Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Article excerpt

By Frederick M. Denny. Harper Collins, 1987. 137pp. List: $8.95; AET: $6 for one, $8.95 for two.

Introductory works on religion are seldom, if ever, complete. Any great religious tradition defies thorough examination and explanation at anything but considerable length. The nuances of its worldview, the complexity of its teachings, and the intricacy of its history must all be taken into account if one is to understand something of the faith and its adherents. Islam, obviously, is no exception. Yet Frederick Denny, in his book Islam, has chosen his ground well. His discussion, while taking account of the whole, focuses on a few important Islamic concepts and institutions, providing the reader with an overview that is at once informed and concise.

Denny stresses that Islam must be considered as both theoretical doctrine and as human practice; that is, as a set of ideas and ideals and as their actual manifestation. This ritual, practical component is important because, Denny argues, Islam is primarily an orthoprax religion, as opposed to an orthodox religion. It focuses more attention on correct practice, law and liturgy than on correct philosophy. This is not to say, however, that "orthodoxy" is absent, or that Islam ignores issues of faith and theology.

Islam, like Judaism and unlike Christianity, exhibits a high degree of liturgical uniformity in a variety of geographical and cultural settings. Doctrine and belief are important, but faith must also be put into action.

In his book, Denny proposes a theoretical conception of Islam based on a triangle, with history, "religious way," and culture each constituting an angle. In different places and times the triangle has been drawn differently, reflecting the relative emphasis each of the three angles receives. In each instance, though, all three exist and support each other. To lose any of the angles would be to lose the whole triangle. Denny organizes his text upon this tripartite construction, expressed in terms of historical developments, the structures of Muslim life, and representative Muslim institutions.

His treatment of Islamic history focuses on the early years of the faith. He looks first at the period of jahiliya, or "age of ignorance," which preceded the advent of Islam in the Arabian peninsula. The events of Muhammad's life and the details of his prophetic career are examined, in addition to the early caliphate and the rise of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Denny also discusses the growth of Islam in its first centuries, including the long-standing notion that Islam was "spread by the sword."

The author's interest lies in initial developments in Islam rather than in its later variety. Thus much of Islam's "golden age" is absent, with centuries of Muslim history covered in a few brief sentences. Although Denny's survey of early developments is useful, it is clearly not his intention to provide a detailed chronology of events, and readers looking for a history of Islamic society had best turn elsewhere.

The exploration of "The Structures of Muslim Life" is the book's strongest section. What claims does Islam make about itself, the nature of God, and the human condition? Denny examines the notion of salvation, or more properly of "success" in this life and the next, which is the ultimate goal of all Muslims. He also lays out the basic tenets of the faith and discusses the "five pillars" of Islam: the shahada ("witnessing"), prayer, zakat ("alms"), the fast during the month of Ramadan, and the haj to Mecca. …

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