Five Book Plan: Islam


Suleiman A. Mourad, author of The Mosaic of Islam: A Conversation with Perry Anderson, selects five essential books about Islam. The Mosaic of Islam is a broad-spanning book about the states of Islam's development from the composition of the Quar'an to the formation of various sects within Islamand how it relates to present day conflicts, such as the Saudi intervention in the Yemen and the collapse of Syria and Iraq. Suleiman Mourad is a leading medievalist and a professor of religion at Smith College.

In one’s journey of learning and discovery, many books stand out as informative, although very few rise to the level of inspiring and thought provoking. Below I have picked five. They examine different aspects of Islam in very original ways that I have found extremely insightful, whether in terms of their daring approach and original findings, or in terms of how they make us (scholars or average readers) realize the limitations of our own assumptions and what we commonly take for granted about the Qurʾan, Muhammad, Islam and the Muslims.

Dangerous Knowledge by Robert Irwin (Overlook Press, 2006)

Dangerous Knowledge is the best starting point for anyone interested in the study of Islam. It is a must read book. Irwin surveys the history of western scholarship from the sixteenth century to the last decades of the twentieth century and the leading European institutions where the study of Islam was pursued, which, for a variety of reasons, shifted over time (France, then Holland, then France, then Germany, then United Kingdom) before its ultimate move to the USA after the Second World War. There were various agendas that motivated the Europeans to study the Qurʾan and Islam. Western scholars were driven by a variety of prejudices and motives, ranging from antagonistic and polemical (e.g., eagerness to prove Muhammad a false prophet), to political (e.g., justification of European imperial subjugation of Muslim societies), to philomathic and positivistic (e.g., fascination with the people, culture and religion), to apologetic (e.g., defense of Islam and Muslims against all types of accusations). Each agenda has tried to pull the field in its direction, but none was able to dominate. Yet, the realization that one gets from Dangerous Knowledge is that today, be that in Western academia or the Muslim World, these agendas still shape the way many think and understand Islam as a religion and Muslims as a people.

The Qurʾân’s Self-Image by Daniel Madigan (Princeton University Press, 2001)

An outstanding study of the process of the codification of the Qurʾan and the text’s own self-image. Madigan presents a serious critique of the widespread view that the Qurʾan was originally transmitted orally and then, on the basis of that oral tradition, the written text was shaped. Given the many grammatical and linguistic inaccuracies in the Qurʾan, The Qurʾân’s Self-Image demonstrates that they originated from attempts to read a written text, and could not have been caused by orality and mispronunciation. Moreover, nothing whatsoever in the early Islamic tradition indicates or hints that the prophet Muhammad collected all the Qurʾanic verses together in book form. Madigan also proves that the terms that have been taken for granted as reflecting the Qurʾan’s self-image (the way the text refers to itself)—notably, the term Kitab, and also such terms as Furqan, Dhikr, Zabur, Tanzil and Wahy—do not refer to the Qurʾan at all, and do not even indicate a scripture. Kitab (commonly understood to mean book), for instance, refers to God’s authority and knowledge. Hence, to be given the Kitab means to be given access to God’s divine knowledge where everything is predetermined and known. The other terms indicate divine-human exchanges.

Images of Muhammad by Tarif Khalidi (Doubleday, 2009)

Khalidi’s Images of Muhammad is a superb study of the Muslims’ fascination with their prophet expressed through a wide range of literary forms. Often we come across biographies of Muhammad that pretend to inform the reader about the life, career and teachings of Islam’s prophet. Invariably, they manipulate the sources in ways to present a coherent tale. Far from that, Khalidi pursues a rigorous and informative investigation that centers on how the Muslims over the centuries have visited and revisited, thought and rethought Muhammad’s life, career and teachings, partly to promote certain aspects of them and partly to project back to him values they wanted him to promote. The biographies of Muhammad, therefore, reveal the wide diversity of Islamic beliefs and thought. The various portrayals show Muhammad as legislator, as teacher of manners, as light of the world, as model mystic, as universal character, and as modern hero and liberator. They also reflect the Muslims’ attachment to him as a community and as individuals. Probably the most insightful conclusion in the Images of Muhammad is the struggle of some Muslim groups with certain aspects of Muhammad’s life and career, either rejecting them as rationally objectionable or judging them as too meta-historic that renders them useless for the human experience.

Greek Thought, Arabic Culture by Dimitri Gutas (Routledge, 1998)

Greek Thought, Arabic Culture is an outstanding study of the transmission of Hellenic culture and knowledge into Arabic. It takes us to the time when the Muslims were setting in motion the creation of a civilization and reached out to borrow from previous civilizations. The Muslims were in need to understand their position in history/religious history, and reflect on their place in the universe and their role as leaders of the world. The transmission of knowledge was as much an enterprise about outward image (to imitate and follow in the path of previous civilizations) as about inward image (self reflection). This could never have been accomplished if not for the social, political, and religious contexts that made it necessary and acceptable. The countless Muslim statesmen and affluent families who sponsored the transmission of knowledge were themselves the architects who financed the formation of Islam as a religion and religious culture. Without the ideas that came from the translation movement (especially via philosophy and theology), Islamic thought and Islamic civilization would have been drastically different. Gutas also debunks the widespread myth of Islam’s intrinsic opposition to science/scientific inquiry and philosophy/philosophical inquiry; this myth was propagated by some European orientalists and echoes a minority view within Muslim circles (especially Hanbalis and Wahhabis).

In the Name of Identity by Amin Maalouf (Penguin Books, 2000)

Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity—first published in French as Les identités meurtrières (Grasset, 1998)—is a very simple yet extremely complex book. Its simplicity is in the accessible language of the author. The complexity is in the issue under examination: identity and how it shapes one’s allegiance. The focus of Maalouf is on Islamic identity and its resurgence in the last decades of the twentieth century. If one is looking for a densely philosophical text about the topic, this book is not it. If one seeks an easy-read that gets at the heart of the issue of the recent resurgence of Islamic identity, nothing surpasses In the Name of Identity. As Maalouf argues, very person is shaped by a number of identities (gender, sexual, ethnic, sub-ethnic, cultural, geographical, political, religious, etc.). Yet, in certain situations we are reduced to one (either by us or by others), which gets translated as the marker that distinguish others from us or us from others. Written before the events of September 11, 2001, In the Name of Identity essentially predicted the trajectory that the world has taken since then. Under the pretext of identity and allegiance, Muslim terrorists (e.g. Al-Qaeda and ISIS) are pursuing a war against the “enemies” of Islam, even though their primary target has been fellow Muslims. On the other hand, the “War against Terror” is pursued to protect “us” from “them,” with very little done to delineate these two dangerous categories (us and them), leading to the rise of Islamophobia and right wing fascism. Reading In the Name of Identity makes us aware that such essentialisms (done to us by others, and done to ourselves by us) lead some groups to become entrenched behind a singular form of identity and translate that into a singular form of allegiance, willfully ignoring their own complexity and how much they share with those they label “enemies.” The consequence is that the world becomes at odds with itself and very dangerous.


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