You can’t judge a book by its cover. Nor, as this title shows us, should you judge a book by its size. This modest volume, less than a hundred pages long, provides food for thought not found in many of the long winded and opinionated tomes flooding the market the wake of September nth. It’s premise is simple, as reflected in its title. What does it mean to be a Muslim today, and what is the role of Islam in humanity’s restless search for the ideals of tolerance, peace and democratic reform?
The main body of the work is found in four chapters entitled, respectively: “Appreciating Others’ Traditions and Values”, “To Be a Muslim”, “The Implications of Islam for Civil Society and Democratization” and “Toward a Universal Ethic of Human Understanding”.
The first section may be seen as a gentle reminder that Islam has always emphasized tolerance and correct dealings with those of other faiths. With a great deal of interfaith work already behind him, Prince Hassan points out that only tolerance and mutual respectare hallmarks of traditional Islam and that today’s reactionary xenophobics have no place in the fold. Indeed, they are falling upon the ways of the so called enemy in their blind fury. With an argument compelling as it is contemporary, he reminds us of the human element that suffers most in the latest whirlwinds of violence sweeping the globe.
The book then moves onto to basic questions and answers about Islam likely to be posed by non-Muslims as well as converts. Given the size of the book, it might be wise to include this volume as part of a mosque or Islamic Center’s free library to be given to those seeking answers. Instead of falling back upon a new age dilettantism, it unflinchingly answers some of the more difficult questions often asked. For example, concerning the validity of previous revelations, there is no hesitation when saying – as Muslims – we believe that previous texts have been corrupted and are abrogated by the Final Revelation of the Holy Qur’an. Other issues raised include the rights of men and women, the concept of polygamy and the sectarian differences that have developed in what have come to be recognized as the seven schools of law.
If you take one thought from this text though, it should be the concept highlighted in the first section. There is a ill-conceived belief taking root in many Muslim communities that – in light of the so called fundamentalist threat – the way toward peace is the way of moderation. It’s a wonderful theory and extremely useful if you happen to be Daniel Pipes. It has no place for Muslims however, since moderation is always defined as a separation of church and state and an over- willingness to concede our own way of life to please a status quo. It is also a watered down Islam that lacks sufficient moral strength and rectitude to bring about significant social reform. It is only, as Prince Hassan says, by proceeding with vigor and certitude that our Islam can have the necessary moral weight in order to effect positive changes in our societies. It is meaningless to argue that Islam is a religion of Peace and Tolerance if its practitioners are only committed to those parts of the religion convenient in a highly westernized, increasingly globalized context. If Islam is to work as a socially constructive force, it must be owned up to by its practitioners.
The section on Democratization is a useful antedote for many of the misguided movements who insist on throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They often view democracy, in its American connotation, and respond with wholesale rejection. The are firstly unaware that the current state of American politics is more oligarchy than democracy, and secondly was always a main pillar of Islamic social engineering as viewed by traditional Muslims, i.e. the AhI al-Sunna wa’l Jama’a. It is a reminder to be taken seriously in view of the abundance of movements positing their own leader as a Caliph-in-waiting despite the views and opinions of the rest of the community.
In addition, there are two afterwards, which explore some of these things in further detail, including an essay by Daniel Boren on Islamic Democracy and another which calls into question the Clash of Cultures theory vis-à-vis the possibilities of pluralistic co-existence.
A timely, concise discussion of Islam today is sorely needed. With books such as this, it is comforting to know the need is being met.
Publishers wishing to send review copies of new titles should post them to:
Review Editor, Islamica Magazine, P.O. Box 910635, Jabal Webdeh, Amman 11191, Jordan