Introducing Islam by Ziauddin Sardar; illustrated by Zafar Abbas Malik

The fundamental truth about our debt to Islam
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The Independent Culture

Islam teaches the enjoyment of sex without guilt. Not a lot of people know that. It also taught the equality of men and women, black and white, rich and poor. It makes the pursuit of knowledge an obligation on every Muslim, male or female. This pursuit was once the main driving force of Muslim society. It gave the world algebra and logarithms, the concept of zero, spherical geometry and trigonometry. Not only did the West adopt Arabic numerals to pursue the new learning, it embraced Muslim practice by working addition and subtraction sums from right to left.

Five hundred years before Galileo, a Muslim astronomer called al-Baruni calculated the length of the solar year (he was 24 seconds out), measured the specific gravity of various metals and discussed the rotation of the earth on its axis. Other Muslim scholars developed the science of optics, invented test tubes and surgical instruments and pioneered universities – giving us such terms as "chair" and "reader". Public libraries, mass publishing, bibliographies, the compass, the guitar and "how to be a mystic without freaking out" have all been learned by Westerners from Islam.

The decline of Muslim civilisation, argues Ziauddin Sardar, can be attributed to the corrupt and luxurious lifestyles of some of its leaders: to the fall of Baghdad before "Mongol hordes" in 1258; to the ending of 800 "glorious and truly enlightening years of Muslim rule in Spain"; and to the outlawing, by religious scholars, of printing presses on the grounds that the reproduction of sacred texts would lead to their misrepresentation. As a result, Sardar maintains, the interpretation of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, "was frozen in history" and "Muslim thought [was] ossified". In his view, these events prepared the way for the colonisation of the Muslim world by Britain, France and Holland.

Colonialism not only drained Muslim countries of their wealth but, he suggests, its practitioners encouraged Europeans back home to equate "anything 'Islamic' with inferiority and low moral worth". It allowed Westerners to stereotype Muslims as "barbaric, licentious, depraved, fanatical". Sadly, these views are still peddled today, despite the varied ways in which many Muslims are attempting to rebuild their ransacked civilisation.

On the one hand, this desire for renewal and reform has resulted in liberation movements and denunciations of dogmatism and racial nationalism. At the same time it has nurtured the growth of what is loosely termed fundamentalism. As Sardar says: "Fundamentalists are angry, anti-modern and aggressively anti-West. And they have very good reason on all counts."

He is at pains to stress the bankruptcy of that fundamentalist philosophy that expresses itself in empty slogans and replaces "a persuasive moral God" by a coercive, political one. Yet the growth of nationalism and fundamentalism, he admits, were by no means entirely the product of Western exploitation. Modernist leaders in some Muslim states have been ruthless in pursuit of power; wealth has accumulated in fewer and fewer hands; and there have been misguided attempts to reinstate "the outer limits" of the sharia, or Islamic law. "What we thus get is an austere state" that behaves "totally contrary to the teachings of the Qur'an and spirit of Islam, yet justifying its oppression in the name of Islam."

Introducing Islam is a timely re-working of the author's earlier Muhammad for Beginners. Beginning with a detailed account of the origins of Islam, it uses a historical framework to outline its development. Some will find its tabloid style simplistic or patronising. Others will find it a readable primer: refreshingly witty, even jokey.

It is also a novelty to discover a book on Islam that is illustrated (profusely) by cartoons. Purists need not panic: the writer and illustrator comply with that tradition that states that the depiction of the Prophet and his followers is forbidden. What might alarm traditionalists is the book's conclusion that Islam must continue to transform itself from within through "a continuous process of rethinking".