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Jamal J.Elias
Amherst College, Massachusetts
Writing a brief introductory book of this kind presents a set of unique challenges
to the author, who must balance brevity,
clarity, and comprehensiveness. These
demands are particularly acute in the case of Islam, which is a religion of people
from vastly varying cultures, and simultan
eously one perceived as foreign to the
Western world. In the interest of clarity
I have chosen to concentrate on a limited
number of societies when providing concrete examples of Islamic beliefs and
customs, and must apologize to those readers whose regional interests have not
been sufficiently accommodated.
Emphasizing Islam as a living tradition, I have provided only the most
condensed description of classical Islamic history and thought, subjects which
are covered in great detail in a variety of books. I have tried to focus on the
religion of ordinary Muslims, who live in
societies that are mostly in a state of
relative peace, and whose major concerns revolve around the day-to-day issues
that preoccupy human beings in most societies. I have intentionally avoided the
Islam of newspaper headlines; nor have I attempted to make religious sense of
the madness that has gripped Afghanistan and Algeria.
I have tried to be as consistent as possible in my use of technical terms that
have not been standardized in scholarly
use. For example, I use “Muslim” as an
adjective to refer to both men and women who profess the religion of Islam. I
also use “Muslim” as an adjective referr
ing to societal or historical phenomena
that are religious in content
or character. This is distin
ct from my use of the term
“Islamic” to refer to those features of li
fe that are shared ev
en by the non-Muslim
members of a predominantly Muslim soci
ety, such as its art or music. This
formula parallels the usage of “Christian” versus “Western” in the book. I have
used Arabic technical terms only where absolutely necessary, and have used a
simplified system of transliteration—in
terested readers should consult the
pronunciation guide for clarification. Arabic words that have entered the English
language are treated as English words when written in plural form; singular and
plural forms of other words are provided as necessary.
This book emerges from roughly ten year
s of teaching introductory courses on
Islam, and I would like to acknowledge the contribution of students, both past
and present, at Amherst, Yale, and Brown, for foreing me to think about the
material in new ways. My frequent resear
ch trips to the Islamic world have been
facilitated by a number of granting ag
encies and academic institutions, most
significantly Amherst College.
In putting together this volume I have drawn information from a large number
of people in the Islamic world and in the United States. Among those scholars
whose direct communications I was acutel
y aware of during th
e months in which
I was writing this book are Eqbal Ahmed, Leila Ahmed, Virginia Aksan, Adel
Allouche, Gerhard Böwering, Amila Bu
turovic, Michael
Cooperson, Alan
Godlas, Yvonne Haddad, Farooq Hamid, Nancy Hill, Ahmet Karamustafa,
Nevzat Kaya, Ahmet Kuyas, Ali Mirsepassi, Dwight Reynolds, Ahmed Tasbihi,
Shawkat M. Toorawa, E.Sarah Wolper, a
nd Osman Yahya. There are, no doubt,
many others whom I have overlooked, but neither they nor the people named
above are in any way accountable for the shortcomings of this book.
I would particularly like to thank Me
lanie White, my editor at Calmann and
King, for her patience with the delays
necessitated by my schedule, Shahzad
Bashir for reading the manuscript and commenting on it, and Mehrin Masud for
her careful reading, for listening to me formulate ideas, and for keeping the
cappuccinos coming.
Jamal J.Elias
June 1998
Chronology of Islam
C. 570 C.E.
Birth of the Prophet in Mecca.
Death of Khadija, first wife of the Prophet and first convert to
The Hijra: the emigration of
Muhammad and his followers
from Mecca to Medina, marking
the beginning of the Islamic
lunar calendar.
Conquest of Mecca.
The Farewell Pilgrimage and death of the Prophet.
Death of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali.
Abu Bakr is Caliph.
Umar is Caliph.
Conquest of Damascus.
Conquest of Egypt.
Conquest of Persia.
Death of Umar.
Uthman is Caliph.
Death of the last pre-Islamic Persian emperor. Yazdigird.
Official date of the canonization of the Qur’an under Uthman.
Death of Uthman.
Ali is Caliph.
Battle of Siffin between supporters of Ali and the army of
Assassination of Ali. Mu
awiya becomes Caliph.
Umayyad dynasty.
Death of A’isha, wife of the Prophet and one of the most
influential figures in early Islam.

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