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What Is Islam’s Relationship With Non-Abrahamic Faiths? Book Review Example

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Book Review

“Following Muhammad” and “How to Read the Qur’an”Comparing and Contrasting the works of Carl W. Ernst and Mona Siddiqui

In the book “Following Muhammad,” author Carl W. Ernst examines stereotypes about the Islamic faith that serve to reinforce the notion that there is a social, cultural, and religious division between the “Western world” and the rest of the world. This perceived division is at the root of the belief held by many that the world is headed inevitably towards a clash of civilizations and a war between “Christian nations” and “Muslim nations.” Ernst recognizes the ludicrous nature of such beliefs, and explains in detail why such perceptions are based more on myth than reality.

Ernst asserts that the “greatest gap in understanding lies between the majority of Americans and Europeans –the so-called “West”- and the rest of the world.” Ernst goes further, declaring that “Americans are not good at understanding other cultures.”  While this too may be a belief rooted in stereotypes, there is no question that much of Western civilization has been founded on a kind of doctrinal superiority, and that such a belief was manifested in the founding of the United States.

Ernst examines the work of Samuel Huntingdon, the author of the contemporary book “The Clash of Civilizations.” In “Following Muhammad,” Ernst examines Huntingdon thesis that geopolitical events will eventually lead to a “clash” between the West and the “retrograde” Islamic nations. Huntingdon’s views created a stir among many Islamic leaders, as it is a dangerous –and largely baseless- idea, according to Ernst.

While Ernst begins his book by decrying the images of “the West” and “the rest of the world,” he still frames his debates and assertions in those terms. It is probably unfair to fault him for this; if he is to make a compelling argument that such an image is based on outmoded beliefs and ideas, it is certainly helpful to his cause if he begins by using that terminology so as to wear it away from the inside out. Ernst does, in fact, explore the ways in which such belief systems about the clash between “the West” and Islam came to be.

The clashes waged between Christians and Muslims throughout the Middle Ages may have had ideological and religious undertones, but Ernst cautions against accepting any arguments asserting that religion was the only basis for war: “every claim about religion needs to be examined critically for its political implications…(the question is) who benefits most?” The historical aftermath of these battles left a lasting impression on both sides that they were hopelessly divided; the ideological clash lived on, even if the wars were over.

Ernst explains that Muslim countries have a wide range of cultures, attitudes, beliefs, and traditions, just as those in the West have a similarly diverse set of ideas and belief systems that drive them. Ernst notes the absurdity of many non-Muslims who believe that Muslims are more bound by and driven by religion than are people from the Christian faith or others outside of either Islam or Christianity. “Following Muhammad” explores the roots of this Western-centric world-view, as it describes how many Europeans and Americans believe enlightenment and knowledge was born in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and gradually moved west over time, through Greece, then Rome, the European nations, and finally America.

This western movement of “Enlightenment” also left earlier nations crumbling into irrelevancy, or so those in Europe and eventually America believed. Ernst notes that, among the Europeans who colonized much of Asia, “the technical edge that gave Europe military superiority over the rest of the world was often mistaken for cultural superiority.” Over several centuries, European nations colonized many different parts of the world, including many Muslim nations. These colonists almost always viewed those they oppressed as inherently inferior, and the very nature of their oppressive roles generated friction between colonists and colonized.

What many Westerners failed to notice or understand was that the march of knowledge and wisdom did not just start with the tribes of Israel and move gradually westward, picking up bits of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and European culture along the way. Just as Judaism and Christianity have their roots in the tribes of Israel, so too does Islam. Muhammad revered Christ as a prophet of Allah/God, and knowledge in general did not just travel westward, but was also adopted and adapted by Muslim cultures as well. Greek philosophy took hold among Muslim scholars, and Roman culture was deeply influential in the East as well.

The adversarial nature of the relationship between European colonists and oppressed peoples was destined to be problematic, and many colonists balked at the idea of living under European dominance. Ernst realizes that it would have been easy then –just as it is easy now- to blame rabble-rousing or other opposition from oppressed peoples as being rooted in their religious beliefs. It may have been simpler to blame Islam for any trouble than to wonder whether such trouble was caused by a desire not to be oppressed.

Ernst notes with some disappointment that many contemporary Westerners still hold negative –and wildly misinformed- views on Islam. Europeans and Americans tend to view Islam and all Muslims as a single, monolithic group; this view ignores the fact that there are billions of Muslims around the world, both in predominantly Muslim nations and also scattered around all parts of the world.

Despite the fact that billions of Muslims live in many different cultures and societies, Westerners often assume that “Muslims, and Muslims alone, are driven to act exclusively by religion,” an assumption that is “more than absurd” according to Ernst. Those in the West may share similar cultural and social backgrounds, but people in different places live life differently. In the United States, for example, there are millions of people who profess to be Christians, yet among these Christians can be found wildly different ideological beliefs and ways of life. Evangelical Christians in the southern United States may live life very differently than Protestants in New Hampshire, and no one in the West would think to lump both people into one group, or think of them as being the same, just because both people happen to be Christians.

“Following Muhammad” goes on to build a case for Islam, to explain what it really is –and what it is not. Ernst offers background on the Islamic faith, explaining what the Qur’an teaches about how to live life. The Bible of the Western world does this as well, though many people who profess to have faith in the Bible do not necessarily follow all (or even most) or its directives. The same thing applies to Muslims and the Qur’an; it is no more likely that all Muslims will live in exactly the same way than it is to believe that of Christians, Jews, or people of any other faith.

Westerners tend to see Islam as a religion that “by definition oppresses people,” according to Ernst. Muslims, on the other hand, believe parts of Christianity are incompatible with reality. Islam recognizes that conflict is an inevitable part of human existence. The Islamic faith offers guidance on how to conduct war and engage in politics in an ethical manner. Muslims also question whether Jesus’ celibacy sets a realistic example for life on Earth; reproduction is a part of life, and the Qur’an offers, in Ernst’s words, “a religious model in this area as well.” Ernst also notes that some Muslim traditions believe that Jesus will return to Earth and “complete his prophetic mission,” during which time Jesus will marry and have a family. Some Muslim traditions may be incompatible with Western Judeo-Christian beliefs, but these faiths are all rooted in the same set of traditions, and they share more than many people realize.

Ernst looks at the contemporary Western beliefs about Islam and understands that they are based on simple ignorance, on the fact that many in the West simply do not understand modern-day Islam. Most Western knowledge about Islam is based on what little is known about the radical Islamists who use their faith as a pretext for violence.  Centuries of colonialism had reinforced an “us-against-them” mentality among many Muslims, and there have been those who have used their interpretations of scripture to justify acts of terrorism. Ernst asserts that such radical ideology, while dangerous, is only held by a small minority of Muslims. Ernst further asserts that such radicalization of religious and ideological teachings is not something exclusive to Muslims, and that people of other faiths can be similarly misguided. Ernst proposes that the West must see “new images of Islam,” images that show the true diversity of the Muslim world. Only then might Westerners begin to shed the view of Islam as some monolithic block of people who all live exactly the same way.

In “How to Read the Qur’an,” author Mona Siddiqui offers the reader a different way to gain a deeper understanding of the Muslim faith. Where Ernst examined a historical overview of Islam and its place in the world, Siddiqui explores Islam from the inside, as she closely examines the Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslim faith.

According to Siddiqui, the Qur’an is a “book of divine guidance and inspiration” that was born through revelations Muhammad received from Allah (Siddiqui uses “Allah” and “God” interchangeably throughout the book, as she sees the Judeo-Christian God to be the same God that is revered by Muslims).  Siddiqui discusses a topic that is relevant to the study of any religion, especially religions as old as Islam or Christianity: how to interpret their sacred texts in a contemporary context. “Modernity challenges those who follow an ancient text for moral and social guidance,” asserts Siddiqui; “the power of the book emerges as the faithful read and interpret it in the light of new and changing situations.”

Siddiqui then turns to looking at the origin of the Qur’an, and explains how it came into existence. According to the traditions of the Islamic faith, the Prophet Muhammad was the recipient of a series of divine revelations that began in 610 CE and continued until his death in 632 CE. Regarding the nature of this process, Siddiqui says the following:

“the process of revelation is undeniably complex: when the divine word becomes the written word, it is appropriated by human beings. Human beings read and understand in their own contexts and with the legacy of inherited tradition. When the legacy is divorced from today’s social and moral concerns, how should interpretation continue?”

It is clear that Siddiqui is making a case for the relevance of the Qur’an to contemporary readers; this can be extrapolated to make a case for the Islamic faith itself. As Siddiqui explains it, the divine word of God is never-changing; though humans will always change around the divine word, and interpret it in different ways, the divine word itself will always remain the same. Siddiqui believes that Westerners and other non-Muslims should seek a “deeper understanding” of the Qur’an, and “not judge the faith by…oppressive cultural practices in the Muslim world,” as such practices are not necessarily reflected in the Qur’an, but are often culturally-specific behaviors.

The sameness of thee Qur’an is at the heart of the Islamic faith: the fact that the word has been handed down for millennia with very few changes is seen as evidence of its divinity. Siddiqui explains how the Qur’an came to be, and how it avoided excessive adulteration from its early form to its current form. As Muhammad received his series of divine revelations, he repeated them to his followers. His followers then committed his revelations to memory or found a way to write them down; writing was sometimes difficult in that ear, and Muhammad’s scribes would use everything from rocks to papyrus to palm branches to animal skins.

After Muhammad’s death, there was some question about what to do with his divine revelations. The first Caliph (the title for the leader of the Islamic faith) was hesitant to put Muhammad’s words into written form; twenty years later, the third Caliph, Uthman b. Affan, ordered that Muhammad’s written and oral words be gathered together. Those who had memorized his words had their memories of Muhammad’s revelations transcribed, as were the written offerings.

The finished book that was compiled from these sources came to be known as the Uthmanic text, and the Caliph himself ordered that copies be made and that any other versions of the Qur’an be destroyed. It is the words in this Qur’an, compiled just a few years after Muhammad’s death, which are held in such reverence for their divinity. These words remain relatively untouched since Muhammad’s time, and are believed by Muslims around the world to be the most recent revelations from God (though their faith assures them that they will not be the last).

Moving from discussing the origin and divine nature of the Qur’an, Siddiqui turns to a discussion of the book’s structure. The Qur’an consists of the transcriptions of a series of divine revelations Muhammad received from Allah. These revelations, called suras, are compiled in the Qur’an not in the order in which they were received, but from the longest to the briefest. The first sura is called al-Fathia, or “the Opening,” though it is a matter of dispute whether this was the first revelation.  There are a total of 114 suras that comprise the Qur’an, each containing what is believed by Muslims to be divine revelations from God.

After discussing the structure of the book, Siddiqui discusses the nature of Allah, both comparing and contrasting him to the God of the Jewish faith and the God of Christianity. Muslims are able to see similarities between the Muslim and Islamic Gods, though there remain theological battles on this matter. Muslims have a more difficult time relating Allah to the Christian God; Allah is always one, and never-changing; the God of Christianity exists in a Trinity, a concept which is utterly foreign to Muslims. This is a matter that has divided Christians and Muslims for generations, though Siddiqui ends this particular subject on a happier note, explaining that Christian and Muslim theologians have, in recent years, worked to find more areas of common ground between the two faiths.

It is that search for common ground that serves as a common theme in both of these books. As “How to Read the Qur’an” continues, Siddiqui explores the suras, describing in contemporary terms what they mean to contemporary readers. Carl Ernst, author of “Following Muhammad,” attempts to cover similar ground as he explored the larger historical contexts of the Islamic faith, and how it has dealt with theology, ethics, science, politics, and all other aspects of life.

Each book, in its own way, is meant to bridge the divide between the Western world and the Islamic world. Carl Ernst notes that this divide is largely one of perception, and that a more complete understanding of Islam could serve to enlighten those in the West about the true nature of Islam. At the same time, Mona Siddiqui offers a book to contemporary Western readers that can allow them to explore the Islamic faith from the inside out. Both books make valuable contributions to the important, and necessary, goal of bringing all people of the world together.

Works Cited

Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.

Siddiqui, Mona. How to Read the Qur’an. London, UK: Granta Publishing, 2007. Print.

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