In Praise of the Islamic Bookstore 22 March 2018

Independent bookshops in Britain are on the decline, and a combination of rising rents and Amazon will spell its ultimate demise. This is the story we’re told of the high street bookshop. Even Hay-on-Wye, world famous for its literature festival, has less bookshops now than five years ago (though this is perhaps simply market diversification rather than anything more troubling). The general story we’re told is that while publishing is booming, the internet has undermined the physical bookstore. The exception, very often, is specialist shops, and among these niche stores is the Islamic bookshop.

I have no idea how many Islamic bookshops there are in the UK. Cardiff has four, for a population of maybe 30,000 Muslims, but this is unremarkable. Visit Whitchapel Road in East London, or Stratford Road or Coventry Road in Birmingham, or really any place with a sufficient gathering of Muslims (aided usually by a mosque or two), and you’ll find a good number of Islamic bookshops. They might be nestled in between kebab shops and takeaways, Asian clothes stores and halal butchers. Despite the increasing cost of rent or looming threat of the internet, these stores are seemingly flourishing. It might not be entirely economics, I’m sure more than a few are run as labours of love, by individuals driven more by piety than profit.

The Islamic bookshop has a few hallmarks no matter where in Britain you go. There will almost always be a small stand of perfumes (atar) sold by the counter, rich musky scents in tiny bottles. “If a person spends a third of his wealth on atar he is not being extravagant” the second Caliph of Islam is reported to have said (there might even be a sign reminding you of this near the perfumes). There will be a selection of robes (thobes for the men, abayas for the women), there will be hijabs and skull caps, and always a selection of tasbih (prayer beads). Some might have prayer mats, luxurious rugs (think Aladdin’s magic carpet) for worship. The prayer mats (or jai namaaz in Persian, and called as such by South Asians and further east too) have ornately stitched representations of the Kaabah, or some indeterminate mosque that may not exist except in the mind of the maker. There’s usually miswaak too, a fresh and small wooden twig used to clean teeth, recommended as part of personal hygiene by the Prophet Muhammad with antibacterial qualities to rival Colgate (I know this because Muslims love forwarding messages stating so, I have emails dating back to the early noughties and WhatsApp messages from as recently as last month with almost the same content – “the miswak is better than toothpaste”).

This is all trimming though, the main course are the shelves upon shelves of books. Muslim publishers have been producing anglophone Islamic books for decades. There are absolute classics always on sale, I was taught my basics from Islam: Beliefs and Teachings by Ghulam Sarwar when I was young, it’s the same book I’ll buy for someone if they ask me for an instructional religious text on prayer, and it is still available in almost any Islamic bookstore. The bright pink monochrome illustrations of prayer, it’s times, and ablution are vividly etched into my mind.

There are new publications too. Kube, for example, having a range of books on history, theology, and politics. Turath have books that feel and look beautiful, I’ve inadvertently collected their Forty Hadith series, small books with beautiful Arabic and English typsetting. They also publish translated books from the canon of Hanafi scholarship, such Usul al-Shashi, a key text in Deobandi madrassas.

Then there is Salafi Publications. These books tend towards the thinner side, accessible for non-specialists, and often with charming but garish covers. The two most distinctive qualities of any Salafi Publication are the titles (“A Glimpse at the Deviated Sects”, “The Excellence of Supplicating to Allaah and Constantly Remembering Him”) which retain a sense of being a fresh translation of the Arabic, and the distinct phonetic spellings with a tendency towards the double vowel (Allaah, Islaam, Soorah).

Another classic your almost certain to find in the Islamic bookstore is Fortress of the Muslim, published by Darussalam. A small book, the type that will fit into a pocket, thinner than a smartphone, but with hundreds of prayers for various situations – when you lose something, when you enter a bathroom, when you’re trying to make a decision. Every prayer is referenced, either from the Quran or a hadith. It’ll appear in three forms, in Arabic, English translation, and transliterated.

Bookstores also have a habit of holding pamphlets too. Some, photocopied onto coloured paper in black and white, might be offered for free, to instruct Muslims about their faith or else be shared with non-Muslim. Others might be a handful of pages, colourfully printed, and offered well below the £5 price range. These will include works by Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat, Indian preachers in the model of the televangelist who have also produced a range of literature on countless topics, but usually aimed at proving the inherent truth and validity of Islam, either by reading Islamic texts within a scientific paradigm (“Al-Quran – the Ultimate Miracle”) or by reading Biblical texts within an Islamic one (“Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Bible” by Zakir Naik).

Despite the economy, the troubling spectre of Islamophobia, the political chaos, the Islamic bookshop continues almost unperturbed by what’s going on outside. The books feel more eternal sometimes. My last trip to Birmingham had me return with Great Western Muslims (a thick collection of biographies published by Kube), Al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error and Other Works (a more academic work by Fons Vitae, which are present too in surprising quantities in Islamic bookstores), and Medicine of the Prophet (a translation of a twelfth century text, published by the Islamic Texts Society).

Ghazali produced much of his work while the First Crusade raged on, not that you could tell by his writing. The Revival of the Religious Sciences is firmly concerned with the hereafter, The Incoherence of the Philosophers more concerned with the threat of Greek Philosophy than the Italian Papacy. The Islamic bookstore is a space where things slow down. You’ll find works spanning centuries, concerned with the perennial questions of humanity (the nature of truth, the presence of God, what makes a ‘good life’, the cultivation of virtue), grounded to be more accessible than any of the works in any university library.

The quiet success of the stores, often overlooked in the more mainstream narratives on publishing, are part of their charm, and for anyone wanting to remind themselves of the long arc of history, few places are better than the Islamic bookstore.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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