Islam in the Modern World

  • Published

Islam in the Modern World edited by Jeffrey T. Kenny and Ebrahim Moosa. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2014. 460 pp.


Two distinguished scholars in Islamic studies, Jeffrey Kenny (professor of Religious Studies at DePauw University) and Ebrahim Moosa (professor of Religion and Islamic Studies at Duke University), collaborated to produce one of the most comprehensive and poignant textbooks on the contemporary issues of Islam with the help of leading academics in the field of comparative world religions. The editors organized this anthology of incisive essays around three general categories that lend both coherence and thematic unity to important topics that prove informative and relevant. Under the category of “traditions and transformations,” scholars explore the motifs of scriptural hermeneutics, ethical decision-making, the relationship between Islam and political governance, to name only a few. Next, academics under the category of “themes and trends” examine the role of women and gender, the influence of social media especially in the Arab Spring of 2011, the cause and effect of militant movements, and more. Additionally, professors conclude the collection of essays with “case studies of tradition and change” that investigate the dynamics at work in a number of practical applications that range from the rise of Islamic advocacy organizations to the phenomenon of media preachers on the internet. The authors of this compendium have made noteworthy contributions in the area of religion, ethics, and international affairs that deserve our careful attention and promise to challenge our preconceived notions about Islam.

First, readers profit from the credible information provided by world-class academics about the history and the identity of Islam. As one of the leading world religions, Islam claims over 1.6 billion followers, comprising one fourth of the planet’s population. Not only is Islam decisive for followers, but also the second largest world religion is significant for our understanding when it comes to international trade, human rights, and political win-wins in a day of increasing global interdependence. Typically, Islam is portrayed by the media as a monolithic whole against the rest of the world, and yet that presentation belies the genuine tension between three constitutive groups: Sunnis, Shias, and Sufis. Scholars help readers to understand the complexities of Islamic theology and the internal debate by Ulama (scholars) over the proper interpretations of the Quran (sacred text), Sunna (tradition), Hadiths (sermonic applications of the Quran), and Sharia (moral laws). Instead of discovering one primary tradition for Islam, readers find a number of competing traditions and values that make up the religion of Islam. A broadened knowledge of Islam from a fresh perspective of informed writers can only enhance mutual understanding and help resolve international crises that are exacerbated by ignorance, stereotype, and caricature reinforced in the tabloid media.

Second, academics refute the distortions of headlines which reduce all of Islam to extremist minorities and jihadist plots. A meticulous study shows how Islam from the Middle Ages has enriched humanity through the philosophical, theological, and scientific works of Avicenna, Averroes, Ghazali, Alhazen, and many more. These Islamic scholars helped to recover the works of Aristotle and Plato in reclaiming the principal documents of Classical Antiquity. Their breakthroughs dramatically altered Medieval Christianity through the scholastic writings of Aquinas and the emergence of the Renaissance in Europe. Relatively contemporary Islamic thinkers like Chakralawi, Sidqui, Rayya and others esteem the importance of reason and the application of Quranic premises to the problems of modernity. Contesting the branding of Islam as backward, these forward thinkers not only display exceptional scholarship, but they also point out that the West’s formulation of modernity is deeply influenced by biases of its own making and history that do not necessarily further the desired development of Islamic states. The secularization of the West as demonstrated in the Enlightenment has caused many Muslims to question the validity of Western modernization—and also caused leading Western theorists to re-evaluate some of the rationalistic and individualistic presuppositions of the Enlightenment.

Islam in the Modern World furnishes valuable insights worthy of our analysis, advocating iconoclastic concepts, not the least of which is the assertion that while Islam is an irreducible influence in numerous countries, Islam alone cannot account for the variations in wide-ranging political systems from the monarchy in Saudi Arabia to the liberal democracy in Tunisia, which in part depend on distinct geopolitical histories. An analysis of this compelling textbook invites not only a dialog of agreement and appreciation, but also questions and critical input as well. The first constructive critique is stylistic. Though each article incorporates immediate definitions of Islamic terminology in the text, it would be helpful to integrate in the textbook a glossary of common Islamic vocabulary and definitions for easy access. The second concern is more substantive in scope. Several authors warn that political establishments and media in the West suffer from an unquestioning Islamophobia, and consequently this textbook seeks to dismantle a political confluence of bigotry and prejudice that are blind to the positive contributions of Islam. Yet readers must decide whether some essays reflect an Islamophilia that minimizes the self-critical assessments of the Muslim community, such as overlooking the neutrality if not the complicity of some Islamic states in supporting or refusing to prosecute terrorists within their own borders. If more within the West and Islam would read and apply the overall balanced approach of Islam in the Modern World, the twenty-first century would enjoy the synergy that once depicted the golden age of tolerance in Medieval Spain where mutual acceptance and learning marked an era of peace and a paradigm of hope for modernity today. Though detractors write off the golden age of tolerance in Spain as mere legend, the ideal, whether fact or fiction, inspires a noble goal of global harmony and common respect, which behooves all who cherish peace to pursue it.

Lt Cmdr Edward Erwin, USN

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."