FOR THE MODERN, non-Muslim reader who has already read the 64-page Concise Introduction to Islam (2014) by Dr. Jerald F. Dirks, I suggest, as a second step, the same author’s handling of the same subject in his nearly 400-page Understanding Islam: A Guide for the Judaeo-Christian Reader (2003), again from Amana Publications. One might wonder: “Is the short book simply a condensation and rehash of the longer one—after 11 years of reflection?” Here’s what I found.
The Short Versus the Long of It
The short and the long, the new and the old, both give major space (16-18%) to a subject (jihad) today strongly associated with Islam in the public forum—and sorely needing to be corrected and brought to public attention. In general, the short, newer presentation uses brief information about the Prophet ﷺ, the Quran and Hadith, plus the “articles of faith” and “pillars of practice” as a framework within which to address false conceptions about Islam and Muslims.
The shorter book is designed to balance genuine and essential differences with shared beliefs and values. The new, short work is constructed so as to engage the reader traumatized by the events of “9–11” and whipped up to fear and apprehension by the manufactured specter of urgent threat from one’s Muslim neighbor.
The Meat of the Subject
The older, full-length book by contrast gives 100 pages to the story of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (versus 5 ½ pages in the short book) and 22 pages to the Quran and Sunnah (versus 2 pages in the new book). Moreover, Understanding Islam gives 50 pages to articles of faith and 35 pages to pillars of practice (versus 1 paragraph each in the Concise Introduction).
Before presenting Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in his cultural time and place, Dr. Dirks lays the ground work with 85 pages of pre-Muhammad prophetic activity, quoting a plethora of Quranic passages and aḥâdîth in full—while bringing in parallel and presumably familiar, Biblical texts as reference points by which the Judaeo-Christian reader can relate to their own Biblical accounts. Amongst the familiar Judaeo-Christian sources, however, are some unexpected connections that are made meaningful only in reference to the interpretive eye of the Quranic Revelation—some of which we note in our appraisal of this block-buster piece of research.
Thus, the older work by Dr. Dirks is a substantial, self-contained introduction to Islam for the modern educated citizen of Judaeo-Christian civilization, including for the Muslim who must find his way in Western civilization.
While 400 pages addressing an unfamiliar subject may seem like an awesome commitment to take on for an otherwise busy reader—perhaps only mildly interested and driven by news hype—fortunately, the text moves smoothly. A large part of the full-length work consists of fully spelled out quotations from the Quran and Sunnah—saving the reader from having to consult other volumes, be they Judaeo-Christian or Islamic literature.
A Foot in Both Worlds
As the introductory material to Understanding Islam makes clear, the author is a Muslim with a background of ecclesiastical education connected with a major American Protestant Christian denomination. He makes clear the link of Islam—as the end of a chain—to the revelation given to Moses, Jesus and to so many other previous prophetic voices. He speaks from the “inside” to readers who come from his Western Judaeo-Christian upbringing.
The reader becomes orientated to the world of Islam by acquiring a sense of the sources of Islamic knowledge and by connecting with Islamic terminology: Allah, Islam, Sunnah, People of the Book, etc. In order for the reader, too, to have a foot in both worlds, the reader must appreciate the believer’s utter reverence for, and commitment to, God and the prophets whom the “Lord of the Worlds” has sent throughout history.
In Islam the observable positions of both the sun and the moon are taken as definitive markers for measuring time. As a seemingly small, but practical step toward the Westerner’s adjustment to Islamic culture, it is explained that the Islamic calendar year, in some ways like the traditional Jewish one, is lunar (based on twelve complete cycles of the phases of the moon: 354.37… days to a lunar year), not solar (based on a complete cycle of the sun’s path through the sky: 365.24… days to a solar year).
Thus time-keeping has a different rhythm in an Islamic context than it does on the Western/ Christian/ Gregorian solar calendar. The Christian celebration of Christmas always falls on the 25th of December; the date of Easter varies from year to year but it has been fixed in relation to the Spring/ Vernal Equinox (March 19-21–with complicated adjustment to the ecclesiastical full moon) and thus always occurs in the Spring. In contrast, the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, is observed progressively earlier with each year.
Islamic Prayer times (solar) are timed throughout the day in accord with positions of the sun. In contrast, the Islamic lunar month–[for example] of Ramadan, the 29/30-day period of daytime fasting–cycles through the seasons [winter to fall to summer to spring to winter, etc], starting some 11 or 12 days earlier each solar year, timed to the appearance of the new moon. If in one year Ramadan begins in the middle of summer, then some 16 solar years later Ramadan would be beginning in the middle of winter—with 32 solar years being roughly equal to 33 lunar years of 12 [lunar-calculated] months each.
Prophet Succeeding Prophet
Previous to the time of Muhammad ﷺ, the ancient Abrahamic faiths had a shared knowledge of Middle Eastern prophets who taught allegiance to the ways of the One God, the All-Powerful Creator of all that is, prophets who appeared successively in stages—with mankind having been descended from a first pair of humans: Adam and Eve [Ḥawwâ’]. Various types of wrong-doing entered the human experience, from such acts as murder out of anger (Cain and Abel) to various ways of exceeding divine limits. Interspersed among the stories of human failings were numerous models of righteous attitude and behavior, in family and societal contexts, as preserved in scriptural literature. In the Quran, too, prophetic figures are immortalized for us, often setting straight the inherited stories of their faithfulness to God in patient adversity.
The Line of Shem
The Semitic prophets (those descended from Adam’s son Shem) as mentioned in the Quran, include the Biblical prophets as well as others from a wider family genealogy, namely Hûd, Ṣâliḥ, Dhu Al-Kifl, ShuCayb. Their stories are all laid out by Dr. Dirks in detail, taking into consideration Biblical parallel accounts.
Of special interest in this book of Dr. Dirks are the inclusive genealogical trees (Tables 2, 3 and 4) which connect all of the named prophetic figures—Biblical and Quranic. The family of Zechariah with his son John (Yaḥya) “the Baptist” and Mary with her son Jesus both connect to the family line of Aaron (Hârûn), the brother of Moses (Musa). But this is just a ‘drop in the bucket’ of what is found here regarding the family connections among prophets.
Dr. Dirks thoroughly elucidates the evidence from Christian sources to put alongside the Quranic accounts. In most cases the two sources supplement each other. Where they disagree, of course, those differences are highlighted; the veracity of the fuller picture represented in the Quranic version is argued for using relevant verses from Christian sources, both the New Testament of the Bible and the “New Testament Apocrypha,” that is, the collection of non-canonical ancient documents that were not included in the New Testament, but which the Church considered worthy of reading by Christians.
Descendant of Kedar
Coming to the final Prophet ﷺ and using the genealogical tables and listings, we can count 66 generations—thanks to the way that Dr. Dirks has laid out the evidence—from Muhammad ﷺ back to Kedar, son of Ismail/ Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham. In case the reader has started to dose off when faced with interminable Biblical lists of unfamiliar—and hitherto meaningless—genealogical records, he is in for a surprise to find that Kedar had been mentioned in several prophetic verses of the Jewish Bible as someone whose line would be of special significance.
When Prophet Muhammad ﷺ migrated to Yathrib/ Madinah, on the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, it had already become home to a Jewish presence, some of whom were looking for a further prophet, says Dr. Dirks, to be descended from the Abrahamic grandson Kedar and to be born in Paran—an area which included Makkah/ Mecca.
In childhood Muhammad ﷺ had crossed paths with a Christian monk, Bahirah, who announced to Abû Ṭâlib, Muhammad’s grandfather, that the boy was destined for prophet hood. A similar event happened a dozen years later in which a second Christian monk, Nestor, again recognized the young man as a prophet.
Not to retell here for the webpage reader the many known incidents in the life of the young man Muhammad ﷺ, let it suffice to say that the author of Understanding Islam… has skillfully woven into his account a succession of Quranic âyât and aḥâdîth, as well as relevant Biblical verses in a compelling, robust and fast-moving biographical sketch:
- Prophet Muhammad’s marriage;
- the beginning of revelation;
- his acceptance and rejection among his family and people;
- his immigration, hardships and sorrows;
- spiritual attestation;
- military ventures;
- establishment of an Islamic community within an ethnically and religiously inclusive state;
- evolving mentorship of his Companions and the stated completion of his teaching;
- creation of a brotherhood of believers, able to cope with conniving hypocrites and outright opponents;
- alliances, truce and conquest;
- compromised health and death.
The Ongoing Story
With the conclusion of the Prophet’s constant presence among them and thus the loss of their living spiritual guide and tie-breaking temporal leader, the community re-grouped, in short order, on the basis of the legacy which Allah’s Messenger ﷺ had left with them:
- the set of divinely-revealed ‘Readings’ [Quran] and
- access to the prophetic model of behavior and to his precedent-setting ways [Sunnah] in navigating and adjudicating questions related to innumerable life circumstances arising within the community.
Lest anyone argue for an innovative misreading of the Quran—in the absence of the Prophet ﷺ to object—a primary project was shortly undertaken to formally authenticate each âyah of the ‘Readings’ collection [the Quran] to confirm its precise form, verbatim, and—in the face of any self-interested detractors—to officially sanction the complete and originally revealed text of the Book, verse-by-verse, both orally and in writing—meticulously guarding even the pronunciation(s) with which it had been recited (or allowed to be recited in dialect variants) by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
During the Prophet’s lifetime–at his instruction—it had already been established that his sayings, doings and manner of dealing, in all various-and-sundry observed situations, were to be shared by the events’ eye-witnesses with the others who had not been present. After his passing, a secondary phase of massively assembling all recollections of his exemplary living model [the Sunnah]—and exhaustively cross-verifying them against each other—was set in motion. The aḥâdîth collections of Bukhâri and Muslim are foremost among the resulting, most highly-recognized works of ‘sound’ authentic reports.
To be continued, Inshâ’Allah…