The Public Humanist

Understanding Islam: Some Library Discussion Group-Tested Book Suggestions

Editor’s Note: Today’s news about U.S. Warplanes attacking Iraq has prompted me to dig into my files for an annotated bibliography listing the books selected by Mass Humanities for its “Understanding Islam” reading and discussion program that took place in dozens of public libraries in Massachusetts from 2002-2004. I believe that this list of books still offers a strong backbone for learning about the conflict in the Middle East and understanding the role of Islam in the lives of people there.

I. Mohammad and the Koran

Michael A. Cook, Muhammad

Just over a sixth of the world’s population subscribes to the Muslim belief that ‘there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.’ Michael Cook gives an incisive account of the man who inspired this faith, drawing on the traditional Muslim sources to describe Muhammad’s life and teaching. He also attempts to stand back from this traditional picture to question how far it is historically justified. (Oxford University Press, 92 pages.)

Michael A. Cook, The Koran, A Very Short Introduction

The Koran has constituted a remarkably resilient core of identity and continuity for a religious tradition that is now in its fifteenth century. In this Very Short Introduction, Michael Cook provides a lucid and direct account of the significance of the Koran both in the modern world and in that of traditional Islam. He gives vivid accounts of the Koran’s role in Muslim civilization, illustrates the diversity of interpretations championed by traditional and modern commentators, discusses the processes by which the book took shape, and compares it to other scriptures and classics of the historic cultures of Eurasia. (Oxford University Press, 144 pages.)

II. Islam and Literature

Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

Mahfouz is the most celebrated novelist writing in Arabic and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1988). In 1959, Children of Gebelawi was serialized in the newspaper al-Ahram. The uproar caused by the story was akin to the more recent reaction to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and delayed its publication in book form until many years later, after Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1994, Mahfouz survived an assassination attempt. Told as the history of a Cairo alley, Children of the Alley (as our edition is called) is an extended parable, retelling the lives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and dealing boldly with the modern idea of the “death of God.” The novel can be read on many levels. On the surface, it is an evocative account of an Egypt that has all but vanished. At a deeper level, the book provides valuable insight into a modern Muslim’s view of the prophets by putting them into a familiar context. At still deeper level, Mahfouz gently mocks the patriarchal authoritarianism of the second level. A pervasive theme is the use of violence by and against tyrants, which makes the book eerily topical. (Bantam, 448 pages.)

III. Women in Islam

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

A “wonderfully iconoclastic” history of ideas about Muslim women. Cheerfully debunking every stereotype American readers have about women in the Islamic heartland, Ahmed weaves together theological and literary sources, statistics and travelers’ tales, to create a complex and even-handed narrative. Her focus is on the development of ideas rather than the physical details of women’s lives, yet many individual women stand out. Whether she is identifying the cultural influences which led early Islam toward misogyny and away from egalitarianism or showing how Muslim modernizers were influenced by colonial European racism, her writing is sophisticated and graceful. (Yale University Press, 246 pages.)

IV. Islam and Politics

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

First published fifteen years ago, Roy Mottahedeh’s intriguing portrait of Iranian society and the lives of those who lived through the revolution remains as relevant today as it was then. The story of a young mullah growing up in the ancient and sacred city of Qom, this is not just a fascinating study of life in post-Khomeini Iran, but a striking survey of Muslim, Persian, and Shi’ite culture from the Middle Ages to today, told in an engaging and vivid novelistic form. (One World Publishers, 384 pages.)

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