bookmark_borderBooks 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.

bookmark_border“Ground Zero” Islamophobia

Surprising though that may be, I still run into people who think that “Islamophobia” is an illegitimate term. I don’t see how anyone observing right wing politics in the US can seriously say that deep-seated irrational hatred of Islam is not a widespread problem.

Mind you, Islamophobia does get used by Muslim groups and Muslim-majority countries as an excuse to attempt to stifle criticism. But then, every ethnic and religious group does that. To some supporters of Israeli nationalism, every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. To some Catholic conservative groups, anti-Catholic bigotry is the source of every negative comment about the Church.

But who cares? Just look at the right-wing furore right now about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—which is not a mosque and is not at “Ground Zero.”

What’s really shameful is that some nonbelievers, who have more at stake than most in avoiding a climate of religious conflict, are likely to follow bigots such as Sam Harris in condemning the non-mosque. This is a time to do just the opposite. If we want to convince people that our criticism of religion really is a civilized disagreement rather than an expression of anti-religious spite, we have to vocally support Muslims who want to do no more than exercise their rights.

Now is a time to say that we think that Islamic beliefs are grossly mistaken, but that we will stand up and defend their freedom to live religiously without being subjected to mindless harassment.

bookmark_borderMyths of Islam

As with any other religion, there is plenty of material critical of Islam available on the web today. Some of it is even pretty decent as an introduction to problems with Islam.

For example, there’s the “Myths of Islam” page, part of the web site. It aims to get beyond some of the pro-Islamic propaganda that is easily available. And the web site of a whole seems like a good place to visit, if for some reason you enjoy staying up to date on outrages committed by the violent streams within political Islam.

So, yes, “Myths of Islam” type pages are accurate enough, if you take the more conservative versions of Islam to define the religion. But you also have to keep in mind that this is much like condemning Christianity by describing the follies of fundamentalist Protestantism. It’s useful in the right context, but it is hardly comprehensive. Focusing on one species of outrage or stupidity is questionable, since such anti-religious sites regularly buy into the claims of one faction to represent “True Christianity” or “True Islam.” Religions are a lot more complicated than that.

bookmark_borderJihad as a misunderstanding

I’m finishing up writing a book on Islam and science. While working on it, I collected an awful lot of stuff that I can’t use. This quotation, for example, discussing the early conquests of the Islamic Empire:

Now they had, by the order of God, to make Islam known to the outside world, but there was no telecommunication system or press or any other mass medium of communication. There was only one course to take, namely, personal and direct contacts, which meant that they had to cross the borders. But they could not do that in small or unarmed groups. So they had to move in large protected groups which must have appeared like an army, but was not an army in the real sense. [Hammudah Abdalati, Islam in Focus (Riyadh: World Assembly of Muslim Youth, n.d.)]

All that business that looked like holy war and conquest in the early centuries — just a misunderstanding, see?

I guess that’s one way to maintain the myth that the conquered peoples uniformly “chose Islam.” On the other hand, at least Abdalati is embarrassed by the notion of jihad and conquest, which isn’t a bad thing…

bookmark_borderThe Hidden Imam

In his speech before the United Nations last fall, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prayed that Allah (God) might usher in the era of the “Hidden Imam.” It was a curious remark that at the time I filed away and resolved to research later. Well, it’s later. The “end times” to be precise, for the Hidden Imam is an eschatological figure in Islam that will bring about a new world order:

“The Hidden Imam … will eventually leave his Greater Occultation and appear (zuhur) to the world of humanity. This return is the most significant event in the future for the Shi’ite faithful and has thunderous eschatological consequences. This return will occur shortly before the Final Judgement [sic] and the end of history. Imam Mahdi will return at the head of the forces of righteousness and do battle with the forces of evil in one, final, apocalyptic battle.” (There’s more where that came from….)

Sound familiar? It helps to explain why President Ahmadinejad sounds about as nutty as Christian haters like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Why not build nukes, flaunt your anti-Semitism, and call the Bush Administration’s bluff if you’re expecting the end of the world? The scary part is that U.S. President Bush shares this apocalyptic nightmare himself. Those close to him have reported that he sees himself as a war president acting with the explicit approval of God. In his book Bush at War Bob Woodward quotes Bush as saying, “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of this great nation.” Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas reported that Bush told him this:

“God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam Hussein, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.”

I think what the world needs right about now are wise leaders who rely on reason and the principles of humanism. We can do without such make-believe consultations with an imaginary God that promises wars and final judgments on those of different or no faith.

bookmark_borderMuslims outraged

For all the Religious Right political influence and the cultural weight of the most mindless forms of Christianity in the United States, at least it’s not a Muslim country.

After a Danish and a Norwegian newspaper printed a couple of cartoons less-than-fully-respectful of Muhammad, Muslims the world over are indulging their sense of outrage, demanding that Denmark and Norway somehow censor or otherwise punish the newspaper or the cartoonists. Some comments sent to the Turkish newspaper I read online huff about how the Scandinavians pretend to be so concerned about human rights yet they let the religious sensibilities of a billion Muslims be offended. There are calls for boycotts of Scandinavian products, and even some violence.

Here’s some English-language news about it from the Guardian, buried at the end of a story about the Middle East.

gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade – a Fatah offshoot – held the EU building in Gaza for half an hour this morning.

The gunmen said they wanted an apology from Denmark and Norway for the publication in a Danish and Norwegian newspaper of cartoons showing Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban on his head.

Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet, even respectful ones, out of concern that such images could lead to idolatry.

The cartoons have sparked protests, flag burnings and boycotts of Danish products throughout the Muslim world. On Sunday, Palestinian protesters burned Danish flags in two West Bank towns.

The Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper has refused to apologise for the publication on the grounds of freedom of speech. The Norwegian evangelical newspaper Magazinet reprinted the cartoons in the name of defending free expression.