Islam in the World

by Malise Ruthven

This is the best book on Islam written by a non-Muslim that I have found.  The trouble with many books on Islam–like the awful ones by Karen Armstrong–is that they’re not about Islam at all.  They present an idealized image of Islamic society and then use that image as a stick to beat the Catholic Church (their real object of interest) with.  We’ve all heard about how enlightened, literate, diverse, tolerant, creative, peaceful, etc, etc medieval Islam supposedly was compared to you know who.  Ruthven doesn’t seem to have an agenda in this book; her view of Islam is generally positive, but not apologetic.  She doesn’t hide or excuse aspects of historical Muslim societies that we would find objectionable, but her focus is, as it should be, on understanding Islam rather than judging it by a foreign liberal standard.

Ruthven goes through the whole history of the Muslim umma.  Along the way, she makes some fascinating observations.  First, she is quite frank about Sunni orthodoxy’s connection to occasionalism (God as the only real cause) and divine comman ethics (things are wrong just because God says so).  I mention this because you’ll remember how a few years ago everyone said the pope was an idiot for making the same observations.  Second, as I’ve mentioned before, she claims that Shari’a is more individualistic than Western law.  In particular, Muslims reject the construction of legal personality, i.e. of the State, the Church, or a business corporation as a legal person that can own property and make decisions for which it, rather than its members, is responsible.  This, she speculates, comes from the more corporate nature of the Catholic religion, in which we are saved, not in isolation, but through membership in the mystical body of Christ.  Third, after making the commonplace observation that Muslims don’t separate “church” and “state” (and how could they, given that they don’t have either in our sense?), she points out that they do have a somewhat comparable separation, at least since the end of the caliphate and largely before:  namely, the separation between law and politics.  The law (shari’a) is given directly by God, and earthly rulers have no right to usurp His place by assuming a directly legislative role.  Rulers are accepted for practical reasons (keeping the peace), but they claim very little divine sanction, certainly nothing like divine right.  Fourth, she explains the role of Sufi practices in the Muslim world.  In fact, she thinks the revival of Sufism is the cure to Islamism.  Westerners tend to imagine Sufis as New Age hippie-like figures.  While there was a little of that in the beginning, Sufism was brought within the orthodox fold by Al-Ghazali, who showed how the exterior fulfillment of Shari’a law is to be combined with interior love and reverence for God.  Fifth, Ruthven relates the rise of Islamic modernists.  Their shenanigans will sould very familiar to Christians;  Islam supposedly has a bland inner meaning of inner niceness which must be separated from the 7th-century cultural trappings, which include everything (distinct gender roles, etc) that 20th-century liberals don’t like.  7th-century Arabic culture is not normative, but 20th-century American culture is.  You know the drill.

The last page is a bit disappointing.  Ruthven expresses hope that Islam will make peace with modernity because it could be used to encourage responsible treatment of the environment.  It’s not clear why we need Islam for that.  I think Muhammed has more important things to say to us.

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