Michael's Reviews > Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World

Islam Today by Akbar Ahmed
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's review
Oct 03, 2010

did not like it
Read in October, 2010

I was looking forward to this book as a potential good reference on Islam that would provide a good overview of its tenets, history, and challenges for today. Sadly, this book does not deliver.

My father gave me the book several years ago after he read it but I let it sit around. I thought it was time to read it. While it does provide some of the things I was looking for, it is too disjointed, too full of the writer’s wishes, opinion, anecdotal evidence, and simple unbacked assertions to be that good. There are very likely better books that would serve as good introductions to Islam.

I guess the author does provide warning. He tells you the book is based on a BBC series and that in the book, “we will travel to and fro in time and space…The book is not academic. I am not propounding and defending a thesis. It is not a chronological history…The book is impressionistic-part travelogue, part history.” I was warned.

Certainly early on and generally throughout the book, it reads more like an essay and potentially an homage to Islam. The author makes assertions without facts. He writes that Muslims revere the Koran and uses flowery language to describe how they honor it. How about some information and facts? He tries to defend Mohammed from critics that say he had many wives and therefore was a man of sensual pleasures and of the material world by telling the reader that the women Mohammed married were older widows who he was protecting. That may be a fact from the Koran. However, he then writes that Mohammed was revered and loved and if he really wanted to sleep with a lot of women, he could have because of his charisma and reputation. Is that a fact or just something one would like to think about a powerful person?

The book is a little too disorganized. For example, he writes about U.S.-Iranian situation through the lens of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the “Satanic Verses” and puts it into some context. He then veers off U.S.-Iranian relations and ends with the Iranians beating the Americans at the 1998 World Cup. It is just too haphazard and impressionistic.

Some good things about the book: He does a good job of explaining the differences between Sunnis and Shia (he is Sunni) and provides insight into the Shia’s vision of the world that provides the Western view of Islam. Apparently, Shia have more a sense of being aggrieved and oppressed and are more apt to follow a religious leader. So although ten percent of the world’s Muslims, the Shia’s fiery rhetoric and vivid demonstrations play more to the media and an image that can be grasped for a quick TV story than the picture that would be gained by those from Sunnis. He also does an adequate job of talking about past Muslim empires and rulers, giving a wider sense of the different types of Islam and Islamic countries and empires based on their local customs, geography, and culture.

His defense of Islam as not anti-woman does not stand up. He essentially says that Islam reveres and honors woman and that the Koran has passages that cite the important role they play and how they should be honored and respected. But he does not say that is how people act and he doesn’t quite let us know that the women may be important, but only in certain spheres. One silly example is the Friday prayers. Men must pray at a mosque and this is quite inconvenient, he writes. But to honor women, they can go to the mosque and pray in their own area or just stay home. None of the burden of going to the mosque! Ergo, Islam honors women! I’m unconvinced.

There are other examples like that. In the end, there are very likely other, better books on the subject. Seek them out (and let me know what they are so I can read a better one). Oh and one last item. The cover of my copy has a blurb that this was “Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year” by the LA Times. I guess I will never trust that as a source of quality books.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Susi (new)

Susi Hilma i think the cultural atlas of islam may deliver what you was looking for, michael.

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