PBS: The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

Last October 2019, a year after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the US public service channel, PBS, broadcast a two-hour documentary, The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The documentary looks at the rise of Muhammad bin Salman and his handling of dissent.

The Saudis have a lot of money at their disposal with which they have bought newspapers, TV channels, and numerous Muslim organisations across the world. They have purchased spying software from Israel to keep tabs on Saudi dissidents. Successive US governments have provided critical support to the repressive Saudi regime in return for huge amounts of Saudi money being spent on the US arms industry.

Amidst all this corruption, the PBS documentary is a breathtakingly honest look at the secretive Kingdom and its destructive Crown Prince.

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Sudesh Amman’s Family Also Deserve Our Sympathy

Amidst all the media coverage over the past couple of days of the horribly misguided actions of Sudesh Amman – the young twenty-year-old who went on a knifing spree in Streatham High Street, South London, last Sunday, just days after being released from prison – it is only right and natural to feel sympathy and solidarity with the two innocent victims of his attacks. The good news is that both victims of the senseless stabbings, the teacher, Monika Luftner, and a man, said to be in his 40s, are reported to be recovering from their injuries.

It is less obvious – but perhaps no less true – that the family of Sudesh Amman are also deserving of our sympathy and solidarity. According to media reports, the mother, Haleema Khan, has had the difficult task of bringing up Sudesh’s five younger brothers on her own for the past few years while the father had returned to live in Sri Lanka. How must they all – especially the younger siblings – feel to know that their eldest brother has been shot dead and that their every move is now being monitored closely by the UK media who have been busy questioning all of their neighbours and school friends for any news about them and their background? The younger kids must surely be very apprehensive about returning to school to face the inevitable questions and cruel taunts (and perhaps worse).

I don’t know if I am hoping for too much when I say that it would be good to think that the many mosques and community organisations in Luton – right on the door step of Dunstable (the town where Sudesh’s family are now living) – would be performing their duty and providing assistance to Haleema Khan and her children in their time of need. Even attempting to go out to get the groceries to feed the kids at this time is very likely to result in the UK media crowding the family members and bombarding them with questions when they are feeling incredibly vulnerable. So, will the mosques of Luton (and indeed our national Muslim organisations) come to assist? I don’t know – but I would like to think that they would. No doubt there are sections of the UK media that may look to criticise the mosques and community organisations for helping out, but they – and we – are surely answerable to a higher authority than the gutter press.

It is heart breaking to see our young people being seduced by propaganda from the likes of ISIS/AQ. All too often, the only role models being offered to our youth are those who have compromised their principles in exchange for money from government and others with deep pockets. Some have even turned into vocal defenders of Israel’s apartheid policies. Have we so quickly forgotten how when we were young we viewed with disdain those – in the UK and elsewhere – who blandly parroted government lines in the hope of gaining honours and wealth?

Since the Tories came to power in 2010 they have short-sightedly boycotted dialogue with the UK’s largest and most representative organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain. It is high time to re-open that dialogue and work together to look at how our young people can be better protected and safe-guarded.

We must always be willing to speak out loudly against unjust killings whether it is carried out by the nihilists of ISIS/AQ or by our own Western governments. A failure to do so will surely mean that we lose the trust and respect of our youth. And rightfully so.

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Review: Rise of Empires: Ottoman (Netflix)

On two separate occasions in the new six-part Netflix docu-drama Rise of Empires: Ottoman the newly appointed Sultan Mehmed II (Muhammad) – who was only nineteen when he took the helm of the Ottoman state following the death of his father Murad II – is offered boxes of gold by those seeking to earn his favour. On both occasions he rebuffs the gifts. For Mehmed has only one over-riding desire: an ambition he has nurtured since he was a child. To fulfil the saying of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the Muslim ummah:

‘Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!’

Twenty-three armies in the previous centuries, including that of his own father, had failed to breakthrough the famous fourteen mile long walls enclosing the city of Constantinople. The walls were first built by the Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century. Now Mehmed, conscious that his newly-acquired authority is not unquestioned, informs his officials that he has had a dream in which those walls had opened before him. “The time of the Romans has ended,” he announces. It is time for a new chapter of history to begin. We are informed that Mehmed has a vision of his Ottoman realm having a distinctly multi-ethnic and multi-religious character.

What follows is an utterly gripping mix of drama and history lesson with regular helpful input and commentary from a variety of Western and Turkish historians and scholars including Jason Goodwin (the author of Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire) and a Professor Emeritus of something or other.

The beleaguered Orthodox Christian defenders of Constantinople are acutely aware that they are outnumbered ten to one by the Ottoman forces but they place their hopes on their reliable walls and assistance arriving from the Catholic city states to the West. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI is also conscious that he is the heir to a one thousand year Roman legacy and refuses Mehmed’s request to handover the city peacefully. So begins the siege of Constantinople and a battle of wits between Constantine XI and Mehmed II.

With each day that he fails to break the defence of Constantinople Mehmed is aware that his army could mutiny and his advisers including the Grand Vizier (Wazir) Candarli Halil Pasha could seek to overthrow him and have him killed.

The Emperor welcomes the Italian pirate Giovanni Giustiniani and his mercenaries to Constantinople and tasks him with leading the defence of the city. The Christians are portrayed fairly and sympathetically as trying to defend their own Roman inheritance. It must have taken a huge amount of courage to refuse to back down in the face of Mehmed’s colossal army. Both sides believe that God is on their side but as the introductory narration from Charles Dance points out, for one empire to rise, another must fall.

Learn lessons from the failures of your father and those before him if you want to be the one that conquers Constantinople, Mehmed’s stepmother advises him. So when Mehmed suffers repeated setbacks during the siege he goes back to the table in his tent to think of new tactics to deploy.

And I think we all know how the battle ends, right?

I could only find a minor criticism to make. While Mehmed was shown to be impetuous, arrogant and impatient – and perhaps that is the point as he was still so young, the actor that plays him is, well, a bit short. In the scene when Mehmed comes face to face with Commander Giustiniani it is difficult not to notice this disparity and realise that it is more like face to belly button. I began to wonder why Giustiniani did not start laughing outright at his dwarf opponent. I have no idea if the actual Mehmed al-Fatih (the Conqueror) was as short, but I have to admit to finding it just a bit distracting.

Other than that I was glad to see that a lot of actual Turkish actors were involved in the leading roles and although the production required them to speak in English, it did not take away from their performances in any way and their accents even added an extra measure of authenticity to the proceedings.

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Ayatullah Khamenei’s Friday Jumu’ah sermon – with English translation

The Iranian channel Press TV has uploaded the entire footage of the  sermon – click on the pic above – delivered by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Khamenei at the Friday congregational prayer in Tehran on 17th January 2020.

The sermon dealt with two important issues that have faced their nation in recent weeks: the assassination by the United States of the Iranian General Qasim Sulaymani and the tragic shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger plane by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It is not often on our Western TV screens that we get to hear the Iranian leadership’s point of view concerning recent events so the sermon which is about an hour long and includes an English translation is definitely worth watching.

We sometimes forget that the secret services of the UK and the USA orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian leader Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953 (after he nationalised Iran’s oil industry – how dare he, eh?) and that this has coloured the perception of Iranians about the UK and USA ever since. Just imagine the reaction if the reverse had happened and the Iranian secret services had orchestrated the overthrow of the UK government! But we are so conditioned by our media and politicians to accept that Western meddling in the affairs of the Middle Eastern nations is perfectly normal and acceptable that we do not react with outrage at the behaviour of our own governments.

Similarly, with the recent assassination of the Iranian General Qasim Sulaymani: Just imagine if the reverse had happened and that the Iranians had assassinated an equivalent high ranking official of the United States and had openly celebrated it. However, once again, we have been conditioned to accept that illegal and murderous behaviour on the part of the United States is perfectly acceptable and even to be praised.

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Evliya Celebi at the Sulaymaniyyah Mosque in Istanbul

As a new year begins, I am grateful that I was able to once again visit Istanbul last year. A few years ago, I purchased An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi. Celebi lived in the 17th Century (1611 – c. 1685) and spent his adult life travelling extensively both inside and outside the Ottoman domains including the Caucasus, Crete, Azerbaijan, Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Rumelia, Eastern Anatolia, Iraq, Iran, Russia, the Balkans, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Crimea, Greece, the Arab Peninsula, Sudan and Egypt. Today he would be described as a travel writer. His observations were published as a ten-volume manuscript, the Seyahatname or the Book of Travels. An Ottoman Traveller is a selection of extracts from the Book of Travels.

Evliya Celebi’s the Book of Travels is described by the translators/editors Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim in the introduction as:

“…probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language, and a key text for all aspects of the Ottoman Empire at the time of its greatest extension in the seventeenth century. It is also the product of an unusual personality – a cultured Ottoman gentleman, pious yet unconventional, observant and inquisitive, curious about everything, obsessive about travelling, determined to leave a complete record of his travels.”

My highlight of visiting Istanbul is always going to the Sulaymaniyyah mosque built (1543-57) on the orders of the Ottoman Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent (ruled 1520 – 1566). Below are some extracts from Evliya’s Celebi’s observations about the Sulaymaniyyah mosque in Istanbul taken from An Ottoman Traveller. I have added pictures taken from the internet to illustrate some of the Celebi’s passages. I have also added the original Arabic of the Qur’an to the translated passages for those who like to decipher the calligraphy.

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Description of the Mosque of Sultan Sulayman

It was begun in the year 1543 and finished in the year 1557, and is an exemplary mosque beyond description. The learned men who compose histories, and thus strike the dye on marble, have confessed the inability and failure of the best chroniclers to celebrate this unequalled mosque. Now, this humble Evliya ventures to write down in praises in as much as I am able.

First, this mosque divides in half the ground of old palace the Conqueror had earlier built. On top of the high hill, Sulayman Khan built a unique mosque overlooking the sea. How many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundation deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes. They dug until they had reached the deepest part, and in three years, by erecting a platform, the foundation was built up to the surface.

…The bowl of the indigo-coloured dome of this great mosque, up to its lofty summit, is more spherical than that of Aya Sofya, and is seven royal cubits in height.

Apart from the square piers supporting this incomparable dome, there are four porphyry columns on the right and left sides of the mosque, each one worth ten Egyptian treasures. These columns were from Egypt, transported along the Nile to Alexandria. From there Karinca Kapudan loaded them onto rafts and, with favourable wind, brought them to Unkapanu in Istanbul and then to Vefa Square…These four columns of red porphyry are each fifty cubits high. God knows, there is nothing like them in the four corners of the world.

The multi-coloured stained windows above the prayer-niche and the pulpit are the work of Sarhos Ibrahim. Mere men are too impotent to praise them. At noon, when these windows let in the rays of the world-illuming sun, the mosque interior shines with light, dazzling the eyes of the congregation. Each pane contains a myriad of varicoloured glass bits, in designs of flowers and of the beautiful names of God in calligraphy. They are celebrated by travellers on land and sea as a sight not matched in the heavens.

The prayer-niche and pulpit and the muezzin’s gallery are made of pure white marble…the lofty pulpit is made of raw marble and has a crown-like canopy, matched only by the pulpit in the Sinop mosque. And the prayer-niche could be that of Solomon himself. Above the niche, gold on azure by the hand of Karahisari, is inscribed the verse, Whenever Zacharias visited her in the Niche (3:37).

كُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَيْهَا زَكَرِيَّا الْمِحْرَابَ

…There has never been to this day, nor will there ever be, any calligraphy like that of Ahmad Karahisari both inside and outside this mosque. The Creator granted him success in this field. First, in the centre of the big dome, is inscribed the verse: God is the light of the heavens and earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance (24:35). He has truly displayed his skill in rendering this Light Verse.

…This mosque has five doors…Written over the left side door is: Peace be to you for all that you have steadfastly endured. Blessed is the recompense of paradise (13:24).

سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ بِمَا صَبَرْتُمْ ۚ فَنِعْمَ عُقْبَى الدَّارِ

Because Sulayman Khan is the conqueror of the seven climes, his name is mentioned not only here but in Friday sermons. And in all the lands of Islam, there is no building stronger and more solid than the Sulaymaniyyah. All architectural experts agree on this, and also that nowhere on earth has such an enamel dome been seen.

Within and outside this mosque the foundation is firm, the buildings elegant, and every piece of ornamentation the work of wondrous magic of extreme perfection. When the construction ended, the Grand Architect Sinan said, “My Padishah, I have built for you a mosque so solid that on Judgement Day, when the mountains are carded like cotton, the dome of this mosque will roll like a polo ball before the carder’s bow string of Hallaj Mansur.”

…Once this humble one observed ten Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture who were touring this light-filled mosque. The gatekeepers had let them in, and the caretakers had given them special shoes so they could walk around and see it. Wherever they looked, they put finger to mouth and bit it in astonishment. But when they say the doors inlaid with Indian mother-of-pearl, they shook their head and bit two fingers each. And when they saw the enamel dome, they threw off their Frankish hats and cried out in awe, ‘Maria, Maria!’

…This humble one requested their interpreter to ask them how they liked this building. One of them turned out to be capable of speech. He said, ‘All things, whether created beings or man-made structures, are beautiful either on the inside or on the outside. Rarely are the two beauties found together. But both the interior and exterior of this mosque were constructed with such grace and refinement. In all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.’

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Book Review: A Very British Muslim Activist

What an incredible journey Ghayasuddin Siddiqui has been on. Arriving in Sheffield as an impoverished Chemistry PhD student from Pakistan in the early 1960s, he would be heavily involved in the earliest UK student Islamic societies. It would be a natural progression for the young Ghayasuddin who back home had been an activist with the Jamaat-i-Islami, a leading Pakistani Islamic movement.
As a teenager in the early 1950s he had made a long cross-country trek from Karachi to a prison in Multan to visit the charismatic founder and leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Mawlana Mawdudi. However, it is the UK that would become home to Ghayasuddin.
Following a meeting with another charismatic figure, Kalim Siddiqui, the two would go on to found the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning in the early 1970s. The Muslim Institute would focus on trying to understand the reasons for the poor state of the Muslim world and would dedicate itself to searching for answers to the predicament of the Muslim ummah. An answer would come in the form of the 1978/79 Islamic revolution in Iran. “Kalim bhai, I think something is happening in Iran,” the book records Ghayasuddin as understatedly saying at the time (p85).
In Imam Khomeini’s revolutionary Muslim masses, Kalim and Ghayasuddin would come to see a genuinely home grown movement that was explicitly anti-colonial and fully determined that their country Iran should not be yet another submissive US client state in the oil-rich Middle East. At a time when quite a few Muslim organisations were seeking and being granted funding from the fantastically corrupt Saudi regime (as indeed the Muslim Institute had also done up until then), this would mark a clear break for the Muslim Institute from a number of other UK Muslim organisations. This rivalry between Saudi and Iranian supported Muslim organisations continues right up to the present day of course.
Ghayasuddin would be granted an audience with Imam Khomeini in person and when in 1989 the Imam issued his fatwa (legal opinion) regarding the Satanic Verses affair, Kalim Siddiqui – as Director of the Muslim Institute and the UK’s foremost supporter of the fatwa would get huge publicity and become a household name in UK Muslim communities.
Dr Kalim was a clever strategist and saw that the energies unleashed during the many marches and demonstrations against Salman Rushdie’s book could perhaps be utilised for a more constructive purpose: that of helping UK Muslims become better organised and empowered. In 1990, the Muslim Institute published the Muslim Manifesto, a document that called for the formation of a Muslim Parliament in the UK.
It was during this time that I – a student at the time – first came to meet Dr Kalim Siddiqui and Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui (no relation). I was impressed by how the two Siddiquis refused to be intimidated by the UK establishment and were prepared to speak out at what was clearly unfair treatment by the then Conservative government. It was only anti-Muslim bigotry surely that allowed the government to fund over twenty Jewish schools for the much smaller Jewish community, yet refuse to fund a single Muslim school. We should not forget that the Tories would make repeated excuses for refusing to fund Muslim schools and this would only change in 1997 following the election of the Labour party into power.
The early 1990s would see the break up of formerly communist Yugoslavia into a number of independent republics, but when the Bosnians declared independence, they were immediately attacked by Serbian and Croat forces. The Muslim Bosniaks were being slaughtered by their own former countrymen that had Serb and Croat heritage.
Today’s generation should be reminded in schools that the last genocide that occurred in Europe was not that of the Jews over 70 years ago at the hands of the Nazis, but of Muslims in Srebrenica less than twenty five years ago. And outrageously, the main European powers had imposed an arms embargo on Bosnia, so while the Serbs and Croats would continue to be armed by their neighbouring republics of Serbia and Croatia, the democratically elected government of Bosnia could not legally purchase arms to defend its beleaguered and surrounded population.
To many British Muslims, it appeared that the European Christian powers were more than happy to turn a blind eye to the eradication of a Muslim population and culture in Europe. So much for “Never again.” To this day it grates to recall the pompous and superior tones with which the then UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd would justify the enforcing of the arms embargo. The book, I think correctly, identifies the tragedy in Bosnia (and later in Chechnya) as signifying the beginning of the radicalisation of some UK Muslim youth. The Muslim Parliament would defy the Tory government and openly raise funds throughout the UK for the jihad in Bosnia to defend its Muslim population.
In 1996, Dr Kalim Siddiqui would pass away and the leadership of the Muslim Parliament and the Muslim Institute would be invested in Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui. Within a year I had become aware of  serious trouble at these bodies when I received an odd letter at home. It said – from memory – that Dr Ghayasuddin had betrayed the ideals of the Islamic revolution in Iran and it was forbidden to send funds (sahm-i-Imam) to him and the organisations he headed. Sahm-i-Imam is a Shi’a term and I am not a Shi’a so I did at the time wonder why I was sent that letter. Anyway, some familiar figures from the Muslim Parliament that I had known for several years soon left and distanced themselves from Dr Ghayasuddin. The book does not name names and only says “Several members were revealed to have been under the bankroll of the Iranian government and were rapidly relieved of their positions,” (p180). This biography is not a warts and all story. You have to join the dots yourself.
Since 1996, Dr Ghayasuddin appears to have become rather less enamoured with the Islamic revolution in Iran and has changed a number of his views. He would later even go on to join the board of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy. That is something I cannot imagine the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui ever doing. He would also become a committed champion of the rights of Muslim women and would campaign to ensure that those who married under the Islamic Nikah ritual in the UK were properly protected by law. The book describes him as a Muslim feminist. After challenging the behaviour of the UK government Dr Ghayasuddin also began to challenge the unjust behaviour of many within the UK Muslim community. 
It is a fascinating and courageous transformation and yet this book does not explore the reasoning behind the dramatic changes in so many of his former views from being a committed advocate of Islamic revolutions to becoming a secular democrat. I think that is an opportunity missed as I think Dr Ghayasuddin has plenty of valuable life lessons to pass on to today’s newer generation of UK Muslims.
Today, the UK government continues to treat Muslims disdainfully. We have a Prime Minister who openly mocks the religious attire of some Muslim women as resembling “letterboxes”. Propagating Islamophobia day in and day out is a staple of much of the UK’s media. The UK government does not treat all forms of xenophobia as equally abhorrent. In particular, its funding of the Jewish Community Security Trust (£13.4 million a year) dwarfs the funding it provides to challenge bigotry against the much larger UK Muslim community. The UK government enthusiastically supported the US invasion and bombing campaign of Iraq despite the invasion being declared illegal according to international law. Yet the UK government refuses to contemplate any punitive action or sanctions – let alone any serious action – against Israel for its continued illegal occupation and settlement building in Palestine.
The campaign to ensure that the UK government acts more justly continues. At the same time it must be admitted that UK Muslims also need to look much more critically at themselves and their own role and actions in the UK. As this book demonstrates, for almost the whole of his adult life Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui actively threw himself into these campaigns and for that he surely deserves to be honoured.
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Book Review: The Quran: Epic and Apocalypse by Todd Lawson

What is an epic and what is an apocalypse? After reading this book, it seems that Todd Lawson, an Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at Toronto university in Canada, is arguing that an epic provides a narrative about human origins, about self-identity, social structure and our relationship to the supernatural. In that sense, the Qur’an does indeed appear to qualify as an epic. And the apocalypse? Apocalypse is the Greek work for Revelation, Lawson informs us, and reveals secrets about the heavenly world and Divine judgement. So, the Qur’an would qualify on that count too. Great, now – what?

Well, according to Lawson, the situation the world finds itself in means that everyone should better acquaint themselves with the Quran.

“No book has had a greater impact on the history of humanity and the development of world culture. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that to make it part of the educated global citizen’s reading – what used to be thought of as “soul formation” – is a desideratum of some urgency.” (p xii)

I try and keep an open mind with all books. After all, an author – especially a university professor – has often spent years carefully thinking about various issues and their arguments deserve to be heard respectfully before we come to a decision on whether they sound reasonable or not. Here, Lawson, made an argument that I found intriguing:

“If read in the tanzil order of revelation, the Quran sounds like an apocalypse; if read in the order of the mushaf, the Quran sounds like an epic…As sacred epic, then, the Quran is concerned not with a particular ethnic group (unlike previous epics), rather it is concerned with forging a new group for which it is providing a universal narrative. The new group is humanity. This is not a mere literary achievement; it is an epoch-making shift in religious consciousness.” (p xvi-xvii)

Does viewing the Qur’an as epic and apocalypse aid our understanding of its message and power. Lawson claims that it does:

“To recognise the Quran’s apocalyptic and epic voices and their contrapuntal relationship is to observe something quite essential about the way in which the Quran commands and grips an audience, the way it teaches, and the way in which its readership, its audience, develops its attachment to the book.” (p24)

There may perhaps be something in this. I recall reading somewhere – I can’t remember where – of a religious bookseller in a Muslim country who said his best-selling books all concerned topics about the Last Day and the Divine Judgement. But that is hardly conclusive.

I think Lawson is on surer ground when he contrasts the Qur’an with some other epics (think of the Old Testament or the Hindu scriptures):

“…the epic voice of the Quran also offers a critique of other competing, more narrowly ethnic or national epics. The Quran thus calls forth a universal human identity through its insistence on the originary Day of Alast, on the certitude that all human communities have received divine guidance from the same unique and only God, and that all humanity is participating, consciously or not, in a process of civilisation, an epic journey from ignorance to knowledge or enlightenment.” (p 169)

I have read much of the Old Testament and have always found the narrow focus on Israelite history to be somewhat off-putting. The Qur’an by contrast in its very first surah says that it is a message from the “Lord of the worlds” and its final surah calls on us to “seek refuge in the Lord of humankind”. It is an avowedly universal message.

Lawson’s book also includes a Chapter on “Joycean Modernism in Quran and Tafsir” which in practice contains an extensive discussion about the views of the “Iranian Prophet” Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (or the Bab) – one of the central figures of the Baha’i faith. The chapter seemed out of place in a book about the Qur’an until I learned that Professor Lawson was himself a Baha’i. The chapter seemed a bit forced and would have been better published separately rather than in a book about the Qur’an.

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