Islam by Alfred Guillame
London; Pelican, 1956 (rev. Ed.)
Despite the fact this book is nearly 60 years old, it is still a good introduction to the world of Islam for the novice. I write world of Islam, because Guillame does not really set out to describe the religious practices of Muslims, but rather to describe how Islam came to be historically, and how it has developed over time.
The first three chapters descibe in turn "The historical background", "Muhammad", and "The Koran". Guillame writes well, and for the un-initiated he gives a good background to the world Muhammad lived in, and how he must certainly have come into contact with Jews and Christians and absorbed their beliefs before his revelation. Guillame is skilful in pointing out that many of the verses in the Koran relate to specific times in Muhammed's struggle to build up and protect his followers, something which has caused problems as history flowed on. He goes into some detail into the creation of the hadith and the sharia, and how the Muslim world has struggled to deal with the contradictions inherent in the accretion of laws over time.
Unlike most Christian societies, who have disassociated their secular laws from their religion, many Muslims still struggle to reconcile the Koran to their daily lives, which causes tension, and requires the constant interpretation of the Koran by experts. Guillame talks about the four schools, which all interpret the Koran and the Hadith in different ways. he goes into a little detail of some of the major sects, as he calls them, including enumerating the main differences between the Sunni and the Shia. Muslim philosophy is also touched on in the book, with brief descriptions of the main problems and issues that have been discussed over the centuries, including the paradox of an eternal God creating an Earth which exists in time.
Of course no book written by a Westerner on the subject of Islam can avoid the mystic side of the religion, and Guillame is no different, with a brief but informative chapter on Islamic mysticism, which points out that the mystic path gathered followers who were not happy with the current state of Islamic thought, and expressed their religion by trying to become one with God. This is a path that can be dangerous, as more than one person who has taken the mystic path has been accused of heresy and met a sticky end.
In some ways the most interesting chapter is the last, entitled "Islam today". Guillame takes us on an overview of the Islamic world as it was in the fifties, and finds countries trying hard to reconcile their faith with the modern world, and employing all kinds of methods to do so, including finding the most lenient interpretations of law, and even re-interpreting some verses of the Koran. At that time he didn't see any major move to re-interpret the Muslim Holy Book as anything other than the word of God, as Christians have done with the Bible, but he thought that might not be too far away. He mentions on a few occasions in the book the influence of the Hanbalites, a very conservative sect that is the source of inspiration for the Wahhabis. In one of those statements that is interesting in hindsight, he writes "For centuries his school has been diminishing, but it has gained a new lease of life today in the Wahhabi kingdom." Indeed.
For the Christian Westerner who knows little of Islam, apart from what appears in the papers, this book is a useful one; even it's antiquity is helpful, as it describes Islam before it was tainted by the ugly deed of Bin-Laden and his ilk. I will close this review with a quotation from the last paragraph of the book, which is a valid now as when it was written in the 'fifties:
"The history of Islam has shown that it has extraordinary powers of adaptation: it has succeeded in absorbing apparently incompatible philosophies, and mutually contradictory religious conceptions, and it has silently abandoned others which it has tried and found wanting. Its one danger is that the old forces of reaction will be too strong for the new spirit of liberalism, armed as they are with shibboleths and anathemas which can rouse the ignorant masses and terrorize men of vision. Only time can show which party will gain the upper hand."
Islam has been reprinted many times over the years, so try your local Library or second-hand bookshop for a copy.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell