What Everyone Needs to Know

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John L. Esposito, Natana J. DeLong-Bas
What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Recently, an acute rise of Islamophobiahas been recorded in the West. Islamophobia seems to be a severe and growing problem that has unfortunately led to an increase in the perpetration of physical assaults, abuses, and cyber-crimes against Muslims in the West. Several factors catalyze this problem: terrorist incidents (such as September 11th); the misrepresentation of Islam by extremist groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and so forth; the anti-Muslim designs and vested interests of various politicians in the US and elsewhere; the negative portrayal of Muslims in mass media; false propaganda by Christian televangelists; and the espousal of the “theory of the clash of civilizations.” The West is facing a grave crisis in the perception of Muslims. Unfortunately, the majority of people in the West have misunderstandings about, and ill-conceived images of, Islam. To deal with this catastrophe at the academic level, many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have attempted to highlight the proper understanding of Islam and sharī‘ah. The current work, Shariah: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a scholarly attempt to eradicate the misconceptions and charges levied against shari‘ah/Islamic law. At almost three hundred pages, this timely volume proposes possible answers to various serious questions regarding sharī‘ah in contemporary times. The authors have tried to delineate the complexity, diversity, dynamism, flexibility, and objectives of sharī‘ah

With a “perspective building approach,” John L. Esposito and Natana J. Delong-Bas at the outset define the contours of sharī‘ah, its status among Muslims, and the misconceptions regarding it in Western minds. Exposing the “main players” behind the promulgation of the “fear of Islam and Sharī‘ah” in Western minds, the authors have attempted to clear sharī‘ah of baseless and horrifying allegations and rid Western minds of unfair “horrifying images” of Islam and sharī‘ah. The second chapter (“Shariah: The Big Picture”) allows readers to grasp the meaning of sharī‘ah, its difference from Islamic law, as well as the sources and development of Islamic laws, the formation of different schools of jurisprudence (Madhāhib), and the possibility of the renewal and reform of sharī‘ah

Another important dimension of the subject is the role of sharī‘ah courts, which have “played a pivotal role in Muslim societies through the ages.” Discussing the role of these courts while applying Islamic law, the authors contend that “there is no single version or position in Islamic law,” drawing attention to its scope, dynamism, and complexity (54, 56). As such, the discussion in “Shariah Courts” (chapter 3) includes, among other themes, the formation and role of sharī‘ah courts in Muslim societies, their modus operandi, and attempts to bring reform to their procedural modes in contemporary cases. 

Fulfilling basic religious obligations such as conducting prayers and organizing congregations in the West has often earned Muslims suspicion, fear, and the label of “terrorists.” To neutralize this situation, there is a dire need for spreading awareness regarding Muslim community life, methods of worship, and the practice of religious obligations, especially through the five basic pillars. The authors in this volume try to achieve this objective in “The Five Pillars of Islam and Community Life” (chapter 4), wherein the five pillars of Islam are considered as the basic “principles of personal and collective faith, worship and social responsibility that unite all Muslims and distinguish Islam from other religions” (93).

Most importantly, this volume offers a much needed discussion of hotly debated issues such as the status of women, gender issues, family life, freedom, human rights, war, jihad, peace, criminal law, and justice in light of sharī‘ah (chapters 5-9). Doubtless to the surprise of anti-Muslim propagandists, the authors reveal that the majority of the great religious authorities of the contemporary Muslim world denounce extremism and any sort of terrorist activities, explaining that those activities are carried out beyond the limits of sharī‘ah.

In consideration of the Muslim belief that sharī‘ah is the divinely ordained source of guidance for all spheres of life, this work also includes sharī‘ah rulings on economic and fiscal matters. It examines the relevance of sharī‘ah in current times through the development of the Islamic finance industry and its participation in the global market (“Islamic Finance in a Global World,” chap. 10). Likewise, the authors try to derive sharī‘ah verdicts on modern-day topics such as bio-ethical and environmental issues including cloning, blood donation, family planning, genetic engineering, organ transplant and donations, abortion, fertility treatments, and so forth. 

The authors argue that there is no need to fear Islam and sharī‘ah, because just as other religions (especially Christianity and Judaism) have standards for behavior, Muslims have sharī‘ah as a code for public as well as private life. The work helps the reader understand the serious problems and challenges for Islam, Muslims, and sharī‘ah, especially in the Western world. 

Though the work is mainly based on secondary sources and lacks a section for notes and references, the authors have tried to frame the challenging subject matter in easily understandable language. They have divided the contents into questions and answers without utilizing the tedious jargon or technical language that is usually used for the expression of terms and concepts involving sharī‘ah and Islamic law. The work serves as a basic and brief guide for understanding sharī‘ah and its role in the lives of Muslims. Though it is purposefully written for the awareness of the general public, it is still recommended for students, political analysts, policy makers, and religious leaders in the West as well as elsewhere in the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mohammad Irfan Shah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies at AMU in Aligarh, India.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John L. Esposito is Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author or editor of more than 45 books, including Islamophobia: The Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century and What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. He is the Editor of the Oxford Islamic Studies Series.

Natana DeLong-Bas is Assistant Professor of Theology at Boston College and the author ofWahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad.


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