Tamara Sonn, Professor of Religion and Humanities at the College of William and Mary, reviews The Future of Islam, by John L. Esposito:

The title of John Esposito’s latest work is slightly misleading. The Future of Islam is as much about the present and past of Islam as its future. But there is an obvious reason for that; we can only understand where we’re going if we understand where we are and how we got there.

As Esposito explains in the introduction, his goal is “to understand the struggle for reform in Islam, to explore the religious, cultural, and political diversity of Muslims facing daunting challenges in Muslim countries and in the West, to clarify the debate and dynamics of Islamic reform, to examine the attempt to combat religious extremism and terrorism” – in that context – “to look into the future of Muslim-West relations.”

His conclusion?: “The future of Islam and Muslims is inextricably linked to all of humanity.”

What Esposito presents between that introduction and conclusion is one of the finest examples of the study of Lived Religion since Wilfred Cantwell Smith laid the foundations for that methodology.

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Whether Esposito is motivated by Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s “moral” responsibility or Jonathan Z. Smith’s “intellectual” responsibility, in The Future of Islam he allows readers to develop “a degree of empathy with the situation[s]” of Muslims in the world today, and does not shrink from the “not nice” bits. He acknowledges that his subject is highly charged socially and politically. It involves both Muslims and those whose lives are affected by Muslims. In fact, “The Future of Islam is about all our futures,” he says.

With so much at stake, we must study not only “official” Islam and the views of those – Muslim and non-Muslim – who divide the world into an adversarial “us” and “them,” but also the views and lives of Muslims across socioeconomic and geographic spectra. Further, if these diverse views are “the text,” we must also understand “the context” – colonization, the rise of modern Europe, the Cold War, and post-colonial conditions of underdevelopment and unrepresentative governments.

Esposito warns readers that his topic is complex. Muslims comprise majorities in nearly 60 countries, significant minorities in many others – including Russia and China, and the fastest growing minorities in Euro-America. They are some of the most powerful actors on earth, but many more are among the most marginalized peoples on our planet. They face a mind-numbing array of social, economic, political, and ideological challenges – not the least of which are increased radicalization and the emergence of terrorists within their own ranks.

He will discuss all this in one text? Amazingly, yes. A veteran of over four decades of the study of religion and one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Islam, Esposito manages to cut through the confusion, maintaining steady focus on people and the issues that define our interconnected lives.

Read the full review here.