TO SAY THAT the West is becoming educated about Islam would no doubt be much too optimistic. But we are at last reaching a point where the educated English- speaking person who wants to acquire some general knowledge about Islam can do so with very little effort, and with some hope of doing more than merely reinforcing his or her prejudices and misconceptions.
The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 ended the phase in which Islam was simply ignored, and inaugurated the phase in which it was the subject of reckless generalization. Academic orientalists were dragged from their studies into the glare of television and ruthlessly interrogated. Was Islam essentially anti-western, or essentially anti-communist, or both? Was it compatible with democracy, with human rights, with minority rights, with women's rights? Was it reactionary or revolutionary? Was it incurably violent, intolerant, despotic, anti-rational? Those who attempted to answer these questions had usually not got beyond the first "if" or "but" before they vanished from the screen, to be replaced by more footage of mass demonstrations in Tehran or Afghan guerrillas preparing to cross the Khyber Pass.
This process was frustrating both for the more public- spirited academics, who felt they did have something to tell people about Islam if only they were given the chance, and for the more serious-minded journalists who became uncomfortably aware both of their own ignorance and of the need for more time and space to cover the subject properly than their regular medium could give them. It was also frustrating for non-specialists whose work happened to have brought them into contact with the Muslim world and who felt the Western public was getting a distorted impression of it.
The three books under review are the product of these converging frustrations. Donohue and Esposito are academics; Lippman is a journalist (a former Washington Post bureau chief for the Middle East), and Roberts an architect and businessman who has lived and worked in the Middle East. All three set themselves broadly similar objectives. Islam in Transition seeks to rescue Muslims from being judged "by those appearing at center stage," offering as a corrective a selection of writings by 53 modern Muslim thinkers from 11 different countries (27 from Egypt and the Arab world, eight from Iran and 18 from the Indian subcontinent). Lippman hopes to spare others "the burden of misconceptions and misinformation that weighed upon me when I first arrived in the Middle East." Roberts aims to set out clearly "the beliefs, attitudes and customs of Islam in a way that is readily understandable to the western reader but is not viewed through a veil of Christian values"; even "to try to see Islam as it sees itself."
That last formulation of the objective strikes me as overambitious. Certainly we should try to see Islam as it is, but unless we are to abandon our western culture and become Muslims we are bound to see it with western eyes and to judge it in the light of our own western values. Even if we did become Muslims, we should be deluding ourselves if we supposed that thereby we automatically could "see Islam as it sees itself." For clearly, among the 800 million or so Muslims on this planet, there are many different ways of seeing Islam. To speak of Islam as if it were a single person with a single view of itself and of the world is really an instance of the pathetic fallacy--one of those very misconceptions from which Roberts has perhaps not wholly freed himself.
His book, however, should not be judged by that one phrase. It is, in the main, a praiseworthy product: unassuming, clearly expressed and set out, it provides in less than 200 pages a great deal of useful factual information about the basic teachings of Islam and about Islamic law and custom, at least as they are to be found in the Arab world. (The Arabs are said in the introduction to represent "no more than a third of all Muslims." By most reckonings even this is a gross overestimate; yet the Arabs all but monopolize the authors' attention elsewhere in the text.)
The most serious faults in Roberts' work are its lack of both glossary and index, which diminishes its value as a work of reference, and its rather dry style which, combined with a painfully small typeface, makes it difficult to read straight through. As the general introduction which both books purport to be, Lippman's, at little more than one third the other's price, is undoubtedly better value. Indeed, I found Understanding Islam thoroughly enjoyable to read and very difficult to criticize. It is, I believe, a credit to Lippman's profession (which happens to be my own). I agree wholeheartedly with his finding that "there is no one way to think about Moslems, no response that is always appropriate, no generalization about what Moslems do or how they react that is always applicable," and I admire the felicity of his style. I particularly like his summary of the reasons for Islam's continued strength and expansion in the present age: "Islam offers solace in a world of injustice, continuity in a world of upheaval, brotherhood in a world of strife, and free expression in a world of oppression."
The only faults I found worth mentioning in Lippman's book were a somewhat sketchy treatment of Sufism, an unduly dismissive account of the Muslim brotherhood, and the lack of any discussion of modern Islamic political thought.
The reader might perhaps seek to remedy this omission by looking at the Donohue-Esposito anthology, but he would probably find this heavy going without further help. The book is obviously intended for use in university courses rather than for the general reader and, although all the best-known Muslim thinkers of the last 100 years are represented, there is not nearly enough in the way of introduction or commentary to enable the reader to set the texts in their context. Even the nationality of the authors is often implied rather than stated, and many of the references are to earlier anthologies rather than to the precise place and date of the text's original appearance. In short, this would be an excellent companion volume to a history of modern Muslim political thought, but standing by itself it looks distinctly lame.