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Beyond Veil and Holy War
Book Review
Firas Ahmad


Title: Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teaching and Muslims Practices with Biblical Comparisons

Author: Saleem Ahmed, Ph. D

Publishers: Moving Pen Publishers, Inc.

ISBN: 0-9717655-0-2

Pages: 224


Dr. Saleem Ahmed addresses many critical issues facing Muslims and Islam today in ‘Beyond Veil and Holy War’, his most recent publication. In an easy to read question and answer format, Dr. Ahmed’s book provides the reader with a basic understanding of Islam and then introduces questions, comments and analysis in order to stimulate dialogue on a variety of subjects. The book is divided into two parts – ‘The Current Situation’ and ‘Vision for the Future’. The bulk of the book comprises the section under ‘The Current Situation’ where Dr. Ahmed discusses everything from the basic beliefs of Islam, the Qur’ān, Hadīth, Jihād, Women in Islam, September 11th and a host of other issues relevant to contemporary Muslim life. Dr. Ahmed is most clear and concise when he veers away from theological issues and discusses the condition of Muslims around the world. His promotion of dialogue amongst different religions and analysis of the Palestinian conflict are important contributions to the book.

The question-answer format allows him to ask direct and pointed questions followed by comments, analysis and additional questions. Dr. Ahmed also provides excerpts from the New and Old Testaments drawing a comparison between Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  In addition, Dr. Ahmed states in his introduction that there is a great need for Ijtihād, which he translates as ‘soul-searching’. He argues that the necessity for Ijtihād is born out of the failure of Muslims to properly implement the ideals of Islam as stated in the Qur’ān. Scattered throughout the book are sections titled Ijtihād, which exhort Muslim (as well as non-Muslims) to think critically about the issues at hand. Even though the translation of the term Ijtihād as ‘soul searching’ is not a traditional one, it is very important for the author’s overall purpose of stimulating dialogue.

It is important to clarify that the word Ijtihād and the process of interpreting scripture are two entirely different things. At times, the author seems to blur the lines between these two different procedures. Ijtihād is exercised when the sources of Islam (the Qur’ān and the Sunnah) are silent on a particular issue. However, if that issue is addressed in the sources, then one must interpret it in the light of the text and practices given. For example, it would be wrong to say that we must do Ijtihād on the punishment of amputation and revise it. Here the scripture is not silent and hence we cannot exercise Ijtihād: we need to correctly interpret the verses. Ijtihād is reserved for situations not clearly addressed. For example, if a Muslim astronaut were to travel in space, the process of determining what prayer times he or she should follow would require Ijtihād.

Throughout the book, Dr. Ahmed places a heavy emphasis on the Qur’ān as the primary source of guidance for Muslims. His analysis of Hadīth literature concludes: ‘Hadīth are a wonderful repository of guidance for Muslims – if they are used responsibly and sensibly – keeping in mind the shortcomings’, (p. 60). It is clear that Dr. Ahmed is concerned about Muslims who may quote Hadīth that are seemingly not consistent with the overall message of Islam, or are contradictory with the Qur’ān. Although Dr. Ahmed uses Hadīth throughout his book to argue various points, he seems generally skeptical of those traditions that don’t make ‘sense’. Although the points that he brings up are generally valid, they would have more impact if he drew on the enormous body of Hadīth criticism that already exists. It is also important to note that the author at times obscures the distinction between the Sunnah and Hadīth. The Sunnah is independent from Hadīth. While a Hadīth can be spurious, Sunnah obviously cannot because it is transmitted through practical Tawātur (perpetual practical adherence) of the Ummah.

Dr. Ahmed also engages in analysis and commentary of the Qur’ān on several different occasions, citing various passages and reasoning through issues of interpretation. Although the commentary and questions raised prove to be interesting, again his analysis would be stronger if it drew on some of the vast libraries of Tafsīr available today.

In general Dr. Ahmed is a proponent of engaging the ‘spirit’ of Islamic practice without becoming too dogmatic with actual ritual elements. He is critical on several occasions of Muslims who may regularly pray or fast, but often commit other sins with the understanding that if the ritual elements are observed, other sins are inconsequential. In order to recapture the spirit of Islam, Dr. Ahmed exhorts Muslims to identify the true meaning of the ritual in order to realize its benefits. Dr. Ahmed also tends to accept allegorical meanings over literal ones. For example, in his chapter regarding the status of women, he argues that Muslims should take verse 4:34 (regarding men as the protectors and maintainers of women) allegorically ‘with the bottom line message being that the head of the household (whether husband or wife) should be the final decision maker?’ Dr. Ahmed readily encourages the reader to understand the Qur’ān in light of its underlying meaning. It is understandable why this approach is appealing; however, in addition to common sense, interpretation of the Qur’ān requires linguistic understanding. Dr. Ahmed wants Muslims to ponder the meaning of the Qur’ān and attempt to understand what it is trying to convey to us. No doubt the Qur’ān speaks to all Muslims regardless of intellect or cognitive ability, but its interpretation requires knowledge and skill. In fact, determining which verses are muhkamāt (definite) and mutashābihāt (analogous) is a process in itself. Furthermore, interpretation of the Qur’ān requires literary cognition of the Arabic language, and anyone who has this understanding will find a clear distinction between those verses that are literal and those that are allegorical. Dr. Ahmed’s analysis would benefit from engaging the Qur’ān at this particular level.

It is at times unclear who the intended audience of the book is. Dr. Ahmed explores the basics of Islam presumably for a western audience unfamiliar with the religion in general, but on several occasions he delves into complex debates in Islam regarding women’s rights, Ribā, the validity of Hadīth, the primacy of the Qur’ān and other topics that are geared towards Muslims more knowledgeable about their faith. I could see how the book may become confusing for non-Muslims and somewhat cumbersome in rudimentary detail for Muslims.

Overall the book raises several relevant topics related to Islam in the contemporary world and then presents arguments and questions provoking the reader to see different sides to the issue. Dr. Ahmed seems to be at his best when addressing current issues facing Muslims today including the Arab Israeli conflict and the aftermath of September 11th. In addition, he provides some insightful commentary in the final section – ‘Vision for the Future’. However, his analysis and commentary on several Qur’ānic verses and Hadīth criticism could be fortified through more established scholarship. At times, Dr. Ahmed’s common sense approach towards interpretation of sources and analysis of issues belies the need for all Muslims to engage the Qur’ān at both an intellectual and spiritual level while understanding their own limitations in interpreting its layers of meaning.


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