THE CRISIS OF ISLAM/WHAT WENT WRONG By Richard Belliveau (Book Review)
The Crisis of Islam
(Modern Library 2003)
What Went Wrong
(Oxford University Press, 2002)
In recent years, an understanding of the nature of Islam has become increasingly important in the everyday lives of North Americans and western Europeans, not only because of Al-Qaeda terrorist activities in the name of Islam, but also because our pluralist societies are increasingly poly-cultural as well as multi-racial. We saw recently in Ontario how a proposed role for Shari’ a law tribunals in relation to civil courts caused a mini-crisis in government.
There are many recent popular books in English on Islam, but these two by the noted scholar, Bernard Lewis, are succinct and readable as well as learned. Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University, is acknowledged as an outstanding western authority on Islamic history and culture. He has been teaching, researching and writing on these matters since the 1960’s when his first works were published at Oxford. Don’t let that throw you off. Like a really good teacher, Lewis has a gift for getting to core information and presenting it in an agreeably digestible form.
Indeed these two books respond to the pressing questions of the day which the average non-Moslem westerner may have. As such, they represent a highly topical distillation of what Lewis has been studying and writing about for years.
What Went Wrong was published in 2002 but written well before the attacks on the World Trade Center. It deals historically with the bewilderment in the Islamic world at the failure of the Ottoman Empire in the face of the rise of dominant western influence through the industrial and scientific revolution and growth of empires. The underlying philosophy and socio-political context of these scientific achievements, says Lewis, proved difficult for Moslems to accept and recognize.
The Crisis of Islam was similarity largely written before September 2001, but was published well after, in 2003. It is an excellent companion volume which tries to explain for neophytes some of the beliefs and traditions in Islam which tend to baffle westerners. Among these are chapters on defining Islam (not the religion but the community), their view of the world of the infidels, and of course the notion of jihad. It is instructive to note that traditional rules regarding jihad forbade the killing of women and children, and unequivocally condemned suicide. We should also recall that Islamic regimes were tolerant of other religious beliefs in their territories, although not on an equal footing with Islam. And only recently, the radical Islamists, if we may use the term, have tended to define as apostates to their own religion Arab leaders who cooperate with the west or modernism, such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Such leaders are therefore susceptible to execution by the faithful.
These books do not provide a review of the tenets of Islam, the religion, but rather are mini distillations of the history and culture of Islamic peoples. If we as western and multicultural societies are going to have any meaningful dialogue with Islam, we need a grasp of the starting points of Islamic thinking and culture. These books are excellent places to begin the job.
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