LOOKING FOR A brief and accurate introductory book on Islam? Look no further.
Here’s one that specializes in correcting modern popular public misconceptions, opening with explaining the meanings of some of the most basic Islamic terms, as well as correcting myths about the place of Islam in relation to the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition. Both shared beliefs and points of difference are masterfully presented by Dr. Jerald F. Dirks in his recent book, A Concise Introduction to Islam, 2014, Amana Publications (Beltsville, Maryland, USA).
To begin with basics, it is a misinterpretation of events to hold that Islam is a “derivation” from historic Christianity. This derivational viewpoint follows upon a mistaken perception of Christianity as derived from Judaism, with Judaism presumed to be the original evolution of monotheism, arisen out of a primitive polytheism.
In Islamic teaching, the complete dîn/religion was provided to Adam, and progressive revelation came successively to generation after generation, calling people back to the complete religion–after deviations and corruptions had become codified within the various traditions that had come about.
Such a derivational view is partly anachronistic misreading and partly over-simplification based on corrupted standards of what is true dîn (lifestyle, or “religion”). And that is the kind of rectification that this slim volume undertakes to accomplish. In fact, such correction has long since been set in motion: dating back some 14 centuries to the prophetic mission of Muhammad ﷺ as recorded in the Quran and Sunnah. The codification of religious deviations after Moses /Mûsa and then after Jesus /ʿÎsa—still, in our day—need to be shown for what they are. This is the thrust of this new power-packed presentation.
Catalog of Corrections
Chapter Two further introduces the reader to other misleading beliefs held by the general public:
- Islamic categories as comparable to modern Christian ones (more on this later)
- Muhammad ﷺ as “founder” of Islam
- The permissibility of force in conversion to Islam
- Islam as an “Arab religion”
- Arab culture as representing Islam
The two final chapters return to debunking the widespread belief about:
- jihad as “holy war,” and
- women as property without rights in Islam
What Is Skipped Out
Dr. Dirks omits the unnecessary repetition of what is not true about these two wildly brandished accusations—jihad, women’s status—and turns rather to the exemplary behavior of Muhammad ﷺ, his compelling spiritual and social organizational teaching, as well as his Ummah’s fidelity to revealed standards.
The author concisely details how the Arabic verb jâhada—”to strive or exert oneself” [for the sake of God]—ends up as referring, legitimately as an Islamic term, to engagement in military context, but only as a last resort and under multiple constraints, all of which must obtain at the same time. In a warrior context, jihad is restricted to self-defense of innocent, imminently endangered Muslims—or in the service of combating grievous social injustice perpetrated against other defenseless peoples.
Quranic âyât and aḥâdîth are copiously brought to bear in characterizing the position of women in the Muslim family and society, with clearly defined rights in:
- her marital relations (including entrance into and exit from);
- her rights to support from husband and male relatives and protection by them;
- her right to work, to own and inherit property, to keep her dowry, to speak on her own behalf publically and in her community
- her rights to learn and to teach
Aside from the book’s corrective function, it fulfills a more general, educative purpose in providing an authentic orientation to Islam, however brief, tailored to readers who are conversant with a Western “Judaeo-Christian” outlook—in counteraction to the sensationalist propaganda occasioned by current events and to continuing historical prejudices.
Chapter One focuses on the largely common ground shared by Muslims with Christians and Jews—before addressing our differences (Chapter Four).
The major world faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are all three monotheistic, prophet-based and Middle Eastern in origin, classified as “Abrahamic,” due to historical legacy and parallel accounts in which Abraham is honored as “Father of Faith” in the transcendent Creator, who guides to success and happiness.
Jesus and Mary are shared by Muslims and Christians:
- Jesus” Virgin Birth” from Mary,
- his miracles,
- his authoritative teaching and future role
In terms of ethical and spiritual teaching, shared beliefs with Jews and Christians include:
- the Oneness of God,
- the Decalogue (“Ten Commandments”) given to Moses by God
- the sacredness of all human life and man’s responsibility to care for his fellow creatures and to nurture the environment
- the law of retaliation—with compassionate application stressed by Jesus and Muhammad ﷺ
- man’s social responsibility to his/her fellow humans—including humility in charitable giving, in public prayer, and in treating others by the same standard as employed for one’s self
- an encouragement toward, and motivation in, cultivating an ongoing awareness of God—drawing near to Him, leaving the outcome of one’s efforts to Him
Having already accounted for Chapters Two, Five and Six—which debunk rampant false facts about Islam—and now having summarized Chapter One, we move on to Chapter Three (Muhammad ﷺ and early Muslim history) and then (in Part 2) to Chapter Four (Jesus and suppressed correct belief about him and his mission).
Chapter Three is a whirlwind glimpse at:
- Muhammad ﷺ, his childhood, his call to prophethood, his career
- The message revealed to him, its core beliefs and devotional practices
- The documents which preserve Islamic foundations (Quran and Sunnah)
The Covenant of Madinah is given a lot of space in this chapter, no doubt in order to present the early establishment of an Islamic state in its social-political-historical and psychological contexts, specifying obligations and rights of the diverse parties which made up the population of the town:
- Muslim Arabs migrating from Makkah (Mecca) after exclusion from their native city, and after the boycott against them on the part of their non-Muslim clansmen (no buying from or selling to them) and after the years of persecution they suffered
- Two Arab tribes in Madinah (Medina), their members being either (a) pagan, or (b) Muslims who welcomed the uprooted families, with many of these families personally taking the refugees into their homes. This social arrangement served to over-ride their own tribal identities and loyalties
- Three Jewish tribes, likewise with their own identities, loyalties and leadership
Under the Covenant, disputes arising between parties—especially those due to the influx of the refugees—were to be handled by the leader of the refugees, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, who had been invited to settle in their town as a resolution administrator, among other purpose. Although the various parties had ratified this arrangement, the city’s traditional power structure (pagan Arab and Jewish) had been shaken up, and previous alliances had been realigned due to the intrusion of the third block of players, the Arab Muslim refugees. This sudden change of affairs created hypocrites who would press for their lost privilege, underhandedly if required.
Since the Covenant of Madinah has been highlighted in this chapter, I would have preferred more explanatory context and discussion of its social implications, its progressive nature and importance towards developing an Islamic state and principles of government. On the other hand, the chapter is clearly constrained by the need to choose representative snatches of various topics in order to do a quick and neat job.
Still, together with Dr. Dirks’ succinct treatment of Quran and Sunnah (only eight paragraphs!), this chapter gives the novice to Islam a quick basis for accepting Muslims as decent and rational neighbors, adhering to a common core of beliefs and ethical/social values shared with Jews and Christians—dispelling the notion of Muslims as the imminent threat to life and limb, which non-Muslims may well take from the current media references to Islam and Muslims.
Likewise, a paragraph each on articles of faith and pillars of practice are tightly written and may serve to whet the reader’s appetite for more in-depth information on our Prophet ﷺ and on Muslim practice.
In Part 2 of this book appraisal, we review the remaining Chapter 4 of Dr. Jerald F Dirks’ recent book, A Concise Introduction to Islam, 2014, Chapter 4 is a lengthy treatment spelling out how Islam views Jesus.