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.
Photo courtesy of hapal via flickr.