View Printable Version :: Email to a Friend
Islam: A Concise Introduction
Book Review
Junaid bin Jahangir


Book Name:  Islam: A Concise Introduction
Author:         Dr Neil Robinson
Pages:          196
Price:            15 pounds (UK)
Publisher:     The Curzon Press, Surrey, UK

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 Muslim reader.

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 accordingly.

Section I

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.1

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.2

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.

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 exposition prejudiced.

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.67.3

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 authority:

As far as I am concerned, whether or not these traditions are reliable remains an open question.4

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 from here.

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 ---.5

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 says:

It is thus hard to escape the conclusion that discipline in the mosque was originally intended to ensure discipline on the battlefield.6

Section III

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.7

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 biased reading.


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. 





1.. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 18

2. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 20

3. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 67

4. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 60

5. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 80

6. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 109

7. Neil Robinson, Islam: A Concise Introduction, 1st ed., (Surrey: Curzonpress, 1999), p. 33

For Questions on Islam, please use our

Replica Handbags Bottega Veneta fake Bvlgari fake Celine fake Christian Dior fake Gucci fake Gucci Bag fake Gucci Wallet fake Gucci Shoes fake Gucci Belt fake Hermes fake Loewe fake Louis Vuitton fake Louis Vuitton Belt fake Louis Vuitton Calf Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Azur Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Graphite Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Infini Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Quilt lamb fake Louis Vuitton Embossed Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton Epi fake Louis Vuitton Game On Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Jewellery fake Louis Vuitton Key Holder fake Louis Vuitton Mahina Leather fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Denim fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Eclipse Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Empreinte fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Seal fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Shadow fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Vernis fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Watercolor fake Louis Vuitton New Wave fake Louis Vuitton Shoes fake Louis Vuitton Since 1854 fake Louis Vuitton Strap fake Louis Vuitton Taiga Leahter fake Louis Vuitton Taurillon leather fake Louis Vuitton Transformed Game On canvas fake Louis Vuitton Utah Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton X Supreme fake Mulberry fake Prada fake YSL fake