Understanding Islam is the second book I chose while blindfolded at Pioneer Book.

I’ll start with the good:

  • Thomas Lippman definitely knows his stuff. He uses a variety of sources and points out specifically that he does his best to draw on Muslim and Western sources. He also does his best to only put forward information that both Western and Muslim sources agree on. For example, in the western world and in the Muslim world, it is agreed that Mohammed lived in the 7th century A.D. That gets included in the book. There is not agreement from different sources on the ages of Mohammed’s plural wives, so it is not mentioned in the book.
    If anything, that’s good history writing and good research.
  • I learned a ton of stuff from reading this book
    • The difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims
    • Islam is not a “church” in the sense that all Catholics belong to one organization. It is a set of beliefs, a faith without clergy.
    • When Muslim women make a pilgrimage to Mecca, regardless of their customs of dress in their home countries, they are forbidden to veil their faces or cover their hands.
    • Muslim countries have circumstances, backgrounds, and cultures that are wildly different. As a result, they interpret the Koran differently in each country, some adhering to certain Koranic teachings literally while others follow the same teachings loosely or only metaphorically.
    • The general history of Islam, Mohammed’s life, and what happened to the faith after Mohammed’s death.
  • Lippman recognizes that his audience is likely not familiar with the Middle-East, Muslim countries, Arabic vocabulary (there’s a handy glossary in the back for all the Arabic terms), etc. and he tailors his writing accordingly. Even though 85% of this book was foreign to me from the start, I came away understanding well over half of the book.

There are a lot of things that I understood to some extent prior to reading Understanding Islam that Lippman explains better than I could have. Here are some things I wish people would understand better:

  • “Economics, politics, history, and tribal memory have the same influence on Muslims as on anyone else; Islam cannot be credited or blamed for everything that happens in the Muslim world.”
    • There are roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world, and the highest density countries stretch all the way across the north side of Africa, through the Middle East, to India and Bangladesh, with another huge Muslim population in Indonesia. Neither the philanthropist from Mauritania nor the terrorist from Afghanistan is representative of their country, let alone the faith of 2 billion people.Islam_percent_population_in_each_nation_World_Map_Muslim_data_by_Pew_Research.svg
  • “Whatever views Muslims have wanted to project and advocate have taken the form of Qur’anic commentaries.”
    • This means that if an anti-American dictator like Saddam Hussein wants to convince the people in his country to be hostile towards Western thought, democracy, America, American soldiers, what-have-you, all he has to do is get enough reputable scholars to agree that the Koran says so.
      Fortunately, with no central doctrinal authority mandating what the people believe or do, the people are still allowed to interpret the Koran as they see fit.
    • No matter what the Koran actually says, there are people who will interpret it to match what they want it to say.
  • SHARIA is not universal, nor universally accepted or enforced in Islam.
    • All Muslims believe the Koran and use it with the hadith, Mohammed’s teachings and commentaries. Sharia is made by the people and evolves with history.
    • Sharia has not been codified because it is different in every circumstance.
    • Sharia is not a set of laws, it is a common understanding of the way God wants His people to behave. It’s more like a book of etiquette than a lawbook.
    • “Individual Muslims have tailored sharia to their own purposes.”
  • JIHAD “does not mean fighting a war”.
    • Jihad is a single word used to describe the daily struggle of living one’s religion and striving to be obedient to God.
      Is it hard for you to get out of bed in the morning to say prayers?
      That is jihad.

There were only a couple things I didn’t like about this book.

  • The author is sometimes repetitive and uses lofty vocabulary. Most people don’t know what a septuagenarian is.
  • I don’t know Arabic, so I don’t know how 95% of the glossary terms in the book are supposed to be pronounced.

Overall, a wonderful and enlightening read. I heavily recommend it to everyone, especially if you think you already know everything there is to know about Islam.