Islam has long been an enemy of certain sectors of the Christian and Jewish worlds. Despite its genesis in the same geographical region as the two other Abrahamic religions and the fact of its lineage going back to the same genealogical wellspring, the three monotheistic faiths have been repeatedly locked in battles over time. Or, perhaps it is precisely because of this shared lineage that the battle refuses to go away; like brothers fighting for their father’s favor, the adherents of these faiths insist on fighting as if they have something to prove. Currently, this enmity defines the political and military policies of the world’s most powerful nation. The most obvious results of this are the millions of refugees wandering the planet with few places to go and the wasted billions of dollars on war and weaponry. Another less obvious, but equally important effect is the fact that Islam is understood even less by those who have made that faith their enemy.
This is the circumstance those desiring an end to the atrocities of war and displacement find themselves in. Fear and hatred of a created other override any attempts based on a desire to understand, thereby providing those interested in manipulating that fear into more war an easy avenue. Simultaneously, those calling for understanding are dismissed as sympathizers and fifth columnists suckered into self-hatred. As Muslim extremists attack those they deem infidels (mostly other Muslims), certain power elites in the West plot ways to expand their imperial drive to expand their hegemony over the unruly regions from whence those extremists come. It doesn’t matter that the primary targets of their plot usually have little to do with the aforementioned attackers; the lack of understanding about Islam plays into the power elites’ hands, making all Muslims suspect—and all of them targets of the bombs, the missiles, the travel bans and the migrant roundups conducted by the forces of the Western powers.
Suleiman Mourad is a Muslim born in southern Lebanon. He is a religious scholar who has written and co-edited several texts on Islamic history and scholarship. He attended the American University in Beirut and studied under faculty from various persuasions within the multifaceted Islamic religion. He is currently a professor in the United States who teaches courses in history and religion. Sample course titles include The Islamic Tradition and Islamic Thought and the Challenge of Modernity, Jihad and the Qurʾan. The Holy Land, The Making of Muhammad, and The Qurʾan.
Perry Anderson is a British historian and writer. He currently teaches history and sociology at UCLA. A Marxist, Anderson was an editor of the British journal New Left Review from 1962 until 1982. His books include Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism (1974), A Zone of Engagement (1992) and most recently, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2015.) Mourad and Anderson recently published a book titled The Mosaic of Islam: A Conversation with Perry Anderson. It is a text with a grand mission: to introduce and inform non-Muslims of the history, and philosophical underpinnings and debates that make up the Islamic religion.
Despite its rather small size, the book manages to succeed in its task. Anderson asks questions of Mourad—questions most of those raised in the relatively secular world (albeit informed by Judaism and Christianity) of the west might ask of Mourad themselves. Mourad responds with information packed answers that situate the faith in the world of monotheism. The Mosaic of Islam is an excellent primer on the faith’s beginnings and its spread throughout the world. It discusses the different strains of the religion and the development of those strains while simultaneously placing that development in a historical context that explains the political and economic forces that caused certain elements of Islam to dominate others. In terms of today’s political situation vis-à-vis Islam and the world, the final chapter discussing the rise of Wahabbism and its roots in Saudi Arabia is objective, concise and much more informative than its relative brevity would suggest. Likewise, the history of the Sunni-Shia splits and the theological differences informing those divisions are discussed in a depth belied by the length of the discussion.
When I was a youngster, I lived in Peshawar in what was then West Pakistan. Like all the other military officers on the colonial outpost where my father was stationed, my parents hired a couple Pakistanis to do gardening and housework. The gardeners, who smoked a waterpipe at lunchtime and usually prayed during the day, seemed more devout than the man who worked in the house. His name was Sharif and he spoke at least three languages: Pashtu, Urdu, and English. Although I was only ten years old (he was around nineteen), he treated me as if I were almost his equal. We conversed about a lot of subjects; cooking, the meaning of various English and Urdu words, the assassination of JFK, the war between India and Pakistan in the fall of 1965, and religion. Indeed, it was Sharif who first told me that Jesus was a Muslim prophet and that his mother Mary was the equivalent of a Muslim saint. This knowledge destroyed the story I had been told in Catholic school and church that Catholicism was the only true religion. Ever since that conversation with Sharif I understand the commonalities between Islam and Christianity as being much greater than the differences. Unfortunately, this view seems to currently be a minority one.
I wish one book could change this reality. Admittedly however, such a scenario is quite unlikely. Yet, this does not mean there is no point in reading The Mosaic of Islam. Indeed, the text’s straightforward and plainspoken approach makes it the essential book to read about Islam, especially if one is only going to read one book on the subject. It patiently explains the religion in its extremes while emphasizing its basis in moderation and tolerance. If I were a preacher or priest, I would not only read this book myself (and keep it in plain view on my rectory shelf); I would also insist that all of my parishioners did the same.