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A good starting point for learning about Islam
on August 1, 2010
In this short and very readable introduction, Sardar covers all the well-known traditions of the Muslim faith (praying, fasting, etc) but also offers an overview of more complex issues like Islamic philosophy, Islamic attitudes to science, and the origins of fundamentalism. This book would be a great starting point to a general reader who just wants to see what islam and Muslims are all about-- and the book especially shines in its discussion of key concepts like khalifa (guardianship of the earth) and the driving force of social justice and fairness that lie behind many Muslim practices. (For example, who knew that early Muslims established zoning laws in their cities to protect the environment?)
But Muslims have often failed Muslim values, and Sardar is not afraid to admit it. It sounds ironic at best to talk of fairness and social justice when we see images of jailed dissidents in Iran, or of the Taliban's gruesome tactics in Afghanistan. But, Sardar argues, the faith itself is not at fault, nor are those images representative of Islam as a whole. He points to a liberal Muslim network in Indonesia or to the work of female Muslim theologians who are able to reread the holy texts in a different light. And really he'd only need to point to the vast Muslim majority, who might be more or less orthodox, but who only want to live in peace. Muslims now are asking critical questions, Sardar argues, and breaking with some of the fossilized traditions to create a way of living that's more in tune with how Islam was originally intended: "Liberal humanism is not a Western invention; rather it has deep roots in Islamic history."
At barely 120 pages, you can't expect this book to go too deeply into the complex issues it discusses. I understand that. Still, no matter how much I liked Sardar's message, I felt frustrated at times by the lack of source material: no footnotes, no sources cited, nothing except a very short suggested-reading list at the end of the book. This seems like a shortcoming to me, and it means that if you really want to learn about any of the topics he discusses, you'll have to do some further study. But maybe that's the point of a short introduction like this: to give just a little bit of background and then encourage the reader to look deeper.