Having met Prof. Ahmad I can say that he is a very nice person and a good host and his commitment to Islam is not questionable but on the evidence of this book his lack of Islamic knowledge is evident. This is not meant to be a harsh criticism but the Prof. is an anthropologist and not an Islamic scholar and therefore his lack of in-depth knowledge of Islam is not surprising.
Though the book is well written it does suffer from factual errors and also many of the interpretations of history are not the traditional Islamic viewpoint as understood by the majority of scholars of the Ahle Sunnah w'al Jama'ah: in his evaluation of certain Muslim historical personages of great repute he has surprisingly-and regretably-followed the standard Orientalist opinion of them (or his own opinions are closer to that of the Orientalists than of the traditional ulama). For example, his contention about Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals (and the sixth Mughal Emperor), that he may be reasonably compared with General Zia ul Haq of Pakistan is preposterous and false on two accounts: 1) Aurangzeb followed the traditional Maturidi/Asha'ri school of Islamic orthodoxy which is also known as Sunni Islam whereas Gen. Zia was a well-known admirer of the heterodox Wahabi movement which only sprang up in Arabia in the 18th century. Indeed, under Aurangzeb's orders the greatest compendium of Sunni fiqh [jurisprudence] was compiled, the Fatawa Alamgiri (or Fatawa al Hindiyya as it is also known.) (2) Prof. Ahmed contends that Aurangzeb was inimical to Sufism whereas in fact he was not only a murid [disciple] of the grandson of Imam al Rabbani, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (may Allah sanctify his secret), who was a Shaykh in the Naqshbandi Order but according to the ijma [consensus] of the scholars of Ahle Sunnah [Sunni Islam] he himself was a wali Allah-a Sufi who has reached the end of the Journey to Allah as Rumi would put it! In other words he himself was an accomplished Sufi and even his detractors admire his personal piety and adherence to the Shar'iah--which is the essence of Sufism as understood by the Sufis themselves. I think that this error by the respected Prof. may be due to his definition of Sufism. Perhaps he has the same definition of Sufism as that of most Orientalists of the past that anynone who claims to be a Sufi is one! Certainly this profound lack of understanding of Sufism (tassawuf to give it its Islamic name) is evident in this book!
Another glaring error was in the section which compared the differences between Deobandis and Barelvis (the two major groups of Muslims in the Subcontinent apart from the Shia). It was claimed that Barelvis believe that the Prophet is not human (!) (peace and blessings be upon him) and not flesh and blood but light and that he is semi-divine and that he is present everywhere around us all the time. As a Barelvi (the traditionalist Sunni, sufi, Muslims of the Subcontinent) myself I found this error not only surprising but offensive. These are the beliefs falsely ATTRIBUTED to Barelvis by the Deobandi school and the Wahabis. It is a pity that such an experienced writer like Prof. Ahmed should just accept this accusation as fact without checking the books of the Barelvi ulama for himself. Here is what Barelvis ACTUALLY believe regarding the Prophet of Islam (may Allah bless him and give him peace).
1.We believe He IS a human being made from flesh and blood [bashar] AND a noor [light] at the same time. This is like the example of when Gabriel, who is also noor [light], used to appear to the Prophet in the form of a man, flesh and blood. 2. He is infallible and perfect and free from all imperfections and sinless (as are all Prophets).He is human but not like other humans like a ruby is a stone but not like other stones! 3. Allah has GIVEN him the ability to see the whole of Creation in detail while he is in his blessed grave as if he was looking at it in the palm of his hand. This is called being "nazir" ("witnessing"). 4. Allah has GIVEN him the ability to go physically and spiritually to anywhere in the Created Universes he pleases whenever he pleases (peace be upon him) AND to be in more than one place at the same time. This is what is meant by "hazir" (present). This is not the same as believing that he (peace be upon him) is present everywhere all the time! The above definitions of the CORRECT meaning of what is meant by "hazir and nazir" can be found in any Sunni book on beliefs [aqa'id] in the Subcontinent by Barelvi ulama. e.g. Jaa al Haqq wa Zaahiqal Batil by Mufti Ahmad Yaar Khan Na'eemi (Allah have mercy on him).
The readers will notice how these beliefs differ from what is ASCRIBED to us falsely and which Prof. Ahmed unfortunately repeats in his book. And ALL of the above beliefs from 1 to 4 are found in all the classical works of the Sunni scholars throughout the world as they are firmly based on a classical and orthodox understanding of the Qur'an and hadith.
To end on a more positive note the general chronological events of Islamic history are more-or-less correct and Prof. Ahmed is undoubtedly a good writer but I sincerely believe that only qualified experts [Islamic historians, ulama, scholars] should write on Islam and Islamic history as the scope for unintentional errors is vast, especially in doctrinal matters.
His books which deal with contemporary Islam and South Asian anthropology and history (Postmodernism and Islam, Jinnah, etc.) are brilliant but this book alas does not do him justice.
A disappointing effort.