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Monthly Archives: December 2007

I’m off to India for a week today, coming back on the 3rd of Jan, just in time to begin an intense period of overwork. I’m going to enjoy my holiday in the interim though, and I take this opportunity to extend my best seasons greetings to you before I depart.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Image taken from the Lucas Arts 1982 Christmas Card. This one is by far my favourite. Click here to see the rest of them.



I read a Associated Press-Ipsos poll revealing that 1 in 4 adults read no books last year.

Yes, that’s 25% of the adults out there are reading zero books. This is sad.


And what about the adults who are reading more than zero books a year. How many are they reading in all? One? Five?

Actually, the same poll reveals the average adult reads only four books per year. Half of those people read less than four.

The 26 Major Advantages to Reading More Books and Why 3 in 4 People Are Being Shut Out of Success » Achieve IT! – Goal Setting Blog

Another beautiful moment of contrast. I came across this article while I am in the midst of what might rightly be described as a book binge. In the last 15 days I’ve read 4 books.

Well to be more specific, I’ve finished 4 books. I started and abandoned two more as well for failing to grip me sufficiently to keep me spending  time with them. If a story fails to grab you within the first 50 pages, you’d best be served by leaving it behind and starting a new one.

If I’m not careful Ian McEwen’s grim novel Saturday is in danger of joining that short list of the ditched.  It has its moments, its brief flashes of genius and insight inside where the story telling skill comes to the fore, but they have been too few and far between. There’s a curious hollow nature to the books characters that make them difficult to form any sort of attachment towards. I’ve decided to give it a few more chapters and see where it goes.

But I digress. Back to the shockingly low numbers.

Now admittedly I’m a total bibliophile and being a student does give me more spare time than the majority of adults enjoy from their formal and family commitments. It lets me devour a lot more pages than most people are given the luxury of reading, even though that may want to.

But, and you did sense there was a but coming didn’t you, I can’t believe that the median number of books per year is four. Four books is a piddling 1200 page on average. Four is a pathetic number.

And take into account that there must be a huge distortion caused by the people who really get through books. There are the really dedicated bibliophiles who get through 4 books a week every week for years. People who juggle six books on their nightstands and wonder whether they need to go to the library next week to borrow new books.

I know there are people like that out there because there have been years where I was one of them. Books have been hugely influential in my formation as a person. The right books. The wrong books. The books I was given to read. The books I should never have read as a kid. The books I’m reading now that I should have read years ago.

It’s…difficult…for me to accept that there are people who are living their entire lives without finding their horizons stretched and their perceptions challenged by the vivid power of the written word, presented in its proper place surrounded in its own element, in its proper form : the book.

A bibliophile of uncertain sanctity, for the moment, I may be, but its reassuring to know that there’s a lot further I could have fallen.

There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals.

Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted and you create a nation of law-breakers and then you cash in on guilt.

Now, that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.

– Dr. Floyd Ferris in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

I fell that as a statement about the laws of men this is uncontroversial. Well relatively so.

We live in an age where those who prosecute rule breaking have an almost infinite variety of charges to press against all of us, if they apply themselves to the problem. I doubt there exists amongst us one person who is not guilty of something that would amount to an offense under the laws of the country in which they live.

Except that’s not why I have this quote up. That’s not the reason its on my mind. Rather its the parallel situation that has recently suggested itself to me that has me vexed.

What happens when you start thinking that what Ayn Rand says about man made laws, might be true about the Divine ones you’ve internalised?

What do you do when the dramatic cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness start to feel like God plays a variation of the guilt game with a degree of skill and vigour that no mere mortal could match. “You are born guilty, you are living in sin, you will die in sin. Inspite of that, I may yet be persuaded to drop the charges against you if you know the right people and beg in the proper manner”.

I can’t shake this notion that any system that works on the premise that to be human is to be guilty, can’t be a good system around which to base a human’s existence.

Anyone want to help me out here?


In 1999 Sweden passed legislation that criminalized the buying of sex, and decriminalized the selling of sex.

The groundbreaking principle behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”

This law is the only one of its kind in the world, and it seems to be incredibly successful according to Swedish officials. The law, which has criminalized the purchase and brokering of sexual services, provides for up to six years in prison for pimps, up to 10 years for traffickers of prostitutes. The john could face up to six months in prison if caught in the act.

The results of this strategy are impressive. “We have significantly less prostitution than our neighbouring countries, even if we take into account the fact that some of it happens underground,” says Trolle. “We only have between 105 and 130 women – both on the Internet and on the street – active (in prostitution) in Stockholm today. In Oslo, it’s 5,000.

Swedish Prostitution Ban An Apparent Enormous Success

Okay, not quite my beaten track, but interesting still. For three reasons mainly.

The first is that its effective. Demand side criminalisation doesn’t work for a lot of things, the war on drugs is a prominent example, but for prostitution it appears effective. I can see the benefit socially and societally of putting the onus on the guys as well. They’re the scumbags in this equation, as the statement in the Swedish law quite clearly spells out.

On the other hand we have the liberal attitude towards it typified by the lax Dutch laws on the sex trade. Clearly there is no suggestion here that soliciting a prostitute amounts to a form of abuse which should be outlawed. While it’s heavily regulated in the Netherlands, it is legal and subject to all the benefits of a legal but regulated trade. If I’m not mistaken, the result of the legalisation in the Netherlands has caused a mini-boom in the sex trade and it grew rapidly after it was set free.

Which leads me to my first point taken to its conclusion. Where does the demand go? Do the people who used to go to sex workers now divert that libido into casual hook ups? Time ‘spent’ with their partners? Or does it just evaporate, an urge that exists only because the capacity to fulfills it exists? 

I don’t like the “it just vanishes” suggestion. It seems too simplistic a depiction of behaviour as complex as visiting a sex worker. Patronising a sex worker can’t be inherently a casual and ‘normal’ thing which like an itch just goes away if you ignore it long enough.

The second is that the Swedes are the first people to do this? What does that say about the dominant sexual morality of all cultures? The Swedes are supposed to be one of the most liberal people, and at the cutting edge of the thin line that straddles socialism, capitalism and the iron rice bowl. No other society has made the buyer the offender before? In this age of free market capitalism where everyone understand that that demand runs markets, no one has ever made the buyer the criminal? It says nothing good I’m sure.

The final thing is that Hong Kong stands in between, straddling between the laissez faire culture of Amsterdam and the ‘johns are criminals’ world of Sweden. Here we have legal prostitution, but only of the small owner/operator sort.

Large brothels are technically illegal, as is living of the proceeds of pimping or by running a brothel. The idea is that via media that there is a place for the prostitute but not for those that profit based on the control of prostitutes, that being a more organised and systematic vice worthy of punishment and as a finance source of organised crime. Not that I’m saying this never happens in Hong Kong, I’m sure the local triads control plenty of brothel, but I’m looking at the abstract legal position here. 

One final concluding thought; isn’t it intriguing that after thousands of years of so called civilisation, we still find the regulation, perhaps even the acknowledgement, of the worlds oldest profession to be a morally ambivalent and treacherous area, which requires deference to local cultural mores rather than any standard civilizational norms appearing?

I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour
And when I die I expect to find him laughing
– Depeche Mode, Blasphemous Rumours

Sometimes what you read just stays in your head for aeons afterwards. Maybe because you feel its got a healthy bit of truth attached to it. Or at least that little part of you that’s a skeptic can’t help but be amused by the irony.

And you feel you have to find the true source and track it down to its origin. But you don’t get around to doing it.

And then someone reminds you of it inadvertently as you casually blaspheme away. And you feel motivated. And you grab that moment by the scruff of its neck, and fire up Google.

And you find what you’re looking for in two minutes, turning a lifelong pending quest into a rather damp event that fizzles out gloriously but abruptly. And rather unsatisfactorily.

Though I admit, I like the way the chorus is sung. And I wouldn’t have that benefit without finishing the quest. Odd gifts at the end of a rainbow. Odd gifts indeed.

Full lyrics here

Watch it on YouTube here

What I really want to discuss is something I had been thinking a lot about the past week while reflecting (and reading Mulla Sadra).

Its the concept of Alastu Birabbikum Am I not your Lord from the Quran. A while ago I discussed Islamic existentialism the idea espoused by many Sufis that we were created by God, but that our consent was not asked before we were given existence.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but Alastu Birrabikum addresses that point directly. God asks man Am I not your Lord and man responds Yes you are! thus giving consent to our subsequent placement upon the earth.

Why does consent matter? Because if you can argue that humans have no existential consent, then you can argue that you are not bound to pay attention to anything else that God expects (as that would be a case of God being unjust, which is considered contradictory).

Existential Consent « Ali Eteraz


I’m about to jump off the deep end here. I don’t blog about philosophy or theology, but Ali Eteraz has touched upon something that has previously intrigued me in his discussion of the Quran’s depiction of the original covenant of Alastu Birabbikum between man and his Lord.

What intrigues me, at the risk of profound philosophical simplification and the intertwining two very disparate strands of thinking, is the parallel that can be drawn to one of the most famous ideas in liberal philosophy, John Rawls’ Original Position. 

I want to apply to this Islamic original covenant, the criticisms levelled by one of Rawls’ most prominent critics, Michael Sandle who very persuasively challenged many of the assumptions imbedded in Rawl’s Original Position.

I appreciate that Sandel’s criticisms of Rawls’ theory are very particular and are aimed at precise aspects of Rawls’s theory. They will not translate into a general critique of any philosophy based on an original position. However I believe that the underpinning of Sandel’s criticism, in its logical deconstruction of the assumptions underlying Rawls’ Original Position is a valuable to understanding and deconstructing the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum

My impression is that Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I certainly do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed. I qualify that conclusion by the simple remark that I’m not well educated on Islamic theology of any stripe. That is why I phrase these as questions rather than arguments; they are inquiries.


My first question draws on Descartes. As the French philosopher has famously written, “I think, therefore I am”. In this context of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, one can say “I consent, therefore I am”. Which leads to the first difficulty. The self capable of consent must necessarily be created before he gives consent.  This initial creation has to be without consent. In the original position of Alastu Birabbikum, we are all present without our consent.

To phrase it another way, the order of events that must have occurred for the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum as described is that mankind is created with an intellect capable of  comprehending the question that is to be put to him, and of giving a meaningful response. He is then retroactively asked to consent to this initial creation and to his subsequent worldly incarnation by recognising the superiority of his Lord.

It appears to me that all creation must be without the consent of the created. This conflicts with the voluntary contractual nature that is the ethos in the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum.

I appreciate that this might be countered by arguing that the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum may be acceptable in so far as it gives retroactive consent to our creation. I have my questions centred on the nature of the consent which raise at Question 3. At this stage though, I wish to deal further with the Self that is created.


This second question, and where I explicitly draw on Sandel, is that there must be sufficient connection between the self that consents at this stage and the self that is bound by that consent in this world by the Divine law. This is what Sandel calls the antecedently individuated self.

This comprises three aspects. The first is that a sufficient number of characteristics, including those aspects of me that my values and moral framework must exist in this Self so as to give a meaningful basis on which I could exercise any consent. Otherwise it could not properly be said that I have a choice. If I have no criteria on which to make a choice, and no means of obtaining any criteria, can you really be said to have made a choice?

The second aspect is that these Selfs must be sufficiently individuated. The characteristics that are present at this stage to form my Self must be sufficiently different from your Self. A general commitment to truth and justice does not suffice. A general acceptance of God’s superiority is not sufficient. Instead we have to have very specific descriptions of our means, goals, values and social context to give a sufficient differentiation so that, at the extreme, the consent of one twin brother might be distinguished from the consent of another.

The third aspect is that it is, to some extent, clear what is not there. Nothing that you have learned in this world can be with you there. After all at the point of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, they are events that are to occur in your future. All the things that you have been taught by nurture, the things that you parents and teachers have taught you can not be with you at this point. To take that further, none of the morality or values that have been taught to you while you were in this world are with you then. Without digressing too far into the debate about nature versus nurture, it should be clear to all of us in a vast and global world, that it is easily possible for humans to have different moral codes and societal norms and that many of these norms are derived from nurture.

From my understanding, there simply isn’t enough information to answer any of these question. It may be that there exists a middle ground, where we are sufficiently individuated, sufficiently capable of existing as intellectual and moral beings and yet do so without drawing on anything worldly at all to reach this stage. It seems a tremendous intuitive leap though to accept this without having some sort of discussion to draw on.


My third question goes to the nature of the consent that we give. I think that it may be presumed that consent requires certain elements. It must be voluntary in that it is freely given. it must not be coerced from us. It must be a choice, in the meaningful sense that we can choose to consent or not consent and within reason we must understand what we are consenting to.

It’s not immediately clear that any of these elements is made out in the moment where the question of Alastu Birabbikum is asked.  It may be, as the reply of “bala, shahidna” indicates, an element of overwhelming obviousness in the answer. But that does not mean it is necessary that just because there is an obvious answer, no other answers should exist or be possible.

Let me take a moment to situate ourselves back in the proper context. We find ourselves freshly created, fully functional but standing before an immensely powerful being that has created from nothing all that exists. We are sufficiently human, it must be presumed, for there to be the possibility of choice and for us to be bound by that choice. That means as part of our rational self interest is engaged in making the choice.

The first issue then becomes do we even have a choice? Is there a possibility of saying no? And what happens to those who might do so, or even what happened to those who did?

The second issue then is what did we consent to? If we recognise the superiority of our Lord, do we automatically accept that his decisions, which confine us to the not so comfortable surroundings of this world are right simply based on that authority? Would we have accepted that authority if we had known the consequences? Did we know the consequences at all?

This leads to my third issue, the one most intimately entwined with Question Two. Did we know the true nature of our questioner? Did we realise that we are being asked to submit to the will of an almighty, but also infinitely just and merciful interlocutor? Was our consent based on our surety in his justice or mercy, or was it based on our fear of his wrath and power?


It appears to me that there is insufficient information to answer any of these questions. It may well be that the clarity and nature of our consent was sufficient to bind us even in this world, in circumstances so different from the realm of pre-existence where this question appears to have been asked.

In my humble opinion Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed nor address what seems to me the quite clear objection of the Sufi Existentialists he mentions in his post.  Rather it seems to me, that we must exist before our consent is given, and that all creation exists without consent.

But that to me, goes against both the contractarian nature of the Covenant  of Alastu Birabbikum, and against a perfectly omniscient and just Deity.

Let me cut you in on a revelation I had today. Not less then five minutes ago, I had an epiphany as eye opening as any I’ve had this year. And this has been a year full of divulgement about the intricacies of living. A year full of little truths.

This is one of those truths that alters the fabric of reality. They seem so obvious once you understand them. So impenetrable the second before.

You’ve probably heard what I’m about to say from other people, often mentioned casually but never understood it.

You know when I say you, I mean “I”. Why do I pretend I’m addressing some fictional third person. I wonder what it means that I refer to myself in the second person.

Okay, digression over. Back on track.

It’s one of those things you can’t take on board when other people tell you. It’ll take that one moment of existential navel gazing for it to come to you.

Have I hyped it enough?

Over-hyped it probably. You’ll experience such a let down when I tell it to you. You should expect the let down. I warned you about it. You need to experience it yourself. And either you have, or some day you will.

Okay ready? Here goes.

I’ve always bought into the bullshit that you should finish what you start. That all ends are equal. That all beginnings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, amongst which is the right to have an ending.

So I persevere through things. I try to do the things that I know I ought to do. To bring things to a satisfactory conclusion, a neat conclusion. For a book, the last page, for a friend, a last meeting for old times sake.

This is wrong. Not everything you start has a proper ending.

You need to embrace the ending there is. If there is nothing that feels like an ending, if there’s no sense of closure, sometimes that’s all there can be. A vague notion of an incomplete ending may be all the ending you will get.

Throw this desire to have a full stop, to experience closure away. Search for the truly world class manifestations of that experience out there. Don’t settle on the okay. Trust yourself to recognize the brilliant.

When the experience is that good, you’ll want to get to the ending. You’ll want the end and the sense of closure. And you’ll get it.

Sometimes, a move is not worth watching after the first hour. Turn it off. Find a new movie to watch. There are so many other choices.

Sometimes, a book is not worth reading past chapter 3. Stop reading it. Find something new to read, there are plenty of more books. World class books. Award winning books. Books that could rewrite your life.

Sometimes, a person isn’t worth keeping up with after the first meeting. Don’t waste the effort trying. There are so many people you meet everyday.

Sometimes, 15 years of friendship can end with you having nothing in common. Enjoy whats gone, but don’t worry about tomorrow. You could start a friendship today that might define the rest of your life.

Don’t be timid in your endings. Don’t get caught in the belief that the deadwood is essential. Jettison those things that are holding you down. The magnificent part of the human spirit, your spirit, my spirit, is that it always finds a way. Don’t tie that spirit down by waiting for the point where things can be ended sensibly to start the next phase.

Life doesn’t work like that.