Book review:Islam the way Muslims believe

Jesper Rosenløv: Islam: Introduktion til grundlæggelsen og den tidligste ekspansion (Danish)

(Islam: Introduction to its founding and early expansion) Published by Templum, 2013

It is fully understandable if people prefer to spend their spare time watching television, playing pool or gardening instead of learning about Islam the ideology that has given us stoning, polygamy, holy wars and a reward of 72 lusty virgins for cutting the throats of Christians, Jews and other infidels. On top of its promise to do away with freedom and democracy.

But now the Danish historian Jesper Rosenløv, who holds a doctorate in ancient history, has authored an introduction to the founding of Islam and its early expansion a mere 18 pages (cover included), which can be purchased online for Dkr 30 (4) and can be read in half an hour.

That amount of time should be reasonable to spend on an ideology whose spokesmen make no secret that they will soon seize power in the West and tell the rest of us how to behave. And who can do it accompanied by jubilation from large parts of the media, politicians and the cultural elite.

It is notoriously difficult to write the early history of Islam, since the sources are at best shaky. It is in fact almost impossible to describe with certainty what actually happened.

Rosenløv is meticulous in describing his sources and has commendably placed a lot of his source material on a dedicated web site.

The problem is that all the core Islamic scriptures are highly controversial. Rosenløv writes that the Koran dates from the 650s some 20 years after the assumed death of the prophet in 632. That is true, but it is equally true that for many years after that, a number of Korans with diverging contents existed. That has been shown by the German Koran researcher Gerd-Rüdiger Puin. In 1972 he discovered a large collection of Quran fragments in Yemen that deviated from the Koran that was later authorized. If the Koran really is the words of God to Muhammad, God has apparently not made himself particularly clear.

And it is possible he did not express himself in Arabic, in spite of what Islam claims. At least one other German researcher, publishing under the pen name Christoph Luxenberg, has suggested that the Quran is not written in Arabic, but rather in Syriac-Aramaic. And if you the text on that assumption, many of the Koranic verses take on an entirely different meaning than can be found in most Western translations. For instance, holy warriors dying for the cause of Allah cannot expect 72 virgins in Paradise, but will have to content themselves with 72 raisins.

Other scientists doubt that Mohammad even lived. One of those is the German Islamic convert and professor of Islamic theology Sven Kalisch, who used to call himself Muhammad Sven Kalisch, but dropped the Muhammed that after coming to the conclusion that he never existed. Which must be considered a problem for a Muslim. On the other hand, a number of German Islamic organizations have expressed doubt whether Sven Kalisch ever lived.

Jacqueline Chabbi, a professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Paris, also does not believe in the traditional interpretation. She declares bluntly that Islam was originally not a religion at all and that the prophet is pure fiction.

Patricia Crone, a Danish researcher of Islam and a professor at Princeton University, has shown that the Arabic warriors who conquered most of the near Orient after 632 were not called Muslims by their neighbors, but rather Hagarenes, and were considered adherents of an nondescript monotheistic religion possibly inspired by Christianity or Judaism. As is the case with several other scientists, she doubts that the new religion whatever it was about arose in the Arabic peninsula as claimed by canonical Islamic scripture. There are many indications that it arose further north, possibly in Syria.

Things are not simple with Islam. There is hardly any source or any claim about the religion, its prophet, its historical origin and early accomplishments that has not been challenged.

What is one to do then? Jesper Rosenløv has largely chosen to stay with the traditional depiction, i.e. the history that Muslims themselves hold to be true. And given the sources we have, that is probably the only option if one desires to present a coherent story to the readers rather than learned deliberations about the sources, which can be of interest only to professional historians.

So Jesper Rosenløvs pamphlet does not provide us with an account of history as it actually took place, for nobody really knows this. Instead we get the history that faithful Muslims believe is true.

And this is the value of his presentation. For what people believe took place will naturally be formative of their actions and their view of the world.

This is somewhat like trolls in the forest. If people believe them to be real, they hesitate to enter the forest after nightfall though trolls in fact may not exist.

The booklet provides an easily read introduction to Islamic self-understanding, with elaborate explanations of concepts, a historical time line, historical maps, beautiful illustrations and references to essential documents.

Nobody could do it better.

The book can be purchased as an e-book (in Danish) here:

The sources for the book are available here: