On Reading John Esposito's Islam—The Straight Path

Esposito’s ‘Islam—The Straight Path’ is a simple but comprehensive, elegantly written, introductory reference books on Islamic history, closest to an ‘insider view’

Writing and publishing on ‘Islam’ in general and on ‘Islamic history’ in particular has undoubtedly seen an unprecedented proliferation and expansion from the last many years, especially in the post-9/11 era. Professor Alexander Knysh has rightly said that “Books on Islam are a legion”. Among these, an important category is the publication of ‘reference works on Islam/ Islamic history’, and one of the ’Western’ academicians who has contributed significantly to this genre is Professor John L. Esposito—Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, USA—a specialist/ expert in Islam, political Islam, and Religion and International Affairs.

Professor Esposito—a direct student of Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (a Palestinian-American ‘Islamic Studies Professor’ of Temple University)—is accepted as one of the leading/most respected authorities on Islam. A recipient of ‘American Academy of Religion’s 2005 Martin E. Marty Award’ and ‘Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azzam Award’, he has (co)authored and (co)edited a number of books and encyclopedias on Islam, Islam and politics, Islamic movements, political Islam, Islamophobia, Islam and gender, etc. In the area of Islamic history, some of his book include: The Oxford History of Islam (1999), What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (2002; 2nd edition, 2011), The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003), and Islam: The Straight Path (1998; 5th edition published in 2016). Below is presented an assessment of the latest addition of Islam: The Straight Path (hereinafter shortened as ‘Islam’).

First published in 1991, Islam is a clear account of Islam and its contemporary development by a sympathetic Western scholar of Islam. This book has enjoyed, over the years, a “broad audience as a textbook and as an introduction to Islam” not only in the English-speaking world, but also through translations in various languages. Providing an “essential coverage of the origins, spread, and development of Islam and its roles in Muslim societies”, the present (fifth/ updated) edition of Islam offers an updated information and material on recent developments (p. ix). Addressing a variety of questions that “underscore the strength, vitality, and diversity of Islam as well as its role in Muslim history”, this book contributes “to a better understanding of the faith of Islam, which, as in the past, inspires, guides, and motivates the vast majority of Muslims as believers and global citizens” (pp. xii, xv).

Islam consists of six (6) chapters, preceded by a Preface and Introduction and followed by Timeline, Glossary, Bibliography, and Index. In the Preface (pp. ix-x), Esposito highlights the overall reception of its previous editions and focuses on the changes made in the current edition. In ‘Introduction’ (pp. xi-xv), he highlights the growth and spread of Islam and Muslims from 7th century Arabia to a “world religion with followers across the globe” in the 21st century (p. xi). It also refers to some crucial events like Iranian Revolution (1979), events of 9/11, emergence of ISIS, etc., that made Islam from a “rich and dynamic religious tradition of the mainstream majority” to “menacing headlines and slogans, images of hostage takers and gun-toting mullahs” (p. xii).

Chapter 1, “Muhammad and the Quran: Messenger and Message” (pp. 1-36), is divided into three major sections—Muhammad [pbuh] and the Muslim Community, Muhammad and the West, and The Quran: The Word of God—and describes the emergence of Islam with a particular focus on the life and role of the Prophet (pbuh) and the teachings of the Quran regarding God, prophecy, and revelation; the purpose and goal of human life; morality; and the afterlife. On occasions, it draws comparisons between Muslim, Jewish, and Christian teachings as well. He concludes that “the message of the Quran and example of the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] constitute the formative and enduring foundation of faith and belief” and both serve “as the basic sources of Islamic law and the reference points for daily life” (p. 34).

Chapter 2, “The Muslim Community in History” (pp. 37-91) discusses the emergence, development and phenomenal expansion of Islam and the Muslim community, development of Islamic empires and states in medieval and pre-modern eras, and the florescence of Islam as a world civilization which contributed significantly in various natural, social, and religious sciences. It also discusses ‘Islam and/in the West’ as well and concludes that current “Islam is a major and fast-growing religion in the West, and Muslims are increasingly an integral part of the mosaic of Western societies” (p. 89). Chapter 3, “Religious Life: Belief and Practice” (pp. 92-147) highlights the development of Islamic theology, philosophy, law/ jurisprudence, and mysticism with a specific focus on the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’—the fundamental acts of Islam and things Islamic—under two major headings: Theology and Islamic Law. He concludes that “despite the unity of Islam, rooted in belief in one God, from the early centuries of Islam, devout Muslims produced a diversity of interpretations” and “at times contending paradigms” of the sacred texts, which were “influenced by local custom and traditions as well as by reliance on reason” and has thus resulted “in the development of [diverse] legal, theological, and mystical paths and schools of thought” (p. 144).

Chapter 4, “Modern Islamic Reform Movements” (pp. 148-193)—consisting of three major sections, viz., From Imperial Islam to Islamic Revivalism, Revivalism in Islam, and Modern Islamic Movements—narrates the emergence of 18th and 19th century Islamic movements across the Islamic world (like the Wahhabi, Mahdi, and Sanusi in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Libya, respectively) which serve as the forerunners to the 20th century ‘Islamic revivalism’ and ‘revivalist movements’, such as the Islamic modernist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Jamaat-i-Islami that have had a profound effect on 20th and 21st century Islam—as faith, worldview, ideology and civilization. It concludes with the argument that since the 18th century, “Revival and reform have been dominant themes in Islam”, as Muslims responded both “to internal and external forces that challenged their faith and social order” (p. 191).

Chapter 5, “The Resurgence of Religion in Politics” (pp. 194-258) presents a historical overview of the causes, worldview, and expressions of Islamic revivalism and resurgence (also named as Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism, and political Islam) through a series of case studies from Middle East. By this, it demonstrates the diversity of ways in which Islam has been ‘used’ by governments, mainstream and extremist opposition groups, and/or by the religious authorities, etc. It also deals with the issue of “Global Terrorism” and focuses on the relationship of Islam to violence and terrorism, the meaning of jihad, the origins of a global jihad ideology, the role and influence of ‘Islamist’ movements on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well as ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In the final section, “Arab Spring/Arab Winter?” it highlights the role of religion and politics in the Arab uprisings and concludes: “The Islamic resurgence has had a significant impact on personal and public life in Muslim politics and society as well as militant movements that have wrought havoc in Muslim counties and the West” (p. 256).

The focus of Chapter 6, “The Struggle for Islam in the Twenty-First Century” (pp. 259-306) is the process of modern reform by focusing on the “Contemporary Islamic Religious Reform” and defines ‘the reformers’; parameters and direction of Islamic reform. It also highlights “A Spectrum of Reformers and Approaches” and “Critical Areas of Islamic Reform” by addressing the implications for democratization, pluralism, gender issues, religious minorities, and interfaith relations vis-à-vis reform and reformation and concludes: “Muslims are engaged in an ongoing debate over religious reform influenced by diverse readings of sacred texts, history, and traditions. … The unity of Islam, from its early formation to contemporary developments, has encompassed a diversity of interpretations and expressions of faith. … Today, the lives of one-fourth of the world’s population testify to the dynamism but also the struggle of Islam and the continued commitment of Muslims to follow ‘the straight path, the way of God, to whom belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth’ (Quran 42: 52–53)” (pp. 300, 303).

Almost every chapter ends with brief ‘Conclusion’, and all chapters include some important and significant common features viz., Key Terms, Questions, extra information on key issues, concepts and personalities in boxes/. These chapters are followed by a Timeline, covering the events between 570 to Jan 2015, a Glossary of Arabic terms with a brief meaning/ definitions, a ‘Select Bibliography’ thematically, and a general Index.

Clinton Bennett, in The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies (2013, p. 306), has rightly describes it as a “widely used … standard introductory text on Islam at College level”, while as Leila Fawaz (Tufts University) describes it as “the answer to every teacher’s prayer”, for it offers not only “an informed and balanced” introduction to Islam and things Islamic—from classical to contemporary eras—but is “elegantly written, beautifully synthesized, and helpful” reference work as well.

Though “Esposito is”, “a practicing Catholic [Christian] but he never attempts a Christian assessment or evaluation of Islam”; rather he “listens to [the] Muslim voices. What he writes commands Muslim respect”. Thus, Esposito’s book “presents a picture of Islam that moves closest to an insider view” though it “follows a somewhat traditional outsider format” (Bennett, Studying Islam, 2010, pp. 5, 12, 22).

Summarily, expansive in scope and coverage, meticulously presented, and lucidly written, Esposito’s Islam—The Straight Path is a remarkable and balanced, simple but sympathetic, introductory reference book on Islam and Islamic history.

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