Customer Reviews: In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam
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on January 11, 2002
I have traveled extensively through Turkey, Egypt and Israel and have read much on the Islamic world and the Middle East and Central Asia--from left-leaning writers like Said and Aburish to more Western-oriented analysts like Fouad Ajami and Judith Miller. No one has done a better job than Viorst of explaining Islam to Western readers. He catches the nuances of Islam's complexity and diversity, and looks unflinchingly at the qualities in Islam that have kept so much of the Arab and Islamic world mired in poverty and backwardness. But he is ultimately more hopeful than Adjami and Aburish and focuses with a wide enough lens to see the threads in Islamic thought that could lead its adherents out of their current morass. It is popular in many quarters to blame the problems of the Middle East on colonialism and American and Western hegemony. This is clearly an oversimplification and counter-productive for those trying honestly to figure out a solution. Viorst's analysis gets to the root of the internal problems that have made the Arab world's response to colonialism so very different and so much more self-destructive than Asia's. This is a "must read".
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on November 28, 2001
This is an extremely thoughtful book by a Jewish writer who has obviously taken great pains to get to know the various strains of Islam and to approach his subject without the blinders of nationality or religion. He does an excellent job of sorting out the historical and cultural movements across the Islamic world. Although it was written before the events of September 11, 2001, it is prescient in its enumeration of the movements and events which gave rise to those tragedies. For westerners used to secular governments, freedom of religion and the strict separation of church and state, it provides a chilling reflection on a world where religion and religious thinking play a much more central role in the life of nations.
It does get disjointed in places and requires great concentration on the part of the reader. However, that does not detract from its importance for any student of the modern Islamic world.
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on April 23, 2003
In this book Viorst examines the role of Islam in shaping the political puzzle of the Arab world. This book is not about religion, nor is it a book about the Middle East. It is about the "political" Islam as an ideology and a force that shapes developments in the Middle East. Islam is only one of the many pieces of the Middle East puzzle (repressive regimes, regional ambitions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of course oil, are the others) but it's one that envelopes all else. And while Islam is not the only religion in history to force a political agenda, its influence in the Arab world today is powerful, steering islamic societies away -if not against- the western world. The question Viorst sets out to answer is this: is Islam responsible for the economic and social stagnation of the Arab world? In search for the answer he examines the historical roots of Islam, the development of Shari'a, and recent and past developments in a number of islamic countries.
Viorst describes the current ideological state of Islam as a battle between orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and modernism. Orthodoxy represents the religious status quo; it is rooted in the tradition of Islamic law but coexists comfortably with secular authority. Fundamentalism represents a rebellious and militant sect that feels betrayed by orthodoxy and seeks the submission of all things secular under religious law. Modernism represents the hope for an Islamic reformation that will lead to enlightenment and renaissance. It becomes apparent, however, that modernism currently lacks the strength to be relevant in the ideological debate. The true battle is between orthodoxy and fundamentalism and the distinction between the two is one of degree more than one of ideology.
As we follow Viorst on a tour of islamic countries (Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Jordan and Iran) we soon realize that religious influence cannot be easily divorced from the political situation in which it is born, in particular the lack of free political expression that is the common denominator throughout the Middle East. In such a repressed climate, the loose hierarchy of Islam turns the local mosque into a political nucleus, its imam into a cell leader, the Friday prayer into a rally -the only form of self organization that is tolerated. Why has this failed to produce a liberal theology and a force for social justice? It is, Viorst explains, because Islam's orthodoxy is introverted, transfixed by a strict code whose moral, social and intellectual norms are thirteen centuries old. By western standards, the golden age of Islam was the mid-8th century, when an Arab empire stretched from Persia to Spain and Baghdad was the cultural center of the world, eagerly absorbing the Greeks and prolific in producing mathematics, medicine and astronomy. But for Islamic orthodoxy this is a period of worldly living, moral decay and heretic experimentation with western values. The true golden age, we learn, is the rashidun, a 30-year period in the mid 600's, during the infancy of the new religion in the deserts of the Arabic peninsula.
The book was written before 9/11 and some passing references to the now extinct Taliban will sound dated. But in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the subject remains both relevant and timely, as we witness the re-emergence of islamic politics following the collapse of a brutal but secular regime.
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on March 8, 1999
Milton Viorst is the author of a previous book on the Middle East, the well received "Sand Castles". With the "Shadow of the Prophet", Viorst attempts to show the problems associated with politics and one of the world's great religions, Islam. Viorst shows how Islam has contributed to the political stagnation of Middle Eastern countries as well as exposes some of the myths associated with fundamentalist Islamic movements. In synthesis, the book presents an accurate and balanced view of the history and future perspectives of Islam. Maybe the book's only flaw is that it deals only with the Middle East (and Muslims living in France) and does not include other Islamic movements in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. A must buy for anyone interested in this region of the world.
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on December 25, 1998
Viorst has brilliantly compiled a westerner's primer to understand Islam at the dawn of the millenium. Is it the essence of Islam that is dooming its jurisdictions to depressing economic and cultural stagnation? The author makes the dramatic case of the incompatabilities between Islam and progress in vivid detail. Though he deferentially leaves the solutions to others, the broad sweep of history (western style history, that is, for he points out that even history doesn't exist in Islam expect in a religious context)is presented in an insightful and clear manner that Western readers will understand. Before any more Monday morning quarterbacking is done on how we should approach the Middle East, Viorst's explanation of Islam must be understood by many more people than are likely to read this book. It should be given free to anyone willing to take the time to read it.
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on December 20, 2001
This is the best place to start if you want to understand the cross-currents in contemporary Islamic culture and the many contradictory forces at work. In order to fully appreciate the book, it helps to have a very basic knowledge of Islam as a religio-political system. Indeed, Islam treats religion and politics as a single subject, contrary to the West's practice of separating church and state (an excellent start is John Esposito's "Islam, The Straight Path" - a mere 250 pages which make it clear as a bell). The reader who does not understand this will perhaps not get as much out of the book. However, the reader who has this basic knowledge will be enriched by reading this excellent analysis of where Islam is at today.
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on September 12, 2002
In this book, the astute Mr. Viorst has given us a key to understanding what is going on in the Islamic world today. With events in the Middle East taking up so much of our attention in the wake of September 11, 2001, it would be well worth anyone's time and effort to come to grips with the issues he explores in this book. Although Mr. Viorst is Jewish, he is a judicious and fair commentator on Islamic matters. As far as the unjust criticism leveled at him by a previous reviewer, I will point out that every other reviewer gave this book either 4 or 5 stars. Please read this book and Thomas Friedman's - they will increase your understanding, challenge you intellectually, and are fun to read.
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on September 14, 1998
for those, including myself, with limited knowledge of the Middle East and Islam. The author poses a very interesting question, does an Islamic government hinder economic development? By reading this book, I learned a lot about the far-reaching influences of an Islamic government in the Middle East on its people and their lives. Viorst provides plenty of evidences to answer the question above.
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on May 15, 1998
simply the best book now out about the contemporary middle east and what its struggles mean to the rest of us. a must-read for anyone who cares about the region.
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on November 13, 1999
The author smoothly presents information on the history and the religious traditions of the Arab world as a means of illuminating the several different currents that compete in that area today. His thesis -- that there is a struggle within the Moslem world over how to apply the teachings of Mohammed to contemporary, and future, life -- provides a helpful framework within which to view, and hopefully better understand and anticipate, events that affect us all.
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