Review: “Understanding Islam” by Thomas W. Lippman

Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World by Thomas W. Lippman. Plume Books. 198 pages.

This isn’t my typical genre of book for reviewing, but I have a couple of reasons for including this particular book here.

One, I am researching for my next book project, the sequel to The Serpent and the Dove, which is partially set in a refugee camp on the border of Kenya and Somalia and Islam is involved in the story. For those who have read my book, The Key of Solomon, you’ll know that I’ve touched on Islam in other books, but this will be a lot more intimate.

Second, I have personally been interested in Islam for quite a while. At the university where I teach, a few years back I was in charge of the honors program and thought a independent study class on Islam would be good, but it never happened. I could never find anyone to teach the class, and it seems students weren’t as interested as I was. But I really believe that the religion is something that is misunderstood and is fraught with cliches and misperceptions, especially considering how it is dealt with by the media.

That’s why I decided to pick up this book. Reading it didn’t change my mind about my religion–I’m still a born-again Christian–but maybe it will help me understand Muslims I come in contact a little better. Several things jump out at me as I read this book.

Thomas Lippman is a journalist who was stationed in the Middle East for many years. The way he writes, I get the impression that he is a Muslim himself, although the fact that he is a journalist helps him keep his objectivity. You get passages like, “This demonstrated that Allah was indeed on the side of the Mohammed.” At the same time, Lippman doesn’t hesitate to point out the many shortcomings of Islam as well, and its followers, but most of those he blames on politics, not religion. What’s fascinating is that a significant difference between Christianity and Islam is that the latter doesn’t believe in separation of church and state. What is law is based on the Koran, and on the many writings of Mohammed’s followers, who apparently listened to his teachings to put together sharia, their code of laws.

Please don’t shoot me, but I see some parallels between Islam and a fundamentalist Christianity that is long on law and short on grace. Muslims believe in one God, and don’t believe in the Trinity, probably the biggest apostasy that Christians believe according to them. And I found it fascinating that originally Mohammed and his followers prayed facing Jerusalem, rather than Mecca, and worshipped on Saturday rather than Friday. Then they had a falling out with Jews in Arabia, and switched to Mecca and Friday.

There’s a lot of warfare in the history of Islam, but if you look at Christianity, there was a lot of war there as well. And as Islam grew, it fell into factions, many of whom fell out of favor with the majority and did things that reflected poorly on the rest. The Taliban, the Druze and the Muslim Brotherhood are all examples of extreme factions who are Islam’s version of skinheads and Hell’s Angels. As Lippman emphasizes, the reasons they do what they do are political, but they try to use religion to unite everyone in a jihad against the West, just as white supremacists use Christianity erroneously.

All in all, this book probably won’t appeal to everyone, but if you are interested in the topic, I found it an easy read and easy to understand. I give it four of five stars.