u Notes from the Underground: May 2006

No god but God

Monday, May 29, 2006

That is the name of the book I'm currently reading, and it is subtitled "The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam" (Amazon link). I am through some 100 pages, and it has been a revelatory and exhilaratingly easy read upto now. It never entered my mind that it might be available in India, and it was almost by accident that I saw this book in Walden, the bookshop right next to my office, during my weekly browsing. Finding this book made me happy enough to buy Hinduism, by Kshiti Mohan Sen, a book I'd been thinking of buying but was somewhat reluctant to buy (I'll come to that later hopefully).

The one thing that was again driven home to me in my reading thus far is how insignificant scriptures are when compared to the people who actually interpret them. No matter what the scriptures say, the "real" religion is determined by the exegetes. The interpreters themselves are, ofcourse, motivated by their own material incentives.

Let me explain through a series of excerpts from the book:
Perhaps nowhere was [Prophet] Muhammad's struggle for economic redistribution and social egalitarianims more evident than in the rights and privileges he bestowed upon the women in his community. Beginning with the unbiblical conviction that men and women were created together and simultaneously from a single cell (4:1, 7:189), the Quran goes to great lengths to emphasize the equality of the sexes in the eyes of God:

God offers forgiveness and a great reward,
For men who surrender to Him, and women who surrender to Him,
For men who believe, and women who believe,
For men who obey, and women who obey,
For men who speak the truth, and women who speak the truth,
For men who persevere, and women who persevere,
For men who are humble, and women who are humble,
For men who give alms, and women who give alms,
For men who fast, and women who fast,
For men who are modest, and women who are modest,
For men who remember God, and women who remember God.(33:35)

At the same time, the Quran acknoweledges that men and women have distinct and separate roles in society; it would have been preposterous to claim otherwise in seventh-century Arabia. Thus, "men are to take care of women, because God has given them greater strength, and because men use their wealth to provide for them" (4:34).

With a few notable exceptions (like Khadija [Muhammad's wife]), women in pre-Islamic Arabia could neither own property nor inherit it from their husbands. Actually, a wife was herself considered property, and both she and her dowry would be inherited by the male heir of her deceased husband.

However, Muhammad - who had benefited greatly from the wealth and stability provided by Khadija - strove to give women the opportunity to attain some level of equality and idnependence in society by amending Arabia's traditional marriage and inheritance laws in order to remove the obstacles that prohibited women from inheriting and maintaining their own wealth. While the exact changes Muhammad made to this tradition are far too complex to discuss in detail here, it is sufficient to note that women in the Ummah [the first Islamic community Muhammad founded in Medina] were, for the first time, given the right both to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep their dowries as their own personal property throughout their marriage. Muhammad also forbade a husband to touch his wife's dowry, forcing him instead to provide for his family from his own wealth. [..]

The chapter goes on in this vein, explaining the reforms Muhammad instituted in his drive for a more equal and just community. Judged in the context of the society Muhammad was born into, the reforms he was calling for were nothing short of revolutionary.
[..], Muhammad clearly accepted polygyny (within limits) as necessary for the survival of the Ummah, especially after the war resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who had to be provided for and protected by the community. "Marry those women who are lawful who are you, up to two, three, or four," the Quran states, "but only if you can treat them all equally (4:3; emphasis added). On the other hand, the Quran makes it clear that monogamy is the preferred model of marriage when it asserts that "no matter how you try, you will never be able to treat your wives equally (4:129; again, emphasis added). [..] Essentially, while the individual believer was to strive for monogamy, the community that Muhammad was trying to build in Yathrib would have been doomed without polygyny.

And yet, how was the Quran interpreted, in the years after Muhammad's death?
It would be no exaggeration, therefore, to say that quite soon after Muhammad's death, those men who took upon themselves the task of interpreting God's will in the Quran - men who were, coincidentally, among the most powerful and wealthy members of the Ummah - were not nearly as concerned with the accuracy of their reports or the objectivity of their exegesis as they were with regaining the financial and social dominance that the Prophet's reforms had taken from them. [..]

Thus, when the Quran warned believers not to "pass on your wealth and property to the feeble-minded(sufaha)," the early Quranic commentators - all of them male - declared, despite the Quran's warnings on the subject, that " the sufaha are women and children .. and both of them must be excluded from inheritance(emphasis added).

When a wealthy and notable merchant from Basra named Abu Bakra claimed, twenty-five years after Muhammad's death, that he once heard the Prophet say "Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity," his authority as a Companion was unquestioned.


And finally, when the celebrated Quranic commentatory Fakhr ad Din ar-Razi interpreted the verse "[God] created spouses for you of your own kind so that you may have peace of mind through them" (30:21) as "proof that women were created like animals and plants and other useful things [and not for] worship and carrying the Divine commands ... because the woman is weak, silly, and in one sense like a child," his commentary became (and still is) one of the most widely respected in the Muslim world.

The fact is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. And because each one of these exegetes inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation.

Ponder on that for a few moments as I rest my knuckles.

[Now its time for some Randian rhetoric.]

However, one cannot always blame vested interests for institutionalised oppression such as this. The explanation that one group oppressed because it could derive benefit out of it is true, but insufficient. The bigger factor is the unquestioning believer, he who considers tradition superior to reason, and who is obedient to authority figures, because God is the ultimate authority figure and he fears God. All institutions that have authority as their core element - authority that is "legitimate" because they've been elected by people, or legitimate because it is "granted by God" - will result in oppression, unless that authority is constantly countervailed by skepticism and cultural norms that emphasize the individual's rights and responsibility to fashion one's own morality and life.

On to more pleasing affairs..

Saturday, May 13, 2006

David Friedman is rapidly becoming one of my favourite thinkers. He is probably most famous as the author of The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, a book which laid out how we might get to a society without government as we know it today and which I am dying to lay my hands on. (See my wishlist, which I've put in the sidebar too.) The first part of his book starts with a poem, the whole of which I'll shamelessly reproduce here:
A saint said "Let the perfect city rise.
Here needs no long debate on subtleties,
Means, end,
Let us intend
That all be clothed and fed; while one remains
Hungry our quarreling but mocks his pains.
So all will labor to the good
In one phalanx of brotherhood."

A man cried out "I know the truth, I, I,
Perfect and whole. He who denies
My vision is a madman or a fool
Or seeks some base advantage in his lies.
All peoples are a tool that fits my hand
Cutting you each and all
Into my plan."

They were one man. [link]
Nothing else I have read captures so succinctly and precisely the two inextricable sides of collectivist utopianism, sometimes called Fascism, other times called Communism.

Anyway, David Friedman is a witty, lucid and persuasive writer. Here is a very readable piece where he explains Ronald Coase's famous analysis of externalities, for which Coase won a Nobel in Economics. Here is a short piece where he lays out the pre-requisites for an anarcho-capitalist society. Here's a well known article where he responds to Tyler Cowen (of MarginalRevolution), who argues that anarchy might soon relapse into a situation with collusion or cartelisation among private law enforcement agencies. Here's a Usenet posting where he provokes environmentalists on the soundness of the precautionary principle.

Finally, here's the online edition of his Price Theory, which is intended as a text book and hence needs a little more energy to absorb.


A long piece by Jane Galt written long ago on why legalising gay marriage is fraught with risks (although she herself takes no particular stance). Very well written, but I am not totally convinced.


Here's the most kickass dialogue ever delivered by any fictional character:
VoilĂ ! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is it vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose so let me simply add that it's my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.
I got this from the quotes section of the imdb page on 'V for Vendetta'. The quotes of V are simply terrific: all those Shakespeare stuff, and then this exchange at the last scene:
Creedy: Whatchya gonna do, huh? We've swept this place. You've got nothing. Nothing but your bloody knives and your fancy karate gimmicks. We have guns.
V: No, what you've have are bullets, and the hope that when your guns are empty I will no longer be standing, because if I am you will all be dead before you've reloaded.
When super-heroes are shown in a certain style, there is no way you can hate them - ask Rajni Kanth's fans. I loved the super hero and his mask, and I loved the theme of the movie, plenty close to my own political ideals.

On the flip side, the earlier quoted speech is not included in the movie adaptation (unless it is in the first 20 minutes, which I missed, but which is unlikely, because V meets Evey after the first 20 minutes, and this speech is evidently how V introduces himself to her.) [Update: Bappi tells me the speech is infact there.] Tut tut - bad adaptation, bad adaptation. But this was not the worst thing about the movie - Natalie Portman was a terrible, terrible actress and her fake accent was a total turn-off.


And while we are on the topic of anarchy, here's a fine piece by Eric Raymond that I read long ago on 'The Myth of Man the killer'. Ok, its not directly related to anarchy, but you should take a look at it nevertheless.

The iterant irritants of life - nasal voice edition

You might claim that Himesh Reshammiya "is the saviour of pop culture and the last hope of the catchy tune", but it is of no consolation when you wait in a barber's shop (box would be a better description) for 40 minutes, all but stupefied due to the heat, the sweat, the congestion and one of those MTV clones repeatedly playing the screechiest and nasal-est HR numbers. These channels have perfected the art of invading your brain with earworms; each song plays for just the right amount of time, around 30 seconds, and then comes back a few minutes later to re-establish its claim on a mind thats slowly losing its ability to defend itself from parasites. Bleed by a thousand cuts, immaculately demonstrated. It wasnt as if the channel consciously pursued a policy of playing HR songs; it just had no other choice. HR is the God of these small things. Others are discussing genius germs, but we in India must discuss this Genius at producing g-ear-ms.

When privatisation goes wrong

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Pablo of The Other India documents one case of water privatization, and Ennis of Sepia Mutiny tells the story of Indian workers with private military contractors in Iraq.

I put my thoughts over at The Other India blog.
I am often frustrated when opponents of privatisation jump from describing the bad ground situation caused by the daft contracts the govt enters into, to lofty statements about how water is an essential good and no private entity should own it. If anything, it seems to me that because water is so essential, we must try to create an efficient market where the prices reflect the real cost of producing water, which thereby ensures that there exist proper incentives for supplying it and disincentives for misuse.

Policy approaches to education

Friday, May 05, 2006

[By this time, you must know that my posts hardly live up to their grandiose titles. I like keeping such names though. *Grin*]

This post is a response to Kuffir's response to my response to his original post. :-). Do read the last comment he left, the one I am responding to, if only to get some idea about what this post is in response to.

Kuffir, I largely agree with your observations. Change in favour of libertarianism is indeed hard; it would be naive to expect the government to devolve power of its own accord. It is also true that the best opportunities for change are crises, like in 1991. (Reading your comment made me smile, because just last night I was reading Milton Friedman say the exact same stuff in "Capitalism and Freedom".) It is also true that, when the crisis moment comes, a policy framework should be in intellectual currency for any chance of getting implemented. For this reason, I think it is important to keep alive and respectable the policy implications of libertarianism -- smaller governments and free-er markets -- no matter how bleak their chances appear today.

[A small digression. You say:
individuals can only coax,nudge and cajole the state to run along a certain course that would lead to more, and more devolution of power. and individuals would have to, paradoxically, work in groups to achieve this.
If by the use of the word paradoxically, you imply that individuals working in groups is somehow against the grain of libertarianism, I will have to disagree. It is only natural that a free man should associate with a fellow free man in order to better serve his own interest; there is nothing paradoxical in this.]

Now to get to what you were really leading upto: your idea that forcing the government to concentrate on primary education would lead to a reduction in governmental spending elsewhere. You say the powers-that-be have realized investment in education needs to be raised to around six percent of the gdp. This is news to me. The current spending has averaged 4% and, given the rate at which our GDP is increasing, it will get tougher for future governments to get closer to the 6% figure (source).
I think shaming the government into action over education will be tough when we have failed to shame it into action on child malnutrition or narmada rehabilitation . Hell, even the moral overlords over at The Other India havent yet come around to talking about education. That is all the more reason to talk about education louder, yes, but I am not optimistic that the government will give this a priority.

The almost default choice left for the government is to let private players come in. And the government must be less jealous about letting them in than is usual. Already private players seem to be doing a good job. Basically, I dont see why there wont be more private schools if more people are willing to pay money for education. Which brings me to the question of poverty hindering education. I still think poverty needs to be tackled if we are to think about reducing illiteracy. Human needs can be ranked: food, water and shelter are all more important than education and for the poorer families the choice is rather obvious. Any money/vouchers you give to poor people will be diverted to other, more pressing needs. The only way out is to subsidise fees, and you get shoddy government schools, which are still better than nothing anyway.

Dont get me wrong: I would love it if you pointed to me news that the government is definitively increasing its spending on education, if that means it is reducing spending elsewhere. It would only be a good first step though: as we get richer, I expect more private schools to come up, and I would hope for the government to scale back its presence (dream on!). I am just too cynical to get my hopes up though.

Perspectives on Iraq

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Three years after the Americans officially declared victory in Iraq, here is retrospection and reflection from three analysts with different perspectives on the situation. I particularly liked Tom Palmer's "Six facts about Iraq".

Tolerance and religious principles

Monday, May 01, 2006

A good friend of mine recently pointed to me an article (thats the google cache; the original link wasnt working at the time of posting) which claims that polytheistic religions are more tolerant generally than monotheistic religions. The corollary is that a globalised world needs Hinduism, the most popular polytheist faith.

Obvioulsy, as the long history of rioting and caste-related violence in India proves, this isnt necessarily true. Let me put together a few thoughts:

1. People arent motivated by religious beliefs so much as they are motivated by local circumstances and their own self-interest. All politics is local, and religion is most commonly a tool for people wanting to grab power or show power. The recent intoonfada demonstrated this well, as Matt Mcintosh argues here. Playing the religion card has worked wonderfully well for the BJP in India, and it is arguable that Narendra Modi allowed the Gujarat pogrom only because he calculated that it would vastly increase his chances in the coming year's elections, and boy, did that move bail out his sinking ship.

2. Religious beliefs of most people are shallow, and most religions have wide enough doctrines that its adherents can choose whatever principle is most convenient for them at the moment. If they want to kill (for whatever other reasons), the would-be killers just point out that part of the scriptures that justify killing, etc.

3. Obscurity and ambiguity of Hindu morality. I bet Hindu rioters are not even aware of what their religion is actually trying to say. I wouldnt blame them; nobody knows whats really written in the Vedas; and the Gita is too dense and esoteric. Perhaps the only central doctrine of Hinduism is a social one -- that of the caste system. Lay Hindus derive their morality from the epics, but both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ambiguous at best. In particular, violence is nowhere denounced; it is quite easy to justify violence by drawing naive parallels with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

I am not exactly sure how we can get to a peaceful and tolerant society. All I know is that religious principles are woefully inadequate to take us there.

Quote for the day

"A true liberal is one who is fearful of concentrated power."

That's from Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, which is my first online purchase, from FirstAndSecond.com.

What happens when you take decentralisation of power to its logical extreme? Individuals have power over themselves only and over no one else - a.k.a. libertarianism.

[I'll have more to say about the book, hopefully. And sorry for not blogging all this time, it has always been a fits-and-starts thing for me.]