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In The Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam
Book Review
Muhammed Ayub Khan


Author: Milton Viorst

Pages: 372

Publisher: Westview Press (November 2001)

Price: $17.50


Milton Viorst is a veteran journalist, who has written about the Middle East for twenty-five years, mostly for the New Yorker magazine. Over the years, he says that he has acquired ‘a fondness for the Arabs and esteem for their civilization’. He is troubled by the Arabs’ failure in politics and economics and in his book, In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, he aspires to ‘strip off the exterior layers to get to the heart of Arab culture, the body of conventional Islamic belief’. In his quest, Viorst visited seven countries in the Middle East, observing and interviewing leaders and other notables from various sections of society. The result is this book, which was first published in 1998 and has been recently republished by the Westview Press.

In the first chapter, titled ‘Through the Damascus Gate’, Viorst encounters the differences between two world views. Strolling down the streets near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, he observes the difference between the products sold by Jewish and Muslim vendors. Most of the Arab stores sold identical wooden camels whereas the Jewish shops pedaled ‘dazzling jewelry, freshly designed, obviously fabricated in state-of-the-art workshops’. The two products, Viorst writes, summarized to him in tangible terms the cultural differences between the Middle East and the West. The camels symbolized the Arab resistance to change whereas the silver necklaces pointed to the innovativeness of the Jews who had brought it with them from the West.

Despite the economic backwardness and all other problems, Viorst argues that the Arab world is not what the Western media often portrays it to be. He writes that the argument that terrorism is ‘the region’s chief product’ is shortsighted and flawed. ‘Western streets are far more dangerous than the Middle East; and crime, heavily related to the drug trade, takes more victims than all [the] Middle East’s terrorists combined’, he contends.

Swiftly moving between past and present, Viorst identifies three basic tendencies among Muslims; namely the orthodox, the modernist and the fundamentalist. He writes that there is a struggle for the soul of Islam between these rival viewpoints. He designates Orthodoxy as the mainstream with ‘modernism’ on the left and ‘fundamentalism’ on the right. Despite their differing visions of Islam, Viorst writes that all three hold in common certain basic values. ‘All three accept the priority of preserving the faith from the godless’, says Viorst. ‘Their common adversary is secularism, a body of thought and practice which they associate with the West’.

This kind of classification is however highly subjective and complicated. How, for example does one describe the views of Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of Tunisian Islamic movement? The dynamic personality of Ghannouchi incorporates elements from all three trends, but Viorst inaccurately labels him as a ‘modernist’. While not being explicit, Viorst makes subtle criticisms of the orthodoxy and fundamentalists while admiring the modernists.

Logically speaking a discussion on the life of Prophet Muhammad (sws) and the Sharī‘ah (Islamic Law) should have been covered in the very first chapter of the book. But in In the Shadow of the Prophet, it appears in the third and fifth chapter. In these chapters, Viorst unnecessarily brings in the academic debate over the origins of Islam, a topic that is beyond the scope of this book. He is a journalist not a scholar of Islamic studies and therefore is not qualified to write on this highly specialized subject. But he broaches it anyway and recycles many of the classic orientalist assumptions that have been already refuted by other scholars.

The Qur’ānic prohibition on alcohol is well known not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims. But Viorst claims that the Qur’ānic verses prohibiting alcohol are a ‘dilemma’ for Muslims. He writes: ‘The Qur’ān reveals some equivocation about how to deal with the drinking problem. These verses create a dilemma for Muslims, who deny Muhammad’s hand in the text, yet dislike attributing uncertainty to God. Whoever was in charge, however, obviously engaged in considerable reflection before reaching a decision…Some secular scholars speculate that Muhammad, after trying to moderate drinking, ultimately recognized his failure’.

Viorst fails to understand that the gradual prohibition was all part of God’s plan to uproot the evil of drinking while recognizing the weakness of humans and giving them time to overcome such disastrous habits. These verses pose no dilemma to any straight thinking person.

The late King Hussein of Jordan was a controversial personality in the Muslim world. His views had little following outside of Jordan but Viorst has nothing but praise for him and thinks of him as a great exemplar. He writes that the King represented a moderate vision of Islam, which is separate from the above-mentioned three classifications. He calls it ‘The Hashemite Option’, which he says represents ‘freedom, tolerance and equal rights’. Viorst dedicates the whole last chapter to ‘The Hashemite Option’ and claims that it holds much promise in reconciling Islam with the modern world.

Viorst had intended to ‘strip off the exterior layers to get to the heart of Arab culture’, but he only manages to scratch the surface. What emerges is a book lacking authority and order but nonetheless containing some valuable observations and interesting information.


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