Contemporary Issues in Islam

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Asma Afsaruddin
The New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys
  • Edinburgh, UK: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , August
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the wake of events such as 9/11, various issues pertaining to contemporary Islam have gained the attention of an increasing number of scholars (and non-scholars) from across academic disciplines. Peace and war doctrines, the relationship between the Islamic tradition and modernity (and the associated concept/phenomenon of Islamic modernism/reformism), Islamic scriptural hermeneutics, Islam and politics (including the idea of the Islamic state), gender issues and interfaith dialogue have emerged as some of the most significant of such issues. The book under review aims to provide a longue durée historical perspective on these topics as an antidote to the often sensationalistic discussions prevalent in public discourses about Islam and Muslims, especially in the “West.” Therefore, author Asma Afsaruddin sees the book’s main aim as providing historical contextualization to the evolution and transformation of these key concepts, and noting their multiple and contesting interpretations in the Islamic intellectual history in order to counter (dominant) essentialist understandings of Islam (1). This is indeed an admirable goal.

The first chapter is an informative description and to a lesser extent evaluation of the attempts of noted Muslim intellectuals of the 20th century (J. Al-Afghani, M. ‘Abduh, M.Iqbal   and F.Rahman ) to ‘negotiate the shores of modernity’ ( actual title of the chapter). The second chapter provides an overview of modern and contemporary re-examinations of the nature and the meaning of the concept of Shari’a. The third chapter is devoted to an informed discussion on political Islam   or more precisely the normative relationship between Islam and politics, especially in relation to the question of democracy. The fourth chapter offers a helpful overview of discussions pertaining to gender issues in Islam including the rise of Islamic feminist hermeneutics. In the fifth chapter the topic of war and peacemaking is broached with particular emphasis on the question of what constitutes legitimate military jihad and how this question is answered differently by the main ideologues of militant, traditionalist and modernist Islam. The second last chapter focuses on American Muslims. It deals with the themes of construction of American Muslim identity, citizenship and belonging, minority jurisprudence, re-readings of Shari’a in the West and terrorism. The final chapter focuses on religious dialogue and interfaith relations. It examines among others the exegesis of key Qur’anic verses pertaining to the theme, some major interfaith initiatives in post 9-11 era and recent developments in novel inclusive interfaith  Qur’anic hermeneutics. 

In the epilogue the author makes several apt observations regarding the future of Islam and Muslims. Apart from ongoing contestations over interpretation in Islam between the “moderates” and “extremists,” it is not just Muslims themselves who can determine this future: this future is predicated on a dialectical process between Muslims and non-Muslims. In this regard Afasruddin admirably asks for the transformation of both Muslim majority societies as well as Western polities for the sake of creating socioeconomic and political justice globally.

 The content of Contemporary Issues in Islam is well known to scholars of contemporary Islam. Its main strength is that it discusses the key concepts in a single volume in a way that could be used as an introductory book for undergraduates. Such a broadly cast net, of course, has some disadvantages too, especially insufficient referencing. This, in turn, introduces an element of reductionism in the variety of existing views, something that is contrary to the actual aims of the book. For example, in the second chapter a lot of innovative scholarship by progressive Muslim scholars (H. Hanafi, N. Z. Abu Zayd, M. Al-Jabiri, and myself) in Qur’an and Sunna hermeneutics isn’t mentioned. In the third chapter only the views of Khaled Abou El Fadl in relation to Islam and democracy are noted to the exclusion of A. Sachedina, N. Hashemi, M. Khan, A. K. Soroush and many others. In the fourth chapter on gender issues, the situation is somewhat better, but here also the views of progressive scholars such as S. Shaikh, F. Seedat, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, M. Kh. Masud and myself are missing. The chapter on interreligious hermeneutics is also dated and does not include the works of major scholars such as Catherinne Cornille or Oddbjørn Leirvik.

I would recommend this book primarily to undergraduate students doing courses on contemporary Islam as well as non-academics interested in the same.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dr. Adis Duderija is Lecturer in Study of Islam and Society at Griffith University.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Asma Afsaruddin is Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is the author and/or editor of seven books, including Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought (2013) and The First Muslims: History and Memory (2008). She was named a Carnegie Scholar in 2005.



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