Soft spoken, calm and a leading authority on Islam, Carole Hillenbrand is a Professor of Islamic History at both Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities. Her new book, Islam: A New Historical Introduction aims to allow readers to gain a sensitive understanding of the essential tenets of the religion and of the many ways in which the present is shaped by the past.
The author’s hour long event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was the perfect split between highlights from her book and questions from the eager audience. I thought this event would be too much of a niche interest but interestingly it sold out. We can’t escape news about Islam or Muslims whether due to a distant war, foreign policy, asylum seekers or terrorist attacks.
I utterly shocked those sitting immediately around me once they learned that I’m a Muslim. I have bleached blonde hair, I didn’t have my head covered nor was I particularly modestly dressed. I wasn’t planning to say anything but I felt compelled. The vast majority of the audience simply wanted to know more about the religion that that they hear about and the women they see, some covered head to toe. I think people wanted to know about the humanity behind the headlines and to ascertain the things we might all have in common in order to try to understand better. The odd person made sweeping statements about Muslims. Professor Hillenbrand kindly separated religion from cultural practices, however, even she could not explain the double standards of when certain Sharia laws are interpreted or applied.
The bespoke version of Islam I follow doesn’t exist. Not Sunni, nor Shi’ite but with bits of both and a heavy dose of Sufism mixed with anything-goes-ism. I’m a Muslim as I was born into the religion and I don’t feel like an Atheist or have strong feelings about any other religion that makes me want to convert. I don’t feel threatened by other religions, I have a lovely Ganesha statue in my flat, I partake in Hindu festivities with my friends when I’m in Delhi and I perform the sun salutation every morning as part of my yoga routine. I love the architecture and history of churches and cathedrals around the world. There is much in this paragraph that would have some Muslims riddled with anger towards me and there is much about Islam and Muslims that angers me. But, as we all know, anger leads to the Dark Side so let’s all exhale.
Books such as the one by Professor Hillenbrand can at least help us express an informed opinion.