Reading Islam

By Kimball, Charles | The Christian Century, May 17, 2005 | Go to article overview

Reading Islam


Kimball, Charles, The Christian Century


PRIOR TO September 11, 2001, a substantial majority in the United States approached Islam with a strange kind of detailed ignorance. For many Americans the words Islam and Muslims evoked disjointed images of violence, religious fanaticism, rejection of the modern world, mistreated women, and praying men bowing in the direction of Mecca. Popular Western perceptions based largely on news reports and television images of war, revolution, hijackings, hostage-takings and mysterious societies seemingly closed to the outside world have been nurtured in the context of a long history of bias and misinformation.

Interest in Islam shifted to a completely different level after September 11. Three and a half years later we continue to be in an extended teachable moment. As anyone with expertise in Islam can readily attest, the demand for media interviews, university lectures and speeches in churches and at conferences remains very high. Publishers have responded to the demand with an array of books aimed at nonspecialists who want to know more about Islam in historical and contemporary perspective.

The stakes are very high in an interconnected and interdependent world where there are many weapons of mass destruction and where small numbers of zealots can wreak havoc. Ignorance is dangerous. How do we make sense of what is going on and anticipate what may come next? Which resources are most helpful and why? A wise friend once noted, "When you are standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is not defined as one step forward." For many, moving back from the brink requires a better understanding of the basics of Islam.

General introductions: A general introduction to Islam is a logical place to start. The best of these books cover similar terrain. They survey the emergence of Islam in the seventh century; provide an overview of the life and teachings of Muhammad and of major themes in the Qur'an; clarify Muslims' understanding that theirs is the same religion God revealed through Abraham, Moses and Jesus; and explore the development, debates and practices of various Muslim groups as the religious system and broader civilization spread rapidly. The most useful introductions highlight the major doctrinal and legal frameworks that have guided Muslims for centuries, and they broadly frame contemporary developments in the context of the past two or three centuries.

Islam: Faith and History, by Mahmoud M. Ayoub (Oneworld), is an excellent and very accessible introduction. Ayoub, a Muslim born in southern Lebanon, is a professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University. He has long been an articulate voice explaining Islam in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East. His years of teaching in the classroom and making presentations to non-Muslim groups clearly inform the structure and content of his book.

Two widely acclaimed introductions have been revised recently. Frederick Denny's An Introduction to Islam (3rd rev. ed., Prentice Hall) is the most helpful book in this genre, and it now has a chapter that explores key issues in the post-September 11 world. Denny provides solid background information, substantial depth, footnotes and annotated suggestions for further reading. The paperback volume works well as the primary text for survey courses on Islam.

John Esposito's Islam: The Straight Path (3rd ed., Oxford University Press) is a more affordable and very reliable guide that I have used successfully in many classes. It is a succinct, up-to-date survey of Islamic experience, an introduction to the beliefs and practices of Islam from its origins to contemporary resurgence movements. Following September 11 Esposito published a basic primer, What Everybody Needs to Know About Islam (Oxford University Press) and a text directly addressing the most pressing issues related to militant Islamist movements, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford University Press). …

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