Thursday, August 27, 2015

More digitized Islamic manuscripts now available

by Salman Hameed

You really don't have to leave your basement now. Digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available from several collections. This is an alphabetical list from a few years back. For example, here are 25,000 Arabic manuscripts from the British Library digitized by the Qatar Digital Library (several astronomy manuscripts are part of this), and manuscripts related to the history of Arabic and Persian medicine at Yale's Medical Historical Library. Now Princeton collection of Islamic manuscripts has been expanded and you can access it here:
A generous grant from the Virginia and Richard Stewart Memorial Fund, through Princeton University’s Council of the Humanities, has made it possible for the Princeton University Library to expand online digital access to its extensive holdings of Islamic manuscripts. More than 1,200 digitized Islamic manuscripts are now available for study online in the Islamic Manuscripts Collection of the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL). 
Professor Michael A. Cook, Class of 1943 University Professor of Near Eastern Studies, notes that “Princeton’s great collections of Islamic manuscripts, acquired to support research in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, will be increasingly available to scholars all over the world, as the Library continues to digitize its holdings.” The Library has the largest collection of Islamic manuscripts in North America and one of the finest such collections in the Western world. Holdings include nearly 10,000 volumes of Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and other manuscripts of the predominantly Islamic world, written in Arabic script. Approximately two-thirds of them came to Princeton in 1942 as part of the Garrett Collection, donated by Robert Garrett (1875–1961), Class of 1897. Building on this extraordinary collection, the Library has continued to acquire Islamic manuscripts by gift and purchase. Now there are approximately 3,000 additional Islamic manuscripts with New Series and Third Series designations. Text manuscripts on virtually every aspect of Islamic learning, both religious and secular, are the chief strength. Princeton’s holdings also include Persian and Mughal illuminated manuscripts and miniatures. Other collections include European manuscripts written in Arabic script or containing translations. Arabic papyri are separately housed in the Princeton Papyri Collections. All of these holdings are in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, within Firestone Library.
More here

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Muslim scholars take a stance on climate change

by Salman Hameed

In a symposium in Istanbul last week, a group of Muslim scholars have urged Muslim countries to move away from fossil fuel and greenhouse gases in favor of more renewable sources. Here is the full  text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. In some ways it is not hard to justify such a claim from a  religious perspective - and so does this declaration:
This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained, and the earth’s fine equilibrium (mīzān) may soon be lost. As we humans are woven into the fabric of the natural world, its gifts are for us to savour. But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah – gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe, regular seasons, and living oceans. But our attitude to these gifts has been short-sighted, and we have abused them. What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy? How will we face our Lord and Creator?
This is a positive step and comes at the heals of a similar - but much thorough - Encyclical by the Pope (read the 184 page document here). This is also good timings (most likely deliberate) as world leaders are supposed to gather in Paris in a few months for a major climate change agreement. But it is unclear to me the impact of this statement my Muslim scholars. For example, will oil-producing countries - many of them Muslim-majority - going to change their policies? The rhetoric of climate change is actually hip (unless you are a Republican Presidential candidate in the US) and we see leaders using that language. But what is happening on the ground? There is definitely a move towards solar energy in the middle east and in south asia, and that is certainly good. On a very local level, here is a fantastic example of a genuine "Eco-Islam" in Tanzania (also see this book on Green Islam).  But then, as Saleem H. Ali, notes in an article from 2012, genuine environmentalism has not taken much root in many Muslim communities. There are some high profile environmental project as well, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. It is/was expected to showcase revolutionary renewable energy. While it is well behind schedule, it may still have an impact, if it is not seeking mere publicity of being a "zero-carbon-footpring" city.

All of this is to say, that it is fantastic that there is a discussion on Islamic position on climate change. If the world momentum is there for a broader action to combat climate change, such declarations will be a useful step for Muslim-majority countries that want to join in that effort.

Here is Bill McKibben on this Islamic Declaration:
By itself this declaration will not lead to much. Islam, for better and for worse, lacks a central governing body; there is no pope. And even the pope’s words are only words—happily he has no governing authority beyond the walls of the Vatican. But what they signal is an ongoing shift in the zeitgeist, to the point where most thinking people in our civilization realize that we have to take dramatic, even “radical,” action to blunt an emerging crisis. This is new. Ten or twenty years ago there was no significant religious environmental movement. Conservative religious leaders viewed concern about the environment as pagan, and liberal ones saw it as secondary to the battles against their traditional foes: hunger, poverty, war. Mostly it went ignored. 
But as the reality of climate change has grown steadily more apparent, all the thoughtful branches of humanity have begun to recognize that their philosophies and theologies need to be reconsidered in light of this new fact. Religion may be particularly prone to this rethinking: an understanding of God as all powerful and beneficent badly needs squaring with the reality that we are systematically dismantling our planet. The only ways out of this hole are to deny that it is happening, to insist that if it is happening God will intervene to prevent it, or to realize that as agents with free will we must take steps to rein ourselves in. The latter is obviously the mature course, and one that religious leaders across a variety of traditions are adopting. 
That adoption matters, at least in part because it throws into ever sharper relief the irresponsibility of the fossil fuel industry, which refuses to take seriously the climate challenge or to change its ways in any meaningful fashion. Oil executives may say that climate change is real, but their willingness to keep seeking out more hydrocarbons to burn exposes their true priorities. (If you thought climate change was an existential threat you would not go drill for oil in the Arctic, full stop.) Religious leaders (or scientists, or artists, or philosophers, or young people, or any of the other groups that have taken up this fight) may not yet have the power to break the fossil fuel companies’ political strength, but their insistence on reality provides a setting for possible quick change in the years ahead. Given the plummeting cost of solar power, for instance, the Muslim leaders’ call for 100 percent renewable energy need no longer be consigned to the distant future. 
and here is another reason for the importance of this declaration:
One of the things that makes this particular document so interesting is the fact that a large share of the world’s hydrocarbons lie beneath Muslim nations, be it Mideast oil or Indonesian coal. One doesn’t expect the Saudis to shut down the Ghazar oil field as a result, but in the past they’ve played an obstructionist part in international negotiations. Now that the Islamic Declaration calls on world leaders to commit concretely to a zero-emissions strategy, pressure may begin to grow on the Saudi monarchy, and the upcoming Paris summit will show if it is starting to soften. Already Abu Dhabi plays host to the UN’s renewable research center, and even Riyadh started signaling earlier this year that the age of oil may soon be past (replaced with sunlight, a commodity that the Gulf nations also have in quantity). The head of Indonesia’s Ulema Council, which represents the 210 million Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim country, said he welcomed the declaration and was “committed to implementing all its recommendations,” potentially a big deal since his nation has some of the planet’s largest undeveloped coal reserves.
Read the full article here and the full text of Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change here

Monday, August 10, 2015

New episode of Science ka Adda (SkA): Pluto - A New World Again!

by Salman Hameed

For those who speak Urdu, here is the latest episode of Science ka Adda: Pluto - A New World Again!

Here is the description of the episode:
Pluto was discovered in 1930. Up until 2015, we did not know much about this little world in our Solar system. The flyby of The New Horizon spacecraft has revealed Pluto to be a fascinating object hosting tall mountains made up of ice, smooth plains with nitrogen ice flows, and a moon that features canyons that can several kilometers deep! In this episode of Science ka Adda (SkA), Salman Hameed examines some of the latest pictures from New Horizons spacecraft and talks about the mysteries that these pictures have opened up in our understanding of Pluto. And of course, he reaffirms his absolute support for redesignating Pluto as a planet! For more videos in the series, please visit and for more detailed astronomy discussions in Urdu, please visit

Monday, August 03, 2015

Check out "The Stanford Prison Experiment"

by Salman Hameed

There is a good chance that you have heard of The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. I had also read about it and knew the general contours of the results. But I didn't know the specifics - especially the details that led to the shutting down of the experiment only six days into the 2-week project. Now there is a new fantastic film by the name of The Stanford Prison Experiment (now that makes it easy to know what the movie is about...) that dramatizes the experiment and, from what I have read, does a very good job of staying faithful to the events. It is an intense film (so, no - probably not a good date film) and has imagery that will remind you - though not to that level of savagery - of Abu Ghraib pictures. In the movie, Billy Cudrup plays psychologist Philip Zimbardo and he is excellent (as he was earlier in the fantastic film, Almost Famous). Here is Cudrup in the movie as young Zimbardo, and Zimbardo today:

Here is the trailer for the film (the movie is also available On Demand):

If you want to know more about the critique of the original experiment as well as the movie, then you should read this excellent article from The New Yorker, The real lesson from the Stanford Prison Experiment:

Less than a decade earlier, the Milgram obedience study had shown that ordinary people, if encouraged by an authority figure, were willing to shock their fellow-citizens with what they believed to be painful and potentially lethal levels of electricity. To many, the Stanford experiment underscored those findings, revealing the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors. Today, more than forty-five years later, many look to the study to make sense of events like the behavior of the guards at Abu Ghraib and America’s epidemic of police brutality. The Stanford Prison Experiment is cited as evidence of the atavistic impulses that lurk within us all; it’s said to show that, with a little nudge, we could all become tyrants. 
And yet the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment aren’t so clear-cut. From the beginning, the study has been haunted by ambiguity. Even as it suggests that ordinary people harbor ugly potentialities, it also testifies to the way our circumstances shape our behavior. Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?
The article then goes on to do an excellent job of providing a thorough critique of the experiment and brings up a BBC study of a similar nature as well:
If the Stanford Prison Experiment had simulated a less brutal environment, would the prisoners and guards have acted differently? In December, 2001, two psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, tried to find out. They worked with the documentaries unit of the BBC to partially recreate Zimbardo’s setup over the course of an eight-day experiment. Their guards also had uniforms, and were given latitude to dole out rewards and punishments; their prisoners were placed in three-person cells that followed the layout of the Stanford County Jail almost exactly. The main difference was that, in this prison, the preset expectations were gone. The guards were asked to come up with rules prior to the prisoners’ arrival, and were told only to make the prison run smoothly. (The BBC Prison Study, as it came to be called, differed from the Stanford experiment in a few other ways, including prisoner dress; for a while, moreover, the prisoners were told that they could become guards through good behavior, although, on the third day, that offer was revoked, and the roles were made permanent.) 
Within the first few days of the BBC study, it became clear that the guards weren’t cohering as a group. “Several guards were wary of assuming and exerting their authority,” the researchers wrote. The prisoners, on the other hand, developed a collective identity. In a change from the Stanford study, the psychologists asked each participant to complete a daily survey that measured the degree to which he felt solidarity with his group; it showed that, as the guards grew further apart, the prisoners were growing closer together. On the fourth day, three cellmates decided to test their luck. At lunchtime, one threw his plate down and demanded better food, another asked to smoke, and the third asked for medical attention for a blister on his foot. The guards became disorganized; one even offered the smoker a cigarette. Reicher and Haslam reported that, after the prisoners returned to their cells, they “literally danced with joy.” (“That was fucking sweet,” one prisoner remarked.) Soon, more prisoners began to challenge the guards. They acted out during roll call, complained about the food, and talked back. At the end of the sixth day, the three insubordinate cellmates broke out and occupied the guards’ quarters. “At this point,” the researchers wrote, “the guards’ regime was seen by all to be unworkable and at an end.” 
Taken together, these two studies don’t suggest that we all have an innate capacity for tyranny or victimhood. Instead, they suggest that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act—especially if that expectation comes from above. Suggest, as the Stanford setup did, that we should behave in stereotypical tough-guard fashion, and we strive to fit that role. Tell us, as the BBC experimenters did, that we shouldn’t give up hope of social mobility, and we act accordingly. 
This understanding might seem to diminish the power of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But, in fact, it sharpens and clarifies the study’s meaning. Last weekend brought the tragic news of Kalief Browder’s suicide. At sixteen, Browder was arrested, in the Bronx, for allegedly stealing a backpack; after the arrest, he was imprisoned at Rikers for three years without trial. (Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed.) While at Rikers, Browder was the object of violence from both prisoners and guards, some of which was captured on video. It’s possible to think that prisons are the way they are because human nature tends toward the pathological. But the Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that extreme behavior flows from extreme institutions. Prisons aren’t blank slates. Guards do indeed self-select into their jobs, as Zimbardo’s students self-selected into a study of prison life. Like Zimbardo’s men, they are bombarded with expectations from the first and shaped by preëxisting norms and patterns of behavior. The lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors—and, perhaps, can change them.
Read the full article here

Fantastic resource for historical research on the Middle East

by Salman Hameed

Open Access is having a fantastic impact. Here is an an excellent resource that contains open access to historical newspapers and other online journals in Middle East and Islamic Studies (thanks to Tabsir for the tip):
Alphabetical List of Open Access Historical Newspapers and Other Periodicals in Middle East & Islamic Studies
Below is a list of Open Access historical newspapers and other periodicals in Middle Eastern Studies.
Most titles on the list have been digitized by independent projects across the globe and may not have been fully cataloged. It is often difficult to find and access them on the web or through catalogs such as HathiTrust, AMEEL, Gallica, Revues, WorldCat, etc.
We welcome your comments and suggestions of additional titles to include. Please use the comment feature at the bottom of the page. 
For the list of active Open Access journals follow this link:
Alphabetical List of Open Access Journals in Middle Eastern Studies 
145 titles as of July 6, 2015.

New Stanley Kim Robinson book imagines interstellar travel for humans

by Salman Hameed

Humans will figure out ways to travel large distances. We have to! May be this is a faith statement, but if we look at the last 100-150 years, it is almost impossible to predict our future into the next couple of centuries. In particular, when there is a good chance that humans will get modified to a large degree (if not in kind altogether). All of this doesn't mean that we simply give up imagining the future. Therefore, it is really great to know that one of premiere hard science fiction authors, Kim Stanley Robinson (yes, yes, of The Mars Trilogy fame!), has jumped in to write a novel about travel to the moon of a Super-Earth planet (Super-Earths are generally double the size of the Earth, but much smaller than gaseous giants of our solar system) about 12 light years away. Here is are couple of excerpts of a review of this novel Aurora from Nature (you will need subscription for full access):
Human star flight is a vast prospect — one many think impossible. To arrive in a single
lifetime demands travel at speeds approaching that of light, especially for stars such as τ-Ceti, some 3.7 parsecs (12 light years) away. 'Generation ships' containing large biospheres stable over centuries are the only plausible method yet mooted. 
Aurora, by veteran science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hinges on such an expedition, setting out from Earth in the twenty-sixth century. In 2012, Robinson was quoted in Scientific American as saying, “It's a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It's a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora seems to be a U-turn, involving unlikely plot devices. 
The starship is like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity; the biomes along their rims support 24 Earthly life-zones that need constant tending. Arrival (after two centuries) at Aurora, the Earth-like moon of super-Earth Planet E, brings home just how technologically and socially complex such a venture might be. We certainly learn why ships' captains are preferable to mob rule.
There are some issues with the novel as well, but the nanoscale proto-lifeforms seem interesting:
The apparently lifeless Aurora has Earth-like levels of atmospheric oxygen. Robinson's colonists implausibly believe that these could have survived from its birth, forgetting about rust (which makes Mars red) and the fact that our oxygen comes from living organisms. Ultimately, that error leads to the demise of their dreams. They discover that Aurora harbours nanometre-scale organisms they deem a possible “interim step toward life”, and disquietingly note that humans “appear to be a good matrix” for their reproduction. 
As plans and back-up plans go awry, Robinson skimps on characterization to focus on the detail of ecosphere breakdown and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. Bacteria evolve swiftly, making “the whole ship sick”. The colonists' lifespans, bodies and IQs shrink. Factions form in the once placid 2,000-strong community, where humans had seen themselves as biome managers, farming and fixing their ship with assistance from a web of artificial intelligences (AIs). The Robinson trope of fragmentation in near-utopian societies slides towards tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped ... that the future has only bad options.” As the discord turns deadly, the AIs form a collective consciousness capable of decision-making, following the humans with gimlet eyes and melancholy analysis.
And it is now on the reading list.