‘Islamic History’ through ‘Civilizational Perspective’

On Reading Alexander Knysh’s Islam in Historical Perspective (2017)

Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

~ ‘Islam in Historical Perspective’ is a remarkable reference work for its wide-range of topics and issues, approach and methodology, thematic structure and pedagogical and learning features~

Alexander D. Knysh (b. 1957) is presently Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan (USA) and Academic Director of Islamic Studies project sponsored by the St. Petersburg State University, Russia. His major areas of interest are Islamic mysticism (Sufism), Qur’anic studies, Islamic intellectual history, and modern Islamic/ Islamist movements. He has authored and translated a number of books; some of them include: Ibn Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition (1999), Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (2007), Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (2010), Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism (2017), and Islam in Historical Perspective (2017). Below is presented a brief assessment of this last mentioned book.

Title: Islam in Historical Perspective (2nd Ed.)
Author: Alexander Knysh
Publication Details: New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2017
Pages: 368; ISBN: 978019063251; Paperback

First published in 2011 (by Pearson), the second edition of Knysh’s Islam in Historical Perspective (published by Routledge in 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” (p. i). “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” (p. i), and includes pedagogical features like illustrations, study questions, and chapter summaries. That is, Knysh analyses, describes and narrates Islamic history, and its varied aspects, through ‘civilizational perspective’.

David Waines (Lancaster University, UK) in his review on its first edition has described it in these words: “inspired by a ‘civilizational’ perspective”, Knysh’s book is “chronological and thematic” in structure and covers not only history, from past to present, but thought, culture, art, and modern developments and global challenges as well. On the basis of its broad coverage of topics and issues, thematic arrangement, and other features, Waines has described Knysh’s book as “a formidable achievement” (see review of David Waines in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 75, 2, 2012, pp. 382-84). This equally, and more fittingly, applies to its second edition as well.

Structured chronologically and thematically, the 2nd edition of this book consists of twenty-four (24) chapters (spread over 550 pages). These chapters are preceded by a Preface, Acknowledgements, Note on Transliteration and Dates, and an Introduction and ends with a comprehensive Bibliography and Index. Almost every chapter includes pedagogical features like conclusions, questions to ponder, and summary, and notes, respectively.

In its first eight chapters (chapters 1-8), it discusses the historical development of Islam, from its formative phase to the end of the Abbasids as well as chapters on the Islamic primary sources, the Qur’an and hadith, under these headings: Arabia: The Cradle of Islam; Muhammad [pbuh] and the Beginnings of Islam; The Rightly Guided Caliphs and the Conquests; The Murder of ‘Uthman, the Fitna Wars, and the Rise of the Umayyad Dynasty; The Principal Source of Islam: The Qur’an; The Prophetic Hadith and Sunnah; The Problem of the Just Ruler; The Abbasid Revolution and Beyond.

These are followed by eight (8) chapters (chapters 9-16) on development of Islamic scholarship, different schools of thought, philosophy, and sects, like Schools of Law/ Fiqh, Theological debates and Schools of thought, Twelver Shi‘ism (Ithna Ashari) and Zaydism, Ismailis, Sufism, Philosophy versus Theology, and Transmission and Conservation of Knowledge: ‘Ulama, Madrasas, and Sufi Lodges. The next three chapters (16-18) focus, respectively, on Basic Beliefs and Practices of Islam—Islamic Life Cycle; Islamic Art and Religious Architecture (Mosques); and Women in Islamic Societies.

It is interesting to note here that Knysh has devoted a full chapter (18th) to the “Women in Islamic Societies” (pp. 323-40). Knysh deliberates on “Women in the Qur’an” (pp. 324-29), “Women in Hadith and Fiqh” (pp. 329-31), and “Theorizing the Muslim Women” (pp. 332-36) and describes it as a “Controversial Topic” (p. 323), and thus needs more attention (than other contemporary issues). Knysh begins this chapter with this statement: “With the possible exception of so-called Islamic terrorism, it is difficult to find a subject that has generated more controversy in the modern Western media and public discourse than the status of women in Islamic societies” (p. 323).

In the last six (6) chapters (19-24), the book focuses on Islam vis-à-vis modern developments. Beginning with Islam and West and ending with global Jihadism, these six chapters cover, respectively, these topics/ issues and themes: Islam and the West; Islam, Modernity and European Colonialism; Renewal and Reform in Islam; Islam as a Political Force and Vehicle of Opposition; Islam Reinterpreted—Major Trends in Islamic Thought Today; and Ideology and Practice of Globalized Jihadism.

The main goal of this book, as Knysh mentions in the Introduction, is “to show how Islam is being continually reshaped and readjusted to reflect the needs and aspirations of its followers in any given age” (p. 4); and in the conclusion of its final chapter, he rewinds and caps it as: “In the introduction to this book, we pointed out that the exact ways in which Islam is understood and practised by its followers are shaped decisively by the sociopolitical and cultural conditions of the societies in which they happen to live. … If this book has helped the reader to realize the astounding richness of the Islamic tradition and the endless variety of paths it offers to its followers to pursue, then its goal has been achieved” (pp. 492-93).

Knysh’s book is indeed broad and rich in coverage of topics and themes, breadth, comprehensiveness, analysis, in utilizing (primary and contemporary) sources, and in present-day pedagogical tools and features. On the basis of its broad content coverage, (employing civilizational) methodological approach, and features, it is not unfair to assert that Knysh’s book indeed succeeds in achieving its main goal of showing the reader to “realize the astounding richness of the Islamic tradition and the endless variety of paths it offers to its followers to pursue” (p. 493).

In sum, Knysh’s Islam in Historical Perspective may be described as a remarkable reference work, not only for its wide-range of topics, themes and issues abut also for its approach, methodology, thematic structure, and additional pedagogical and learning features. It is, indeed, a comprehensive introductions to Islam, and is fairly described as ‘authoritatively written and astutely arranged’ and an ‘intellectually stimulating, lucidly written work’.

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K). Email: [email protected] 

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