Islam – a reading list.

As promised yesterday, I’ve compiled a short list of books about Islam, but first I must offer the biggest caveat I can muster: I am not an expert on Islam.

I know a whole lot about Israel/Palestine; I know a good deal about American-Israeli relations; I know a fair amount about American foreign policy in the Middle East generally; I know a bit here and there about other countries in the Middle East, enough to know where my lacunae are and how to find the answers I need. Because of all of these cultural learnings, I also know a little about Islam. More than the average American.

But studying a faith that is not your own nor that of your surrounding culture, at a time in which the entire world is absorbed with vilifying or defending said faith, cannot be as straightforward as studying history (which is, it turns out, never as straightforward as we like to think).

So the following is a short list of books that I have found helpful as I attempt to make sense of a faith that carries meaning for more than a billion people, some of whom have recently claimed to represent it through means murderous and inhuman. I do not believe that the ugly face shown to us by extremists is a true reflection of Islam, and part of why I don’t believe that can be found in the books below.

I know that some disagree with me mightily (Osama bin Laden, evangelical preacher John Hagee, and former Muslim [and author of Infidel]Ayaan Hirsi Ali come to mind), and I cannot say that I have seen nothing but peace, love, and understanding in what I have learned about Islam.

But there is ugliness, and violence, and oppression in all three Abrahamic faiths, recorded in our Scriptures, and often treated as holy command by people who believe themselves to be godly. There is ugliness and violence and oppression in almost anything to which humans lay their hands. Just as Sister Helen Prejean, known for her death row ministry, said about individuals — “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives” — I believe that humanity and our individual faith communities are far more than the worst things we have ever done. I do not believe that Christianity is summed up by Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph and their anti-abortion terrorism; I do not believe that Judaism is summed up by Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein (or those Jews who recently celebrated his heinous murder of 27 29 praying Palestinians); I do not believe that Islam is summed up by Osama bin Laden or the Taliban.

But I am not, as I say, an expert. Whatever I may think I know about the differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites, about the Prophet’s wives and what he thought about veiling, about the intersect between an ancient faith and modern society, all of it exists under the fundamental understanding that I am, at best, a student. I offer this list as nothing more than a way to learn and form questions and then learn more. There will inevitably be titles missing if you feel you have a good one to recommend, please do so, in the comments.

Islam – a reading list.

  1. Islam: The Straight Path (1998) – John L. Esposito. Esposito is a world-renowned Islamic scholar and the founding director of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (not to mention being the general editor of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World). Islam: The Straight Path is an excellent and accessable introduction to the faith, its history, and the building blocks of a Muslim life and a Muslim community.
  2. The Vision of Islam (1995) – Sachiko Murata & William C. Chittick. Most books about Islam deal with the birth the faith, and the basic obligations and behavior that Islam requires of the faithful, but it’s often hard to find a discussion of Islamic theology — questions like the nature of God, revelation, and prayer. The Vision of Islam is a little more esoteric, then, than other works that deal with the faith, but for me, it was also therefore among the most interesting. For those who are made nervous by a lot of new terminology, rest assured: It has a great glossary!
  3. Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think (2007) – John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. This is the same John L. Esposito from Islam:The Straight Path, only here he and co-author Mogahed analyze the results of Gallup’s epic, multi-year study of Muslims living in 35 different countries. From the introduction: “Many of Gallup’s findings challenge conventional wisdom and therefore will surprise and even anger many people. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, we encourage readers to question and challenge what they learn. As Albert Einstein said, ‘The important thing is to not stop questioning.’ He also said ‘A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.’… Let the data lead the discourse.” PLUS, bonus good news: It is an easy, interesting read.
  4. After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (2009) – Lesley Hazleton. As I said earlier: If this book were a person, I would marry it. OMG! It’s just that good! I reviewed After the Prophet for the Dallas Morning News back in September, and here’s just a slice of my effusion: “Reading these voices from the seventh century,” [Hazleton] writes of her source material, ‘you feel as though you are sitting in the middle of a vast desert grapevine, a dense network of intimate knowledge defying the limitations of space and time.’ One might easily say the same of this remarkable book. Surely anyone with an interest in the Muslim world or U.S. foreign policy should pick up After the Prophet at the first opportunity — and so, too, should any reader interested in a story of human passion and consequence, told with consummate skill.” OMG!
  5. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) – Eboo Patel. Patel is an American Muslim who drifted away and came back. He has a doctorate from Oxford in the sociology of religion, can be read on Newsweek’s “On Faith” blog, and is a grassroots interfaith activist whose work has been recognized and funded by Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative — so I’ll just let the President tell you about the book! “Acts of Faith, a beautifully written story of discovery and hope, chronicles Dr. Eboo Patel’s struggle to forge his identity as a Muslim, an Indian, and an American. In the process, he developed a deep reverence for what all faiths have in common, and founded an interfaith movement to help young people to embrace their common humanity through their faith. This young social entrepreneur offers us a powerful way to deal with one of the most important issues of our time.” Not bad praise, if you can get it!

Plus – Two books I haven’t read yet but that I fully intend to finally get to (!):

  1. Islam: A Short History (2000) – Karen Armstrong. Recommended to me by the world at large, and more specifically, my own sister.
  2. Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (2002) – Michael Wolfe (ed). Recommended to me by Eboo Patel, above.

Added recommendations gratefully accepted!


  1. Immensely and highly recommended: Guests of the Sheikh-Ethnography of an Iraqi Village ( and The Trouble with Islam Today -a Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith ( (for a different perspective)

  2. dmf

     /  March 24, 2010

    don’t believe that there is any one thing that is, or is not, “Islam” apart from what people do in all of their variety and improvisational negotiations, but i do appreciate the efforts of:

  3. I found Reza Aslan’s “No god but God” to be a good primer. I haven’t had time to get much further, although I’m currently reading The Evolution of God, and it has some interesting, if simple, sections on Islam.


  4. Lise

     /  March 25, 2010

    I liked Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad even more than her short history of Islam. Read on!

  5. Please also add the best short book on Islam: “Handbook for Every One”, for Muslims and Non Muslims alike, extracted from translation of famous Arabic book; “Tarif-e-Am-be-din-Islam” by world renowned Arab scholar “Sheikh Ali Tantawi”. Millions of people have benefited the world over during last four decades. Download free….
    1.Unique Handbook-Islam-English-pdf:
    2.Handbook of Islam-htm:

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