Book review: Islam: The Essentials

Islam: The Essentials by Tariq Ramadan.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

I’m not a Muslim – I’m not really religious in any meaningful way – but I’ve always had an interest in Islam. This interest is probably a mish-mash of things: the lingerings of Orientalist stories from my youth, and the fact that the belief seemed such a mystery to me.

I’ve lived in areas with plenty of Muslim neighbours, but I’ve not known much about what they believe. Certainly, there’s a lot of investment in the West in presenting the faith as the origin of Everything Wrong With The World, so it’s the sort of thing I’ve long had a niggling desire to get a better handle on. Because surely tabloids aren’t the best source of qualified comment on the religion, right?


So I turned to Tariq Ramadan’s entry in the Pelican Introduction series. It’s not the shortest in the list, but at 300-odd pages it’s not a doorstopper. What’s provided is a good overview of the history of the religion, from its inception to the current day. Hot-button topics – jihad, sharia, polygamy, violence, amongst others – are considered, and some apparent ‘truths’ (at least as the West views them) are discussed.

Ramadan’s language is mostly clear, though it can waver into either the academic or the convoluted at times. I suppose it’s difficult to avoid either when discussing something as contested as religion. But still, meaning was never all that obscured: it is obvious that the author is not a fundamentalist, and is someone who is open to critiquing the religion, encouraging followers to consider doing likewise. He speaks against the bending of texts to ideological will, as is common in oppressive regimes, and generally highlights the ways the faith has integrated and benefited communities, with the ultimate hope that the same will eventually occur in the West.

I found a lot to think about in the clear presentation of the pillars of faith and the duties of Muslims. I found there were parts of the belief system that appealed, and were more open than I had previously imagined. Ramadan’s text does exactly as required – introduces – while spurring the reader to think beyond mere definitions. He keeps his examples rooted in reality and everyday life, rather than leaning too heavily on the world of theoretical abstraction, which goes a long way towards humanising Islam for the outsider.

What’s interesting about the reception of this work is that Muslim readers seem to respond to the provocations Ramadan suggests in his introduction in the way they’re meant: as a jumping-off point for discussion on changing perceptions and practises. The reviews from Muslim readers appear to engage with Ramadan’s points with an openness that’s impressive, especially given the way the West (mistakenly) perceives the religion, as one unfriendly to criticism and self-examination.

As a bit of a crash course before next year’s read of the Qur’an, Islam: The Essentials offers a good, quick overview of the faith and areas of potential conflict. It’s not a fundamentalist text, but it does back up its assertions with textual references worthy of an academic, so the reader is always aware of the considered nature of the work. My questions about what Islam is were mostly answered here, though I now have some new aspects to ponder: a good result.

(I must admit that I took longer to read this book than I expected to. I ran out of steam when, midway through, I discovered the allegations of abuse which have been levelled at the author. I saw the work through, but this definitely coloured my reading: I’m not certain that I’d have read this if I’d known about these allegations beforehand.)

My Goodreads profile is here.

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