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Review: 'A Brief Guide to Islam' by Paul Grieve

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  • Review: 'A Brief Guide to Islam' by Paul Grieve

    Differences and conflicts make for sensational headlines, but 'A Brief Guide to Islam' starts with the similarities between the major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Only then can the differences be understood. By exploring the beliefs, history and politics of the ordinary people of Muslim countries, Paul Grieve offers a fully comprehensive survey that combines authoritative analysis with carefully chosen primary sources. The result is a user-friendly book that challenges cliché and stereotype in areas such as art, women, banking, war, Malcolm X, and the dos and don'ts of visiting a Muslim country. It also exposes the big issues behind the headlines: can Islam support true democracy? Is true democracy what the West really wants for the Middle East, or are we merely seeking a cover of legitimacy for a policy of 'might is right'?

    Paul Grieve is an unbeliever; he is not a born-again Muslim, a proselytizer or a frustrated desert romantic. His aim is simply to inform. This is the ideal summary for the reader looking for a broad overview of the political and religious contentions that are part of our everyday lives.

    Grieve, a London-based writer and self-styled student and traveler of the Islamic world, puts forward a riveting book on Islam that decries and then corrects the widespread ignorance about the faith and its history. He consistently jolts the reader out of preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims, particularly concerning the Palestinian conflict. Grieve's precise insights into the Muslim worlds, past and present, are astonishingly accurate. He provides the real and surprising backstory on everything from the Crusades and colonialism to Muslim immigration to Europe and women under Islam. He also provides succinct introductory information on Islam, including recommending Qur'an translations and reviewing standard prayer techniques. Of the harsh reputation Islam has received in the West, Grieve writes: "The universal message of Christianity would be similarly diminished... if the faith were to be defined only by reference to sectarian murders in Northern Ireland, the history of the Spanish Inquisition, or the sad stories of lust and greed in modern television evangelism." His book is by no means an ode of praise to Islam; he is properly critical of the marginalization of women in Muslim societies, which he argues will hold the Muslim world back. If you read only one book about Islam this year, this should be it:

    'A Brief Guide to Islam'

  • #2
    Dmitry Shlapentokh:

    A Brief Guide to Islam by Paul Grieve:

    The continuous war in Iraq and ongoing terrorist activities have made Islam quite a popular subject. Lay people are studying the mysterious Muslim religion with the same enthusiasm as, generations ago, those in the West engaged in deciphering the intricacies of Marxism and dabbled in the mystery and profoundness - as thought at that time - of Russian culture. It is not accidental that there has been a profusion of books on Islam. Still, A Brief Guide to Islam stands out.

    The problem with many books that have tried to introduce readers to Islam is that the authors assume most readers have extensive knowledge of the subject. The writers have also had a sort of spontaneous desire to demonstrate their knowledge, and the readers get lost in details. This book is free of these problems. Written in a crisp, accessible style, it covers all the important aspects of Islam without over-burdening the text with details that could confuse non-specialists.

    At the very beginning of the book, the reader finds a short description of the major tenets of Islam. This is followed by the history of Islam, starting with the Ummayads, Abbasids, and Fatimids. The late medieval and modern history of Islam is incorporated in the history of the Ottoman Empire. The last and most interesting part of the book deals with the recent and present role of Islam and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

    Besides the narrative, there is a glossary of important names and terminology that includes short descriptions of aspects author Paul Grieve regards as important. Here Grieve tries to be as comprehensive as possible. The names, for example, include an array of personalities from Mohammed's numerous wives to radical fundamentalist philosophers/politicians.

    A book aimed at providing a description of Islam from the beginning of its history to the present day cannot be totally comprehensive. One also cannot expect extensive theoretical elaboration. Still, since the author has engaged not in a description of the past and present but in speculation about the future, one could expect some more theoretical flesh to the factual bones.

    In the last part of the book, the author elaborates on the future of Islam, predicting that it will change the nature of Europe. He argues that European countries will not be able to sustain their present economic position unless they accept an increasing number of immigrants. In the view of the European public and elite, Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds are hardly the best choice. A major reason is that Muslims have little desire to be assimilated. In France, for example, they have engaged in violent riots. Germany still grants citizenship mostly on the grounds of race; one needs to be an ethnic German to ensure smooth naturalization. In addition, Muslim minorities, mostly Turks, face social rejection because of their unwillingness to "be German", to embrace European culture in general.

    The author attributes these problems of assimilation to the increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe. This is one reason, but possibly not the major one. History knows many cases where newcomers, even those who come in large numbers, have absorbed the culture of the dominant elite. Indeed, throughout most of modern European history, non-Europeans, including Muslims, have been eager to accept European Western culture. They marveled at Western productivity, military power, and rule of law.

    But by the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the situation had changed. Non-European societies, Japan and later China, South Korea and other "Asiatic tigers", have spelled the end of Western, mostly American, efficiency, as Western nations' internal markets have become increasingly battered, with their financial/economic existence depending more and more on loans, mostly from Asian treasuries. The United States, the very embodiment of the West, is no longer a lender but a major debtor.

    The military power of the West was shattered by Vietnam and continues to be so in Afghanistan and Iraq. Paradoxically enough, the defeat of the USSR was not so much a defeat of the enemy of the West as a self-inflicted wound for Russia, which ethnically and culturally has more in common with the West than the East.

    Finally, life in the West, and the West's foreign policy, particularly that of the US, has caused Asians, Muslims included, to question the assumption that the West has played according to its own rules. Muslims who emigrate to the West often find that external politeness and broad smiles conceal an absolute disregard for others, the complete atomization of the person on his own in the Darwinistic struggle for survival. And it is not surprising that quite a few Muslims who enter the West see no reason for being assimilated. They assume that it is not they who should be guided by the West but they who should guide the West.

    Europe will accept increasing numbers of Muslims in the same way that the US will accept increasing numbers of Latinos. And the influence of non-European groups - Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds and Chinese people - will be more and more visible in Russia. Regardless of whether the Europeans and Americans like it, the world in this century will be profoundly changed by Asians, including those with Muslim backgrounds. And for this reason, this book will be of great use for a long time for those interested in Muslims past and present.

    A primer for a transforming West


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