Roger Allen is professor of Arabic and comparative literature and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He also serves as editor for the journal Middle Eastern Literatures. Together with Shawkat M. Toorawa, Roger Allen edited the forthcoming book Islam: A Short Guide to the Faith, which he writes about here.
The area of the world that we currently term “the Middle East” has been the region within which three monotheistic faith-systems have emerged: first Judaism, then Christianity, and finally Islam. The civilizations of the Western world have long been content, so it seems, to link the first two monotheisms; the Bible is perhaps the clearest manifestation of what may be termed the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, almost from the initial appearance of Islam in the seventh century, the third monotheism has been regarded as the proverbial “other,” an object of suspicion, fear, and hatred — as any number of confrontations and outright conflicts can attest (the Crusades, for example, and the so-called Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula).
Today, we may well ask ourselves to what extent a continuation of this traditional posture — based to a large extent on misunderstanding or outright ignorance — is in the best interests of humanity, as we bear in mind the vast extent of the world’s regions in which Islam is the predominant faith and take into account the increasing presence of Islam and its adherents in Europe and the Americas.
The impetus for the preparation of this series of articles on aspects of Islamic belief, each one written by a specialist in that particular sub-field, was to provide readers with a brief account of the major principles of Islam and its faith system, presented in as accessible a form as possible. While each essay can stand on its own, the aggregation of the studies included in this volume (and the pictorial images that accompany them) is intended to present as accurate a cross section of Islam and the Muslim communities as possible.