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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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Interpreting Islam
Hastings Donnan (ed)

London, Sage, 2001
196 pp, ISBN: 0-7619-5421-X, HB: 55.00, ISBN: 0-7619-5422-8, PB: 18.99



"Islam is known in a bewildering diversity of ways in an increasingly inter-connected world" (p.1.) state Hastings Donnan and Martin Stokes in the opening essay of this comprehensive and informative book. This statement is particularly apt in today's clime where the current conflict between Islam and the West has engendered what is seen by many as an increase in 'Islamophobia.' As Donnan points out "The perpetuation of myths and stereotypes in the West has meant that Islam is much understood."

This book is a collection of ten essays penned by eminent academics with the aim of giving the reader an insight into a series of different disciplinary approaches involved in the study of Islam. Coming from such different fields as Politics, Anthropology, Sociology and Education, amongst others, each chapter is concerned with a different approach for the contemporary interpretation of Islam, yet the conclusion of each is that the study of any aspect of Islam can only benefit from an interdisciplinary approach. Despite such a diverse collection of topics dealt within the collection, the key hypothesis that is evident throughout is that "patterns can be observed in the bewildering and seemingly anarchic diversity of disciplinary approaches to Islam, and that we, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, might learn much by reflecting on them."(p.1.)

The conflict underlined by all the contributors is that of the opposing interpretations of Islam in the academic context. For example, in Chapter 3 'Researching The Radical' Beverley Milton-Edwards differentiates between the 'orientalist/neo-orientalist' approach and the 'apologist' approach. She comments on how these two antagonistic approaches seek to define the intricacies of 'radical Islam' whilst coming at it from a completely different set of premises. As well as highlighting the current divisions in approaches amongst scholars in this field, she also raises the issue of patriarchal domination of scholarship in this area and calls for a new approach, which incorporates feminist epistemology.

In the chapter on 'Islam and the Media' Malise Ruthven gives a lucid and thought-provoking account of the portrayal of Islam in the media and asks whether such descriptions are contributing to Islamophobia. Susan Douglass and Ross Dunn in 'Interpreting Islam in American Schools' discuss the representation of Islam in eleven texts used in American schools. They conclude that there is a need for a 'human-centred' approach as well as input from Muslim reviewers in order to counteract the misrepresentations of Islam that they perceive in these pedagogical texts. Martin Stokes in 'Silver Sounds In The Inner Citadel?' gives a concise evaluation of the historical and ethnographic approaches to ethnomusicology and reiterates the valid point that not all music of the Middle East can be considered Islamic.

In this review I have been able only briefly to mention some of the subjects and issues that are included in this collection. This book comes highly recommended for those new to the subject of Islamic Studies and for those that an introduction to new approaches in this area, may provide impetus for further research.


Kathryn M.G. Stapley, Oriental Institute, Oxford



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