Name: Islam: A Concise Introduction
Curzon Press, Surrey
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
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 fabrication
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
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 Judaism
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
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 rites.
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 Law,
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