Ramadhan 1432

I generally shed a couple or more kilos in the fasting month. Usually these make their departure in the final third of the month, the bit we are about to enter. Why the kgs disappear has always been a bit of a mystery as I eat extremely well in the evening, possibly consuming more per day than is my usual fare.

Last year, for some reason, I didn't put the lost weight back on as I have always done before - generally after a month of Raya biscuiting and the like. And it's kept off all year, leaving me a kilo or so below what I would regard as my fighting weight. This didn't seem of any great concern to me, except to wonder what would happen if I were to lose more kilos fasting. That hasn't happened yet, which I'm quite pleased about since in the last three weeks three people on different occasions have told me I've lost weight in the sort of voices that suggest they are not paying me a compliment.

Happily I feel as healthy if not healthier than ever, but I don't think I can afford to look any more raddled than I am already, otherwise the concern of others might become a bit overwhelming. On the up side, I seem to have discovered the secret of eating as much as you might want to and actually shedding the kgs and I suppose it might be worth writing one of those diet books if I could only figure out how exactly I'm doing it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Still Packed

19 Ramadhan 1432

My local mosque remains packed to the rafters in this holiest of months. Cause for celebration, but somewhat stress-inducing if you arrive on the wrong side of the azan. Last week I wandered through the lines like a lost soul before discovering, to great relief, a little alcove off the main body of the hall where there was actually some room left.

This week I arrived in good time and found a good spot and all was well, except for the fact I came dangerously close to nodding off as prayers proceeded. There's such a thing as being too relaxed, you know.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Speaking Sincerely

18 Ramadhan 1432

Of all the states of presumed virtue, that of sincerity is the most absurdly over-rated. A deep wariness with regard to those who mean what they say always comes in handy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All That Useless Beauty

17 Ramadhan 1432

I've been thinking today of Steve Reich's beautiful music, from the Prom I listened to last night. And I've been meditating on the hadith: God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.

It's been a good day. How could it have been otherwise?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Point

16 Ramadhan 1432

It's simple to the point of the stunningly obvious, but you need to experience it to grasp the point, to let the point penetrate. After struggle comes release, fulfilment. Without struggle there is, strangely, no point. The struggle points to a meaning beyond itself.

And another, possibly related point: now listening to Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint from a recent Prom concert featuring the music of the great minimalist (though he doesn't care for the term.) Stunningly, intensely, pointlessly beautiful.

Monday, August 15, 2011


15 Ramadhan 1432

There is rejoicing in our little corner of the universe this evening. First of all, the routine celebration of breaking the fast - which is never quite routine because it's just so wonderful to enjoy God's plenty again. What a gift! (Plus, it's fish & chips tonight!)

And then there's the joy of switching on the tv for coverage of the footie after the long abstinence of last season. I'm not going to recap the reasons behind my time of denial, or explain why I finally caved in to the forces of Capitalism. Suffice to say, I'm confident the powers that be registered the depth of my protest, and equally confident we've a great season ahead of us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Quality Of Mercy

14 Ramadhan 1432

It's been a sombre few days. We've attended two funeral wakes since Monday - one for Miruna's mum and today for Siew Mei's dad. A timely reminder of ultimate realities.

So I feel almost guilty in relishing the latest good, indeed excellent, news about my Mum. John and Maureen report that on their most recent visit she was in the best form since being admitted to hospital last year. She's out-eating all the other residents of the nursing home - in fact, it seems she's not above stealing any food that takes her fancy. She's watching television again, which is remarkable considering she showed no interest whatsoever in all the time we were with her back in December. And she was conversing quite reasonably throughout their visit, although she couldn't remember eating dinner.

So it would appear that now she's got the company of others, is eating nutritious food and is monitored over her medicine, she's actually making progress. Our narrative regarding her is having to be re-written. Now we're all aware this could be, is most likely, a temporary phenomenon and tomorrow things might look very different and a lot more bleak. But we're very happy indeed to gratefully accept whatever mercies time affords.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Old Territory

13 Ramadhan 1432

Just back from our old stomping grounds at Geylang Serai with Fuad, Rozita, Fifi & Fafa. Difficult to find parking, unreasonably crowded, distinctly overheated, noisy, life-threatening when crossing roads or facing on-coming baby carriages. A fine time was had by all.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Reading On

12 Ramadhan 1432

The reading I planned for the month is going slowly, but at least it's going. I'm taking my time over Karen Armstrong's biography of the Prophet (peace be upon him) since I read it very quickly and enthusiastically the first time and tended to neglect the finer details as a result. On the fiction front I'm engrossed in Tolstoy's Resurrection. Again a re-reading, but it's been a long time since I first read it - the paperback I've got dates back to 1974. I think I read it soon after finishing my first ever reading of War and Peace, but I'm not completely sure of this. As a teenager I recognised the odd intensity and stripped-back quality of the narrative, in contrast to the great early novels, but I remember thinking that Tolstoy as out and out moralist still had plenty to offer. Now, many years later, I'm feeling the same thing.

It's illuminating reading something from a very different religious tradition at this time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Sense Of Drama

11 Ramadhan 1432

One of the features of the holy month in this household is the way the television is given over to a number of Malay dramas especially put together for Ramadhan. The missus enjoys these greatly, and so do I by a mysterious kind of osmosis. Little parables of hope and redemption and we all need some of that.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


10 Ramadhan 1432

We're now a whole third of the way through the fasting! But who's counting? Well me, obviously, which is more than a bit childish and sort of sad really.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fundamentally Flawed

9 Ramadhan 1432

That there is a huge problem underlying the arguments in The God Delusion is admitted by Dawkins in the preface to the paperback edition. He terms it, referring to criticisms he faced regarding the first edition, the great 'straw man' offensive and, sadly, he's right, though he tells us that those he is attempting to criticise are too dangerous to be straw men (chaps like the egregious Pat Robertson and the even more egregious Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini) and that the vast majority of believers around the world essentially think in such terms. How he knows what that vast majority believe and how they believe it is never made quite clear, but he's very good at sneering at them so presumably this gives him some rare form of scientific insight based on instinct rather than empirical data.

Now the problem is that even if one were to accept the prof's arguments in these terms, his many fans seem to think he has produced knock-down arguments regarding the very folk he clearly states he is not taking issue with. Just a quick example from one of the blurbs quoted on the inside page of my edition: The God Delusion is a good, strong argumentative challenge to any thoughtful believer with the courage to read it with care and try to dispute it. Well, no it isn't in its own terms because it simply doesn't address 'thoughtful believers'. The prof with admirable honesty tells us, regarding the theology of unexceptionable coves as Tillich and Bonhoeffer: If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place, and I would have written a different book. Then he tells us this kind of religion is numerically negligible.

So I'm not reading a book that in any real sense deals with my understanding of religious belief or that of any 'thoughtful believer'. And the bigger problem is that I don't think that Dawkins's view of the key features of religious thought actually apply to most of the people of various faiths I've known in my life. He appears to look down on 'ordinary' believers with the scorn that only the truly clever and even more obtuse can muster. Yet I knew as a young teenager that the religious beliefs of, say, my Auntie Norah, a devout Catholic in the simplest sense, were actually a lot more complex and 'thoughtful' than the obvious dogmas of her faith (a truth that applied to every working class Catholic I knew, and there were a lot of them.)

Don't make the mistake of assuming that people who don't sound much like they can think aren't full of thought.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Sense of Wonder

8 Ramadhan 1432

It's a funny thing but there's something about Prof Dawkins I find very likable, despite the fact that he's obviously a very irritating and irritable chap. I remember seeing one of his televised lectures and responding to his abundant enthusiasm for the biological marvels around us and his ability to convey a sense of just how marvellous those marvels are.

By far the best bits of The God Delusion deal with precisely those areas and they often shine. It's a pity they are just bits though.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Another Long Week

7 Maghrib 1432

Completed Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers yesterday. Ironically I'd been labouring over it for a month. There's some good writing - a wondeful description of the various fish to be found in the river early on the journey promised wonders to come - but quite a bit of tedious stuff - a section on friendship lost me completely and I wasn't overly keen to concentrate enough to find out what Henry David was chundering on about. Originally I thought I'd get the book finished before fasting month, but that was not to be. Then I thought of abandoning it for a while, but realised I'd not have the momentum to ever pick it up again if I did so. And, curiously, I'm still keen to move on to Walden next month - I'm guessing it'll be more fish than philosophy.

Also about to finish Dawkins's The God Delusion this evening. I cheated a bit here, having started it before fasting month. Much better than the Hitchens's offering on the same lines, but can't say it had a dramatic impact on me intellectually since I reckon I'd thought through most of the issues raised when I was in my teens. In fact, it struck me as an excellent book for inquiring teenagers, assuming they realise, as I'm pretty sure most would, that the strength of argument varies wildly in quality.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Long Week

6 Maghrib 1432

Actually it's not been a full week since fasting began, but it's certainly felt like one. And that's a good thing. The sensation of time slowing is familiar, and welcome. I always seem to have a lot more minutes on my hands during Ramadhan. The hour leading to Maghrib is invariably snail-like in its progression (and I'm talking an elderly snail here, not the youthful variety brimming with the snail equivalent of vim) and then the period afterwards, when one is free to eat and drink as one pleases, takes on a life of its own, like a day within the day.

To some degree I've been dealing with a double whammy this week. Unusually fasting began on a Monday of a full week of work, which meant having to deal with its rigours in the workplace immediately. And then I had to deal with the wall I always hit following the conclusion of a production. The strangely manic energy one is blessed with in the final intense rehearsals dissipates, taking along with it all one's normal reserves But it's quite straightforward dealing with the sensation of running on empty: you just keep going, with the odd nap here and there to remind you there's precious little to keep going with.

Friday, August 5, 2011


5 Ramadhan 1432

Got to prayers at the mosque at Clementi today a good five minutes before the azan, and the place was already packed. The queue for taking the ablution was in itself pretty daunting and after negotiating that I was lucky enough to find a place on the concrete with a prayer mat in front of me.

It's an extraordinary restful feeling to find a spot amid the multitude and know that you can do the necessary without disturbance. Paradoxically I often feel genuinely alone and somehow accountable in the crowd at prayers. Yet there's a powerful sense of community when all respond as one, and move as one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Slow Time

4 Ramadhan 1432

Useful advice for anyone fasting: keep yourself busy. As long as I'm teaching, meeting students or the like, the time passes effortlessly. As soon as I stop, the monkey mind kicks in thinking, Now's just the time for the cup that cheers, to wash away the strain of it all. Doh!

Such moments will pass though, as the body tunes itself to the reality of the fast, at least I'm hoping so based on past experience. But that was then and this is now. Times change, even when they stay the same.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Question Of Will

3 Ramadhan 1432

Last year someone, a non-Muslim friend, said to me, apropos of the fasting I was undergoing, You have great will power. I understood why they said this, but was also aware that it wasn't really true, not in this situation anyway.

The experience of fasting doesn't seem to be about individual will. After all, there's nothing the individual actually does. Fasting entails becoming part of something else that goes beyond volition. You're part of something a lot bigger than yourself - on a simple level a body of millions of sisters and brothers, some mere children, engaged in the same exercise. It's true that you must have intention - without the niat the fasting is invalid anyway - but it curiously doesn't seem to be personal intention in the usual sense.

I remember the first time I ever fasted thinking, I've never done, never experienced anything remotely like this before. What was true then remains so in quite a different fashion.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On The Way

2 Ramadhan 1432

On one level the fast is an exercise in defamiliarisation, and a powerful one at that. A day at work when you can't grab a snack or a quick cup of tea is a radically different, less comfortable beast than the one with which one is on such friendly terms. But it has subtle qualities that are worth encountering.

It's like being taken to a different place without switching location. Or seeing where you are through new eyes.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Just The Start

1 Ramadhan 1432

I'd forgotten how tough fasting can be. Remembering is jarring, refreshing, enlightening.

The mercy of being able to do it all again is cause for great celebration in our little corner of the Hall.