Islam Explained by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Islam Explained

Islam Explained

by Tahar Ben Jelloun

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In an accessible question-and-answer format, Islam Explained clarifies the main tenets of Islam, the major landmarks in Islamic history, and the current politics of Islamic fundamentalism. The book also sheds light on the key words that have come to dominate the media—terrorist, crusade, jihad, fundamentalist, fatwa—offering lucid and balanced


In an accessible question-and-answer format, Islam Explained clarifies the main tenets of Islam, the major landmarks in Islamic history, and the current politics of Islamic fundamentalism. The book also sheds light on the key words that have come to dominate the media—terrorist, crusade, jihad, fundamentalist, fatwa—offering lucid and balanced explanations, not only for youngsters but also for the general reader.

Islam Explained is at once an essential introduction to one of the world’s great religions and a cry for tolerance and understanding in deeply troubled times.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A slender but ambitious treatise designed to make sense of Islam to young Western readers." —Publishers Weekly

"A valuable addition to a growing public discourse. . . . As a liberal Muslim voice of reconciliation, heartbreak, and compassion, it is priceless." —Booklist

Publishers Weekly
From the author of Racism Explained to My Daughter comes this slender but ambitious treatise designed to make sense of Islam to young Western readers in the wake of September 11. Jelloun organized his book in a simple question-and-answer format, imagining the questions to come from his own children. The format and largely simple language makes it a quick read and easily digestible. Jelloun tells the tale of Muhammad and the origins of Islam, then dwells largely on Islam's Golden Age by emphasizing its openness to the knowledge of other cultures and by enumerating some of its own contributions to world science and philosophy. Jelloun tries not to whitewash Islamic history by mentioning the violent wars that characterized its expansion, but in doing so he raises more questions than he answers. He explains terrorists as "bad men" who are "not real Muslims." He also defines a range of terms from "humility" and "decadence" to "martyr" and "jihad," but often uses fairly sophisticated vocabulary in his explanations (which could be a translation issue from the original French: Jelloun is a Moroccan-born Muslim transplanted to France). For this reason, the book would work better for adult readers looking for simple ways to answer their children's questions. Although billed as being of interest to the general reader, it will certainly be frustrating to those who want more than a superficial overview of Islam. This book only whets the appetite. (Oct. 10) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"My Islam Explained" might be a more apt title for these gleanings from Islam that have inspired Ben Jelloun (The Blinding Absence of Light, 2002, etc.).

The author’s ambitions here are unpretentious, hoping that his meditation "recalls historical facts, rectifies a few errors, explains a few rituals, defines essential words and concepts, and quashes any excuses for prejudice." He also expects to "extract the essentials," which, of course, gets him into more complexity. He purports to be fielding questions from a child, unveiling Islam’s past the better to appreciate its contemporary, and contentious, place on the world stage. He explains Islam’s origin; its precepts of humility, generosity, and dignity; and, most importantly for Ben Jelloun, its hunger for and openness to knowledge. Give him the Golden Age, when Haroun al-Rashid was in his Baghdad palace, Avicenna was recording the progress of medicine, and houses of wisdom were built and filled with translations and original works in Arabic. He acknowledges but downplays the violence inherent in proselytism—"no religion is totally pacifist or totally bent on war"—a ploy that only reveals a thicket of contradictions. If "God promises the martyr paradise" and a martyr is one who dies "to liberate his country from foreign occupation," that goes a long way toward instigating war-like acts. Ben Jelloun, however, considers al-Qaeda to be "barbarics who have used a religion of peace to make war." Something doesn’t mesh, but all may depend on the angle of approach. Ben Jelloun prefers to emphasize Islam’s moment as the center of the learned world, when it did its best to spread enlightenment, even if he rather feebly suggest that its declinewas the result of madness for power, ignoring the power that made the Golden Age possible.

Ben Jelloun has chosen an Islam of harmony, tolerance, humility, and love of knowledge. Others have chosen a different interpretation. Ben Jelloun’s seems a good one to teach your children.

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New Press, The
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Read an Excerpt

Islam Explained



ISBN: 1565847814

Chapter One

September 11 Explained to Children

My children have not been spared images of the American tragedy of September 11, 2001. The remarks they've heard here and there regarding the terrorists and their belonging to the Arab and Muslim world have worried them.

Thus, one of my children (not quite ten) asked me this questions:

Daddy, am I a Muslim?

Yes, like your parents.

And am I an Arab too?

Yes, you're an Arab even if you don't speak Arabic.

But you saw on TV, the Muslims are bad, they killed a lot of people, I don't want to be a Muslim.

What are you going to do about it?

Starting now I won't turn down pork at the school cafeteria.

If you want, but before giving up being Muslim, I should tell you that the bad men you are talking about are not real Muslims, and there are bad men everywhere.

But people say these men are Arabs....

You must not lump all Arabs together. Not all Arabs are Muslims. There are Christian Arabs in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Sudan....

I saw an old man with a beard who prays like Granddad and then he takes a gun and fires at pictures. Is he a Muslim?

If he prays like Granddad, yes.

Why are these people not real Muslims?

Allah, like the god of the Jews and the Christians, forbids killing yourself, which we call suicide. And He forbids killing other people. So those men who got on airplanes, who killedthe pilots with a knife, and then flew the planes into the skyscrapers in New York-those men don't understand the Muslim religion, and they are fanatics.

What's a fanatic?

It's somebody who thinks he's always right and wants to be the most powerful. If you don't agree with him, he becomes very wicked.

America didn't agree with them and that's why they ran the airplane into the skyscraper?

Yes, no one can accept what they did. What they did was horrible.

What did America do to them that they were so cruel?

America, or more exactly the American government, has made many mistakes and been very unfair. They have been bombing the Iraqi people for ten years. Many Iraqi children have died in these bombings. In 1991 the Iraqi army invaded its neighbor Kuwait. America and other countries stepped in and forced the Iraqi army out. Then Iraq was punished by the United Nations. But actually it was the people who were punished, not their leader. It's complicated, you see. It's not as simple as you think, especially because America is a very powerful nation and must take care to be fair. But despite all of that, nothing can justify those mass killings.

But was it Iraqis who attacked America?

No, it was people who say they are Arabs and Muslims. For me, they are crazy people.

But why are they crazy?

Those people were taught when they were kids and attended Koranic school that Allah wanted them to kill the enemies of Islam and then Allah would reward them by sending them to heaven.

I don't get it. You have to kill to go to heaven?

Absolutely not! But they were told to believe that.

And they believed it? Tell me how they were made to believe it.

Their teachers told them the same thing many times over. They gave them examples of soldiers who died in combat, they quoted the Koran that says, "Do not say of those who are killed in God's service that they are dead! No! ... They are alive...." (Sura II, verse 154). They ended up believing what had been repeated to them thousands of times.

But they are very wicked. They make people die so that they themselves can get to heaven!

It's all lies.

But why do their leaders tell them all this?

Because they're making war on people who do not think the way they do. They do not love life, so they are ready to sacrifice their own provided they take with them as many dead people as possible. They are terrorists.

Daddy, what does "terrorist" mean?

In the word "terrorist" you find the word "terror," that is, a very great fear, a dread, something that makes you tremble and panic. It's horrible.

I don't understand why people who want to go to heaven don't go there by themselves. Why do they kill and terrify the people they don't kill?

I don't know, child. I'm like you, I can't understand how young people who are educated, who have been around in the world, and who have enjoyed the freedom and comfort of America, decide one day to commit mass murder that takes their own lives as well. They do this in the name of Islam. They are doing harm to their own families, to Islam, and to Muslims. It is not their religion that backs them up, for no religion urges the killing of innocent people, and Islam means "submission to peace," not "kill innocent people." So it is a madness that neither you nor I can understand.

When you were a child, did you know that you were a Muslim?

Yes. I was born in a house where I always saw my mother and father saying their prayers.

And you?

I prayed too, but I was lazy, especially in winter when we had to get up early and to wash up in ice-cold water. Because, before any prayer, you have to wash up-that is called ablutions.

So you didn't wash up?

Oh yes, I did, but my father noticed that I did it quickly and superficially and that I didn't like ice-cold water.

What did he say?

One day he called us together, my brother and me, and said this: "My sons, you were born into Islam, and you must obey your parents and God. In principle, you should do the five daily prayers and you should keep the fast of Ramadan. In Islam there is no forcing. No one has the right to force you to do your prayers, neither God nor your father. As the proverb says, On the final Judgment Day, each sheep will be hung by its own hoof. So you are free, I leave you to think about it. The main thing is not to steal, not to lie, not to hit the weak and the sick, not to deceive, not to make he who has nothing feel ashamed, not to mistreat your parents, and above all not to commit injustices. So, my sons, there you have it and the rest is up to you. I have done my duty. It's up to you to be worthy sons ."

And then what happened?

I kissed his hand the way I did every morning, and I felt free. I understood that day that I could be a Muslim without practicing the rules and laws of Islam in a disciplined way. I also remember what the principal of the Koranic school told us: "God is merciful!" He repeated, "Praise God the all-merciful"-in other words, God pardons.

But tell me, do you do your prayers or not?

That's a question that shouldn't be asked. We shouldn't answer that kind of question because it involves the person's freedom. If I pray, that's my business alone. If I pray, it isn't to show people that I am a good Muslim. Some people go to the mosque to be seen, others because they are sincerely carrying out their duties as believers.

Daddy, I'm afraid. I can't sleep.

Don't worry.

I heard there'll be a war.

What war?

I don't know. Even at school, they told us to pay attention: if we see a bag left in a corner, we should call the teacher. I don't know, I'm afraid.

Don't worry, life is good despite everything!

Excerpted from Islam Explained by TAHAR BEN JELLOUN
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Winner of the 1994 Prix Maghreb, Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in 1944 in Fez, Morocco, and emigrated to France in 1961. A novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, he is a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Répubblica, El País, and Panorama. His novels include The Sacred Night, which received the Prix Goncourt in 1987, and Corruption (The New Press).

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