2017 Favorite Books on Islam and Muslims
December 24, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
And Merry Christmas to those observing Christmas. Belated Happy Hanukkah.
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
In the last letter, we spoke about some good books about general topics. Here, I am giving my book recommendations on the best books about Muslims and or Islam from my readings of the past year. It may be important to read the explanation because my suggestion to read a book does not mean that I thought it was a good book.
The topics may not appeal to you, but if you want to get a sense of strong writing, reflection, and research on Islam and Muslims, explore these.
1- Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer, “Muslim Cool.” This profound academic study of the way Islam manifests in Black American cultures as a type of “coolness” was eye opening for me, despite having grown up in Chicago, having been following Rap/Hip Hop for three decades, and watching all of what she writes about, right before my eyes. This was the best, most important book I read on Muslims this past year. Fair disclosure: not only do I know and respect the author and her better half, but her better half is...a Muslim Chaplain (at the University of Chicago).
2- Mona Hassan, “Longing for the Lost Caliphate.” She explores a sentiment pervasive among Muslim populations, that when the Ottomans were dismantled in 1924, that something intrinsic to Islam has been lost, being a dominant polity. This towering work of scholarship explores the history and language of Islamic politics, through a few empires, and modernity. I will have to read this book a few times to appreciate it. Her sweeping, yet close reading across languages, scholars, and histories was enough for five books.
3- Pankaj Mishra, “Age of Anger.” This book also made my other list. It is here because it is very much about Muslims as much as it is about Westerners. The profound connections he makes were nothing less than genius. I cannot imagine that he would be able to produce another work as complex and insightful. If he can produce a few more such books, then I will have no doubt that he will have been one of the 21st Century’s greatest thinkers. No pressure.
THE REST: All of these books are very human.
4- Omar Ghobash, “Letters to a Young Muslim.” I tire when reading non-specialists pontificating about Islam, whether they are diplomats, physicians, engineers, lawyers, etc., in the way that physicians feel when homeopaths write about healthcare. This book was a gentle breath of fresh air. Ghobash is a diplomat writing a series of letters to his son, introducing the world to him, while wrestling with the questions of the day, without claiming to have answers. He does not speak as an authority, as much as he speaks as someone who loves Islam, his son, and the process of learning itself. What stood out for me in this book was the humility and compassion of the father for the child; maybe it is because so much of my day involves the victims of dispassionate fathers.
5- Tamim Ansary, “Destiny Disrupted.” I went through this book on the recommendation of two friends, and went through it again this year. Having studied and taught Islamic history academically I can say that this is the best introduction to Islamic history for the lay reader. His wry sense of humor makes the book even more enjoyable.
6- Khizr Khan, “An American Family.” In the other list, I was biased in favor of books that had a Loyola connection. I stayed away from this book for some time because of my bias *against* the author, assuming that he is this Pakistani Uncle who would spend his time talking about how great America is (and see my comments below on Ali Rizvi’s book). I get enough of that at some mosques.
No, this book was a heartfelt autobiography about a man from meager means who worked very hard and acknowledged his many lucky breaks, that always came in the form of the kindnesses of other people. I will push my daughters to read, and the Pakistani in me had to go through his chapters on his son’s death over and over again, feeling the pain of a Pakistani elder. Or, maybe it is just humanity in me that gets touched by the humanities of others speaking about their pains, especially their lost children.
7- Jonathan Eig - “Ali: A Life.” I had the privilege of attending Muhammad Ali’s janazah and memorial. Then, half a year later, I took my daughters to visit his grave, knowing I was still coping with his death. For me, this book completed my mourning. But, it was also an important book because it showed that Ali was a complicated person. On the one hand he was generous to everyone including the numerous people who wanted to shake hands with him and the numerous people who exploited. On the other hand, he betrayed his wives numerous times, and the book does not mention his tears seeking forgiveness from the Divine, and perhaps from his wives. And, let us face it, his profession was the most un-Islamic of professions. Here is this man who seemed to be a mixture of searching for every type of love, while following through on every type of base appetite. But, when he believed something, he believed it through the depths of his being.
Meaning, he was one of the first of our Celebrity Preachers: because he elevated us with his public accomplishments, we made him into an even larger hero, and ignored his vices and the pains he caused others. Many would say that in our lauding of Celebrity Preachers we are seeking the Mahdi, the guided savior. No, is as though in every one of the Celebrity Preachers we elevate, we are seeking another Muhammad Ali: a Muslim who accomplishes much and we take credit.
8- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Coach Wooden and Me.” This book is about mentors and made me realize how much every generation’s biggest failure is in the refusal to become mentors for the younger people. Out of the hundreds of Muslims my age, how many mentors are there in Chicago from my age group to the college students? Ten?
Kareem speaks with love, sharing the life and wisdom of his modest UCLA coach; the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. Kareem is a young high schooler who first meets him, and gets transformed under his tutelage, including his own transformation from Lew Alcindor to KAJ.
9- Carla Power, “If the Oceans were Ink.” Power is a British journalist who follows the scholar Shaykh Akram Nadwi across London and the world, learning Islam through his lens. It is not difficult to find the formulaic “White Woman meeting the Colored Exotic Leader.” That trope goes at least as far back as Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheikh” movies from a hundred years ago. But, this book is not a work of exploitation or fetishization. Rather, it is a work of exploration.
10- Garry Wills, “What the Qur’an Meant.” A very friendly book, continuing Father Wills’ approach found in other books. It works as an intro to the Qur’an for Catholics and everyone else. If I were to write an intro for Catholics I would take a very different approach because Father Wills places focus on the big issues that everyone always talks about, and you know what those issues are. His goal is very direct: to work to wipe out all these hostilities against us, and to show that Muslims and Christians are far closer in belief than people (especially Christians) realize. He takes much of his material from the recently published mammoth “Study Qur’an.” Many Muslims had been attacking the Study Qur’an because of perceived agendas. Considering how large that book is, I suspect that none of those people had actually read it.
BOOKS YOU SHOULD EXPLORE FOR THE IDEAS EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE DISAPPOINTING.
The first book is a statement of piety, but cherry picks ideas and history to make its point. This last book is a statement of impiety, using the same tired arguments readily available on the internet:
11- Reza Aslan, “God.” For nerds like me, this is a fun exploration of the approaches we take to God. He speaks as a historian, but forces history to fit his theological ideology, which is consistent with most of his writings. When theologians write history, they give attention to some moments and diminish attention from others to fulfill their ideologies; meaning, theologians pick and choose how history works. This is not limited to Aslan. Numerous respected authors in all the sacred Traditions do the same. I am revisiting Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” and he states in the opening that he does this.
For Aslan, the pinnacle of religious thought is Wahdat al-Wujud, but he does not give it much detail, and does not discuss its modification -- Wahdat al-Shuhud -- by Ahmad Sirhindi. The idea of Wahdat al-Wujud (“Oneness of Existence”) is that you reach a point of oneness with God. The controversial versions of this merge the believer with God, thus making the believer into God. The less controversial versions speak of reaching a point where we cease to exist, and God is the only existence. We cease to exist when our narcissism ceases. Aslan does not distinguish between these ideas, perhaps because he is discussing super advanced concepts for a lay readership.
The idea of Wahdat al-Shuhud (“Oneness of Witness”) is that you reach a point of ceasing narcissism, but because your natural design -- along with the natural design of all creation -- is to praise the Divine, you reach a point of complete 100% witness of the Divine, which is complete 100% praise of the Divine.
Nevertheless, to his credit, Aslan seamlessly makes Islam part of mainstream American discourse better than anyone, and deserves credit for that alone. There are other Muslims who represent Islam and Muslims in the mainstream and he is smarter than most of them (and again, my basis favors the Chicagoans). This book is another example of that.
12- Ali Rizvi - “The Atheist Muslim.” I am suggesting this book to you not because it has any fresh ideas, which it does not. Rather, I want you to see the current state of the art in popular-intellectual critiques of Islam: they are weak.
My point is not to say that Islam is above critique; the Qur’an itself prescribes the doubters and challenges the opponents to produce something that can compare. Much of Tradition, especially our Tradition, is a centuries long conversation on big and small matters, critiquing past and contemporary works. On top of all that, I work in academia, where it sometimes seem like that people derive life by problematizing everything, including the desire to problematize everything.
Rather, there is a genre of books in mass publication, authored by people who to seem believe that they are smarter or more worldly than the rest of us, yet they illustrate that they have nothing much to share except a Muslim name, pedestrian ideas, and admiration for a mythical West. I should list those people in another letter, but one similar author with a book this year is Haroon Moghul. Paging through Moghul’s book, it was clear that he was consistent: any time he writes or speaks about Islam or Muslims, he spends most of his time talking about himself, which he did for an hour in one of my classes. At the recommendation of someone who I now regard as a pseudo-feminist (in that this person writes about women but attacks victims of domestic violence), I played his YouTube series’ about faith a few years ago at a MSA Men’s Retreat. Again, the whole piece was about himself. But, leaving out comments about his self-perception, it is clear that he knows almost nothing about the Muslim community, and when writing about Islam he comes with the usual cursory knowledge that many have, peppered with a few clever insights. The Islam he presents, despite an ability to quote from a wide variety of sources, like any grad student can, is a shallow rationalist approach that is effectively an atheism which believer forces upon himself as piety and manifests as irrational narcissism. The sad part is that he teaches Islam to Rabbis at a prestigious institution in Israel. But, Ayaan Hirsi Ali teaches diplomats about Islam and non-Muslim communities about feminism and has credentials in neither, so it is nothing new. A market has supply and demand, even though the market is sometimes a racket.
Anyways, the hope I had in Rizvi’s book was that it would raise some challenging ideas. Instead, he expresses his admiration for the West as the land of enlightened thinking, and ignores the legacies of Slavery, Genocide, and Colonialism. This is similar to the constant sentiment in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works (and in her most recent book she calls on us to give up belief in the Hereafter). The most preposterous section of Rizvi’s book is the last section; after spending a full book insulting beliefs in what he regards as myths, he tells a friend that her dead father lives in some alternate universe. Rizvi fails to comment on the inconsistency. I was hoping he would acknowledge resorting to religious-ish mythologies in coping with the difficulties of life, but he does not.
To his credit -- unlike Moghul and Hirsi Ali -- he does not present himself as a victim. Thus, I am hoping that he is young and continues searching, in which case I look forward to witnessing intellectual growth. Otherwise, critiques of religion by Nietzsche, Weber, Marx, Russell are each far stronger. My hope for Moghul and Hirsi Ali is the same.
In other words, to understand my disappointment in these latter books, look at the scholarship in the “best” list, look at the humanity in the rest of the recommended books.” Then look at these latter books. My complaint in these latter books is that smart authors were insulting my intelligence.
Anyways, keep in mind that this list is not a curriculum. It is only list of the best books or relevant books on Islam and/or Muslims that I went through in the past year.
Post your favorite books on Islam and/or Muslims.
And Allah knows best.