The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.
Edited by John L. Esposito.
Oxford University Press. Four volumes, 1,920 pp. $395.

How does one review a four-volume encyclopedia? One could, of course, earn one’s reviewer’s fee the old-fashioned way, by reading it all from start to finish and then comparing it to similar works on other subjects and dissimilar works on the same subject. But this way of reviewing is not only old-fashioned; it is being replaced by another, rather more expeditious method. This consists of making a careful examination of the book jacket blurb, table of contents, preface, and other introductory matter, studying and using the index, sampling and reading selected pages en diagonale , and relating the results to the putative origins and imputed purposes of the author.

In reviewing an encyclopedia, the new method”apart from the last point”even has some advantages. What, after all, does the reader of the review want to know about a work of reference? Some of the questions are obvious. Is it authoritative”that is to say, well-informed, sound, scholarly, and reflecting an up-to-date knowledge of the facts, the sources, the issues, and the debates? Is it objective? That is to say, does it give different views on disputed questions and avoid partisan or polemical statements? Some modern schools of epistemology would consider this aim impossible, noxious, and, at best, hypocritical, and would insist on the essentially partisan character even of dictionaries”perhaps especially of dictionaries. Another question, important in judging a work of reference”is it comprehensive yet balanced? That is to say, does it include all that should be included, exclude what is not relevant, and maintain a proper balance of topics and of the length and manner at which the various topics are treated?

An encyclopedia defined by a religion raises these questions in an acute form. There are a number of such encyclopedias in existence, Catholic, Jewish, and other. But the Catholic and Jewish encyclopedias were sponsored, edited, and largely written by Catholics and Jews, and are primarily intended to be consulted and read by Catholics and Jews. This one is in a different category. As with the earlier Encyclopaedia of Islam , published in Leiden in two editions under the aegis of the International Union of Academies, Islam defines its topic, not its auspices. It is published by the Oxford University Press. The editors, consultants, and advisors listed on the masthead contain a minority who can be identified by their names as Muslims”though in fairness it should be added that some of the others yield nothing to Muslims in their zeal for Islamic values and their sensitivity to Muslim concerns. There is a substantial Muslim representation among the contributors, as well as some whom one might designate, borrowing the language of another religion, as “Muslims of Grace.”

From this it will be clear that, like its predecessor, this is an encyclopedia about Islam, not a Muslim or an Islamic encyclopedia.

In a work of this kind, there are several possible approaches. One might be described as academic or, better, scholarly, in purpose: that is to say, offering up”to”date information and guidance on the state of knowledge and opinion among specialists in the field. The Leiden Encyclopaedia of Islam , like the Pauly–Wissowa Encyclopedia of Classical Antiquity on which it is modeled, is manifestly of this kind. Contributors to such an encyclopedia are asked to support their articles with references to original sources and to scholarly literature in all the major languages. It is taken for granted that, whatever their own religious and other allegiances may be, they will aim at objectivity in their expositions and give adequate representation to viewpoints other than their own both in the articles and”no less important”in the bibliographies. They are not required to present a Muslim point of view on issues, but they are expected to reflect that point of view accurately and to do so with a decent regard for Muslim sensitivity.

A second approach is what one might call the topical and practical, that of the many popular encyclopedias, mostly in one volume, which aim at supplying quick and accessible guidance, on topics of current importance, for the undergraduate, high school, journalistic, and political reader. Such articles are addressed to the general public rather than to the practicing or aspiring scholar. They contain few if any references to original sources and their bibliographies are mainly English, with perhaps an occasional reference in French.

A third method might be described as polemical or partisan”according to the new epistemology, this is indeed the only form of scholarship, though it may be disguised in various ways. A variant of this, no longer as popular as it was, but still widely adopted, is the apologetic”the desire by some Muslims, and also some non-Muslims, to present Islam in terms likely to win the approval of the non-Muslim and, more particularly, the Western reader and to omit or at least gloss over those aspects that would obstruct this aim.

Finally, for those dealing with a religion or a culture other than their own, there is the currently fashionable approach that might perhaps best be described as deferential. This sometimes leads Christian and Jewish writers to discuss Muslim beliefs and practices with a cautious respect they would never accord to the sanctities of their own or each other’s religions. This approach is not always as acceptable as its practitioners appear to think. Many representatives of non-Western cultures see it as an insulting form of condescension”Westerners judging them by a standard lower than their own and even treating them as cases of diminished responsibility.

These so-called sympathizers who rise to defend or excuse every tyranny that prevails or social evil that persists in an Arab or Islamic country are, in effect, saying, “We would not for one moment tolerate this in our own country, but it is good enough for you, and is probably all that you are capable of achieving.” Those who really study”and therefore respect”Islamic history and civilization are at once more critical, more compassionate, and more hopeful.

All these different approaches are represented in the Oxford Encyclopedia , both among the personalities listed on the masthead and among the many contributors. Sometimes, indeed, the different approaches are combined in the treatment of a single topic.

Short of reading the entire encyclopdia”a herculean task from which it seems even the editors have recoiled”choice, quality, and length can be judged only by sampling. A reading of a considerable number of articles”some on selected key topics, others chosen at random”reveals an astonishing range of quality, from outstandingly good to absurdly bad. Some signs of editorial control are manifest. Several of the more scholarly articles are still visibly bleeding from the cuts that must have been inflicted on them to fit them into the framework. Some of these articles are important, original contributions to scholarship, and it is to be hoped that their authors will publish them elsewhere at greater length with appropriate documentation.

The task of reviewing the selection and balance of topics has been made easier by the editors, who have thoughtfully provided what they call a “synoptic outline of contents,” in which the entries are arranged and listed in “conceptual categories.” These include history and geography, schools of thought, mysticism, religious belief, religious practice, Islamic law, theology, philosophy and ideology, politics (dynastic states, political and religious roles, political concepts and terms), economics, culture and society (personal life, community life, arts and literature, science and medicine, communications, popular religion), Islamic studies, institutions, organizations, movements, biographies.

The last category, arranged by countries, provides a convenient starting point. Under the heading “Egypt,” thirty biographies are listed. In contrast, there are eight for Algeria, five each for Iraq and Pakistan, four each for Indonesia, Morocco, and the entire USSR and its successor states, three each for Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, two each for Libya and the Sudan, one each for Afghanistan, Malaysia, Tunisia, and Senegal, and none for Jordan or for any of the states of Arabia other than the Saudi Kingdom. There are sixteen each for Iran and Turkey, the latter divided into twelve for the Ottoman Empire and four for the Turkish Republic.

Few would dispute the primacy of Egypt in the Arab world. Many might also concede its primacy in the Muslim world, but this is surely overdoing it.

The selection of persons honored with individual biographical articles is a good indication of the balance between countries and within countries, as also by gender, occupation, outlook, and achievement. So, too, of course is the treatment accorded to these figures. Islamic militants (popularly known as “fundamentalists”) are prominently featured, and they are accorded sympathetic or, at least, cautious treatment. Thus, of four biographies accorded the Turkish Republic, two are of Islamic militants. For Tunisia, the only biography is that of an Islamic militant leader now living in exile. The somewhat longer list for Egypt includes Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman, recently convicted in New York for his role in the bombing of the World Trade Center; it does not include Anwar Sadat. Literature receives scant attention: the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, one the greatest Arabic writers of this century, is missing, as are most other Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other writers.

There are other oddities. The three names listed under “Palestine” consist of the Persian sectary Baha’ Allah, who spent his last years in Acre, a Palestinian professor who taught at Temple University in Philadelphia, and the famous Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni. Astonishingly, neither Yasir Arafat nor his predecessor as head of the PLO, Ahmad al-Shuqayri, is listed.

The representation for Turkey may serve as an example of the somewhat idiosyncratic selection process. Of the three Young Turk pashas, Enver is the hero of a short article; his colleagues, Talat and Jemal, are both missing. Of the four from the Republic, two are statesmen”Kemal Ataturk and Turgut Ozal. No one would dispute the importance of these two figures, but one wonders why some others, such as Ismet Inonu, are missing. The other two Turks consist of a politician and a poet. The politician, Erbakan, is the leader of the Turkish Islamist Party and presumably qualifies for that reason, while all other Turkish politicians since the establishment of the Republic are excluded. The choice of the poet is even more remarkable, as is also the treatment. Necip Fazil Kisakurek certainly ranks as an important figure among modern Turkish poets. But one could name several others of equal or greater stature who do not appear. He qualifies, presumably, because of his religious writings and activities. The article dealing with him is scholarly and well-informed but suffers from a recurring flaw of the encyclopedia”the tendency to understate or omit anything unpleasant or likely to antagonize the modern Western reader. A treatment of Necip Fazil Kisakurek should include some discussion of his fascination with French boulevard fascism and his failed attempt to create an Ottoman royalist equivalent of the Action Francaise. It might also include at least some reference to his espousal of the Axis cause during World War II and perhaps also to his rather un-Islamic personal way of life.

The inclusion or exclusion of heads of states and heads of government is difficult to understand. The listing for Egypt includes Nasser; it does not include any other modern Egyptian ruler. The listing for Iran includes the two shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty and, of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Pakistan has the late Mohammad Ali Jinnah, one of the two names for Libya is Qaddafi, while the Sudan has two biographies, a former prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, and the Islamic militant power behind the throne, Hasan al-Turabi. Saudi Arabia has two kings and the founder of the Wahhabi order, while Syria and Iraq are represented only by (mostly religious) intellectuals. Hafiz al-Asad and Saddam Hussein and their predecessors in both countries are absent. The Hashimites fare particularly badly. The Sharif Hussein of the Hijaz qualifies, but King Faysal of Iraq and Kings Abdullah and Hussein of Jordan are all absent. Jordan contributes no biographies at all, though one would have thought that, even apart from its kings, some of its statesmen and scholars deserve a place alongside their colleagues in surrounding countries. The one Tunisian is Ghannushi, an exiled militant leader. There is no article on Bourguiba. Similarly, the one Afghan to achieve a biographical article is the militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Had this been an Encyclopaedia of Islam , there might have been some justification for such choices, though the earlier encyclopedia of that name includes a much wider range of biographies. But this is an encyclopedia of “the modern Islamic world,” not of Islam. The result is a portrait gallery of that world in which militants outnumber and outrank all others.

The balance by country articles is somewhat better but still reveals some strange gaps. France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, which all have significant Muslim populations, have articles devoted to them, as do Australia and New Zealand, which according to various estimates quoted in the article together have between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million Muslims. But there is no article on Russia, which has more Muslims than all of Western Europe combined. The six former Soviet republics with majority Muslim populations in Transcaucasia and Central Asia have short separate articles devoted to them but between them have only four men worthy of biographical notice. The Muslim peoples within the Russian Federation, such as the Bashkir, Chechen, Ingush, Circassians, and Tatars, have no articles. The first three do not even appear in the index. Most surprising of all, under the heading “Palestine” there is only a cross-reference to “West Bank and Gaza.”

There is no article on Bosnia, just some paragraphs in the subsection on the “former Yugoslavia” in a general article on the Balkan states. In contrast, the “Nation of Islam” is treated at length in four and a half pages”slightly more than Bangladesh and slightly less than Indonesia. Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X are both accorded biographical articles.

A curiosity is that while there are many articles on countries, there are very few on cities and these are limited to places of religious significance. There are articles on Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Qom, Najaf, and Mashhad but none on Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Istanbul, Isfahan, and other great centers of Islamic civilization.

The articles on movements and ideas reveal similar inconsistencies. Thus the article “Watan” indicates correctly that this term was used in “traditional Islamic culture . . . to indicate a person’s place of birth or residence . . . [and] redefined in the nineteenth century to embrace the meaning attached to the concept of ‘patrie’ or ‘fatherland’ in European languages.” The article deals briefly with the latter meaning and advises the reader to “see also Arab nationalism; nation.” One’s first reaction is that the writer (or editor) forgot to insert cross”references to other nationalist movements in Islamic countries and that there would also be articles, at the very least, on Turkish and Iranian nationalism. Astonishingly, there is no article on either of these nor is there any general article on patriotism, a major movement of ideas in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is of course related to nationalism, but it is not the same thing and it surely deserves separate treatment.

A work of reference dealing with the modern Islamic world must inevitably touch on a number of highly controversial questions, some of them relating to conflicts between Muslims and others, some of them”the more delicate and important”to conflicts of interests and ideas within and between Muslim countries. A simple and effective method of dealing with controversial issues is just to ignore them. For conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims, the choice is straightforward: one takes the Muslim side or, if that is not feasible, one omits the question altogether. The choice is much more difficult where the dispute is between Muslim countries or factions. This, too, can be dealt with by simple omission. Thus, ethnic minorities in Muslim countries are, for the most part, totally ignored. There are no articles on Berbers or Kurds; the former do not even appear in the index. The religious and ethnic minorities in the Sudan and in Iran are similarly invisible. Slavery is the subject of a good though short article, but the slave trade, concubinage, and even abolition receive no separate treatment.

In the same spirit, there are articles on capitalism, socialism, and communism, but none on fascism, despite the unmistakable influence that fascist ideas exercised in some nationalist circles in the Middle East as elsewhere in the 1930s and early 1940s. In contrast, other delicate issues of a less political or nonpolitical character receive franker treatment. Thus there are articles on family, family law, marriage and divorce, mut’ah (marriage for a limited term), polygyny and puberty rites, sexuality, and even on clitoridectomy and abortion. There are several articles on the position of women in law and in society.

In these days of interfaith dialogue, or at least debate, there are inevitably substantial articles on Muslim–Christian dialogue, Muslim–Jewish dialogue, Christianity and Islam, Judaism and Islam. These and other similar articles are written by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish contributors reflecting different points of view, supported at times by different bibliographies.

The mention of bibliography raises another form of diversity. Some contributors offer a judicious choice of books and articles to enable the reader to pursue the subject further; others, especially on political topics, offer a list of items selected and designed to buttress their own view. Some show intimate familiarity with the existing literature; some deplorable ignorance. There seems to be no editorial policy regarding bibliographies. Some are very short, some very long; most are limited to works in English, though some include titles in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other Islamic languages. French titles appear infrequently, German even more so, in spite of the extensive and valuable literature in both languages. In compensation, there is a reference to a work in Dutch in an article contributed by a Dutch scholar. As is usual in works of reference, most contributors give due prominence to their own writings. Some go further and confine their listings to the works of like-minded friends and colleagues. Some do try to give representation to differing points of view on both scholarly and political issues, but this is rather rare.

In an encyclopedia of the modern Islamic world, one would expect the authors to show some knowledge of the previous work on the subject. Some contributors have indeed both used and cited the Encyclopaedia of Islam. Some have done one or the other. Some again have done neither and thus fallen into errors of commission and omission that could easily have been avoided.

As noted, literature on the whole receives rather inadequate treatment in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. There are substantial articles on Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature as well as on literature in Urdu, Malay, Indonesian, and, briefly, some of the languages of Central Asia. There seems to be little or nothing about the literatures of the numerous other Muslim peoples. Nor are there separate articles on literary forms and genres”such as fiction, drama, poetry”all of which have gone through interesting and important changes and developments in Islamic lands in the modern period. Even major writers in the major languages do not figure in the lists of biographies.

Some attention is given to topical issues. Thus, for example, what is listed as “Rushdie affair” has an article to itself of almost three pages. The bibliography, though long, does not include the important article by Sadiq al-‘Azm. Nor does there appear to be any discussion, here or elsewhere, of the issue raised in this and some other cases, of the offense known as “insulting the Prophet.” A discussion of the significance of this offense in the context of Muslim law and theology would surely be of value.

There have been great struggles between Christendom and Islam in the past: the Muslim conquest and conversion of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, until then part of Christendom; the battle for Spain that began with the Moorish conquest and ended eight centuries later with the completion of the Christian Reconquest; the repeated attempts of the Crusaders to reconquer the Holy Land, ending in their final defeat and departure; the rapid advance of the Tatars and Turks in east and southeast Europe and their long drawn-out retreat; the Christian counterattack in Russia and Iberia, pursuing their former conquerors and masters into their homelands and establishing a European imperial domination over most of the lands of Islam. With the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the last of the European empires to dominate Muslim lands, that phase too has come to an end, and a new era of peaceful coexistence is possible.

There are still some on both sides who see world history in terms of a holy war between believers and unbelievers, in which struggle is a divine commandment and victory a divine promise. Even among modern Westerners, no longer inclined to see the course of events in such terms, this perception is nevertheless encouraged by repeated stories in the media of militant Muslims and of what they say and do.

Anyone with even a moderate knowledge of Islam knows that most Muslims are neither militant nor violent. This more balanced perception of the Muslim religion and of those who profess it will not be encouraged, either among non-Muslims or among the new and growing population of English-speaking Muslims, by an encyclopedia that gives such disproportionate emphasis to militant Islam and its practitioners.


Bernard Lewis is Cleveland Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. His latest book, The Middle East: Two Thousand Years from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, is scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster in May.