By the author’s admission, Islam Considered is not a scholarly work. It is rather what she calls “a work of journalism” and “an outgrowth of my reporting on Islam” (p. vii). Patterson is a staff writer for the National Catholic Reporter whose goal in writing this short book “was to present a simple, readable account of the major tenets and practices of Islam and to provide readers some understanding of why the West in general and the United States in particular are regarded with antagonism by some Muslims (pp. vii). On both counts, she has succeed.
At first glance the slim volume does not appear appropriate for the classroom, but to borrow a word from the title, it ought to be considered. The author, who is obviously well informed about the history, beliefs, politics and practices of Islam, manages to provide a context for more thorough considerations of complex questions like the relationship between religion and politics in Islamic societies, jihad, veiling and the so-call clash of civilizations, to name but a few. In this respect, Patterson not only informs her readers but also helps them confront the kinds of stereotypes that promote Islamophobia in the West. Supplemented with other more “scholarly” materials, the book can serve as an inviting overview of Islam and its practice in the modern world for students who are quickly overwhelmed by otherwise good but dense considerations of the tradition.
Two features of the book stand out. First, its treatment of the wide diversity of Islamic opinion about what counts most for being a good Muslim. In Chapter 2, “Unity and Diversity in Islam,” Patterson tackles the diversity issue in a discussion of a variety of topics including law, marriage and family, economics, community, Sunni/Shi’i differences and Sufism. She takes up the diversity issue again in Chapter 5, “Islam Today,” which addresses the wide range of Islamic responses to “colonization and globalization” (p. 92), which many Muslims perceive as threats to Islam emanating from the West. Her point is simply to caution against painting Islam with too broad a brush. As she notes elsewhere in the book, “Unlike in the Catholic Church, . . .there is no central authority, no magisterium, that speaks for Islam or can represent it authoritatively.” (p. 50)
The second thing that stands out about the book is Patterson’s treatment of the controversies and misconceptions about Islam (the title of Chapter 3). The particular issues she raises in the chapter display the author’s grasp of nuances, but she manages to do more than that. She also invites the reader to consider how many aspects of Islam that are criticized in the West are mirrored in our own religious and political history.
For example: “Frequently Westerners decry the concept of jihad, which they often erroneously translate as ‘holy war,’ ignoring or perhaps unaware that holy war is a concept with roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” (p. 48) She goes on to quote Pope Urban II who sent the first crusaders off to war with the promise of absolution from sin and the assurance that the crusade “is the will of God.”
Another example on another topic: “Westerners frequently view Muslim women who cover their heads as oppressed, even though women in many different countries do the same. Catholic nuns, Amish women, Russian, Greek, Jewish women, and others have worn veils or head scarves. Many continue to do so, yet are not automatically assumed to be subservient because of it.” (p. 57)
Her point seems to be the one John Esposito is fond of making when he speaks of Western misconceptions about Islam, namely that we have to be careful not to compare the Christian or Western ideal with what we take to be the Islamic reality.
Though not advertised as a scholarly work, Islam Considered includes a bibliography which, among others, cites titles by Karen Armstrong, John Esposito and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It also has frequent citations embedded in the text and a helpful index of topics.