I once heard a wise man say: ‘You see what you want to
see’. It is in this light that I distinguish between the unalterable truth from
the oft faltering opinions. It is like the fable of the elephant and the blind
men. Each man trying to grasp the reality of the elephant, sees only the part
that is limited to him by his environment, prejudices and beliefs. As a
corollary then intellectual efforts in books should be carefully preened,
treating the exposition as one of the many possible in a parallel fashion. This
is why writing an introductory book in the social sciences can be quite
difficult if the objective be to draw the elephant rather than any of its parts.
A professor of mine once said that Orientalists mix the bad with the good, so
that gradually as one appreciates the honesty of the writer for depicting the
truth, one tends more or less to accept subconsciously his/her prejudiced
statements as well.
The book under review is entitled ‘Islam: A Concise
Introduction’ by an Orientalist Professor Neal Robinson. Hence a principal focus
of this review would be whether the book under scrutiny is free from the above
vice or not. One must also note that the review would be from the glasses of a
With the increase in frequency and intensity of
interaction between diverse people, each side has always felt a need to shatter
past ideas about the other. Such is true of the two rival groups differentiated
as Muslims and Christians. One can discern the trend in Western writers of
presenting Islam sympathetically in the person of Lapidus, Watt, Schimmel and
our book’s author, Dr. Robinson amongst many others. This trend has been
progressive from the Saracen days to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt to today’s
West with a sizable Muslim population.
We would not learn much by knowing that the author is a
senior lecturer at the University of Leeds or that he has written many books and
articles. Hence we will focus on what would be most beneficial to our
understanding of his book. As manifest in the book, Dr. Robinson’s interest
widely range from Qur’ānic studies, classical Tafsīr, rhetorical analysis of H~adīth
to Muslim-Christian relations, Islam in France and Ibn ‘Arabī. The shift from
the third to the first person, the subtle points made on the translations of the
Qur’ān and use of Islahi’s work speak of the author’s seriousness of the first
three areas. The historical trends outlined, the connections highlighted between
Muslim, Christian and Jewish practices, the comments made on the modern society
tell us about his in depth knowledge and grasp on the latter subjects and his
association with Muslims.
Dr. Robinson lists three reasons for writing this book: He
wants to discuss the problems raised by the Western perceptions of Islam,
provide a brief history of Islam and above all give a sympathetic description of
Islam as a faith. My only conjecture as to the underlying reason beneath all
this is that perhaps he wants to bridge the gap between two civilizations
through dedicated scholarship. The choice of the green cover and the fragment of
pattern perhaps seems to allude to this.
Given the purpose, one can observe that the book is
structured in a manner that first one is supposed to gain the perspective
through history, then one is introduced to the fundamentals of the faith before
the law schools and various sects are introduced. Hence one quality of the book
is that it sequentially introduces the subject to the non-Muslim or uninitiated
reader; first trying to shatter pre-conceived notions, then by drawing linkages
between the three principal religions and then bringing up the controversial
matters of law so exaggerated in the West.
One must however note that as the book is of introductory
nature much of it is descriptive. However, at many a place the author’s opinions
and speculation do show up making it an integrated whole. Following the author’s
structure, we can divide the book into three sections and deal with them
As observed above, the first section deals with the
development of perspective through history and more importantly with the
shattering of preconceived notions. It also deals with the current geo political
scene and events that have appalled the West thereby causing the
misrepresentation of Islam. Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia seem to be
the prominent sites for this. Having outlined the glaring stories of the past
centuries, the author then sheds light on Muslim history right from the
founder’s days through the glorious Ommayid, Abbasid and Ottoman dynasties,
carefully outlining the trends in history. The dissection of the whole era into
well defined periods focusing on rise, reform and decline of the Muslim Empire
makes it easier to put various movements in their right time. The use of the
chart on p. 32 makes the substance easier to digest.
However the significant portions in this section are those
that deal with the history of Oriental work and the problems in understanding
Islam especially so by the secularists. It is for reasons mentioned in these
sections that a small chapter is devoted to defining Islam and later on
distinction is made between Islam and Islamism. This section is the one that
principally deals with the presentation of Islam sympathetically. An important
point to note is the choice of words for instance on p. 17 instead of using the
commonplace ‘fled’, which many writers and encyclopaedias use, the word
‘emigrated’ has been used for the ‘Hijrah’. It must be noted that the interplay
of words can be very crucial in the subconscious absorption of any subject which
then forms part of our stance on the issue under consideration.
However the significant theme employed has been the
dissection between political and religious reasons throughout the history traced
by Islam. This is evident from his following words stated in bold:
---Islam did not extend solely by military conquest.
The main point remains that the rise and fall of the
dynasties or political edicts had more to do with politics and power rather than
religion and beliefs, which nonetheless were employed in the justification of
exploits but the primary cause was elsewhere. His theme becomes strong towards
the end when a distinction is made between Nationalism and Radicalism on the one
hand and Islam on the other. Differentiation is also attempted between various
Islamic groups including the governments which makes the reader sift clearly the
causes beneath the current Islamic fanaticism.
Another important point to note is the shift from writers
like Bernard Lewis, no matter how sympathetic they claim to be, but who bitterly
criticize the Jizya system being unfair and relate it to discrimination. One can
observe the opposite in this book:
-- tax known as Jizya -- proved remarkably successful in
promoting religious tolerance.
Moreover the distinction made of the ‘Tablīghī Jamā‘at’,
perhaps in the line of Barbara Metcalf, from the other movements, apart from
other observations made above, all seem to state that the author remains sincere
in his efforts in the objective description of Islam. However it is one thing to
provide a sympathetic description of history and altogether different to do the
same for the system of beliefs. For that would mean accreditation of religion in
the opposing force. This would take us to section II.
This part deals with the fundamentals of Islam that is One
God, the Book, the Prophet and the five pillars. The part on the Qur’ān deals
with various issues. Of interest to us are the sections of coherence and
translation, where one can notice the influence of the Islahi school of thought.
It would be interesting to note that the writer places Noldeke’s work and
Arberry’s translation above Egyptian scholars and Yousaf Ali’s rendering. He
does make a strong case especially for Arberry. Biased or not, his work appears
to have been sincerely concerted; however lack of knowledge can make the
Many would disagree on the part on the preservation of the
Qur’ān or the seven readings but it would be indeed marvellous to note how
careful a presentation of the Qur’ānic structure has been made. This can be
noted from his own words:
--- that the Qur’ān is a highly poetic book which seeks to
transform the human consciousness by opening up the reader’s horizons rather
than to confine him to a mental strait-jacket. p.67.
It is interesting to note that it is here that the author
shifts to using the first person ‘I’ indicating a sign of interest and
As far as I am concerned, whether or not these traditions
are reliable remains an open question.
This is indicative of doubt when one falls in the region
where one seems to have exhausted all reason and one’s subconscious takes on
Another interesting point raised, though not delved at any
length, is that of the applicability of the divine message for all times to
come. Dr. Robinson asks several questions and speculates much as well. However,
one should wonder how far can the same tools of analysis used in the social
sciences be applicable in matters of divine guidance.
We can also discern the strong association with Sufism
that is present in various pockets of the book. The mention of Ibn Ishāq,
Barelwi Litany and the evolution of Sufism all seem to indicate this. One must
note the use of words
-- Rabia of Basra, the celebrated woman mystic to whom we
owe the following beautiful prayer ---.
This supports our earlier observation that the choice of
words has been definitely such that exhibits a sympathetic attitude. The part on
the alleged moral failings of the Prophet (sws) also tells us that sufficient
points have been raised to view his character objectively as had already been
done by Watt and some others. However some basic points in the so called defence
are missed out for instance questions like: ‘How does one resolve the immense
kindness (pardon even to Hinda) with the massacre of the Banū Quraydah?’
Having dealt with God, his Book and his Prophet (sws), Dr.
Robinson neatly presents the pillars of Islam. The structure followed discussing
each pillar is uniform starting of with the description followed by origins and
purpose and finally the manifestation in the modern world. Interesting are his
use of etymological derivations which delineate the connections between Muslim,
Christian and Jewish practices. The theme outlined is that Muslim practices have
been borrowed and amended from the previous religions. My immediate response can
only be as follows: It is great to speculate and draw connections; however, one
must always bear it at the back of one’s mind that ‘association does not imply
causation’. This is true so in history when many events take place
simultaneously and the direction of the trend can be seen in different ways.
This ties up with what was said earlier ‘You see what you want to see’. Likewise
a Muslim can claim that the deviant practices were simply brought back to the
states of perfection through a gradual well defined process.
While discussing each pillar, the author assumes the
position of a social commentator as well depicting the current situation in the
modern Muslim world. Dr. Robinson does raise some questions which he feels
perturbed by in the form of comments. This is where this section is different in
the sympathetic part to the other two. If it is to be an introductory book then
either these opinions have no place in it or they be dealt properly with. This
might not leave a pleasant effect especially on the uninitiated audience. It
must be noted that no mention of the controversial subject ‘Jihād’ has been made
perhaps to maintain the sympathetic tempo of the book. However this tempo goes
away when prayers and even H~ajj are connected with battlefield practices and
the comment just inserted without any explanation. For instance Dr. Robinson
It is thus hard to escape the conclusion that discipline
in the mosque was originally intended to ensure discipline on the battlefield.
Content wise this section is distinct but there is not
much to say about it. Here Dr. Robinson principally deals with the description
of the four schools of thought and of Muslim sects in general. The use of chart
on p. 166 shows a simple and interesting picture of the formation of various
sects and empires. However, the most important rendering has been the section on
Islamic Punishments: ‘H~udūd’. It is here that a strong defence has been mounted
against Western perceptions of Islamic punishments being barbaric.
However, Dr. Robinson does err in the use of facts for
instance on p. 172 the founder of Ahmaddiya is described as an incarnation of
Krishna which is not true. Likewise, earlier in the history part, he describes
Tamerlane from one angle only:
Despite the fact that he was a Muslim, his barbarity
matched that of the pagan Chinggis.
The other aspect of Tamerlane’s patronizing of the arts is
totally neglected and hence once again the elephant is not seen in whole.
Nonetheless, the use of words in the above statement do show his sympathetic
attitude towards Islam. However as mentioned before lack of knowledge leads to a
Having read the book one can form two opinions of the
author. Either in the garb of sympathy on history and on controversial issues,
he cleverly and subtly attacks the foundations of Islam ie. the pillars (one has
already noticed the difference in style in section II), or on the other hand
perhaps he may not know the whole picture and hence his views are colored by the
little he knows.
However, on still closer examination, I find that his
choice of words, the use of pronouns, his acceptance of doubt in confusing
issues, the clear dissecting thoughts, the element of respect in the accent, the
use of ‘perhaps’ in speculation all seem to indicate that we can absolve him
from the former view point. Hence, he is not one of those who mix the good and
the bad. His interesting well concerted piece should tell Muslims about their
past in an objective light beyond romanticism and that how can Muslim practices
be seen linked with Christianity and Judaism, thereby leading to an atmosphere
of mutual tolerance. However, above all it tells modern Muslims that their
actions may not be in conformity to the true principles of Islam.
I have found the book a pleasure to read, illuminating the
mind and broadening the knowledge base. I strongly invite you to read it and
discover how outsiders can at times present a beautiful exposition on the
splendour and magnificence of Islam.