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Islam: A Religion, A Culture, A Society

Islam: A Religion, A Culture, A Society

By Bill Schwarz           

Christians Aware 2014, 130 pages, ISBN 978-1-873372-51-7

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About the author

Bill Schwartz has lived in the Middle East for more than 40 years, has worked in a number of Middle Eastern countries and has travelled extensively in the region. His ministry as Anglican priest, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, has given him exposure to a broad spectrum of Islamic traditions and at the same time presented pastoral challenges to explain Islamic culture to Christians who come from all over the world to live and work in the region.

Read the TWO reviews!

Review by the Revd Stephen Griffith MBE

Islam is under scrutiny as never before. Misinformation, over-simplification and deliberate lies fill the space where answers should be found. Questions from the Charlie Hebdo killings concerning freedom to insult are answered by secularists with no understanding of Islam, or by Muslims with no comprehension of how to reply within the post-modern world, and those who say that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam hide behind clichés.

Bill Schwartz’ short book is, therefore, well timed, and both perplexing and significant. Its basic tenet is that Islam is not like Christianity and that Christians seriously misunderstand Islam if they try, for example, to suggest that Muhammad is parallel to Jesus and the Bible to the Qur‘an. Those who emphasise commonalities in Muslim-Christian dialogue are taught the error of their ways. He explains how different the essence of Islam is, that there is no way to have a personal relationship with God in it, that the Community of the Faithful, the ‘Ummah’, takes precedent over private respects, and that Americans have real problems because the two systems, of rational enlightenment democracy and Islam are totally different. It is really helpful for him to make the case so strongly and clearly.

Written from an Evangelical and American perspective, Islam: A Religion, A Culture, A Society deals with one tradition within Islam, and its main weakness is that just as it ignores any other form of Christianity, it assumes that Islam is a monolithic cohesive structure. The Islam it describes is that known to Schwartz from the many years of ministry in the Arabian Peninsula. This is important today because what he writes about is the Wahhabi revivalist primitivist tradition a relatively modern ideology springing from what is now Saudi Arabia. This Wahhabism is the source of much of the violence which inspires al Qa’ida and ISIS. Schwartz quotes, for example, as a significant Muslim authority Sayyid Qutb who was significant in the beginnings of the Muslim Brotherhood but whose position is clearly not that of the Brotherhood in contemporary Syria.

I found the book helpful because this is not the Islam which I met when living and working in Syria, Jordan and Turkey, but is of a type which Muslims in those countries have generally rejected. The primitivist tradition lacks the cultural depth and artistic beauty of more mainstream Islam, and this explains why there is no reference to the glories of Maghrebi, Syrian and Ottoman Islamic art, music and culture, let alone that of Shi’a Islam; nor is there a hint of Sufi mysticism, despised by the Wahhabis, nor of the breadth of expression within Islam, nor the brilliance of Muslim scholarship throughout the ages. There is little sense that there is an Islam outside of the Arab world.

Schwartz’s experience of Islam is one which follows the Hanbali school of law, the most rigorous of the 4 schools of Islamic jurisprudence. His work is important in exposing the extreme version of Islam which has been funded in the Arabian Peninsula and whose missionary activities has led to the murder of many mainstream Muslim scholars, as well as thousands of other mainstream Muslims.

But there needs to be a health warning. The book assumes an American readership, and the Islam portrayed may be wealthy and virulent but it is not the cultured, subtle, thoughtful Islam which has flourished from Indonesia to Morocco. The Muslim in the mall in Austin or the baseball game in Denver probably does not come from the hard and destructive Wahhabi puritanism described by Schwartz, but far more likely from a Sufi or Shi’a sect as horrified by ISIS as the average American.

The Reverend Stephen Griffith MBE worked in Syria from the early nineties until 2002 and represented the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Heads of the Churches in Syria and Lebanon. He is current Team Vicar in the Parish of Mortlake with East Sheen in the diocese of Southwark.

Review by the Rt Revd Clive Handford - This second review of this very important book was received from the publishers, Christians Aware. 

When the thoughts of many are drawn almost daily by the news to the Middle East, the arrival of this book is very timely. Written with Westerners and Christians particularly in mind, especially Americans, it opens a window into the fundamental convictions of Muslims, not least in the Arab World. Its author has lived and worked in counties which are the heartlands of Islam. He has been involved with Muslims in a variety of ways through most of his working life and has come to understand at some depth their instincts and the way they approach life. Currently he is the Anglican (Episcopal) Archdeacon in the Gulf. He knows whereof he speaks.

In recent days, we have seen the growth of an increasingly obvious sense of Islamic identity. Too often, the response to this in the West has been negative, fuelled by scare-mongering in the press and expediency on the part of politicians. Opinions are all too quickly formed without any serious attempt at understanding. Caricatures and stereotypes abound. This book can go a long way to correct that. It sets out to be “an attempt to help Christians understand Islam and Arab Islamic cultural values from an Islamic point of view on a level that is accessible to ‘average’ church-going people.”

Bill Schwartz rightly warns against the simplistic comparisons between Christianity and Islam that one often encounters, such as equating the roles of Jesus and Muhammad. Recognising the different concepts of revelation is fundamental to a true understanding of how the two faiths differ from one another. Christians believe that in Jesus Christ the nature of God is revealed, the way to a deeper relationship with God is opened up and salvation is possible. This is unthinkable for a Muslim for whom God is totally transcendent, wholly other. Through the Qur’an, principally, God has revealed the right way to live in society. People are not reconciled to God but guided in right social relationships. “The Muslim sees only the need of a guide, not a saviour”.

For the Muslim, Islam governs the whole of life. There can be no division between public and private. As the title of this book makes clear, Islam is “A Religion, A Culture and A Society”. The western secular idea of the separation of religion from politics, the privatisation of faith, is quite foreign to the Arab Muslim, as to most Arab Christians.

Following from these fundamental principles, the author considers a number of ways in which Muslims respond to the demands of living, sometimes contrasting Muslim and Christian responses. Where western Christians hold that the decision to follow Christ is an individual matter, albeit not without communal implications, in Islam individual thinking is not valued and, indeed, often instinctively repudiated. Community pressure is exerted against those who contemplate something other than Islam. Chapters follow on “Unclean and Clean” and “Religion and Society”. While noting that the impact of foreign cultures and sciences sometimes led to a distinction between religion and culture in medieval and modern Islam, the author points out that there is no indication of such a distinction in the Qur’an. A chapter on Christian-Muslim Dialogue has useful practical advice and some timely warnings. 

At the end of the book there are several appendices. Among them are two bibliographies. The first divides books (and one or two videos) into categories of “Non-Helpful” and “Helpful”. Would that more authors might do this! There is set out the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, dating from September 1981. It can usefully be read in conjunction with Chapter 9 on “Human Rights and Religious Freedom”. This is a book about Islam with a difference, reflective as well as descriptive. I commend it warmly and hope that it will be widely read. If you wish to know what makes Muslims tick, buy this book!

The Rt Reverend (George) Clive Handford began his ministry as a curate in Mansfield and then started what was to be a long association with the Middle East by becoming chaplain in Lebanon before Dean of St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem. On his return to England he served as Vicar of Kneesall, Archdeacon of Nottingham and, in 1990, was elected Suffragan Bishop of Warwick. He was then translated to the Mediterranean Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf where he served the Anglican Community as Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf from 1996-2007 and Presiding Bishop of the Province of the Middle East from 2002 until his retirement in 2007. In retirement, he still maintains his links with the church and serves as an honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds.


Featured in Bible Lands, Summer 2015