21st Century Western Scholarship on ‘Islamic History’: An Evaluation of Some Selected Recent Works

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray History

All the reputed western publishing houses—Ashgate, Bloomsbury, Brill, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Fortress, Hurst, I. B. Tauris, Lynne Rienner, Macmillan, Oneworld, Oxford, Palgrave, Polity, Princeton, Routledge, Sage, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Yale, Zed Books, etc. —publish on Islam and things Islamic in abundance

 Writing on ‘Islam’ and things Islamic—be it on Islamic sources or Islamic history, thought or philosophy, thinkers or personalities, trends or movements, contemporary discourses or issues/ challenges—has seen tremendous surge over the recent decades, especially in the 21st century. Unsurprisingly, one finds a remarkable rise in the production of literature pertaining to ‘Islam’ and things Islamic vis-à-vis contemporary world from publishing houses based in the West, Muslim world, and/ or rest of the world. In the West especially, such has been the rise in the production of books/ volumes related to Islam that “with every passing day, one finds a new book on Islam, its history, or any other aspect—classical or contemporary—published”.[1] Some of the Western publishing houses, with branches in different parts of the world as well, are mentioned here in alphabetical order: Ashgate, Bloomsbury, Brill, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Fortress, Hurst, I. B. Tauris, Lynne Rienner, Macmillan, Oneworld, Oxford, Palgrave, Polity, Princeton, Routledge, Sage, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Yale, Zed Books, etc.

Among this plethora of literature on Islam and things Islamic, a major portion is focused on ‘Islamic history’ and its inter-related areas/ subjects. This has undoubtedly seen an increase and expansion from the last many years. Alexander Knysh (Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Michigan, USA) has rightly said that “Books on Islam are a legion. They take a wide range of approaches to the subject”.[2] This is not without a reason; in fact, there are a number of reasons for this, and the most imporant ones are mentioned below:

The primary reason is that Islam is curently a ‘global’ religion, having its followers throgh out the globe—living both as majority and as minority. Peter Mandaville (Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University, USA), is of the opinion that Islam—which “constitutes one of the great world religions today—and certainly the fastest-growing”—is frequently “represented as a ‘comprehensive’ way of life that pervades all sectors of human activity and experience among its adherents.” Currently, Muslims comprise “approximately 1.6 billion people across almost every continent” on the globe; and among these Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India—all in South Asia and South East Asian regions—are “the four countries with the greatest number of Muslims”.[3] Echoing similar views, John L. Esposito (Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, USA) highlights that Islam is not only “the second-largest religion in the world (after Christianity)”, both “globally as well as in Europe”, but is “the third-largest religion in America” and is “among the fastest-growing religions in Africa, [and] Asia”. Thus, having its followers all through the globe, Muslims live not only “within some fifty-seven Muslim-majority countries” worldwide, but “constitute significant minorities” in Europe, America, and rest of the world as well.[4] That is, the “world of Islam is [currently] global; its capitals and communities are not only Cairo, Damascus, Mecca [Makkah], Jerusalem, Istanbul, Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta but also London, Paris, Marseilles, Bonn, New York, Detroit, and Washington.”[5]

Second important reason is that Islam is discussed and construed not only as a religion and civilization but as a worldview and (political) ideology as well. That is, “the topic of Islam and of Muslims is [interpreted both] political as well as religious”. Islam, as assumed by its adherents (Muslims), “is not only a faith that inspires personal piety and provides meaning and guidance for this life and the next”, but is “an ideology and worldview that informs Muslim politics and society” as well—a ‘complete and comprehensive way of life’. Because of its growing global impact, Islam “has been and continues to be a concern for policymakers, political analysts, and commentators.”[6] It is in this context, that Richard C. Martin (Professor of Islamic Studies and History of Religions, Emory University, Atlanta, USA) asserts that in the 21st century there is a “growing demand for accessible knowledge about Islam” and things Islamic, which has resulted in the publication and production of a “number of histories, encyclopedias, and dictionaries”, and in numerous companions, handbooks, edited volumes, reference works, etc., not only “about Islamic cultures, religion, history, politics”, but about Muslims and Muslim world also.[7]

With regard to the unprecedented growth in the proliferation of Islamic scholarship in the 21st century, Martin analyses that a number of scholars and analysts have declared the 21st century as “the era of Islam”, keeping in view the major “events” that occurred from 2001 onwards, that “have underscored the importance of knowing about Islamic history and [in] understanding the great diversity and richness of Muslim social, cultural, and religious practices … [as] a global religious and political phenomenon”. Thus, “Islam increasingly is recognized as a vital force in the contemporary world, a source of collective social identity, and religious expression”. Moreover, the “Public interest in learning about Islam is a very recent phenomenon” because the post-2000 era events “have generated a demand for information about Islam on an unprecedented scale in the history of Islamic studies”. One clearly perceives that “Scholars, journalists, and writers of all sorts have responded robustly to this newly recognized importance of Islam and the Muslim world, thus creating a wealth of information about Islam now available in bookstores, libraries, and newsstands around the world.”[8] (italics mine).

In this context, below is presented a brief introduction—description and evaluation—of some selected works by the Western scholars (‘Islamicists’) on ‘Islamic history’, published in the last two decades of the 21st century.



Daniel W. Brown’s A New Introduction to Islam (2009)[9]: A New Introduction to Islam is an excellent (under) graduate textbook presenting a thorough history of the Islamic faith. The author, Daniel W. Brown, has lived in Egypt and in Pakistan and has been a Visiting Scholar at Islamic Research Institute in Islamabad, at the Institute of Islamic Culture in Lahore and at Cairo University. He has taught Islamic studies at Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Smith colleges; and is the author of Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought.

The present work introduces students to the history and development of Islamic studies as a discipline, showing how it has shaped our understanding of Islam, and examines how the vibrant religious culture of the Near East produced a unique and brilliant intellectual and religious tradition spanning the fields of Islamic law, theology, philosophy and mysticism. The book also surveys the ways in which Islamic tradition has enriched the world and in turn been enriched by interaction with other civilizations, from the Mongols to the modern West. Furthermore, it considers the opportunities and challenges facing Muslims today. It offers a fresh, account of the origins, major features, and lasting impact of the Islamic tradition. The development of Muslim beliefs and practices is carefully explored against the background of social and cultural contexts that extend from North Africa to South and Southeast Asia, providing a new and illuminating perspective.

This thought-provoking second edition builds on the success of the first and offers additional material on Islam in the West, on gender and women, and on recent trends in Islamic thought, making it more comprehensive and up to date. Additional features such as detailed chronologies, tables summarizing key information, useful maps and diagrams, and many more illustrations further enhance this critical introduction to the major issues in Islamic studies.

The book consists of four parts (17 chapters); Part-I: The Formation of the Islamic Tradition (6 chapters); Part-II: The Expansion of Islam (3 chapters); Part-III: Islamic Institutions (3 chapters); and Part-IV: Crisis and Renewal in Islamic History (5 chapters). These chapters are preceded by List of Illustrations [33 diagrams/pictures, and 7 maps]; Preface to the Second Edition; Source Acknowledgments, and are followed by Glossary, Bibliography, and Index.

How Islam came to be what it is today in all of its variety and its paradoxical unity is the “story” that has been “set out to tell” in this book; a “story” that is first of all rooted in history.

Part I, The Formation of the Islamic Tradition, explores the historical and religious context of the rise of Islam, and makes a survey of the central elements of the Islamic tradition. In part-II, The Expansion of Islam, the focus has been turned from sacred history and the formative elements of Islam to the “complex historical context” in which Islamic civilization grew to maturity, beginning with the Arab conquests. Part-III, Islamic Institutions, surveys the great institutions of Islamic civilization in its maturity, and covers with Islamic Law, Theology and Philosophy, and the “spiritual center” of Islam, Sufism. These three great institutions, for the author, are the defining features of Islam in its maturity that gave it the coherence, the brilliance, and the resiliency that marked Islamic civilization at its height.

Part-IV, Crisis and Renewal in Islamic History, spanning over 5 chapters (Turks, Crusaders, and Mongols; Revival and Reform; Islam and the West; The Turbulent Twentieth Century; and Islam in the Twenty-First Century) examines Muslim responses to the challenge of history and patterns of renewal and reform in Islam. In the final section of this part, the author argues: “Clearly modern Islam has been deeply impacted by the presence of Muslims in the west and by the challenge of pluralism. Contemporary Muslims are faced with a rather striking range of alternative visions both for the place of Islam in a pluralist world and for the place of pluralism in Islam” (p. 298).

A New Introduction to Islam, is sum, is one of the most lucidly organized introductions to Islam, informative and clear on all the major issues and historical events pertaining to Islam, a thoughtful and a comprehensive guide to the study of Islam. The book is up-to-date not only in its discussion of issues like ‘Islam and Modernity’ but also in bringing up recent scholarly debates about the Qur’an and Islamic traditions. Elegantly written, it is easy to read and is a useful and practical guide for students and teachers of the field alike.


William Shepard’s Introducing Islam (2009) [10]:—An outcome of more than 30 years of teaching and research of the author about Islam within the context of religious studies, Introducing Islam is a comprehensive and concise model textbook and an ideal introduction for students wishing to gain a sympathetic understanding of Islam, that seeks to present the Islamic religion and its culture (of different Muslim countries) in a sympathetic way.

The author traces the history of Islam, from its early environment and origins in the life and career of Muhammad (pbuh), through its classical expressions to its interactions with the West in the modern world. Devoting a chapter each to important topics such as: The Qur’an, Islamic law, Islamic theology, and the Sufi movement and to studies of Islam in individual countries: Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Indonesia, it explores Islamic civilization through discussion of Islamic art and culture, and community rituals as well.

Consisting of a Preface, Introduction, 3 Parts (divided into 19 chapters, 2-20), the book is highly illustrated with  Illustrations (10 maps and 28 figures), text boxes, summary charts (key points at the end of each chapter), a glossary of key Arabic terms, and a list of further reading to aid students/readers understanding and revision.

The introductory chapter, ‘Introduction: Approaching the Subject’ discusses the appropriate approach of the subject and gives a synopsis of Islam as a Muslim might give. The book focuses on Islam “as a religion”, presenting the symbols, ideas, practices and institutions of which it is composed, and tracing their historical developments as much as possible (p. 2).

The Part-I, ‘History of the Community’, consisting of 3 chapters (2-4), gives a historical overview from the pre-Islamic period to about 1700 CE. It deals with the history of the Hellenistic-Iranian world and of Islamic civilization from 700 to 1700 CE’, providing a skeleton overview of Islamic history from its beginning up to the eve of modern period, including Umayyads, Abbasids, Ottomans, Saffavids, from Central Asia, China to South and Southeast Asia and North Africa.

The Part-II, ‘Aspects of Islam’, consisting of 10 chapters (5-14), presents the Islamic tradition as it has developed over the centuries usually with some attention to modern developments at the end of each. These 10 chapters deal respectively with, the Qur’an; the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh]; Rituals and Ceremonies; Divisions in the Umma, the various  Sects: Kharijis, shi’is, and Sunnis; the ‘ulama’ and their role; Islamic law—shariah and fiqh, forms of usul al-fiqh: shi’i and sunni, sunni schools (madhabs) of fiqh, Theology and philosophy, their  main schools, main issues, and main teachings; Sufism and the history of the Sufi movement; three major figures: Ibn Sina (98—1057)- the greatest of the classical Muslim philosophers; Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111)- scholar-mystic who did the most to integrate the various strands of Muslim thinking, philosophy, theology, fiqh and Sufism; and Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1320)—fearless reformer who inspires both reformers and radicals among Muslims today. The final chapter (ch.14) ‘Culture and counter-culture-Literature and other arts’, a selective overview of the art (visual art: arabesque, calligraphy and pictures), architecture (especially mosques), literature (prose and poetry) and music, argues that the “artistic culture sometimes directly expresses religion, sometimes reacts against it or flouts it and sometimes does both” (p.190).

The Part-III, ‘Modern Developments’, consisting of 6 chapters (15-20) deals with the challenge of the modern period, with particular attention to religion (Islam) and politics in Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Indonesia and the last of these deals with disparate aspects of globalization. Chapter 15 traces the history of European colonialism/ western imperialism from the beginning of the 19th century, Muslims and to Islam; Chapter 16 traces the history of Ottomans, “Turkism”, nationalist and secularist republic established by Ataturk, and Alevi revival, arguing that in general, the Turks have come to accept both “secularism and Islam”, but they are still trying to work out exactly “how to relate them” (p. 225); Chapter 17 discusses modernization and all -isms (secularism, nationalism, and Islamic modernism vis-à-vis Muhammad ‘Abduh), Muslim Brothers and Islamism, revolution and resurgence of Islam; Chapter 18 traces out the history of Iran from Qajars to Pehalvis, from Iranian nationalism to White Revolution, and from Islamic opposition to Islamic Revolution and the creation of Islamic Republic (of Iran); Chapter 19 focuses on the Islamization of Java, Samutra and other islands, Dutch imperialism continuing Islamization, independence and the issue of an Islamic state; and the final chapter (chapter 20) of this Part—which is also the last chapter of the book as well—discusses Globalization, its meaning and examples; Global jihad; Why Martyrdom operations?; Muslim Diaspora in the West; and Liberal/ Progressive Islam.

Shepard sees the whole history of Islam as a ‘process of globalization’ and the Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) as the greatest symbol and manifestation of Islamic global tendency. In its final section, ‘Liberal/ Progressive Islam’, he throws light on the views of some Muslim scholars-“Liberal/ Progressive” intellectuals (p. 288)—from Fazlur Rehman (d. 1988), the doyen of these thinkers, to Amina wadud (b. 1952) and Nasr Abu Zayd (b. 1943), from Abdulkarim Saroush (b. 1945), Abdullahi An-Na’im to Tariq Ramadan (b. 1962)—and concludes that “globalization, like all other gifts of technology, has its good and bad aspects”, and will make a “significant difference” for Islam and Muslims; but in the long run, it is hard to say “what that difference will be” (p. 282).

In this work the author, besides using wide range of sources from Encyclopedias, anthologies, studies on Islamic civilization and history, to books on gender issues, has made significant use of the “Electronic resources” as well, i.e. has made “considerable use of the web”, particularly the “Google and Wikipedia to great advantage” but with care and caution (pp. 317-18).

It is a pity that this book ends without a conclusion. Besides, a little overview of ‘Philosophy’ is given in chapter 11, although it needs more concern as it has been shown. Same is the case with ‘Prose’ in chapter 14.

Despite these shortcomings, the author deserves special appreciation for bringing to the forefront such an informative and comprehensive work. It will prove helpful and useful to students and scholars alike. In sum, Introducing Islam is a remarkable and valuable contribution and an excellent source on the Islam: its history, culture and on modern trends. In short, it is a must-read for students and academics alike.

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (2011)[11]: Although many introductory works on Islam and Muslims, their faith and beliefs are in circulation, there are few comprehensive and concise works on Islam that provide clear-cut and precise answers to nearly all the questions related to Islam, its beliefs, practices, history, politics, and contemporary challenges. It is in this direction that in this new edition of What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, John L. Esposito (Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, USA) provides, in question-and-answer format (Q&A), “succinct, accessible, sensitive”, and concise but also insightful and even-handed answers to questions that are of diverse range: from the general, basic and fundamental questions like What do Muslims believe? What is the Muslim scripture? etc., to more specific issues like Islam’s relation/compatibility with and response to modernization, democracy, pluralism, capitalism, gender-equality, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, slavery, women rights; and from Islam and Jihad, global jihad, suicide bombing, hijacking, terrorism/violence, role of internet in Islam, and Islam on environment, to Muslim hip-hop, clash of civilizations, Islamism, and Islamophobia. Speaking to a wide range of audiences, from government agencies to the media, Esposito has identified the most pressing, burning, and critical questions people constantly and consistently pose about Islam.

Professor Esposito is accepted as one of the leading/ most respected authorities on Islam. He has (co)authored and (co)edited a number of books and encyclopedias on Islam, Islam and politics, Islamic movements, political Islam, Islamophobia, Islam and gender, etc. In the area of Islamic history, some of his book include: The Oxford History of Islam (1999), What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (2002; 2nd edition, 2011), The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (2003), and Islam: The Straight Path (1998; 5th edition published in 2016).

This second edition builds on the success of its previous edition of 2002, and offers additional material on current trends in Islamic thought, making it more comprehensive and up to date. Grouped in major topics and divided into seven (7) main sections such as General Information; Faith; Islam and Other Religions; Customs and Culture; Violence and Terrorism; Society, Politics, and Economy; and (finally) Muslims in the West, this book provides basic information on the faith, customs, and political beliefs of Muslims, the followers of Islam—the “second-largest of the world’s religions globally as well as in Europe”, and “the third-largest religion in America” (p. xiii). The book also includes “Glossary”, “Suggestions for Further Readings”, and “Index” which are very helpful as well (especially to undergraduate and postgraduates students).

The main focus and purpose of this book, in the words of Esposito himself, is: “many more people today have specific questions and are looking for quick, brief, and direct answers, ones not easily found in historical and religious histories. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam is meant to meet that need. Its primary purpose is to communicate what Muslims believe and why they do what they do. The book is not designed to be read from cover to cover; readers can look for answers to specific questions of interest to them. Because each question and answer is self-contained…” (p. xiv). Thus, this book is about Islamic faith, Muslim beliefs and practices, Islamic history, doctrines, and customs, as well as about Islam and contemporary issues and problems, including both that have come to the fore-front with the emergence of modernization, to those which have gained prominence, importance and have intensified after 9/11.

The changes, alterations and modifications that have been made in this revised and expanded second edition are both minor and major: minor changes include an up-to-date preface, and change in a section title (in the second section, from “Faith and Practice” to “Faith” only). The major change is the addition of 28 Q&A (from no. 94 in the first edition to no. 122 in this edition), as much has changed from 2002 to 2011. The range of answers also varies: from just a few sentences to few pages (seven pages being the maximum). It seems that these additions were made due to the popular demand, debate, and discussion on such themes and topics, which have intensified and gained prominence and importance after 9/11, including topics and themes such as Jihad and global jihad, terrorism and violence; Islamism and Islamophobia; pluralism, democracy, multi-culturalism, inter-faith dialogue; Muslims in and of the West; and other related issues and questions.

For example, with regard to ‘Inter-faith dialogue’, ‘Islamism’, ‘secularism’, ‘democracy’, ‘clash of civilizations’, Esposito argues that: “Inter-faith dialogue”—of which Muslims have been “suspicious” in the past—along with the “religious and political pluralism, and human rights have become an important part of contemporary Islamic discourse” (p. 90); Islamism, among many other such terms, describes “a political or social movement, organization, or person that believes Islam or God’s will applies to all areas of life” (p.185); Secularism, and its Muslim reaction, for Esposito is that the term “secularism has often been misunderstood and seen diametrically opposed to religion” (p. 187; italics in original). Similarly,  with regard to clash of civilizations, Esposito maintains that this theory “flattens cultural and historical forces into a caricature distorting the society and religious traditions. It dangerously oversimplifies the encounter between the West and the Muslim world and can become part of the problem rather than the solution.” (p. 214). In an answer to question ‘is Islam compatible with democracy?’ Esposito—repeating almost the same views which he has written in almost in all works on this while discussing this theme—says: “Engaging in a process of reform, they argue the compatibility between Islam and democracy by using traditional Islamic concepts like consultation (shura) between ruler and ruled, community consensus (ijma), public interest (maslaha), and ‘the use of human reason to reinterpret Islamic principles and values and to meet the new needs of society’ (ijtihad). These mechanisms can be used to support parliamentary forms of government with systems of checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches” (p.190).

Finally, with regard to Islamophobia (‘discrimination against Muslims because of their faith or race’), Esposito argues that although “the events of 9/11 and its legacy, continued terrorist attacks, and fears of growing radicalization have resulted in a sharp increase” in it (p. xv), Islamophobia did not suddenly came into being after the events of 9/11, but has long and deep historical roots. For him, its relationship with multi-culturalism and pluralism is very much “critical” to the Muslim-West relations: “The interconnectedness of Islamophobia, multi-culturalism, and pluralism is critical to the Muslim-West relations. Attitudes toward Muslim communities in America and Europe are part of a complex set of issues. There is no easy way to discuss pluralism, multi-culturalism, and the future of Western societies without discussing the precarious place of Islam and Muslims in the debate over civic engagement and integration” (p. 240).

In conclusion, it may be argued that most books on Islam, even introductory texts, are not readily accessible to the average reader, as well as being necessarily easy when it comes to finding exact and relevant information on the questions people commonly have. Esposito has filled that gap with this newly updated edition of What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam—the best single source for clear and objective information about the new developments, and for answers to questions about the origin and traditions of Islam. The book stands as a good presentation about the beliefs and practices of Islam which everyone should unquestionably try to become familiar with. Taken as a whole, this book is quite a comprehensive and concise guide, providing positive and reasonably balanced view on a wide range of topics relating to Islam. In sum, dealing with Islam, its history, doctrines, and customs, and about the modern challenges and issues, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam is an essential, straightforward, easy reference guide and a must read for everyone interested in Islam.


An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century (2013)[12]: After John L. Esposito’s The Oxford History of Islam (Oxford University Press, 1999), no comprehensive reference book, discussing and encompasses the Islamic history from its classical to contemporary era, with regional/ case studies, and at the same time throwing light on contemporary challenges as well, was published. The work under review, An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century, fills that gap by providing an overview of the Islamic tradition that captures its diversity, debates, and regional differences. Providing an introduction to Islam that begins its enquiry with the social and political realities that inform 21st century Islamic practice, it examines the different interpretations and debates that characterize its tradition, and addresses some pressing  and hotly debated issues like “the phenomenon of militancy, Islamophobia, and the teaching of Islam in the West” (p. 3). The central theme of the book is to reveal that the “image of Islam (particularly in the West) is very different from the lived reality of over a billion adherents around the globe” (p. 4).

Divided into four parts—and consisting of 15 chapters (Part-I: 5 chapters, Part-II: 3 chapters, Part-III: 5, and Part-IV: 2 chapters) excluding the conclusion—the book provides an overview of the basic structures and debates within Islam in Part-I; examination of Islam in the modern context in Part-II. Part-III focuses on regional examinations: Africa, South Asia, Soviet Republic, Indonesia and Malaysia, Latin America and Caribbean; and Islam in a global world is examined in Part-IV. Some of the chapters (of each part) are briefly outlined and analyzed below.

In Part-I, for example, chapter 2 provides a brief overview of Islam—from classical to contemporary era—ranging from the historical context in which Islam emerged and evolved to the emergence of European colonialism and its legacy. It argues that the “the story of Islam is in essence a story of the effect that a profound revelation … had upon the world” and central to this history is a “dramatic and ongoing narrative of different communities struggling to interpret the revelation, while synthesizing their indigenous with Islamic ethos” (p. 14). Chapter 5 discusses the development of “Islamic Political Theology” or the rise of Islamic “sects” (p. 82). Ranging from its origins to its development in (pre and post) modern periods, this chapter makes an “unorthodox approach” to the phenomenon of Islamic “sects” (p. 107) and explores the meanings of sects of different spiritual types that are in some way shaped by beliefs.

In Part-II, chapters 6 and 7 take into consideration discussions on the ongoing debate about the proper relationship between Islam and political authority, or more specifically, on the “differing ways in which governments (and government leaders) have understood the proper relationship between Islam and the modern state” (p. 112). While as—examining the question of “Muslims as Minorities in the West”—chapter 8 discusses various challenges (with a focus on four countries with largest Muslim communities: US, UK, France, Germany) associated with integrating into Western society while retaining one’s cultural and religious heritage. The examination looks broadly at the most prominent issues raised in current research—education, the building of masajid (mosques), freedom of religious expression and political opportunity (p. 159) and concludes that although these countries have dealt with these issues differently, but all of them find “genuine tolerance and inclusion a continuing challenge” (p. 169).

Chapter 10 in Part-III, “Islam in South Asia”, focuses on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and discusses the historical background, Islamic movements, political Islam and gender issues in South Asia—which is “home to one of the largest Muslim population in the world” (p. 203). A region having “tremendously diverse Muslim society, featuring a mosaic of ideological, political, cultural, and economical complexity” (p. 204; cf. p. 215) adapted to local demographic and socio-cultural realities, the form of Islam practiced in modern-day South Asia attests to the “vibrant and at time volatile interaction this faith with other religious traditions of the region, as well as contesting and negotiating its own internal tectonic plates” (pp. 214-15).

Part-IV examines Islam in a globalized world. Chapter 14 views the challenges of teaching Islam in the post-9/11 West. Seeking to offer a positive alternative for teaching about Islam in 21st century, the chapter examines the “ecosystem”—or the “ecology” which provides a broader lens, exploring adaptations, movements, and relations of humans along with their interaction in and with a common environment” (p. 273)—of the class and how this can be  reconstructed in a more open manner.

The book ends with the Conclusion, wherein the editors wrap up the main arguments, very succinctly, presented in the book, as well as highlight the ‘uniqueness’ as well as newness of the book. In this work, they discuss Islam from the vantage point of multidisciplinary approach in a more effective—and ultimately more accurate—way, especially to the Western audience.

Some of the additional features of the book are discussion questions and suggested further readings (at the end of each chapter), sidebars (providing succinct information about personalities, events, famous places, books, etc., relevant to each chapter), bibliography, and index.

Keeping in view the diversity of topics, multidisciplinary approach, comprehensives of topics, additional features, expertise of each contributor, the volume as a whole is a welcome addition, a must-have and must-read reference work for every undergraduate and graduate student of Islamic studies. In sum, An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century  is a comprehensive introduction to Islam.

Esposito’s Islam—The Straight Path (2016)[13]: First published in 1991, Islam—the Straight Path is a clear account of Islam and its contemporary development by a sympathetic Western scholar of Islam. This book has enjoyed, over the years, a “broad audience as a textbook and as an introduction to Islam” not only in the English-speaking world, but also through translations in various languages. Providing an “essential coverage of the origins, spread, and development of Islam and its roles in Muslim societies”, the present (fifth/ updated) edition of this book offers an updated information and material on recent developments (p. ix). Addressing a variety of questions that “underscore the strength, vitality, and diversity of Islam as well as its role in Muslim history”, this book contributes “to a better understanding of the faith of Islam, which, as in the past, inspires, guides, and motivates the vast majority of Muslims as believers and global citizens” (pp. xii, xv).

It consists of six (6) chapters, preceded by a Preface and Introduction and followed by Timeline, Glossary, Bibliography, and Index. In the Preface (pp. ix-x), Esposito highlights the overall reception of its previous editions and focuses on the changes made in the current edition. In ‘Introduction’ (pp. xi-xv), he highlights the growth and spread of Islam and Muslims from 7th century Arabia to a “world religion with followers across the globe” in the 21st century (p. xi). It also refers to some crucial events like Iranian Revolution (1979), events of 9/11, emergence of ISIS, etc., that made Islam from a “rich and dynamic religious tradition of the mainstream majority” to “menacing headlines and slogans, images of hostage takers and gun-toting mullahs” (p. xii).

Chapter 1, “Muhammad and the Quran: Messenger and Message” (pp. 1-36), is divided into three major sections—Muhammad [pbuh] and the Muslim Community, Muhammad and the West, and The Quran: The Word of God—and describes the emergence of Islam with a particular focus on the life and role of the Prophet (pbuh) and the teachings of the Quran, concluding that “the message of the Quran and example of the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] constitute the formative and enduring foundation of faith and belief” and both serve “as the basic sources of Islamic law and the reference points for daily life” (p. 34). Chapter 2, “The Muslim Community in History” (pp. 37-91) discusses the emergence, development and phenomenal expansion of Islam and the Muslim community, development of Islamic empires and states in medieval and pre-modern eras, and the florescence of Islam as a world civilization which contributed significantly in various natural, social, and religious sciences. It also discusses ‘Islam and/in the West’ as well and concludes that current “Islam is a major and fast-growing religion in the West, and Muslims are increasingly an integral part of the mosaic of Western societies” (p. 89). Chapter 3, “Religious Life: Belief and Practice” (pp. 92-147) highlights the development of Islamic theology, philosophy, law/ jurisprudence, and mysticism with a specific focus on the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’—the fundamental acts of Islam and things Islamic—under two major headings: Theology and Islamic Law.

Chapter 4, “Modern Islamic Reform Movements” (pp. 148-193)—consisting of three major sections, viz., From Imperial Islam to Islamic Revivalism, Revivalism in Islam, and Modern Islamic Movements—narrates the emergence of 18th and 19th century Islamic movements across the Islamic world  which serve as the forerunners to the 20th century ‘Islamic revivalism’ and ‘revivalist movements’, such as the Islamic modernist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Jamaat-i-Islami that have had a profound effect on 20th and 21st century Islam—as faith, worldview, ideology and civilization. It concludes with the argument that since the 18th century, “Revival and reform have been dominant themes in Islam”, as Muslims responded both “to internal and external forces that challenged their faith and social order” (p. 191). Chapter 5, “The Resurgence of Religion in Politics” (pp. 194-258) presents a historical overview of the causes, worldview, and expressions of Islamic revivalism and resurgence (also named as Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism, and political Islam) through a series of case studies from Middle East. By this, it demonstrates the diversity of ways in which Islam has been ‘used’ by governments, mainstream and extremist opposition groups, and/ or by the religious authorities, etc. It also deals with the issue of “Global Terrorism” and focuses on the relationship of Islam to violence and terrorism, the meaning of jihad, the origins of a global jihad ideology, the role and influence of ‘Islamist’ movements on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well as ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In the final section, “Arab Spring/ Arab Winter?” it highlights the role of religion and politics in the Arab uprisings.

The focus of Chapter 6, “The Struggle for Islam in the Twenty-First Century” (pp. 259-306) is the process of modern reform by focusing on the “Contemporary Islamic Religious Reform” and defines ‘the reformers’; parameters and direction of Islamic reform. It also highlights “A Spectrum of Reformers and Approaches” and “Critical Areas of Islamic Reform” by addressing the implications for democratization, pluralism, gender issues, religious minorities, and interfaith relations vis-à-vis reform and reformation.

Almost every chapter ends with brief ‘Conclusion’, and all chapters include some important and significant common features viz., Key Terms, Questions, extra information on key issues, concepts and personalities in boxes/. These chapters are followed by a Timeline, covering the events between 570 to Jan 2015, a Glossary of Arabic terms with a brief meaning/ definitions, a ‘Select Bibliography’ thematically, and a general Index.

In his The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies, Clinton Bennett has rightly describes it as a “widely used … standard introductory text on Islam at College level”. For him, Esposito’s book “presents a picture of Islam that moves closest to an insider view” though it “follows a somewhat traditional outsider format”.[14] Leila Fawaz (Tufts University) describes it as “the answer to every teacher’s prayer”, for it offers not only “an informed and balanced” introduction to Islam and things Islamic—from classical to contemporary eras—but is “elegantly written, beautifully synthesized, and helpful” reference work as well.

Summarily, expansive in scope and coverage, meticulously presented, and lucidly written, Esposito’s Islam—The Straight Path is a remarkable and balanced, simple but sympathetic, introductory reference book on Islam and Islamic history.

Besides these above mentioned works, there are many other works on Islamic history. For example, Tamara Sonn’s Islam: A Brief History (2004; 2nd ed. 2010) serves as a simple and straight forward introduction to Islam, from past to present. Written in a lucid and simple style, the book “combines the skills of the historian with the insights of the scholar of Islam” and, therefore, “is not simply about the rise and fall of dynasties but a clear and coherent picture of a dynamic, complex, and global religion”.

Kecia Ali and Oliver Leaman’s Islam: The Key Concepts (2008) is a “clear and concise guide to the religion and culture of Islam”, which explores this subject by focusing on key issues including the Qur’an, faith, theology, gender, fundamentalism, philosophy, jihad, Islam in the West, Islamic law. The objective of this book is mentioned by author in these words: “We wrote this book because many of our students are puzzled by what they find in the Qur’an and while studying Islam, and require a concise guide to the key concepts of the Book and the religion. Armed with this guide, it is to be hoped that they will be able to appreciate the form and matter of the Qur’an and Islam more adequately. In particular, we hope that it will help them to gain an appreciation of the interconnections that exist between the main ideas found in the Qur’an and within the heritage of Muslim thought”.

Alexander Knysh’s Islam in Historical Perspective (2009; 2nd ed. 2017) is a comprehensive volume which “provides the readers with an introduction to Islam, Islamic history and societies with carefully selected historical and scriptural evidence that enables them to form a comprehensive and balanced vision of Islam’s rise and evolution across the centuries and up to the present day”. “Treating Islam as a social and political force”, Knysh’s book addresses “Muslim devotional practices, artistic creativity and the structures of everyday existence” and is thus “designed to help readers to develop personal empathy for the subject by relating it to their experiences and the burning issues of today”, and includes pedagogical features like illustrations, stud questions, and chapter summaries.

Besides these, a number of encyclopedias also provide a wealth of information about Islam, its past and present, and addressed to students and general readers of the twenty-first century. Some of them include: Richard Martin’s The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (2004; 2 vols.); Gordon Newby’s Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (2004); Ruthven and Nanji’s Historical Atlas of the Islamic World (2005); Esposito’s The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (6 vols., 2009); and Juan Campo’s single volume Encyclopedia of Islam (2009).

This list is neither complete nor comprehensive; however, it gives some insights into the titles, coverage, objective, purpose, and readership of these books. The fact is that with very passing day, one finds a new book on Islam, its history, or any other aspect—classical or contemporary—published by a Western publisher: be it Ashgate or Bloomsbury, Brill or Cambridge, Continuum or Edinburgh, Fortress or Hurst, I. B. Tauris or Lynne Rienner, Macmillan or Oneworld, Oxford or Palgrave, Polity or Princeton, Routledge or Sage, Springer or Wiley-Blackwell, Yale or Zed Books.


[1] Tauseef Ahmad Parray, “A Portrayal of 21st Century Western Scholarship on ‘Islamic History’”, Greater Kashmir, 10th September, 2020, p. 7

[2] Alexander Knysh, Islam in Historical Perspective, 2nd Ed. (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), p. xv

[3] Peter Mandaville, Islam and Politics, 3rd Ed. (New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), pp. 4, 14

[4] John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. xiii, 3, 4; Idem., The Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 4

[5] Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, p. xvi

[6] Esposito, The Future of Islam, p. 4

[7] Richard C. Martin, “Introduction”, in Richard C. Martin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World [EIMW], 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 2004), I: ix-xii, p. x

[8] Martin, “Introduction”, in EIMW, I: ix-x

[9] Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd Ed. (UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); Pages: xvi+341; ISBN: 9781405158077; Pbk.

My reviews on this book were previously published in American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences [AJISS] (IIIT, USA), 28, 1 (Winter 2011): 150-152 and Islamic Studies (IRI, Islamabad) 49, 1 (2010): 121–125

[10] William Shepard, Introducing Islam (Oxon, RN; USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009); Pages: XVIII +333; ISBN: 9780415455183; Pbk.

My review on this book was previously published in AJISS, 27, 4 (Fall 2010): 117-120

[11] John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Pages: xix+268; ISBN: 9780199794133; Hbk.

My review on this book was previously published in Muslim World Book Review (The Islamic foundation, UK), 32, 3 (Spring 2012): 20-23 and in Kashmir Reader, 6th June 2015, p. 7

[12] Aminah Beverly McCloud, Scott W. Hibbard, and Laith Saud (Eds.) An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); Pages: xviii+328; ISBN: 9781405193603; Pbk.

My review on this book has been previously published in Islam and Civilizational Renewal (IAIS, Malaysia)R, 5, 2 (2014): 285-87

[13] John L. Esposito, Islam—The Straight Path, 5th Updated Edition (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), Pages: 368; ISBN: 978019063251; Pbk.

My review on this book has been recently published as “Reading John Esposito’s Islam—The Straight Path [5th Edition]”, GK, 14th January, 2021, p. 7

[14] Clinton Bennett (ed.), The Bloomsbury Companion to Islamic Studies (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 306; Idem., Studying Islam: The Critical Issues (New York: Continuum, 2010), p. 22

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