I'm really excited about reviewing books again, since I haven't done this in quite a while. In the past few weeks, I've read quite a few good books, both bought by myself and given to me by others. I can't imagine what my life would be without a decent book by my side. I'd be bored stiff, I suppose. The two books are:
1. The Trial (Franz Kafka)- translated from German into English
2. The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad (Tariq Ramadan)
1. The Trial
The first review is on Kafka's all-time masterpiece, The Trial which deals with the importance of the rule of law whether in a democracy or an authoritarian state, though I'd say it's even more important in the latter. We are introduced to the main character (I can't really tell wheter he's a protagonist or an antagonist) who is simply called "K" and we follow him through a lengthy legal procedure the purpose of which remains vague to the reader and to K himself. All through the chapters, I was left wondering what K had done to deserve such a thing, and being a fan of the WWII history, I recall seeing and reading many similar cases in history books and documentaries, where people were just dragged out of their homes, detained for weeks or even months when there was no evident proof to link them to any civil crimes. Detention without conviction.
As I was reading this thriller, I couldn't help but think about Malaysian ISA (Internal Security Act). This is the mark of a truly good book. It'll never cease to be relevant and about 5 decades after it was written, The Trial still manages to make a random reader like me think about the link between K and an individual Malaysian for example. Detention without conviction, no matter for what purpose, seems to me to be immoral. We are not talking about being locked up overnight here, sometimes, people get detained several yeras straight without really knowing for which specific crime they are held for. In an age when the idea of democracy is being constantly debated, it's almost inconceivable that the notion of ISA still exists, especially in a country that speaks out against Guantanamo. Martin Luther King once said something about how when we criticize people of being victimizers, we have to stop for a moment and take some time to think whether we are not one ourselves. The Trial, to me, highlights the point that where the objective of unlawful detention may be noble (to protect national unity, to keep harmony, etc), the execution may not be. And the high risks of abuse attached to the idea of detaining people without lawfully just cause is a valid ground for questioning, at the very least.
So that's what I like about this book. Some people are of the opinion that the book is just too vague. Till the very end, we are not told of what K had done, and that leaves some people frustrated. but I think that's what the novel is trying to illustrate. How such a process involves vague methods so as to prevent the detainees from taking active measures to protect their rights. They simply don't know which rights have been violated due to the vagueness of the whole thing. This brings to light the imminent danger of letting something like ISA undermine the principle of the Rule of Law, where the act of incriminating people must come with maximum certainty as to their guilt. So, for those of you who are learning Constitutional Law, this book is a great way of consolidating your understanding. Verdict: 7.5 out of 10. Giving credit where its due, I'd like to thank Ms Johnson for recommending this book to me all those years ago in KYUEM, even though I still haven't forgiven you for deserting us =)
2. The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad
I bought the second book in Borders near where I live now, and the prospect of being treated to a heavily historical book excited me so much that I unwrapped the book immediately after I sat down at Starbucks. And I wasn't disappointed. Ramadan is well-known the world over for a reason, and that is his highly eloquent presentation of intellectual messages. In The Messenger, for instance, Ramadan avoids falling in the claptrap of other conventional biographist like Karen Armstrong whose book, "Muhammad", I find a bit boring since there really is nothing new in it. Ramadan chose instead to serve up the story of the life of the Prophet (pbuh) in a way that's not narrative but analytical. In any history book, the first stage of information is always the "what", and once we get through that, we go the "why". And an exceptionally good history book would venture into the "lesson" behind the "what" and the "why". This book has all the three elements.
If you are not familiar with the life of the Prophet, don't worry so much as the author goes to great length to make the chronological order of the Prophet's lifetime simple and accessible. For those of you who are well advanced in Sirah Nabawiyah, plenty of references are provided, with numerous mentions of Ibn Ishaq's biographies of the Prophet, as edited by Ibn Hisham, along with Quranic verses and Hadiths, mainly by Bukhari, since Ramadan was careful not to cite weak hadiths. So, once we get past the rather tiresome task of making sure the primary and secondary sources are not suspicious, we get what seems to me to be a great treatment of an exemplary life which does not attempt at oversimplifying certain events in history. For example, the execution of the treacherous men of Banu Qurayzah has always been a matter reduced to oversimplification. Maududi took a positon that favored the expedition wholeheartedly without going into the context in which the Banu Qurayzah's treachery took place. Seems pretty one-sided to me. The closest to a fair description of the event was by Montgomery Watt, who focused instead on the breached covenant which promotes the reasonings behind the actions of both the Muslims and the Jews. But Ramadan went a step further by showing how the Prophet's decision had been necessary and not simply justified. If an act is justified, it hints at a wrongdoing that is excused, but if an act is necessary, it hints at a positive act that incurs some costs. I prefer the latter view of the Banu Qurayzah episode, which somehow suggests that Ramadan does not underestimate the perceptive level of his readers. I like that =)
Furthermore, there was no action of the Prophet that was trivial enough to the author. In the chapter that dealt with the passing of the Prophet, I wasn't really expecting any substantial lessons to be learned. I was wrong. Even after the Prophet's death, a powerful lesson on human qualities is presented. I really like Ramadan's way of highlighting the unpredictability of man's character and that because of that, nothing is final. Abu Bakar who was so sensitive all his life, who was most prone to weeping, was calmer than Umar who had a strong personality in the light of the Prophet's death. The lesson is, sensitivity is not a weakness and physical strength may hide a malleable heart. The Prophet didn't have to do anything to teach us all this vital knowledge on psychology. And that's how good this book is at relating events and showing how each of them represents something in the modern world. If for nothing else, this book illuminates that the way of the Prophet is never obsolete.
Verdict: 9.5 out of 10, which is the highest so far that I've given to any book. But then, I'm a huge history buff, so I may be a bit biased. But go and read the book yourself and if you think I've overvalued the book, let me know in the comments section, I'll be happy to listen to your thoughts. Happy reading, everyone =)