BOOK REVIEW: Life in the early Islamic world

24th Apr 2015

Government and Law in the Early Islamic World

Government and Law in the Early Islamic World. By Trudee Romanek, New York: Crabtree Publishing Company. Pp48. PB. 2013. $9.95.

Despite the title, this book is aimed at a younger readership. It is a part of the publisher’s series focusing on aspects of life in the early Muslim world. Other titles in the series include ‘Early Islamic Empires’, ‘Trade and Commerce in the Early Islamic World’, Arts and Culture in the Early Islamic World’ and ‘Science, Medicine, and Math in the Early Islamic World’, among others.

Written in a simple and accessible style, and illustrated beautifully with photographs, maps and images, the publisher seeks to provide a detailed, readable, vivid and appealing introduction to Islamic history, culture and civilization for the young readers in America, Canada, Europe and other parts of the world.

The publisher introduces the book like this: ‘Islam is the religion of Muslim people. Muslims believe in one God. They believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God. Islam began in the early 600s C.E. in Arabian Peninsula, in a region that is now the country of Saudi Arabia. From there, it spread across the world. Today, there are about 1.5 billion Muslims. About half of all Muslims live in southern Asia. Many Muslims also live in the Middle East and Africa, with fewer in Europe, North America, and Australia.’ (p3)

Divided into sixteen brief chapters, biographies of key figures, timeline and glossary of important words, in this book the author presents an overview of government and law as practised in the Muslim world from the early period to modern times. According to the author, ‘Muhammad was an intelligent and caring man. He was determined to help his people make their lives better.

The revelations, or sacred truths [Qur’an], he experienced showed him clearly how the people of his world needed to change.’ (p10)

In other words, the Prophet’s (peace be on him) message required the Arabs to move away from a tribalistic vision of culture and society to one based on the notion of a spiritual community of believers (ummah), thus transcending social, economic, political and cultural considerations. In so doing, he became not only a spiritual leader, but also a social reformer, economic emancipator, innovative legislator and a political leader who advocated social justice, equality of humanity and freedom for all, irrespective of race, colour, creed and status.

Accordingly, ‘Muhammad built a new community, a new religion, and a new social order. At the core of these was a set of rituals, beliefs, and laws that governed how Muslims should live together. These clear guidelines paved the way for setting up systems of justice throughout the Islamic Empire.’ (p13)

Although the Prophet’s teachings were preserved in the form of the Divine revelation, the Qur’an, and the Sunnah, his normative practices, after the rapid expansion of Islam in the East and the West Muslims faced new challenges in terms of systems of governance, political succession, law and order, regulation of trade, commerce and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Development of such rules and regulations enabled Muslim empires and dynasties to maintain peace, order and security on the one hand and promote economic growth, social harmony, cultural development and intellectual creativity on the other.

According to the author, ‘Early Muslim merchants, traders, and armies took their faith, customs, and learning right across the world. From the 600s on, Islam spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula into the Middle East, northern Africa, Spain, India, and Indonesia. It also reached parts of China and many other parts of Asia…Islamic systems of government and law have had a massive influence on world history and have shaped many of the Muslim countries in the world.’ (p44)

This is an interesting and beautifully produced book, but it suffers from many inaccuracies and typographic errors. This is most unfortunate as the book is aimed specifically at young people. For example, the author claims that the Prophet was a Bedouin when, in fact, he had only spent his early years with a Bedouin family outside the citadel of Makkah (p4). The Qur’anic revelation was received by the Prophet over a period of 23 years and it states that the Muslims are one ummah (spiritual community) rather than one tribe (p6). Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmed (Muhammad) II, not Mehed II, who renamed it Istanbul (p34). The Prophet did not promulgate a new religion but clearly stated that he was the last in a chain of Divine emissaries that began with Adam, the father of humanity (p5).

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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