An Introduction to Islam By David Waines (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 2d ed., 367 pages.)

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Mohammed Rustom



An Introduction to Islam by David Waines consists of three parts:
“Foundations,” “Islamic Teaching and Practice,” and “Islam in the Modern
World.” The author begins by characteristically painting the picture of pre-
Islamic pagan Arabia on the eve of Islam’s advent. He discusses the role and
significance the pre-Islamic Arabs accorded their pantheon of deities, as well
as the (largely inherited) moral codes that governed their conduct in tribal
society. Waines neatly ties this into what follows, where he discusses the
birth of Prophet Muhammad, the event of the Qur’an’s revelation, and the
opposition he encountered from his fellow tribesmen in Makkah. This is followed
by an analysis of the Qur’an’s significance, its conception of divinity,
and the content and importance of the Hadith as a source of guidance for
Muslims. The section is rounded off with examinations of such topics as the first period of civil strife (fitnah) after the Prophet’s death and the interesting
body of literature devoted to Muslim-Christian polemics in early
medieval Islam.
The transition from the first part of the book to the second part is rather
fluid, for the second part is essentially an elaboration of the themes discussed
in the first. With remarkable ease and accuracy, the author elucidates
the historical development and main features of Islamic law in both its theory
and practice. Returning to his earlier discussion on the Hadith, here he
briefly outlines how its corpus came to be collected. Readers unfamiliar with
the main theological controversies that confronted Islam in its formative
years (e.g., the problem of free will and the status of the grave sinner) will
find the section devoted to Islamic theology fairly useful.
Waines goes on to explain some of the principle Mu`tazilite and
Ash`arite doctrines, and outlines some of the ideas of Neoplatonic Islamic
philosophy, albeit through the lenses of al-Ghazali’s famous refutation.
Surprisingly, the author does not address any of the major developments in
Islamic philosophy post-Ibn Rushd, such as the important work of the
Ishraqi (Illuminationist) school (incidentally, the founder of this school,
Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, was a contemporary of Ibn Rushd). The last two
chapters are devoted to Sufism and Shi`ism, respectively. Although Waines
does misrepresent Ibn al-`Arabi’s metaphysics of Being by calling it a “system”
(pp. 153 and 192), on the whole he presents the Islamic mystical tradition
in a refreshing and informed manner. His section on Shi`ism is splendid.
It is written with considerable care, and he effectively isolates the main
themes characteristic of Twelver Shi`ite thought and practice.
In the third and longest part of this work, Waines incorporates Ibn
Battutah’s travel accounts into the book’s narrative. This works very well, as
it gives readers a sense of the diverse and rich cultural patterns that were
intricately woven into the fabric of fourteenth-century Islamic civilization.
After reading through the section, this present reviewer could not help but
marvel at how the observations of a fourteenth-century traveler and legal
judge from Tangiers could so effectively contribute to a twenty-first century
introductory textbook on Islam. Additionally, Waines takes readers through
some of the essential features of the three important “gunpowder” Muslim
dynasties, devotes an interesting discussion to the role played by the mosque
in a Muslim’s daily life, and outlines some of its different architectural and
artistic expressions throughout Islamic history ...

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