Allah Akbar Allahuh

Lippmann's UNDERSTANDING ISLAM is a difficult book to review. Though interesting

and comprehensive, it is in some respects a kind of laundry list and while that

approach sheds considerable light on the faith, it is expressive rather than

interpretive, and comment is thus somewhat problematic. Nor will it suffice to

summarize what is essentially a summary to begin with.

The author does provide some worthwhile observations. Not only is the God of

the Prophet Muhammad the same as that of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and

the Christians, the three faiths share a broad tradition. But he also points out

that many Muslims question the use of the word Allah in English, because it simply

means God. (7) He is very clear that the common tradition belies a far too common

perception of Islam in the west as an 'outlandish heathen cult.' (6)

At the same time, however, in places he stretches the difference among the faiths,

arguing, for instance, that Islam rejects any notion that Jesus, or anyone else,

could be the Son of God. (8) This is something that is often confusing. Suffice it to

say that as literally true as that fact may be, it is also clear in the Koran that Jesus

was at least a very special prophet -- even one conceived immaculately and borne

of a virgin.

Many of the disparities may be more cultural or linguistic than anything else. At the

broadest level, there is considerable symmetry. Jews proclaim 'God is one,' Christians

believe 'in one God,' and Muslims assert 'there is not God but Allah.' There is a

modest array of congruence among the Old and New Testaments and the Koran, as

well. The concept of the life after this one has considerable similarities. Another vital

point of commonality is belief in free will, even given submission to the will of Allah.

Equally important, perhaps, in Islam, is its profession of mankind

as one, just as God is one.

Beyond the five pillars and even the hadith legal duties, there is a much more

pronounced unity of the sacred and secular in Muslim countries. Indeed, they are

very much what we term theocracies. Lippmann expresses this by saying that the

'distinction between what is Caesar's and what is God's is alien to Islam.' (32)

Perhaps less so in modern nation-states, it is yet far more so in Islamic countries

than in those of the west. However, it may be a valid point that Islam has not been

around as long as either Christianity or Judaism, and the situation in this regard

in at least Christendom when it was, for example, 1400 years old, as Islam is now,

was much more theocratic than we find today. And given the author's comments

(170) on Islam today, the days of that tendency toward theocracy per se may be


There seem to be other omissions in the text. There is, for instance, little in-depth

treatment of the Arab Renaissance which grew out of the spark of Islam and in turn

sparked the European Renaissance. As one cannot call their education complete

without having learned the Arab renaissance invented algebra, there is no real

understanding of Islam where the Timurid is overlooked. Further, there is almost

no mention I can note by Lippmann of the special role in Islam that Muhammad's

life as a merchant played. Islam bound the economy of its world nearly as much as

it bound its religious beliefs. And, in spite of the Baaths, it would seem to be

necessarily asymmetrically opposed to socialism.

What presents the greatest difficulty in the book for me perhaps is trying to sort

through all the schisms and sects of Islam. On one hand this is very much like

Christianity, and the fact that the one is less alien to me than the other may be at the

root of the difficulty. To me, however, it almost seems as if the idea of Shiite Islam

is a contradiction in terms. (Ch 6) Clearly, some of the professions and practices of

Khomeini underscore this point, not the least of which was his apparent animosity

to technology. Even the maverick Qaddafi is not so befuddled. (174) Lippmann on this

score does see Islam as much more able to adjust and modify itself than even

Catholicism was to the exigencies of such change.

Lippmann concludes with comment on the instability of the Muslim world, but this

may not be due to the causes he considers at all. (175) Rather, it might be

remembered that much of this Islamic world was subjugated by European imperialism

and colonialism, and the political and economic instability it is beset with may be

because of that instead of anything inherent in Islam itself. That point is crucial

in a world which daily hears of jihads, Saddams, Khomeinis, Arafats, and the like.