IN THE SHADOW OF THE PROPHET by Milton Viorst

IN THE SHADOW OF THE PROPHET

The Struggle for the Soul of Islam
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KIRKUS REVIEW

In search of the broad range of Muslim views on Islam and society in the Arab world today, the author interviews an impressive array of Middle Eastern politicians and intellectuals, and sets their views in context of the region’s long past. Viorst, a staff writer for the New Yorker and prolific commentator on the Middle East (Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World, 1994), helps correct the West’s mistaken impression of theological uniformity among Muslim leaders. He divides Muslim thought into a triad of modernist, orthodox, and fundamentalist views. While modernists want to combine Western advances in science and politics with Muslim spirituality, and fundamentalists seek a purer Islam grounded in the early years of the religion, the orthodox hold all change suspect. Perhaps because their opinions are least known to Westerners, the modernist leaders, such as Ali Haroun of Algeria and Abdolkarim Soroosh of Iran, give the most memorable interviews. At issue is itjihad, or interpretation of Muslim law, and whether the process is fixed or closed, as the orthodox and fundamentalists hold, or open, as modernists teach. Viorst relates this question to another that centers his book: What caused the economic and technological decline of the Arab world that began in the Middle Ages? Several of the interviewees, including King Hussein of Jordan in a candid and affecting conversation, relate the decline to the fate of the medieval Mu’tazilites, the rationalist theologians who sought to balance Muslim faith with reason. After they fell out of favor with the ruling caliph, in the ninth century, no official partisans of reason arose to replace them—an absence “with which,” Viorst says, “Islamic civilization has lived ever since.” What Viorst calls his “fondness for the Arabs” shows in his account of the guiding lights he finds shining in the shadow of the prophet; his book spreads the light a little further.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-385-47691-4
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Anchor
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998




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