Five Great Islamic Books Americans Should Read before Doing Stupid Stuff

What began as a hobby horse for me has now graduated to a soapbox. And the soapbox goes like this: Americans and other Westerners really need to start learning things about Muslim religion and culture. And by “things” I mean real things . We are doing quite nicely with broad brush strokes and glaring generalizations, thank you very much.

But as presidential candidates propose to cheering throngs that we ban Muslims from our midst, close down mosques, and otherwise betray the foundational principles of our country, the rest of us have an obligation to understand what is being invoked to scare us.

I get that we are at war. But it is not the war that most Americans imagine themselves to be fighting. It is a war of ideas between the values of the Enlightenment and the extremist ideology of fundamentalist Islam. The billion and a half non-terrorist Muslims in the world are not the enemy; they are the battleground. Almost everything that groups like ISIS and Boko Harem do is designed to radicalize Muslims by making them believe that the rest of the wold has nothing to offer them. And so far, almost everything that America and Western Europe have done in response has had the effect of helping them. A lot.

Extremists do not recruit other extremists by showing them how great extremism is. They recruit by provoking Western nations to do stupid things like trying to ban Islam or turning homeless refugees away from their shores. When we do such things–when we declare Muslims exempt from values like tolerance and religious freedom–we end up conceding the only serious point that the terrorists want to make, which is that Islam is incompatible with the Enlightenment. As it turns out, completely conceding the enemy’s point is how one loses a war of ideas.

One way that individuals can rage against this machine is to learn something about both the religion and the culture of the Muslim world. To this end, I welcome the Harpers Study Quran, a new translation and commentary that opens up the sacred text in ways that no previous English version ever has. But the Quran in any translation is hard reading, and their are other, potentially much more pleasing entries into Islamic culture. Here are five of them, drawn from an honors course in Islamic literature that I taught in the Fall of 2011.


51ykZ2InNwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Arabian Nights (Ninth through Twelfth Centuries CE)
When the the Islamic Empire stretched from Samarkand to Cordaba, borders that had been closed for centuries were thrown open. Muslims from all over the world mad the pilgrimage to Mecca. And, with them, flowed ideas, inventions, commerce, and stories–lots and lots of stories. Overtime,many of these stories were collected in an omnibus collection called the Thousand and One Nights. Much of this collection is fragmented and formulaic. But in the earliest versions, the stories were exquisitely interconnected to each other, and to the frame narrative of Shahrazad, the young woman who must bargain for her life one day at a time through the power of stories. The first volume of Husain Haddawy’s translation, called simply The Arabian Nights does a phenomenal job of capturing the power of this frame and the interconnected stories that Shahrazad told her husband, Sharayar, to teach him subtle lessons about oathkeeping, vengence, mercy, and the value of women. It remains one of world’s literature’s most important stories about the urgency and importance of stories.

The Poems of Rumi (Twelfth Century CE)
Many people don’t realize that the current bestselling poet in the United States is a 13th century Muslim mystic. Jalal ad-Din Rumi was a Persian poet who lived and wrote at the height of the Islamic world’s Golden Age. He was a major figure in Sufism, a version of Islam that stressed individual unification with the divine. And he was an amazing poet, whose verses mix classical imgresIslamic theology, Sufi mysticism, and a deep understanding of human nature. Virtually unknown in the Western world until the 1995 translation, The Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks (who studied with a Sufi master for 8 years before undertaking his translation). Twenty years later, Rumi is the bestselling poems in America and much of the Western world. All of Rumi’s poems are amazing, but this short one is my favorite:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. (36)

51J07YZXXAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Children of the Alley, by Naguib Mahfouz (1959)
What Tawfik al-Hakim was for Arabic drama, Nobel laureate Naghib Mafouz was to the Arabic novel. With more than 30 novels to his credit, Mahfouz was the greatest literary figure from the Islamic world in the 20th century. I can heartily  recommend a dozen or so of his novels, but none more than his 1959 masterpiece, Children of the Alley. This is an allegorical novel in which the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are recast as stories from the history of one of Cairo’s great urban alleys. The allegory is religious and political at the same time, with the religious histories also doing double duty as allegories of Egypt’s politics in the colonial and post colonial periods. And it is also a captivating and compulsively readable novel. I have taught it in three different classes now, and students always walk away saying that it was their favorite reading of the semester. (also translated as Children of Gabalawi).

The Sultan’s Dilemma,by Tawfik Al-Hakim (1960)
There was not much Arabic language drama in the world until the Egyptian writer, Tawfik Al-Hakim, invented it in the 20th 415JKklV0hL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_century. And while many of Al-Hakim’s plays are good, The Sultan’s Dilemma is great. It is the story of a powerful sultan who began as a slave of the previous Sultan and rose to become his heir. When one of his ministers discovers that he was never manumitted–that he is still a slave who, by law, must be auctioned off in the marketplace to the highest bidder–the Sultan and his staff carry on a great debate about how to resolve the dilemma. This is one of the two best explorations of the roles of force and law that I have ever encountered.*** And the resolution of the dilemma–brought about by a woman who has been relegated to the margins of her society by intolerant men–is among the most genuinely sentimental moments in all of literature.

2517My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk (1998)
Turkey’s greatest novelist, Orhan Pamuk, won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006 for a series of novels that explored the boundaries between the Christian and Western worlds. I love Snow, his novel of contemporary Turkey, and The White Castle, his treatment of Italian and a Muslim intellectuals on the cusp of the Enlightenment. But the book of his that I wanted to tell all of my friends about was My Name Is Red. This is a murder mystery set in the late Ottoman Empire, at just the time that Western ideas were starting to filter into that society. Both the murder victim and most of the suspects are artists–miniaturists who illuminate manuscripts for the Sultan’s library. One of these artists is murdered because of his desire to incorporate Italian techniques–including realistic representations of human figures–into his work. And exploring this murder exposes conflicts between Islamic and Western culture that (as Pamuk knows very well) have still not been resolved.

And there is a lot more to choose from. These are just my favorites, but through them, I have learned to appreciate some of the beauty and complexity of Islamic thought and culture. And this is not a bad sort of thing to appreciate at a time when serious presidential candidates and other politicians are contemplating treating Muslims the same ways that my own ancestors were once treated by the states of Missouri and Illinois. It is a drastic thing to declare an entire culture incompatible with an ideal of religious liberty. And it is especially dire to do so without knowing anything about that culture that you haven’t seen on the daily news.

Read before you hate. Or at least before you allow politicians to convince you to do really stupid stuff. The fate of the world might just depend on it.


***The other one is John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man who Shot Liberty Valence, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin. Thanks for asking.


  1. Kent Larsen says:

    Adding to my goodreads list…

  2. I found this post very moving. Seriously. As a lover of literature, I can think of nothing better as an antidote to the hatred and brute ignorance rampant in our society right now than these books or many others like them. In the 1930s, the solution of those who needed this antidote the most was to burn the books that could have educated them. Unfortunately, I see no shortage of calls for banning or bowlderization of important literature in the current climate as well. It’s a real tragedy. I am thinking in particular of such calls from some Mormons at the moment and over the last half-century or so insisting that if books, movies, or music refer to romance or sex outside of marriage then they will brainwash us into not supporting chastity. In doing so, they reveal that they are completely oblivious to the amazing insights into human nature and the human experience that such media can offer if approached with an open mind and a deeply held gratitude for the diversity of experiences that the human family has and expresses through literature.

  3. That Al-Hakim play has my interest piqued!

  4. Jason, it is also anthologized in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, which is where I first encountered it.

  5. N. W. Clerk says:

    “There is little evidence that the Nights was particularly treasured in the Arab world. It is rarely mentioned in lists of popular literature and few pre-18th century manuscripts of the collection exist. Fiction had a low cultural status among Medieval Arabs compared with poetry, and the tales were dismissed as khurafa (improbable fantasies fit only for entertaining women and children). According to Robert Irwin, ‘Even today, with the exception of certain writers and academics, the Nights is regarded with disdain in the Arabic world. Its stories are regularly denounced as vulgar, improbable, childish and, above all, badly written.'” (Wikipedia)

  6. Erika Feuz says:

    Good list of literature written by Islamic authors. They are however, fictional novels and poems and most novels do shine some light on the authors ideas and experience as he sees it.. I would like to read a factual, well referenced study and explanation of the Muslim religion by a Muslim. I know Muslim is the religion but am still a bit confused by the difference of Muslim and Islamic.. Is Islamic more of a political system?

  7. Erika: to my knowledge the religion is called Islam and the believers of the religion are called Muslim.

    Michael: I am curious about “Fate of a Cockroach”. Is it a collection of his plays that includes “The Sultan’s Dilemma” or an alternative title or something else completely?

  8. Michael, great list! In addition, are there any general introductions to Islam you might recommend? Things that take you through the history, impact, legacy, and cultural variety of Islam in a non-fiction way?

  9. Aaron: Fate of a Cockroach is the collection of plays that includes The Sultan’s Dilemma. The play is also anthologized in the Norton Anthology of World Literature.

    Bryan and Erika: The best short, one-volume introduction to Islam that I know of is called No God but God by Reza Aslan. Aslan was born a Muslim, converted to Evangelical Christianity in his youth, and converted back to Islam as an adult.

  10. Sidebottom says:

    Islam: A Very Short Introduction is also excellent.

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