Volume 3 Number 2
Realistic Look at Islam's Role
01 February 1990

Reviewed by Charis Waddy, author of `The Muslim Mind'.

Discovering Islam: Making Sense o f Muslim History and Society
by Akbar S Ahmed Routledge

Reviewed by Charis Waddy, author of `The Muslim Mind'. Dr Waddy has just been awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan.

In this impassioned and timely book, one of Pakistan's leading scholars makes a plea for a new era of greater understanding and cooperation as new situations open up in the 1990s. Akbar Ahmed is currently Iqbal Fellow and Visiting Professor in Selwyn College, Cambridge.

For the first 1,200 of the 1,400 years of the history of Islam, Muslims and Western Christians lived alongside each other in more or less separate worlds. Islam often appeared the stronger, the richer, the more learned. Despite bloodthirsty pages on both sides of the record, on the whole there was a certain give-and-take to which Western civilization owes much.

During the last 200 years, says Dr Ahmed, a different chapter has been written. The take-off of Western capitalism issued in a colonialism which brought almost the entire Muslim world under alien domination. In the 20th century the political yoke has been thrown off - at a cost. Millions are left impoverished, short of the resources - spiritual, physical, educational - needed to start a new era. This book helps us to see the colonial era through Muslim eyes, and this is perhaps a necessary preliminary to finding new ways forward together.

On the threshold of the 21st century, what can Islamic civilization contribute? Two scenarios for future Muslim-Western encounters are put forward. Islam might withdraw into intself and intensify the division of the world into prosperous and impoverished peoples. Or it might step into the mainstream of the development of a truly world-wide civilization, and find its role in providing `a balance and a check to the materialism that characterizes much of contemporary civilization, offering instead compassion, piety and a sense of humility'. The values stressed by Islam, Dr Ahmed continues, `underline the moral content of human existence, they suggest security and stability in family life, in marriage and in the care for the aged'. He recognizes that similar care and compassion in human relations are found in Western societies.

It is urgent to encourage those from both sides who can build bridges between the two civilizations, and to ensure them a hearing.

Discovering Islam is an honest book. The problems in the Muslim world of drugs, child abuse, tribal customs restricting women, incompetence and exploitation are not fudged. Such things are only too familiar in societies world-wide, and Dr Ahmed's realism helps his case for honest cooperation in tackling difficulties we all face.

Dr Ahmed sees the ebb and flow of Muslim history as the search to put into practice the basic ideals imparted through the Prophet. His aim is not to reconstruct the past, but to serve the present. The ideals of justice and mercy, the models of leaders who selflessly serve their people: these endure through the centuries, unblemished if imperfectly achieved. They are undoubtedly durable: the question is, can they contribute to shaping that one world towards which we are heading?

This would require a new openness in the West to what others say, an appreciation of what they respect. Discovering Islam can help us Christians in this regard, for it gives not theory but authentic voices from across the Muslim world today and in its history. Dr Ahmed writes of the influence of the Prophet Mohammed, his gentleness, his wisdom. We are taken to the wind-swept hilltop of Hira, where the first of the Prophet's experiences of God's revelation took place; an event so shaking that it still reverberates in the experience of millions today. We see the nature of Islamic struggle through its scholars and its Sufis. We suffer the trauma' of Indo-Pakistan Partition in 1947 through the hardships of the author's own family. There are unexpected insights such as the Shi'ite tradition of respect for women, rooted in special reverence for the Prophet's daughter Fatima. If we find ourselves shedding one stereotype after another, it is a measure of our need to do so.

On the Muslim side, there is cause for rethinking about the role of minorities. Traditionally, this has been met either by a struggle to prevail - or by departure. Today about one third of the billion Muslims live outside Muslim rule. Fresh thought is vitally needed on the contribution of such key communities as the 100 million Muslims in India, and the many in China and the USSR.

In comparison, the numbers in Europe are tiny. Their experience and adjustment could, however, play a vital role in developing the contribution of the whole Muslim world to the future. Seen in this light, books like Dr Ahmed's take on a global significance.

Britain needs the skills of its two million Muslims, including those who are training at school or college today. It is shortsighted to treat them as part of an `inner city' problem. Are they to enter society with chips on their shoulders, having suffered the chilling rejection that met Dr Ahmed himself as he read amongst graffiti in the London Underground: `Kill a Muslim for Christmas'? Or and encouragement?

Fortunately, Dr Ahmed has a sense of humour- `the hallmark', as he says, `of confidence in an individual or a society'. We in the West need tolerant and generous friends like him, who take us as we are and believe that people of both traditions can find better ways to enjoy our differences and work together for a common future.

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