What’s going on in Sudan?

December 2018: Omar al-Bashir’s government hiked the price of loaf of bread from 1 Sudanese pound to 3 Sudanese pounds. It sparked a wave of unrests similar like in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 when the price of wheat skyrocketed.

April 2019: the unrests became a good momentum to topple 30 years dictator Omar al-Bashir, whom was ousted in a coup by the military headed by Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. But he took control without becoming head of state, instead he established the 2019 Transitional Military Council, and resigned the following day in favor of Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The military declared 2 years of miltary rule.

Basically the protests and the bloodsheds are to demand for democratic election right now, to elect a civilian government. It gets complicated because al-Bashir is Saudi-backed, and Saudi-UAE have already promised $3bn aid to the transitional military government. The people don’t want this to be like in Egypt where one puppet Mubarak (al-Bashir) was eventually replaced by another puppet al-Sisi (al-Burhan).

Book Review: The favourite book of a lot of historical figures

“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

1 of 3 “main books” on Stoicism, written by arguably the best Roman Emperor, the closest any person ever came to embodying Plato’s philosopher-king.

The book inspired Adam Smith, Goethe, Tolstoy, Wen Jiabao, Frederick the Great, among many others. Bill Clinton reads and re-reads it so many times (it’s his favourite book), it’s one of the inspirations for Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence principles, and it’s the book that kept Nelson Mandela’s sanity during his 27 years in prison.

It’s one of a kind book, and yes it’s that good.

Book Review: Islam in the eyes of prominent Indonesian scholar

“Islam yang saya anut: Dasar-dasar ajaran Islam” by M. Quraish Shihab

This is a really smart book, written by a proper scholar who shows that Islam is peaceful, progressive, and has a rich history.

It teaches us the vast intellectual landscape of Muslim theology, that it is intellectually diverse with many different point of views, but all of the Mazabs can still live in harmony (at least those at the [real] scholar level).

Most crucially, the book identifies Islam in Indonesia as rooted in the Syafi’i school of thought, which combine the observance of the Prophet’s (PBUH) sunnah with modern logic, while – I may add – the ever growing Wahhabi penetration in our country is rooted in Hanbali school of thought, which advocates Islamic teachings and way of life back to its purest root in the year 600s (if you feel that Islam is changing in Indonesia, this is why).

This, of course, only a small part of the topics discussed in the book. Other equally eye opening discussions include the history of religion, comparative verses with other religions’ holy text (like Matthews 22:37-40 with QS 6:151-154), inter-faith harmony (QS 5:48, QS 2:256, QS 18:29), how Muslims should not insult other religion (QS 6:108), the author also discusses Darwin’s theory of evolution, and many, many more, from the big picture till the smallest Islamic personal habits.

A true scholar, M. Quraish Shihab makes his points using very diverse set of references, such as Al Qur’an, Hadiths, all the Sunni and Shia School of thoughts, the Torah, the Bible, even the philosophies of Plato, Immanuel Kant, Nobel Prize winning doctor Alexis Carrel, and my favourite Seneca.

It’s a relatively thin book considering the range of topics that are covered, concised enough to be easily understood without losing its essense, very soothing and empowering, and imensely enlightening. Can’t recommend it enough.

Book Review: Inter-faith dialogues and debates on Islam

“Interfaith Dialogues and Debates: What Would a Muslim Say (Volume 3)” by Ahmed Lotfy Rashed

This is the 3rd volume of Ahmed Lofty Rashed’s book, a set of e-mail correspondences that focus on constructive inter-faith dialogues, as well as answering to blatant insults and attacks on Islam.

As the title suggest, the book answers the many misconceptions on Islam and its relationship with other religions, most notably Christians and Jews. For instance, contrary to popular believe, in the middle ages Jews were actually able to live peacefully under the rule of Muslim, can earn prosperity, and even have intellectual freedom as the Golden Age of Jewish Philosophy occurred simultaneously during the Golden Age of Muslim Rule. In fact during the Spanish inquisition and when the Crusaders swept through Jerusalem, the Jews fled to neighbouring Muslim lands and found save haven there.

Rashed further commented that “in Europe, while Muslims were never able to live as Muslims, and Jews were only marginally able to live as Jews, it is a historical fact that Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus were able to live their faiths in Muslim lands.” And he also points out that “a Muslim man is also allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman. It is obvious that one marries someone for love and friendship. If friendship between Muslims and Jews or Christians was forbidden, then why would Islam allow a Muslim man to marry a Jew or Christian woman?”

Nevertheless, while Islam and other religion can live peacefully side by side, there are indeed several different theological point of views among them. For example on Noah’s flood, “in the Qur’an it was a localized flood of Noah’s valley, not an earth-spanning deluge [as described in the Old Testament].” Another impasse is on Jesus’ crucifixion. Rashed remarked that from Islam’s point of view the sequence of the events leading up the crucifixion is not refuted, but it is believed that the person who WAS crucified was not Jesus, as Jesus (PBUH) was raised up to God beforehand. And this has been the subject of peaceful theological debates among scholars, and the reason for war for extremists.

Indeed, the book also discusses one of the most hotly debated topics on Islam, i.e. the despicable conducts of radical terror groups that act in the name of the religion. Rashed explains “[w]hile radical groups do hold religious supremacist ideologies, the main reason for all the fighting is simply people wanting self-determination and rights to benefit from their natural resources without exploitation from external powers or internal Mafia families.” This point is also echoed by Karen Armstrong, in which she dedicates an entire book for it in Fields of Blood.

But what about how prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had an army and fought battles, while other prophets were [seemingly] more pacifist? Rashed answered: “Moses (PBUH) commanded armies. He sentenced criminals to death or punishment. He fought battles. So did Joshua and David and Solomon and other Hebrew prophets. Why? Why did Jesus and some other prophets (like Abraham or Jacob or Joseph) not do this? The answer is not due to what each prophet wanted or desired but rather due to the circumstances that each prophet lived in and what God’s Wisdom commanded each particular prophet to do. Jesus lived in a time and place where there was established authority, so he was not commanded to rebel against that authority. Moses and Joshua and David and Solomon and Muhammad, in contrast, did not live in such a time or place. They were charged by God to ESTABLISH such an authority. They were political as well as spiritual leaders, responsible for material security as well as spiritual felicity.”

Furthermore, it is mentioned in the book that there are over 100 scriptures that have been revealed by God since the descent of Adam, 5 of which are mentioned by name in the Qur’an: the Scrolls of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Evangel of Jesus, and the Qur’an of Muhammad. But why does Muhammad (PBUH) claimed to be the last Prophet? As Rashed mentions repeatedly throughout the book, every single one of the Prophets acknowledged by Islam brought the same message to humankind, most of which were lost in translation and got distorted, corrupted, edited, and exploited. That is until The Qur’an was revealed, during the time when technology already enabled people to preserve the original message in writing, which remains authentic till this modern time.

Interestingly, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is actually not the most frequently mentioned in the Qur’an. Instead, the most frequently mentioned Prophets are Prophet Moses (136 times), Prophet Jesus (59 times), and Prophet Noah (43 times) (Peace Be Upon Them). Nevertheless, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is mentioned in the Shahadah because by “believing in Muhammad’s (PBUH) message means you accept all previous prophets and messengers”, which is an important point to distinguish in advocating inter-religion peace and tolerance.

Another interesting topic is on angels, demons, and Jinns. Rashed explains that Jinn are part of the unseen world, like angels, but they have free will, like humans. While Christianity teaches that angels and demons are opposite sides of the same creation (good are called angels, and evil are called demons), Islam teaches that “angels are a distinct creation that have a fixed status with God due to their lack of free will”, while conversely “humans and jinn (demons) are two other separate creations that have free will and therefore both can be either good or evil.”

Rashed then elaborate, “the understanding is that before the creation of man, there were jinn on the Earth, and they were the Keepers of God’s Covenant. After their term came to an end, the best of the jinn, named Iblis, was allowed to dwell in Paradise with God’s angels. When God created Adam, it was then that he commanded all in Paradise to bow to Adam out of respect and humility for God’s handiwork. All the angels did so because angels have no free will; they cannot disobey God’s commands. However, the Qu’ran (8:50) states that Iblis “was one of the jinn, and he broke the command his Lord.”” The role of Jinn is how Islam explains all sorts of paranormal events like ghost sightings, psychic powers, black magic, poltergeists, possessions, etc.

Moreover, there is also a question in the book on why there is no monastic life for Muslims, in which Rashed beautifully explains “In terms of spirituality, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught moderation and balance in all acts. So indulging in food, sex, and merriment in a hedonistic way was condemned. Abstaining from food, sex, and merriment was also condemned. Both are considered extremes against the idea of living a fulfilling but God-conscious life. The Prophet taught us that we were not created except to worship God, but that worship is by acknowledging His Beneficence and enjoying His bounties in a lawful, ethical way. For this reason, monasticism is not encouraged.”

There are many more intriguing questions asked in the book, that we cannot possibly discussed in this short review one by one. This shows that there is seemingly no end on the variation of questions and attacks, on possibly the most misunderstood religion in modern age. And for that reason, this conversation-style book is an important book to read, for us to gain more understanding of the contexts, the many angles, and ultimately the truth of the real Islam.

Book Review: The ultimate history of humankind

“Sapiens: A brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

For a history geek, this book is the ultimate source on pretty much everything.

Right at the beginning of this book Yuval Noah Harari presents his central thesis, that Sapiens can rise to the top of the food chain and become the rulers of the world because of our ability to create fiction, fiction that can eventually unites us more than the maximum 150 member-band found in any other species.

Unconventionally (or perhaps controversially) the fiction that Harari is talking about includes human rights charter, system of capitalism, system of communism, religion, caste system, border countries and its nationalism, all of which are not part of nature, are actually made up by humans, but can bring a large group of people together in their respective names.

This, of course, is only one of the many fascinating revelations, arguments, and explanations about human history from the book. One argument in particular was mind blowing for me, that humans have several diferrent forms like Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, etc just as dogs have different breeds and cats ranged from kitty cat to lions and tigers. And more intriguingly, Sapiens have eliminated all form of (competing) humans except for themselves.

The book also provides the most concise history of the ancient era, polytheist religions, mercantilism, climate change, the science evolution, a very eye-opening history of capitalism, the condensed history of energy (which explains the industry better than Daniel Yergin’s long books), the most logical explanation on the current trend of consumerism which gives a surprise minimalism message, the best detailed explanation (and thus, the argument) on animal cruelty, and many more.

Moreover, it even covers about diet and exercise (e.g. what hunter-gatherers actually eat and why it’s different than the current crazed of paleo diet), one whole chapter on happiness that would make Gretchen Rubin proud, and gives a lot of new connections for previously thought separate occurrences, like how the Mississippi bubble eventually lead to the French Revolution, the 1821 Greek revolt against the Ottoman became the root of today’s Greek economic chaos, or who were behind the First Opium War and what the British initially use Hong Kong for.

In short, it is a mind blowing (successful) attempt at covering everything there is about human history, in the best possible approach: in any topic Harari lay down all the many angles of arguments, presents all the facts from all sides, gives his carefully constructed opinion on the matter, but crucially still leaves the conclusion open-ended for further research.

For these reasons, this book easily became the (newest) best book I’ve ever read, by a distinction. It gave me abundant new perspectives that directly change the way I see several things in life. No wonder that Many people from Bill Gates to Barack Obama highly recommend this book.

Book Review: A greater context on the interpretation of Al Qur’an

“The Qur’an Discussions: What Would a Muslim Say (Volume 2)” by Ahmed Lotfy Rashed

This is the 2nd volume of Ahmed Lotfy Rashed’s books of e-mail correspondence, which covers a lot of real-life questions on Islam from non-Muslims. On this particular book, Rashed dig deeper into Al Qur’an, with the narrative of a long list of interesting questions from one person that reads the Qur’an cover to cover.

Rashed remarked, “Most Qur’an students notice that the first third of the Qur’an is where most of the social, legal, and political rulings reside, so it is this section of the Qur’an that generates the most questions and discussions. The remaining two thirds deal more with the stories of the previous prophets and general spiritual and moral admonitions, so it is less dependent on historical context.”

And right on cue, this book focuses on that first 1/3 of the holy text.

It talks about Islamic finance, the difference between fallen angel in the Bible and jinn in the Qur’an, the rules of having 4 wives, the rules for women wearing niqab, the rules and context for marriage age, on friendship with non-Muslim. It also talks about Islam compatible relationship with science and its progress, on the difference between the spread of Islam and the expansion of Muslim Empires, the technicalities of zakat and who are entitled to it, and many, many more.

As always, Rashed provides the context for each one of the verse discussed, and at some cases provide more examples, which is vital in understanding the interpretation of the Qu’ran. As Rashed himself commented: “our scholars teach us that knowing the reason for revelation (the context) is a prerequisite for understanding the message that God is relating in any particular passage. When the context is a belligerent treaty-breaking tribe (as was the case for most of Surah 9 and Surah 8), the verses are understood to be applicable only against future belligerent tribes or nations. Likewise, when the context is general guidelines or principles (as was the case for most of the Qur’an), the verses are understood to be applicable in general, thus forming the normative teachings of Islam. This concept alone addresses most of the misconceptions about the Qur’an being a book of intolerance or Islam being a religion of violence.”

All in all, it is an easy to read book, that answers some of the most pressing questions in a simple but powerful way.

Book review: The complete picture of Stoicism

“The little book of Stoicism” by Jonas Salzgeber

I am an avid student of Stoicism, who has read numerous books on the philosophy, from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, all the way to Ryan Holiday. I listen to all the available podcasts on the subject, read as many articles as I can find, and I read the Daily Stoic every morning for the 2nd year running (the 3rd reading of the book).

But as tremendously helpful as these materials are, I still left wondering on several things about Stoicism, mainly due to the scattered knowledge and wisdom from these various sources with no single source for summary that I’m aware of. This book is the answer for exactly that, the complete picture of Stoicism, which is divided into 2 parts: the background theories and the practical tools.

The first part of the book provides us with the proper history of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. It tells the fascinating background stories of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and the fourth lesser known Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, and the anonymous Stoics living in the Roman Empire time.

It is interesting to read how Zeno look up to the teachings of Socrates, and just like Socrates the Stoics met outside in the public (or on the porch) where everyone from academics to ordinary people can listen. It is also interesting to learn that Epictetus was the student of Musonius Rufus, and how Marcus Aurelius became a great Stoic philosopher after reading Epictetus’ Discourses. While a reader of Stoicism will know that Seneca was a wealthy man, this book shows by how much: his wealth was three hundred million denarii (to get an idea of how much that is worth, a month’s salary was around thirty denarii, which, at about the same period of time, was the amount of money Judas received to betray Jesus).

Moreover, in the first part of the book, there is also the author’s own Stoic Happiness Triangle, which is simple but powerful. The concept consists of Eudaimonia (living a supremely happy and smoothly flowing life) as the objective at the centre of the triangle, and the three approaches at every corner of the triangle to achieve it: 1. Live with Areté (or express your highest self in every moment) 2. Focus on what you control 3. Take responsibility.

But the real gem of the book got to be the 2nd part of the book, the practical tools. It consists of 55 Stoic practices, 1-21 of which are on preparing practices, 22-38 on how to deal with yourself when life gets tough, and 39-55 on how to handle yourself when other people challenge you. These Stoic practices serve like Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic, with the organisation of information similar like Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, which makes the book a perfect go-to source for “what would a Stoic do?” in seemingly every situations imagined.

At the very core, what you do with the given circumstances matters much more in Stoicism. It’s not what happens in the uncontrollable world around us, but our choice of action in response to it. It’s not what happens to us, but our interpretation on it that will hurt us.

Stoicism also emphasis the importance of self-reflection. As the author, Jonas Salzgeber, said “[t]his is why daily reflection routines are crucial in Stoic philosophy—if you don’t know where you went wrong, how are you supposed to improve as a person? If you don’t know how you want to behave in the world, how can you be your best?”

Another favourite of mine is the attitude towards hardship, in which Seneca commented “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” He then elaborate that God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his own service.” On this note, Epictetus made a remark that, without struggles, “[o]bviously, [Hercules] would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”

The book also covers the side of Stoicism that resonates with my 2nd favourite life philosophy: minimalism. According to Jonas Salzgeber, the Stoics favour a simple lifestyle. In fact, Musonius Rufus advises us to, as written by Salzgeber, “dress to protect our bodies, not to impress other people. Seek the necessary, not the extravagant. The same is true for our housing and furnishings. They should be functional and do little more than keep out heat and cold, and shelter us from the sun and wind.” Meanwhile Seneca commented that “no person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” Yes, that’s contentment checked too.

Naturally, in the 55 practices there are also the Stoicism “greatest hits”, with the likes of putting ourselves in temporary discomfort to eliminate the fear of worst case scenario (practice no 8), contemplating our own death to better appreciate our life (practice no 5), keeping a role model (practice no 11), and another of my favourite, what Seneca teaches that “wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness” (practice no 44). And what happens if someone directly insult you, lie to you, hurt your feeling, cheat on you, steal from you, annoy you? Chapter 8 (practice no 39 – 55) give the solution for all of them.

All in all, it is yet another excellent book on Stoicism, that I will surely read and re-read in the future, especially for the 55 practices that are timeless and will be very useful until old age. Highly recommended.