It provides a very wholesome perspective of Islam. It can help non-Muslims to clear their misconceptions and allay their misapprehensions.
It may appear ironic that non-Muslims have harnessed their scholarship to discover some of the unique features of Islam. Muslims owe a great debt to so many of these researchers and writers for unravelling amazing facets of Islam, its philosophy and its culture. Two of the greatest translators of the Qur’an, Muhammad Asad and Marmaduke Pickthall, were not native Muslims. Another great translator, A.J. Arberry, whose work has been acclaimed as the most universally brilliant, was an Englishman.
When we come to the cultural history of Islam, Philip Hitti, R.A. Nicholson and Stanley Lane Poole — who were all non-Muslims — have been beacons of the legacy of Islamic civilisation for English readers.
While there have been several biographical accounts of Prophet Muhammad, Martin Lings’ book remains the most outstanding work. He too was not a native Muslim.
Islamic literature in English is clearly dominated by non-Muslim intellectuals. Several of them are obviously biased, yet many of them are faithful.
I recently came across a wonderful introduction to Islam titled Islam Is Good: Muslims Should Follow It by Sanjiv Bhatla that compresses encyclopedic insights in a small volume. His study of the Prophet is primarily based on Martin Lings’ book. For the Quran’s interpretation, he relies on the translation by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and supplements it with that of Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
The author also delves into various Islamic scriptures. Most non-Muslims are unaware that Islam is more than the Quran. It includes a vast collection of words and deeds attributed to the Prophet by later authors. These compilations are sort of like the Gospels, and comprise the deeds and sayings of the Prophet. They are called hadith and sunnah. Muslim scholars fight over their authenticity to put a kindred ancient religion like Islam in perspective. Bhatla has stayed clear of this sensitive territory and has very judiciously selected those hadiths that are universally accepted as sound. There is a very enlightening discussion on Islamic thinkers, both classical as well as those of mystical schools or Sufis. The book provides a new lens to view Islam.
The underlying message of the book is that Islam is a very practical religion and that the life of the Prophet was proof of that. The author takes pains to repeatedly emphasise the principles of social justice, compassion, gender justice, kindness and non-violence, which form the bedrock of Islam as envisioned by the Qur’an and exemplified in the life of the Prophet. He appeals to Muslims to revive the Prophet’s traditions of peace, love, gentleness and compassion.
The author describes how the reforms that took place in the early years of Islam are clearly progressive, changing with the needs of the society. However, the more detailed rules that were laid out by the classical jurists allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue. The trajectory of reforms began at the time of the Prophet, but was halted in the medieval period through the further elaboration of fiqh (Islamic law), which was then selectively codified in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Prophet eschewed extremism and, contrary to general beliefs, emphasised moderation. His advice emanates from the Qur’an: “And God has not laid upon you any hardship in matters of religion” (Q22:78). The Qur’an further says: “God intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship.” (Q2:185) The Qur’an reinforces this message again: “God does not burden a soul beyond its capacity” (Q 2:286).
The theme of moderation has been the leitmotif in Islamic scriptures from the time of Prophet Muhammad. Muslim women and men are called upon to exercise moderation in all aspects of their religious life. The Prophet confirms the essence of Qur’an’s message: “Make things easy, do not make them difficult.”
The author dwells at length on gender welfare and justice, the two areas where rigid mindsets have made the rules and codes extremely harsh. The overall approach of the Qur’an is of mercy and compassion, and jurists seem rapped in a colonial mindset of not allowing the winds of modernity and liberal ideas touch them. In Islam, men and women are moral equals in God’s sight and are expected to fulfill the same duties of worship, prayer, faith, alms giving, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca. The triumph of Islam in the 17th century basically codified the position of women in its laws of spiritual and civic conduct. It banned female infanticide, limited polygamy to four wives, forbade sexual relations outside marriage and spelled out women’s rights in marriage and inheritance.
As the author rightly observes, the Qur’an is a coherent book where every verse is amplified by other verses. Thus, the Qur’an has to be read as a whole and the verses cannot be interpreted in isolation. There is an organic unity in the Qur’an and in interpreting individual verses we must be guided by compassion, mercy and justness which is the underlying philosophy of the scripture.
The author reminds Muslims of the extraordinary emphasis the Qur’an lays on reason and intellect. Islam’s scripture contains three times as many passages urging Muslims to think and rethink than verses promoting blind worship.
The author rightly alludes to the advice of the Prophet to his companion, Muadh ibn Jabal. Sometime after the Prophet had returned to Madinah, messengers of the kings of Yemen came to him announcing that they and the people of Yemen had become Muslims. They requested that some teachers should be with them to teach Islam to the people. For this task, the Prophet commissioned a group of competent du’at (missionaries) and made Muadh ibn Jabal their leader. He then put the following question to Muadh:
“According to what will you judge?”
“According to the Book of God,” replied Muadh.
“And if you find nothing therein?”
“According to the Sunnah of the Prophet of God.”
“And if you find nothing therein?”
“Then I will exert myself (exercise ijtihad) to form my own judgement.” The Prophet was pleased with this reply and said:
“Praise be to God who has guided the messenger of the Prophet to that which pleases the Prophet.”
The fact is that Islam does not need any reformation. It needs to be rediscovered. In the Muslim world, a new generation of Muslims are pushing the boundaries and combing through centuries of Islamic jurisprudence to highlight the more progressive aspects of their religion. In growing numbers, they are speaking out truths to self-appointed authorities, be they their parents or their imams. Books like this are reinforcing this new thinking.
I have been an avid reader of islamci literature for several years, but never came across such a fascinating book. It will delight students, teachers, imams and academicians alike, The author inspires, delights, educates and prods us to think and rethink. The book is an eye-opener, a must-read and re-read.
It provides a very wholesome perspective of Islam. It can help non-Muslims to clear their misconceptions and allay their misapprehensions. For Muslims, it will reinforce in their minds some of the fundamental truths of the Qur’an and its message an help them realign their focus.
Moin Qazi is a well-known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org