A scholar’s sincere attempt to elucidate the true teachings of the Quran.
Eminently qualified to present the finer points of the Prophet Muhammad’s beliefs and teachings, Brown (Islamic Studies/Georgetown Univ. School of Foreign Service; Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction, 2011, etc.) continually asserts the magnificent tradition of Islam yet can’t quite get around the well-known stumbling blocks—e.g., not allowing women to lead prayer and the concept of the martyrs’ multivirgin reward in heaven. Who speaks for Islam? The ulama, or the learned ones, and they have turned to three sources: first, the Quran, or the “unchanging record of God’s revealed words,” derived from oral teaching before being put into writing; then, the Hadith, or the sayings of the prophet, which have grown around the Quran and are more ambiguous, controversial and “amorphous”; and finally, the ideas of Sunni Islam (which Brown addresses rather than Shiite), or the collective consensus about law, ethics and dogma passed down for the generations of believers. Much like the mutable biblical canon, the Hadith corpus is contested, and scholars have declared many of them to be forgeries. What Brown does very well is underscore the cultural biases at work in denunciations of Islam—e.g., the Western perception of its excessive violence (jihad) and sexual perversion (the paradise of “72 virgins,” as well as the fact that Muhammad was in his 50s when he married the child bride Aisha, who was around the age of 10). The ulama, inheritors of classical learning, wrestled with reconciling reason and diversity with revelation, epitomized by the work of Shah Wali Allah, in the mid-18th-century Mughal Empire. Brown eloquently parses Islam’s rich interpretive tradition, but his nuanced sifting of meaning does not necessarily clarify or convince.
A delicate delineation that invites a more intimate look at the sources.