Title: The Oxford Dictionary of Islam
Author: edited by John L. Esposito
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Written with a general audience in mind, so great for most readers
Covers an incredibly wide range of topics, not just religious beliefs
Won't serve as an introductory text - for that, look elsewhere
More than 2,000 entries, arranged alphabetically, designed for general readers
Covers not only beliefs, but also: history, politics, philosophy, and people
Concise definitions written by leading authorities
There is a great deal of information available in various media like television and newspapers, but all too often that information is incomplete, incoherent, or even wildly inaccurate. This is unfortunate, but it is also quite correctable if people take the time to use good reference works and try to find out if what they think is true really is after all. In this, John L. Esposito's recently published The Oxford Dictionary of Islam may prove invaluable.
A Professor of Religion and International Affairs and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Walsh School of Foreign Service in Georgetown University, Esposito has written or contributed to numerous books on Islam in the past several years, with more than one aimed at helping people better understand Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This latest is designed (obviously) as a reference work rather than something a person might simply sit down and read. With over 2000 entries and over 100 contributors, this book covers a tremendous amount of information - and not all of it simply about the nature of Islamic beliefs.
It's almost misleading for this book to just be labeled a "Dictionary of Islam" because there is a great deal about the politics, beliefs, and culture of modern Arab and Islamic nations - not unexpected, since some of the material was adapted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.
Thus we have biographical entries on terrorists like Osama bin Laden (but not Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri), politicians like Iran's Muhammad Khatami (but not Iran's Hashemi Rafsanjani), and authors like Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. We can read about basic Muslim views on issues like abortion, bioethics, birth control, evolution, and the nature of science. There is also information about the state of Islam in various countries - not simply in the Middle East, but also elsewhere like Britain and France.
This is all in addition to a chronology of major events, scientists, political organizations, legal schools, philosophical systems, important cities, political controversies, and so forth. All together, the wide variety of topics covered provides a very comprehensive look at not just the religious world of Islam, but also the social, cultural, and political spheres which create what one might call the Islamic world.
The entries are written for a general audience in mind: this book is not designed so much for religious scholars as it is for average people, reporters, students, and others who are looking for a quick review of basic topics that might come up in the course of other reading.
As mentioned above, this isn't a book that lends itself to just sitting down and reading - it is a reference work, not an introduction to Islam. For that, you can turn to Esposito's What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. At the same time, this work improves upon that earlier book in the presentation of some material.
For example, in the section of What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam on the meaning of jihad, Esposito references the commonly cited tradition of Muhammad describing warfare as the "lesser" jihad but combat with one's desires and temptations as the "greater" jihad. What Esposito fails to point out in that book, however, is that this is generally considered an unreliable tradition. In this new work, he (or whoever contributed this entry), doesn't make that error.
Thus, even if you have other basic works on the nature and history of Islam, even Esposito's earlier books, this may still prove to be a valuable addition to your library.