Bulliet--a creative though often wrong-headed historian of medieval Islam--proposes a novel way of looking at the early centuries of Islam that offers a valuable perspective on the surge of Islam during the past twenty-five years.
The author distinguishes between the "view from the center," by which he means the utilitarian vision of Islam propounded by its political rulers, and the "view from the edge" of seekers, adepts, and all those trying to figure out for themselves what their faith means. The two visions differ profoundly: the one propounds a view of Islam as a legalistic system in keeping with the rulers' interests, the other seeks to fulfill deep spiritual needs. The one remains within containable limits, the other finds unpredictable and dangerous manifestations. Saudi Arabia's government represents the former system, Iran's the latter. Bulliet argues that while Muslims and Westerners alike often accept the center's view of Islam, the edge actually drives Muslim history by spontaneously finding its own religious authorities and following their guidance.
In the early centuries of Islam, converts made up the edge. Today, the edge's two main groups consist of disoriented students and urbanized peasants. In need of guidance, they turn to the interpreters of Islam who most convincingly address their concerns. And, Bulliet predicts, their choices will determine far more about the future of Islam than will the actions of politicians or the books of philosophers.