Wednesday, May 25, 2016

No god but God by Reza Aslan (Book Review #23 of 2016)

No god but God: The Origins and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan
This is really two different books together. I give the first half a star and a half due to the disengenous and unscientific nature of Aslan's writing. The second half, however, I find to be much more interesting and informative. I do not recommend reading Aslan's book by itself; I completed this book among several others on the history of Islam and the Middle East and several by modern Muslims highlighting injustice and pushing for reforms. Books regarding the history of Islam include Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword (5 stars), Robert Hoyland's In God's Path -  The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (4 stars), Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted (4.5 stars), Malise Ruthven's Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and Michael Cook's Very Short Introduction to the Koran.  I found Ansary's book to be the most similar to the second half of Aslan's book, probably because of its similar highlights of Sufi and Shiia history since both Aslan and Ansary are quite familiar with those. Reform texts that I read include Heretic by Ayan Hirsi Ali (4 stars), Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar (5 stars), and Mona Eltawahy's Headscarves and Hymens (3.5 stars).  I also listened to Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz's interfaith dialogue which I found uninformative (1 star) and Robert Spencer's Islam Unveiled (1 star).

Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East (3.5 stars), and Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples (4.5 stars) were also helpful.

The first half of the book is written as an apologetic of Islam, the Koran, and the life of the prophet Muhammad. Having read Aslan's Zealot, in which he pulls from others invented narratives about Jesus, James, and Paul, I was not surprised to find Aslan's exegetical fallacies in this book; he has only a rudimentary understanding of historical criticism, good exegesis, and hermeneutics. Where he admits "pure speculation" it is only in passing and does not deter him from writing pure speculation as actual, historical fact-- just as in Zealot. His lack of actual exegesis ruined his attempt to analyze the Pauline epistles in his book Zealot, and it ruins much of his early chapters here. The difference is that in Zealot, Aslan set out to demolish the validity of historical Christianity by speculating things into the Bible that do not make logical sense whereas in this work he sets out to affirm the writings of the Koran. He never really engages with the analysis of someone like Tom Holland, who gives evidence of the Koran being a product of its historical context and pre-existing narratives in the Middle East. Aslan repeatedly chooses to tell a story by choosing certain hadiths that fit his preferred narrative, rather than noting that scholars differ as the reliability of the overlapping hadiths.

"The Clash of Monotheism" - Aslan begins with the heated rhetoric after 9/11/2001 and the "surge" of Christian missionaries into the Middle East, of which Aslan highlights a particularly bad anecdotal example. I reject his strawman because I knew missionaries (some of whom lost their lives) delivering aid, building schools, working in hospitals and orphanages, digging wells, and doing all they could to blend into the culture unoffensively, learning the language and respecting customs.

"Prophets have the goal of forming national identity in their prophecies," is a claim that may sound good but does not hold up to historical scrutiny either. Some prophets are lone madmen in the desert. "Religion is by definition interpretation," and while interpretations may by definition be valid "some are more reasonable than others." That is a bit too subjective for my preference, not all interpretations of sacred texts are exegetically and hermeneutically sound. Aslan writes that the Prophet's goal was not only national identity, but "moral egalitarianism" and he labors to prove this point with a mixture of relying on minority interpretations of key words and painting a narrative from his choice of history from hadiths and his own "speculation." Muhammad did not invent ethical monotheism, but Aslan might lead you to believe as such.

The author describes what is known about the region of Muhammad prior to his birth. The Kabaa, central to Islam, is "shrouded in mystery." There were plenty of worshipped polytheistic deities in Arabia prior to Muhammad, worshippers alongside Christians of various sects, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others. One sight in Yemen was already the "hub" of Christian activity in Arabia; a number of Arab tribes had already converted to Christianity. Many of these did not subscribe to the Nicene Creed and there were many unorthodox Christians present at the Kabaa in Mecca. Aslan also gives the origins of Zarathustra.

According to Islam, the Kabaa in Mecca was originally built or restored by Abraham the monotheist, Abraham was chosen not by grace but because he disapproved of his family's polytheistic practices (not explained by Aslan, this is from me for free). Eventually, polytheistic worship at the Kabaa made it a pagan shrine and this drew in the diaspora such that Mecca was a center of festival and trade for many tribes and religions of the region. According to Aslan, a monotheist named Zayd ibn Amr preached in Mecca about the time of Muhammad's youth, and Muhammad was influenced by this and adopted his method later; Zayd became one of Muhammad's first converts. This apparently comes from a hadith but Aslan does not tell of its reliability, and it is unclear to me how widespread this belief is; it is another example of how Aslan takes shaky information and tells it like fact. Aslan also claims he knows the intention of those who wrote about Muhammad. "One must sift through the sources" writes the author (700,000 hadiths?), his way of saying that he takes what makes the most memorable story for book sales.

Aslan gives some details about tribes living around Mecca, which he writes was not a center of trade but rather a center of worship. There was no legal code among tribes, only a sheikh and maybe an arbiter between tribes and loose confederations or agreements along with marriage arrangements. Anything that weakened the tribe was ruled illegal. (We see similarities in the Canaanite cults, intermarriage forbidden, etc.) Hence, Muhammad's code had appeal and would have been understood in its power of ultimately increasing unity. Was Muhammad commanded by Gabriel to "read" or "recite?" Aslan claims that Muhammad is not the prophet of the illiterate (it is claimed he was illiterate), but FOR the illiterate. Muhammad's message was that God could be accessed without idols and the kabaa was unnecessary. What did "umma" mean? These were the early followers, the deciders. Could it mean "neotribe?"

Aslan stretches very far in painting Muhammad's Islam as women-empowering, and cites specific examples and omits others to make his case. He goes beyond too far in claiming that equality of sexes is found in Islam and not Judeo-Christianity. I am not sure what he means by equality and egalitarianism on this point. He neglects that women had property rights in Jewish law, much less that you cannot get far in the Pentateuch without encounting heroines, prophetesses, and judges. He disregards any actions by Jesus or comments by Paul on the standing of women before God. Aslan writes that, in his polygamy, Muhammad was protecting the widows of his fallen soldiers and uniting tribes through marriage. Thus, Muhammad "needs no defense" for marrying a nine year old. Aslan does not address how this is now still justified in Yemen today; read Nujood's book. In his narrative on the subject of Muhammad's marriages, Aslan conspicuously omits the Quran's tale of Muhammad taking his adopted son's wife. Al-Waqidi's early history of this event has been combined with other commentators over the years having various justifications for the action, none of which seem to play well into Aslan's narrative. Aslan claims the hijab came about because Muhammad's house was also the mosque, so people were constantly around and Muhammad wanted his wives to be protected and not to distract. "No other women wore the hijab," seems to be a ridiculous claim as just in the case of the aforementioned marriage of Muhammad to his adopted son's former wife it was because he saw her unveiled when he came upon their house unexpectedly. It was clearly already present in the culture from all sorts of historical sources on the Middle East. Aslan writes the hijab was later used by males to regain the dominance they lost under Muhammad's egalitarian rule. Further, he claims that the archaic Arabic often translated "beat them" actually might better translate as "follow them" or "sleep with them." That the majority of Arabic scholars, and at least every Muslim I've ever conversed with, disagrees with Aslan's preferred translation should be a caution.

Does Aslan deny that Islam spread by the sword in its early days, that Muhammad himself had to engage in bloody battle to bring about a unity of the clans under his authority? Even though Aslan admits there is little known proof or agreement about the massacre of the Jewish Banu Qurayza clan, he denies it even possible under his egalitarian Muhammad. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he writes. Aslan doesn't even note that Abraham sacrificing Ishamel was not established until centuries after the Quran was considered canonized, since the Quran does not explicitly state who was sacrificed-- many Muslim scholars are recording as believing Isaac was sacrificed. (See Bruce Feiler's book Abraham for the history of this scholarship.) To Aslan, the fact that Muhammad mentions the patriarchs so many times is evidence he "revered" the Jews, and not, as Tom Holland and others surmise, that he was copying or co-opting already widely-known stories. In some places the author writes that Muhammad was obeying the Quran and in others he seems to imply that the Quran was written later after Muhammad's death, so which is it?

Abu Bakr succeeds Muhammad as the first Caliph. Thus the rivalry with Ali begins; Bakr appointed another successor rather than leaving the choice to the shura. In 656 AD, Uthman is killed and Ali leads. Ali refused to accept the caliphate and was himself murdered in 661. The Muslim world has never been the same since. Thus ends the first half of the book, remarkably different from the second half which looks more at the socio-political Islamic history since Muhammad.

14 centuries of Islamic thought have been shaped by the Umma, the elite early group surrounding Muhammad and acquainted with his sayings or reported sayings. There is an "inquisition" over the doctrine of the creation of the Quran -- is the Quran eternal or was it created? Current orthodoxy is that the Quran is eternal. Aslan notes that because the Quran is considered eternal, it cannot be interpreted contextually (and all words in it must be considered eternal and not borrowed from other languages present in the region at the time it was written physically). But later he writes that the "Koran was in flux during the life of Muhammad." How do we square something that was "in flux" with something that is eternal? Aslan seems to want to hold the two in tension; you can't.

"The community is the church of the Muslim," which Aslan appears to be ignorant that this is the case in Judaism and Christianity as well-- the Church is not a building. In early doctrinal formation in Islam there were rationalists arguing with traditionalists, predestination versus other views. Aslan chronicles the role of the hadiths in the late 800s. The Hanbali became the most extreme of the four orthodox Sunni schools in the late 800s. From Hanbali later came the Wahabis and Salafis. Aslan covers a bit of the early Arab-Muslim civil war and the development of Shiism, Yazid versus Hussein. The Shiia eventually adopted the doctrine of the Mahdi, the 12th Imam; this doctrine was formulated in the 14th century and is state-sanctioned today in Iran. The Ayattolah Khomeni's belief is that his reign is as infallible as the Mahdi, and his job is to govern the kingdom in preparation for the Mahdi's return. Iran has "tried to merge tradionalism with pluralistic democracy and human rights and failed."

The most interesting contribution of Aslan's book is delving into Sufism; I find most books on Islamic history ignore or skip over Sufism, which is radically different than Wahabbism. I've lived in Central Asia where the "pir," a place where a supposedly holy person was buried and contains mystical powers, is still a large part of locally syncretised Islam. The author gave me greater knowledge of the origin of the pir and let me see the Sufi influence, likely via Shiite occupation, of Azerbaijan. Aslan recounts 13th century parables and the love poetry of Sufism. "Sufi poetry is love letters to God," something you don't see in traditional Sunni Islam where "love" is not one of the 99 names of God. Sufi works sound more like the Song of Solomon than anything else I've seen, and it's a shame Aslan does not make the comparison. The section on Sufism is a good reminder that Islam is not monolithic.

In the 19th century the Young Turks and Egyptian reformers united in an pan-Islamic cause to counter European colonialism. Salafis supported the Islamist movement, but this was later replaced by pan-Arabism as it "seemed easier." Aslan seemingly tries to connect Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb's roots to Sufism. Qutb initially believed in the arts and a diversity of education, and spent two years studying engineeering in America. He became increasingly critical of Western materialism and either through failing health or imprisonment became radicalized toward imposing Sharia through violence-- anything not purely non-Islamic was seen as corrupt and to be discarded. Nasser used the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power, and then quickly turned against it to consolidate his own power. Then, the Brotherhood allegedly split between those who thought social reform was possible by reforming hearts, and those who sought to take power and impose Sharia by violence, the movement we're most familiar with today. After Nasser's crackdown, the Muslim Brotherhood moved to Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy despised or was jealous of Nasser's Egypt.

Aslan, like many authors, felt the need to clarify definitions: Fundamentalism = Wahabbism, and Islamism is not the same as fundamentalism. So, he does not reject the term "Islamic fundamentalist." The author recounts the alliance between Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahab, the arrangement between which one would give tacit support to the other and exists in an increasingly fragile state today (as I write this there is a Reuter's article suggesting likelihood for this alliance to remain intact in the face of such low oil prices and economic difficulty is unlikely). In the wake of WWI, the Saudi alliance with the British led to Saudi control over the land from the Ottomans, but then exploitation from the British and the US eager to secure oil. (On these events, Mansfield's Brief History of the Middle East is a better primer.) The House of Saud turned Westward and become "corrupt." Abdul Wahab, and later Sayyid Qutb, had a "goal of purging the world of Islamic diversity." Aslan gives the West a warning today relevant in fighting ISIS (and agreeing roughly with Nassim Taleb's Antifragile mentality): "Fundamentalism is impervious to suppression." When you suppress something, it simply grows underground and arises stronger at a time when the suppressant becomes weakened. Aslan does not necessarily give a policy prescription, however, and his words above make it hard to see how to find a reasonable solution, if reason is outlawed in the minds of many fundamentalists.

The author agrees with those who write that the Thirty Years War is a good parallel with what is happening with fundamentlist versus moderate movements within Islam today. "Islam has finally begun its 15th century." There are several "Islamic states" already, which is why the Muslim world takes umbrage at using that term for ISIS, prefering "da3sh" instead. Aslan rejects secularism, "a closed theological view different from secularization where control passes from ecclesiastical to political control." America is 250 years of secularization based on pluralism, not secularism. Hence, the secular atheists are as much a danger to society as closed-minded Islamic fundamentalists. The author notably avoids using the "House of war" and "House of Islam" dichotomy that Muslim scholars use (begun by Sunni founder Abu Hanifa in the generation after Muhammad). As suggested above, Aslan sidesteps how Islam was spread in the early years, the "shadow of the sword" and never thinks to examine Muhammad's motives other than as that of a prophet with a national identity in mind. The second half makes up for the first half, but only just so. He never spells out what the "future" holds, contra the book title. 2.5 stars.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Podcast of the Week (5/15 - 5/21, 2016) Matt Chandler interviews Tim Keller on Reaching Cities & Renewing Culture

"Dr. Timothy Keller joins Matt and Josh to discuss the Rise Campaign, an initiative to see the gospel go forward in New York City over the next 10 years. From there, they talk about the relationship between churches and cities, as well as cultural renewal and what it looks like for churches to bring the gospel to every sphere of life."

This interview has Keller's passion for seeing healthy churches planted across evangelical denominations. Baptist churches planting Presbyterian churches planting Evangelical Free churches, etc. He describes the growth of the Church in NYC in the last decade and goals going forward.I also particularly like Chandler's affirmation of Keller's theology of work and the discussion of how the Center for Faith & Work plays into the RISE movement. There is no such thing in the Gospel as "secular" and "sacred." Don't separate the inseparable.

The interview is from May 12.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook (Book Review #22 of 2016)

The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook

I read this book and the Very Short Introduction to Islam (3 stars) consecutively, I found VSI: The Koran to be a better work (4.5 stars). The history in this "short" introduction is substantive and it (eventually) deals with modern textual criticism. As a student of Arabic, I enjoyed how the author delves into the development of Arabic language. I listened to the audio version of this, which is helpful in many ways, especially in explaining the Arabic pronunciation and grammar.

In comparison with other books on the history of the Koran and Islam, 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 also helpful in explaining the context leading up to the codification of the Koran. This book is a great supplement to any study of Islamic and Arab history.

The following are my notes and gleanings:
You can't understand the Koran without understanding some of the nature and history of Arabic and how the Koran brings unity to the language. Arabic is the only scriptural language to become the language of a worldwide civilization. One cannot attain literacy in Koranic Arabic and colloquial Arabic at the same time, (this would be like akin to obtaining fluency in Latin and Spanish at the same time), so there is a tension between the language, particularly in how to translate difficult or archaic words. The first English "translation" of the Koran was not until 1734, and not without controversy. Only in the 19th century was the Quran actually printed on a printing press, again with great controversy. The codex was already common at the time of Muhammed, and the most influential versions of the text come from early codexes compiled by those close to Muhammad. The physical Koran itself is a sacred object, and the Arabic used is also considered sacred, hence adding markings like diacritics to provide pronunciation, particularly for words or objects not found in modern Arabic, was quite controversial. Adding diacritics came later in Koranic history but is now considered important if the Koran is to be recited correctly, which is an ultimate purpose of the book-- to be recited. (The diacritics [or vocalizations] are colored whereas the actual Arabic text is in black).

Historical criticism, as is commonplace with biblical manuscripts, largely does not exist in Koranic scholarly thought. Similarly, much of Islamic commentary on the Koran involves contextual analysis. There are lists of lawyers and academics critically analyzing the Koran, but these efforts are often criticized as heretical and sometimes these progressives are denounced or pay with their lives. As told in Tom Holland's book, when early manuscripts of the Koran were found in Yemen in the 1970s, the research was cancelled when a German researcher found "aberrations" between the early manuscripts and the official Koranic text today. Cook does not deal with this incedent, but later in the book does mention comparisons of manuscript fragments, some deviations, and later standards that developed. Commentators on the Koran have to deal with the modern post-Western values that the world has adopted through history such as logic, the scientific method, and concepts like universal human rights. The Koran itself was canonized quickly, perhaps helped by the idea that Arabs were already familiar with the idea of canon from Christian and Jewish scriptures. The final redactors edited little, leaving parallel passages in place. Cook compares the Arabic used in various places to note difference is rhyme, suggesting different times for authorship. There are also the obvious differences between what was recorded in Medina versus Mecca, etc. Cook does examine some of the recent scholarly proposals for various sources, perhaps some sayings in the Koran have origins that precede Mohammed.

Cook writes that about 1/4 of the suras begin with an odd combination of letters with unclear meaning. It's clear someone used to know, but like some of the archaic words in the text the meaning or precise definitions have been lost to history. Given the importance of Arabic as the language used by Mohammed to recite, and the doctrine that the Koran itself is eternal, it is impossible to consider the Koranic text as containing foreign words. Reading a Koran is not considered good practice--Muslims have criticized this practice as being Jewish. Instead, only recitation is proper in worship. The Koran must not be read, but chanted. The chanting itself is rule-bound and cannot be musical (note Wahabbists like ISIS and the Taliban ban music but chant the Koran). It is an art form and can be emotional, depending on the school of thought.

The author examines many of the 114 surahs in the book, and I only noted a few. Chapter Two delves into the Al-Fatihah, containing the fundamental principles of the Koran. The goal is the Sirat al-Mustaqim-- the straight path that pleases Allah. Failture to worship Allah alone is the ultimate sin. There is a surah that Muslims are to respond to repentance of enemies with forgiveness and compassion (contrary to what we see with ISIS). Surah 2 says that there is no religious compulion while surah 9 creates the way for the "people of the book" to pay a tax rather than submit to Islam. Surah 113 writes that Allah creates evil. In other places in the Koran, Allah leads people astray. The "satanic verses" in the Koran are mentioned along with their purported history; even the Prophet sinned. Does the verse require a story, or was there a story behind the verse? Mohammed himself is only mentioned four times in the entire Koran, making it difficult to know much about him. Commentators have always resisted any western change to the suras about beating your wife-- acrobatics surrounding the Arabic in this surah are found in Reza Aslan's book.

I learned a great deal about the Koran and even Arabic comitic grammar and nuances in this "brief introduction." I highly recommend it. 4.5 stars.

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.