The Islamic world is going through a great upheaval today, but not for the first time. In this impressive history, the author explains the complex processes by which early Islam incorporated new communities and, in doing so, was transformed. As a specialist on medieval Iran, Bulliet's most revealing narrative comes from that period. His basic point is to show that Islam, lacking a central religious hierarchy, has evolved as those on the edge new communities entering the fold or newly mobilized sectors of society turn to religious scholars for answers to a range of practical and spiritual questions. These scholars, or ulama, have relied heavily on oral traditions relating to the sayings of the prophet, or hadith, to provide answers. Through the interaction between the edge and sources of religious authority, new syntheses are periodically forged.
Turning to the present, Bulliet sees much the same phenomenon at work today as marginal social groups, often new immigrants to cities, turn to religious scholars, not governments or establishment Islam, to provide answers to their problems. Because these answers carry the weight of religious authority, they are more likely to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims. Bulliet thus sees a future in which Islamists will eventually win out over secular nationalists. But precisely how this future will unfold is beyond his calling. Whether or not one agrees with its conclusions, the book is a model of scholarship, leaving the reader with a revised way of thinking about how Islamic movements evolve.