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Muslims and Modernity: An introduction to the issues and debates
By Clinton Bennett

Continuum £18.99 (0-8264-5482-8)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

Reviewed with:

Islam in Britain: The British Muslim community in February 2005
The Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity £5.99

Kissing Cousins? Christians and Muslims face to face
Bill Musk
Monarch Books £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

SINCE the attacks of September 2001 in the United States, a vast outpouring of new publications on Islam has reflected interest in that faith in the West. These three works show the diverse approaches to Islam among Christian scholars today.

The works concerned have quite different aims and formats. Bennett’s functions as a textbook for undergraduate students, as is reflected in the discussion questions at various points. The ISIC volume is a research report, designed to raise awareness among both Church and government about the issues in focus. Bill Musk’s book, in contrast, is a personal reflection by an established Christian scholar in Islam who seeks to discover "parallels . . . about how the two faiths have actually found expression on earth". In doing so, he conducts a vast survey of Islamic history and theology with a parallel examination of these features of Christianity.

These different aims result in different writing styles. Bennett adopts a high scholarly style, while the ISIC report is more mid-scholarly, aiming to be accessible to an educated but non-specialist audience. Musk’s style is more popular, with frequent first-person reference, and aims to be accessible to non-specialist readers in the Churches.

Interestingly, Bennett aims to be a "virtual insider", allowing Muslim voices to speak for themselves without intermediate interpreter. The ISIC work takes an outsider’s perspective, looking into Islam and analysing what it sees in diverse Muslim statements and actions. Musk sits between the two, observing Islam as an outsider, but responding as an insider Christian in his discussion of themes within both faiths.

All three works demonstrate a detailed knowledge of the Islamic faith, and all recognise considerable diversity in the way Muslims relate to their sacred texts and the world around them. All three include discussion of the British context, though in the books by Bennett and Musk it is a passing discussion. The ISIC book is primarily an analysis of the British scene.

For criticism of Islam and Muslims, the ISIC volume stands apart. Presenting evidence of plans by some Muslims to take Britain for Islam through Islamic outreach and penetration of public institutions, it quotes Muslim writings; and it presents statistics to show increasing Islamic influence. It also discusses the phenomenon of Westophobia, or vitriolic anti-Western statements in Muslim publications.

Musk and Bennett are much more eirenic in their engagement with Islam. Musk says that "for most Muslims in Britain, da’wa [outreach] was never their motivation for coming to this country." Bennett acknowledges planning for takeover by some Muslim groups, but sees them as on the fringe of the broader Muslim community.

Musk and Bennett both include criticism of the West. In discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Musk presents Muslim perspectives of Western, especially American, one-sidedness, but he does not test the validity of such views. Bennett, in line with his stated aims, presents a Muslim-insider view that puts primary responsibility for Christian-Muslim problems on the West.

Another area where the three works diverge is in their impact on the reader. A sense of alarm is likely to arise from reading the ISIC volume, whereas Bennett’s volume will probably induce a sense that problems in the Christian-Muslim relationship are not insurmountable, and that we can move ahead with measured confidence. This might be true of the Musk volume also.

It is imperative that Christians and Muslims find ways of living together in friendship and peace. All three books would probably agree with that. What is the best way of preparing them for this hard work?

Some would argue that books such as the ISIC report should be hidden away, because of the bad news they bring. But this is the ostrich view. The ISIC report should be widely read, as it demands response from government and Church.

But we must read not only that report. More reassuring works, such as those by Bennett and Musk, provide tools with which to respond to issues raised by ISIC.

Dr Peter G. Riddell is Professor and Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations at the London School of Theology. Islam in Britain is available from the publishers at The Old Rectory, River Street, Pewsey, Wiltshire SN9 5DB, for £5.99 plus 95p p. & p.

To place an order for the books with CT bookshop prices indicated, contact CT Bookshop

In miniature: Mughal manuscript paintings, such as this one of Prince Shah ’Alam, were a synthesis of Persian, Indian, and European elements. This illustration comes from a magnificent large-format survey, The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture by Nasser D. Khalili, which chronicles the artistic achievements of the Islamic world over 14 centuries, and the rulers and dynasties of the Muslim nations (Worth Press, £30; 1-903025-17-6)