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154 The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 21:3

The second part contains three chapters. The first is an introspective

analysis in which Ahmed tries to find a reason for the variance between
Quranic teachings and some Muslim practices based on the Hadith. He
hypothesizes that the Prophet may have been following Biblical practices
prior to receiving the Quranic injunctions. Chapter 15 is a prospective syn-
thesis. Based on Quranic injunctions, this future-looking chapter under-
scores that we are all creatures of the same God and that, while our respec-
tive messengers may have been different, the Message has always been the
same: Believe in One Almighty God and then lead a righteous life. It closes
with an invitation for the reader to visit the website at
The last chapter is a summary of the book.
The author has succeeded in presenting a strong case for tolerance and
compassion in Islam based on the primary sources. The main weakness is
his failure to note that Islamic practice and law has overstepped the Quran
and even the Hadith, and has relied more and more on the work of schol-
ars, especially of the medieval period. This accounts for some of the dis-
crepancies between the Quranic text and Muslim practices. The author
seems to be advocating a return to basics.
The book is not a scholarly work and contains some minor mistakes,
especially in the transliteration of Arabic words. It reflects a contemporary
view of Islam and is pleasantly accessible to the general reader. Its main
strength is the inclusion of Biblical comparisons and the contribution of
Christians and Jews. Thus, it exemplifies outstretched hands of friendship
uniting people of various faiths.
Nevin Reda
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern and Islamic Civilizations
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the
Contemporary World
Carl W. Ernst
Chapel Hill and London: University of North
Carolina Press, 2003. 244 pages.
Following Muhammad is a scholarly, but not academic, book directed at
the general reading public. Written by a religious studies scholar with an
evident sympathy for Islam, it seeks to address western prejudices about
Islam by presenting a clear, concise, and accessible picture of the faith in
context. Although the author explores Islams historical evolution, his pri-
mary focus is to balance this with insights into how Muslims themselves
understand their religion in contemporary as well as historical times.
Although primarily directed toward non-Muslims, whose essentialist
media-driven assumptions about Islam are constantly lamented by Ernst,
it is also of interest to the Muslim reading public as a refreshing depar-
ture from standard accounts of Muslims and Islam. Although not a text-
book, it could be profitably used as a text for discussion in a variety of
Two key issues to which Ernst returns repeatedly are, first, the erro-
neous western tendency of assuming that fundamentalists are the true
representatives of Islam, and, second, the importance of recognizing the
part colonialism has played in shaping contemporary developments in the
Muslim world. By drawing comparisons with Christianity, Judaism, and
other faiths, he highlights the unacceptability and indeed absurdity of
many generic assumptions about Islam and Muslims. Instead, he stresses
the importance of non-Muslims recognizing the diversity of faith and prac-
tice in time and space that characterizes Islam, just as it does all other world
The book is divided into six chapters organized in a thematic rather
than a chronological manner in order to reflect the authors self-proclaimed
emphasis on rethinking Islam today. Chapter 1 explores western percep-
tions of, and prejudices toward, Islam in modern and medieval times and
suggests ways to avoid such prejudices in our own time. Chapter 2 looks at
what is meant by the term religion and how evolving western definitions of
religion have shaped western perceptions of other faiths, including Islam.
This is counterbalanced by a survey of how Muslims have defined Islam by
assessing its historical vocabulary and the vocabulary used by present-day
Chapter 3 looks at Islams sources: Prophet Muhammad and the
Quran. Ernst avoids giving a standard biography and instead presents the
Prophet as an exemplar through reference to his life story. He justifies his
approach by drawing comparisons with the Buddha and Jesus as figures of
faith as well as history. He compares and contrasts the Quran to other
scriptures, pointing to its unique status as the Word of God, which is com-
parable not to the Bible but to Jesus, who is also described as the Word of
God in the Christian tradition. This chapter both grants Islam its own
unique character and places it within the context of world religions.
Book Reviews 155
156 The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 21:3
Chapter 4 investigates the development of Islamic ethics on the foun-
dations provided by the Quran and the Hadith literature, and their elabo-
ration through interaction with other traditions, including Greek philosophy.
Key here is Ernsts point that, in fact, both western and Islamic civilizations
rest on the same foundations: Semitic prophetic revelation and Greek philo-
sophical knowledge. It also looks at the impact of colonialism upon Islamic
ethics and how Muslims have responded to the founding of modern nation-
states, the rise of science, and such other issues as gender equality. Chapter
5 looks at Islamic spirituality in the form of Sufism and Shi`i spirituality
and discusses Islamic art and the value of such a designation. In the con-
cluding chapter, Ernst gives his view of how Islam might be reimagined in
the twenty-first century to create a dialogue between Muslims and non-
Muslims and disempower those on both sides who wish to promote the idea
of a clash of civilizations.
The book is well-written and lucid. Although the organization of con-
tents appears idiosyncratic at first glance, the books narrative flow is gen-
erally masterful. Ernst successfully moves from present to past and back
again in a manner that is both logical and clear to follow. The only section
where this breaks down slightly is in his discussion of Islamic art, which
sits rather uncomfortably in the chapter on spirituality.
In many ways, Following Muhammad is a highly personal work. It
does not seek to present ground-breaking research or proffer original
material to experts in Islamic studies. However, it is an elegant and mas-
terful presentation of a religious tradition in an accessible manner, as well
as a heartfelt plea for non-Muslims to understand it. It is clearly based on
great erudition and knowledge not just of Islam, but also of other faiths.
This makes it possible for Ernst to offer new perspectives for non-Muslims
and illustrate the navety of making monolithic assumptions about millions
of people. He successfully brings Islam into the fold of world religions
while also maintaining the specificity and diversity of Muslim praxis.
Following Muhammad is a worthy contribution to the field of contempo-
rary commentaries on what Islam is and an original introduction to that
faith for non-Muslims.
Amira K. Bennison
University Lecturer, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
Director, Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England