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By Peter G. Riddell & Peter Cotterell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, A Division of Baker Book House Company, 2003. Pp. 231 (Paper)

Reviewed by Bassam M. Madany

Over the years, I have read many books on Islam (in Arabic and English,) and reviewed quite a few. There is something very special about “Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future.” Once you begin reading it, you are gripped by the relevance and timeliness of the historical facts the authors relate and explain. This is not just another book on the history of Islam; it is a serious attempt to make sense out of an extremely difficult and complex subject that touches our daily lives.

In their Introduction, Riddell and Cotterell set the tone for their work by taking exception to a widely circulated and simplistic view, that the West is primarily responsible for the unrest that grips many parts of the Islamic world. “In our view it is not the non-Muslim world that stands at the crossroads, but the Muslim world. Islam has, throughout its history, contained within itself a channel of violence, legitimized by certain passages of the Qur’an, though put in question by other passages.”  P. 7

Part One of Islam in Context is titled: Looking Back.

After we learn about the life and accomplishments of Muhammad, we discover that his death, in June 632, ushered in the new order of the caliphate. Since the Prophet was considered as Allah’s final messenger to mankind, a caliph (successor) could have only a limited role, to serve both as a political and spiritual leader of the Muslim Umma (community) in Madina. As Muhammad left no instructions for an orderly transfer of leadership, that gave rise to many divisions in Islam that have plagued it ever since.

Muslims are unanimous in regarding their early years as constituting the Golden Age. The first four caliphs are honored by the title al-Rashidoon, the “Rightly-guided.” The details that are related in the book about this phase of Islamic history are extremely important for the proper understanding of Islam, then and now. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, lived only two years, but due to his foresight, a collection began of the “utterances or pronouncements of Muhammad that would eventually constitute the Qur’an.” P. 35

During Umar’s and Uthman’s caliphates, Islam spread militarily from Arabia into the Middle East and beyond, making it unique among the world religions by joining faith and politics into one inseparable entity. The fourth caliph Ali was a cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. He did not receive the unanimous support of the leaders of the Muslim community in Madina. His assassination in 661 marked the end of the religious and political unity of Islam. From then on, Islam followed many roads: Sunni, Shi’ite, Khariji, and Sufi.  Commenting on the tumultuous events that took place in this period, our authors observe:

“Islam had now advanced far beyond the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula, but while it entered the period of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs along a single broad road, the rule of Ali and especially that of Al-Husain brought Islam to crossroads, which it left along different routes. The main highway was taken by the Sunnis. A lesser road, though not without its significance, was taken by the Shi’a.  Along a third road, scarcely discernible as a road, traveled the Khariji. The Sufis, being adaptable, trod either the Sunni or the Shi’a road, though not the Khariji road. The Muslim travelers carried with them their Qur’an and would soon add to that the Traditions. Further along their respective routes, they all would encounter the philosopher-theologians, the mu’tazila, who would question not a few of the philosophical assumptions carried along so far without question by the Muslim peoples.” P. 44

Part 2 of the book deals with “IN BETWEEN: THE EBB AND FLOW OF EMPIRE.”

Every historian writing on Islam faces this serious question: “Are there reliable documents that date from the early history of Islam?” In answer to such a query, Riddell and Cotterell remark: “The bulk of our historical texts on early Islam are to be found in a body of compilations and digests composed roughly between 850 and 950 A.D.” P. 83

This observation implies that, with the exception of the compilation of the Qur’an, all written documents that deal with the history of the Prophet (570-632), the period of the “Rightly Guided caliphs” (632-661) as well as those of the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) date from several centuries later. Furthermore, they could not have been composed without some redactions that were colored by the specific historiography of the Abbasids, the Umayyads’ successors.

The Abbasid period lasted for several centuries and was centered in Baghdad. It witnessed the flowering of Islamic civilization. Arabic culture, the arts, and knowledge were much promoted. The peak of Abbasid glory occurred under Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and his son Al-Ma’mun (813-833). During this period Baghdad was a magnificent urban center.

Our authors do not hesitate to comment on some controversial issues such as the Crusades. It is customary nowadays for radical Muslims to look upon the West’s present involvements in their world as a revival of the Crusades. From his hideout in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, or Pakistan, Osama bin Laden inveighs against the “Salibis” (Crusaders) who have desecrated Daru’l Islam. He, as well as many contemporary Muslims, is fully committed to the Islamic worldview that regards Islam’s conquests of the Middle East and North Africa (which took place in mostly Christian lands) as divinely sanctioned. They were called “futuhat,” literally, “openings” or “liberations.” But once a territory passed into Daru’l Islam, it must always remain Islamic. In other words, “Conquista” by Muslims is regarded legitimate, but “Reconquista” by non-Muslims, is considered illegitimate! To this very day Arabic poetry continues to lament the fall of Granada (1492) and the end of seven centuries of Islamic presence in Andalusia (Spain).

In reflecting on this topic, the authors comment:

“[The Crusades] represented the response of the Christian world to the earlier Islamic expansion and to the loss of the Byzantine territories in the Middle East and North Africa. They do, of course, raise substantial moral issues, but consideration of these should not be divorced from the historical context. If apologies are to be extended, it is important that this be done in a framework of mutual acknowledgment of error and excesses, and shared repentance.” P. 102

The very title of the book (Islam in Context) reminds us of the importance of considering the context of all the historical events throughout the march of history. For example, Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517. This is a well-known fact. However, it is doubtful that many Christians are aware that, at that very time, Europe was being threatened by the advancing armies of Islam. In the early days of the Reformation, Budapest fell to the invading Turks, who then dominated Hungary for the next 150 years. And in 1529, the first siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks occurred!  Personally, I do not recall being made aware of that larger context which surrounded the Reformation, while studying Church History in the USA (1950-1953)!

The history and details of recent conflicts and the birth of the State of Israel are described in Chapter 9. We are given a concise account of the tortuous history of that period between 1948 and the beginning of the Third Millennium. At the conclusion of Parts 1 & 2, we find the following comments:

“Parts 1 and 2 of this book have focused on history. We have seen that the history of Islam is one of greatness and decline, of empires and occupation. There have been recurring flashpoints between Islam and Christianity through the centuries.”

“In addition to the tension and rivalry between Islam and its fellow monotheistic faiths, the internal history of Islam itself has suffered from periods of great fragmentation and rivalry between competing groups. For the first 1,350 years of its existence, Islam has had to negotiate its way through a series of internal crossroads, where different ideologies competed to define the identity of the faith. Such rivalries were periodically resolved, only to resurface in other forms at later points in Islamic history.”

“We will now turn our attention to the modern day, keeping in mind aspects of history that have left a clear imprint on events unfurling around us at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and considering how internal tensions are playing themselves out as different Islamic groups vie to define the identity of the faith in the new millennium.”  P. 145, 146

In Part 3 of Islam in Context, the following subjects are considered: “The Muslim Masses and Westophobia,” “The Radical Islamist Worldview,” “The Moderate Worldview,” “Responses to Terrorism,” ending with “Conclusions.”

Because of 9/11/01 (USA) and 3/11/04 (Spain,) Part 3 assumes a special importance. The authors return to deal with the views of some Western “experts” who insist that it was the American policies that were to blame for the present unsettled situation in the Muslim world. As Osama bin Laden summarized the Arab-Muslim grievances: “The storm will not calm as long as you [the United States and Britain] do not end your support for the Jews in Palestine, lift your embargo from around the Iraqi people, and have left the Arabian Peninsula.” P. 153  

However, those critics gloss over the existence of a virulent animus against all things Western (perceived in the Muslim mind as Christian) and which have strong roots in both the texts of Islam and its long history of confrontation with Christendom. We must not omit from our consideration of the causes for Westophobia among the Muslim masses, the role played by the sacred and authoritative texts of Islam, (Qur’an and Hadith).

“Islamic sacred scriptures, the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions (Hadith), include a vast array of verses that serve to mold Muslims’ views toward non-Muslims. Throughout the Muslim world, an important part of the educational formation of young children includes study of the scriptures. In this way, from an early age Muslim children’s views toward non-Muslims, both conscious and unconscious, are fashioned by their encounter with the Muslim sacred texts.  P. 156

Chapter 11 deals with The Radical Islamic Worldview. It describes the “mind-set and motives” of the radical Islamists who are bent on the destruction of the present world-order and replacing it with a purely Islamic one. Quotations are gathered from various sources such as the Egyptian semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Al-Jazeera TV of Qatar, The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Washington Post, as well as various sources available on the Internet.

“It is important to remind ourselves that radical Islamists would not immediately embrace the West if the modern issues were quickly resolved: that is if suddenly Israel were dismantled, Iraqi sanctions were dropped, and U.S. troops withdrew from Arabia. If these three steps were taken, Muslim radicals would find other causes for complaint because in essence --- and this is the key point --- their particular literalist reading of Islamic scripture leads them to conclude that non-believers (non-Muslims) are infidels and should be fought. The issues of Israel, Iraq, and U.S. military bases --- plus other struggles such as those in Chechnya and Kashmir --- are merely manifestations of the radicals’ conflict with the West, rather than its causes.” Pp. 166,168

In Chapter 12, the authors deal with a very important subject: The Moderate (Islamic) Worldview. It must be noted that a history of a moderate strain within Islam goes back to the ninth century. The Mu’tazila in Baghdad did their utmost to elaborate what may be called a moderate Islamic worldview. They criticized the currently accepted doctrine of Predestination as incompatible with the justice of God. Furthermore, they tackled head-on the claim of Orthodox Muslims that the Qur’an had existed from all eternity. The Mu’tazila’s attachment to the doctrine of tawheed (unity of Allah) demanded a Qur’an that was temporal.

Unfortunately, the Mu’tazila being children of their times demanded and received the cooperation of several caliphs in enforcing their views. For example, they were instrumental in the persecution of Imam Hanbal, a famous legal scholar, and a founder of one of the four recognized schools for the interpretation and implementation of the Shari’a.

After his release from his incarceration, Imam Hanbal’s views became dominant in Sunni Islam. Centuries later, his strict jurisprudence became the inspiration for the rise of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia. It is the preferred interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and among the radical Islamists such as Hizbullah (Lebanon), Hamas (West Bank and Gaza), and al-Qaeda. 

Over the years, I became interested in the study of the works of certain modernizing Muslims who called for tajdid (renewal) and tahdith (modernization). I was especially attracted by the writings of Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, an Egyptian scholar who worked hard to bring about both tajdid and tahdith. Unfortunately, after his passing away in the nineties, I am not aware of any Arabic-speaking scholar that has continued his work. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the works and testimonies of such men as Kanan Makiya (an Iraqi exile) of Harvard, Fuad Ajami (a Lebanese) of Johns Hopkins University, and Amir Taheri (an Iranian journalist living in Paris, who was on a lecture tour in the USA, in March 2004). They all advocate a moderate Muslim worldview that will enable contemporary Islam to cope with modernity and to coexist with the Rest of the world.

In commenting on this subject, Riddell and Cotterell remark: “In effect, there is a titanic struggle taking place between moderates and radicals for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses in the middle. Who is winning? It is too early to say, but there are certain pointers that provide an indication of what is happening among the Muslim masses.  Salman Rushdie, in a letter to the New York Times, sounds a note of warning: “Paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, ‘infidels,’ for all the ills of Muslim societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies to the revival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing version of Islam in the world.”  P. 193

Chapter 13 deals with the urgent topic of Responses to Terrorism. In a sense, it could be lifted out of the book, and made into a tract for distribution far and wide. Riddell and Cotterell approach this subject by calling for a new Qur’anic hermeneutic where “the meaning of a text must be determined by reference to the wording of the text, the related text around it, and the historical context within which the text was produced.”  P. 206

I find these words extremely important and helpful. If only they would be taken to heart by some responsible moderate Muslim scholars who happen to live in the West, and who would be ready to interact with the irenicism of our authors. For not until a neo-Mu’tazila movement arises within Islam and calls for a non-literalistic hermeneutic of the Qur’an and the Hadith, can we expect Westophobia and the violence that it engenders to disappear.

Until then, the bad news keeps coming; and the list of the geographical areas that have become impacted by Islamic terrorism gets longer: Beirut, Mogadishu, Nairobi, Dar-el-Salaam, New York, Washington, Moscow, Bali, and Madrid. And as I was finishing keying this review on my computer, I heard about another terrorist attack: this time in Uzbekistan, Central Asia!

We owe a special word of thanks to the authors of this timely book. Our gratitude goes also to Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Book House Co., for their efforts in making this work available to the public in such an attractive form. We trust it will have a wide circulation and many reprints in the future.