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Book Review
Razi Ullah Lone


Islam: (A Book)

Author: Alfred Guillaume

Publishers: Penguin Books, Edinburgh, 1954

pages: 206


Alfred Guillaume, the learned translator of Sīrah Ibn Ishāq, one of the oldest known biographies of the Holy Prophet (sws), is the author of the book under review. The book is written specifically for western readers without delving into the intricacies of the issues that the great religion encompasses. In this sense, it is an admirable endeavor to introduce the western reader to the essential background of the emergence of Islam and to the initiation of modern reforms in some Muslim states.

The writer begins with a brief but concise and cogent historical background of Arabia discussing the major religions to which the people of those days adhered. He then goes on to give a brief objective account of the Prophet’s life drawn from his biography. His assertion is that the ‘hagiological legends’, as he calls them, have no historical backing and the Prophet (sws) himself expressly disclaimed any miraculous powers. How far this assertion is correct is a matter of argument; the point, however, is that the writer, even after ignoring the ‘legendary claims’, holds that the Prophet (sws) stands out as one of the great figures of history. He lauds his tenacity and amazing ability of winning men’s hearts by persuasion. He gives more credence to those traditions that go far to explain, when taken with his generosity and kindness, why men loved him.

In the chapter regarding the Holy Qur’ān, the writer elucidates the process of collection of the Qur’ān and in a feeble manner criticises the Islamic doctrine of the infallibility of the Qur’ān. He presents some Ahādīth on the authority of early Arab writers, which, if accepted, jeopardises the belief that the Qur’ān is an unalterable reproduction of the words of the Prophet (sws). But with that he acknowledges that the Qur’ān is one of the world’s classics with a cadence that charms the ear. He affirms that the language is so eloquent and the choice of epithets so exquisite and felicitous that within the literature of the Arabs, wide and fecund as it is both in poetry and in prose, there is nothing to compare with it. He then gives an account of the teachings of Islam as enshrined in the Qur’ān and in the briefest possible terms, the moral basis of Islam.

Highlighting the major parts of the historical Islamic Empire, the book discusses the apostolic tradition (Hadīth) and the elevated four schools of Islamic thought. This chapter raises some thought provoking questions and one has to commend the analytical ability of the writer. While discussing the principles of criticism in the collection of the Hadīth literature, he, after appreciating the collectors’ efforts, writes:

Unfortunately they directed their attention not so much towards the probability of the tradition, or to current practice based on precedent demonstrably early, as to the character of the reporters and the circumstances of their lives. (Islam, Alfred Guillaume, 1st ed., [Edinburgh: Penguin Books Ltd), p. 90]

He traces the reasons of splitting up of the Muslims into various sects and their main differences. A pertinent discussion is on the philosophy and the genesis of the creeds, and in this regard Ghazālī’s revival of religious sciences is well quoted. The writer has all the praise for mysticism and asceticism and he speaks highly of Sufis and their remarkable powers. He considers it a sublime subject and extols its virtues mentioning the honour Islam has of having the richest and most variegated literature on it.

In the end, he is critical of the orthodox beliefs, and favours the scholars with a progressive and rationalistic approach. He gives a very enlightening over view of the ideas of some scholars vis-à-vis Hadīth and raises some questions worthy of contemplation. He also traces the modern reforms that have taken place in some Muslim countries and envisages a favourable outcome.

Almost fifty years have elapsed since the book was written. Many views of the writer are debatable and some have not been able to stand the test of time. Continuous and dedicated research has established certain facts and discredited others beyond doubt. The task of separating the sacred from the profane is a mammoth one, and only the prejudiced can deny that Islam has produced, and still produces, men of the highest character and integrity. These are the people who have undertaken this task and it is hoped that those who have failed to remain true to their obligations, which the Almighty enjoins, will soon realize their laxness. The book is a good source of introduction to Islam but in order to do justice to the great religion, several issues need to be explored more deeply. To be more eloquent, I would quote his own words of wisdom:

Nothing can be more misleading than a number of general statements based on imperfect and incomplete knowledge, and no man living has a thorough acquaintance with the millions of Muslims in Asia and Africa, to say nothing of scattered communities elsewhere, so that he can make authoritative pronouncements on Islam as a whole. (Islam, Alfred Guillaume, 1st ed., [Edinburgh: Penguin Books Ltd), p. 153]




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