Most books about Islam are either well informed, but too specialized for the general reader or misinformed and sensationalistic, but accessible. Unfortunately, this makes the latter the general reader’s pick, leading to the dissemination of misinformation. The prevalence of lack of historical background is at the root of misinformation. While one might assume that current is better, too often current omits relevant historical background, thus leading to misinformation. Following Muhammad presents a sympathetic, if not apologetic, look at mainstream Islam as distinguished from fundamental Islam.
Ernst first became interested in Islam through the Persian poetry of Sufis such as Rumi. Thus he began his investigation of Islam through the lens of Sufism. Along the way, he learned Arabic, Persian, and Urdu and earned a Ph.D. in Islamic studies. He also spent time living and doing research in Muslim countries, primarily the non-Arab Eastern countries of India, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. As a specialist in Islamic studies, Ernst has undertaken to help the West to overcome existing suspicion and ignorance about Islam recently intensified by the hijacking of the language of Islam by Islamic extremists by humanizing Muslims.
Ernst uses a religious studies approach to infer the shaping of modern interpretations of Islam from modern Protestant Christian thought present in non-Muslim American and European Orientalists as well as in Muslim thinkers. He concurrently uses historical context to demonstrate that phenomena thought to be exclusively religious in reality often stem from political, economic, and social factors.
Ernst applies these methods to Islamic religious themes such as Islamic religious ethics, law, gender issues, spirituality, mysticism, and, particularly, the role of the Prophet Muhammad. At the same time, he applies them to the so-called clash of civilizations, arguing that, as a result of imperialism, “we have constructed the notion of religion in recent history around ideas of competition and confrontation” (Ernst XVIII).
Ernst emphasizes the interaction between religion and history, arguing against the notion perpetuated by today’s mass media that the present paints a complete picture. He explores the etymology of words and the history of concepts in order to identify their underlying implications, and so better understand them in their historical context, thus revealing the religious debates and differences, pluralism, and perspectives behind them.
Ernst’s thesis is that “Muslims are human beings” (Ernst XIX) and that as human beings they have a history including social and historical situations influenced by class, ethnicity, gender, etc. Ernst’s book is aimed at non-Muslims who need to come to terms with Islam, as well as Muslims not satisfied with dogma who are seeking to come to terms with their own antecedents and with the history of the modern world.
Ernst develops his thesis by describing and interpreting Islam, covering concepts and questions vital to understanding the debates surrounding it today. His religious-studies-based approach allows no religious claims to be accepted at face value or dogma to trump rationality or ignore history. Ernst endeavors to evaluate his subject in its historical context in a manner accessible to all, regardless of their background or beliefs.
Ernst undertakes to humanize Islam by replacing our caricatured stereotypes with real human examples and our selective amnesia with a memory our not-so-distant colonial past. Ernst argues that our self-concept conflicts with the reality of our antecedents’ engagement with Islam and that we will come to better understand ourselves through the process of humanizing Islam.
For the most part, Ernst succeeds at correcting our flawed self-concept and our flawed concept of Islam through the process of humanizing Islam and by reminding us of our colonial past. However, Ernst fails to deliver a completely unbiased, unapologetic view of Islam. It seems a little far-fetched to attempt to explain Islamic fundamentalism solely in terms of an anti-colonialist response considering that there are a number of other factors that may have contributed. Also, Ernst’s dismissal of the Orientalists’ acceptance of the Satanic verses affair as resulting solely from their preconceptions is somewhat contrived and unconvincing considering that such an unflattering story is unlikely false.
Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.