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Book Review

A useful popular introduction to the history of Islam

Zawahir Siddique

The Rough Guide History of Islam by Justin Wintle. Pub: Rough Guides Ltd, London (www.roughguides.com), May 2003. Pp: 544. Pbk: US$12.95,/ UK£7.99.

During the last three decades, the Muslim world has undergone tremendous transformation, both spiritually and politically. Political and socio-economic conditions in the ‘third world’ provided an ideal breeding-ground for the rapid spread of this process.

In Afghanistan, the ‘communist’ superpower was pushed out ten years after the Shah’s regime in Iran was drowned in the blood of shuhada. In Algeria the electoral victory of FIS showed the world the ‘paradox of democracy’. Even in Turkey (the showcase of ‘successful transition’ from Islam to modern secularism), outward appearances are belied by the latent power of Islam, repressed since Mustafa Kemal’s time. In the Middle East, West Africa, South East and Central Asia, and even in Europe (through Bosnia and Kosova), the ‘newly born’ ideological contender (read political Islam) remains a force to be reckoned with.

Islam captured the attention of the West, and suddenly became a vital topic of research. Michael H. Hart’s The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History , Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and John Esposito’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World can all be found in Muslim libraries, and are being quoted by Muslim speakers, everywhere. The events of September 2001 in the US became a launch-pad for many new titles on Islam. While the ‘coalition forces’ dropped bombs and food packets in Afghanistan, a flood of orientalist works poured into bookstores and libraries. Some authors even made their debut with glossy books on Islam with sky-scraping prices; perhaps Muslims are supposed to regard this as another form of ‘collateral damage’.

To be fair on these glossy, handy books, it must be admitted that some of them are informative and useful. Justin Wintle’s History of Islam, from the ‘Rough Guide’ series, is a valuable contribution. Interestingly, the other books in the ‘Rough Guide History’ series are on Spain, England, Egypt, France, Greece, USA, Ireland, Italy and India. Even the marketing caption of the publications reads: "Essential pocket histories for anyone interested in getting under the skin of a country". Justin Wintle’s History of Islam is the first book in the series that is not about a country or territory. The bottom line is that books on Islam sell.

Justin Wintle narrates 1,432 years of Muslim history in 544 pages, beginning with the birth of the Prophet (saw). Historical events from 570 to 2002 AD are arranged chronologically in eleven chapters. There are also nine maps of the Muslim world at various times, 44 pictorial illustrations and 118 boxes with colour-background highlighting quotations, potted biographies and events, make the book a pleasant read. A user-friendly index, glossary and bibliography also add further value.

Every chapter begins with an introduction and then gives events, which are arranged chronologically. The first chapter, ‘Muhammad (570-632)’, is a brief biography of the last Prophet of Islam. Events from the succession of Abu Bakr in 632 to the demise of Ali in 661 AD comprise the second chapter, ‘The Rashidun (632-661)’. The third chapter is titled ‘The Ummayads (632-750)’, spanning Muslim history from Mu’awiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan (632) to Marwan II in (750). The fourth chapter, ‘The Abbasid Period (750-1258)’, is subdivided into ‘The Early Abbasids’, ‘The Middle Abbasids ‘and ‘The Later Abbasids’. The next three chapters are ‘From the Sack of Baghdad to the Fall of Constantinople (1258-1453)’, followed by ‘From the Fall of Constantinople to the Siege of Vienna (1453-1683)’. Chapter 7, ‘From the Siege of Vienna to the Battle of the Nile (1683-1798)’, ends with a comment on Napoleon’s fleet being destroyed by the British.

Imam Shamil’s jihad movement in Dagestan, the Mahdi revolt in Sudan and Jamal ad-Din Afghani’s efforts to inspire Islamic revival in the twentieth century are described in the eighth chapter, ‘Islam and the Great Powers (1799-1918)’. The break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent demise of the Caliphate, the contributions of Muhammad Iqbal in the Indian subcontinent, Sayyid Qutb in the Arab world and Malcolm X in the US are the substance of the ninth chapter, ‘From World War I to the Six Day war (1918-1967)’. Chapter 10, ‘The Resurgence of Islam (1968-1989)’, highlights the contributions of Sayyid Qutb, Abu al-Ala Maudoodi, Ayatullah Khomeini, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and their like to Muslim political thought.

Maudoodi was probably one of the first to float the idea of Islamic Revolution. Sayyid Qutb became the first major thinker to infuse more vigor to the idea, and add a global dimension to Muslim political thought. Imam Khomeini completed the process by achieving the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. That magnificent achievement shook the entire world, brought an Islamic government into power, and catapulted revolutionary Islam onto the global stage. Islam as a political force is no longer a fashion or a fad. This source of fresh hope not only provides a moral shield against the onslaught of western ‘anti-values’ but also acts as an anchor for individuals and societies caught in the tempest of uncertainty, relativism and identity crisis.

Victory for Muslims, therefore, comes when their mindset and conviction are tuned to the revolutionary spirit of Islam. In Afghanistan we saw the determination of the mujahideen to overthrow the supposedly mighty Soviet army and drive it back. It was an excellent demonstration of armed jihad. In Iran we saw a superb demonstration of unarmed jihad: under the charismatic leadership of Imam Khomeini, one of the West’s strongest puppet regimes was drowned in the blood of the shuhada. And what we see daily in Palestine is an embodiment of uncompromising resistance. The economic and military might of the zionist usurpers is being neutralized by the martyrs of Islam. As Ali Shari’ati said, "Shahadah is the only weapon that triumphs in any battle field of truth and falsehood". This book, even highlights a quotation of Imam Khomeini: "Islam is the religion of militant individuals who are committed to Truth and Justice. It is the religion of those who desire freedom and independence. It is the school of those who struggle against imperialism."

Justin Wintle’s concluding chapter narrates events from 1989 to 2002, beginning with the "triumph of the Mujahaddin over the USSR in Afghanistan", and ends with a comment on the "unabated second Palestinian Intifada against Israel". Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie; Hassan al-Turabi’s coup in Sudan; FIS defeating the FLN in Algeria; Kalim Siddiqui forming the Muslim Parliament to "provide a forum for Muslim political debate" in Britain; the assassination of Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel prize winner, in Egypt; Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman’s conviction and sentence to life imprisonment in the US; Mullah Omar’s appearance in the "cloak of the Prophet" in Qandahar; Usama Bin Ladin’s deportation from Sudan to Afghanistan; the "landslide national election" victory of "liberal" Khatami in Iran; Mahathir’s disgraceful treatment of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia; Pervez Musharraf bringing about yet another military coup in Pakistan: all these events and many more are arranged in a strictly chronological order.

Wintle gives an ironic title to the concluding chapter: ‘Islam Divided (1989-2003)’. His main argument is that "militant activity escalated sharply from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east" during this period. The bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1992, attacks on the WTC and Pentagon in the US in September 2001 and the Bali bombing in October 2002 are all attributed to Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida. The author interprets in his own way: "Bin Laden encapsulates the Muhammadan [sic.] tradition of the ghazi, or the raider-warrior – he whose violent actions are justified by the degree to which they promote the holiest of causes."

Justin Wintle’s book has other errors too. For instance, he writes that "Indian Muslims comprise 10 percent of India’s billion odd inhabitants", which is an obvious statistical error. Imam Shamil’s movement in Dagestan is narrated with contradictions. In one place it is described as "Imam Shamil launched a 30-year Jihad against Russian occupation"; elsewhere the author says, "Imam Shamil began a 25-year guerrilla war against Russia in 1834". Is a 25-year guerrilla war equivalent to a 30-year jihad?

Imam Husain’s shahadah at Karbala is described thus: "In 680 Ali’s son Husayn made a bid for power, only to be ‘martyred’ on the plain of Kerbala". Someone should tell Wintle that Imam Hussain’s mission was not a ‘bid for power’. However, because he is not a Muslim, perhaps he can be excused for failing to perceive the strength and eloquence of shahadah.

Overall, this book can be taken as a fairly comprehensive introduction to the history of Islam, which non-Muslim readers will certainly find informative and readable, and which may also be useful to Muslims, provided that elements of its interpretations and analyses are treated with caution.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 14 2003-11

Shawwal 07, 14242003-11-01

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