01 August 2009

A Short History: Islam

I have just finished reading this book titled, A Short History: Islam. The book is by William Montgomery Watt. Watt passed in 2006. The blurb says that Watt was a bit of a legend in the field. The book was an easy read. It was really concise and left me wondering that there is probably a lot more that one would need to read in order to get a grip on all of the bits and pieces that were introduced throughout.

However, I would tend to agree with the reviews contained in the book that it is an easy to navigate introduction to Islam. I learned a lot by taking the time to read it. I read it in three sittings. That is not to suggest that it is not a page turner, interesting, or worthy. To the contrary, the three sittings were the result of the time available in between feeding, changing nappies, and bathing little Will.

However, the purpose of this post is not a detailed review of the book, but rather to throw up a couple of points that Watt makes for discussion with respect to the problems facing Islam today.

1. "The basic legal ideas of Islam are sound, but they need to be adapted to the changed circumstances of today."

2. "... it is unreasonable to suppose that a return to the Islam of Muhammad and the rightly guided caliphs is literally possible."

3. "Was the period of the rightly guided caliphs really an ideal period?"

4. "For Islam to take its proper place in a multireligious world, it is important that Muslims should admit that there is at least a large measure of truth in other religions."

Just some food for thought for my small but loyal readership.


anong said...


How many of those final propositions do you think the average moslem here would agree with?

IN my office, and I will enquire, I'd say at least two would get up.

Rob Baiton said...


That is why I prefaced them as interesting discussion points.

I think most of the people in my office would avoid the topic like the plague.

oigal said...

"like the plague"

Laugh... A interesting phrase considering the topic...

Harry Nizam H. said...

Rob ..
It depends on which kind of Muslims you are mixing with.
If they are fanatics they would avoid such topic.
Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate/not fanatics. The recent election shows that the majority gave the votes to nationalist parties. While parties who claimed to be based on Islam got lower votes than 5 years ago.

Rob Baiton said...


Now, now!


Mate, what's the deal with the election comments. I have noticed you have made the same or a similar comment in a number of places.

I was hardly suggesting that Indonesia is a Islamic State with a dominating hard-line faction. So, this is why I do not see the relevance of the comment on the election.

Maybe it does matter in terms of who one associates with. Most view religion as a conflict trigger, hence the idea of avoiding it like the plague.

I would have thought that the more devout would have been more likely to take up the challenge of justifying why the discussion points raised are not really discussion points and therefore not in need of discussion.

The "moderates" as you call them are the ones most likely not to want to get involved in a heated discussion on the subject.

Harry Nizam H. said...

Rob ...
I hope that what you meant by
'more devout' you are not referring to fanatic Muslims.
Because most Moderates are devout too.
The difference is that the fanatics want to adopt Islam the way the Arabs do e.g way of praying, dress, tradition etc. While 'Moderates' want to do it according to the Indonesian way (except for the basic rulings). Although some fanatic leaders are shouting loud, and the moderates silent, but in daily life those fanatics, who felt more purified, alienated themselves from the majority.

Rob Baiton said...


More devout means exactly that.

Really, Islam would tolerate an Indonesian way. When Allah was relaying the message to Muhammad was it stated that there would be multiple ways of practicing the faith?

Or does the "Indonesian way" rely on the fact that man (and woman) have no free will. In the sense that of Allah decrees it then so will it be, and if Allah does not decree it then it will not come to be? Meaning that there is an Indonesian way and an Arab way in Islam because Allah decrees it to be so?

It is interesting that the Indonesian way permits the manipulation of the faith at the periphery (excluding the basic tenets, right) and still considers itself to be true Islam and not a sect. Why is it that Indonesian Islam is not a sect within the broader confines of Islam?

The moderates, may or may not be more or less devout, however the point was that the moderates would be less likely to get into a heated discussion on the points noted. That is my personal opinion and my personal experience.

If that offends or makes you feel that devout in the context here is that moderate Muslims are less devout, then that is your interpretation and not mine.

oigal said...

"In the sense that of Allah decrees it then so will it be, and if Allah does not decree it then it will not come to be? Meaning that there is an Indonesian way and an Arab way in Islam because Allah decrees it to be so?"

That just made my head hurt!
Big call trying to define a Muslim? Whats a christian? My favourite is the ones bellowing loudly for Islamic Law as our salvation..trouble is I cannot find any two Muslims to agree what that really means..Malaysian Banking as start point..once you get off stoning adulterers and cutting off hands for knicking camels..it really becomes a bit confusing...

Rob Baiton said...


To a degree, playing the Devil's Advocate (although I am not sure that is the best term considering the subject matter :D).

Not trying to define Islam. Neither would I try and define Christianity. Although, I think that the manner in which sects define themselves allows for the discussion to take place within the framework of what and how God might have allowed this to occur.

However, what my point was, was that in Watt's book, he talks about the idea that there is an understanding that God / Allah wills everything. And, therefore if it is not willed then it is never going to be.

That is a fascinating idea to me. It fascinates me, because if my understanding of the idea is reasonable, then God must will all manner of nasty human behaviour to occur.

I would have been hoping that in the pages of this humble little blog that some full and frank (perhaps blunt) discussion can take place.

Anonymous said...

1. "The basic legal ideas of Islam are sound, but they need to be adapted to the changed circumstances of today."
---agree---(in the area of jurisprudence)

2. "... it is unreasonable to suppose that a return to the Islam of Muhammad and the rightly guided caliphs is literally possible."
----Ofcourse!!!!---no brainer---

3. "Was the period of the rightly guided caliphs really an ideal period?"
----Yes---more or less---

4. "For Islam to take its proper place in a multireligious world, it is important that Muslims should admit that there is at least a large measure of truth in other religions."
---Since the Quran already informs us of previous revelations and messengers---this should be easy-----

A "moderate" muslim--though not indonesian

Rob Baiton said...


Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Comments are always appreciated!

I always say to my anonymous commenters (particularly if you are going to comment a couple of times) is to adopt a pen name. This makes it easier for me to distinguish one anonymous commenter from another.

Thanks for the answers.

Although, less short and sweet might be helpful on No. 3. :D

Moderate Muslim, but not Indonesian. Can you divulge where? If not, no dramas.

Anonymous said...

further to #3....
according to my understanding...
The first 4 Caliphs were elected leaders.(chosen by a committee)--In keeping with the Sunna of the Prophet(pbuh) who was himself chosen/accepted by the majority of the Medina community. As leaders who strove to the best of their ability to implement the principles of the Quran, they are worth study.---However, this was also a time of power plays by various groups.....

actually, I found your comment about "free-will" vs pre-determination/pre-destined (?--is that the right word?) interesting.
It is generally understood (by muslims) that God is omnicient--therefore has foreknowledge of everything that occurs and will occur---but I do not assume that means there is no free-will. I think both can co-exist.---Personally---I agree with the Quran that human beings have free-will because God intended for us to have it. With the freedom to make choices---comes the responsibility of the consequences.

and if I could make another comment regarding a point someone brought up above.....There is a concept "Unity within diversity"--which I think is exemplified in the Hajj where muslims from all races, colors, cultures and countries come together to pray.

Rob Baiton said...


Thanks for sharing and expanding on point 3.

I would be the last person in the world to claim any expertise on Islam or the practice of the faith. This is why, at least in part, that I posed the questions that I did.

Discussion is always a learning experience and I think I have learned something today.

I am not arguing that there is no concept of free will in Islam. There are sects within Islam that give more time to the idea of free will than others (at least this is my understanding from reading Watts).

What I was suggesting (also after having read Watts) was that there is a prevailing idea that when it comes to believers in particular, that God's will is dominating.

If that is wrong or I have misinterpreted then I am more than willing to acknowledge that fact.


Anonymous said...

from kat

I haven't read Watts.....
"I am not arguing that there is no concept of free will in Islam. There are sects within Islam that give more time to the idea of free will than others (at least this is my understanding from reading Watts)."
----I am only an average muslim---but from my research, muslim scholars (especially those around 10-12th century) have debated on the "degree" of free-will----and today, individual muslims are sure to have their own opinions on the issue.....I personally lean towards the "pro-free-will" view.

"What I was suggesting (also after having read Watts) was that there is a prevailing idea that when it comes to believers in particular, that God's will is dominating."
---I'd say "...when it comes to creation in general, that God's will is supreme."----However, God usually chooses not to interfere with free-choice--because then it wouldn't be free-choice/free-will. Without free-will--we cannot take responsibility for our actions---which would negate the whole point about judgement-day (---my personal opinion)

Thankyou for some interesting questions.
Cheers to you too....

Rob Baiton said...


Thanks for the thoughtful responses. Certainly something for me to think about and read up on.

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...


I note that you have a huge interest on Islam, so, though a little bit late, let me add some information on the issue of predetermination/free will is Islamic theology.

I guess you are aware that in Islamic theology there are two big school which deals with the issue of human action and God's role behind such action, i.e. Jabbariyah, defender of fatalism and predetermination, and Qadariyah, supporter of free will.

Each of them are using various sources from the Koran and Hadith to back up their argument on whether human are actually free or not. But the Jabbariyah school is losing point when they can't clearly explain why men should be responsible for their acts if they are no more than puppets of God? Attributing the sins of men to God's will is just the same as saying that God is like a little child who loves to do whatever he wish for, including sending some of his creation to hell just because he wants to.

Meanwhile from the Qadariyah side, they have a very good argument taken from a hadith saying more or less like this: An arab bedouin comes to the mosque for doing a pray and when he arrived at the mosque, he let his camel untied and went inside the mosque. Seeing this, the Prophet Muhammad asked him why did he untie his camel? To this the bedouin replied he surrender himself to the will of Allah and so let it be what God has determined from the beginning. The Prophet calmly replied, "no my friend, tie your camel first and after that you can say that you surrender to the will of God." It's quite simple, men should do their best and let God do the rest, not let God do everything and men do nothing.

Another good story is about the Great Caliph Umar Bin Khatab, who has been considered as the best caliph in the Islamic history and a very close friend to the Prophet Muhammad. One day, one of the areas of the Islamic Caliphate was being under attack by certain plague. Upon hearing this, Umar decided to cancel his trip to such area. Some of his friends asked him why did he cancel his trip, he shouldn't cancel it because that means he is trying to avoid God's will. To this, he easily replied, "I'm just moving from a destiny to other kind of God's destiny, so why bother?"

Some Islamic scholar also introduces the concept of destiny (Taqdir) and pre-destiny (Qadar) in Islamic theology. I wouldn't discuss their basis for the concept here, but in short, pre-destiny is something that have been set up by God for each of us but has not been implemented yet. As long as God has not implemented such pre-destiny, men can change it and create new destiny.

One of the most famous cases here is a hadits saying that a man can prolong his life by having silaturrahmi (establishing good and caring relationship) with old families and friends. This is because in Islam, death is pre-destined and no one can change the God's will on this issue, unless they do some kind of acts which can be considered by God to change such fate. Making silaturrahmi is believed to have such changing effect, of course for how long can you prolong your life using such technique is unknown, hahaha.

In conclusion, I have to disagree if Islam is heavily related to predeterminism. The primary sources do not support that and the basic concept of men's liability under Islamic law would shatter if they can always blame God for their own actions. Hope it's useful.

Rob Baiton said...


Nothing is ever too late on the comment front. Well, not around here at least.

I do not know that it is an interest in Islam. However, I do read and read widely. Yep, I am aware of all the things you note. In my defense, I was not intending to get into a lengthy dissertation to illustrates each and every possible interpretation or viewpoint.

There is indeed arguments that can be made for both sides of the coin. Then it becomes a matter of what you believe in. If you believe in the Jabbariyah point then so be it, then you can always believe in the Qadariyah view.

However, in the context of free will how should one view point one and the idea of ijtihad?

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

I'm assuming that you refer to one of the most controversial theories in Islamic law, i.e. that the door of Ijtihad has been closed. I definitely don't take that kind of idea, and I don't even think that it is something which is still generally acceptable in the field of Islamic law.

As far as I know, even the fundamentalist Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia condemned people who believe that the door of ijtihad has been closed.

I don't see the relevance between free will and Ijtihad or the need to adjust Islamic law with situation and condition. Adjusting the Islamic law with situation and condition has been recognized as a basic Islamic legal principles, "li kulli zaman wa makan."

Most Islamic scholars take the view that with respect to laws related to daily activities, such laws must always be adjusted with the development of the society. In Islamic legal theory, a.k.a Ushul Fiqh, this is developed under the Maslahah Mursalah and 'Urf methods, i.e. adopting laws based on the need of the society and adopting customary laws, respectively.

Only laws related to the Ibadah or religious activities which are maintained between God and men, such as prayer (shalat) and fasting, which should not be changed. To change this kind of law would not be necessary. Everyone knows a moslem must pray 5 times a day, or fasting at Ramadhan. It's part of the religion.

The question actually would be, to what degree can someone adjust the principles of Islamic law? Most scholars agree that Islamic law should always be adjusted with current situation and conditions, but they won't have the same standard with respect to the degree of adjustment.

As an example, some Islamic scholars still prohibit the existence of Islamic banking because in their view, any concept of banking is contravening the Islamic law due to the fact that the banking concept has not been recognized by first generation ulemas. Some even further argued ridiculously that banking industry is a the product of jews and therefore should be prohibited.

One thing for sure, I wouldn't agree that a moderate moslem would not like to discuss these things. I consider myself as a moderate moslem and I always love to discuss any aspects of Islamic laws with my friend. In my experience, those who refuse to discuss these issues are not the moderates one, but rather those who take their religion lightly. These are not the moderate ones, they simply don't care.

Of course, it is better not having any discussion rather than having a discussion with a fundamentalist who will accuse you as an infidel just for asking these kind of questions :)

Rob Baiton said...


Is Ramadan the opportune time to be having this discussion? :D Just kidding.

Sometimes, at least, for me, the learning experience is about playing the Devil's advocate and posing questions that might not normally be posed with a view to discussion but rather simply bating people into argumentative responses.

So, thanks for your measured, learned, and courteous replies on this topic.

It is interesting that you do not see the relevance between free will ijtihad. Free will would be all encompassing and could find an avenue or outlet in ijtihad I would have thought.

If anything the purpose of the post was to stimulate debate and the free exchange of ideas. It was also, hopefully, going to be able to highlight that there are more moderates than there are "others" and perhaps it is time for these moderates to step up and show Islam in the light that they believe it exists in.

The point on moderates avoiding the discussion like the plague was personal experience. And, I am generally pretty careful not to generalize that personal experience.

Islamic banking is an interesting one, and I am guessing it is an area that you have an interest in (pun intended). I am not so much for the Jewish conspiracy arguments re banking. I also find the first generation Ulema argument a little on the light side as well.

Not being a historian of early Arabian economics I cannot say authoritatively either way, but I would have figured that Khadijah as a commercially successful businesswoman would have had financial management skills that may have found their way into acceptable Islamic financial management and transaction rules.

Besides, the idea of interest and profit sharing and the like is just semantics in most cases, don't you think?

Disagree. It is always worth having the discussion even with a fundamentalist who thinks me nothing more than an infidel. Perhaps it is a simple case of knowing those who are different from you, knowing what makes them tick, knowledge is a powerful tool.

Some people use their tools well and others do not.

Pramudya A. Oktavinanda said...

Well maybe yes, we have more free time in ramadan you know, hehe.

The reason why I don't see the relevance between free will and ijtihad is simply because I think Ijtihad is a purely legal reasoning activities. I don't need free will for making legal reasoning, rather I'll need knowledge, creativity, and information on the limit of my possible twist of the law :). Unless, you believe that free will is needed for those who take the laws too literally.

The last time Islam has that kind of absolutely literal guys is when the Dzahiriyah school is still famous some centuries ago. Established by Daud Al-Dzahiri, this particular school believes that Islamic law is already perfect (referring to a Koran verse stating that Allah has declared that Islam has been completed (this is believed as the last verse that was issued by Allah)), and therefore no more interpretation is needed. Just read the Koran literally. Unsurprisingly for me, this school has vanished a long time ago.

Islamic law (including Islamic finance) is one of my interests, and I already started to focus on this subject back when I'm still in the University. That's why I'm very eager to discuss this subject. Some time ago I joined a Shari'a economic mailing list. It was good at first, but then people are being less argumentative and becoming hypocrite. My debating friends were also gone. So I decide to end my membership there. It's very frustrating if you can't reach the audience when you have many ideas and are trying to have some decent discussion.

On the interest and profit sharing, it's practically similar, they're just using different wrap. In practice, even the calculation of ijarah fee for a global Sukuk refers to LIBOR. Amazingly, this is incorporated in the documents and the Shari'a supervision board (which consists of some middle east ulemas) does not show any objection. I'll elaborate some more on this theme in my own blog.

Rob Baiton said...


I will read your post, and perhaps if I am capable return the favour and comment.