Want to understand Islam? Read on

Posted: Jul 10, 2002 12:00 AM
This summer, as many Americans head to oceans white with foam, some atypical reading is finding its way into beach bags alongside torrid romance novels and cool detective stories. Books about Islam are hot, and new ones are pouring off the presses. The most lucid of the recent arrivals is Bernard Lewis' "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" (Oxford University Press, 2002). Princeton professor emeritus Lewis explains why Muslims of the Middle East, who once possessed the highest civilization and the top armies in the world, are on a five-century losing streak. He shows how Islam messed up by setting up obstacles to freedom, science and economic development. Essentially, Muslim collectivists did not trust individuals to think for themselves or go out on their own. Westerners were willing to live in Islamic countries and learn from them, but Imams never said, "Go west, young Muslim." Another short book, Ravi Zacharias' "Light in the Shadow of Jihad" (Multnomah, 2002), shows how faulty theology leads to political and social dictatorship, and notes what happens to Muslim scholars who ask hard questions. Egyptian journalist Farag Foda: assassinated. Ali Dashti of Iran: disappeared during the revolution there. Professor Nasr Abu Zaid of Egypt: had to flee the country. Given that record of intolerance, it's childish to say that Muslims and Westerners can all get along if we just talk with each other. For a tougher but deeply provocative read, try "Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide" (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 2002), by Bat Ye'or, an Egypt-born Jewish-French historian. She shows why the nature of Islam dictates against any pluralistic peace with Christians and Jews, and notes that "human rights" is a meaningless term within Islam: Muslims have rights but others (historically) are "dhimmi," members of conquered minorities allowed to live in Islamic society if they pay extra taxes, and put up with enormous scorn and abuse. For a radical challenge to conventional views of Muhammad and Islamic scriptures, read Ibn Warraq's "What the Koran Really Says" (Prometheus, 2002). It's the fourth in a series of books by a Muslim-raised scholar who risks his life to argue that the Quran was not formulated until two centuries after Muhammad's death. This new book is the most technical of the four; "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad" (2000) is a better starting point for most readers. The general thrust is that many of Islam's elements were confused responses to cultural pressures, and that the real Muhammad was probably nothing like the myth. Another new book, Chawkat Moucarry's "The Prophet & the Messiah: An Arab Christian's Perspective on Islam & Christianity" (InterVarsity Press, 2002), also goes right at the reliability of the Quran. Given that its earliest known fragments date from the second century of the Islamic era, textual critics would long ago have taken it apart if the Muslim world had any intellectual freedom. Moucarry also compares key Christian and Muslim doctrines and provides a handy appendix listing Muslim theologians and mystics. In one pre-Sept. 11 book, "Muslims and Christians at the Table" (P&R Publishing, 1999), authors Bruce McDowell and Anees Zaka provide solid and readable sections on Muslim history and theology, and also show how to apply that knowledge as evangelistic opportunities arise. Practical reminders include
never sit cross-legged with Muslims (showing the sole of your foot is considered offensive and an indication of disrespect, especially to elders) and never shake hands with a Muslim after petting a dog (dogs are considered unclean, but since Muhammad had cats, felines are OK). The overall message of these six books is sobering. Since last fall many Americans have wanted to believe that Islam is naturally a peaceful religion, and if we forcibly remove a few bad apples we won't be pecked to death. We should pray that this is true, but we should take into account the scholarship that shows how and why Islam requires unending war -- with tactically useful truces -- between dar al-Islam (END ITAL) (Muslim territory) and dar al-harb (everything else).