Most books on early Islam are either one-sided or highly specialized -- popular works on this subject tend to present either a pious repetition of traditional Muslim narratives, or else shrill partisan attacks against those traditions. Academic works tend to avoid those same pitfalls, but they are usually so technical and narrow that they remain inaccessible for a general audience.
This book is very different. Professor Reynolds has beautifully and clearly set forth (1) the traditional Muslim narrative of the emergence of Islam *and* (2) the problems and historical difficulties that modern scholars have identified with that traditional narrative. In analyzing those historical difficulties, he explains how the Quran itself sheds light on how Islam emerged, what sort of religious environment it emerged in, and why the hadith/sira/shariah were later developed to explicate certain features of the more ancient text, while addressing what were (by then) a much later and radically different set of social/religious issues. As a simple example, the later Muslim tradition is heavily focused on Mecca, arguing that Mohammed began speaking against the polytheists in Mecca. Yet the Qur'an itself is primarily directed at Christians and Jews, and does not directly even mention Mecca, with relatively few mentions of polytheism (the Arabic word often translated as "polytheists" actually meaning "associators," i.e. those who falsely associate other persons (Jesus/Holy Spirit) with Allah). Read through the later Muslim tradition, the Qur'an is all about Mohammed receiving a monotheistic revelation and attempting to convert the polytheists, receiving this new revelation in the isolated polytheistic city of Mecca. Read through modern scholarship, Islam seems to have been much more of the product of Arab engagement with Christian and Jewish theology/religion, emerging considerably to the North, next to and amongst Christian and Jewish Arab populations.
The text is so nicely edited and carefully planned that the book will be easily comprehensible to nearly any interested reader, despite the fabulous complexities of the scholarly issues it addresses. Reynolds gives excellent, clear examples of why modern scholars disagree with certain aspects of the Muslim tradition, while not being overly dogmatic. If a reader has any familiarity with the Byzantine complexities of modern critical scholarship on Islam's emergence, the task of simplifying and summarizing that scholarship would seem nearly impossible. But Reynolds does it quite well. It's hard to imagine much of a better generalist introduction to the early history of Islam.
I didn't experience the book binding problem that seems to have plagued the other reviewers, so hopefully the issue has been fixed. My copy seems fine, and it is a rather handsomely produced text with nice illustrations/images that further the discussion, so it would be a shame to see people avoid it in favor of the Kindle edition.