UNDERSTANDING ISLAM: AN INTRODUCTION, MINNEAPOLIS - Future Islam
Books Review

UNDERSTANDING ISLAM: AN INTRODUCTION, MINNEAPOLIS

By C.T.R. Hewer, Fortress press 2006, pp. 255 Reviewed by: Prof. Abdul Ali

The book under review is the result of the author’s wide knowledge of Islam enriched by extensive consultation with renowned Islamic scholars and ordinary Muslims. The book is a serious attempt at understanding Islam and introducing it to people in the west where this religion has been by and large grossly misunderstood and misrepresented through the ages.

Although the author, who is a Christian, has admittedly tried to remain as faithful as possible to the Muslim tradition, it is but natural that he cannot be expected to “accept everything Islam teachers or see the world exactly the same way a Muslim does.” He rightly argues that “to accept that the Qur’an is the ultimately revealed scripture from God that corrects all others and that Muhammad was the infallible sinless prophet of God, in the way that Muslims believe, would make it necessary to leave the Christian faith and become a Muslim” Nevertheless, on the basis of long historical interaction between Christians and Muslims as well as the commonalities that exist between these two monotheistic religious systems, the author concedes that Muslims deserve to be treated as cousins of Christians in faith in the one God. Hence, his analytical study of Islam is characterized by a sympathetic approach, which is undoubtedly a marked departure form the hostile attitude of the Christian west towards it.

The book is divided into ten chapters followed by bibliography glossary and index, in which the author has discussed a wide range of topics relating to creation from a Muslim perspective the figure of prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an., Islamic history, principal beliefs and practices of Islam , ethics and prayers, its relationship to other faiths and the world community and extensive coverage of Islam in Britain, West Europe  and United States of America .

While discussing creation from a Muslim perspective, the author has made a very pertinent observation that there is no tension between religion and science in Islam. This statement is not only illustrative of the author’s mature understanding of the Islamic concept of worship, but also in agreement with the spirit of Islam. Since there cannot be any conflict between the word of God and the work of God, the fact finding scientist worships God by seeking to positively understand the workings of creation in almost the same way as the theologian worships God by seeking to understand the revealed books, for all exploration of the revelations and workings of God is an act of worship, provided, of course, the same is done with full consciousness of being guided in the right direction.

While seeing to introduce Islam to the western people, the author has very objectively thrown light on the genuine nature of this faith as believed and upheld by Muslims vis-a-vis Judaism and Christianity. This is evident form the following quotation:

“For Jews and Christians especially, this has a profound message, of the twenty- five prophets named in the Qur’an twenty-one are biblical figures. A Muslim is required to believe that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among others, were prophets sent by God to teach essentially the same message as Muhammad and the Qur’an. Islam never sees itself as a new religion revealed to Muhammad in the Qur’an in the seventh century of the Common era. Islam is part of that on-going revelation from God that goes right back to Adam and Eve encompasses every human being who has ever lived. The Qur’an is a restatement of the essentially identical revelation, which is there to rein force and clarify earlier revelations.  To the extent that earlier revelations have been lost or misunderstood, the Qur’an comes to correct those errors and restate the revelation of Islam” (P. 9).

One important feature of this book is that while discussing commonalities, the author has also pointed out the differences that exist in the three major monotheistic religions. For example, while relating the story of sacrifice of Ibrahim’s son, he gives both Biblical and Quranic accounts of it In the Bible it was Isaac who was to be sacrificed by Ibrahim, while, in the Islamic tradition it was Ismail. Another significant difference is that in The Bible Isaac did not know that he was to be sacrificed where as in the Qur’an Ismail knew that he was to be sacrificed by his father at the command of Allah, so it was a double test of obedience for both Ibrahim and his son Ismail.

The critical statement made by the author in the third chapter regarding polygamy in Islam which, according to him, seems somewhat shocking, appears to be based on his ignorance of the spirit behind this conditional provision aimed only at ameliorating the lot of women rather that enjoying the luxury of plurality of wives. Although he has tried to tone down his criticism by saying that Muhammad had far fewer wives than many other leaders when compared to earlier generations including examples in the Old Testament, his very approach to tackling this issue is erroneous. He should have better looked in to the matter in the context of the circumstances in which conditional polygamy was approved for Muslims.

While dealing with the preservation and compilation of the original Qur’anic texts, the author has pointed out in a very honest and scholarly manner that the Qur’an is preserved intact in Arabic as revealed to the Prophet, that this should be regarded as the primary miracle of Islam and that it is the main reason why classical Qur’anic Arabic is still the scholarly Arabic language of today. He further frankly conceded that no scholarly discussion of the text of the Bible is possible, as it exists only in translations and not in the Hebrew and Greek languages in which it was originally written.

The fourth chapter “An Overview of Islamic History” gives a graphic account of important episodes of Muslim History right from the expansion of the Islamic Empire down to their decline in the modern period. Although some intellectual advances made by Muslims have been briefly referred to by the author, the reviewer is of the opinion that the intellectual and scientific contributions of Islam and Muslim should have been described by him in a more detailed manner, thereby crediting Muslim with having been the main connecting link between the Greco-Roman classical age and the modern scientific era. Needless to say that this would have made the intellectual side of Islam adequately represented to people in the West, for whom the book is claimed to have been written.

Further, the assertion made by the author in chapter nine regarding the position of non-Muslims in an Islamic state is both ideologically and historically inaccurate. To quote his own words:

“They (the Jews and Christians) had to wear distinctive clothing, act with humility in the presence of Muslim……..” It is a historical fact that jews and Christians enjoying the status of dhimmis, were treated as free citizens of the state and were held in all transaction of daily life on a footing of equality with the Muslim. They occupied important clerical, executive, financial and professional positions in the government. All administrative posts of high salaries were open to them equally with the Muslims.

It is of course true that in a very few cases discriminatory legislation was passed against Jews and Christians, obliging them to the rule. Even in the few exceptional cases such discriminatory legislation mostly remained” ink on paper “ and was never seriously implemented.

That the dhimmis enjoyed under the Muslim rule a large measure of toleration may be inferred from the high level of communal autonomy, economic prosperity and cultural flowering realized and attained by them. As is well know, the Jews developed realized and attained by them. As is well know, the Jews developed a vigorous economic and cultural life. They enjoy self- government under their “ exilarch” who was accepted by the caliphs as religious head of all the Jews in Iraq, Armenia, Persia and Yemen. Their rabbinical academic provided religious and intellectual leadership to the Jews of dar-el-Islam (Will Durant, The story of civilization, Vol. IV, P 366)

Their religious leader lived in affluence, who appeared dressed in embroidered silk. Whenever, he rode through the city of Baghdad, which was the center of Eastern Hebrews, he was honored by the Muslims as well. While men heralded ahead of him celling out. “Make way for our Lord, the son of David”. A tax was also levied by him on markets, Merchandise and inns. And in the words of C.R cinder” The Baghdad synagogue had pillars of coloured marble plated with silver and gold, and the city seems to have been the Paradise of Israel during an age of persecution in Europe”

Besides, the author himself has contradicted his earlier statement on his point, saying: “The balance of history would show that Jews fared better under Muslim rule, especially in Europe. Many Jews fled Christian persecution and took refuge among Muslim, where they were treated with respect and hospitality. Many Jewish communities were treated with respect and hospitality. Many Jewish communities were found in Ottoman Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and throughout North Africa under Islamic rule. When Jews fled persecution by Christians in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, took them in and gave them shelter and land to settle” (p.173)

Chapter ten is very informative and interesting. It gives an analytical account of the history of Islam and Muslims in Britain, Western Europe and the united states of America. Both problems and prospects of Muslim have been fairly evaluated and assessed.

Although the present reviewer differs from the view expressed by the author on certain points, the book under review is a valuable addition to existing literature on the subject in the English language.

The few critical remarks that have been made above, do not detract from the value and importance of this scholarly work, in which relevant matter have been dealt with in an objective, sympathetic and impractical manner. Had the author not disclosed his Christian identity in the introductory chapter, it would not have been possible for the reader to detect whether it was written by a Muslim or non-Muslim writer.

To sum up, the book is penetrative and incisive. It is a scholarly contribution towards a better understanding of Islam and related subjects in the west. The get-up of the book leaves little to be desired. Hardbound and practically free of printing errors, it is an interesting study for both scholars and general readers. While giving a refreshing account of the beliefs and practices of Islam, it also acquaints the reader with the basic tenets of Judaism and Christianity. All good libraries will do well to stock this book.

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