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ISLAM EXPLAINED by Tahar Ben Jelloun


by Tahar Ben Jelloun & translated by Franklin Philip

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 2002
ISBN: 1-56584-781-4
Publisher: New Press

My Islam Explained” might be a more apt title for these gleanings from Islam that have inspired Ben Jelloun (The Blinding Absence of Light, 2002, etc.).

The author’s ambitions here are unpretentious, hoping that his meditation “recalls historical facts, rectifies a few errors, explains a few rituals, defines essential words and concepts, and quashes any excuses for prejudice.” He also expects to “extract the essentials,” which, of course, gets him into more complexity. He purports to be fielding questions from a child, unveiling Islam’s past the better to appreciate its contemporary, and contentious, place on the world stage. He explains Islam’s origin; its precepts of humility, generosity, and dignity; and, most importantly for Ben Jelloun, its hunger for and openness to knowledge. Give him the Golden Age, when Haroun al-Rashid was in his Baghdad palace, Avicenna was recording the progress of medicine, and houses of wisdom were built and filled with translations and original works in Arabic. He acknowledges but downplays the violence inherent in proselytism—“no religion is totally pacifist or totally bent on war”—a ploy that only reveals a thicket of contradictions. If “God promises the martyr paradise” and a martyr is one who dies “to liberate his country from foreign occupation,” that goes a long way toward instigating war-like acts. Ben Jelloun, however, considers al-Qaeda to be “barbarics who have used a religion of peace to make war.” Something doesn’t mesh, but all may depend on the angle of approach. Ben Jelloun prefers to emphasize Islam’s moment as the center of the learned world, when it did its best to spread enlightenment, even if he rather feebly suggest that its decline was the result of madness for power, ignoring the power that made the Golden Age possible.

Ben Jelloun has chosen an Islam of harmony, tolerance, humility, and love of knowledge. Others have chosen a different interpretation. Ben Jelloun’s seems a good one to teach your children.