Reviews > Culture

Books on Islam

Culture | Five books with varied perspectives on Christianity's prime human competitor

Issue: "Progress in Hollywood," March 23, 2002
1
The Life and Times of Muhammad
John Bagot Glubb
CONTENT
A conventional history that assumes Muslim tradition to be largely accurate.

GIST
Sir John, who lived most of his life among Muslims and was known by them as Glubb Pasha, sympathetically writes of Islam's founder and lets us feel the desert wind. His sources are the Quran, which he assumes was written down within 20 years of Muhammad's death, and the Hadith, particularly those compiled by Bukhari during Islam's third century. But Islam's "higher critics" are now beginning to debate whether those Muslim traditions represent fact or fiction.

2
Islam: A Short History
Karen Armstrong
CONTENT
A scholarly but readable history of the rapid rise, medieval plateau, and slow descent of the world's second most popular religion.

GIST
Ms. Armstrong positively portrays the growth of Islam and apologizes for barbaric parts of it, such as the massacre of the 700 men of the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah in 627: "Had Muhammad simply exiled the Qurayzah they would have swelled the Jewish opposition" to him. She is positive about recent developments as well, and does not see Islam and the West as heading toward collision.

3
What the Koran Really Says
Ibn Warraq
CONTENT
The fourth in a series of books that challenge conventional views of Muhammad and Islamic scriptures.

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GIST
Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym of a Muslim-raised scholar who risks his life to argue that the Quran was not formulated until two centuries after Muhammad's death. This new book is the most technical of the four. The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (2000) is a better starting point for most readers. The overall thrust is that many of Islam's elements were confused responses to cultural pressures, and that the real Muhammad was probably nothing like the myth.

4
What Went Wrong?
Bernard Lewis
CONTENT
Why Muslims of the Middle East, who once possessed the highest civilization and the top armies in the world, are on a five-century losing streak.

GIST
Lewis lucidly shows how Islam messed up by setting up obstacles to freedom, science, and economic development. Muslim collectivists did not trust individuals to think for themselves or go out on their own. Westerners lived in Islamic countries and learned from them, but imams never said, Go west, young Muslim. Although Lewis skips the theological basics, he explains well the cultural manifestations.

5
Islam and Dhimmitude
Bat Ye'or
CONTENT
An Egypt-born French historian explains why the nature of Islamic peace dictates against any pluralistic peace with Christians and Jews.

GIST
In this and two previous books, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam and The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, Bat Ye'or shows that "human rights" is a meaningless term within Islam. Muslims have rights but others (historically) are "dhimmi," members of conquered minorities allowed to live in Islamic society if they pay extra taxes and put up with enormous scorn and abuse.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT
During the past six months many Americans have been on the Mr. Smoothaway diet: Islam is naturally a peaceful religion, and if we forcibly remove a few bad apples from the peck, we won't be pecked to death. We should pray that this is true, and that the optimism of John Glubb and Karen Armstrong is warranted. We should also take in the Bernard Lewis broad sweep and the Bat Ye'or pessimistic realism that Islam requires unending war-with tactically useful truces-between dar al-Islam (Muslim territory) and dar al-harb (everything else). The most fascinating long-term development may be the 21st-century advent in Islam of the "higher criticism" that in the 19th century some used as a battering ram against Christianity. There is good historical as well as theological reason to doubt statements of Quranic purity, but self-critical Islamic studies have been slow to develop. The likely reason is that the "higher critics" of Christianity received university chairs but their Muslim counterparts face fatwas that give fanatics licenses to kill them.

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