The heretic and the holy: Tariq Ali’s histories of Islam

Robyn Creswell in The National:

“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.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1943, Ali began organising street protests as a teenager. He soon became a university firebrand and caused enough trouble for the military regime of Ayub Khan that Ali’s family encouraged him to continue his studies elsewhere. In Britain, Ali joined the Oxford University Humanist Group (whose slogan was “Down with God!” and which held debates on motions such as “Jesus Christ Should Have Been Crucified”) and played an active part in student politics. Over the next decade, he edited and wrote for a number of memorably-named magazines (The Black Dwarf, The Red Mole) and became a Leftist celebrity, debating Vietnam with Henry Kissinger and interviewing John Lennon. The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man (“my name is called Disturbance / I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King”) was supposedly written in his honour.

Given Ali’s commitment to heterodoxy and heresy, it is somewhat surprising to learn that his chief intellectual project of the past two decades has been a series of five historical novels he calls the Islam Quintet, whose final volume, Night of the Golden Butterfly, has now been published by Verso. More

A life in writing: Tariq Ali

James Campbell in The Guardian:

In photographs and news footage of political demonstrations of the 1960s, Tariq Ali is unmistakeable: the thick black hair and thatchy moustache; the clenched fist and characteristic surge to the foreground amid a sea of fair faces. Almost immediately on coming down from Oxford in 1966, Ali began to agitate for a workers’ uprising – not just in Britain but across the world. His book 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) stressed “the key importance of the working class as the only agency of social change”. His hero was Che Guevara. Meeting Malcolm X at an Oxford Union debate in 1964, he was pleased to discover that Malcolm was “a great admirer of Cuba and Vietnam”. Ali was Britain’s own “other”, a role he took up with zeal and played with dash and style. He didn’t get his revolution, but he did get a Rolling Stones anthem in his honour. Mick Jagger is said to have written “Street Fighting Man” for him. Ali returned the compliment by calling his autobiography Street Fighting Years.

Ali had a strong personal presence then, and he has it still. Now 66, he lives in a roomy neogothic house in Highgate, north London – friends have been heard to call it “Chateau Tariq” – with his partner of 35 years, Susan Watkins. She edits New Left Review, to which Ali has been a longstanding contributor. They have two children (Ali has another, with a former partner). In 1974, he ran for parliament as the International Marxist candidate, but the sloganeering public persona is tempered by an erudite domestic man. More:

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