A Portrayal of 21st Century Western Scholarship on 'Islamic History'

Writing on ‘Islamic history’ and its inter-related areas/ subjects has undoubtedly seen an increase and expansion from the last many years. It is not an exaggeration to state that a very large number of books exist on the history of Islam. To put in the words of Alexander Knysh, “Books on Islam are a legion” or as Masudul Hasan puts it: “There is no dearth of history books on Islam”. In Richard Martin’s words, there is a “growing demand for accessible knowledge about Islam” which has resulted in the publication of a “number of histories, encyclopedias, and dictionaries that serve different purposes” In this context, below is presented a brief description of some selected works by Western scholars (‘Islamicists’) on ‘Islamic history’, published in between 2002 and 2017.

John L. Esposito (Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University) has authored and edited a number of books on Islamic history. His Islam: The Straight Path (5th ed. 2016) is described as a clear account of Islam and its contemporary development by a sympathetic Western scholar of Islam, and is (as Clinton Bennett puts it) “widely used as the standard introductory text on Islam at College level”. Leila Fawaz in its review mentions that his book is “the answer to every teacher’s prayer for an informed and balanced introductory book. It is elegantly written, beautifully synthesized, and helpful”. Similarly, Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (2002; 2nd ed. 2011)provides “clear-cut and precise answers to nearly all the questions related to Islam, its beliefs, practices, history, politics, and contemporary challenges”, and is, thus, “an essential, straightforward and easy reference guide … for everyone interested in Islam”.

Tamara Sonn’s Islam: A Brief History (2004; 2nd ed. 2010) serves as a simple and straight forward introduction to Islam, “the religion of nearly one-fifth of the world’s population”, as it covers history of Islam, from past to present. Written in a lucid and simple style, the book “combines the skills of the historian with the insights of the scholar of Islam” and, therefore, “is not simply about the rise and fall of dynasties but a clear and coherent picture of a dynamic, complex, and global religion”.

Kecia Ali and Oliver Leaman’s Islam: The Key Concepts (2008) is a “clear and concise guide to the religion and culture of Islam”, which explores this subject by focusing on key issues including the Qur’an, faith, theology, gender, fundamentalism, philosophy, jihad, Islam in the West, Islamic law. The objective of this book is mentioned by author in these words: “We wrote this book because many of our students are puzzled by what they find in the Qur’an and while studying Islam, and require a concise guide to the key concepts of the Book and the religion. Armed with this guide, it is to be hoped that they will be able to appreciate the form and matter of the Qur’an and Islam more adequately. In particular, we hope that it will help them to gain an appreciation of the interconnections that exist between the main ideas found in the Qur’an and within the heritage of Muslim thought”.

Daniel W. Brown’s A New Introduction to Islam (2009) is an excellent (under) graduate textbook presenting a thorough history of Islam. It introduces students to the history and development of Islamic studies as a discipline—showing how Islamic studies has shaped our understanding of Islam—and it also examines how the vibrant religious culture of the Near East produced a unique and brilliant intellectual and religious tradition spanning the fields of Islamic law, theology, philosophy and mysticism. In addition, it shows the ways in which the Islamic tradition has enriched the world, and in turn, how it has been enriched by interaction with other civilizations. And against the background of social and cultural contexts that extend from North Africa to South and Southeast Asia, it also considers the opportunities and challenges facing Muslims today and provides a new and illuminating perspective of the development of Muslim beliefs and practices. Though extensive in coverage, Brown’s book is one of the most lucidly organized introductions to Islam and is “a thoughtful and a comprehensive guide to the study of the materials and the ways of thinking about Islam”.

William Shepard’s Introducing Islam (2009; 2nd ed. 2014) is a “comprehensive and concise textbook” which serves as an ideal introduction to Islam for the students wishing to gain a sympathetic understanding of Islam as it seeks to present the Islamic religion and its culture, “in a sympathetic way”. Consisting of 20 chapters, the book is illustrated with various pedagogical features to aid readers understanding. In this work, a wide range of sources, and thus is an informative and comprehensive work on Islamic history and civilization. Shepard’s work is a “remarkable and valuable contribution” and an excellent source on Islam’s history, culture and modern trends.

One more recent addition to this scholarship is Alexander Knysh’s Islam in Historical Perspective (2009; 2nd ed. 2017), which is a comprehensive volume and “provides the readers with an introduction to Islam, Islamic history and societies with carefully selected historical and scriptural evidence that enables them to form a comprehensive and balanced vision of Islam’s rise and evolution across the centuries and up to the present day”. “Treating Islam as a social and political force”, Knysh’s book addresses “Muslim devotional practices, artistic creativity and the structures of everyday existence” and is thus “designed to help readers to develop personal empathy for the subject by relating it to their experiences and the burning issues of today”, and includes pedagogical features like illustrations, stud questions, and chapter summaries.

Besides these works, there are a number of encyclopedias which provide a wealth of information about Islam, its past and present, addressed to students and general readers of the twenty-first century; some of them include: Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam (EI; presently in its 3rd edition); Richard Martin’s The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (2004; 2 vols.); Esposito’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (6 vols., 2009); Gordon Newby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (2004), Ruthven and Nanji’s Historical Atlas of the Islamic World (2005), Juan Campo’s single volume Encyclopedia of Islam (2009).

This list is in no way a complete or comprehensive list; however, it gives some insights into the titles, coverage, objective, purpose, and readership of these books. The fact is that with very passing day, one finds a new book on Islam, its history, or any other aspect—classical or contemporary—published by a Western publisher: be it Bloomsbury Academic or Cambridge University Press, Oxford or Routledge, Princeton or Wiley-Blackwell, Yale or Zed Books.

The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC for Women, Pulwama (J&K).