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the Message Continues ... 7/101




Newsletter for January 2010


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Is the Islamic past relevant to the present?
(a book review)
Review By Muhammad Khan

(The book: Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction, by Adam J. Silverstein, New York: Oxford University Press, pp157, 2010).

Unlike Judaism and Christianity, Islam was born in history. We know more about Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) than we do about Moses or Jesus (peace be on them). According to Islamic tradition, Adam was not only the first Prophet but also the first Muslim and that is why all classical Muslim historians began their chronicles with the beginning of creation, covering the careers of all the prominent Prophets and Messengers, often concluding in their own lifetime (915 in the case of al-Tabari).

Thus Islamic history did not begin with Prophet Muhammad; it began with the creation of time. As the late Alija Ali Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President and Philosopher, explained, “There are two histories of Islam: the one preceding and the one following Muhammad, upon whom be peace. The latter one, the history of Islam in the narrower sense, cannot be fully understood if one has insufficient knowledge of the former, particularly of the period which covers Judaism and Christianity. These three religions have played a major role in human history. Through them, man has become the axis of history and has learned to perceive humanity as a whole. Through them, he has known the meaning of external and internal life, external and internal progress, their mutual relations and their limits. The historical successes and failures of both Judaism and Christianity have culminated in a decisive Islamic experience of mankind. Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are thus the personifications of three primeval possibilities of all that is human.” (Islam Between East and West, reprinted 1999, p187)

This universal and inclusive approach to human history, pursued by the early Muslims, was in reality inspired by the Divine revelation, for the Qur’an is much more than a book and guide. It also provides a powerful and integrative assessment and re-evaluation of the progress of time in the light of Divine knowledge, wisdom and judgment. If that was not the case, why would a quarter of the Qur’an consist of historical data and information about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Jesus among others? These facts were included in the Divine revelation to inform us where we are and where we need to be.

The Qur’an therefore is the most powerful and pertinent commentary on the progress of time and the vicissitudes of history. Thus, in the book under review, Adam Silverstein is right to say, “Perhaps it is the history that is important to Muslims – if we were to ask a pre-modern Muslim to define the limits of Islamic history he would likely be puzzled by the suggestion that it has temporal or spatial limits at all…Islamic history is the product of people and their actions. But people in the pre-modern world were the product of their environment. They could not ignore the natural backdrop against which the events of Islamic history unfolded and nor can we.” (p1 and 3)

A lecturer in Islamic history at Oxford and Fellow of Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the author of this book seeks to account for the sudden rise and rapid expansion of Islam, both in the east and the west, from the seventh century to the twenty-first century. He begins by explaining that we need to understand Islam and especially Islamic history in order to make sense of the difficulties and challenges we face today. In his own words, “In recent years it has become increasingly obvious to non-Muslim Westerners that Islam matters. Whether or not this is a good thing continues to occupy a central place in public debates and in the media. On the basis of some of their recent statements, Prince Charles appears to be a fan; Pope Benedict XVI – not so much. The growing visibility of Muslims in newspaper headlines and on the streets of European and North American cities has raised important issues concerning integration, multiculturalism, interfaith relations, and even what it means to be ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Western’ altogether…Regardless of one’s opinion on these matters, it is clear to many that there is a conflict brewing between ‘Islam’ and the Judeo-Christian culture upon which Western civilization is thought to be based.” (p xv)

If this is true, then we need to turn to the Islamic past to find answers to these new and emerging challenges, argues Silverstein. Influenced by the ‘clash of civilizations' theory first formulated by Bernard Lewis and later popularized by Samuel Huntington, the author is of the opinion that the roots of present ‘Muslim rage’ actually lies in the Islamic past. Otherwise, “How then are we to explain the enormous cultural gulf that appears to separate Judeo-Christian, Western societies from Muslim one? To answer this question we must turn to Islamic history. The role that Islamic history plays in modern Muslim societies is extremely important, though it is often overlooked since it has no equivalent in the modern West. For this reason, understanding the rise and subsequent development of Islam may enable us to interpret modern Muslim societies and understand their relation to – and relationship with – Western ones.” (p xv-xvi)

Although it is true that the Islamic past is very important to the Muslims (just as the Jewish and Christian past are also important to them), yet the author’s attempt to explore and explain the Muslim present solely in relation to the Islamic past, unsurprisingly, leads him to conclude that today “Islam matters” because “Islamic history matters” as much, if not more (see p 138-9).

However, this view is problematic for a number of reasons. Philosophically speaking, it confuses the absoluteness of the ideal with the relativity of our existential reality and in so doing fails to understand the true nature of the relationship between the ideal, the actor and his actions in the context of the Islamic worldview. To assume that the three are always linked are theoretically and practically contentious, if not erroneous. Secondly, given the huge diversity of Islam as a faith, culture and civilization, it is unfair and unacceptable to trace the roots of contemporary cultural difficulties and political problems directly to the Islamic past when, arguably, these problems and difficulties are the fruits of, in the words of the philosopher Charles Taylor, a post-Enlightenment, nihilistic “secular age”.

In addition to the above, Silverstein’s analysis of Muslim past is also inherently bias because his approach assumes that somehow Islam and the West are locked in a cosmic ‘clash’ and therefore they are inherently culturally incompatible.

Not surprisingly, the idea that the Muslims, Jews and Christians had lived together and thrived in a multi-faith and multicultural al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) is, in his opinion, a myth which has been fabricated for political ends (see p 129-131).

Consisting of seven short chapters, an Introduction and Conclusion, it would not be unfair to say that the author of this book has been heavily influenced by the speculative, out-of-date and academically discredited theories formulated by I Goldziher, J Schacht, J Wansborough, P Crone and M Cook, among others, concerning the origins of Islam, its Prophet and scriptural sources (see chapter 4 in particular). In other words, although I agree with the author that Islamic history is a very important subject and both Muslims and non-Muslims need to study the Islamic past more closely in order to assess the relevance of Islamic past to the present, however, I profoundly disagree with his simplistic and selective approach to the study of Islamic history; in fact, he appears not to have had access to the original sources.

However, as Professor Hugh Kennedy has recently pointed out, the traditional Arabic sources may not be perfect but they need to be consulted and treated with respect to acquire a fuller understanding of the Islamic past (see The Great Arab Conquests, 2008, p33).

I also came across several factual inaccuracies which should be rectified at the earliest opportunity. On page 72 the author says that “jihad literally means ‘striving against another’.” Actually the Arabic word jihad literally means to exert or make an effort; this could be either physical or spiritual effort made individually or collectively. Also, Alexander the Great is not considered to be a Prophet by the Muslims (p1); in fact, the Qur’anic commentators disagree concerning the identity of Zul-Qarnayn as mentioned in Surah Kahf, verse 83.

Likewise, referring to my book, The Muslim 100, the author states that “…a recent book on the 100 ‘most influential Muslims in history’ includes only one Western Muslim – Malcolm X…” (p134). In fact, my book includes more than half a dozen Western Muslims including Ibn Rushd, the medieval European philosopher, and Muhammad Ali, the legendary American boxer.

These errors aside, I found this book interesting, not least because it focuses on Islamic history as a discipline in its own right. As the third title on an Islamic subject in the OUP’s popular A Very Short Introduction series, a volume on Islamic history is welcome.






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