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ASPECTS OF ISLAM

by
02 November 2006

iStock

DLT £14.95 (0-232-52535-8); Church Times Bookshop £13.45

reviewed with

WHEN ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY MEET: Muslims in Europe and in the United States
Jocelyne Cesari
Palgrave Macmillan £25 (0-312-29401-8); Church Times Bookshop £22.50

TAKEN together, these two very different studies illuminate the diversity, predicaments, and controversies exercising contemporary Muslims, not least in the West. Geaves, a professor of religious studies at University College, Chester, offers a useful thematic study of how the various dimensions of contemporary Islam are understood today - the doctrine of God, the nature of the Prophet, Islamic law, the significance of the umma (world-wide Muslim community), Sufism, the status of women, martyrdom, jihad, and fundamentalism.

Much of the material is framed to capture the passionate, often sectarian, debates within Islam, as well as between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Thus the chapter on martyrdom is suggestively subtitled: "The Shi'a doctrine of suffering opposed to the Sunni doctrine of 'Manifest Success'".

Geaves's text serves as a useful entry point for undergraduate and general reader alike. Each chapter provides a readable summary of recent academic - largely non-Muslim - scholarship, enriched by Geaves's own specialist interests, umma and Sufism.

The book's focus is contemporary Islam, but its main weakness is that it reads rather like a view from nowhere in particular. This contrasts with Cesari' s clear focus on Western Europe and the United States.

Cesari is an Arabist and French political scientist who now lectures in Islam at the Harvard Divinity School. Her book is an innovative, comparative study of Muslim communities in the West, and the mutual transformations of Islam and Western societies.

Part 1 examines ways in which nationalism and secularism are being reconfigured through interaction with Muslim communities, while Islamic practice in the West is being individualised. Part 2 focuses on two distinct, imaginative re-appropriations of the umma in the West: one, defensive and reactive, which includes a theology of hate; the other, the production and consumption of Islam on the internet, which signals an acceptance of modernity.

Part 3 explores the crisis in religious authority, and the emergence of different sorts of religious leaders. This section also reviews the rethinking of Islamic thought that is beginning to occur in the West.  

A welcome feature of this study is that it is interwoven with a series of interviews with a wide range of Muslims, male and female. Many represent a new generation of young Western Muslim scholars who have a constituency in both Europe and the US. Readers who have followed the anguished debates in the British media post-7/7 will recognise at least two of these names: Professor Tariq Ramadan, who is based in Switzerland and is the charismatic grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, an American convert and exponent of an open and engaged form of Sufism.

Both studies concur in the importance of the media's often stereotyping and misrepresenting Muslim communities. Geaves rightly draws attention to ways in which Muslim communities respond in kind, drawing on a rich anti-Christian and anti-Western polemical tradition. Neither author makes allowances for improvements, at least over the past five years, in the UK: any reader of the British newspapers will have noticed significant new Muslim voices in the mainstream press, from the hijab-wearing Anila Beg in The Sun, and Burhan Wazir in The Times, to Ziauddin Sardar in the New Statesman.

Cesari is more at home with Islam in the Arab world; Greaves has a surer grasp of Islam in South Asia. Inevitably, Cesari has a greater understanding of France than of the UK. Too often, France provides - almost unconsciously - a template for Europe. Her comments on "secularism" in Europe are shaped by France 's laïcité rather than by England's Anglican establishment.

One of the great strengths of Ceasari's work, however, is her insistence that the uneven success of distinct Muslim communities in integrating in the West turns, in part, on the institutional space given to religion, methods of acquiring citizenship, and the degree of multicultural tolerance. This varies significantly across European countries. In this regard, she makes some fascinating comparisons between the US and Europe.

Most readers will gain from both these works a deepened sense of the travail of contemporary Islam. Cesari offers, in addition, a most useful review of rethinking within Western Islam, especially with regard to Islamic law as a minority, and the issues of human rights, secularism, gender, and apostasy. She observes, acutely, that "the democratisation of Islamic religious authority does not necessarily imply its liberalisation."

Disappointingly, neither work takes the measure of the importance and investment of the mainstream Churches in Christian-Muslim relations since Nostra Aetate. Surprisingly, Lloyd Ridgeon's edited volume Islamic Interpretations of Christianity does not appear in either bibliography. 

Dr Lewis is Inter-Faith Adviser to the Bishop of Bradford, and lecturer in Peace Studies at Bradford University.

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