“The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam” is a small paperback, and a quick read, with only nine short chapters. Basic tenets and practices of Islam, as well as unique terms and historical lineage, are discussed along with contemporary issues such as “Orientalism,” an Islamic state, Islamic Law or Sharia, and Sufi reformations. Although the book lacked artistic presentation, and was more like a textbook, reciting fact after fact, with little panache, it did give enough information to warrant the book’s reading. The book serves well as a reference for specifics about traditions and spiritual authorities in Islam, as well as providing a strong narrative on Prophet Muhammad’s life, and the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” after his death. The book has a lot of historical names, dates, and places, although they are woven through pretty bland text.
A chapter on “Civilization and Learning” said that the needs of Islamic practices fueled academic study. For instance, one needs to know how to tell geographical directions to be able to pray facing Mecca, and one also needs math to know how to calculate inheritance shares, as required in the Qur’an. And the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan was calculated through the moon and astronomy. A famous bookseller, ibn al-Nadim, in 987, published a catalogue of the books in his store. It included thousands of entries, including the book title and author, as well as detailed information about the authors. His selections included “holy scriptures of Muslims, Jews, Christians,” as well as “religious doctrines of the Hindus, Buddhists, and Chinese…” He also offered books on non-monotheistic traditions, science, math, history, law, philosophy, fables, rituals, sexual manuals, etc.
Another chapter entitled “Islam and the West” makes the connection between European Colonialist conquests and the negative stereotypes prevalent in the West about Islam. The Colonialists attempted to destroy the intellectual works of Islam, they outlawed Islamic medicine, they called Islamic science “superstition,” they wrote “scholarly” papers filled with racism about Muslim civilizations, and when they finally left the regions, the Colonialists left puppet regimes that the people often had to overthrow thereafter to obtain power. Thus explaining some of the negative history that exists between “the West” and Islam. Edward Said’s book, “Orientalism,” published in 1978, popularized the phrase “Orientalism,” meaning a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The book talks about varied types of negative stereotyping and racism, or “Orientalism,” aimed at the Islamic world from the West, from Hollywood movies such as “Arabian Nights,” and “Jewel of the Nile,” to writers and thinkers such as Voltaire, Pascal and Karl Marx, to painters such as Delacroix, to the demonization of the Arab and Muslim community after the atrocities of September 11, 2001 in America.
The “Contemporary Issues” chapter has some loaded wording, that shows the authors clearly dislike fundamentalist Islamic leanings, calling fundamentalism “concocted, modern dogma,” as well as “fabricated dogma.” While claiming “Contemporary Islam, it has to be said, is not one thing,” the authors try to ascertain a type of modern Islam to be more “truthful” than another, which is awkward, and makes one feel like there is a glossing over, an effort to create an image of “moderate Islam” as the “true” Islam, in this book, that I do not think is necessarily helpful. But in this chapter, the authors present interesting arguments against literal interpretations of 8th century Islamic law, which includes punishments like cutting off hands of a thief. The authors say that law should only be given “in a society where there is no need for anyone to steal…” And they argue women’s rights, such as property and inheritance rights, are included in the Qur’an, and that historical evidence shows women could ask for compensation and obtain a divorce on the grounds of sexual satisfaction and male failure to perform, in the “classical era of Muslim civilization.”
I would recommend the book for an interesting afternoon read. I did not leave with any profound revelations, or incredibly unique information, but I learned some things, and it is a good reference book to keep around.