Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven (Book Review #21 of 2016)

Islam: A Very Short Introduction by Malise Ruthven

I read this book (3 stars) and the Very Short Introduction to the Koran (4.5 stars) consecutively, I found the latter to be a better work. But the history in this "short" introduction is quite substantive. In comparison, I recently finished Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Reza Aslan's The Origins and Future of Islam (2.5 stars), Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars), and Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars). Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars) was probably the most helpful, and this book would be a good supplement with it and Mansfield's text. All of these books shaped my opinion of this particular book before I wrote this review.

My notes of interest from this Very Short Introduction:
The author compares the origins of the Koran received by an angel commanding Muhammad to "recite" to that of Joseph Smith Jr.'s Book of Mormon centuries later. Muhammad himself is hardly quoted in the Koran, so the Koran is sort of like the Epistles without the Gospels-- a history of events without the explanation behind the motivations of those events. There is no coherent narrative structure. There is also no concept of original sin, and therefore no Redeemer as in Christianity.
What is generally accepted about the life of Mohammad? Were activities like the Hajj and Ramadan already cultural activities that were present in Mecca in Muhammad's day? Valid questions.
The author explains the concept of Tawhid, the important idea of unity and obeisance to one god. Sunni Islam has no hierarchy, no supreme religious authority. The author makes the case that decentralized legal interpretation tends toward conservative (traditional) interpretations, interpreters being hesitant to add and more likely to rely on previous rulings and the authoritative text. The author then explains the difference between Shi'ia and Sunni interpretation processes in their current form.

Islamic Sharia law has five sources:
1. The Quran, of which only 10% can be converted into law.
2. The Sunna - the verbally transmitted record of Muhammad, later recorded. The author covers the Hadiths and their rank order of authority, examining problems in interpretation and reliability. Shiia include the sayings of the Twelve Imams.
3. Ijma - the community's interpretation, either the community of scholars or the community in general. This has less relevance in Shi'ia Islam but Sunni Islam's different schools consider different generations to be authoritative.
4. Qiyas - The systematic application of things not explicitly mentioned in the Quran, hadiths, or where there may be debate about something mentioned in a less-reliable hadith or a comparison made between statements in the Quran and hadiths. One example of this is the prohibition on alcohol, was it just some alcohol and was it a total prohibition? Analogical or syllogistic reasoning takes place, which some schools of Islam reject.
5. Ijtihad - the struggle for truth - the total expenditure of effort by an individual (a mujtahid), apart from any school, to find truth. This requires in-depth knowledge of the language of the Quran, and a great deal of reasoning (and great trust by the ones who adhere to the independent scholar's thinking).

There are mainly four different schools with different thoughts about whether and when the canon and doors to interpretation are open and whether and when they closed. The author includes some explanation of how Western ideas, including Greek thought, were incorporated into early Islamic scholarship and legal interpretation, including the ideas of logic and reason in interpretation. The modern buildings of Islam were influenced by modern thought, just as politics and theology today deal with different and evolving values and economies. He briefly touches on the theology of the Ayatollah Khomenei as well as the Sayyid Qutub, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and violent jihad in Egypt.

Part V deals with women and Islam, of particular interest as I have been studying the role of women and views of women in Islam, looking at modern thought (by Ayan Hirsi Ali and Mona Eltahawy to name a couple). There are some differences between the Koran and hadiths about the life of Mohammad and his wives. While most accept that the prophet gave sanction to having four wives providing you can show equal attention to all, one hadith records that Muhammad had nine wives in one night. The author, incorrectly in my view, contrasts the sexual pleasure of the Koran and Islam with the asceticism of the Christian church. Perhaps the author is referring to Catholic teaching and ignoring the robust biblical theology of sex. It's clear that cultural applications and interpretations (see the Qiyas) have come into play regarding age of marriage, burqas and hijabs, (along with the Fez for men), and more. Interestingly, the author never mentions Aisha's age at marriage and consummation, seemingly wanting to avoid a relevant topic. He seems to argue that in the 20th-21st century signs of tolerant change toward women are apparent across Islam-centered countries, conveniently ignoring the works of many persecuted women reformers and the lives of women in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia; the growing expectation of women to be covered is something he does not ponder.

Oddly, the author also claims religious minorities are tolerated better in Islam than what is seen in Christianity, noting Papal bulls that excommunicate the unfaithful. As in Hoyland's In God's Path, there is evidence for this in how minorities were pacified and eventually assimilated in the rapid spread of Islam in the century after Muhammad's death. However, one only need to look at the early Islamic civil wars (not really covered in this book) or even turn on the TV to see fatwas and violence among competing schools of thought within Islam today, as well as the illegality of conversion in most Islamic countries. In contrast, it has been a long time since Christian churches have killed people for apostacy. The author's belief that media and the information age are "undermining" Islamic conservatives seems to not imagine an ultra-conservative group like ISIS using social media to recruit tens of thousands from the West to join their strict way of life. Nonetheless, the author admits that "more blood can be expected to be spilled along the way" as Islam moves into the 21st century.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It is a decent companion, but the author reaches a bit trying to find western analogies or going out of his way to criticize the West while clearly ignoring counterfactuals to his claims. Another substantial weakness is the failure to look at Sufism and other branches as Islam expanded Eastward. I enjoyed The Very Short Introduction to the Koran much better than this work for its depth and breadth.

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