Book Review: Islam – An Illustrated Journey

Earlier this year, it was with a sense of some excitement that I found out that a new book “Islam: An Illustrated Journey” had been recently published (in 2018) by the Institute of Ismaili Studies to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims. The book specifically sets out to be an illustrated version and it looks utterly gorgeous.

It is a very large book – see the photograph below where I contrast it with two other large books on Islamic history that I possess. You will need a large bookshelf to house it.

This large size allows the reader to much better appreciate the pictures inside – just make sure you are seated comfortably when you read the book: it is quite literally not to be taken lightly as it weighs quite a bit.

The account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and revelation of the Qur’an is narrated well and the differences between the mainstream Sunni and Shi’i interpretations of the succession to the prophet are represented fairly. So, the book serves as a useful introduction to Islam itself in addition to describing the subsequent growth and spread of Muslim civilisations across the world.

Among the history covered in the book we learn about Late Antiquity in the centuries immediately prior to the emergence of the Prophet Muhammad, and then the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids (who were Ismaili Muslims), the Mamluks, the impact of the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Safawis, the Mughals, and the modern era. There is a fabulous two-page spread about the travels of Ibn Battuta which graphically charts his multiple journeys across the Muslim world.

The only gripe I had about the history was what appeared to be a rather grudging and cursory reference to Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi. Although he is referred to as being “arguably the most legendary character of…Crusader lore…” he merits only one paragraph on page 206. As a great unifier and the inspiring mujahid who restored al-Quds to Muslim rule, Salah ad-Din – who died with his sword as almost his only remaining possession after having given away his wealth to the poor, Salah ad-Din surely deserves more than one paragraph in any retelling of Islamic history. The cynic in me wonders whether this might not be unrelated to the fact that Salah ad-Din was responsible for ending Ismaili rule in Egypt.

Still, aside from that, this is without question a formidable and fascinating look at Muslim history. Coming to the troubles of the modern era and the rise of nihilist groups such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the book makes a very important and wholly accurate observation, noting that they both “arose in the context of foreign conflict and invasion…”. It is often conveniently forgotten – and the UK government would very much like us all to forget – that al-Qa’ida was only founded following the controversial stationing of tens of thousands of US troops in the Arabian peninsula in the 1990s and ISIS did not exist at all until after the illegal and devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and UK authorities.

In conclusion, Islam: An Illustrated Journey is quite possibly the best one volume introduction to Islam and Islamic history that I have yet encountered. It is certainly the most beautiful.

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