Can a whole religion be blamed for the actions of some of its followers? Syed B. Ali’s A Closer Look at Islam
seeks to provide a clearer look at the Islamic faith, showing that there’s a lot more to the Qur’an than initially meets
“Islam has always had the unfortunate distinction of hosting a sizeable stash of enemies,” writes Ali. “And if
that wasn’t enough, thanks to some Muslims on their wild rampage, it has, in recent times, managed to add to that
pile.” He examines the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of Islam, from inconsistencies and lack of consensus on what
is recorded in the books of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith); to the insistence of fundamentalist Muslims on
literal interpretations that obliterate the grace of metaphor; to the abuse of the faith demonstrated by those who act in
violation of Islam’s principles, based on passages of scripture taken out of context.
Ali shows that, in Islam, it’s irrelevant whether you love someone or not, as long as their rights are honored
and, to the extent that it’s possible, their needs are met.
Ali brings passion, extensive study, and reason to his arguments on Islam’s behalf. He refutes the claims of
some Muslims who have left the faith—a complicated task, given that there are multiple versions of Islamic history and
that some of what they disavow actually comes from cultural traditions rather than from the Prophet’s teachings.
Ali gives evidence that Islam was actually ahead of its time in its treatment of women and slaves, and he
clarifies the meaning of the much-used word jihad. Though the term has come to denote “faith-based aggression,” it
actually refers to “the application of effort towards a given goal,” with subduing the ego and speaking the truth to a
tyrant the greatest of these. Inspiring stories of Muhammad’s followers who are worthy role models for contemporary
practitioners of the faith are provided.
This is a work written with eloquence and zest. The use of different spellings for commonly used words is
made clear. Ali’s statement of purpose is compelling, and his arguments, by taking into account the historical context
of the issues discussed, dispel commonly believed myths about Islam and the character of the prophet.
The book is well organized; its interior layout and design make for pleasurable reading. It is amply annotated
and referenced, and includes appendices on the teachings of the Qur’an, Islamic sayings, and much more.
Syed B. Ali’s A Closer Look at Islam makes a logical case that Islam cannot be blamed for the acts of
terrorists. Timely and relevant, it affirms the ability of Islam to make “ideal human beings” of its followers.
The book begins with several references to ibn Warraq, Robert Spencer and Richard Dawkins. I thought this part might be difficult to follow as I had not read any of their works. I was however able to follow the logic of the arguments the author makes to counter the anti-Islam narrative. I was able to work through the relevant chapters- The Dilemma of Defense, Muhammad- Man or Myth, God or No God- without any difficulty.
The chapters of most interest to me were the ones that followed, discussing the relevance of context to Quranic verses, and the arrangement of verses according to themes and issues, ranging from "the treatment of nonbelievers" to "war and peace". These chapters could be read with an English translation of the Quran close at hand.
The book ends with a look at the lives of historical figures in Islamic history, whom the author regards as ideal Muslims. The focus on such personalities shines a light on the values held in high regard by the religion - patience, forgiveness, compassion, justice.
I think this book is a sound attempt at revisiting the values espoused by the faith and to counter anti-Islam literature, which bases its criticisms primarily on literalist approach to the Quran and distorted hadiths. It also discusses the contentious issues of jihad and women in Islam, which are important topics of interest today.
A sober defense of a theologically moderate form of Islam.
Some critics see Islam—and, by extension, the whole of the Quran—as a symbol of unrepentant extremism and atavistic
contempt for modernity. But Ali, in this debut, highlights how such interpretations are based on ignorance, political
appropriation, and willful distortion. He says that his book’s “sole purpose” is “refuting false charges against Islam,” and
he begins by taking on criticisms that former Muslims–turned-apostates have leveled in well-known publications.
Against their charges, Ali contends that Islam is essentially a religion of peace and that the Quran commands its disciples
to treat non-Muslims respectfully; he also impugns both the motives and the moral credibility of Islam’s detractors. The
author presents a much more moderate and diverse understanding of Sharia, which is neither univocal—each school
adheres to its own version—nor brutal, if properly based upon the Quran’s teachings. He also counters specific criticisms
directed at the Prophet Muhammad and discusses the challenges of formulating a consensus on a religion that’s so
ideologically splintered into warring camps. Ali devotes two chapters to articulating a sound exegesis of the Quran—one
that fully considers the cultural and scriptural context of every sentence. The study culminates in biographical accounts
of three imams who he says lived stellar lives that were faithful to Islamic teachings. The author is typically rigorous and
scrupulously debunks a catalog of common misconceptions. For example, he provides compelling evidence that
denigration of women, which some critics flippantly associate with Islam, is a cultural failing that isn’t encouraged by
Muslim doctrine. Sometimes the author indulges in hyperbolic caricature himself; for example, he broadly accuses
atheist thought of having “a complete lack of sensitivity and empathy.” However, more often than not, his scholarship is
meticulous, and he ably defends Islamic theology. Overall, this is a timely book that’s both edifying and refreshingly
A brief but thorough consideration of Muslim devotion.