This book by Asma Afsaruddin, who is Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University is, on the face of it, a history of the earliest Muslims, in particular the Rashidun Caliphs (the four immediate successors to the Prophet Muhammad) and the Prophet’s other companions, both male and female, and successors. This part of the book is informationally valuable, if slightly marred by occasional digs at other religions like Christianity.
So far, so fairly ordinary; but then half way through it crackles right into life, as it takes on a discussion of four important topics in the light of what of present relevance is to be learned from these earliest Muslims, including the Prophet himself: the “Islamic State”, shari’a law, the status and role of women, and the nature of jihad, or struggle. In the course of this, she really sticks it to the radical Islamists, who turn out to be not so radical after all, but guilty of selective appropriation and willful misreading of the early texts (including the Quran) and hypocritical reliance on later, more dubious and ideologically driven sources. She is particularly scathing of their take on jihad, which “for them primarily serves to yoke the religious to their self-serving political ambitions…The position of contemporary radical Islamists that jihad refers to unrelenting military activity against all those unlike them, Muslim and non-Muslim, until the latter come around to their view of things is regarded by modernists as a desperate and grotesque distortion of a noble and morally uplifting concept, whose reclamation from the extremists is necessary and long overdue.”
This was very enjoyable reading, both on its own terms as polemic (even if presented as balanced argument), and because it is heartwarming to know that there are voices in the Muslim world so bravely taking on the forces of ignorance, bigotry, repression and violence, even though it must be at some cost to their personal safety. If only their views got more publicity.