Islam in Context by Cotterell and Riddell
Given the plethora of books written by evangelicals since September 11, 2001, it’s often hard to find a book that says anything different than the others. In addition, many popular level works don’t take into account many of the developments in the realm of Islamic theology in recent days. Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future is an exception. It is not intended as simply an introduction to Islam, rather, it looks at the history of Islam in its beginnings, the encounters between Islam and Christianity from the early Muslim empires to the present day, and the various ways in which Muslims today see the West, Christianity, and terrorism. I’ll briefly note some helpful components of each part of the book.
Part One: Looking Back
Grounded in Muslim, Christian, and secular sources regarding the early days of Islam, the authors provide a helpful, nuanced look at how one man in Arabia was able to grow such a powerful religious, social, and political movement in such a short amount of time. There are several elements that are particularly helpful: (1) The history of the period immediately following Muhammad is summarized very clearly. If anyone were to want to understand how the early splits in Islam occurred–including a radical offshoot that laid the foundation for modern-day extremists–this would be a great place to turn for insight. (2) The authors provide helpful insights into the relationship between Christianity and the elements of the Qur’an that are similar to Christian teaching. One of the helpful ways they do this is by providing some background on the Jewish and Christian influences in Arabia and in other areas with which Muhammad came into contact.
Part Two: In Between: The Ebb and Flow of Empire
Part Two helpful illustrates the difficulties that have plagued Christian-Muslim relations throughout the age of empires, both Islamic and Western. This history has not always been pretty, neither on the Christian side nor the Muslim side. With great tact, the authors identify key factors in the treatment of each group by the other, leading up to a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. What is most helpful at this point is the illustration of the multiple points of view on such a painful subject. They quote liberally from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sources in order to accurately portray how each group views the topic, leaving plenty of blame to pass around for everyone.
Part Three: Looking Around
Part Three delves into the modern era. In particular, it addresses the divisions within the worldwide Islamic community on the issue of violence and terrorism. What I most appreciated about this section was the intentional effort made to listen to what Islamic masses as well as scholars and leaders have to say about these issues. This is helpful for a couple of reasons: (1) Many of those influenced by pluralism want to say that Islam is a religion of peace and be done with the discussion. The authors won’t allow that, for they clearly explain how the radicals have interpreted the Qur’an, how they view modern political issues, and how they’ve used that to influence many Muslim people. (2) Many people want to say that Islam is violent and be done with it. That won’t do either, for it ignores both the numerous Muslims who are peaceful, ordinary people and the scholars and intellectuals who have spilled much ink attempting to explain how the Qur’an and the traditions of Muhammad can lead to a peaceful worldview. The authors interact thoroughly with sources from both perspectives in the Islamic world, providing a helpful balance as non-Muslims attempt to understand the Islamic world.
Also helpful is the authors’ explanation of three factors that have influenced Muslim dissatisfaction and anger with the West: (1) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the West has regularly sided with Israel, (2) American sanctions against Iraq (the book was written in 2003, so it’s a little outdated in that it doesn’t take into account the war in Iraq of the last 7 years), and (3) the American military presence in the Arabian gulf, near the holy sites of Islam. What is particularly helpful is that the authors give a nuanced treatment of these issues, coupled with an analysis of other factors that (knowingly or unknowingly) influence Islamic perspectives on the West.
No group will agree completely with what the authors present in the book. But they do provide a model of thinking through the issues that is grounded in history, is well-read in Islamic sources, and is knowledgeable about the different perspectives that all bring to the table when discussing Christian-Muslim relations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and global terrorism.