“Aspects of Islam”

Aspects of Islam by Ron Geaves. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. 2005

Sectarian divisions for any religion tend to occur down the fault lines of the strongest convictions.  Ron Geaves sheds light on fundamental faith issues within Islam by exploring significant religious disagreements that exist between committed Muslims. This is a scholarly work that carefully avoids ideological judgment of Islam and instead compares and contrasts the internal struggles of those topics crucial to the world of Islam.  He portrays Islam as a faith that strives to establish faithfulness, consensus and stability amidst the diversity and challenge of forces both external and internal to the religion.

Geaves begins by providing an enlightening critique of both the rhetoric against Islam as well as those “rosy” affirmative pictures commonly found in the western media and moves on to describe with notable sensitivity the current diversity of faith and practice within the world’s second largest religion.  The fundamental tenet in Islam of the uniqueness and unity of God is explored to reveal two distinct interpretations.  While reforming sects, such as the Wahhabis, emphasize the transcendence of God, other elements, e.g. the more mystical Sufi movement, find its fulfillment in an immanent concept of “oneness” through which the follower becomes one with God.

The author next examines the tensions between the law of God in Islam, Shari’a, and cultural or contextual legal systems.  The following chapter considers the concept of brotherhood, Umma, which provides a monolithic image to the outsider while harboring deep divisions. These divisions are explored in greater detail through the contrasting Sunni view of “manifest success” revealing God’s favor versus the Shi’a doctrine of a remnant remaining faithful in suffering.  The figure of the prophet of Islam is looked at through the eyes of those Muslims who see him as the greatest prophet, albeit human, and those who have attributed almost divine characteristics to him. A holistic view of Jihad is then presented that includes both a personal, internal struggle and a political, external effort that are part of the universal war between God and Satan. It is the military expression of the latter, such as the revolution in Iran, as well as the imposition of Shari’a law to defend Islam against the infiltration of western values that gains the attention of outsiders. He concludes with an examination of the attempt of Muslim women to achieve liberation through the application of Islamic teaching rather than western feminism.

For each of these areas of tension within Islam, Geaves examines the historical roots for the dichotomy of thought and delves into the underlying faith assumptions that perpetuate the diverse practices and thinking current in the world of Islam. Although the author’s secular bias is revealed at times, such as the attempt to “get at the real Muhammad,” p. 144, and in assuming cultural sources for faith positions (e.g., the speculation that the Christian veneration of Christ may have influenced pious Muslims in attributing divine attributes to Muhammad, p. 163), he is exceptionally sensitive to the danger of allowing his assumptions shape the views he wishes to portray and the theological descriptions provided would most likely satisfy their proponents.

Although not an easy read for those unfamiliar with Islam, there are three features that keep the themes clear for the reader and enhance its value as a reference text on Islam:  Each chapter begins with a clear synopsis of the content, each chapter ends with a conclusion that summarizes the points made, and a glossary with helpful definitions of Islamic religious terms is provided.  This well researched and erudite book is highly recommended for those who wish to understand the tensions and struggles within Islam that often find their expression through conflict with western systems and ideals.