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Interpreting Islam
Book Review
Muhammad Ali Shafiq


Book: Interpreting Islam

Editor: Hastings Donnan

Publisher: Vistaar Publications, New Dehli

Year: 2002

The book Interpreting Islam is a collection of essays by as many as ten different authors compiled into one book, edited by Hastings Donnan. It is a collection of essays by western academics that represent a variety of approaches. The book also focuses on how the perpetuation of myths and stereotyping in the West has caused misunderstandings about Islam. The various authors of these essays reflect their assessments on political, social, cultural and disciplinary contexts of how the study of Islam in the West has shaped and developed. The editor, Hastings Donnan, is a professor of Social Anthropology and head of the Anthropological department in Queen’s University Belfast.

Chapter 1: Interpreting Interpretations of Islam1

The first chapter of the book is co-authored by Hastings Donnan himself along with Martin Strokes. The chapter argues that it should always be understood that the different exegesis by different academics always take into consideration the following three critical points namely, i) who is doing the interpretation, ii) for what audience and iii) for what purpose? The motives and demands for Islamic work are very diverse. They range from demands for publications by university administrators to vanity and fantasies to sincere commitments to public education. The chapter terms Edward Said’s study of Orientalism very important because it has been so prominent in the Anglo-Saxon world considering the western origin of Said.

Chapter 2: Orienatalism or the Politics of the Text2

In this chapter, its author discusses Orientalism in the light of Edward Said’s book Orientalism3. According to Turner, the main criticism of Said’s thesis is that the so called “Orient” is constructed in western ideology as an enduring object of knowledge in opposition to the “Occident” as its negative. The author then underpins major criticism of Said that he exaggerates the amount of coherence in the western academic discourse, and neglects the range of heterogeneous views within oriental sciences. Turner also points out that since Said’s analysis was driven by his commitment to the Palestinian movement and his attention was oriented towards imperialism and neo-colonialism, as a consequent, he neglected “Occidentalism”. It is also stated that since Said concentrated primarily on French orientalism, as a consequence, he missed important variations in English and German branches of orinetalism.

Chapter 3: Researching the Radical4

The third chapter of the book deals with radical publications about Islam in the west. Edwards discusses the reasons why generally Islamic politics is associated with violence, and Muslims presented as engaged in jihād against the west. Bernard Lewis, the patriarch of conservative orientalism, champions the idea that the Muslim world is seized by the resentment of the west5. The view that Islam was established through the sword has sunk deep into the consciousness of the west and the author asserts that Islam has itself invented the western threat. The revolution in Iran, war in Afghanistan, beheadings in Saudi Arabia, training camps in Sudan, suicide bombers on the buses of Tel Aviv, attacks on the World Trade Centre and bombs on Paris highways have not helped Islam’s image in the west. Edwards also agrees that the research on Islamic fundamentalism has in the past been much represented in view of Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic republic which characterized political Islam as a wholly radical and violent phenomenon.

A portion of this chapter also includes feminist theorist Beverly Thiele’s argument on writing on radical Islam where the majority of the writers in this sphere are male. She says that she understands the fact that women in this field are a minority voice and tells us about her experience of work in Hebron where she went to take interviews of some Muslim leaders accompanied by a male researcher who later took all the credit from her. Thiele also deplores the fact that there is a lot of macho image associated with this subject of writing on radical Islam resulting in the topic being reflected by a male-stream.6

Chapter 4: Islam in the Media7

The author of this very interesting chapter tells us about the imbalance in news coverage between Islam and the “other”. Ruthven in his essay cities numerous cases of biased coverage especially by the British print media. One example the author gives of negative headlines is of newspapers splashing extreme viewpoints of radical militants while ignoring the viewpoints of the silent majority. Another example is given with respect to capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. The argument presented is that several hundreds of criminals are subject to execution in the Kingdom, but when two British nurses convicted of a crime in Saudi Arabia were given death penalty, huge media attention was given to it and the western media harshly described the kingdom’s criminal justice system by using words such as “medieval tyranny”.8 The author believes that “Islamophobia” continues to dominate the struggle over representation of Islam in an increasingly globalized media.

Chapter 5: Interpreting Islam in American Schools9

This chapter by Susan Douglass and Ross Dunn explores the reasons why American schools have not provided meticulous investigation regarding Islam in schools and universities in the past; one of the major reasons is to avoid conflict by ignoring religion in schools especially after the Second World War. Most universities would give more weight to history programs on US only or modern Europe rather than introductory courses on Islam and Muslim history. The author also states that the 1988 guidelines of United States of America have considerably improved the part of Islam in American text books10. However, many textbooks often used words like “new” for Islam and “nomadic wanderers” for Arabs. Some books also link the word “founded” to Islam which is rather synonymous to something being invented.

The writers believe that over the years, Muslim organizations have attempted fruitfully to improve textbooks in terms of accuracy of content and in 1989 a Council of Islamic Education (OIE) was created to build relationships with major publishers with a view to assisting them in providing unbiased information on Islamic history and culture.11

Chapter 6: Ideological Dimensions of Islam12

Ilyās Ba Yunus, in this chapter, firstly explores dimensions of Islamic economy and explains that it encourages ownership of private property, free exchange of goods and services and also aims to minimize the differential between the rich and the poor through poor tax of zakāh and distribution of the property of the deceased. On the other hand, Islam rejects the notions of gambling, hoarding and dealing in ribā i.e. interest. Next, Ilyās explores the dimensions of Islamic family in which he wittily explains that love should grow out of marriage rather than precede it. The chapter also gives details on the concept of mahr (which is not to be confused with dowry as it is the exclusive right of the wife alone and is not shared by anyone) and the concepts of polygamy and monogamy. After that, the author moves on to Islamic politics in which he identifies a major difference between the Sunni and Shiite sects as Sunnis believe in the concept of shūrā (meaning that the believer should elect leaders through mutual consultation and obey them as long as they adhere to the teachings of the Qur’ān and Prophet Muhammad (sws)) while the Shiite point of view is that the authority rests with the descendants of the Holy Prophet (sws) through his cousin, the fourth caliph ‘Alī (rta).

Chapter 7: Kissing Cousins13

Charles states that instead of a theology that gives a symbolic picture of the cosmos, Islam offers the faithful a simple set of performances and prohibitions commanded by Allah and enacted by the Prophet. The author in detail talks about his experience and interaction with Islam when he undertook some research work in the valley of Swāt in Pakistan. He recalls his days in the tribal areas and lauds the generous hospitality of the locals. Charles is mystified at how much has Islam deeply penetrated into the lives of the tribesmen he was interacting with during his fieldwork. He also says that for Orientalists, books not people contained the essential truths about Islam as they take for granted that textual arguments about Islam would reveal the core of an Islamic society which was not true in the case of anthropologists. He says that anthropologists now dare to use the knowledge of contemporary tribal social structure and behaviour to re-examine and reanalyze the Muslim texts that detail the life of Muhammad.

Chapter 8: Islam and the Sea14

This chapter by Xavier basically discusses the Muslim and Christian maritime control. The author links the failure of Muslim sea warfare with the disintegration of Ottoman fleets in 1827. Xavier says that the impression of Muslims at sea is best of mediocrity. He says that Muslims were so ignorant of the sea that the Turks even lacked a specific word to designate the sea and today still use a term which was initially applied to lakes. And almost all of the seafaring vocabularies spoken in Turkish are words borrowed from Italian, and words concerning fishing are borrowed from the Greeks. Bizarrely, the chapter quotes the Prophet Muhammad (sws) to have said: “The sea is Hell and Satan reigns over the waters.” The writer also gives another example in shape of the second Caliph ‘Umar (rta) declining a proposal from the then governor of Syria, Mu‘awiyya, to attack Cyprus by building a fleet. The author concludes by saying that had Muslims been resolute and ventured to the sea, the fate of the world could well have been different.

Chapter 9: Organized Charity in the Arab-Islamic World15

The author writes this chapter from the perspective of an NGO worker investigating Islamic doctrine and the history of Islamic charitable trusts. In Islam, waqf is seen as the withdrawal of a property by the owner and spending the proceeds for charitable purposes.16 For example in Oman, waqf exists for the purposes for funerals of poor people; in Makkah, the Ministry of Awqāf owns a building for the accommodation of pilgrims while in Jerusalem there exists a waqf soup-kitchen which provides meals to over a thousand people a day in Ramadān. The author says one of the most favoured objects for Muslim charitable works is the care of orphans. Perhaps the most important reason being that the Prophet Muhammad (sws) himself was an orphan. The writer claims that there is a devout passion especially in the Middle East to donate, and cites an example of Oman where so many citizens wish to fund the building of mosques that the ministry is trying to pass a law that there should be a distance of at least one kilometre between two mosques. However, at the end, he concludes that there also have been some cases of funds collected being directed towards political violence as there is lack of accountability. Therefore western NGOs have a part to play in injecting technical skill and disseminating the important principle of public accountability.

Chapter 10: Silver Sounds in the Inner Citadel17

The major schools of jurisprudence have no firm means of categorizing music either as obligatory or as canonically forbidden (harām) although debating the later Hadīth literature provides more evidence of explicit nature notably concerning the Prophet’s disapproval of the musical slave girls, and attendance at weddings at which music was played.18 However many groups in the Middle East have put ecstatic music and dance deeply in their communal lives refuting critics with arguments based on lack of firm Qur’ānic evidence and the ambiguity of Hadīth literature. The chapter also discusses the fact that qawwāli musicians respond to complex cues provided by spiritual leaders and devotees who gather at religious shrines especially in Pakistan and northern India. However, the chapter contains very limited information on the author’s findings and Martin Strokes merely takes a neutral stance to musicology in Islam.


This book helps readers to make sense of Islam by examining a range of disciplinary approaches. For many, Islam has meant mobs in streets or terrorists trying to blow up public buildings or the exploitation of women. This image came to be associated largely in the western imagination stimulated to a large extent by media coverage.  Islam has suffered from severe cultural and political biases. This book gives a gist of opinions of various western orientalists, anthropologists and professors of social and political sciences.

Chapters of this book such as Researching the Radical by Beverly Milton Edwards, Islam in the Media by Malise Ruthven and Interpreting Islam in American Schools by Susan Douglas and Ross Dunn discuss why there is such bias against Islam in writing, media and academic curriculum respectively. Beverly Milton in particular agrees on the fact that the world attention is such that the images of Muslim violence pictured of the covers of a book sell, while passive images of Muslims in state of prayer don’t. Given the nature of the medium, it is perhaps inevitable that producers will seek to emphasize the sensational aspects of any subject.

The over-reaction is partly an artefact of history as the Muslim Ottoman Empire came very close to conquering Europe and the Muslim Middle East was the most feared opponent of the West. Many westerners continue to fear these aspirations and misleadingly call the connection between Islam and terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism. Such a pervasive fear of Muslims is ironic given the real political weakness of the Middle Eastern states which have been subject to long periods of colonialism and western influence.

The fact that this book is authored only by western academics should not be taken as a limitation of this book because the purpose of this book is not to discuss Islamic issues in the light of Qur’ān and Sunnah but rather to recognize how the western orientalists and anthropologists understand Islam. Chapter three Researching the Radical, four Islam in the Media and seven Kissing Cousins of this book are in particular a delight to read. Overall, the book is highly recommended as it addresses a number of issues. 








1. Authors: Hastings Donnan and Martin Strokes.
2. Author: Bryan S Turner.
3. E.W. Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).
4. Author: Beverly Milton Edwards.
5. B. Lewis, The Roots of Muslim Rage, The Atlantic Monthly September 1990: 47-60.
6. Thiele, B. Vanishing Acts in Social and Political Thought: Tricks of the Trade 1986. In C. Pateman and E. Gross (eds.), Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory. (Sydney: Allen and Unwin).
7. Author: Malise Ruthven.
8. H.J. Gans, Deciding What’s News. (London: Constable, 1980).
9. Authors: Susan L Douglass and Ross E Dunn.
10. C.C. Haynes, and O. Thomas, (eds.), Finding Common Ground. (Nashville, TN: Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University, 1994).
11. Council on Islamic Education 1995. Teaching about Islam and Muslims in the Public School Classroom. 3rd ed. Fountain Valley, CA: Council on Islamic Education.
12. Author: Ilyās Ba Yūnus.
13. Author: Charles Lindholm.
14. Author: Xavier de Planhol.
15. Author: Jonathan Benthall.
16. J. Schacht, An introduction to Islamic Law, (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
17. Author: Martin Strokes.
18. L.I. al-Faruqi, The Cantillation of the Qur’ān, Asian Music 19 (1), 2-25.

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