Books on Islam

I occasionally get asked for recommendations about books to read on Islam, particularly if lately I’ve been grumbling about superficial descriptions of the religion.

Usually I pull out some intro-to-Islam undergraduate textbooks. There are many good examples. But I wonder if they are really not to the point. After all, especially for skeptics, there may be little useful in learning about ritual details, the history of the Sunni-Shia split, Muslim legal doctrines, specifically Islamic theological notions about God etc. etc. And what I want to get across is that, stereotypes aside, Muslims are mostly boring and usually harmless, much like any other religious population. (Not always. Mostly.)

Now, one of these days I may well start writing The Skeptic’s Guide to Islam. Meanwhile, here are some suggestions.

First, to get a view of some varieties of Islam from an ordinary believer’s point of view, it’s best to read books written by such people. I suggest two, both by women: Suzanne Haneef’s What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims, and Sumbul Ali-Karamali’s The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing.

Haneef is a convert from Christianity, and she represents a more rigorous, conservative form of Islam. If you’re interested in The Rules, and a constant stream of apologetics from a conservative point of view, it’s a pretty good book. Don’t expect a lot of intellectual depth, but it gives a decent idea about how some Muslims think.

Ali-Karamali is a liberal Western Muslim. If you’re interested in finding out how many Muslims perceive no conflict between their faith and the modern world, it’s pretty good. You’ll get a constant stream of apologetics from a liberal point of view. It probably won’t be any more convincing than conservative versions, but the point is that this is how many Muslims think.

I’ll also throw in a couple of recent books by academics specializing in Islam: John Esposito’s The Future of Islam, and Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill’s Islam: The Religion and the People.

Esposito has been accused to be an apologist for Islamic movements, and to a certain extent this comes across in the book. But it’s an interesting look at some very current political Islamic thinking, and Esposito represents a positive spin on it. If anyone is interested in criticizing Islam, this is a good sample of what is out there to criticize.

Lewis is known to be more critical of Islam. His and Churchill’s book is a nice introductory survey which doesn’t look like it’s been put together just for an undergraduate course.