Book Profile

Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 2001. 346 pages. Second edition. ISBN 0-415-21782-2.

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Liyakatali Takim
University of Denver

    T he book is a revised edition of the author's first work that was published in two volumes. Designed as a textbook for students in Islam the book consists of seventeen chapters covering different topics related to the teaching of Islam in a department of religious studies. The period covered includes the emergence of Islam in seventh century Arabia, the formation and consolidation of Islamic identity in the classical period of Islam extending to the modern vision and re-vision of Islam. The intent of the author is to examine the beliefs and practices of Muslims in their social, cultural and historical settings and the integration of these diverse factors in the formation of the Islamic tradition. His discussion shows why Islam should not be regarded as a monolithic entity. The author also attempts to redress what he claims to be a lack of critical analysis that is apparent in many introductory textbooks on Islam (pg 1). Thus he discusses not only the crystallization of Muslim beliefs and practices but also, by examining the textual sources, the literary formation of Islam in its classical heritage – a remnant of the orientalist approach to the study of Islamic civilization.

  1. As the author admits, the scope and length of the book necessitate that he merely sketch out rather than fully argue for the material he presents (pg. 2). The large amount of material covered inevitably means that important issues are treated in a rather cursory manner and significant details are compromised. The section of Sufism, for example, has no mention of the contribution of eminent mystical figures like Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiya and Jalal al-din Rumi. If the work is to be used as a textbook for an introductory course in Islam, supplementary readings like Frederick Denny's Introduction to Islam or John Esposito's Islam will be required to provide a more nuanced discussion of the subject matter and to fill significant gaps that appear in the topics covered in this work.

  2. In the recent works on Islam, Rippin's work stands out as a continuation of the now epistemologically questionable orientalist methodology of relying on the textual evidence without paying attention to the people who experience Islam. The works written by John Wansbrough, Gerald Hawting, Patricia Crone and Norman Calder on interpreting the textual data show the problem of essentialism in speaking about the cultural other.

  3. An important theme that the author continuously pursues is the process of the formation of a distinct and unique Islamic identity. This, he states, was initially premised on the pre-history from which Islam emerged. Identity formation entails the drawing of boundaries, creation of a sectarian syndrome and establishing a sense of orthodoxy so that deviant groups can be identified and marginalized. The author correctly locates the emergence of a distinct Muslim identity in the Qur'an and in various other factors like Muslim polemics, theological discourses, Islamic law, and in the expression of rituals.

  4. However, the author also makes some generalized statements without properly documenting his sources. For example, the Qur'an is described as abounding with apparent inconsistencies in grammar, law and theology (pg. 28). Equally puzzling is the author's conjecture that Muslim prayers were later stipulated at five per day since five is the median number between the three daily prayers of Judaism and the seven stages of the day of the Syrian Christian monastic orders. (pg. 101) The possibility that the five prayers may have been generated by Prophetic practices is not even raised. Similarly, ignoring the Qur'anic injunction on performing the pilgrimage to Mecca, the author maintains that the pilgrimage was probably established only in the late seventh century. Dismissing the early biographical literature on Muhammad as reflecting the concerns of the Muslim community in the eighth century, he further surmises that the pilgrimage to Mecca probably emerged simultaneous to and in competition with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For the problems of interpreting this latter thesis about the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (following the earlier works of Goldziher, Goiten et al) it is worth looking at the work on Jerusalem recently published by Leiden, 1997)

  5. The work examines the literary character of Muslim historical sources based on textual and literary analysis combined with a historical-chronological approach. It is evident that the author approaches his study of Islamic legal and intellectual history with certain assumptions regarding the tendentious character of early Muslim sources. The general thesis projected in this area is one of the unreliability of eighth and ninth century sources whose reading of earlier versions he regards as anachronistic. The data contained in these sources, Rippin contends, tells us more about the debates within the later Muslim community than about the early history of Islam. Thus, rather than examining the early period (pre-ninth century) of Islam, scholars can only study how Muslims have viewed the historical development of their religion and the formation of an "orthodox Islam", although he does not adequately define orthodox Islam nor does he examine the process of the formation of the heterodoxy in Islam. It is obvious that the author does not favor a phenomenological approach to the study of Islam. It is hard to believe how the work can help a student to appreciate intellectually the work supposedly on Islam and Muslims when the fundamental aspects of the Muslim identity, like the Qur'an and the tradition are deemed to be unreliable. After reading the work, students will not have a sense of Islam's existential appeal or how Muslims experience Islam.

  6. Rippin's approach prompts him to dismiss much of what has been documented regarding the early period of Islam. The theories of the backward growth of authority and the Prophetic practices (sunna) leads the author to believe that the crystallization of the Prophetic sunna was a product of the involution of the diverse sunan (pl. of sunna) of the different schools of law. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that despite the Qur'anic exhortation to follow the exemplary model provided by Muhammad, Muslims in the seventh and eighth centuries operated in a legal vacuum without formulating a viable concept of the Muhammadan paradigm. As Fazlur Rahman has argued, whereas the content of the Prophetic sunna may be apocryphal to some degree, the concept of the Prophetic sunna was valid from the time of the Prophet (Rahman, Islamic Methodology in History, pg. 6).

  7. The author's critical approach to the early sources also leads him to claim that in the early period of Islam, the basic Muslim creed (shahada) had yet to reach its mature formulation. He reaches this conclusion based on inscriptions on coins from the late seventh century. However, the absence of certain inscriptions on coins cannot be construed as indicating the lack of a systematic formulation of an article of faith which, after all, emerges directly from the Qur'an. It should also be born in mind that inscriptions on coins or on the dome of the rock do not necessarily attest to prevalent Muslim beliefs.

  8. Rippin's discussion on how the Qur'an and traditions of Muhammad interacted to create the disciplines of Islamic law, theology and mysticism appears to compartmentalize rather than connect issues. Theological discussions (especially those pertaining to beliefs regarding free will and the createdness of the Qur'an) had political underpinnings, often serving the purpose of legitimizing the ruling elite. The Murji‘ite doctrine of postponing the decision on the fate of the sinful Muslim, for example, was connected to supporting the Umayyad rulers of the time. The Mu‘tazili emphasis on the doctrine of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil (amr bi'l maruf) emerged from the Zaydi concept of a politically active leadership. Similarly, the rise of Sufism was a corollary to the worldly outlook of Muslim rulers. The intertwining of these fields and their political ramifications are overlooked by the author.

  9. The work also has some factual errors that need correction. The author's statement that that there are no sources that can be trusted to be fully reliable to give information on the doctrinal stance and beliefs of the Shi‘a prior to the tenth century is historically incorrect. Ninth century extant doctrinal and polemical Shi‘i works like Fadl b. Shadhan's (d. 873) Kitab al-Idah and Hasan al-Saffar's (d. 903) Basa'ir al-Darajat articulate Shi‘i beliefs and doctrines even before the minor occultation of the twelfth imam in 874 C.E.. Furthermore, Shi‘i doctrinal positions are interspersed in ninth century Sunni biographical, polemical and heresiographical works like those of Ibn Sa‘d's Tabaqat, the Mu‘tazili al-Khayyat's Kitab al-Intisar, and al-Fasawi's Kitab al-Marifa. The refutation of Shi‘i beliefs in ninth century Sunni sources is sufficient evidence of the mature formulation of Shi‘i beliefs in the eighth and ninth centuries.

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