The four essays in this book are arranged around questions concerning Islam, both past and present, posed by Perry Anderson, a prominent historian and sociologist who has worked on Indian and western social formations. These questions are responded to in a conversational tone by Suleiman Mourad, a noted scholar of Islam, well-versed in both American and Islamicate pedagogy. Their talents combine to give the reader access to the social, economic, and political context of overtly religious doctrines, delivered in a question and answer form. The format of inquiry is stimulating and thought provoking; since the information is delivered with a casual cadence, it allows the reader to process the information in an informal manner. The essays are divided according to a loose chronology.
‘The Qur’an and Muhammad’ concerns the time concurrent to the Prophet and immediately thereafter, focusing on the development of a body of literature that grew to surround him and his companions.
Mourad questions basic assumptions about this period and explains their ontology, for example the status of the Qur’an and how certain traditions contributed to the way in which it is handled by Muslims today. He also takes an interesting comparative view with Judaism and Christianity, exploring their genesis and the development of their dogmas in a politico-economic context, and how they related to the newly developing monotheist creed of Islam during this early period. Mourad contends that the early followers of Muhammad simply saw themselves as a subset of the community of monotheists, and that Islam only developed into a self-aware religious identity over the course of expansion by the Arabs under the later caliphs.
‘The Spread of Islam and the Development of Jihad’ looks at the spread of Islam, now as a religion, but still tied closely to political advances of the tribal group. Questions of military manoeuvres and the movement of people over large swathes of time and space are addressed in a comprehensive manner, focussing particularly on the idea of ‘jihad’ as a motor for expansion. Mourad diligently explains the different contexts in which the word was applied, and the different connotations it had. He also juxtaposes the idea of ‘jihad’ as well as Arabic expansion against the Crusades of the Europeans, explaining how the two played against each other.
‘Shi’ism and Sunnism’ focuses on the division in the Muslim community, detailing the origins of the rift and the different forms it has taken over time. It also deals with the different schools of Islamic law, and how they were shaped over time. Further heterogeneities among various sects are explained, and Mourad takes care to delineate the historical actuality of these identities, as well as how Muslims today may (or may not) relate to them.
‘Salafism and Militant Islam’ analyses concepts that most people may be familiar with but do not truly understand. Questions concerning the beliefs of the Wahabis and Salafis are pertinently raised and addressed by these two scholars who are familiar with both sides of the current polarity. Mourad intertwines an analysis of contemporary politics in the Middle East, especially that of the situation in Saudi Arabia, with a comprehensive overview of social, cultural, and religious developments that affected those politics. He also talks about the relationships that these states have with each other, giving a historical context to relationships between countries that claim a Muslim identity today. There follows a detailed discussion of current ISIS politics, in which Mourad explains their doctrine, its currency vis-à-vis the Qur’an, and how it interacts with other contemporary forms of Islam, as well as the international politics in which the group is involved. The earlier discussion on the schools of law is picked up again, and Mourad traces the divergent beliefs of different sects to sociological causes.
Mourad finds patterns and draws parallels across contexts that are only possible for a scholar well-versed in both the history and contemporary politics of vastly different areas, and large spans of time, to conceptualize. Complicated discussions spanning large swathes of time and space are laid out in an easily understandable form in this book. The academic discussion is couched in a casual and conversational tone, with an informality that makes it pleasant to read. The questions concern not only Islam, but the dynamics of its involvement with other religions, as well as the politics surrounding this interplay, enabling the reader to confront larger questions concerning the nature of religion in today’s social discourse.
One drawback of this method of diegesis is that by speaking in such macro-historical terms, contextual specificity is lost, leading to generalizations about ‘the Indians’, ‘the Ottomans’ or ‘the Sunnis’ and so forth. These identities were multi-stranded and variegated, and need to be dealt with diachronically, with a focus on local particularities. This leads to occasional opaqueness and a somewhat one-sided story, but these issues are admittedly outside the scope of the book, and it actually opens up space for further useful questions. If one is aware of this aporia, this book provides a bank of information that speaks to issues that are of great relevance today. Mourad attempts to understand the theology of Islamic terrorism, and provides a counter to it, giving the reader insights into recondite debates that span the Islamic world, providing data that both the initiated and the novice can learn from.
Pia Maria Malik is a Ph.D. Scholar in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.
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