A well-crafted glimpse into the origins and early years of Islam, even then torn by dissension and violence.
Imagine that the Reformation and Counterreformation had been waged soon after Christ died, and the hard feelings between Shiite and Sunni Muslims become more comprehensible. Rogerson (The Prophet Muhammad, not reviewed), a writer with experience covering the Arab world, offers a lucid explanation of the Sunni-Shia split, which took fullest shape with the assassination of the fourth caliph, Muhammad’s nephew Ali, in 660—a murder committed even though the revered prophet had declared Ali to be the gate into “the town of knowledge” that he himself symbolized. Rogerson adds most interesting twists to this well known tale by casting it in the context of the long-standing rivalry between the two Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina, which, he writes, represent two halves of the Qur’an with “two quite different tones,” the verses from Mecca addressed to the whole of humankind and those from Medina addressed to the political and physical realities of Arabia at the time of Islam’s birth. This rivalry ocassionally blossomed into war, and it seems to have been waged well into the caliphates that followed Muhammad’s death; in some ways, the author suggests, the rivalry persists. The four caliphs of that first century of Islam had different agendas and interests, but they expanded the new religion’s sphere to embrace an unprecedented empire; as happens with power politics, they also initiated and suffered intrigues that betrayed Islam’s peaceful promise, culminating in the murders of Muhammad’s immediate descendants in what is now Iraq, when, in Rogerson’s memorable phrase, “seventy heads had been rolled out from bloodied leather sacks on to the palace floor of the governor of Kufa.”
The result, centuries later, is sectarian division that shows no signs whatever of healing—and that figures heavily in the world news. Rogerson capably explains its beginnings.