Monday, September 18, 2006

Islam 101

Over the weekend I got an email from a college friend asking about book recommendations on Islam. I teach courses on Islam in the contemporary world and have been meaning to post some recommendations for quite a while. Thanks Tony for the push.

First of all, there is no single perfect book on Islam. Islam is a major world religion with 1427+ years of history. It is a big, diverse ocean of belief, practice, experience, and history as are all the major religious traditions. You can study it for a lifetime and never exhaust the subject. I've been reading, studying, and living among Muslims for nearly 18 years!

But everyone has to start somewhere. I start my students with Emery Bogle's book Islam: Origins and Beliefs. It is a bit dry in places but I like it because it integrates Shi'a Islam into its history. It is a short yet comprehensive look at the development of Islam and Islamic history. Your average "intro to Islam" book is from a Sunni perspective. Indeed, Sunnis are the vast majority of Muslims, but Iran is nearly 100% Shia and Iraq around 60%. With this administration's call for democracy in the Middle East and its implementation in Iraq, Shi'a Muslims are empowered in ways that they have not been in the modern era. We will see the implications of this shift for decades to come.

An amazing resource for getting a sense of what the scriptures and textual traditions of Islam are like is John Alden William's book, The Word of Islam.

This semester I am also having my students read Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near. I'd like to stand on street corners and hand this book out to passers-by. Shadid speaks Arabic and spent the months before and during the invasion among Iraqi civilians. It is an important book and it is now available in paperback.

Blogs and web sites are also an important resource. Look over at my sidebar. There's a reason Juan Cole's Informed Comment is on top. My advice: read it and read it daily. A year from now you will have gained a much better perspective on the Middle East, Islam, and contemporary politics.

A wonderful way to get a sense of the perspective of ordinary, moderate, modern Muslims is the web site Islamicity. Browse around. They have many articles on the history, texts, and practices of Islam. Here is a recent piece disputing the link many people make between Islam and violence. It is a valuable place to get a sense (in English) of how Muslims debate and frame these topics themselves.

More books and web sites tomorrow.

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