Islam: 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, there has been great interest in exploring this seemingly mysterious religion. As such, several books have now appeared that purport to explain the intricacies of Islam to Westerners. This book is one such book. What distinguishes this book from its competitors is that one of its authors—Bernard Lewis—is arguably the world’s foremost scholar on Islam and the history of the Middle East. This distinguished pedigree lends great credibility to the contents of this book. 

How tolerant is Islam of the rights of non-Muslims? What are the differences between the Sunni and the Shia? Is it possible to have an Islamic democracy? What did the Prophet Muhammad say about free enterprise, profit, and interest? What is the meaning of “jihad” and what does Islam have to say about jihad? This book sheds valuable light on these sorts of questions.

Early in this book we learn that Islam rests on five so called pillars. These pillars are a declaration of the faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Now, all religions instruct their followers to do good and refrain from evil. However, we learn that merely following this instruction is not sufficient for Muslims. Specifically, it is the active duty 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 custodians of the revelations that had been entrusted to them and had allowed the sacred texts “to be corrupted and distorted” (p. 22). Hence arose the need for a new 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 “supplants 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 even among the Sunni, there are four schools of thought, namely, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafii, and the Hanbali schools. Although this discussion is interesting, given contemporary events in the Middle East, the most germane part of this discussion is the part that focuses on the differences between the Sunni and the Shia. We learn that although the difference between the Sunni and the Shia originally arose over the leadership of the Muslim community after the death of Prophet Muhammad, over time, additional differences in doctrine and law emerged. Even so, the really “significant differences between the two arose from their different experience—the one [Sunni] of dominance, the other [Shia] 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 convincingly point out that “in certain respects, the inferiority of women to men remained deeply rooted and amply documented in Muslim scripture, tradition, and law” (p. 112). Although this discussion is fascinating, there are gaps. For instance, in the discussion of the Muslim defense of polygamy, the authors note that in the Western world, the male need for sex is “met in two ways, by adultery and prostitution.” (p. 116). This omits the fact that even in the West, for some 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 appeared whose main agenda is to convince the faithful that “the Islamic world has taken a wrong turn; that its rulers have betrayed the true principles of the faith, 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 Islamic way of life. Despite the existence of these—occasionally odious—movements, the 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 Islam, there is not enough discussion of the diversity of views within Islam on some topics. Second, given the objective of this book, it is short on citations and sources for recommended reading. Third, the book focuses excessively on the Middle East and does not focus sufficiently on Islam in Asia. Finally, the organization of the material in this book is less than ideal. These quibbles notwithstanding, it is important to note that this book provides an excellent introductory account of Islam and hence I unreservedly recommend it to all those who would like to learn more about this frequently misunderstood religion.

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