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A Good Introduction, with Some Unfortunate Lacunae

  • Nov 17, 2008
  • by
Of the making of books about Islam, there is no end, especially not in the post- 9/11 environment. Unfortunately, books about Islam published to a popular readership too often fall into the mutually exclusive categories of hagiography (e.g., those by Karen Armstrong) or demonology (e.g., those of Robert Spencer). Well, almost mutually exclusive. Stephen Schwartz manages both to sanctify Sufism and demonize Wahhabism in the course of one book (The Other Islam). What is needed is a just-the-facts-ma'am approach, which is what Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill provide in Islam: The Religion and the People.

Lewis is a nonagenarian Orientalist of international repute and impeccable scholarship, formerly of Princeton University. Churchill is a past president of the World Affairs Council and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has authored numerous books on Islam, Arabs, Turks, and all things Middle Eastern. This is their first book together.

In addition to its just-the-facts-ma'am approach, this book is welcome for its concision, evenhanded tone, historical depth, and scope of coverage. This book introduces the reader to the broad spectrum of ethnic groups that identify themselves as Muslim, their faith, their scripture (the Koran), their religious habits, their attitudes toward nonbelievers and deviant believers, their divisions (especially Sunni versus Shia), their history, their attitude toward government and the economy, the role of women, and the challenge of "radical Islam." It also does a good job of comparing and contrasting Islam with its predecessor religions, Judaism and Christianity, and of outlining the competing schools between and within Sunni and Shia Islam. An Appendix addresses issues of Arabic language, the Muslim calendar, and food and drink. And a glossary defines a cornucopia of terms from abaya to Zaidi. One interesting feature of the book is its citation of examples of Muslim humor throughout. Interesting, and very humanizing of Muslims and their faith.

On the other hand, in an introduction of such brief length, there are bound to be disappointments. I was surprised that Lewis and Churchill did not devote a chapter to Muhammad, which is standard in such introductions. The book does not have footnotes, a bibliography, or a list of suggestions for further reading. If this is your first book on Islam, you won't know what to read next. Finally, while the book outlines the various Sunni and Shia schools, it does not explain in sufficient detail the fundamental points that divide them from one another, the exception being its explanation of the basic division between Sunni and Shia Islam itself.

Overall, however, I found this to be a good introductory level text to the religion and people of Islam. If it does nothing else, it will provide interested readers with a tolerant, fair-minded treatment of a group and its faith whose perception in the American mind is too often tainted by apologies or excoriations, but not balanced scholarship.

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review by . November 19, 2008
This gracefully written book combines history, philosophy, theology, and humor to explain the central concepts of Islam and its relationship with other populations.    Lewis explains the sometimes confusing varieties of Islam, as well as the changes in political and theological positions over time. He approaches difficult topics such as the place of women in Muslim society, suicide bombings, the concept of the jihad, and radical Islam. Throughout, the tone is compassionate and …
review by . November 09, 2008
I'm not sure how the writing duties were divided up between the two authors - Lewis is given decidedly top billing - but the result is very satisfactory. At 223 pages, (not quite the 256 mentioned in Amazon's description) the book is not encyclopedic, nor does it try or pretend to be, but it offers more than just a brief overview. A comprehensive tome would be too overwhelming for most readers, and a brief introduction would likely be misleading. This is a good compromise. It's a worthy, solid introduction …
review by . October 18, 2008
Ever since the events of September 11th 2001 there has been an increase in the interest for Islam in the West, and particularly in the US. This increased interest has resulted in a formidable increase in the number of studies, publications and college courses, all of which try to explain and inform the public about what Islam is, what its basic teachings are, and what is the history of the Islamic world. One was faced with a veritable embarrassment of riches, and there was no easy way to decide …
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George Paul Wood ()
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I'm happily married to a maximally perfect woman, and we have a baby cuter than which none can be imagined. For a living, I'm the Director of Ministerial Resourcing at AG HQ in Springfield, MO. … more
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Lewis (Near Eastern studies, emeritus, Princeton Univ.;The Crisis of Islam) and Churchill (former president, World Affairs Council of Philadelphia) offer an accessible introduction to Muslims and their faith. In clear language, the authors cover the faith's development, its five pillars, Scripture and tradition, law, the mosque, diversity, sectarian divisions, government, economics, women, dress, language, war and peace, and radicalism. There are three particular strengths. First, Lewis and Churchill insist that Islam cannot be reduced to extremes as either a bloodthirsty creed or solely a message of peace. The Qur'an advocates a range of responses according to specific circumstances. Second, the authors humanize Islam by including insets on "Islamic humor" in every chapter. Third, the book replaces dangerous characterizations of Islam as an enemy with an understanding of Islam as a faith intimately connected to Christianity and Judaism. Through understanding Islam, readers may see that the minority who espouse a radicalized totalitarian version of Islam represent neither the faith nor most of its followers. Highly recommended for all libraries.—William P. Collins, Library of Congress
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ISBN-10: 0132230852
ISBN-13: 978-0132230858
Author: Bernard Lewis
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Wharton School Publishing
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