Title: Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teaching and Muslims Practices with
Author: Saleem Ahmed, Ph. D
Publishers: Moving Pen Publishers, Inc.
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
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.