“The heretic and the holy: Tariq Ali's histories of Islam”
In an extended essay for The National—part profile, part review—Robyn Creswell assesses Tariq Ali's Islam Quintet and, in particular, Night of the Golden Butterfly which completes the acclaimed series of historical novels about Islam and the West.
Creswell singles out The Book of Saladin as the best volume in the series, and describes the Quintet as a whole as a "kind of double-bladed heresy, cutting against Western ignorance on the one hand, and Muslim pieties on the other. In the face of those pundits and politicians who trade in stereotypes of Islam as a religion of puritanical violence and backwardness, Ali evokes the most cosmopolitan eras of its history."
"I've let my pen run away with me and preached my heresies for too long," Tariq Ali once wrote, in an essay called Letter to a Young Muslim. "I doubt that I will change, but I hope you will." Ali is indeed a kind of professional, or inveterate heretic, a writer who has made a career of dissenting from every kind of orthodoxy. But to call it a career suggests a rather solemn enterprise, whereas Ali's writings are chiefly characterised by their wit—note the impish paradox of "preaching" heresies—and their swaggering combativeness. For Ali, dissent is an essentially heroic activity and he never seems so happy as when he has an opponent, be he neoliberal, Islamist, or ex-Leftist, to pummel into submission.
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