Aaron W. Hughes, Muslim Identities: An Introduction to Islam, 2nd Edition (Equinox, 2022).
Aaron W. Hughes’ Muslim Identities is an introduction to Islam that I would highly recommend. His goal in creating this resource is to “maneuver delicately between an overly critical approach and the apologetic approach” (p. 1). Muslim readers should find a fair representation of their various traditions; non-Muslims should find a sound, scholarly introduction to one of the world’s most prominent religions. Hughes avoids framing a single, “normative” Islam (p. 2), instead introducing readers to the varieties of Islam that exist. This project is framed around the shared, inherited, and created identities to be found among Muslims (hence the title of the book). Hughes understands the varieties of Islam as being a variety of ways that Muslims enter into and shape “communities” that “are socially constructed or imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a group” (p. 6). He comments that “identity is something that was and is actively constructed in response to various needs, and these constructions derive their potency from being projected onto the past, where they are thought to exist in pure form.” (pp. 6-7)
This framework of seeing Islamic history, traditions, sectarianism, etc., through the prism of identity formation is what makes this introduction unique. In many ways, it’s similar to the other introductions to Islam that can be found in the type of content it covers but the emphasis on identity formation is far more enlightening than it might seem at first glance. In fact, I would say that since reading this book, almost everything related to religious studies that pass through my brain must now cross a checkpoint that evaluates how these elements relate to the way people shape their personal and group identities. Shia and Sunni aren’t mere opposites or sects, but groups that form their identities in relation to one another. Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Muslims in Iran may shape their forms of Islam with an eye toward how their neighboring country is practicing the religions. When we ask why a religion took this or that shape, aligned with this or that political movement, or thrived in this culture but not that one, we’d do well to inquire how it is that said religion provided people with a sense of identity in a given time and place.