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Milton Viorst would seem an unlikely chronicler of Islam. He’s Jewish. He’s an admitted secularist. He lacks any fluency in Arabic. But Viorst has been covering the Middle East as a reporter for several decades, and when his last book about the region, Sandcastles, came out in 1995, he realized that much of what he was writing about tracked back to the Islamic faith, a subject he knew little about. “I was not satisfied that I had done as much as I should” to unlock Islam’s mystique, Viorst says over sausage and pita at the Cleveland Park house he shares with his wife, writer Judith Viorst.

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For his latest book, In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Anchor Books), Viorst spent a year studying the Koran and the origins of Islamic law. “I saw that the roots of the problems of Islamic civilization rested in the doctrine that Islam brought to it. But it wasn’t enough to look at it as a static situation,” Viorst says. “We know about fundamentalism, but there is also a weaker modernist movement. Once I figured this out, I set out to examine how the struggle within Islam was taking place, especially in the countries where the struggle [is] most acute, like Sudan and Egypt and Algeria.”

Viorst, who is 68, was born in Paterson, N.J. After college, the military, and jobs at a couple of New Jersey papers, Viorst joined the Washington Post and later its rival, the Washington Star, where he wrote a column on foreign affairs in the 1970s. When the Star folded, he wrote on staff for The New Yorker—until incoming editor Tina Brown sacked him and other old-guard writers.

As he began delving into Islam, Viorst says, he found himself studying Judaism and Christianity for perspective. He considers the three faiths “equally weird,” he says, mainly because the same beliefs pervade them all. The big difference, he concludes, is that Western civilization evolved dramatically between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, sundering the intellectual power of the church and synagogue; religion has had to find a different role for itself. In Islamic societies, he says, that rupture never took place: “Religious values remain at the core of the religion and the whole culture.”

In all his travels through Arab countries, Viorst says, his Jewish heritage has never been an issue. Ironically, it’s been mainly pro-Israel partisans who have attacked his writings. “I challenged the conventional thinking, and a lot of people didn’t like it,” he recalls matter-of-factly. “I’ve been frozen out of synagogues and so forth.”—Louis Jacobson