Reading John L. Esposito’s ‘What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam’

Succinct and Accessible Answers about Islam and Things Islamic

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

OVER two decades have passed since the events of September 11, 2001 (or 9/11)—an ‘unpleasant and unfortunate event’ which is characterized as a ‘turning point’ in the course of international affairs and has resulted, for the Muslims and their faith, in an overabundance of ‘academic’ and media attempts to conceptualize the apparent ‘divide’ between ‘Islam’ and Western culture and society. On the one hand, Islam has been frequently used as a ‘violent’ and ‘terrorist’ religion and, on the other, there has been an overwhelming demand for information about Islam. To meet this demand, a number of introductory works on Islam and Muslims, their faith and beliefs are in circulation; however, there are very few comprehensive and concise works on Islam providing clear-cut and precise answers to nearly all the questions related to Islam and things Islamic—be its Islamic core beliefs, Islamic rituals and practices, Islamic history or Islam and Muslims vis-à-vis contemporary challenges. One such example is What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam by John L. Esposito (Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, USA). Below is presented a brief assessment of the 2nd edition (published in 2011) of this book.

Title: What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam (2nd Ed.)
Author: John L. Esposito
Publication Details: New York: Oxford University Press, 2011
Pages: xix+268; ISBN: 9780199794133; Hardbound

First published in 2002 and second edition in 2011, Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam 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 and 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.

The second edition offers additional material on current trends in Islamic thought, making it more comprehensive and up to date. Grouped in major topics, the book is divided into seven (7) main sections viz., General Information; Faith; Islam and Other Religions; Customs and Culture; Violence and Terrorism; Society, Politics, and Economy; and Muslims in the West. It provides basic information on the faith, customs, and political beliefs of Muslims, the followers of Islam.

About the main focus and goal of this book, Esposito states that “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, rituals and customs, as well as about Islam and contemporary issues and challenges—ranging from those that have come to the fore-front with the emergence of modernization to those which have merged or intensified after 9/11.

The book consists of 122 questions under seven major headings and the range of answers varies from just a few lines/ sentences to few pages (seven pages being the maximum). There are many additions in the 2nd edition and 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. 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 instance, regarding ‘Inter-faith dialogue’, ‘Islamism’, ‘secularism’, ‘democracy’, ‘clash of civilizations’, Esposito is of the opinion 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).

On Islam-democracy compatibility, Esposito (referring to modernist Muslim thinkers) 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).” (p. 190).

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 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. However, for topics like violence and terrorism, Islamophobia, democracy, and other such burning and critical issues, readers will need to look for other additional sources so that to gain a clear and detailed information. 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 and things Islamic (from past to present), What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam could be recommended as an essential, straightforward and easy reference guide for the students and laymen equally; a must read for everyone interested in Islam.

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

Follow this link to join our WhatsApp group: Join Now

Be Part of Quality Journalism

Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.