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Islam – The Straight Path

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‘The Straight Path’ John L. Esposito

It can be a difficult task to convey large amounts of information, in this case the aspects of the Islamic religion, in a meaningful and clear manner. However, The Straight Path by John. L. Esposito manages to do this very well. I approached this book with an open mind, and at the same time I had some ideas of what I was looking for already, considering the current material I have read and discussed in class with Dr. Yusuf and the class. The knowledge was basic, covering topics such as the pillars of Islam, articles of faith, and the direct origin of the Quran through the Prophet Muhammad, as well as information about Muhammad himself and some of his companions.

One of my habits when reading a book is that halfway through the reading, I go back to reread the Introduction (if it exists). The reason for this is to gauge whether or not the overall tone and scope of the book is accurately described by the authors original setup, or thesis statements, for the book. It is here that the author describes the need for a universal and worldwide understanding of Islam, because of it’s status as a major world religion. To westerners, it hopes to dispel much of the negative attention Muslims sometimes receive, and hopes to educate them that they are more similar than different. The final sentence of the introduction sums this up, and is particularly striking. “Thus, to understand the world in which we live requires a knowledge of the straight path of Islam as a prerequisite for an appreciation of our theologically interconnected and historically intertwined Judaeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.” I feel that the author has successfully maintained this tone throughout the book, and I agree with the assessment that knowledge in this area is necessary due to the large amount of Muslims in the world, which is more than likely more than a billion people, or 1/6 the population of the planet, making it the world’s second largest religion.

The first chapter began as I expected, closely depicting the knowledge I had already. Early Arabia, before Muhammad is described briefly, then focus shifts to Muhammad and accurately depicts the events that led to him becoming a Prophet of God. The author parallels the intention of the book with the intention of Gabriel by including this verse:

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God speaks to no human except through revelation wahy or from behind a veil or He sends a messenger [angel] and reveals whatever he wills…a straight path, the path of God. (42:51-53)

There is quite a bit of explanation of the Quran, regarding its impact on the lives of Muslims and their beliefs. The ideas of heaven, earth, and hell are discussed, as well as their inhabitants; angels, demons, humans as well as spirits, all answer to the one God himself. Those Quranic ideas as well as examples from Muhammad himself provided the framework for Islamic law and reference points for all aspects of daily life.

Chapter two changes gears a bit, and talks quite a bit about the history is Islam, and how it dealt with western Christian influences. Upon the death of Muhammad, no real manner of choosing a successor has been given. The early Caliphs, as they were called, were all companions of Muhammad. Later on however, civil war and division amongst Muslims was caused by individuals that thought the Caliph position should only be held by Muhammad’s bloodline. This is an early difference between Shii / Sunni Muslims. This period of Caliph dominion was also characterized by conquests which led to “Arabized or Islamized” beliefs, where blending of culture took place. This took place to due the empire at one point stretching from Spain to India. It was during the Abbasid caliphate that the Crusades and the reconquering of Spain took place. These Christian holy wars would last nearly four hundred years. After this long period, the original Christian idea of uniting Christians and turning back Muslim armies had backfired.

After establishing some of this history, the reader is able to accurately form their own opinion about Islam, given some of the basic information needed to understand both the religious and social aspects of Islam. Chapter three follows this solid information up with the details behind how Law became developed. Ideas such as Analogical Reasoning and other forms of interpretation of the Quran would blossom into credible schools of law. The author also takes this opportunity to lay out some other basic aspects of Muslims lives. The five pillars of Islam are described here, which includes the profession of faith, and five times daily prayer among other things. Also discussed are some of the social differences that can occur involving issues such as divorce and marriage, family laws that deal with inheritance and veiling and seclusion.

Chapter four turns things around a little bit. It talks about the modernization of Islam, which in some cases might have required reform of the some of the earlier established laws, such as dealing with the family or marriage. Some of these reform groups would adopt many western customs like dress and interests in music and combine them with European ideas of law and political concepts. These are all logical events that might take place when a person or a group of people has strong external forces working against them.

This naturally leads to discussion of even more modernization of the people and the religion. Islam is still growing, but it also faces greater challenges. The six day war of 1967, in which Israel routed a six country union and gained control over a considerable chunk of land, is referred to as “the disaster”. It was after this event that Muslims seemed to come to a realization that they had relied to much on westerners and a “return to Islam” was necessary. The Iranian revolution would play an important role in spreading this idea across the region.

The concluding chapter summarizes most of what chapter five talked about, as well as a few events closer in history, all of which display the need for modern Muslim societies to define themselves in the modern world. This is characterized by a greater awareness and observance of their faith. This strategy seems to be working in my view. Islam demonstrates great strength and flexibility in it’s ability to adapt and thrive in any society. Islam would not be the second largest religion in the world without being adaptive and cohesive at the same time.

Overall, the book provided me with a strong follow-up reading to the book originally prescribed by the course. I found no discrepancies with any information, and was quite agreeable with the format and method in which the information was conveyed to me. I was quite interested in the early caliphate period, and the civil wars that took place during that time. Much of that information was new to me, and it provided me with a good insight into the trials early Islam had to endure.

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