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Discussing Puritan Islam with Dr. Barry A.Vann

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Puritan Islam, the latest book by Dr. Barry A. Vann, professor of geography and higher education at University of the Cumberlands, is set for release on September 20, 2011. Dr. Vann’s previous works include Rediscovering the South’s Celtic Heritage: In Search of Ulster-Scots Land and Geography Toward History: Studies in the Mediterranean Basin and Mesopotamia.

In the following interview, Dr. Vann discusses his latest book, details some finer points in geographical terminology, and reveals his upcoming project.


In Puritan Islam you tackle a complicated and controversial topic. What are some of the difficulties one faces when writing about religion from an academic standpoint?

There are two major challenges in approaching a potentially controversial subject that one hopes to weave into a compelling and broadly read book. One has to know the tools of the disciplines used in the analyses well enough that the writing does not come across as too academic; and, having written four books already on the historic roots of the troubles in Northern Ireland and the origins of the Bible Belt, I know I must have thick skin to protect myself from personal attacks.

How did you become interested in the subject matter and what motivated you to write Puritan Islam?

I have always been interested in how people shape their understanding of the world around them. That’s why I became a geographer. Religion, as defined as a set of ideas that explains reality for the individual or group as well as a prescription for optimizing life, has always shaped human civilizations. Since the death of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA, which had its own religious factors, conflicts around the world seem to involve Muslims. I wanted to know what kind of Muslim was likely to become engaged in violence.

In the book, you examine Islam through the lens of geotheology. Could you please explain the concept of geotheology and how it applies to the Muslim view of the world?

Simply put, geotheology is the relationship between the worship of the divine and spaces.

You also introduce the terms geotheokolasis and geotheomisthosis. Could you tell us a little more about these concepts?

Sure, they mean “God uses nature, including towns and nations, to punish sinful humans” and “God uses nature, including towns and nations, to reward devoted followers.”

As you mention in the book, one goal that persists in the west and shapes our approach to Islam is the desire to create truly multicultural social environments. As you point out, however, this aim may not be compatible with puritanical forms of Islam. Could you explain?

This is one of the most difficult issues in the social sciences to get people to recognize. Most of us go around using the Golden Rule (Do unto others as we would have them do unto us). Indeed, we seem to assume that this is a universal idea that leads to mutual respect and understanding among diverse groups. We must recognize that not all religions believe that way. Puritan Islamists believe that demonstrating social tolerance toward false religions is a public display of unbelief. Islam sees God as quite willing to punish Muslims for disbelief. Indeed, a person could spend most of his or her life as a devoted Muslim only to have eternal salvation snatched from him or her for not protecting the true faith.

In the book you mention that rapid population growth is occurring in both Muslim nations and Muslim communities in the west. What sort of cultural impact might this have in the near future?

It depends on how resolute other countries become in protecting their societies from forces aimed at changing international alliances, especially those involving Israel. Will these same countries embrace Muslim laws or Sharia? If current political and population trends continue, Islam will be the most powerful religion the world has ever seen by mid-century.

What are your plans for your next book? Have you already chosen a subject?

My next book is due out in fall 2012 or winter 2013. It is entitled The Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet. Unlike other books on humanity’s interactions with environmental conditions, Forces of Nature makes good use of geotheology and the science behind historical environmental conditions and contemporary natural disasters to show how people have shaped our habitat. In doing this, I show how the writers of the Bible and Qur’an understood volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, weather, and climate. Images depicted in those ancient texts offer glimpses of past and distinctly different climates from those of our time. Perhaps more importantly, the book demonstrates that people have always blamed or credited themselves for acts of God in dispensing nature’s fury or in bequeathing nature’s bounty. Even secular people today believe that nature punishes humanity for its greedy, exploitive behaviors toward the environment. These are not new concepts in the social sciences and the humanities, but they have not been adequately named. I call them geomisthosis and geokolasis.

I take readers on a journey along the migration routes of the earliest modern humans and explain why our ancestors chose to settle down in places that can best be described as natural utopias. Cities with incredibly high population densities now sit in those heretofore pristine places. Despite technological innovations over the millennia, modern societies have expanded into environmentally dangerous areas of the planet.

Are future environmental changes likely and how might they effect modern societies?

An interesting section of the book deals with climate change. While intergovernmental agencies have in recent years focused much of their attention on human-caused climate change, they have neglected the preponderance of glaring historic and geological evidence that a major ice age is likely to return with destructive consequences for many of the world’s great cities.

What can people do to prepare for such drastic environmental changes?

As human population continues to grow in environmentally dangerous places, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes, which already take hundreds and sometimes thousands of lives each year, will pose even greater threats to life as we know it. The Forces of Nature sheds light on the ways in which people have attempted to live in places where natural disasters will continue to occur. I argue that for billions of people to survive a return of an ice age and live on warmer hurricane prone shores and coastal plains, tornado alleys, and earthquake zones, we must conquer or adapt to the planet.


To purchase Puritan Islam, please click here.

To view Dr. Barry A. Vann’s official page, please click here.

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