Reviewed by Ayesha Hoda
With rising interest (post 9/11) in Islam and what is termed as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, several books have been written on the religion and current events revolving around it.What is Islam in its revised edition of the book (first written in 1990), also falls into a similar category and addresses some relevant religious/political issues. However, its primary focus is on imparting knowledge about the religion’s beliefs, history, laws or Shariah, sects and so on.
‘An Introduction to the Muslim World’ would perhaps have been a more appropriate title for this book by Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale. Horrie is an award-winning former staff reporter, editor and author or co-author of around 10 books. Chippindale has written Mink and Laptop of the Gods.
The book discusses in-depth the Muslim world and the shape it has taken in the present century, rather than explaining what Islam is, as one would expect. The front cover states that the tome is a comprehensive introduction to Islam. However, this is not the first book you would recommend to someone to introduce them to the religion. Understanding of the religion and its philosophy is largely missing from the book.
The concise and simple style of writing is a positive aspect which makes it easy to grasp the details. What is also praiseworthy is that the book has been written in an unemotional manner; it is more of a factual account of what happened in Islamic history and what the basic principles of the religion are. However, at several places there are factual errors. This is disappointing, especially since the book has been rewritten and mistakes could have been noted and corrected in the revised edition.
The chapters have been divided into four categories: Faith, Islamic history, Islamic sects and The Muslim world. The section on faith comprises of brief explanations of the pillars of Islam, articles of faith, Islamic law, the Islamic calendar, universality of the religion and the life of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). The section on Islamic history provides an overview of the early Islamic Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and there is also a chapter on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with discussions on The Wahabbi Revolt, The Muslim Brotherhood, Iranian Revolution and so on. A chapter called ‘A Clash of Civilisations?’ has been included in this section, which is basically a critical review of Samuel P. Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. The authors’ personal viewpoint on the clash between Islam and the West is not really clear except that they think Huntington’s views are paranoid and extremist. A chronology of important events of Muslim history has been included and can be useful for quick reference.
The third section on Islamic sects discusses the various factions of the religion in some detail, right from the four schools of Sunni law to Mahdi’ist movements and the Black Muslim Movement in America. It recounts the differences between the Twelvers, the Seveners, the Assassins and other sub-groups within Shi’ite Islam. There is also a chapter on other Islamic groups such as the Sufis, the Ibadites, the Qadiriyah, etc. As a large number of people, including Muslims, are unaware of the various sub-sects that exist within Islam, the perusal of this section will prove to be enlightening.
The section on the Muslim world mentions some particulars of Muslim countries, their religious laws and brief political history. It does not mention countries with significant Muslim populations, where Islam is not the state religion (for instance India).The book is generally neutral. However, at some points, the authors seem to be rather biased and make statements without elaborating or providing substantial examples to validate their reasons for making them. For instance, they write:
‘The couple [the Prophet and his first wife Khadijah] had only one surviving child, a daughter called Fatima who in later life became a fanatical Muslim’. And referring to Islamabad, they call it the ‘new citadel of orthodoxy’.
Moreover, there are also several instances where the authors do not differentiate between what Islam actually teaches and what several Muslims might believe due to social, cultural, political and other influences. For example, they say that ‘Muslim women may take part in Hajj, subject to various restrictions. During it each must be accompanied by a male chaperon (mahram), who must be a man she is legally unable to marry – for example her father or brother’ and ‘Failure to carry out a fard obligation is both a sin and a crime punishable in Shariah courts.’
Topics such as Da’wah and Ijtehad are completely missing; they would have been relevant to current times. Overall, the book does not thoroughly cover all the aspects and may be read along with a number of other books on the subject in order to offer a better and more lucid perspective on Islamic history, culture and the faith itself.
What is Islam?
By Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale
Virgin Books, UK
Available with Liberty Books, Karachi