on 5 February 2016
This short introduction to Islam sets out “to address some of the complexities surrounding recent controversies and events [relating to Islam]” (p.xi), which, according to the author, have been subjected to, “stereotyping or facile generalization…in the media” (p.xii).
The book deals primarily with contemporary political issues; it is neither an Islamic history nor an exploration of Islamic theology (although both areas are touched upon) and anyone buying it as such will be disappointed.
In the opening section of chapter one, the author states that: Islam is “the religion of peace” (p.1), both etymologically, “[‘Islam’ is] “related to the word ‘salaam’, meaning peace” (p.2), and historically, “Islam was born on the wings of the Arab conquest, but in subsequent centuries its spread was largely peaceful” (p.2); modern examples of Islamist violence are either reactions to Western aggression, “7/7…was motivated by anger…at British participation in military campaigns against two Muslim-majority states” (p.4), or mirrored by non-Muslim acts of violence, “Anders Behring Breivik, who massacred 69 people…may represent the ‘closest thing yet to a Christian version of al-Qaeda’” (p.5); and those in the West concerned by Islamist terrorism are part of the “paranoid right” (p.6).
After this procession of a-historical apologia (contrary to the author, violent aggression was a hallmark of Muslim relations with non-Muslim states long after the original Arab conquests had petered out); disingenuousness (the interest of the 7/7 terrorists in violent Jihad antedated both the coalition invasion of Iraq and that of Afghanistan); false equivalence (how can Anders Breivik be the Christian equivalent to al-Qaeda, a religiously-based terrorist organisation, when he was a self-confessed atheist – and therefore neither religious nor a Christian – and acting completely independently – and therefore neither an organisation nor part of an organisation?); and ad-hominem slurs (it’s not “paranoid” to be concerned about a religion the members of which have, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent decline of militant communism, committed the vast majority of terrorist acts across the globe); the author mercifully settles down in the rest of the chapter to a sober and scholarly discussion of Islam as a faith, as a political ideology (“Islamism”), and as an institution.
Chapter two deals with the embodied traditions of Islam: (1) the Quran, whose literary style is analysed interestingly, “[it] is allusive and elliptical. It is addressed to people already familiar with much of the material [including Biblical references] it contains” (p.35), but not critically, e.g. the author fails to discuss how the Quranic evidence for Biblical literacy on the part of both its author and audience directly contradicts the traditional, canonical view of an illiterate Muhammad, resident several hundred miles from Christian civilization, whose audience are mostly pagans untouched by either Christianity or Judaism. (2) The Sira (biography/biographies) of Muhammad, the discussion of which gives the author the opportunity to provide a biographical sketch of the Islamic prophet, which, strangely given the author’s acknowledgement that “[t]he century or more of oral transmission between the life and death of Muhammad and the first biographies makes factual certainty impossible” (p.37), is derived entirely from these same late 8th – early 9th century records while ignoring the earlier and contradictory evidence from the lifetime of Muhammad, such as contemporary Christian chronicles and the Quran itself. And, (3) the Hadiths, “discrete anecdotes about the Prophet’s sayings and actions” (p.47); the attempts by classical Muslim scholars to guarantee their authenticity through a reliable chain of transmission; and the modern scholarly view that they are mostly “spurious” (p.48).
Chapter three gives a concise narrative overview of the Sunni/Shia schism; the development of medieval Islamic “rationalism”, and Sufi mysticism; and the unique historical relationship of Shia Islam to Iran, with particular reference to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and its aftermath.
Chapter 4 “looks at the history and development of the Shari’a law and its importance today” (p.82); and explains its centrality, “God has not revealed Himself and His nature, but rather His law” (p.82), and roots, “the Quran, the Prophet’s Sunna (as revealed through the hadith literature), ijma or consensus, and qiyas (analogical reasoning)” (pp.83-4). The analysis of the Sharia’s impact on historical Islamic societies, “the mainly oral procedures and high standards of proof…were less appropriate in the expanding cosmopolitan societies of the Arab empire…[a]s a consequence the administration of criminal justice was never fully entrusted to the qadis [Islamic judges]” (p.92); and their contemporary successors, both economically, “the combination of Islamic inheritance laws…and the absence of legal personhood, prevented Middle Eastern societies competing successfully with European ones” (p.98), and politically, “because the Islamist model is predicated on the belief in government by morally impeccable individuals who can be counted on to resist temptation, it does not generate institutions capable of functioning autonomously by means of structural checks and balances” (p.99), provides a model of objective historical criticism which is sadly lacking in some parts of earlier chapters.
Chapter 5 deals with the relation of women and Islam, a subject “fraught with controversy” (p.100). The Quran’s progressive nature in relation to its contemporary background, “the Quran refers with abhorrence to the custom of female infanticide” (p.102); but paradoxical enshrining of the “legal inferiority of women” (p.103); and both modernist and feminist attempts to develop a hermeneutic to overcome the literal reading of the text, e.g. by emphasising that “the Quran was revealed at a specific time and in a specific social context” (p.103), are explored.
Chapter 6 explains the two meanings of jihad, “the ‘greater’ jihad against evil” (p.128) which can take “a purely moralistic form” (p.133); and “the ‘lesser’ jihad of war” (p.128). The development of the latter is followed into the modern era via “resistance to European rule during the 19th and early 20th centuries” (p.133); conservative Islamic intellectual reform once military victory against colonial powers proved impossible; the founding of the Muslim brotherhood in 1928; and the creation of its terroristic offshoots, such as al-Qaeda.
Anyone wanting a brief exploration of contemporary political issues generated by Islam can do worse than to refer to this book. But it is flawed: the author’s references to contemporary events are often infuriatingly left-wing and wrongheaded, e.g. an allusion to Israel’s “system of functional apartheid and…Palestinian colonies” (p.153); the book’s tone is deliberately apologetic to the point of falsehood, e.g. “much of the groundwork for the scientific and philosophical thought that would flourish in the West was laid in Muslim lands” (p.17) which is simply untrue; and he also ignores the attempts, begun by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook in their seminal 1977 work ‘Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World’ and recently popularised by Tom Holland in his excellent ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, to reconstruct the life of Muhammad and the early history of Islam through contemporary archaeological and textual evidence rather than uncritically relying on late Islamic texts, such as the Sira and hadiths, as the author does here.
There is one more thing which I found curious. Throughout the work there is something of an elephant in the room in the form of the unusual level of controversy, verging on self-censorship, which surrounds Islamic studies even in the West: “the first edition of this book…contained an illustration… [of] the Prophet [Muhammad] seated in a stylized rocky landscape…a small number of readers found the picture blasphemous [and so it was removed from the second, current edition]” (p.42) (apparently Oxford University Press n’est pas Charlie!), or where a controversial theory on Islam’s origins is described, without comment, as being published “pseudonymous[ly]” (p.37), hardly standard academic practice! But what the author makes of all this we’re not told…