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Two new “must read” books

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Hamid & Farrall, Stern & Berger, full reviews coming up shortly ]

Farrall & Berger


I recently received a review copy of Mustafa Hamid & Leah Farrall‘s breakthrough book, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, courtesy of the publisher, Michael Dwyer of Hurst, and will be writing it up once I’ve finished devouring it:

A former senior mujahidin figure and an ex-counter-terrorism analyst cooperating to write a book on the history and legacy of Arab-Afghan fighters in Afghanistan is a remarkable and improbable undertaking. Yet this is what Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu Walid al-Masri, and Leah Farrall have achieved with the publication of their ground-breaking work.

The result of thousands of hours of discussions over several years, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan offers significant new insights into the history of many of today’s militant Salafi groups and movements.


An almost unbelievable and very welcome collaboration.




Jessica Stern is terrific, while JM Berger is not only one of our ablest analysts, but also a good friend. This book will be an eye-opener.

Definitely my “Best Book” of 2014

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — I’m posting this not just to recommend Brown’s book, but also to make a significant excerpt from it readily available on the net ]

Misquoting Muhammad cover


One book I received this year has given me a greater depth of understanding than any other by a wide margin. That book is Professor Jonathan AC Brown‘s book, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy.

Brown is a Muslim, a professor at Georgetown, and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. His book Misquoting Muhammad — not his choice of title, btw — lays open the varieties of interpretive possibility in dealing with the Qur’an and ahadith with comprehensive scholarship and clarity. In light of the upsurge in interest in Islamic and Islamist religious teachings occasioned by Graeme Wood‘s recent Atlantic article, I asked Prof. Brown’s permission to reproduce here the section of his book dealing with abrogation and the rules of war.

Here then, with his permission, is an extract from Misquoting Muhammad. I hope it will prove of use both here and to others beyond the circle of Zenpundit readers. Spread the word!

The whole book is worth reading, the whole of this extract is worth reading — but the section within the extract that I particularly recommend is the passage which begins with “Abrogation brought into sharp contrast” (p.100) and ends with “but were those who died not also my servants?” (p. 103).


By way of a bonus, here’s a related DoubleQuote:

SPEC DQ hadith & midrash

Midrash Source:

  • Rabbi David Levi, JTS Torah Commentary
  • Recommended Reading

    Monday, February 16th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    It has been a very long time since I have done a Recommended Reading post. In the interim, there have been some fabulous things online, for example, the #Profession series at The Bridge, which was outstanding! [ yes, go dig in to it]  I will be selecting some of these along with more contemporary posts in the past week or two.

    Adam Elkus – A Matter of Path Dependence 

    The US has opted to pursue a strategy of control, with short-term objectives of containment and (some) rollback and a long term objective (it seems) of rolling back the Islamic State completely. But in doing so Washington is setting the state for the expansion of Iranian influence — and a backlash is beginning to emerge in Western policy circles. How to interpret this? 

    In my piece with Nick Prime on control and US strategy in Iraq and Syria, many likely did not pay attention to our aside: 

    If the Obama administration truly thought ISIL was the worst of the worst, they would be open to options that might more directly benefit the likes of Bashar al Assad or an expansionist Iran. Yet they would prefer that striking ISIL and other terror groups not benefit Assad.More bluntly, how much does Washington want ISIL/ISIS/Daesh (I have opted to refer to it as the Islamic State here) stopped? How much would it be willing to trade off other priorities? 

    This poses hard questions for Washington, questions that unfortunately are not getting responsible answers….

    Lexington Green – History Friday: The Storming of the Taku Forts, 1860 

    The war against China was a splendid opportunity to try out the latest equipment. The British brought with them the new Armstrong breach loading cannon.

    One chief interest in this campaign has been to watch the first trial of the Armstrong guns, and I was soon down at the edge of the river at the south gate of Tankoo, watching our fire and that of the enemy; as usual, the direction of the Chinese guns was good, but the elevation defective; they sent their shot either short or over our heads, and during that morning not one shot came nearer than within twenty yards of our guns. Not so the Armstrong shells; the first few were short, and burst in the water, but soon they got the range, and then you could see the dust fly, as the shell struck the battery, nor was it long until their fire was slackened, and they were eventually silent. Mr. Hosier, R.A., is the officer who has the credit of that morning’s work at Tankoo.

    As it happened, the concept of breech loading artillery was sound, and was in fact the wave of the future. But as sometimes happens with new technology, the first use of this new approach was unsuccessful. In the case of the Armstrong, they were comparatively expensive to make, and complex to operate. The Armstrongs performed well when they worked, but broke down and were unreliable and difficult to use. The British actually went back to using muzzle loading cannon, which would predominate for a few more years, including during the American Civil War which would break out a few months after these events on the other side of the world.

    Fabius Maximus (Don Vandergriff) – Reforming the US Army: can be done, must be done. 

    ….The army has several experiments with reforms under way. But it’s only slow progress.

    Even as late as 2011, Scott Halter (Lt. Colonel, Army), a successful Aviation Battalion Commander who practices Mission Command and Outcomes Based Training and Education (OBTE; details here), wrote “What is an Army but Soldiers: A Critical Assessment of the Army’s Human Capital Management System” (Military Review, Jan-Feb 2012) describing recommendations of the Secretary of the Army’s Human Dimension Task Force to reform the Army’s personnel system. Results of their work? Nothing!”

    One promising tool is 360 degree assessments (aka multi source feedback). Used by the Wehrmacht in WWII, they’re based on work going back to the T-groups devised in 1914. Today the Army experiments with this on a small scale. Too many senior officers fear that the fastest “water walkers” would get exposed by it. I know guys that I commanded companies beside who were hated by their senior NCOs and Lieutenants, but did well — some making it through brigade command to general. Great politicians, but their soldiers knew the truth.

    Simon Anglim – Orde Wingate and Combat Leadership 

    Major General Orde Wingate was the most controversial British commander of the Second World War, and can split opinion seventy years after his death, not least every time something new is published about him. This is unsurprising: a man who ate six raw onions per day, ordered all his officers to eat at least one and who conducted press conferences in the nude while scrubbing himself with a wire brush is bound to leave an impression. However, much of the controversy runs deeper than this, stemming from his performance as military commander and leader, specifically during three episodes occurring late in a military career beginning with passing out from the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1923 and ending in death in an air crash in Burma in 1944.

    First came the Palestine Arab uprising of 1936-1939, when Wingate, a captain on the Staff of General Headquarters in Haifa, was authorised by two British General Officers Commanding (GOC) Palestine, General Sir Archibald Wavell and General Sir Robert Haining, to train Jewish policemen, in British organised counterterrorist units known as the Special Night Squads. Wingate, a passionate Zionist, politicized this mission, turning it into the backbone of a personal campaign for a Jewish state, deploying his Night Squads in politically explosive pre-emptive and reprisal attacks on Arab villages believed to be hiding insurgents and using ‘robust’ methods to extract intelligence from prisoners. 

    Octavian Manea – Thoughts from Garmser and Kabul 

    SWJ: Did COIN work in Afghanistan? What does Garmser tell us about COIN in Afghanistan?

    Carter Malkasian: To say that counterinsurgency didn’t work is not a fair assessment. If you look at a variety of places in Iraq and Afghanistan you can see that counterinsurgency tactics—particularly the ones related to the use of military force, patrolling, advising, and small projects—worked in pushing insurgents out of a specific area. From a tactical perspective, counterinsurgency worked.

    The argument that counterinsurgency didn’t work has more weight from a strategic perspective. The Afghan surge ended with the government in control of more territory than any time since 2005 and in possession of large and competent security forces. As a result, the government may yet succeed. Nevertheless, the Afghan surge did not end with Afghanistan stabilized or the government ready to stand on its own. On top of that, counterinsurgency was expensive and demanded thousands for troops, facts that will always darken its story in Afghanistan.

    Global Guerrillas –The Open Jihad and ISIS isn’t the long term problem, Saudi Arabia is 

    The XX Committee –Is This the End of NATO? and Obama, the Un-War President

    Nuclear Diner –Another Minsk Agreement

    David Ronfeldt-The problem is preternatural tribalism, more than Islamic extremism — a reiteration

    Mahdiwatch –ISIS Beheadings: Hotwiring the Apocalypse One Christian Martyr At A Time

    Cicero magazine –Don’t Build A Berlin Wall in Ukraine


    Aeon Magazine Be Not Brave

    War Council.org –Red Ideas: In Praise of Divergent Thinking

    Blake Bennett – The Dark Science of Interrogation

    That’s it

    Sunday second surprise: Ferdinando Buscema

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — from Tesla to St Augustine is a short creative leap ]

    I recently received a LinkedIn invite from one Ferdinando Buscema, who described himself to me as a Glasperlenspieler, a player of the Glass Bead Game. I must say that pleased me, there’s a quiet humility there that calling oneself Magister Ludi or Master of the Game would lack. He’s a player, I’m a player, let’s play.

    Here’s the BoingBoing video he sent me when I accepted his invite:

    Not for nothing does Ferdinando call himself a Magic Experience Designer.


    As you’ll see, in the video Ferdinando very warmly recommends Erik Davis‘ book TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age of Information — which has also been highly praised by the likes of Howard Rheingold, Hakim Bey, Mark Dery, Bruce Sterling, Terence Mckenna, and Mark Pesce, to which intriguing list you may add myself.

    Erik and I began a never-completed HipBone game many years ago — it was around the topics of Hanibal Lecter, his recreational collection of church collapses, and the origins of the Memory Palace in Simonides‘ encounter with the gods Castor and Pollux — and Erik mentions the HipBone Games briefly in his book. At the moment, I owe him an update on the games, which I’ll post here at Zenpundit in due course.

    It was a particular delight for me, then, to see Ferdinando’s obvious and full-throated praise of Erik’s stunning book in his video, followed up by equal praise of Ramon Llul — one of those writers in the Hermetic tradition whose work precedes not just the Bead Game but much of today’s science, from digital computers via genetics to genetic algorithms and cryptography.


    Ferdinando’s third treasure turned out to be Nikola Tesla, and in particular the remark he made about his mode of creativity. I hadn’t come across this remark before, but it cried out for DoubleQuotation with a remark of St Augustine’s, which I have carried with me since I first read of it in Dom Cuthbert Butler‘s book, Western Mysticism, back in my teens better than half a century ago.

    Here, then, are the two luminous / numinous quotes, from Tesla and Augustine, DoubleQuoted by me for Ferdinando as an offering on first meeting:

    SPEC DQ Tesla Augustine


    It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the word “ictus” which Augustine uses also features in the context of Gregorian Chant, where it indicates the almost simmultaneous touchdown of a bird on a branch and its takeoff on a new curve of flight. I had the honor to learn the word from Dom Joseph Gajard, choirmaster at the Abbey of St Pierre de Solesmes — then and I suspect now the center of the world’s musical paleography and liturgical perormance of the chant, and in my teens my favorite vacation and retreat — under whose cheironomic hand I had the good fortune, once, albeit without much skill, to sing..

    And so the beads are dropped into the lake: we watch as their ripples ripple out and intersect..

    Sunday surprise: De Niro’s recommended reading

    Sunday, January 25th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — preferring Jarmusch’s Hagakure in Ghost Dog to Grovic’s Hesse and Sunzi in Bag Man ]

    In a film that the critics panned, Netflix offered, and I watched without much comprehension, Robert De Niro, playing the part of Dragna — “a dude who wears plaid jackets, thick glasses, and his grey hair in a swoopy high pompadour” who has assembled a motley team of killers in a seedy Bayou motel — educates John Cusack as his fav killer, Jack, by recommending he read certain books — notably Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game aka Magister Ludi:

    De Niro goes Magister Ludi

    De Niro goes Magister Ludi 2

    Magister Ludi means Master of the Game.

    Dragna apparently believes Hesse’s Game is best played by pitting assassins, here including cops, a “whore” and a dwarf as well as Jack, against one another in that seedy motel.. and is not altogether satisfied with the result, which shoots him shortly after he announces his own mastery of the game.

    De Niro goes Magister Ludi 3


    Zenpundit regulars who lack my enthusiasm for Hesse’s Game — quite different in style and tone from the one writer-director David Grovic proposes in his film — may at least be gratified to see his other recommendation:

    De Niro goes Sunzi


    I would have done better to re-watch Jim Jarmusch‘s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker, with its extensive quotations from the Hagakure:

    That’s what I’ll watch tonight.

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