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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

Islam and the West

By George Dardess
Paraclete Press, 242 pages, $16.95

Partly as a reaction to the First Gulf War, in 1991 George Dardess resolved to learn Arabic and began lessons at the local Islamic Center in Rochester, N.Y. These in turn led him to a study of the Quran. What follows in Meeting Islam is an engaging first-person account of Dr. Dardess’ encounter with Islam and how this has enhanced his own Christian faith. Readers are likely to find their knowledge of both faiths increased after reading this thoughtful and engaging book.

An English teacher and a Catholic permanent deacon, Dr. Dardess discusses such Islamic concepts as taqwa (attentiveness or alertness to God’s presence) and compares it to the Biblical story of the Wise Virgins, tauhid (unity) and ’Abd and Wali. The latter two words meaning “servant” and “friend” comprehend Muslims’ call both to external righteous action and to interior contemplation, and Dr. Dardess draws an analogy to the example of Martha and Mary in the Gospels. Here and elsewhere, the effort is not to say Islamic and Christian beliefs are the same but to explore how they compare and how awareness of them can enrich the understanding and spirituality of Muslims and Christians alike.

By Carl W. Ernst
The University of North Carolina Press, 272 pages, $16.95

This clear, elegantly written book offers both a defense of Islam and a thorough and nuanced guide to Islamic philosophy and ethics and the variety and diversity of Islamic beliefs. The author, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes the irony in the frequent accusations heard today that Islam is a violent religion when it was the Christian West that forcibly colonized Muslim lands and killed millions upon millions in the two world wars that began in 20th-century Europe. If many argue that Islam today needs a Protestant Reformation, it is Dr. Ernst’s contention that this Reformation within Islam has already taken place, dethroning the authority of Islamic tradition and opening the door to Islamic fundamentalism. Despite frequent talk of “the Muslim world,” the author notes that because of colonialism there has been no separate Muslim world for 200 years; a consistent theme in this scholarly yet readable book is the “extraordinary mismatch between Euro-American ideas of Islam and the realities lived by Muslims.”

By Mahmood Mamdani
Three Leaves Press,
304 pages, $14.95

The author, a professor of international relations and anthropology at Colombia University, analyzes the rise of political Islam and the several strands within it. Critical of the “culture talk” that posits a deep-seated clash of civilizations, Professor Mamdani calls 9/11 “the unfinished business of the Cold War” and traces its origins to the proxy wars waged by the Reagan administration on militant nationalists around the globe and to the United States’ increasing disregard for international law. In sponsoring terror against guerrillas in southern Africa, Central America and Central Asia, the United States legitimized violence against civilians and, in Afghanistan, funded and trained the right-wing Islamists who have since turned against this nation. Dr. Mamdani sees the current Bush administration as continuing the policies of the Reagan administration in an even more reckless and ruthless fashion and warns against the dangers of state terrorism both abroad and at home. The author’s discussion of state-centered Islamism vs. society-centered Islamism is informative and helpful; his wide-ranging observations on the role of imperialism, colonialism and genocide in the West, from the decimation of the American Indian to the Holocaust, make for a provocative and intriguing argument, albeit one not always easy to follow.

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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