What Everyone Needs To Know about Islam
by John L. Esposito
New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 144 pp. $17.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan Calt Harris
Middle East Quarterly
Esposito's new contribution to the barrage of post-September 11 publications on Islam offers a fine example of well-crafted marketing. In both title and substance the book reaches out to the intelligent but uninformed person who has a genuine interest in Islam but doesn't know where to start. "Begin with me," declares the title. "Look no further." The entire text is then structured as a question and answer session with the author, making specific areas of interest very accessible, even for casual perusal.
As with any introduction to Islam, a great portion of Esposito's book is made up of straightforward explanations of the basics of the Islamic religion and culture, including, "What do Muslim's believe?," "What is the Muslim scripture?," and various points of the faith and practices of Shi‘ites, Sunnis, and the person of Muhammad. Common questions from a Western public regarding Islam's sensibilities on marriage, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and the like are also dealt with succinctly and without excessive examination. Positions given throughout the text are just that, given, stated; this is the way things are.
The style works for most issues, but in areas where Esposito's own politics enter in—and therefore he chooses the facts selectively—things go sour. Among the more glaring examples, all Palestinian suicide bombings are said to result from Baruch Goldstein's 1994 massacre of twenty-nine Muslims in a mosque, despite suicide bombings in 1992 and 1993, and much text is given to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict in this light without elaboration. Esposito blames sanctions for starving children in Iraq, without mentioning that Iraq can sell all the oil it wants under the United Nations Oil-for-Food program and that nobody is starving in northern Iraq where that program is administered by someone other than Saddam. He reduces the important question, "Why do they hate us?" to America's support for Israel. "America's record of overwhelming support of Israel … has proved to be a powerful lightening rod for Muslim anger over injustice." This is true as far as it goes, but it misses the many other sources of Muslim hatred for the United States, starting with the facts of American power, wealth, and influence.
One wishes that Esposito, who clearly knows his Islam and is a skilled writer, had the discipline and intelligence to present the political dimension fairly. Not doing so undermines what could have been a useful book.
Related Topics: Islam | Jonathan Calt Harris | Spring 2003 MEQ
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