Learning About Islam: 15 Books to Get You Started


August 1 began the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims, a time of reflection on patience, spirituality and humility.  This year, Ramadan falls during a time of intense upheaval, uncertainty and ignorance on the Islamic world.  Yet if the three have spurred anything in the literary world, it would be the ever-growing wealth of Muslim writers and scholars publishing on their experiences, their analysis, and their projections for both Islam as a religion, and the Islamic world as a geographical region.  If you’re looking for a new book for your summer reading list, check out this list of 15 books on Islam as religion, as politics, as culture and as the uniting tie between millions of people worldwide:


1. Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak, edited by Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur

An anthology of essays and poems on growing up female and Muslim, edited by Muslim activist Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, also the former chief executive of the Muslim women’s magazine Azizah.  Though the stories are diverse in how they look at topics such as faith, love, religion, marriage, homosexuality, abuse and expectations from American culture, what strings them together is the acknowledgement and exploration of the American Muslim woman as an identity that is never fixed, but always fluid, evolving, adaptable to changes that not only occur in faith, but in self-identification as well.

2. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, by Leila Ahmed

Written from an unapologetic feminist perspective, Leila Ahmed, director of the Women’s Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, provides a historical survey of the historical roots that have led to contemporary Islamic conversations on women and gender, with particular attention to women’s roles in shaping Middle Eastern history.  With theological and literary resources, she effectively debunks many of the dominating Western misconceptions of female subjugation in the Islamic world, attributing the stereotypes to colonialism and its use of pseudo-feminism to eschew and dominate non-Western cultures.

3. The Muslim Next-Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing, by Sumbul Ali-Karamali

As the 2009 Bronze Medal Winner of the Independent Publisher’s Award, this book, written by Muslim-American author Sumbil Ali Karamali, offers clear explanations of the religion and population that has dominated mainstream news and daily conversations since 9/11.  Starting with the basics of Islam and its practice, Ali-Karamali doesn’t shy away from the complicated issues of jihad, fundamentalism and female status in Islam.  “I live inside my religion because it is sensible, simple, and it teaches good things like forgiveness, generosity, tolerance and compassion,” Ali-Karamali wrote in the book’s final paragraph.  “I live in America because I believe it can be a nation of many faiths.  As people of all religions have urged, it is time for genuine understanding and dialogue, not media hysteria and anti-Islamic racism.  If we can separate the daily distortions from the reality, perhaps we can break out of that medieval framework of domination and hostility.  Instead of working towards a ‘clash of civilizations,’ perhaps we can avoid a ‘clash of ignorances.’”

4. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, by Reza Aslan

A history of Islam, by comparative religions scholar Reza Aslan, from the Middle East’s pre-Islamic climate, to the life and death of Prophet Mohammad, through its reformation of the four caliphates and then European colonization, and to today, where he argues Islam’s compatibility with democracy and the religion’s brink of another reformation.

5. Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, edited by Reza Aslan

With the goal of shifting American views of the Middle East away “from the ubiquitous images of terrorists and fanatics,” this anthology, edited by Aslan, covers literature from the past 100 years of the Islamic world, much of which is translated here for the first time in English, representing writers as far west as Turkey and Morocco, and as far east as Pakistan.  Among other things, this book provides both a moderate voice and living documentation of the cultural pluralism that has dominated and continues to push the Middle East towards the reformation that Aslan convincingly argues is on its way.

6. Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, by Benazir Bhutto

This manuscript, completed just days before the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, stretched beyond her own political narrative to look at historic and contemporary Islam’s interactions with the West.  Her thesis looks at “two critical tensions… [which] must be reconciled to prevent the clash of civilizations:” Islam’s own internal tensions, and its relations with the non-Islamic world.  By looking at jihad, women’s equality, and the differences between Islam’s Shia and Sunni sects, Bhutto argues that “democracy and Islam are not only compatible but mutually sustaining.”

7. I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala

Rarely in the rhetoric of Muslims in America do we hear the voices of Muslim women in America, yet so much of the debate centers around them, looking to them and their role in Islamic society as misinterpreted symbols of female oppression and subjugation.  Of the over one billion Muslim women in the world, an estimated six million live in the United States.  In this new anthology, edited by Maria M. Ebrahimji from CNN and Zahra T. Suratwala from Zahra Ink, stories of being Muslim, American and female are interwoven around the themes of limitlessness and individuality.  “While their commonality is faith and citizenship,” each woman’s story shows variance in experiences, messages, voices, even identities.  “Muslim women are often portrayed and depicted as silent slaves, unable to speak for themselves, and at the mercy of a male custodianship,” Kurdish-Muslim feminist Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar noted in a recent review.  “This book debunks that myth… It truly represents the Muslim community as it is– diverse and full of intelligent women, not afraid to speak their mind.”

8. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

This sophomore fiction by writer Mohsin Hamid looks at the life of Changez, a Pakistani national fresh out of Princeton when 9/11 happens.  Despite the title’s connotation, never once in the book is religion mentioned, which leaves the reader to wonder what type of fundamentalist Changez is.  Throughout the narrative, he fights both a moral battle and an internal political battle, in how both he and America react to the news of 9/11.  In both his depiction of America’s backwards-thinking of the events and his lack of compassion for trying to understand it all, we see in both him and America the dangers that come from the inability to accept change.

9. War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslim, by Melody Moezzi

In this collection of 12 interviews with other Muslim Americans, Melody Moezzi, a Muslim lawyer of Iranian descent, presents a series of short biographical vignettes, from non-religious “cultural” Muslims to converts in hijabs, looking at the varying experiences and identity questions that characterize many Muslim Americans’ experiences today.  Though the details of the stories vary, like Living Islam Out Loud, the unifying theme is that Muslim Americans are no different in their quest for place and identity than any other population of Americans, and through that shared journey, these stories show how more alike Americans of all faiths are, as opposed to different.

10. The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Journey to Freedom, by Afshin Molavi

A far cry from the simplistic depictions of Iran that plague mainstream American media, here Afshin Molavi weaves history, politics, culture and personal narratives to show another, much less represented side of Iran, one that has fallen astray from the 1979 revolution that put Islamist rule on the international radar.  Throughout the book, stereotypes are debunked, generalizations are examined, and through it all, a new picture of Iran forms, one that shows its people more frustrated with their own government than they are with America and the West.

11. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, by Roy Mottahedeh

First published in 1985 by Harvard professor Roy Mottahedeh, this intellectual history in the form of a biography of a cleric in Iran has become an often sought-after resource on the internal tensions between religion and politics in post-revolutionary Iran.  By looking at the socio-economic conditions and Shia coalition that led to the revolution of 1979, Mottahedeh provides a comprehensive picture of Shia philosophy and its impact on both the ancient and contemporary histories that have shaped the discourse for Iran today.

12. What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, by Feisal Abdul Rauf

Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American Sufi Imam who has conducted missions for the State Department and is more recently known for heading up the Cordoba Center in lower Manhattan, not only uses this book to answer some of the hardest questions today about Islam, but to also offer a treatise between Islam and the West.  “If people want to blow people like him up,” Fareed Zakaria stated in defense of Rauf and the Cordoba Center, “this should give us some idea of his standing in the world of Islam.”  Instead of focusing on the faults behind the practices of militant Muslims and placing blame on either side of the Islam-West disconnect, Rauf is more concerned with finding solutions that lead towards improved relations, open dialogue and “a vision for a Muslim world that can eventually embrace its own distinctive forms of democracy and capitalism, aspiring to a new Cordoba- a time when Jews, Muslims, Christians, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace and prosperity.”

13. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi

In this series of essays edited by Colgate University professor Omid Safi, misunderstandings of Islam by both Westerners and militant Islamists are challenged by re-aligning Islam with progressive Muslims, social justice, human rights, democracy and gender equality, drawing inspiration by Western heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

14. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, by Edward W. Said

Best known for his seminal work Orientalism and his critiques of Western colonialism’s effect on contemporary views of the Islamic world, late Columbia University comparative literature professor Edward W. Said turns his lens onto American media and how it impacts mainstream views of Islam and Muslims.  Academic studies of the Islamic world are influenced by the culture that produces them, Said believed, and by tracing the roots of many of the misunderstandings that dominate post-9/11 discourse of the Islamic world, Said demonstrated where journalists, who often have minimal knowledge of the languages and cultures of the countries they report on, rely on these skewed studies of the Muslim world, thus allowing them to color what should otherwise be objective coverage.  What we see in portrayals of the Middle East is very often shallow, even incorrect, which lead Said to argue for the need of unbiased historical knowledge, as well as a “prescription for cultural self-awareness (New York Times Book Review)” of the objectives one has when acquiring expertise on Islam and Muslims.

15. Power, Politics, and Culture, by Edward W. Said

In 2000, Said provocatively called himself “the last Jewish intellectual… the only true follower of Adorno.  Let me put it this way: I am a Jewish-Palestinian.”  In this collection of interviews conducted before his death, Said, who advocated for the Palestinian cause but called Yasir Arafat “unreformable,” holds very little back in his critique and analysis of both literature and culture.  Spanning 25 years, the interviews are divided into two themes: 1. literary criticism and cultural theory; and 2. practical applications of his political ideals, particularly in the Middle East.  Sprinkled throughout are Said’s discussions of Saddam Hussein, nationalism, Salman Rushdie’s underground existence, Glenn Gould and classical music, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace process, the Gulf War, censorship, American intellectuals and Middle East studies, and imperialism.

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Photo courtesy of hapal via flickr.

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Stardust Noel
Stardust Noel11 months ago

Why would I want to learn about islam ? I know they hate & want to kill all who don't convert to their religion, that's enough for me,may be they need to learn more about us,I can't believe this article is on Care2.

Dan Cooper
Dan Cooper4 years ago

@Giovanna M
"Mayne they had a righ to inherit half, that was half more than Christian women (who didn't even had a soul)."

Well you said Muslimas had EQUAL rights, so don't bring in Christian women. You concede then since they inherit half, their testimony is half, and by the way Moe said they were deficient and most would go to hell, that they in fact were not equal. Please don't patronize us by trying to whitewash this pedophile murderer and highwayman into a feminist!

"I'm not saying Islam is perfect"

Wow, I'm sorry. I thought you were Muslim. I see by the above statement you are not.

Lloyd H.4 years ago

Dolores, I hate to bust you bubble but there is not now and never has been a tolerant organized religion, and do some research and you find Buddhists have committed crimes against others too, they have just never worked quite as hard as the Judeo-Christian-Isalmic tradition religions for political power to force their ideology onto others. And yes, I did intentionally say Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition as they all share more in common than the bits they hate and kill over.

Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond4 years ago

Some people have tried to say that the religion is good because they have met some good people who practice it. I submit that their are good people. their religion has little or nothing to do with their goodness. As I have said before, allreligions that claim to be the revelation of some deity are inherently intolerant and bigotted. Any goodness is in the person not the religion.

It is like the story of the 5 blind men and the elephant. We each perceive our world according to our life and viewpoint. If we are good we will see good.

Superstition is harmful to children and other living things

Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond4 years ago

The fact is that any group that claims a revelation from some deity is inherently vicious, intolerant and bigotted. It matters not if the claim comes from some bronze aged desert nomads, a 1st century apocolyptic jewish preacher, a 3rd century Roman emperor, a 7th century goatherd or a 19th century west New York farmer. They are all patriarchal, misogynistic, bigotted purveyors of massive quantities of male bovine excrement.

Superstition is harmful to children and other living things

Pego R.
Pego R.4 years ago


The same crapola is in the Bible and in laws that abounded in Christian countries. We may be TRYING to get past that but the GOP is making a great effort to re-color our country as an Inquisition wannabe. Your points are all dying on the vine

bob m.
bob m.4 years ago

Si?...taco bell....go straight 2 blocks ,you can't miss it.

Stephen Greene
Past Member 4 years ago

No thanks. I have heard, seen, and read enough of Islam, Christianity, all the major religions of the world. I am more interested in philosophies from the ideas of agnostics and atheists, which are much more peaceful and logically correct than ANY religion I have ever come across. No thanks guys. I like the music, the people and the art are beautiful, but the insanity of religion is a big turn-off. I don't want any part of any religion. Welcome to the 21st century. Stay in the 1st if you like, it's your choice.

Laura mendez velazquez

Cuántos prejuicios e ignorancia! No cabe duda que los discursos oficiales, que los medios de información y que la falta de interés por conocer la verdad conduce al fanatismo: fanatismo contra el islam. Qué religión está libre de sangre, de manipulación, de convenciencias, de mentiras, de asesinatos? En qué país no hay gente que muere o mata por sus creencias religiosas? Por qué nos negamos a informarnos, pensar y decidir por cuenta propia? Pecan de fundamentalistas tanto los de oriente como los de occidente.

bob m.
bob m.4 years ago

Yo Salma...wow; speaking about lies.. start with the ones about Jesus Christ in the quran.
That's enough. His Blood testifies against these lies. And ...even your brass admits 6 million Africans became Christian last year. Jesus; TheSon of God IS lord Sal...can't get around it......and ending my time on this earth won't change it .
and That's the Truth.......MARANATHA......Come LORD JESUS.