The Religion and the People.
Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill
Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal
For most Westerners, Islam remains largely a mystery.
However, in the aftermath of the dreadful events of 11 September 2001,
has been great interest in exploring this seemingly mysterious
such, several books have now appeared that purport to explain the
of Islam to Westerners. This book is one such book. What distinguishes
book from its competitors is that one of its authors—Bernard Lewis—is
the world’s foremost scholar on Islam and the history of the Middle
distinguished pedigree lends great credibility to the contents of this
How tolerant is Islam of the rights of non-Muslims?
What are the differences between the Sunni and the Shia? Is it possible
an Islamic democracy? What did the Prophet Muhammad say about free
profit, and interest? What is the meaning of “jihad” and what does
to say about jihad? This book sheds valuable light on these sorts of
Early in this book we learn that Islam rests on five
so called pillars. These pillars are a declaration of the faith,
charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Now, all religions instruct their
to do good and refrain from evil. However, we learn that merely
instruction is not sufficient for Muslims. Specifically, it is the
of Muslims to “command good and forbid evil” (p. 21). We also learn
that from a
Muslim perspective, the Christians and the Jews had been unworthy
the revelations that had been entrusted to them and had allowed the
texts “to be corrupted and distorted” (p. 22). Hence arose the need for
and final revelation, namely, the Koran. The authors do a good job of
explaining that the Koran is not only a complete revelation but it also
and replaces its distorted predecessors” (p. 23).
The authors rightly spend some time explaining the
various schools and sects within Islam. For instance, we are told that
among the Sunni, there are four schools of thought, namely, the Hanafi,
Maliki, the Shafii, and the Hanbali schools. Although this discussion
interesting, given contemporary events in the Middle East, the most
part of this discussion is the part that focuses on the differences
Sunni and the Shia. We learn that although the difference between the
the Shia originally arose over the leadership of the Muslim community
death of Prophet Muhammad, over time, additional differences in
law emerged. Even so, the really “significant differences between the
from their different experience—the one [Sunni] of dominance, the other
of subordination...” (p. 65).
The standing of women in Islam is a hot topic in
contemporary discussions of this religion and this book provides useful
commentary on this topic. Giving specific examples, the authors
point out that “in certain respects, the inferiority of women to men
deeply rooted and amply documented in Muslim scripture, tradition, and
112). Although this discussion is fascinating, there are gaps. For
the discussion of the Muslim defense of polygamy, the authors note that
Western world, the male need for sex is “met in two ways, by adultery
prostitution.” (p. 116). This omits the fact that even in the West, for
groups such as the Mormons, the above need was met until recently with
officially sanctioned polygamy.
Discussing the concept of radical Islam, the authors
note that in recent times, some movements such as Wahhabism have
main agenda is to convince the faithful that “the Islamic world has
wrong turn; that its rulers have betrayed the true principles of the
and...have adopted foreign and infidel ideas, laws, and customs” (p.
157). The only
solution, according to these movements, is a return to a genuinely
of life. Despite the existence of these—occasionally odious—movements,
authors rightly remind us that “most Muslims are not fundamentalists;
and...most fundamentalists are not terrorists” (p. 163).
Let me conclude this review with the following
remarks: Although this book does discuss many pertinent aspects of
is not enough discussion of the diversity of views within Islam on some
Second, given the objective of this book, it is short on citations and
for recommended reading. Third, the book focuses excessively on the
and does not focus sufficiently on Islam in Asia. Finally, the
the material in this book is less than ideal. These quibbles
it is important to note that this book provides an excellent
account of Islam and hence I unreservedly recommend it to all those who
like to learn more about this frequently misunderstood religion.