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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

Islam, for the West, is commonly regarded as a perpetual “Other” — so very familiar but also so very strange and different. A lot of misunderstandings are created by prejudice and ignorance; people tend to rely more on stereotypes than on reality. But how can that be cured?


Title: What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam
Author: John L. Esposito
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195157133

•  Easy to read, handy reference about Islamic beliefs and practices
•  Provides a lot of information in a useful format

•  Serious sanitization on a range of controversial issues
•  Discussion of violence and terrorism lacks moral context & perspective

•  Question & Answer format providing basic information about Muslim beliefs & practices
•  Wide range of information dealing with history, doctrines, and customs is presented
•  Good for use as a basic reference rather than something you just sit and read all at once


Book Review

Most books on Islam, even introductory texts, aren’t readily accessible to the average reader; those that are are not necessarily easy when it comes to finding specific and pertinent information on the questions people commonly have. John L. Esposito tries to fill that gap with his recent book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

Editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam and The Oxford History of Islam, Esposito is a leading authorities on Islam who spends a lot of time explaining Islamic history, doctrines, and faith to the media. This recent book is a product of his many experiences answering common questions. The issues are grouped by major topics, such as The Faith, Islam and Other Religions, Customs and Culture, and Muslims in America. There is also special section is devoted to terrorism and violence.

In terms of basic information about Islam as a religious faith and practice, Esposito does an excellent job communicating what people should probably know. He goes into some depth explaining how and why Islam can be so familiar (especially as a faith with close historical and theological connections to Judaism and Christianity), but also so very different (for example, Muslim views about Jesus Christ, Muslim attitudes towards the relationship between mosque and state, etc.).

He also explores the ways in which things which appear to be features of Islam are more fundamentally features of culture — for example, while the Quran instructs believers to be modest it does not require head coverings, rendering the ubiquitous veil a cultural rather than a religious issue.

While such information is certainly very important and valuable, that is probably not the uppermost concern in many readers’ minds. Instead, what they most want to know is probably why Islam seems to be so supportive of violence and terrorism. Why is it that Islam is engaged in violence and combat with every major religion on its borders — Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism?

On this point, the book is a bit less impressive. Esposito doesn’t go quite as far as some in terms of apologetics (some have been so extreme that Muslims have asked why they don’t convert if they really feel that Islam is such a wonderful religion); however, there is definitely some sanitization going on. For example, in the section about 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 Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

What Esposito fails to point out, however, is that this is generally considered an unreliable tradition; when compared to the fact that the term jihad is referenced as violent both in authoritative Hadiths and in the Quran (which is more authoritative than any Hadith), the case for jihad originally being more than the violent expansion of Islam becomes very weak. A stronger case could be made for the idea that, while originally focused on violence, jihad is becoming much more and is being re-interpreted as much more.

This is a progressive position and seems to more accurately reflect what is going on in the Muslim world. The argument that the a philosophical interpretation of jihad was the original understanding is, in contrast, a fundamentally conservative position which concedes to Islamic fundamentalists that Islam today must necessarily be a faithful reflection of Islam when it was first developed. By relying upon a weakly supported story about the meaning of jihad, Esposito is doing liberal and progressive Muslims no great favor.

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