Great Course: Great World Religions: Islam, by Professor John L. Esposito
This course is taught by someone who is considered to be an expert on interaction between Islam and the West, although he is not a Muslim himself. In listening to the six hours of contents that this audiobook has about Islam I was myself torn between respect for the author’s wish to show the diversity of worldviews and mindsets and the nobility of certain aspects of Muslim history and culture and a sense of irritation and frustration and even anger at the way that the professor seemed like one of the list of clueless Progressive apologists for Islam. Even to a greater extent than most of the works I read or listen to, this is a course that depends greatly on what one brings to the table. Muslims may find the instructor to be sympathetic enough to be tolerated, but non-Muslims will likely find a great deal of their view of this course and its instructor depend on their own view of Islam, and their own context of knowledge about it . This is a course designed for those with a minimum of background knowledge in and prejudice against Islam. That may be asking for a bit much from a potential audience.
In terms of its contents, the 12 lectures and six hours of this lecture look at a diverse bit of information that gives the most positive impression possible of Islam, largely due to the author’s own critical attitude towards American nationalism. Beginning with a look at Islam yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the professor repeats some of the material and approach in closing with a discussion on the future of Islam. In between these bookends the professor instructs on the five pillars of Islam (pointing out rather pointedly that jihad is not the sixth pillar), Muhammad’s career as a prophet and statesman, the Quranic worldview, the faith and politics of the Muslim community, the paths to God through Islamic law and sufi mysticism, and efforts at renewal and reform in Islamic revivalism. After this historical context, the professor then looks at the contemporary resurgence of Islam, which the instructor views as a positive development somehow, before looking at Islam at the crossroads concerning the violence of extremists and the influence of the West, along with a look at the contentious struggle over the place of women in Islam and the ambiguous place of Islam in the West. Overall, this is a course that raises a lot more questions than it gives answers.
As someone with a great deal of knowledge in and skepticism towards Islam, I viewed a great deal of this course as whitewash. To be sure, the professor is himself the sort of person who would likely engage in interfaith discussions with Muslims and Jews and other Christians with a high degree of respect, supporting a moderate reformist stance that includes a positive view of Islam as a faith tradition. My own views are, perhaps unsurprisingly, far less sanguine than the professor. It is not that I believe that all Muslims, or even most Muslims, are extremist, but rather that there is little evidence that many Muslims and especially their religious leaders consider extremist Muslims to be beyond the pale and unacceptable and harmful to the well-being of their co-religionists as a whole. It is the fact that the professor seems unwilling to address the darker side of Muhammad (marrying young children) or the horrors of Sharia law and its dark interpretations being brought into the West that gives the whole effort a great deal of suspicion in my eyes, and likely the minds of many who would come across this course.
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