Most Muslims living in the West have western, non-Muslim friends and acquaintances. Of course, we have a duty of da’wah, which different people approach in different ways. But long before any da’wah can even be attempted, people’s misconceptions about Islam need to be countered. This involves addressing two major problems: the anti-Islamic propaganda that is a staple of western politics, media and the entertainment industry; and the confusion and contradictions among Muslims themselves.
The latter problem is arguably the greater. Many books that are supposedly intended for da’wah in fact reflect only a partial or a particular aspect or element of Islam, with the result that a non-Muslim reader who randomly picks up two different books on Islam is likely to wonder whether they are in fact on the same religion. Very few books are able to present Islam as a whole, transcending the various schools of thought and differences of understanding or emphasis between Muslims.
This writer usually recommends one of two books to non-Muslims who express an interest in Islam, both by Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Ideals and Realities in Islam (1966) or A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World (1995). Both these present the essence and basic beliefs of Islam in ways that both reflect the complexities and profundities of the belief system, and are simple to understand for those who are unfamiliar with them. The earlier book is more academic in its style, and perhaps better suited to readers familiar with religious discourses; the latter one is perhaps more suitable for lay readers. Notably, although Nasr is a Shi’a, he discussed Islam as a whole, and only a discerning reader would realise this.
Another quality that Nasr’s books have is that they are easily accessible to minds and readers accustomed to thinking in western terms. That is not to say that he presents a west-friendly version of Islam; far from it. But his language and style of presentation make his message easier for his readers to understand, which is an essential element of da’wah, but one which all too many Muslim works fail to achieve. The book under review emphasises precisely this point, addressing Christians particularly and seeking to explain Islam in terms that Christians will find easy to comprehend.
Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, is particularly well qualified for this task; not only is she a convert from Christianity herself, having embraced Islam in 1986, but she was actually a Christian theologian before her conversion. She put this expertise to good use earlier this year, when she published The Mysteries of Jesus, a book on the Prophet Isa (as). She is also a former teacher of religious studies in the British state school sector, and so is familiar with addressing young non-Muslims.
What Every Christian Should Know About Islam consists of four sections: the religious beliefs of Islam explained; the religious duties of Islam explained; answers to questions that non-Muslims often ask about Islam; and differences and parallels between Islam and Christianity. The first section outlines the broad Muslim understandings of the unity and nature of Allah; the angels; His revealed book; His prophets; good and evil; and life after death. Her explanations are clear and informative, without falling into the error of relating Islamic beliefs to western ones, which tend to distort them rather than making them easier to understand.
The section on religious duties, unfortunately, is relatively thin, failing to discuss the five pillars of Islam in as much depth as would be ideal. Also, in this section, and in the answers to common questions, the book’s main failing emerges: a certain defensiveness regarding Islam and politics. While Maqsood points out that Islam is a social religion which makes demands on communities collectively, as well as individuals, she tends to be dismissive of Islamic movements, rather than addressing western misconceptions about them. This is, however, perhaps a minor point in a book of this kind; it is notable that she is clear and non-defensive on issues such as hijab and the role of women, where other books of this kind are often apologetic.
This book does not replace those of Nasr, and is not the last word in books of its kind. But it is a useful addition to the genre, and – unlike many others – will do no damage, at least
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"And say: truth has arrived, and falsehood has perished: for falsehood is ever bound to perish." [TMQ Al-Isra:81]