46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Introduction, with Some Unfortunate Lacunae
Of the making of books about Islam, there is no end, especially not in the post- 9/11 environment. Unfortunately, books about Islam published to a popular readership too often fall into the mutually exclusive categories of hagiography (e.g., those by Karen Armstrong) or demonology (e.g., those of Robert Spencer). Well, almost mutually exclusive. Stephen Schwartz manages...
Published on November 17, 2008 by George P. Wood
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling lack of religious history...
I am an avid student of Middle Eastern History, Military History and Foreign Policy History, and while I know the basics of Islam, I am by no means well versed in its subtleties or religious tenets, modes of worship, etc. So this slim volume seemed an excellent opportunity to learn something about a religion that weighs so heavily on the subjects above. Unfortunately,...
Published on October 14, 2008 by J. N. Mohlman
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Introduction, with Some Unfortunate Lacunae,
Of the making of books about Islam, there is no end, especially not in the post- 9/11 environment. Unfortunately, books about Islam published to a popular readership too often fall into the mutually exclusive categories of hagiography (e.g., those by Karen Armstrong) or demonology (e.g., those of Robert Spencer). Well, almost mutually exclusive. Stephen Schwartz manages both to sanctify Sufism and demonize Wahhabism in the course of one book (The Other Islam). What is needed is a just-the-facts-ma'am approach, which is what Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill provide in Islam: The Religion and the People.
Lewis is a nonagenarian Orientalist of international repute and impeccable scholarship, formerly of Princeton University. Churchill is a past president of the World Affairs Council and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has authored numerous books on Islam, Arabs, Turks, and all things Middle Eastern. This is their first book together.
In addition to its just-the-facts-ma'am approach, this book is welcome for its concision, evenhanded tone, historical depth, and scope of coverage. This book introduces the reader to the broad spectrum of ethnic groups that identify themselves as Muslim, their faith, their scripture (the Koran), their religious habits, their attitudes toward nonbelievers and deviant believers, their divisions (especially Sunni versus Shia), their history, their attitude toward government and the economy, the role of women, and the challenge of "radical Islam." It also does a good job of comparing and contrasting Islam with its predecessor religions, Judaism and Christianity, and of outlining the competing schools between and within Sunni and Shia Islam. An Appendix addresses issues of Arabic language, the Muslim calendar, and food and drink. And a glossary defines a cornucopia of terms from abaya to Zaidi. One interesting feature of the book is its citation of examples of Muslim humor throughout. Interesting, and very humanizing of Muslims and their faith.
On the other hand, in an introduction of such brief length, there are bound to be disappointments. I was surprised that Lewis and Churchill did not devote a chapter to Muhammad, which is standard in such introductions. The book does not have footnotes, a bibliography, or a list of suggestions for further reading. If this is your first book on Islam, you won't know what to read next. Finally, while the book outlines the various Sunni and Shia schools, it does not explain in sufficient detail the fundamental points that divide them from one another, the exception being its explanation of the basic division between Sunni and Shia Islam itself.
Overall, however, I found this to be a good introductory level text to the religion and people of Islam. If it does nothing else, it will provide interested readers with a tolerant, fair-minded treatment of a group and its faith whose perception in the American mind is too often tainted by apologies or excoriations, but not balanced scholarship.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling lack of religious history...,
I am an avid student of Middle Eastern History, Military History and Foreign Policy History, and while I know the basics of Islam, I am by no means well versed in its subtleties or religious tenets, modes of worship, etc. So this slim volume seemed an excellent opportunity to learn something about a religion that weighs so heavily on the subjects above. Unfortunately, what I got was a book that felt like the outline for a much larger book and which says almost nothing about the life and message of Mohammed.
This absence of any discussion of the actual religion of Islam is so puzzling (and glaring) it is almost hard to explain. The best way I can think of is to imagine a non-Christian reading a book ostensibly about Catholicism in which the only discussion of Christ's life is "The apostles spread Jesus' message throughout the Mediterranean basin, eventually supplanting the official pagan religion of Rome." Well, OK, but what was the message? Why did they spread it? Why was it embraced? Etc.
These questions apply equally well to Islam and would seem fundamental to any outsider understanding the religion and yet none are addressed. The authors do a succinct job of explaining the spread of Islam and the various schisms it has faced, but they never actually explain at all what it is Muslim's believe and in what ways it is different from other religious traditions (i.e. Isaac vs Ishmael as the heir of Abraham). Moreover, vastly more lines are spent on Islamic Humor than is spent on what Mohammed did or said or is believed to have done or said.
It is almost as if the book assumes a grounding in Islamic religion prior to reading, which makes no sense because this clearly is a survey text that reads like the textbook (albeit a well written one) for a 100 level college course. Ample attention is paid to subjects of genuine interest like the role of women, finance and radical Islam (to name a few), but absent a grounding in the doctrines of the faith it all seems oddly disconnected.
This isn't a bad book, per se. As I indicated above, it does offer an interesting survey of topics relating to Islam, but I suspect that most potential readers, like myself, are interested in a grounding in the religion, rather than its attendant political and cultural effects, and in that regard "Islam: The Religion and The People" sorely disappoints.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to Islam,
Ever since the events of September 11th 2001 there has been an increase in the interest for Islam in the West, and particularly in the US. This increased interest has resulted in a formidable increase in the number of studies, publications and college courses, all of which try to explain and inform the public about what Islam is, what its basic teachings are, and what is the history of the Islamic world. One was faced with a veritable embarrassment of riches, and there was no easy way to decide which author was truly an expert in the field, and which ones were trying to capitalize on a new publishing fad. With that in mind, one person that clearly stands out head and shoulders above all the other polemicists and scholars is Bernard Lewis, a doyen in the field of Oriental and Middle Eastern studies. He has been actively involved in this field since at least World War II, and his knowledge of the Islamic history is second to none. His books have explored several different themes, but now in one volume comes a digest of all the basic facts about Islam. This is a very accessible and informative first introduction to Islam, and it covers all the basics really well. It avoids both of the traps that many other books fall into: either painting Islam with overly rosy spectacles, or vilifying it to the point that it becomes a distortion of what it really is. The end of the book provides reader with a list of terms and topics, which in itself is a useful guide to the main words and ideas that frequently occur in all discussions about Islam. Many of those terms have by now become familiar to the public at large, but even those benefit form having some new light shed on them. Overall, if you either don't know much about Islam, or would like to systematize and refresh what you already know, this is a great book to read.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Antidote,
Bernard Lewis' Islam is an antidote to the lies being circulated about Islam by Christian fundamentalists. The first thing that springs to mind on opening up this book is it's sober, matter-of-fact approach to the subject, something which stands in marked contrast to approach taken in fundamentalist circles, where we are commonly told that Muslims worship a black stone, or that they are pagans, etc.
In fifteen chapters, the authors look at such topics as what Muslims DO believe, the role of the mosque, diversity and tolerance, the role of women, of dress, language and writing, as well as radical Islam. By no means is the book perfect. Sometimes a subject seems to end abruptly, without going into detail. An example of this is the section on "Honor Killing and Mutilation." We are given a little information but no examples are provided. At times the text seems choppy, and the book takes on the appearance of a collection of short articles or, in places, factoids. This is less surprising when you consider the broad range of subjects addressed against the book's modest length (223 pages).
These complaints aside, the information provided is useful. The prose is clear and easy to follow and terms are translated. The reader will walk away from this book with a better understanding of what Islam is and what it is not, and in today's volatile religious environment, that can only be seen as a good thing. Highly recommended.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly disappointing, certainly not recommended.,
If you are interested in learning about Muslim customs, dialect, and dress, this book is for you. If you're looking for an in-depth analysis of the history and current state of Islam as a religion, keep looking. Some people may find it interesting to learn the names of the various Muslim garments (none of which I can now remember), but I suspect most people that look into this book will be searching for something with a little more investigation into the background and meaning of Islam and the current thinking of Muslim people. And there is very little of that to be found here.
Even the chapters dedicated to what I thought would be the more informative aspects of the book are rather shallow. Analyses of the status of Muslim women and of the reasons for the Islamic world's regression in technology and economics are less than inspiring. In fact, nearly everything in this book, except for various Arabic words and their definitions, seems commonplace and well-known. Really nothing ground-breaking or understanding-inducing to be found.
This book also fails to provide any sort of depth in its analysis of Islamic history, the Koran, or the prophet Mohammad. Surprising given the title of the book, but fitting considering the rest of the content. The book does include a few Koranic quotes that help explain Muslim tendencies toward war and conquest and provides the very ambiguous conclusion that Islam is really neither a "religion of peace", nor a backward and dangerous religion of the sword.
Ridiculously un-funny excerpts meant to demonstrate "Islamic Humor" appear throughout the book. Most are impossible to see how they could possibly be considered funny in any way at all, while a very few show some small glimmer of cleverness, but still fail at approaching anything near a joke. The following quotes one of the more disturbing examples of Islamic Humor found in this book (p.217):
A certain man became a Shi'ite and went around saying that whoever was not a Shi'ite was a bastard. His son said to him: "But I am not a Shi'ite."
To this the man replied: "Yes indeed. I bedded your mother before I bought her."
The book ends with a extremely disappointing chapter entitled "Radical Islam" that takes up all of about 5 pages and is mostly a discourse on the correct descriptor to use when talking about Islamic extremists, and with a statement by the authors to the effect of -Most Muslims are not radical, and most radicals aren't terrorists. Almost no analyses of why radical Islam has become so prominent, nor what radical sympathizers want or expect. You do get a nice photo of Osama, but absolutely nothing about his past or present influences or inspirations. Or about the reluctance of Muslim leaders to condemn terrorist acts.
So, if you want to learn about Arabic writing styles, architecture, and clothing, you may want to check this one out from your public library. But if you are looking for something to really help you understand the philosophies, thoughts, and motivations of the Islamic people that have so suddenly come into all of our daily thoughts, look elsewhere.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The more you know?,
I found this book to have been a very helpful (and readable) resource in understanding a subject I originally knew very little about. Although I still do not feel confident enough to actually have discussions about Islam, I no longer feel completely in the dark about something so foreign to my own particular culture. Lewis puts Islam into a global context, discussing its history, hardships, triumphs, and practice. He makes it easier to grasp the difficulties that many Westerners may have when trying to perceive and/or assess Islamic culture through our own (often) secularized lens. But make no mistake: Lewis does not ultimately present Islam as the peaceful religion that the politically correct world would have us to believe, and I think his last few chapters are most revealing on this notion. Like Christianity, Islam is a religion of both peace and war. One particular passage that struck me is the following, where Lewis explains that, for Muslims,
"the world is divided into two parts: the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam), where Muslims rule and Muslim law is enforced, and the House of War (Dar al-Harb), the rest of the world where infidels still rule. According to traditional teaching, the obligation of jihad will continue until all the world either adopts Islam or submits to Muslim rule. This perpetual war may be interrupted by truces, which may even be of long duration, but it does not end until final victory. In fact, such `truces' do not differ greatly from the so-called `treaties of peace' that punctuated the military and diplomatic relations of rival European powers through the centuries" (148-49).
Yet the last page of Lewis' conclusion puts the matter, I think, into a more glaring light:
"If we are to survive this threat -- and it is by no means certain that we will -- it is important to understand, precisely and accurately, the source, nature, and purpose of the attack -- that is to say, the very identity of the enemy that we confront" (167).
I was left wondering whether this was a plea to Westerners to confront our own ignorance regarding such a huge population of the world, or, by immediately and unambiguously calling (radical) Muslims "the enemy," whether it is rather a fuzzy, yet defensive declaration of war?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Introductory Text on Islam, but Not on Muslims.,
"Islam: The Religion and the People" is a good primer on the Islamic faith, but it doesn't live up to its billing in discussing the followers of the faith. Bernard Lewis, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and pundit on Islam-Western relations, and co-author Buntzie Ellis Churchill present the history and traditional practice of Islam in basic terms for the Western reader. They elucidate the role that religion plays in public life in Muslim nations and distinguish between Islamic orthodoxy and aberrant doctrines espoused by some radical groups who have adopted self-styled versions of Islam in order to legitimize illegal, often violent, behavior toward Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The book imparts a basic understanding of the Muslim faith and its role in Muslim culture and government. We get a whirlwind history of Islam and the Muslim world's relationship with Christendom, including analysis of the differences and similarities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and their central doctrines. Islamic Law (Shari'a), Sunni and Shi'a Islam, the diversity of accepted theologies, the function of mosques, the place of women, war, and Islamic economic practices are also discussed. This includes comment on the legality of some recent East-West clashes such as the 1989 fatwah issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the deaths of novelist Salmon Rushdie and his publishers and the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet in 2005.
There is almost no discussion, however, of how modern Muslims really live. Reading this book, one would get the impression that all Muslims follow the faith as it was 1000 years ago. In reality, Muslim countries have populations that range from secular to "fundamentalist", with most people deriving a certain structure and value system from Islam but little more. Even women in Iran and Saudi Arabia wear mini skirts under their abayas. "Islam" will help the reader understand the basis for the institutions and the values that pervade Islamic cultures, but it is very little help in understanding what the average Muslim does or thinks about it. The discussion of radical Islam is likewise cursory, and it fails to mention the infamous abuse of "takfir" by radicals to justify attacks on fellow Muslims.
It would be remiss in today's world to discuss a book about Islam without mentioning its politics. The authors view Islam as a religion that has been moderate and historically more tolerant of non-believers than Western cultures were until the Enlightenment and recent radicalism as a deviant movement that imperils the Muslim world. That is a conventional view of Islam. But the authors' politics are evident in their condemnation of secular Marxist regimes, polygamy, and Hezbollah. And they reach the unbelievable conclusion that "it is by no means certain" that the West will survive the threat of radical Islam, which they consider a monstrous enemy of civilization. Um, really, while radicals are certainly a threat to the Muslim world, they can do no more than take pot shots at the West. "Islam: The Religion and the People" is a good primer on Islam but does not attempt to educate the reader on how modern Muslims live and fares poorly in addressing Islamic-Western relations in anything but the broadest terms. It seems dashed-off to me.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Introduction to Islam,
Islam is and has been a hot topic of discussion for many years. In spite of that, many Westerners have a deficit of solid information on the subject. This is a remedy to that.
It is more of an overview than an in-depth look at this topic. The authors cover a lot of ground. It includes the following: The Five Pillars of Islam, history of Islamic law, women, dress, and much more.
The authors cover the good and bad including such things as female genital mutilation, terrorism, suicide bombers, and other newsworthy items. There are some facts related in here that will be a surprise to many. One of these is that the Islamic tradition is strongly against suicide. Another is this: 'At no time did the classical jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism.'
The case is accurately made: 'Most Muslims are not fundamentalists', and 'most fundamentalists are not terrorists'. These are good points. They are balanced by the commentary that these facts are 'obscured by the unwillingness of some Muslim communal leaders and religious dignitaries to condemn terrorist acts unequivocally.'
In addition to the wealth of information provided, there are several examples of Islamic humor throughout that make it fun as well.
This is a good look at an important topic. I recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ilustrative, concrete, easy to digest!,
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Terrific book to understand the basic similarities between two worlds not so distant from each other. Easy to understand and follow. Great start for those who seek a feasible introduction to the world of Islam.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cliff Notes on Islam,
Bernard Lewis has been called "the doyen of Middle East studies." He is undeniably one of the most prolific and controversial writers on Islam in the western world today.
Lewis' latest work, in collaboration with Buntzie Churchill, is an extremely basic primer targeted to a mainstream (one might say "less sophisticated") audience. Like his other recent treatises, such as "The Crisis of Islam" and "What Went Wrong?," this book draws heavily on his extended and more academically substantive previous work. Indeed, whole paragraphs are nearly lifted verbatim from one book to the other. Unlike his other recent popular works, "Islam" generally steers clear of contemporary political analysis and assertive commentary.
In short, this book is sufficient as a general and balanced introduction to Islam for high school-aged Americans. If you are more mature and more broadly educated but relatively ignorant of Islamic history and religious practices, I would strongly recommend Reza Aslan's "No god but God" as a better place to start than this.
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