Islam

What Non-Muslims Should Know, Revised and Expanded Edition

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John Kaltner
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , October
     2016.
     162 pages.
     $14.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506416663.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Despite Islam’s prevalence in the media and its status as a faith practiced by nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, the religion is poorly understood by many Westerners. Those lacking a basic awareness of the religion may wrongly assume that the stereotypes and portrayals of extremist actions circulating in the media and in popular culture are representative of Muslims generally. Peaceful coexistence necessitates greater mutual understanding.

John Kaltner’s Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know is an accessible introduction to Islam, written primarily for Christian and Jewish audiences. Kaltner hopes his readers will be stimulated to learn more and the book ends with a “Resources” section that offers short annotations of books and websites that readers may wish to consult.

The book is organized in six chapters, titled as declarative sentences that respond to typical assumptions or misunderstandings about Islam:

•          Islam is a diverse and complex faith.

•          Islam is a religion of orthopraxy.

•          Muslims respect Judaism and Christianity.

•          There is no institutional hierarchy in Islam.

•          There is no clear separation between religion and politics in Islam.

•          Jihad does not only mean “holy war.”

Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of the chapter titles, Kaltner brilliantly presents the considerable content clearly and concisely. This 150-page book touches on almost every substantive topic covered in a standard introductory Islam textbook. For example, in twenty-five pages, the opening chapter notes the distorted image we get of Islam from the media and popular culture, then covers Islam’s early years in Mecca and Medina, its geographic expansion and numeric growth after the death of Muhammad, and the distinctions between Sunni, Shi`i, and Sufi Islam, before reiterating the primary message that basic awareness of Islam’s diversity and complexity will preclude encountering one particular aspect of Islam and erroneously generalizing that image to Islam as a whole.

Each chapter ends with a section that ties the chapter’s content back to the non-Muslim reader—“Diversity and non-Muslims” or “Orthopraxy and non-Muslims” for the first two chapters, respectively. These sections address most directly the interpretive challenges faced by people who are less aware of Islamic history, texts, institutional structure, beliefs, and practices as they encounter media representations and news events. For example, in the section on “Orthopraxy and non-Muslims” Kaltner suggests that a Muslim’s commitment to expressing their faith in action might help explain the actions of Muslims who commit violent acts “and then claim to be doing so in the name of Islam” (51). Kaltner then uses Muslim sacred texts—the Qur’an and Hadith—to argue that attempts to justify the actions of suicide bombers by appeals to Islam “are bound to fail because they are based on twisted logic and faulty readings of the Islamic sources” (53).

This rhetoric of “twisted logic and faulty readings” stands out in a book that is otherwise consistently neutral in tone. To be clear, Kaltner’s generally sympathetic approach does not obscure controversial or otherwise unfavorable elements within Islam. For example, introducing a discussion of Ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Kaltner acknowledges that “in recent times there has been an increase in radical forms of political Islam that are more militant and violent in nature” (122). Readers who are more familiar with Islam, or less influenced by biased representations of Muslims in media and popular culture, may occasionally be distracted by Kaltner’s efforts to “balance the scale” (57) in portrayals of Islam—for example, emphasizing Islam’s respect for Mary and Jesus in order to counterweight impressions of profound differences between Islam and the other Abrahamic traditions. These occasional gestures to his assumed readership and to our shared historical contexts do not, however, detract from the overall balance and comprehensiveness of this concise introduction to Islam.

Kaltner’s overall intention is to raise awareness of Islam in his non-Muslim readers so that they will not make unwarranted generalizations about Islam and Muslims from stereotyped portrayals in media and popular culture. To this end, for advancing interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding, he includes five discussion questions at the end each chapter, indicating the book’s likely fit in a college classroom, a church or synagogue, or a book study group. In the college classroom, the book would serve well as a foundational reading prior to engaging more deeply in particular subjects or addressing questions of theory and method in religious studies. For the faith-based or community study group, the book stands well on its own.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy Menning is assistant professor of world religions at Ithaca College.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Kaltner is Professor of Religion at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tenn.

Keywords: 

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