Book Review: Fifty Key Figures in Islam

Well-bound and compact, Fifty Key Figures in Islam is an interesting read that is sure to fill boring moments. In presenting fifty famous figures of Islam, the author goes to great lengths at simplifying important Islamic concepts as theology, mysticism and law. The explanations of Arabic and technical terms are smoothly woven into the text itself, lending the book an elegance that is reminiscent of Karen Armstrong’s own works.

The book is laid out in a chronological manner, starting with the biography of Prophet Muhammad and ending with Abdul Karim Soroush. Though each individual’s life is spread out across an average of five pages, Roy Jackson highlights key moments that helped shaped the course of Islam. One of the book’s most important features is how it subtly exposes hitherto unseen links between old ideas and new ideas. Thus, even though the ultra-rationalist school of the Mutazilites (introduced together with the author’s biography on the Abbasid ruler, Al-Ma’mun) has long since been extinct, many Mutazilite ideas remain popular, especially amongst modern-day reformers like Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani. This is hardly surprising since Roy Jackson goes on to reveal that Al-Afghani was, in reality, a Muslim of the Shia sect, which unlike its Sunni counterpart, has not rejected the doctrines of the original Mutazilites and the type of speculative theology they employed.

However, the book has its faults. It confuses key concepts like mujaddid and mujtahid. Mujaddid means “renewer” of the religion, while mujtahid refers to a jurist who can exercise independent reasoning to derive laws from the Quran and Sunna.

Either Roy Jackson or sloppy editing allowed both terms to be used interchangeably numerous times. It’s highly suspicious when the mistake even extends to the index pages, where mujtahid is explicitly described as “renewer”. That’s incorrect.

Be warned also that because the book is about different individuals, there isn’t a monolithic theme to be derived. One may be hurt by the criticism leveled by individuals against Sufism or Wahhabism, for example. But Roy Jackson is simply being faithful to the key characteristics and achievements of the fifty extraordinary people who, for better or for worse, identified themselves with the Islamic faith.

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