A literate, evenhanded account of a long-ago religious conflict that continues to play out—and shape history—today.

A just-so story about the profound—often fatally so—differences between the two chief divisions of Islam.

The Sunni-Shia divide is wider than the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Its origins, writes Middle East journalist Hazleton (Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 2007, etc.), lie in the unfortunate fact that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was mortal. At 63 years of age, after many battles and grievous wounds, he died of fever. “It might all have been simple enough if Muhammad had had sons,” writes Hazleton. He did not, however, and a rift soon divided the Islamic world. Who would succeed him? Some believed that the job should fall to the family of his favorite wife, Aisha, others to his son-in-law, Ali. The argument, on a scholarly front, took on angels-on-pinheads dimensions, as imams pondered whether Muhammad, had he chosen Ali, would have ushered in a “form of hereditary monarchy.” Many asserted that Muhammad intended some sort of democracy, or at least meritocracy, in the governance of Islam. All the disputations came to a head with the assassination of Ali, who had claimed the caliphate, and subsequent Battle of Karbala, in Iraq, where Ali’s son Hussein was killed. The supporters of Ali, or Shiat Ali, thereafter were ever more a minority party within the larger sphere of Islam, though dominant in countries such as Iran and, at times, Iraq. This story is well known to readers with any background at all in Islam, for whom the book will be superfluous. However, given that few Western readers, it seems, have much of that background, Hazleton’s storytelling approach to the schism will be welcome. She writes fluidly, sometimes in prose reminiscent of Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta: “The air was dense and moist instead of bracingly dry, the blue of the sky pale with humidity. They had followed Aisha only to find themselves out of place, disoriented.”

A literate, evenhanded account of a long-ago religious conflict that continues to play out—and shape history—today.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-385-52393-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2009



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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