Book Review: What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam
Posted December 2, 2011on:
What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions from One of America’s Leading Experts, by John L. Esposito, Oxford Press, 2002, 204 pp.
Having just completed Karen Armstrong’s A History of God gave me a deeper understanding of the history of ideas in Islam, the various philosophical developments and spiritual practices as they evolved. Esposito’s book reinforced some of those learnings, and added a depth of understanding about contemporary Islam’s faith and practices.
What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam is written in question and answer form, in short sections that range from a few paragraphs to a few pages. While the author suggests not reading the book cover-to-cover, I did it anyway, and it was just fine that way. The writing was interesting and accessible, and I was surprised how captivated I was with something that could have been dry and disconnected. While some information is repeated in various places, it still worked as a solid introductory work. Esposito covers questions in these major areas: Faith and Practice; Islam and Other Religions; Customs and Culture; Violence and Terrorism; Society, Politics and Economy; and Muslims in the West. Almost all basic questions are covered in the book, and the Q&A format makes it a handy reference volume.
Esposito does a good job of handling basic information questions (What is a mosque? What is the difference between Sunni and Shii Muslims? What are the five pillars of Islam?) and anticipating questions that Westerners (especially Christians) might have (Do Muslims believe in angels? Does Islam have a clergy? Can Muslims marry non-Muslims?). I especially appreciated his approach to the section on Violence and Terrorism. Esposito’s style was frank and non-defensive. Many times, authors feel compelled to defend their subject (Islam) by either arguing that violence and fundamentalism are a small part of the Muslim community, or pointing out violent traditions in other religions. Esposito does acknowledge both of those things, but in a way that is truth-telling rather than defensive. He also does an excellent job explaining the lack of separation between Islam and the state, and the role of an Islamic state in theology and politics. He clarifies the desire for to create a community where worship and government and daily life are in harmony with Islam—a perspective not so different from Christian desires to be a “city on a hill” and create the Kingdom of God on earth.
I would highly recommend this book as either a basic reference work on Islam or a readable, engaging introduction to Islam and Muslim life and culture.