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Islam: A Concise Introduction
Book Review
Nabeela Qazi

Book Name:                       Islam: A Concise Introduction

Author:                               Neal Robinson

Publisher:                          Curzon Press, Surrey

Year:                                   1999


Islam: A concise introduction is a straight forward and easy to read book. The book, written for people from every walk of life, is classified as an introductory text on Islam. Yet, Neal Robinson produces something which is concise and relatively simple but not simplistic. This book attempts to provide its readers with a panoramic view of the subject and whet their appetite for further study. Its primary focus is on providing an introduction to the religion of Islam, covering aspects such as its origin, basic beliefs and practices involved.  Strikingly, it is the development of Islam as a living faith, which is the vital essence of this book. This path to development, however, as believed by the author, is hindered to a major extent by the distorted image of Islam in the West. Robinson is of the view that Islam no longer deserves to be pigeonholed by an ignorant and biased media, and thus aims to contribute towards understanding Islam. Further questions raised by the West as regards belief of Muslims such as the status of Qur’ān also form an essential part of the book. Moreover, the book avoids labelling itself as one written by a popularizer or apologist through establishing an unbiased and rather genteel approach to the subject.

Chapter1: What do you know about Islam?

Before focusing on any aspect, Robinson feels the need to highlight his opinion shared by the majority around the world, that Islam is misperceived in the West. The bias against Islam, particularly by the media, projects a distorted image of the religion. This projection stems from the lack of historical information and manipulation of facts. Further, the negative image of Islam is related to the Western society’s own interests of maintaining its cohesion. Credit is also given to the rise of Islamist movements. Altering the world view regarding Islam is a persistent obstacle. Robinson is of the view that the world needs to realize that all the events involving Muslims that catered for the negative image of Islam have very little to do with Islam itself.

Chapter2: Defining Islam

Here Robinson attempts to define Islam. The common misconception associated with Islam is that it is the religion that originates from Muhammad (sws). However, the author deviates from the upheld belief and strives to acknowledge Islam as submission in the sense of recognizing God’s sovereignty. Further he implies that Islam is the natural and purest religion of human beings. It is, however, maintained by him that it was the Holy Prophet (sws) and his followers who gave Islam its classical form.

Chapter 3: Islam in History

Robinson here sketches the history of the Islamic world starting by the mission of the Holy Prophet (sws), the first four caliphs then covering the medieval period with reference to Umayyid and Abbasid caliphates, the crusades and the late Islamic empires (Ottoman and Mughal) and finally Islam in the horn of Africa. He nevertheless affirms that military conquests were not the roots of extension of Islam but instead other factors like trading relations helped.

Chapter 4: Islam in the Modern World

The modern era of Islam starting from 1700 to the present era is the feature of this chapter. This modern era is broken into four periods. The 1st period is categorized by three Muslim Empires namely Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal. The 2nd by European denomination, colonization and Muslim response to colonization. The 3rd period deals with decolonization and origins of Islamism. The 4th period has been characterized by Islamic resurgence mainly due to political and economic factors as believed by Robinson. He also touches upon the rise of radical Islamism and the ever important question of Islam vs. Islamism in this chapter.

Chapter 5: The Qur’ān

Considered to be one of the most spiritual resources of Muslims, Robinson tackles the subject of the Qur’ān from different aspects. The central message of the Qur’ān is undoubtedly that there is only one God and He alone is to be worshipped. The sūrahs of the Qur’ān, though not in chronological order, are categorized as Makkan and Madīnite with both varying in tenor and context. The difference being that Makkan sūrahs enunciate the basic principles of Islam while the Madīnite sūrahs furnish the guidelines for establishing an Islamic society. He deals with the status of the Qur’ān as the tablet preserved by God himself. The preservation was ensured through memory by Prophet and his companions and later compilation in a book form in the reign of Abū Bakr (rta). He touches upon the issue of the Qur’ān revealed in seven modes along with dialectical and diacritical differences in Uthmān’s time. The coherence of the Qur’ān is doubted by many scholars at the level of individual verses and sūrahs lacking a formal structure. The author answers all these issues reasonably well.

Chapter 6: No god But God

In this chapter, the author aims to emphasize the basic dogma of Islam: belief in one God i.e. Allah. Robinson cites references from the Qur’ān and discusses the origin of the word Allah from pre-Islamic times to impress upon the importance of the word alone. Later he discusses belief in one Allah with respect to Islamic theology referring to early schools of thought like Mutazilites who exercised to give a rational account of Islam. Further the unity and justice of Allah explored by Muslim philosophers is also mentioned. Existence of one God is also testified by Sufism; however, Robinson believes that Sufism thrives only in areas where Islam has absorbed elements from Hinduism.

Chapter 7: Muthammad (sws) the Messenger of God

Robinson deals with the second part of the shahādah or kalamah as Muslims know it, in this chapter. The author begins with the reference of Muhammad (sws), the messenger of God, in the Qur’ān, Hadīth and traditional biographies to paint a simple picture of the man. While dealing with this, he entertains scepticism about Hadīth fabrication1 and authenticity which distorts the picture painted. Robinson also examines in detail the allegations on Muhammad (sws) put forth by the Christians and the Jews. Lastly, he provides a brief account of the respect and importance held for the Holy Prophet (sws) by Muslims the world over.

Chapter 8: The Ritual Prayer

Prayer or the salāh, a basic tenet of Islam is the main focus of this chapter. With reference to the salāh in the Qur’ān and Hadīth, Robinson discusses the prayer timings, the call for prayer, its preparation and performance. He explains the prayer as something to be a communication with God involving not only praise and adoration of Allah but also petition and intercession by mankind. He also touches upon the importance and need for congregational and occasional prayers. However, it is the origin of the salāh, where the author successfully forms links of this Islamic ritual with Christian2 and Jewish practices that is most interesting to read.

Chapter 9: The Zakāh

The zakāh or obligatory alms tax is another foundation on which Islam is based. The conditions and terms for the payment of the zakāh are laid out by the author. Similar to the ritual prayer, the origins of the zakāh are also traced back to Judaism3 and Christianity. Significance of the zakāh in terms of purification of wealth and to discourage hoarding of capital, is explained based on the notion that the noun zakāh is derived from zaka meaning “to be purified”. Robinson also presents the problems regarding zakāh in modern times such as its collection, entitlement and application.

Chapter 10: Ramadān

Fasting in the month of Ramadān has been prescribed for the Muslims as an obligatory practice. Robinson takes upon first discussing the observance and importance of Ramadān. The revelation of the Qur’ān in the month of Ramadān is indeed its greatest virtue along with the essence of fasting. It is fasting that adds not only spiritual but also moral purport to the month of Ramadān.

Chapter 11: The Pilgrimage

The pilgrimage comprising a series of rituals performed in and around Makkah is another obligation to be fulfilled by a Muslim at least once in his lifetime. Although prevalent from the pagan Arab times, the first Muslim hajj took place in 631 AD. Robinson with the help of the Qur’ānic evidence highlights Ka‘bah, the house of God as the place of worship for Muslims. The author also describes the rites to be offered during hajj and the lesser pilgrimage known as ‘umrah in accordance with the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Further, the intention of the whole pilgrimage itself is elucidated through observance of these rites4. It is maintained by the author that hajj as the final pillar of Islam entails element of blind obedience which is perhaps due to its pagan origin despite restoration to its pure Abrahamic form.

Chapter 12: The Sharī‘ah

After examining the five pillars, raised on Qur’ānic foundations, Robinson addresses the sharī‘ah, the divine law supported by these five pillars of Islam. The understanding of this law, fiqh as it is known was unquestionable in the Prophet’s time. However, after his death, knowing the Qur’ān provided no systematic law code, this was a major issue. Robinson provides the answer through reference to principle Sunni law schools namely the Hanafites, the Malikites, the Shafites, and the Hambalites. It was these schools that laid down the foundations for Islamic law and jurisprudence. Though conflicting on the certitude of the sources of Law5, which involves Qur’ān, Sunnah and ijma‘ (consensus) always and sometimes ijtihād, exercise of independent judgement, these schools nevertheless contributed significantly. With various sects of Islam prevalent, Robinson feels the need to discuss another approach to fiqh adopted by the Shiites. With reference to Shiite schools of thought, he establishes that the exercise of independent judgment by any of the imāms carries the same certitude as that of the Qur’ān. Here he also specifies controversies arising on the interpretation of Qur’ānic penalties and their implementation.

Chapter13: Denominations and Sects

As mentioned in some Hadīth, Islam, at one time, will have as many as 72 sects. Robinson focuses on the two primary denominations in Islam namely Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam. The partition resulted through the debate and conflicts on the successor of Prophet (sws) after his death. Through a genealogical chart in the book, Robinson points out the Sunni line of authority and the Shiite twelve Imams. Further sects within Shiite Islam, like Zaydīs, Ismā‘īlis, Nusayrīs, Druze, Bahā’i are also discussed. Robinson, moreover, mentions two deviant movements like the Ahmadīs and the American Muslim Mission to provide a picture of the divided Muslim world.






1. Most of the Hadīths were dismissed on the basis of incomplete isnāds, authentic research has proven that drawing all isnāds diagrammatically results into most Hadīths having a single line of transmission for the first two or three generations and then branches out. It thus seems difficult to believe that successor, to whom Prophet transmitted the Hadīths, further transmitted it to only one person. See: Neal Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 88.

2. Eyewitness accounts of how St. Simeon Stylites (d. 459 AD) used to stand reciting prayers and psalms and would frequently pause to prostrate himself, similar to the rites offered in the salāh. See: Neal Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 105.

3. Zakāh became institutionalized only after Muslims, then residing in Madīnah, had daily contacts with Jews. It is possible that the Jewish practice of tithing influenced the Prophet’s decision to levy a fixed percentage as zakāh. See: Neal Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 114.

4. Running between Safā and Marwah, one of the rites performed in hajj, turns the pilgrim’s mind towards the scales at the Last Judgement and he hopes that his good deeds will outweigh the bad. See: Neal Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 143.

5. The Hanafite school relied first on the Qur’ān and then on qiyās, form of ijtihād while ijmā‘ was allowed only as a consensus of qualified legal authorities. The Malikite school differed on the opinion of ijmā‘ and defined it as consensus of the people of Madīnah. The Shafite school, on the other hand, developed a unifying approach and considered ijmā‘ as consensus of the entire Muslim community. See: Neal Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 151-155.

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