Daniel C. Peterson

title.none: Renard, ed., Windows on the House of Islam (Peterson)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.016 99.02.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel C. Peterson, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Renard, John, ed. Windows on the House of Islam: Muslim Sources on Spirituality and Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xx, 431. $55.00 (HB) 0-520-20976-1. ISBN: $22.00 (PB) 0-520-210867.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.16

Renard, John, ed. Windows on the House of Islam: Muslim Sources on Spirituality and Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xx, 431. $55.00 (HB) 0-520-20976-1. ISBN: $22.00 (PB) 0-520-210867.

Reviewed by:

Daniel C. Peterson
Brigham Young University

Th is is a fine anthology of readings that provides its readers a wide-ranging look into many rooms of what the editor, who is a professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University, calls "the house of Islam."

It is organized into seven chapters. The first, "Foundations: Prophetic Revelation," treats the Qur'an, approaches to its interpretation, and its recited presence in the Muslim community past and present. A unique subsection briefly explains that use of Qur'anic inscriptions in classical mosque decoration. The second, entitled "Devotion: Ritual and Personal Prayer," includes materials on prayer and pilgrimage and the rest of the so-called "five pillars" of Islam, as well as on popular religious practices, and even features the text of an Egyptian radio sermon. An essay on "Worship as an Institution of Faith," included in this section from the contemporary Indonesian scholar Nurcholish Madjid, is a highlight, something that even many religious believers of other traditions might well find a stimulus to reflection. (This is a major plus: It allows readers to see in Islam not merely an antiquarian or otherwise alien Other, something about which they can learn facts, but a complex of beliefs, attitudes, and insights from which they can learn.) In the third chapter, "Inspiration: Edification and Ethics," readers will find proverbs and aphorisms -- including materials that editor Renard labels Islamic "wisdom literature" -- as well as hagiographical sketches of exemplary Muslim personalities, both male and female.

The fourth chapter, titled "Aesthetics: From Allegory to Arabesque," features lyric and didactic poetry from various Islamicate cultures, in addition to samples of allegorial writing and selections from the vast Islamic commentary literature. But the aesthetics of Islam have been interwoven throughout the volume in a very meaningful way, commencing with the sixteenth- century Persian miniature featured on the book's cover (which is explained on p. 324). In the chapter on "Devotion," for instance, the illustrations are integrated with the text to represent the settings in which the rituals of Muslim devotion (such as the daily liturgical prayers, funerary rites, and the ceremonies of the pilgrimage) actually occur. Some of the implements that are used on those occasions also appear, among them a mosque candlestick, a prayer rug, a pilgrim banner, and a guidebook for use on the hajj pilgrimage. We are given not only the wonderful Mamluk, Timurid, Mughal, and Ottoman architecture that commonly adorns books on the Islamic tradition, but such things as grave markers and even a few specimens of modern architecture and popular Islamic culture.

The fifth chapter, "Community: Society, Institutions, and Patronage," opens a window onto the public and private institutions that embody the corporate life of Islam. Here again, the arts come in for explicit discussion in texts illustrating how wealthy patrons sponsored them in medieval times and how such sponsorship continues today, even in the United States. Issues of cross-cultural instruction and teaching technique, as well as of mystical discipleship, figure in the sixth chapter, which bears the name "Pedagogy: Fanning Spark into Flame." Finally, the seventh and last chapter, "Experience: Testimony, Paradigm, and Critique," allows readers a glimpse into the inner life of (mostly) mystically-inclined Muslims through accounts of dreams and visions and by means of essays on their interpretation.

As Professor Renard indicates, he has made a deliberate effort to find fresh translations and to provide the broadest possible geographical and chronological coverage. This virtue is apparent throughout the volume. (It is also impressively evident in the first two appendices, where the dates and places of origin of the texts and illustrations are listed.) We have come a long way from the days when "Islam" was often seen as a monolith whose contours could be discerned simply through study of the canonical Arabic-language texts, while popular practice and non-Arabic expressions of the religion were dismissed as decadent. The reader is encouraged from the very start when, in his preface, the editor explicitly says that it is not his goal in the anthology to represent some mythical "normative" Islam, but to offer representative examples of the various "Islams" that have coexisted through history (rather, one supposes, like the multiple ancient "Judaisms" that Jacob Neusner has taught us to recognize).

Professor Renard has drawn not only upon the literary sources that many would expect, but, true to his interest in Islam as actually lived, from a wide range of other materials as well. Thus, the volume includes an anthropologist's biography of a modern village preacher in Jordan, selected medieval tomb inscriptions, and waqf trust documents from centuries-old charitable endowments in Egypt and Central Asia. Moreover, although he certainly does not slight Islam in its medieval and Middle Eastern manifestations, his coverage will dispel the tendency of some in the West to think of Islam as something merely "back then" or "over there." Notable texts in the book include a late-nineteenth-century Kenyan epic about Moses (originally written in Swahili), an extended passage from the important twentieth-century Egyptian literary figure Taha Hussein, and soul-searching extracts from the diary of the Indonesian intellectual Ahmad Wahib. An article on the use of art for religious pedagogy by the Sri Lankan sage Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986) and a selection from the Persian Lexicon of Mystical Terms of Sayyid Ja'far Sajjadi (d. 1996) illustrate the up-to-date character of this anthology. A substantial passage from Wang Daiyu's seventeenth-century Real Commentary on the True Teaching or Zhengjiao zhenquan (pp. 278-83) represents Islam's adaptation to a Chinese environment, where its angels too adapt and, in the process, become the "heavenly immortals." With selections taken from Chinese, as well as from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, and even from Javanese and several other less well-known "Islamic" languages, Professor Renard's apologetic admission (on p. xix) that he has been unable to include Sindhi, Punjabi, and Bengali materials finds easy absolution. A brief treatment of Islamic architecture in the United States is particularly striking, and welcome.

The editor makes a particular effort, it seems, to feature the contributions of women. We get, for example, specimens of their private prayers and devotions, of their occasional careers as scholars and teachers, and of their patronage of architecture. The ascetic practice of the medieval holy woman of Giza mentioned on pp. 138-39 will probably remind some of St. Simeon Stylites.

Professor Renard opts, when he can, for longer texts, and even for complete texts. A notable one is the chapter of the Qur'an known as "Yusuf" or "Joseph." The only "sura" or chapter devoted to a single narrative, it is printed in dramatic form on pp. 8-23, with different speakers identified as if for a play. Though I had never before seen it so presented, I found the dramatic organization very appropriate and even helpful, and I can easily imagine that its performance in a classroom setting could be a valuable teaching device.

The volume has a distinctly mystical emphasis, which many will find a strength. I do have some relatively minor reservations about it, though. The dramatic version of the Joseph story, for example, leaves many important terms -- such as rabb, insan, and sabr -- untranslated. I found that somewhat off-putting in itself, even though I know Arabic well, and predict that not a few readers who lack Arabic will react similarly. But what bothered me more was the fact that the notes to the selection then gloss those terms in rather idiosyncratic ways. The glosses are interpretive, as they must unavoidably be, but they seem to impose a specific, mystically-inclined patina on the text that, I am quite confident, is quite different from the way in which its original audience received the Qur'an. (Indeed, the glosses seem even to savor of the "primordial philosophy" or "perennialist" approach to Islam -- associated with such figures as Frithjof Schuon -- an approach that I, at least, find annoying when encountered in large quantities.)

One other criticism that I would offer is that the mystical orientation of the volume results in a relative de-emphasis of the very important legal dimension of Islam. For Islam, in this regard rather like rabbinic Judaism, has exerted some of its greatest effort, and achieved some of its greatest intellectual glory, in the elaboration of an extraordinarily rich, detailed, and complex system of law. (Actually, of course, the shariah, like the rabbinic codes, goes far beyond what the West knows as law. It is also a system of ethics and a comprehensive guide to ritual and worship and even, sometimes, etiquette.) Yet rather little of that legal dimension is visible in Windows on the House of Islam. I was struck by the fact that, although his name occurs in passing three times previously, it is only in a brief footnote on page 369 (out of 383 pages of text) that the reader is formally introduced to al-Bukhari, the great ninth-century gatherer of prophetic traditions. Yet his multivolume collection of those materials enjoys quasi-canonical status among the overwhelming majority of world's Muslims and is quite probably the second most important work in the Sunni Islamic tradition after the Qur'an itself. It is the fountainhead of Islamic legal theory and practice, and the court of first resort in virtually every question of Muslim doctrine and behavior when no explicit answer can be located in the Qur'an itself.

Of course, no single text could possibly do justice to the depth and breadth of Islam and its attendant civilization, and it may well be that Professor Renard has not only chosen the aspects of Islam that most appeal to him, but those that will most fully resonate with the (presumably mostly non-Muslim) readership of his anthology. This is a fine collection of materials, intelligently chosen and presented. It will serve teachers and students of Islam very well, and will introduce many others to this rich, complex, and fascinating culture.