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An early forerunner of ISIS

Present-day ISIS (Da'ish) is remarkably similar to the Azraqites, a much earlier fundamentalist movement in Islam that existed at the end of the seventh century. It is described by W. Montgomery Watt in his book Islamic Philosophy and Theology... The Azraqites were in revolt against the ruling dynasty, the Umayyads, based in Damascus, whom they regarded as illegitimate and irreligious.

The members of their band were the true Muslims; their house alone was 'the camp of Islam' … where Islam was truly observed. Those who 'sat still' at home and did not make the hijra or 'migration' to their camp were sinners and unbelievers, outside the community of Islam. … By thus excluding from the Islamic community even those Muslims who did not agree with them in every detail, they made it lawful to kill such persons and also their wives and children; for according to an old Arab usage there was no wrong in killing someone not a member of one's tribe or an allied tribe… This puritanical theology became a justification for sheer terrorism and the Azraqites became noted and feared for their widespread massacres.

And the parallel goes even further in view of ISIS's practice of getting Western recruits to execute Western hostages.

It is said that when a man went to them and said he wanted to join their band he was given a prisoner to kill; if, as is likely, it was a prisoner from the man's tribe, the killing would break his ties with his tribe and attach him irrevocably to the Azraqites.

They were finally defeated in 697.

Book review: Islamic Philosophy and Theology, by W. Montgomery Watt

This book formed part of a series, edited by Watt, which described various aspects of Islam. It is mainly concerned with the medieval period and has little to say of the time after the Mongol conquest in the mid-thirteenth century; Watt speaks of a 'period of darkness' between 1250 and 1900. As the title indicates, it covers both philosophy and theology; this is appropriate, because the two subjects were nearly always closely linked in Islamic thought.

The opening chapters are largely historical, describing the events that followed the death of Muhammad in 632. He was succeeded by four 'rightly guided caliphs', the last of whom, Ali, was murdered in 661. The centre of power then transferred to Damascus, where Muawiyya had established a rival caliphate, that of the Umayyads. Read more

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

A reminder for the Trump era

The psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote an excellent book on the guru phenonemon, Feet of Clay. It contained an important warning that seems apposite at this time.

All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide the world into "us" and "them", who preach that there is only one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by enemies, are particularly to be avoided. It is not necessary to be dogmatic to be effective. The charisma of certainty is a snare which entraps the child who is latent in all of us.

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more

Book review: What We Cannot Know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and in 2008 succeeded Richard Dawkins as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Like Dawkins, he is an atheist, but unlike Dawkins he intends to focus on science rather than religion. And yet religion does surface in this book, in which he considers whether there are things we can never know. Read more

Book review: The Young Visiters, by Daisy Ashford

This novel was written in 1890 when the author was aged nine. She rediscovered it in a drawer in 1917 when she was 36 and it was published two years later, spelling mistakes and all; the only editorial concession made was to insert paragraphing to aid readability. (Incredibly, a reviewer on Amazon recently complained that the publishers should have corrected the spelling!) The book was an instant success, being reprinted 18 times in the first year alone; it is still in print today. Read more

Book review: How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker

This is a book about evolutionary psychology, which Pinker explains at the outset as follows.

The evolutionary psychology of this book is in one sense a straightforward extension of biology, focused on one organ, the mind, of one species,Homo sapiens. But in another sense it is a radical thesis that discards the way issues about the mind have been framed for almost a century.

The view outlined here includes a number of ideas: that the mind is a set of modules whose organisation is genetic, that it is an adaptation designed by natural selection, and that the goal of natural selection is to propagate genes. But Pinker cautions us that none of these ideas should be pushed too far. Each of them contributes part of the explanation but none gives us the whole story. Read more

Book review: A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

This is a memoir but not an autobiography because, as Paxman explains at the outset, he does not say anything about his family: 'what they choose to disclose about themselves is up to them.' The first three chapters describe his early upbringing and education. He went first to a preparatory school and then to a minor public school, Malvern College. He was not greatly impressed by either of these institutions, which he saw as designed to foster class prejudices in those who attended them, but in the end he got an Exhibition (minor scholarship) at St Catherine's College, Cambridge, where he read English and edited the student newspaper Varsity . Read more