|Volume 6, No 1, Spring 1996|
Illustrations by Zafar Abbas Malik
Totem Books, New York, 1994
176 pages, USD$9.95
This is a book written for the non-Muslims, but it has a lot to offer for the Muslim reader as well. I pleasantly noted that the cover of the book had the proper salutation in Arabic next to the Prophet's name. And the Muslim readers are reminded in the first page that the peace and belessings must be invoked every time the name of the Prophet appears. This respect and love for the subject matter is apparent throughout the book.
Of the 176 pages only the first 28 are actually about the historical life of the Prophet. The rest deals with Islam and Muslims from the beginnings to the present. In contrast to the more traditional historical narratives that boil down to the histories of the Muslim states, this book focuses on the culture and civilization that Muslims shaped and lived in. The reader is introduced to the Islamic terminology, such as sharia, jihad, fiqh, sunna, etc. There is a four page treatment of the difference between the shia and the sunni.
Bulk of the book deals with the intellectual accomplishments of Muslims. Diverse subjects, such as city planning, book manufacturing and trading, astronomy and anatomy are discussed. There are many personalities that show up in these sections. Some of them are familiar to those of us who grew up in Muslim societies, but there are some that are not that well known. For example, after reading about al-Nadim's bookshop in the 10th (C.E.) century Baghdad, I was very happy to find an English translation of his al-Fihrist in a California bookstore. Did you know that there were hundreds of bookstores in Baghdad alone at that time? And the traditional bookshop was more like the bookstore-cafés that are becoming popular now? For the interested reader there is a bibliography at the end for further and more detailed reading.
The last one fourth of the book deals with the colonial experience of the Muslim societies and the history of orientalism. The various responses to the challenge and colonial assault of the West are covered: reformist movements, nationalism, "fundamentalism". The authors are critical of not only the modernist and secularists but of the so-called Islamic states as well.
The book does not shy away from taking positions on various issues that occupy the Muslims today, but it never claims that there are simple answers. In general it has an optimistic outlook.
This book would be a good suggestion or a gift for a non-Muslim or a non-religious friend. But you may have to do your own extensive reading to answer their questions once they read the book.