Sources and Methods #22: Jonathan Brown


Jonathan Brown 101:

Jonathan Brown on Wikipedia

Jonathan Brown's website / blog

Jonathan Brown on Facebook

Jonathan Brown's books (via Goodreads)

Misquoting Muhammad (via


Show Notes:

3:40 - What I was trying to do was to write a book that would introduce a reader with no background - or take a reader with a good amount of background into more depth - into of the world of dealing with scripture in the Muslim tradition. How Muslims have understood they’re scriptural tradition and built on it to understand their religion in the face of centuries and centuries of change and particularly, recently more intensive change…. to get readers to see it as one of the world’s intellectual traditions that participates in the same dialogues and questions that other religious and philosophical traditions have dealt with.

5:13 - As a historian, I don’t think humans have much role in shaping history, I’m more of a materialist.

8:00 - (One of the big questions is) How do human beings know what God wants, without falling victim to their own whims and inclinations? So you have revelation, which is supposed to come in and free human being from their own biases and their own weaknesses and the weakness of their reason. But at the same time, revelation isn’t accessible except through reason and through interpretation, which is inevitably compromised by biases. So in a lot of ways, the Islamic tradition is about a lot of people and a lot of schools of thought trying to say - here’s the best way to minimize that bias.  

16:25 -  Most of these problems (spiritual authority in the Muslim world) are problems of modernity. It’s the problem of, how do people deal with an interpretive tradition, a scriptural tradition in a world where a lot of the tools of interpretation have been democratized or popularized, both through printing, through mass education, and then through electronic media and the internet. So prior to 1850, the people who spoke for Islam and told people what it meant was a class of scholars… it was fairly unified in how it saw the world and the message it preached. That starts being challenged in the late 19th century by the creation of – in the Muslim world – of European-style universities by the rulers of those Muslim states to try and match European development. And eventually you get the rise of the intellectual, who will be a practicing Muslim but will chip in with his two cents about religion from a different perspective, and that creates a new pluralism of authority. That’s the same world we’re in now.

19:52 - A lot of what I do in teaching and in my work is getting (them) not to look and act on the face of scripture too much but to always at least start looking for ways to be instructed about what’s behind the face of scripture.

20:41 - So I think Muslims should look at their own tradition and look at how they have indulged their own whims and their own biases over the centuries - and I did that in the book on the issue of women-led prayer - but I also think the same questions need to be asked with / to our interlocutors where questions assume certain cultural preferences.

33:25 - If there’s one thing I could have people understand: It would be to see Muslims as normal people and Islam itself as a religious tradition.

35:20 - If there’s a misunderstanding of religion or a version of Islam people don’t like, it must be corrected by Muslims, because they’re the only ones who will listen to each other.


37:26 - One thing I do, is I take very good notes. I usually take paper notes. So if I read a book, I usually make notes in the margins. When I finish the book, I go back and copy down all the notes in the margins of things I want to quote. So whatever it is I read, if I find it interesting, I’ll take notes on it and put it in my notebook. First thing is to take very good notes of everything. In this book, there were things I wrote down in college 20 years ago.

The second thing is - when I realize there’s a project I’m working on, or an idea for an article or a book, I’ll come up with a symbol. This book was an M with a circle around it. And I’ll go back and look through my notes. And 1) This will refresh things in my mind for teaching or other things and 2) it might be for my project. So when it gets time to actually get on to a project, I’ll go back through my notes and copy down all that information into a Word file with footnotes. So I’ll basically have a gigantic list of data, and I’ll start to organize that into chapters and themes, and that I’ll write into the outline document. So the writing comes from the data up to the final product.

In terms of processing information - obviously I read a lot, but talking to people is very important, and I find my teaching a very important tool to understanding what I read.

42:00 - When one tries to write a book that tries to get a lot of information across to an audience that is not a specialist, than you have to chose material that you can relate easily, and if it’s foreign to them, there has to be a really good reason why you’re going to tell them about it, and you have to be ready to give it the time it needs to explain that material. So you have to chose things that are relatable, but at the same time you don’t want to have everything relatable because then they think there’s nothing different about what I’m reading from my own life.


Brown’s picks:


Lawrence of Arabia

The 13th Warrior


On The Muslim Question by Anne Norton


Reggae or anything by Dire Straits

Sources and Methods #18: Will McCants


Will McCants 101:

Will's books on

Will on Twitter

Will's Brookings page

Will @ Jihadica

Show Notes:

Alex’s blog post on Middlebury / Arabic language study

Press on Taliban Project ( blog link)

Tinderbox (Sources & Methods sponsor)


7:33 - What policy papers do is mark you as a person who has expertise on a particular subject and a certain point of view on that subject. So you become identified with a topic and a way of approaching it, and that is useful then as a calling card. But if you really want to influence policy makers, I think few things are more influential than the op-ed. Anytime you can place something in a major newspaper, that will have a major influence. And sadly, the more critical you are of current policy, the more circulation your op-ed will get inside government.

Marc Sageman

14:15 - As researchers, we forget sometimes that the government in many instances is playing with a different set of information. And we get upset a certain policy or a certain way of thinking and rarely do we pause and take into consideration the fact that they may see it different because they’re looking at a different set of facts than we are. Working in government gives more humility about one’s own research and where it fits into this big decision making process that is the government.

19:36 - Foreigners that come over and work in the US government - I’ve worked with Brits and Australians, and they are always - to a person - astounded by the size of the American bureaucracy. It is huge. In an ideal world, that whole Executive Branch machine would be humming along, generating policy options for their principles to consider and bring before the president. But that’s not really how it works in practice. They do generate those policy options, but really its the president and the few people around him that are deliberating on these things. And if they find a policy that suits their preconceptions or they find a policy they really want, they’ll select it. But my impression being in government that policy options go up - that’s not how it works in practice.

22:36 - The reality is that the Islamic State presents far less of a threat to the homeland as it does to our partners in the region and I think they understand that at the president’s level. If you look at the way he justified the bombings against the Islamic State in Iraq and then in Syria, it was about the threat to our regional allies. But I don’t think popularly that’s the perception in this country. And also from Congress, there’s a feeling that the Islamic State is going to launch waves of human attacks each day, and that’s just not the case.

23:50 - 9/11 was the moment that I decided to get into the policy world. I was at Princeton working on my PhD on Islamic history… and when they smashed the planes into the towers, I wanted to contribute to our response… and my first foray into that was translating The Management of Savagery (overview, Will’s translation).

Michael Scott Doran

25:40 - (On getting a PhD or not) I would say if you’re getting a PhD because you believe you’re going to get an academic job, that would be a terrible decision. You will probably not get an academic job and if you do it will probably not be at an institution or geographic location where you want to be. So if you go into it with that limited perspective, I think you’re going to be very unhappy. But if you go into it with the perspective of ‘I want to get some great training and study with amazing people and the world is my oyster, I can do anything with this PhD’ I think it’s a great thing to do and time well spent.

29:56 - (On sources of information for the Islamic State) And the fourth source would be the amazing reporting that’s been done in Arabic about the group. The Arab reporters have amazing sources, they are fearless, but a lot of times, the things that they report don’t make it into Western Media. So there’s a valuable gold mine there of information to be used… There’s also some great work happening in European languages that we’re not aware of.

Tinderbox (Sources & Methods Sponsor)

35:10 - (On the apocalyptic thinking of the Islamic State) I think it’s really important in terms of attracting foreign fighters from the West. If you think about what gets a foreigner motivated to leave their home and travel to an insanely violent conflict zone, there are few things that might motivate people more than the belief that the end times are right around the corner. So I see (it) as mainly directed to foreign fighters.

But also in the Middle East, after the Iraq War in 2003, apocalypticism began to get a lot more currency than it used to have. Before the war, apocalypticism among Sunnis was really something of a fringe subject, as compared to the Shia, for whom it’s been an important topic for centuries. for modern Sunnis, it’s something the Shia speculate on, but that’s not really our bag. The US invasion of Iraq really changed the ways the Sunnis thought about the end times. With the Arab Spring and all the political turmoil that followed in its wake, its given an apocalyptical framework far more currency than it ever had a way to explain political upheaval in the region.

The Believer - Brookings Long-Form Article on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi written by Will McCants

37:53 - (Responding to question ‘is history made by men or faceless forces’) I think if your work-a-day world and you professional experience is going up through graduate school, getting a position in university - you tend to prefer explanations of the world that look at things in terms of big structural forces that are beyond the capability of one human to control. When you go into a big bureaucracy like the US government and you have a series of good bosses or bad bosses and their competency as bosses really has an influence on how policies are made - not just substances, but how it moves around the building, whose attention it gets - you come away with a much greater appreciation for how much individual humans matter in a big, faceless organization like the DoD or State Department. And when I was working on the Baghdadi profile, I had in mind a lot of my own experience in government bureaucracy. How cutthroat it can be, how complicated it is, so I had a much greater appreciation for the role of individuals and I think if you were to look at the landscape of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, you can see a lot of different personalities as leaders of many different groups, but what’s fascinating is they are all responding to the same circumstances - ie the civil war - but in very different ways. They’re making different choices - some of that has to do with their organizational culture and some of it has to do with the temperament of the individual. Even in the current Islamic State, if you compare Baghdadi to his predecessor, or the real shadow ruler of the first Islamic State, Abu Ayub al-Masri, the current Baghdadi is a much more capable bureaucrat than those men were, and they paid the price of their incompetency and he has been rewarded for his competency. So individuals definitely matter.

43:25 - I utterly agree that our understanding of the history of these organizations that are nominally adhering to the same ideology or similar ideologies - we don’t have a good handle on at all. Partly that is a language barrier - as you know, it’s not easy to learn these languages that are required to get deep into it, and also because of how dangerous some of these groups are. It’s not easy to do a lot of original research on them. Also, valuable primary sources are killed off as well. So it’s not an easy area to work in. So I would agree that histories of individuals and groups, we are certainly in the starting stages.

44:45 - (On ‘have policy lessons been learned since 2001/2003’) I would say among the policy-making elite, yes. There is much more a pessimism about what the Americans can do in the Middle East despite their overwhelming military power, and there’s greater humility. It’s tough to say with the political class, and you don’t know which of that to take seriously. Right now I’m trying to catalog the Republican candidates positions on ISIS, and they’re all over the field. Some are isolationist, some sound aggressive, but when you scratch the surface, you realize they’re talking about putting a few more special forces on the ground. I think everybody is constrained by the mood of the American public, which is very much anti-interventionist, and even when there are spikes in their support for intervention, nobody believes it will be long lasting, so it will not sustain a decades long occupation. So I do think there has been a reassessment of the efficacy of American power, almost too far in the opposite extreme. There’s almost a sense of hopelessness, that the Americans cannot do anything to help, which will make it to where - if that endures - America will become increasingly isolationist, and you have other powers who do not feel so isolationist who are getting involved and perhaps making things even worse.

47:44 - (on learning languages to understand groups) I’m not particularly snooty on this topic. I don’t think you need to be a major scholar of the language to understand an enormous amount about these groups. For people making decisions about their time, I think they’d have to really evaluate what type of job they hope to have in the future. That said, it has been a great use to me, both as a researcher, but also in the role of policy-making. Being able to go check a source, or look at a translation - is this word as aggressive as it looks in English? - has been really useful. I don’t think you ever do yourself harm by learning another language but as you both know, it is a huge commitment of time.

50:48 - I benefitted a huge amount (in Arabic language development) from going to Middlebury (see Alex’s post about his experience there above).

52:11 - (On working efficiently) When I start a project, I do try to think through my process and think about ‘What can I improve here.’ For the ISIS book, there wasn’t a lot of systemization to the process. I thought about it in the beginning, but I really needed to get that book done. It helped that I already knew the sources, and I had a general sense of what I wanted to say. So with that one, it was really a process of diving in. Making sure I had essay-length sections as standalone sections, and then synthesize it in a thousand words. You’ll see in the book, some of the sections are blog posts, I forced myself to write the blog posts as a way to put the material down and then refine it a little bit later. So in this one, I did not have a systematic process for collecting. For the Quran book I’ve been working on forever, there is a lot of process. I use Scrivener and there are folders and subfolders, and that’s because I was less familiar with the material. So there’s a ton of background reading I had to do and that requires are a lot more organization. So I would say it depends on the task.

On writing - on shorter pieces, it’s really just wherever you can fit it in. When I was working on the book, I would try to get four days a week where I could get solid writing. I could sit down at the computer - and they always tell you this is the worst thing you can do - I would answer all my emails and turn off all my notifications and go into it.

57:23 - (On ‘managing the flood’) I use Evernote. A lot of my sources are ephemeral, and thankfully I had saved them there. This is also the case for Arabic language sources on news sites. Evernote was a huge help in keeping a digital footprint for where I had traveled.


Sources and Methods #17: Leah Farrall


Our thanks to Tinderbox for sponsoring this week's episode. Listen to our interview with Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein here, and check out Tinderbox here.

Leah Farrall 101:

Leah's website

Leah on Twitter

Leah's new book: The Arabs at War in Afghanistan

Show Notes:

10:59 – I actually took a lot of my inspiration from screenwriting books and documentary books than any other work. Narrative arcs and how we could do that type of thing, because some of these conversations could fill books in themselves.

12:00 – Our particular goal was to make a book for kids in a library to read in future generations.

13:35 – There are four things I will fess up to being quite shocked by:

1)   Spoils of war from the First Iraq War ending up in Jalalabad

2)   The details of Bin Laden’s support for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

3)   Abu Musab al-Suri and the issue of recruit poaching

4)   The involvement of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, going back as far as it did

This all has relevance to today – we always want to look at change without looking at continuity.

15:10 – Ideology comes last, not first

17:30 – The entire way in which we study this material, we’ve got it the wrong way around and I think we really need to have a good hard think about it. To me, that’s what part of this book shows. That we got so much of this history wrong. And we got it wrong because we always try to jump to a solution without letting the history speak for itself first.

20:57 – Mustafa and I being able to do this book was a unique confluence of circumstances and also as well as personalities. Both of us had influence within our fields, but also operated on the edge of them.

29:52 – Everyone has an agenda for everything they do, and this is important to remember.

42:01 – Implications of fighting for funding: the pressure to reduce everything to bite size chunks. And with that, we’re missing the ability to chart emerging landscapes and how they’re changing. And it’s very rare that you get that type of funding coming through. The traditional funding structures have not caught up to the changing research environment. So we’ll need to look at new ways of collaborating and new ways of researching. The nice side is that the online space means that people like us can contact each other and work together in a way that we couldn’t before, and that’s breaking down some of the barriers that academia is putting up in other areas.

46:45 – Teaching should be research led. So it’s balancing the research you need to do when you’re teaching with the research you want to do. And I haven’t found my balance yet.

49:29 – I taught, before 9/11, and taught a counter-terrorism course, and one of the things I made every single one of these students in this tutorial class do was give me their own definitions of terrorism, and present to the class the reasons why. And they couldn’t just pick an existing definition and if they did they had to really heavily justify it and explain why they felt nothing should be added or removed. So after the first few it got really tiring, as you would imagine. But when you pushed through, the discussion started, and I found it fascinating that – well, it’s 2015, and my students still get back to me and they still remember those definitions. That formed the basis of thinking exercises that I did throughout the entire course.

51:09 – I think (research) is all about the teaching or research objectives. I remember I had colleagues in the Australian Federal Police and I felt sorry for them (though I was no different) because no one really taught us critical thinking. I hit the work place, and I didn’t know how to think critically and I didn’t know how to analyze. I think we’ve got a real responsibility to make sure that’s what we’re teaching our students. You want to give students transferable skills.

53:58 – Gregory Johnsen’s (previous guest on the show!) excellent AUMF piece

54:30 – In the quest for knowledge, how we see something and how we understand it is essentially the main starting point and the main problem as well.

56:30 – I’m a very visual person and I’m a very messy person…often just grabbing a notepad and scribbling down notes. I love Analyst’s Notebook, purely because you can make a mess.

I also have a box full of post-it notes, and use butcher's block and put those post-its on top of it.

One Research Ladder

1:01:01 – I think there’s something to be said for it (getting up and going) but you have to be very sure of your own strengths and weaknesses, and what you will and won’t tolerate. It sounds silly, but if the value and integrity of your work is something you value above all else, be prepared to be blacklisted. I’ve pulled things from high-profile publications because they’ve insisted on using different words that would misrepresent something so badly that subject matter experts would say ‘what the hell.’ Now, that’s my personal commitment, but that’s come with a cost.  And to anybody coming into the academic field, be aware of that type of stuff. Be aware of what you will commit to and what you won’t. Because there will come a time where you will have to make a choice – do you surrender some of that integrity? Is having that profile important to you? Is being on TV important to you? If so, great, but know with that it comes with certain benefits and certain negatives.