Book Review: The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read, and Remember

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: reviewby Robert Colvile
Published: 5:25PM BST 27 Aug 2010 by

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr: Review

Think about what you did last week. You might remember the nice meal, the chat to the cousin, the blazing row. But odds are, you spent the most time doing the same thing as the rest of us: staring at a screen. According to the latest data from Ofcom, the average Briton spends 45 per cent of his time gazing at pixels, whether delivered via a TV, a phone or a computer. The youngest, and best at multi-tasking, can monitor so many data streams that they effectively squeeze five hours’ exposure into just two hours.

As Nicholas Carr argues in his latest book, The Shallows, all this is having a profound effect on our thought processes – what he found to be “the uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain”. Every time we surf the web, he argues, we are literally rewiring our synapses, training them to skip from topic to topic and task to task rather than focusing on one solitary goal or thought. And we are powerfully rewarded for this behaviour, via the torrent of new insights and facts offered by sites such as Twitter or Facebook, or the simple chemical hit that comes from seeing the “new mail” message pop up.

Many writers have regarded this process as a relatively unmixed blessing, with Google and its ilk training us in high-speed cognition, not to mention giving us access to an enormous library of information that we no longer need to ferry around in our heads. Carr, however, is more sceptical. The brain, he points out, is not a computer, which can be filled up with a limited amount of data. The very act of remembering, of consideration, builds up the capacity to think deeply. We are, he fears, entering a superficial age, when the ability to devote attention to long and challenging thoughts will be lost.

He cites studies which show that we learn better and retain more when focusing solely on the words of an article or lecture, rather than being given the chance to access connected material at the same time.

Such worries, as Carr admits, are not new. Nietzsche found his prose style becoming harder and terser as he moved from pen to typewriter. Centuries before, Socrates lamented the damage that a move to the written word would do – it was, he argued, “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder”, for minds “filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom”.

This idea that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle / and ride mankind”, is an intriguing one, and Carr makes some interesting points, for example that the medieval transition from lingua continua (unpunctuated sentences of unbroken words, dictated to or read by a scribe) to our modern grammar created a kind of writing that was more personal, open and honest. He has some challenging ideas, too, about how written style will develop in the future, raising the dread prospect that authors will sculpt paragraphs and chapter headings to be “SEO-friendly” rather than rigorously accurate.

Yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that Carr is over-egging things – or rather, applying his worries too widely. For example, he tells us that the recent sustained global rise in IQ is evidence not of our becoming more intelligent, but of concentrating on different things. Why, then, should we worry about that rise tapering off? Isn’t it just a sign that the web is training our brains for different tasks? There is also the problem of format. If we are losing the ability to concentrate, asking us to trawl through a 224-page book feels like a heroically counter-productive way of addressing the problem. Indeed, to this reader at least, Carr’s argument felt stretched at this length – though he would no doubt blame that on my inadequate attention span.

The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr, 276pp, Atlantic,£16.99 T £14.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p)

The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: Book Review by Maryam Jameelah


Ed. John L. Esposito, Reviewed by Maryam Jameelah

Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhammad Naquib Al‑Attas, ISTAC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The currency of modern educational ideas in the Islamic lands is a historical testimony to the epical failure of the Muslims over the past two hundred years, and practices are the slow, but inexorable, unravelling of the Muslim mind. Education in the contemporary world is like the most pervasive ‘conveyor belt’ transmitting the ideas of the dominant culture and the values system of politico‑economic elite to the credulous and dominated generations. Education in the true Foucaldian sense is plugged into the grid of reigning ideas and values, not necessarily predicated on ‘truth’. It is also a master technology of control, which leaves nothing untouched. The content of modern education and the whole process of schooling/disciplining are aimed at ‘manufacturing’ human beings to fulfil certain political and socio-economic objectives set by the political powers that be. The individual and the needs of his self are absent from the whole project of modern education. The Muslim case was aggravated by our home grown ‘epistemological lackeys’ who, in their effort to ingratiate the colonial masters, messed up everything. They failed to live up to their traditional religious heritage and discover its relevance in the changed times, and miserably failed to see the West for what it really is.

Occasional sparks of wisdom were visible in the Muslim societies but they were soon overtaken by the ‘secular darkness’ viciously spreading in the Muslim lands in the wake of colonialism. 1qbal’s following couplet now looks poignant: Tāza phir dānish‑e‑ḥāïir ney kiyā wo siḥr‑i‑qadīm. Guzar is ‘ehd mēn mumkin nahīn be chūb‑i‑Kalīm Modern knowledge has revived the ancient magic of Pharaoh. No one can pass through this age without the staff of Moses. Muslim civilization in the present times looks like a tree, withering fast, losing sap, leaf‑less and fruitless, ready to die or about to be cut down for others’ fuel. But lo! All of a sudden a robust and sturdy shoot sprouts from the trunk. The tree lives and the forebodings die. This new symbol of the invigorated Muslim life is none other than the formidable Al‑Attas. And Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud has done a great service to the Muslims in general by writing this book.

It is interesting that as the Muslim heartlands bleed and lie humbled in the face of the renewed colonial onslaught, a man from the backyard of the Muslim civilization unexpectedly emerges to lead the battle for the Muslim soul. No adjectives can do justice to the achievements of Al‑Attas. His contribution to the Muslim intellectual life is original, comprehensive and practically viable. First and foremost, as the author says, he has pointed out the root cause of Muslim malaise as “confusion and error in knowledge”. This sets the stage for all socio‑political, cultural and educational ills. This in turn fundamentally affects the individuals who lose Islamic adab.

Their selves are replicas of falsehood and they span out into all walks of Muslim life, thus aggravating the confusion even further. This vicious coterie of false leaders sets up a macabre play of musical chairs, while the Muslim peoples look on befuddled and bamboozled. In other words, apparent Muslim failure is merely an exteriorisation of a deep‑seated failure which is spiritual and epistemological. Dr. Daud fully elaborates Al‑Attas’ seminal contributions to the religious thoughts and their bearing on the modern Muslim education. Following the tradition of the higher Sufis, Al‑Attas delineates the contours of Islamic metaphysics and world‑view of Islam. His metaphysics is rooted in the Islamic fundamentals as set forth in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Once we get this philosopher’s stone, everything is transmuted. Eyes begin to see and hearts begin to hope. The magical dazzle of the modern secularism and its technological achievements begins to flicker off and we see things in proper perspective. This is adab which is a blessing of proper worldview of Islam. The man of adab is central to the whole Islamic scheme of things. And adab means: recognizing and acknowledging the right and proper places of things, the acquisition of good qualities and attributes as well as actions to discipline the mind and soul, and the avoidance of erroneous actions. Adab is built on knowledge, proper methods of knowing and ḥikmah (wisdom) leading to ‘adl (justice). The book dwells long at Al‑Attas’ most sustained and in‑depth critique of the modern West and its conception of reality. His ideas bring into sharp relief the “the fundamental elements, characteristic of the Western spirit and worldview, that are antithetical to Islam, namely the dualistic view of reality, the secular ideology, the humanistic philosophy and the tragic conception of life”. These elements are worked into the modern humanistic education at universities through literary classics and secular science and philosophy. The modern university suffers from the absence of epistemological authority and the normative ‘character’. The ideals and aims of modern education are always in flux and trapped in a Sisyphean process of becoming. Authority in Muslim education is predicated on the divine guidance and the Absolute Truth of the Holy Qur’an.

The presence of the Holy Prophet at the heart of the Muslim education saves it from the meaninglessness of modern becoming and sets up a model before individuals to emulate and achieve. Islamization of modern knowledge is the natural consequence of Al‑Attas’ Islamic metaphysics. Even at the risk of plagiarism and simplification, a real danger to Al‑Attas’ preternatural ideas, one cannot help saying that Islamization essentially means bringing the farḍ kifāyah knowledge UNDER the purview of the farḍ ‘ayn knowledge. This is what Islamic adab demands and this is what leads to Islamic adab. As soon as the divine touches the mundane, its secular crookedness straightens and its profanity is sanctified. Hierarchical view of reality is central to the whole project of Islamization. Al‑Attas’ perspective on the role of language in the process of Islamization in the early Islamic history and its role in de-Islamization and secularisation of the Muslims in the modern times is an intellectual tour de force. His efforts to rediscover the original definitions of the key terms of Muslim discourse and his resistance to their semantic erosion have greatly strengthened his argument for the Islamization project. If a human being can be ‘Islamised’, so can all his endeavours be. Knowledge, as Dr. Daud shows in the light of his mentor’s ideas, is an attribute of man. Once modern secular knowledge is plugged into the grid of farḍ ‘ayn knowledge, it will be divinely ‘enlightened’. The author makes a convincing case for a radical transformation of Muslim university education, incorporating the ideas of Al‑Attas which have universal relevance. He enumerates all the efforts undertaken in the major Muslim lands in response to the colonial education and the challenge of the modern knowledge and exposes their inadequacy. Interestingly, the author does not mention Jami‘ah Usmāniah, Hyderabad Deccan, where the medium of instruction was Urdu and which produced internationally recognized scholars representing true Muslim character. The Jami‘ah was a glorious effort, begun with great difficulty under the interfering English nose. Pakistan is now paying the wages for its forgetfulness of such a successful venture. The stress to transform the higher education is understandable. It is the higher education in the Muslim lands that has brought us low and it is where we traded our dignity for trivial and ephemeral things.

Ta’lim al-Muta’allim by Imam Burhan al-Din al-Zarnuji

Many readers may be acquainted with the translation of Imam Burhan al-Din al-Zarnuji’s famous collection of advices for the student of knowledge entitled Ta’lim al-Muta’allim Tariq al-Ta’allum (Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning).

Although  the English translation of the book is generally sound, there are numerous instances in the translation where the Arabic expressions have been misunderstood, mistranslated, or lost in translation. The true meanings of the book and the power of the author’s prose (not to speak of the poetry) can only be understood in their original language.

Attached is a published version of the book in the original Arabic:

Talim al-Muta’allim Tariq al-Ta’allum

For those readers interested in a manuscript version of the book,I have also provided a link for them below:

You can also find a commentary on the book by Imam Zayn al-Din ibn Isma’il in manuscript form. I believe work is being done (or may be complete) on publishing an edited version of this manuscript. For now, you can access the manuscript through this Saudi website:

Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education

Schooling IslamSchooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education

Edited by Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman

(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), xiv, 277 pp.  ISBN 0691129339.


Introduction: The Culture, Politics, and Future of Muslim Education

Robert W. Hefner

SINCE THE TALIBAN rolled into Kabul on September 26, 1996, Western media have grappled with the question of the nature of Islamic radicalism and its relation to religious education.1 Several commentators were quick to place much of the blame for the radicals’ rise on madrasas, religious schools devoted to the study of Islamic traditions of knowledge. A widely cited article in the New York Times Magazine reported that in Pakistan, “There are one million students studying in the country’s 10,000 or so madrasas, and militant Islam is at the core of most of these schools” (Goldberg 2000). Other commentators suspected that an equally militant spirit might lie at the heart of madrasa education everywhere.

In light of the tumultuous events taking place in some Muslim societies, it is not surprising that some Western commentators were quick to point a finger of blame at this most pivotal of Islamic institutions. After all, the Taliban leadership did emerge out of madrasas located near refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. In the 1980s, madrasas in these territories grew rapidly in size and influence. Their growth was the result of several factors: a continuing influx of Afghan refugees; the inability of poor Pakistanis to get access to affordable education; and donations from patrons in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States—gifts sanctioned, it should be remembered, by American officials intent on rallying support for the anti-Soviet cause (ICG 2002; Zaman 2002, 136). In these difficult circumstances, some Pakistani madrasas did indeed become training centers for jihadi militants. Equally striking, even before the mujahidin victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan, some jihadis turned their aim away from the Soviets to other alleged enemies of Islam. In Pakistan, Sunni militants battled members of the Shi‘i minority (see Zaman 2002, and this volume). Others carried out attacks against targets in the Indian-occupied province of Kashmir. Still others set their sights on the United States, taking exception to its policies in the Muslim world.

Events in Indonesia raised similar concerns about the political effects of madrasa education (Arza, Afrianty, and Hefner, this volume). In the months following the resignation of President Soeharto’s authoritarian government in May 1998, hundreds of radical Islamist paramilitaries sprang up in cities and towns across the country. Several boasted of their ties to Islamic schools. In late 2002, a handful among the country’s 47,000 Islamic schools were discovered to have had ties to militants responsible for the October 2002 bombings in Bali, in which 202 people died, most of them Western tourists. For many analysts, these and other examples lent credence to the charge that madrasas are “jihad factories” and outposts of a backward-looking medievalism (see e.g. Haqqani 2002).

Against this troubled backdrop, the contributors to this volume seek to shed light on the culture, practices, and politics of madrasas and Islamic higher education. The authors were participants in a ten-month Working Group on Madrasas and Muslim Education that, with the generous support of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University, came together in October 2004 and May 2005 to examine the past, present, and likely future of Islamic education. Our concern was not with general or secular education, but with institutions charged with transmitting Islamic knowledge and disciplines. The approach we adopted was comparative and theoretically eclectic, on the assumption that Islamic education is a total social phenomenon, in which knowledge, politics, and social networks interact in a complex and “generative” (Barth 1993, 5, 341) manner. The Working Group was organized with an eye toward interdisciplinary collaboration and included scholars from history, political science, anthropology, religious studies, and education.

Although the story told by each author in this book is as different as the case study in question, the contributors share two points of view. The first is the conviction that Islamic education is characterized, not by lock-step uniformity, but by a teaming plurality of actors, institutions, and ideas. Islamic schooling is today carried out by government and nongovernment organizations, and its purpose and organization are matters of great debate. At the heart of the dispute lie two important questions: just what is required to live as an observant Muslim in the modern world? And who is qualified to provide instruction in this matter? Disputation of this sort, in which different groups argue publicly about who they are and what their institutions should do, is a clear sign that the madrasa is anything but unchanging or medieval. On the contrary, Islamic education has been drawn squarely into the reflexive questioning and public-cultural debate so characteristic of modern plural societies. Indeed, if there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims taking place around the world, which there certainly is, madrasas and religious education are on its front line.

This first point leads to a second. The members of the Working Group felt it important not to allow the sound and fury of recent political events to obscure the fact that this contest for Muslim hearts and minds began well before the Western media rediscovered madrasas in the late 1990s. In Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and India, the debate over Islamic education was already underway two centuries ago. In Southeast Asia and West Africa, the issue has been in the air for over a century. Not surprisingly, then, the central issues in this debate do not concern the Israel-Palestine conflict or American actions in Iraq, but what might at first appear as blandly prosaic matters: whether Islamic schools should teach modern science, provide training in philosophy as well as theology, or offer instruction on modern politics and citizenship. Although their respective positions vary, all sides in these debates are preoccupied with matters of a different nature than those that concerned believers in the Muslim Middle Ages (1000–1500 CE), when the first madrasas came into existence.

Whatever its roots in Islamic tradition, then, the madrasa is now thoroughly embedded in the modern world. The chapters that follow address the modernity of madrasas and Muslim education from four primary angles. They examine the variety of madrasas and other institutions of Islamic learning; the transformation of madrasas and Islamic higher education under the influence of modern social and intellectual developments; the state’s efforts to reform Islamic education; and the future of Islamic education in an age of globalization and pluralization.

As this last point implies, a particularly important issue with which all of the contributors to this volume are concerned is the question of how Muslim authorities have responded to the distinctive pluralism of our age. This social pluralism differs from that attributed to earlier societies, in which “two or more elements or social orders . . . live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit” (Furnivall 1944, 446). The plurality that marks our contemporary world is not the colonial and segregationist pluralism Furnivall describes. Today’s world is marked by a pervasive “mingling” of peoples, objects, and ideas. Markets, media, and social movements now spill over the boundaries of nations and communities. The spillage makes it impossible to speak, as social theorists once did, of a “society” neatly coinciding with a single “culture,” both tied to the same bounded territory (Barth 1993; Hannerz 1992, 262; Hefner 2001). The flow of people and ideas across social borders has fragmented identities, destabilized social hierarchies, and challenged all traditions of knowledge and faith.

The aim of this introductory chapter is to examine just how these late-modern developments have impacted the forms, transmission, and meanings of Islamic knowledge. To explore this question, we need first to know something of the social milieu in which Islamic education earlier developed. This historical background allows us to appreciate the scale of the changes now taking place in Islamic education, and their implications for public culture and politics.

The transmission of Islamic knowledge was always dependent on the support of social and political authorities. Embedded as it was in specific social arrangements, religious education changed as the society in which it was located did. The institutions involved in the transmission of Islamic knowledge, however, did not shift with every new wind that blew across the landscape. The traditions with which Muslim scholars (‘ulama) were concerned included many viewed as divinely revealed. Scholars and teachers had to balance their efforts to demonstrate the urgent relevance of God’s message, then, with a normatively “conservational” (Eickelman 1985, 58) preservation of its eternal truths.

Striking a balance between conservationalism and relevance has not always been easy. Religious scholars disagreed as to what knowledge should be foregrounded, and to what social ends it should be put. Rulers and viziers also had their own ideas as to the forms and purposes of religious education. Although tensions of this sort have been felt throughout Muslim history, in the modern age they have become not intermittent but chronic. The last two centuries have been marked by the appearance of a powerfully interventionist state, with educational ambitions distinct from those of the ‘ulama. The period has also witnessed a heightened pluralism within and beyond the Muslim community. No less significant, our age has been characterized by the unparalleled ascent of Western powers, with their markets, media, and technologies of knowledge. Those involved in the transmission of Islamic disciplines could not but feel the impact of these world-transforming changes.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim scholars struggled to come to terms with events that they had not authored and that they could no longer ignore. The answers they devised to their altered circumstance changed the face of Islamic education and society. It is this historical fact that gives Islamic education its importance. Islamic schools are not merely institutions for teaching and training young believers. They are the forges from which will flow the ideas and actors for the Muslim world’s future. This book is concerned with the diverse meanings and effects of this effort.

For a Larger Excerpt, Click Here

PDF Book Excerpt

Read Mohammad Talib’s Review of the Book Here

Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs

Author: Saleem H. Ali

Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi

Year: 2009

Pages: 214

ISBN: 978-0-19-547672-9

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Much has been written about the role of madrasas, or Islamic schools, in fomenting sectarian violence and terrorism in Pakistan. Today, large parts of Pakistan are faced with the alarming rise of armed vigilante groups, often led and manned by madrasa-trained maulvis, some of which are presently involved in warring against their own government. The link that numerous commentators have made between madrasas and violence in Pakistan is what this book is all about. Based on investigations and comparisons drawn from two selected areas in Pakistan, Ahmedpur East, in the southern Punjab, and Islamabad, the country’s capital, the author seeks to explore if and how madrasas are involved in promoting terrorism, which today threatens to drown Pakistan in the throes of a bloody and seemingly never-ending civil war.

Ahmedpur East is a largely rural area, where landholdings are extremely skewed. Much of the land in the area is owned by ‘high’ caste Shia landlords, while the bulk of the peasantry are from the rival Sunni sect. As in much of rural Pakistan, state services are sorely lacking in the area. The public education system is in a shambles, and in many places landlords do not even allow government schools to function for fear that education will make their peasants restive. This particular context, Ali argues, has provided fertile ground for a rapid rise in the number of madrasas in the area, most of which provide free boarding, lodging and education and so attract students mainly from poor and lower-middle class families. In other words, the pathetic failure of the Pakistani state to provide decent education to the country’s poor is one of the most salient reasons for the mushrooming of madrasas all over the country, including in Ahmedpur East, in recent years.

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the madrasas of Ahmedpur East are not simply Islamic institutions pure and simple. Rather, each of them represents a particular sectarian brand or version of Islam. One of the many tasks of a madrasa is precisely to articulate and champion the version of Islam that the sect it is affiliated to adheres to, in the face of competing versions. In seeking to do this, madrasas routinely denounce other sectarian versions of Islam as ‘un-Islamic’ and even ‘anti-Islamic’. Sectarianism, therefore, Ali indicates, is endemic, indeed central, to the madrasa system as it presently exists. Not surprisingly, the sectarian hatred actively taught by many madrasas often gets translated into sectarian violence in Pakistan. Ali notes the involvement of various madrasas, belonging to different Muslim sects, particularly the Deobandis, the Barelvis and Shias, in instigating sectarian conflict in Ahmedpur East, which sometimes takes overtly physical forms. Sectarian rivalries in the region are compounded by complex class factors. Since most of the large landlords belong to the Shia minority, Sunni-Shia conflict, instigated by radical Sunni groups that are led by madrasa graduates and leaders, can also be seen as an expression of severe class antagonisms.

It is, however, not simply poverty that has led to the mushrooming of madrasas in Pakistan, Ali notes. Nor is it true that material deprivation necessarily leads to radicalism and violence. Ali compares the madrasas of Ahmedpur East to those in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, a city with modern amenities and services, and finds that there, too, sectarianism is endemic to the madrasas in terms of their self-representation. He also notes that the growth of madrasas in Islamabad has actually been facilitated by the state, rather than fuelled by local demand. Almost all the city’s madrasas have been built on state-owned land, many of them illegally, and the vast majority of their students are not from the city, but, rather, from impoverished parts of the North-West Frontier Province, who live, Ali writes, like aliens in the city. Ali mentions various measures taken by successive Pakistani rulers, starting with the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, to curry favour with the ulema or clerics of the madrasas, which must be taken into account in seeking to understand the enormous growth in the number of madrasas all over Pakistan, including in Islamabad, where, he says, demand for madrasa education now far outstrips supply. In Islamabad, as in Ahmedpur East, Ali notes, numerous cases have been reported of madrasa teachers and students being actively involved in violent political demonstrations, sectarian clashes, bombings and providing refuge to suspected terrorists.

It is not Ali’s case that madrasas are necessarily, and by definition, hubs of terror. Indeed, he argues, relatively few madrasas in Pakistan are actually involved in violent activities or in providing armed training to their students. Yet, he says, this should not cause us to overlook the fact that stern opposition to, or even hatred of, rival Muslim sects and other religions and their adherents is actively instilled in most madrasas, along with a pervasive sense of supremacy of the particular sectarian version of Islam that each madrasa is associated with. This is further reinforced by so-called jihadist literature, websites and mosque sermons that many Pakistani madrasa students are exposed to. It is thus not surprising, Ali tells us, that the majority of the students and teachers in the madrasas that he surveyed favoured violent revolution as an instrument for political change in Pakistan, supported war as a means for resolving Pakistan’s disputes with India, considered women as inferior to men, had extremely negative views about other religions and their adherents, and, in the case of Deobandi madrasas, favoured the Taliban as their role model for what they called the ‘Islamization’ of Pakistan.

This leads Ali to argue that, ‘It is high time that we become more aware of the perils of extremist educational institutions, which have a far broader base in Pakistan than we care to admit. The only way to address the problem is by […] ensuring curricular development in partnership with the reformist ulema’ (176). In this regard, he advocates the inclusion of ‘peace education’ in the madrasa curriculum and the promotion of inter-sectarian and inter-religious dialogue, in which the ulema should be actively involved. That, however, is easier said than done. Ali offers no practical suggestions as to precisely how this should be attempted and how the ulema of the madrasas can be convinced to get involved in these benign activities.

Ali makes a brief survey of the various measures that the Pakistani Government claims to have adopted, particularly after 9/11 and under American pressure, to ‘reform’ the country’s madrasas. He concludes that these measures have been half-hearted and not seriously pursued, and that, consequently, they have miserably failed. That very few madrasas have chosen to register themselves with the government authorities is a sign of the considerable resistance on the part of those who control the madrasas to what they see as unwarranted American and Pakistani Government interference in the realm of Islamic education. Likewise, the few ‘model’ madrasas that the Pakistani Government recently set up, combining secular and religious education, have also had few takers. Matters have been made worse by bureaucratic wrangling and gross mismanagement in the Government-appointed Madrasa Board, which was meant to oversee the process of madrasa ‘reforms’. Ali writes that the Board’s very rationale has been seriously undermined with the Government’s announcement that curricular reform is not part of its mandate. Ironically, Ali adds, Lt. Gen. (retd.) Javed Ashraf Qazi, the person appointed as the head of the Board, whose task is to de-radicalise the militant madrasas, is the former head of Pakistan’s notorious secret services agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who had himself supervised the recruitment of students from Pakistani madrasas for the radical Taliban in Afghanistan. So much, then, for the Pakistani Government’s ostensible commitment to madrasa ‘reform’ and to clamping down on terrorism in the name of Islam.

Ali wisely remarks that it is not simply religious bigotry that has led to a mounting sense of anti-Americanism and radicalism among large numbers of madrasa students and teachers (besides many other Muslims). Rather, a host of unresolved regional conflicts involving Muslim groups, particularly Palestine, but including other trouble-spots, such as Kashmir, southern Thailand, Chechenya, Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to cause deep resentment among many Muslims. He rightly remarks that solving these conflicts is inextricably linked to countering radicalism in Pakistan’s madrasas.

At the same time, and very lamentably, Ali displays a pathetic optimism in American Government efforts to ‘reform’ the madrasas. He cites, with uncritical approval, the instance of American state funding of Islamic educational institutions in countries such as Indonesia and Uganda, holding these out as examples of positive collaboration for the production and dissemination of ‘moderate’ Islam. Given the fact that Ali’s study was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, known for its close links with the American establishment, it is perhaps not surprising that Ali should laud such cosmetic efforts while ignoring both the politics of this funding and the earlier American funding and support for Islamist radicalism in Pakistan and elsewhere against the erstwhile Soviet Union. Likewise, his argument that American intentions must not be suspected or questioned, even in the face of the record of American support to dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world and elsewhere and the nefarious role of the CIA, is quite unforgivable. So, too, is his claim that ‘The United States has probably learned from its past mistakes and is willing to change’ (142).

As a basic introductory text to some aspects of madrasa education in contemporary Pakistan, this book makes interesting reading, although it fails to provide any new information or arguments. The author claims to have done intensive fieldwork, but the perspective from the field is almost wholly absent—all we have are long tables with cold statistics. The book lacks a central focus and many of its various sections seem hopelessly disjointed. These many lacunae may, however, be forgiven when considered in the light of the pathetic state of social science research in Pakistan.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

While the main focus of this site is Islamic literature, I thought it would be highly beneficial to the Muslim reader to read this book on… how to read.

Overview of the first edition

How to Read a Book is in three parts, each of several chapters.

Part I: The Activity of Reading

Author Adler explains for whom the book is intended, defines different classes of reading, and tells which classes will be addressed. He also makes a brief argument favouring the Great Books, and explains his reasons for writing How to Read a Book.

There are three types of knowledge: practical, informational, and comprehensive. He discusses the methods of acquiring knowledge, concluding that practical knowledge, though teachable, cannot be truly mastered without experience; that only informational knowledge can be gained by one whose understanding equals the author’s; that comprehension (insight) is best learned from who first achieved said understanding — an “original communication”.

The idea of communication directly from those who first discovered an idea as the best way of gaining understanding is Adler’s argument for reading the Great Books; that any book that does not represent original communication, is inferior, as a source, to the original, and, that any teacher, save those who discovered the subject he or she teaches, is inferior to the Great Books as a source of comprehension.

Adler spends a good deal of this first section explaining why he was compelled to write this book. He asserts that very few people can read a book for understanding, but that he believes that most are capable of it, given the right instruction and the will to do so. It is his intent to provide that instruction. He takes time to tell the reader about how he believes that the educational system has failed to teach students the arts of reading well, up to and including undergraduate university-level institutions. He concludes that, due to these shortcomings in formal education, it falls upon the individuals to cultivate these abilities in themselves. Throughout this section, he relates anecdotes and summaries of his experience in education as support for these assertions.

Part II: The Rules

Here, Adler sets forth his method for reading a wholly or primarily non-fiction book in order to gain understanding. He claims that three distinct approaches, or readings, must all be made in order to get the most possible out of a book, but that performing these three readings does not necessarily mean reading the book three times, as the experienced reader will be able to do all three in the course of reading the book just once. Adler names the readings, “structural”, “interpretative”, and “critical”, in that order.

The first reading is concerned with understanding the structure and purpose of the book. It begins with determining the basic topic and type of the book being read, so as to better anticipate the contents and comprehend the book from the very beginning. Adler says that the reader must distinguish between practical and theoretical books, as well as determining the field of study that the book addresses. Further, Adler says that the reader must note any divisions in the book, and that these are not restricted to the divisions laid out in the table of contents. Lastly, the reader must find out what problems the author is trying to solve.

The second reading involves constructing the author’s arguments. This first requires the reader to note and understand any special phrases and terms that the author uses. Once that is done, Adler says that the reader should find and work to understand each proposition that the author advances, as well as the author’s support for those propositions.

In the third and final reading, Adler directs the reader to criticize the book. He claims that now that the reader understands the author’s propositions and arguments, the reader has been elevated to the level of understanding of the book’s author, and is now able (and obligated) to judge the book’s merit and accuracy. Adler advocates judging books based on the soundness of their arguments. Adler says that one may not disagree with an argument unless one can find fault in its reasoning, facts, or premises, though one is free to dislike it in any case.

The method presented is sometimes called the Structure-Proposition-Evaluation (SPE) method, though this term is not used in the book.

Part III: The Rest of the Reader’s Life

This is the shortest section of the book. In it, Adler briefly discusses approaches to reading fiction and poetry, while insisting that a whole separate volume would be necessary to give that topic the treatment that it requires, and suggesting several other books that address it in a more in-depth manner. He explains his preferred method of approaching the Great Books–that being to read the books that influenced a given author before reading works by that author–and gives several examples of that method. He concludes the book with a chapter expounding on his belief in the importance of reading and learning in the functioning of a democratic government and in the lives of “free men”.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
by Mortimer J. Adler