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Reviewed by:
  • Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization
  • Zain Ali
Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization. By Seyyed Hossein Nasr. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003. Pp. 224. Paper $9.71.

"Islam," writes Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "is like a vast tapestry," and in his book Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization he aims to survey the masterpiece that is Islam. The present work is part of a trilogy including Ideal and Realities of Islam and The Heart of Islam. Nasr states that the common theme in the trilogy "is the universalist perspective and respect for other religions" (p. xxiv). In addition, Nasr clarifies that his approach, as with all of his Islamic writings, is to write from an Islamic perspective, which he terms "traditional Islam" (p. xxiii). Nasr stands opposed to either the secular modernist or fundamentalist perspectives, both of which he regards as forms of extremism.

This book, initially published as part of Our Religions, edited by A. Sharma, is significantly revised and includes a new introduction and bibliography. It can best be described as a primer on Islam, consisting of eight chapters that focus on a variety of pertinent themes.

Chapter 1 deals with the self-understanding of Islam and the Islamic world. Islam, Nasr notes, sees itself as a return to the primordial faith of humanity, a faith that affirms the unity and oneness of God. This chapter also presents an overview [End Page 495] of the various ethnic and cultural groupings within the Muslim world, and charts the spread and demographic growth of Islam.

Chapter 2 introduces the notion of al-din, an Arabic term that corresponds closely to the word "religion." Nasr contrasts the two words, where religion means "to bind" while al-din means "debt" (p. 25). Thus, religion, as framed by Islam, involves the notion of debt, in particular humanity's debt to the Divine. The chapter also discusses the significance of the Qur'an and Muhammad as the messenger of God.

Chapter 3 begins with an exposition of the nature of Divinity, which is at the heart of Islamic doctrine. As Nasr explains, the Divine is understood as being "at once the Absolute, the Infinite, and the Perfect Good" (p. 59). The remainder of the chapter deals with various Islamic doctrines and beliefs, including prophecy and revelation, human nature, the Qura'nic view of men and women, and eschatology.

Chapter 4 deals with the content, codification, and schools of Shariah, the Divine Law of Islam. There is also an interesting discussion of Sufism, which Nasr claims "is like the heart of the body of Islam" (p. 81). Controversially, Nasr claims that "the spread of Islam outside of the Arab and Persian worlds up to the present day has been mostly through Sufism" (p. 87).

Chapter 5 delves into the central pillars of Islam, which accompany the belief in God and in Muhammad as the messenger of God. The pillars are salah (canonical prayer), sawn (fasting), hajj (pilgrimage), and zakah (religious tax or charity). Associated with these pillars is the notion of jihad, and here Nasr writes, "jihad . . . is usually mistranslated into English as 'holy war,' but literally means 'exertion' or 'effort' in the path of God" (p. 91). Also covered are the topics of family, ethics, and economic and political institutions.

Chapter 6 presents the historical evolution of Islam beginning with the migration of Muhammad to Medina, and the events leading to the divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

Chapter 7 discusses the early Islamic community, who found themselves in the "throes of disputes over such issues as whether human beings are saved by faith or works, whether there is freewill or determinism, and questions concerning the sacred text as the Word of God" (p. 154). Nasr then explores the various schools of theology and philosophy that arose in order to address these questions of faith.

Chapter 8, the final chapter of the book, attempts to evaluate the place of Islam in the contemporary world. Nasr concludes by noting that despite the challenges of secular modernism and fundamentalism the vast majority of Muslims remain committed to the truth of Islam, and bear witness to the Oneness of God and the Oneness of humanity.

The one quibble...


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pp. 495-497
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