Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World


Author: Carl M. Ernst
Faculty Readers' Forum choice for April 26, 2007. Ernst, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is not a stranger to Islam-related controversy. His recommendation of Michael Sells's book Approaching the Qur'an to the UNC Summer Reading Program for incoming freshmen spurred an international firestorm. Following Muhammad itself was rejected by the publisher that had commissioned the manuscript, as some editors there objected to publishing a book that could be construed as supporting terrorism. Despite these obstacles, Ernst brought the book to another press with rewarding results: it is a pleasure to read. Ernst has a multilayered and self-assured understanding of Islam, and his writing exemplifies a fluency in explaining it that is unique to him, even compared to better-known scholars of the religion. Delicate and complex points about Islam as a religion and culture, about Sufism, and even about Osama bin Ladin, flow off the page effortlessly, with only a few spots that are too abstract. Rather than addressing the standard introductory information about Islam, like the Five Pillars, he has organized his book by themes, with chapters on topics such as ethics and spirituality. The book's greatest strength is Ernst's unrelenting but well-reasoned critique of how the West has consistently marginalized Islam and Muslims from the first encounters onward. Ernst is fair, however -- while he admonishes the West for indulging in negative and inaccurate stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, he calls upon Muslims to participate fully in the pluralistic society the world has become. (as reviewed by Publishers Weekly)