Islam being a fairly hot subject these days what with the popularity of many Area Studies and Religious Studies programmes all round the world, books on Islam keep appearing with an almost monotonous regularity. A lot of them openly perpetuate popular stereotypes about Islam and Muslims while quite a few are found wanting in addressing the issues in an honest manner. What distinguishes Douglas Pratt’s The Challenge of Islam is his sincerity to his subject of study and his honest feeling that a dialogue between Muslims and Christians will remove many misunderstandings. It is an admirable effort on the part of a non-Muslim scholar to not only understand Islam but also present before the non –Muslims, particularly Christians belonging to the Western world, various issues relating to Islam in the present context.
The 250 odd pages long book, divided in three parts, begins with an introduction which quickly starts debunking certain myths about Muslims and as such sets the tone of the book. Pratt begins with the view that majority of Muslims are passionate for the cause of right and are not terrorists or destroyers of civilizations (p.6).Pratt is also not ready to accept the western representation of Islam as a monolithic entity.
A proper understanding of Islam, a subject treated at length in part I of the book, is a prerequisite to any meaningful dialogue between Islam and other communities. Pratt sympathetically sketches the history of Islam with particular focus on the life of Prophet Muhammad. Thus he attributes Prophet’s taking many wives to his religio-political and pastoral context and his concern for the widows of the battles. In the subsequent chapters in this part he dwells at length on Muslim Scripture and Tradition. Giving due reverence to the Qur’an, he says that the “authenticity of the Qur’an is widely accepted within the world of scholarship as well as naturally the world of Islamic faith (p.36). Also, Pratt writes, the matchlessness and incomparability of the language of the Qur’an—no translation can render this—is a proof of its being a revealed book, the last and final revelation according to the Islamic view. From the point of view of an interfaith dialogue ! it is important to know that the Qur’an acknowledges both Torah and Gospel as revealed books. In fact, Pratt argues, the Islamic view considering both Torah and Gospel as having been corrupted is responsible for a lot of tension between the two communities. Pratt’s analysis of the Islamic community— Sunni, Shia and Sufi—makes interesting reading. He adopts a popular line that Al-Ghazali was responsible in establishing Sunni orthodoxy. The first part of the book concludes with a very informative account of the beliefs, practices and laws in Islam. Islamic perspective on tawhid (oneness of God), eschatology, Jihad, salat (prayer), Zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fast), Pilgrimage, sharia (the divine law) and Islamic jurisprudence are explained briefly but succinctly.
The second part of the book discusses some paradigms relating to the Christian-Muslim and Jewish-Muslim relationship. In his interpretation of the troubled history of Islam and Christianity, Pratt uses the outline provided by Jean-Marie Gaudeul in his book Encounters and Clashes: Islam and Christianity in History (1990). It follows his reading of this history in the epoch of Expansion (7th—10th centuries), Equilibrium (11th—12th centuries), Exhortation (13th—14th centuries), Enmity (15th—18th centuries) and finally in an epoch of Emancipation and Exploration (19th –20th centuries). In the age of expansion there was both direct and indirect dialogue between the two communities. One important issue in this dialogue was the status of the doctrine of the Trinity and the authenticity of the Qur’an. Pratt believes that during this period the indirect dialogue “was more a matter of diatribe and invective than dispassionate engagement in mutual understanding and critical self-reflection (p.106).”During the period of Equilibrium there was a sort of balance of power as far as Muslims and Christians were concerned. Pratt, supported by a quote from Gaudel, points out that Islam’s progress on the intellectual front, under the influence of Greek thought, reached its peak during this period. In fact Europe learnt Greek philosophy and science from the Islamic world. However, both Christians and Muslims turned to their own religion to protect it from the other, Muslims from Christian contamination and Christians from Muslim refutation of a falsified Bible (because of alteration) and the doctrine of the Trinity. “Both sides consolidated their paradigms of hate (p.108).”In the age of exhortation “Europe had discovered its existence as ‘Christendom’.” This was an age in which Islam was seen as the other of Christendom; it was considered a religion preaching hatred, violence and licentiousness; the Prophet was projected as the Antichrist. “Humiliation and degradation of the other was the order of the day (p.111)”, writes Pratt. In the epoch of Enmity Europe’s developing into modern nation states and Christianity’s concern with Reformation meant that the Christian West was indifferent to Islam and at best considered it just another heresy. Moreover an intellectual movement like Renaissance, with its humanist orientation and secular ethos, further separated the European worldview from that of the Muslims’. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Pratt notes both Christian evangelism and Islamic da‘wah had a presence. He again quotes Gaudel to the effect that “the liberal trend seems to gain in importance among Christian missionaries, while it still remains marginal, almost non-existent among Muslims on account of the present mounting wave of Islam(p.116).”Pratt’s account here seems to be a little marred by his effort to balance the missionary activities with Islamic da‘wah. It is common knowledge that the scale of missionary activities in the British Empire was simply unparalleled. In fact their non-violence is also a myth as they were tools of the imperialists. Moreover the violence associated with Muslims cannot match the violence unleashed (by “Christian powers”) during the two World Wars and more recently by the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pratt identifies three different kinds of paradigms in his reading of the Jewish-Muslim relations. In his elaboration of what he calls Originating Paradigms he looks for the evidence of Muslims’s alleged hatred of Jews in the incidents of the Prophet’s life and in some sura of the holy Qur’an. Then the fact that Jews were a dhimmi community under Muslim rule and that Muslims scholars were always wary of Isra’iliyyat provides, what Pratt calls, Historico-legal paradigms. Pratt also explores the contemporary situation and focuses on what he terms Islamic neo-anti-Semitism. One will agree with Pratt that for any meaningful Jewish-Muslim dialogue to take place, triumphalism of any sort must be avoided and that it must be granted that each “religion is an interpretive venture (p.135).”However, Pratt’s overall stance in this chapter, especially his silence on the illegitimate status of the state of Israel and the atrocities heaped by the Jewish state! on the Palestinians, mars his study. He portrays Jews as a persecuted community but does not talk about the hatred of Jews for Muslims. One possible reason for this flaw in his approaches can be attributed to his western sources; significantly he has not referred to even a single Muslim commentator on the issue of Jewish-Muslim relations.
One good feature of the book is that Pratt does not reduce Muslims to a single monolithic category. He rather touches on different strands in Islam and different Muslim worlds: traditionalism, modernism, pragmatic secularism and Islamism.
Included in the third part, Pratt’s analysis of the barriers to interfaith dialogue is arguably the most interesting part of the book. He discusses how “western perception of Islam is dominated by misrepresentation and distorted image, which derive largely from past misunderstanding and ignorance (p.172).”The Western ignorance ranges from innocent to blind to culpable. Reducing Islam to a monolithic (fundamentalist) entity particularly ignoring the theological and pietistic aspect of Islam, stressing the incompatibility of Islam with democracy, highlighting the alleged poor condition of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled countries, and using the negative descriptive terms about Islam, the Western media has set up Islam as a big threat to the civilized world (read Western World). Pratt’s voice against this kind of flawed and mischievous reading of Islam is his contribution to clearing some prejudices before the much needed dialogue between the two groups.
In the penultimate chapter of the book Pratt counts some issues for the dialogue. He rightly believes that the purpose of the dialogue is not to score points but to “achieve that growth in spiritual development whereby each side better understands the other, and has been led into a fuller awareness of the Truth of God (p.195).”He is able to achieve his purpose of a “foray into the field of an introductory education about Islam, and a dip into the waters of interfaith dialogical encounter with Islam (p.188).”