The Anglophone Islam Reading List 14 January 2017
There’s a section in my thesis in which I describe a mosque library. This particular library has several entire walls dedicated to Arabic language works on Islam. Thick leather tomes. Rich calligraphic designs. Commentaries on Sahih al-Bukhari, the works of al-Ghazali, Tafsir ibn Kathir, and on and on. In the same library, a large amount of space is also given to works in Urdu. Shah Wali Allah’s books, Fatwa-e-Alamgiri, and countless others. Though this library did not have it, an equally large collection of Persian works could have been included, the Masnavi foremost amongst them.
In a small corner of this library are the English language works. Most pamphlets written by missionary-types. Not a single hardback. Not a single classic. The uninspiring collection has no classics. Surely the state of Anglophone Islamic scholarship is not so dire? I don’t think so at least. And so I put a call out on Twitter:
What are the best English language books on Islam? I think I'm going to make a list.
— Abdul-Azim (@AbdulAzim) January 11, 2017
The responses came thick and fast, and with a few of my own additions, I’ve put together this list. Clicking on the images will take you to Amazon by the way, where if you do buy the book through the link, a % of the profit will come back to On Religion.
Prof Jonathan A. C. Brown is quickly becoming an internationally recognised scholar of Islam. I describe him as the American version of Prof Tim Winters. Where Prof Winters is quiet and introverted, Prof Brown is more outgoing and animated. Both are converts to Islam, who combine a solid grounding in the Western intellectual tradition with extensive study within the Islamic sciences.
In Misquoting Muhammad, Prof Brown offers a rich and comprehensive insight into the interpretive efforts scholars invest into engaging with the two sacred texts of Islam, the Quran and hadith. It is the latter to which he devotes the most attention, though as repeatedly points out, how you view the hadith makes a difference as to how you interpret the Quran.
The work is as accessible as possible considering the material, and perhaps the best primer into Islamic theology for Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Having only been published in 2014, it has already made its mark as an important text.
@AbdulAzim "Misquoting Muhammad" is a popular one
— Pari ✨ (@coffeeshopjihad) January 11, 2017
Islam and the Destiny of Man
Author Hasan le Gai Eaton, who passed away in 2010, was accolate of Martin Lings. This work has routinely been cited as one of the best expositions of the Islamic message in the English language. It reads less like theology and more gentle exhortation, and as perhaps the title of the work itself suggests, it benefits from Gai Eaton’s powerful prose – able to infuse a touch of mythic scope into every sentence.
It remains a favourite for converts to Islam, perhaps because Gai Eaton was himself a convert, and because it explains Islam with a Western reader in mind. The images, words, and metaphors are thoroughly Anglican, it is the subject matter which is not.
Islam Between East and West – Alija ‘Ali Izetbegovic
A Young Muslims Guide To The Modern World – Syed Hossein Nasr
Islam: A Short History – Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong is, and remains, one of the foremost scholars of religion and religious studies in the world. Her books have perhaps done more than anyone else’s to revive interest in the West in the role and significance of religion. I’ve not read this particular work, but I have read her biography of Muhammad and her other works. She is not concerned with proselytising Islam (describing herself as a “freelance monotheist”), but rather providing a picture unobstructed by centuries of orientalism.
You can read more about Karen Armstrong in the interview I conducted with her back in October 2016.
Forgotten Queens of Islam – Fatima Mernissi
Fatima Mernissi’s scholarship spans women in Islam, though she is rarely described as a feminist scholar. In this historically focused work, she considers the role female leaders have played throughout the Muslim empires that span back 1400 years.
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam – Muhammad Iqbal
Iqbal is regularly called the “poet of Pakistan”, despite having pre-dated it. He is a celebrated poet, playing with the notions of orthodoxy and heretic in much the same tradition as Rumi and Ferdowsi. He wrote during a period in which the British colonial rule in India was not only strong, but humiliating. His poetry often spoke as if it was deeply self-aware of its own role in history, though I’ve only ever had access to them in translation.
The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam is a work I’ve heard about, knowing that Iqbal named it after another epic work – the Revival of the Religious Sciences by al-Ghazali – but I always presumed that like his poetry, it would be unavailable to me. Then I suddenly remembered, Muhammad Iqbal is Sir Muhammad Iqbal, knighted by King George V, graduate of Cambridge University. He wrote The Reconstruction of Religious in Islam in the English language! So while I’ve yet to read this, it’s definitely top of my list for its relevance.
No God But God – Reza Aslan
The Road to Mecca – Muhammad Asad
Muhammad Asad was a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian convert to Islam. The Road to Mecca is a book about his journey to Islam. It was first published in 1952 but remains in print, testament to it’s value.
Major Themes of the Quran – Fazlur Rahman
Islamic Exceptionalism – Shadi Hamid
Muhammad: His Life Based On The Earliest Sources – Martin Lings
Martin Lings died in 2005, but was one of the most important British Sufi masters yet. This work is often cited as the English language biography of the Prophet. It is undoubtedly one of the best written. It’s language has a Shakespearean quality – Lings is a graduate of Oxford and a one-time friend of C. S. Lewis (I wonder he ever attended the Inklings, probably not, I don’t think the timings work out, but still).
The short chapters also have, perhaps intentionally, an echo of the gospel parables. Like his student, Gai Eaton, it seems Lings had a Biblically-literate Western audience n mind. The scholarship is unquestionable, the language is superb, the style is engaging.
The Walking Quran is more an academic work, recommended through Twitter, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one ethnography on the list. The rich and extended accounts provide an insight into the everyday lived religious experiences of others, and I have always believed the attention to detail of the ethnography (as opposed to the broad brush strokes of the general) have much to offer those interested in other religions. We learn after all through experience with the specific, and then abstract the generalisations.
In this specific, the author introduces us to schools of Quran in West Africa, and how the student’s becoming walking embodiments of the Quran – a description of the Prophet Muhammad used by Aisha bint Abi Bakr and perhaps the objective of every devoted Muslim.
@AbdulAzim "Vision of Islam" by Muratta and Chittick is good. I'm reading Ware's "Walking Quran" right now. Not as general, but great read.
— Rachel Winter (@rachelelise7750) January 11, 2017
The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran – Roy Mottahedah
The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia – Francis Robinson
@AbdulAzim Motahedah, The Mantle of the Prophet; Robinson, The Ulama of Firangi Mahal; Pamuk, Snow; Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
— (((Yahya Birt))) (@YBirt) January 11, 2017
Understanding the Quran – Muhammad Abdul Haleem
Muhammad Abdul-Haleem’s Oxford University Press translation of the Quran is, in my opinion, the best translation currently available. It is lucid, clear, and does little to try and narrow Quranic meanings, instead attempting to allow the ambiguity to flow through into the translation (some have observed how this particular issue Muslims have with translation has lead to the peculiar phrase “translation of the meaning of the Quran”).
Abdul-Haleem also translates “Islam” as “devotion”, a necessary update. For too long, we’ve had to live with the poor Orientalist translation of Islam meaning “submission”, with the equally poor translation of Islam as meaning “peace”. Devotion, thankfully, takes us a step closer to accuracy.
That is the list for now, more will perhaps be added, and the list organised thematically one day.