Book Review: The Oxford Dictionary of Islam

What is Islam?
Esposito’s Dictionary of Islam is a reference book that touches issues ranging from abortion to the al Qaeda, writes V V

Business Standard (India), July 26, 2003

Whatever else September 11 has done, it has definitely given a great fillip to a whole range of Islamic studies. It is not just Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of militant Islam and the Taliban quickies, or the clash of civilisations kind of stuff but basic texts on ‘What is Islam?’, both for the general and specialist readers.

There seems to be no end to the flood and the latest arrival which is bound to be overtaken by others by the time this gets into print is John Esposito’s (Editor)

The Oxford Dictionary of Islam

Click for more information.’, CAPTION, ‘Browsing Tip’, CLOSECOLOR, ‘white’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>The Oxford Dictionary of Islam


When it comes to reference books of any kind — dictionaries, encyclopaedias, atlas’s, thesauruses, and so on—the question that every reader should ask because there is a whole range of reference books prepared for every age group is: Whom is this for? For school children or adults, for the general reader or the scholar?

Besides these divisions and sub-divisions, catering to every discernible taste and need, how up-to-date is it? Meanings change with usage, new words and concepts are constantly being added which should be reflected in the reference material, especially dictionaries that deal with a specific subject as distinct from language dictionaries.

For instance, does a dictionary on Islam have entries on al-Qaeda, PLO, Hamas, Taliban, its prominent figures, quite apart from the basic terms from Islamic law, culture and religion which in any case should be there?

How different is it from the earlier dictionaries, specifically from Thomas Patrick Hughes’ classic Dictionary of Islam, first published in 1885 and reprinted ever since but sadly without updates? Does the dictionary replace Hughes’ standard reference work or at least supplement it?

Unlike Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam that is really meant for scholars with detailed entries on the doctrines, rites, ceremonies and customs of Islam together with the technical and theological terms, the Oxford dictionary is meant for ‘general readers with little or no knowledge of Islam.’

It has 3000 entries in all that been contributed by different Islamic scholars teaching in American universities and specialised centres. The language is simple and direct that would be easily understood by the general reader who wants to know what’s what. Here is a sampling taken at random:

Qaeda-al, The base. Militant organisation formed circa 1986 by Osama bin Laden to channel fighters and funds for the Afghan resistance movement. Became a vehicle for the declaration of international military struggle against governments and western representatives and institutions in the Muslim world, America and other parts of the West. Influenced by the fundamentalist worldview and militant piety of 17th century Kharijis, Wahabism, and contemporary Egyptian extremist movements.

There is a little more with cross-references (another important requirement for all dictionaries simply because so many things now merge into each other like politics into economics, religion, sociology, psychology etc) but to move on to: Hamas Acronym (meaning ‘zeal’) for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah (Movement for Islamic Resistance).

Most important Palestinian in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. (The entry then provides a brief history of its origins and the present state of its political stance right up to its opposition to the peace process. It is not a very lengthy entry but is sufficient for the general reader who is looking for just basic facts for everyday purposes that go beyond recent headlines.

While the dictionary takes into account the beliefs of numerous sects of the Muslims, it is for the most part an exposition of the Sunni sect which constitute at least 85 per cent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

However the editor and the respective contributors have given very special attention to the Wahabis who, according to them, represents the earliest teachings of the Muslim faith.

While the dictionary does not purport to be a biographical dictionary, they have given short biographical notices of persons connected with the religious dogmas and ceremonies — for instance, Naguib Mahfouz (the Nobel Prize winner from Egypt), Malcolm X, poets, scientists and writers.

A series of entries also look at Islam in individual nations, such as Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza, Bosnia and Indonesia. Also included are discussions of Islamic views on such issues as abortion, birth control, the Rushdie affair and the theory of evolution.

This is an essential reference book for everyday usage on Islam for our times.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday July 27, 2003.
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