A short history of Islam

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 led to an upheaval in the West’s relations with the Muslim world. Many came to interpret these events as signs of a clash between Islam and Western civilisation. Explosive headlines led many to understand Islam as the cause of global terrorism. John Esposito’s book seeks to put these fears to rest by making a clear distinction between mainstream Islam and the kind of Islam espoused by extremists. But this is to over-simplify the issues. His claim that such extremists can be found in every religion tends to dismiss these attacks as the actions of a fanatical minority that does not need to be taken very seriously. Esposito’s book disregards Muslim voices calling for a critical investigation into the causes of terrorism and into the American response. It also disregards the serious questions non-Muslims are asking about the identity and purpose of Islam in the modern world.

Anyone with some personal experience of the Muslim world would be willing to admit that the word Islam itself is misleading. For there are as many Islams as there are communities of Muslims in the world. Specific historical, cultural and geographical factors have led each Muslim community to give its own peculiar stamp to the movement initiated by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. There is no one, monolithic version of Islam, just as there is no single authority to authenticate the teachings or beliefs of Islam. Instead, Islam is a dynamic project within history, a project that is not yet finished. Esposito’s title, Islam: The Straight Path, describes Islam in the past rather than as an evolving movement in the present. His book gives the impression that Islam is simply there waiting to be understood as a phenomenon in history.

Except to discuss several issues relevant to violence and terrorism briefly in the epilogue, Esposito’s book remains what its earlier editions were, namely (in the author’s own words), ‘essential coverage of the origins, spread, and development of Islam and its roles in Muslim societies’. As such, it is a readable and useful introduction to Islam. But the preface promises the reader that it will address ‘the key issues necessary to understand the influence of Osama bin Laden and the continued growth of extremism, questions about the relationship of Islam to violence and terrorism, the meaning of jihad, the origins of a global jihad ideology, the role of suicide bombing, and the influence of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam’. These important issues are treated rather too summarily in the epilogue, however, and the reader is left dissatisfied. Since Esposito fails to analyse these complex issues at any depth, he cannot claim that his book deals with Islam as a modern phenomenon. It is essentially a history of Islam up to the events of 9/11.
The book describes the reforms that have taken place in the Muslim world during the 19th and 20th centuries in response to Western colonialism and imperialism. Since the author himself admits in his preface to the revised third edition, however, that the events of 9/11 ‘proved a tragic turning point and setback that has challenged and in many cases undermined the progress of the recent past’, it would have been more helpful if he had explained how these modern events have undermined what he described as ‘progress in the Muslim world’. Such an analysis would have helped the reader to make more sense of these events and to place them in the broader perspective of Islamic history. Even though contemporary Muslim thinkers are, in fact, reflecting on these issues, Esposito has not included their investigations in his revised edition.

On the last page of his book, Esposito mentions three of the ways in which contemporary efforts at reform have to face opposition from within Muslim society. But he fails to take note of the pervasive Western demonisation of Islam as an additional factor working against change and reform within Islam. Anyone aware of the frustrations felt by Muslims in the face of Western hegemony will feel disappointed that the book did not do more to articulate these Muslim sentiments. For the book makes little attempt to give a sympathetic ear to those voices speaking on behalf of marginalised groups of Muslims who are suffering various forms of oppression because of Western arrogance and greed.

The book is weakest in its portrayal of reformist tendencies that have emerged in the Muslim world since 9/11. Esposito mentions only a few of the most important reformers in passing, failing to recognise several other significant Muslim leaders who have emerged more recently. For example, there is no mention in Esposito’s bibliography of a remarkable collection of essays written by a group of progressive Muslim authors (Progressive Muslims, on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi, Oxford, Oneworld, 2004). First published in 2003, these essays were, according to the editor, a response to the events of 9/11 and would have contributed to an analysis of the basic issue Esposito himself describes in the preface of his own book (revised two years later, in 2005) as ‘a new clash in the 21st century between Islam and Western civilisation’. Awareness of the thinking of these progressive Muslims would have brought Esposito’s book up to date. Bereft of these reflections, the book tends to over-simplify Muslim attitudes to change, reducing them to four categories, namely: ‘secularist, conservative, neotraditionalist (or neofundamentalist), and reformist (neomodernist)’. This classification no longer caters for the diverse approaches to reform in Islam that are emerging in the modern world, especially in response to the events of 9/11.

Instead of delving into the more recent efforts at reform in Islam, the author tends to repeat summaries of earlier Muslim reformers. For example, he sums up a prevalent attitude that prefers to remain satisfied with past formulations as a ‘taqlid mentality’. The phrase becomes a repetitive cliché when it is used again and again without further elaboration. Similarly, with regard to the status of non-Muslim minorities, he refers to their ‘protected status’, resorting to the standard phrase used in most introductions to Islam rather than exploring some of the more recent Muslim views on the issue. Esposito may rightly counter by saying that his book is simply a short history of Islam. I have hinted at some of the oversimplifications and inadequacies of such a short history. The book remains useful as a balanced introduction to the generally accepted fundamentals of what is commonly known as Islam.  

Islam: The Straight Path (Revised Third Edition), John L. Esposito. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0 195 18266 9, RRP $65

Herman Roborgh sj is engaged at Aligarh Muslim University, India, in research for a PhD in Islamic studies on a modern commentary on the Qur’an.




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