The opening chapters are largely historical, describing the events that followed the death of Muhammad in 632. He was succeeded by four 'rightly guided caliphs', the last of whom, Ali, was murdered in 661. The centre of power then transferred to Damascus, where Muawiyya had established a rival caliphate, that of the Umayyads.
Islam at this time was riven by numerous sectarian disputes and much fighting ensued. One late seventh-century group, the Azraqites, took a fundamentalist view of Islam and their behaviour sounds remarkably similar to that of Isis (Da'esh) today. They regarded everyone who refused to join them in fighting the existing authorities as sinners.
The members of their band were the true Muslims; their house alone was 'the camp of Islam' … where Islam was truly observed. Those who 'sat still' at home and did not make the hijra or 'migration' to their camp were sinners and unbelievers, outside the community of Islam. … By thus excluding from the Islamic community even those Muslims who did not agree with them in every detail, they made it lawful to kill such persons and also their wives and children; for according to an old Arab usage there was no wrong in killing someone not a member of one's tribe or an allied tribe… This puritanical theology became a justification for sheer terrorism and the Azraqites became noted and feared for their widespread massacres.And the parallel goes even further in view of Isis's practice of getting Western recruits to execute Western hostages.
It is said that when a man went to them and said he wanted to join their band he was given a prisoner to kill; if, as is likely, it was a prisoner from the man's tribe, the killing would break his ties with his tribe and attach him irrevocably to the Azraqites.The Umayyad period saw the beginning of the great split in Islam between Shiites and Sunnites. I found Watt's account of the early years of Shiism (about which relatively little is known) quite illuminating. It appears that the Shiite ascription of central importance to the role of the Imam was a comparatively late development. Early Shiism was 'extremely vague' about its beliefs.
In particular there was no general recognition that the imams later acknowledged by the Imamite and Ismailite branches of Shiism, the descendants of al-Husayn, Ali's son, had any special status or special gifts. The tendency is rather to consider that the charismatic requisite for the position of imam belonged potentially to all members of Muhammad's clan of Hashim, whether descended through Fatima or not.
The Umayyads were succeeded by the Abbasids, whose capital was Baghdad. Shortly after this occurred, Arabic translations of Greek scientific and philosophical works began to be made; Watt refers to this as the first wave of Hellenism. The second wave occurred after 950, when the Abbasid caliphs had lost most of their power and there was a great deal of turmoil politically. This was also when the Crusaders arrived in Syria and Palestine, but Watt finds that their importance for Muslim thinkers was minimal.
After this necessary historical scene-setting Watt goes on to his main subject. The series of which this book forms part was 'designed to give the educated reader something more than can be found in the usual popular books', and this ambition is matched by the tone of the book, which is scholarly and a little old-fashioned to a modern ear. At times the procession of unfamiliar names is rather difficult to keep in mind and I found my attention wandering. It might have been better to omit some of those who receive only a brief outline of their views. But Watt does give more space to others, such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Ghazzali, who are better known in the West.
Apart for what the book can tell us about its subject, it is also interesting as showing how a sympathetic European scholar perceived Islam in the mid-twentieth century. The concluding chapter, 'The New Dawn', takes a fairly optimistic view of the prospects for Islamic theology in the second half of the twentieth century. At this point we get an insight into Watt's own hope for a future syncretist religion that would include Islam.
Quite apart from the problems created by the intellectual impact [of Europe on the Islamic world] is the emergent problem of what is sometimes called 'inter-religion'. This is the problem created by modern means of communication — fast travel for all, and the global reach of broadcasting. Each of the great religious communities … is in closer contact with the other great religions than has ever been the case before. Members of the great religions are being forced, as never before, to live alongside adherents of other faiths. Consequently there are strong pressures urging men towards a unified world religion. Ideally all that is of value in the several religions should be taken up into this one religion, but it is possible that to begin with humanity may fall far short of this ideal and in this way much of value may be lost.From Wikipedia I see that Watt, as well as being a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies, was an Anglican priest, although evidently not a conventionally-minded one. He died in 2006 at the age of 97. By that time it must have been evident to him that the future for relations between Islam and 'Europe' was turning out to be more problematic than he had hoped it would be.