Good introductory books about Islam and Middle-Eastern geo-politics?
April 2, 2008 3:21 PM   Subscribe

As a student of international relations, I'm trying to acquire a broad understanding of Islam and Middle-Eastern culture. I'm looking for a few books to read in my spare time that touch on these subjects.

More specifically, I'd like to read a few books that offer a broad introduction to Islam, Islamic culture, Middle-Eastern geo-politics, and perhaps U.S. foreign policy in that area of the world. They need not be extremely detailed, just well-written, informative, and not too dry. Ideally, the books I'm looking for are similar to this, but of course much lengthier.

Reza Aslan's No God But God was recently recommended by a friend, but I want to know what the Hive Mind thinks.
posted by aheckler to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My knowledge of the 20th century middle east comes largely from Daniel Yergin's prize-winning The Prize--The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Much of this book is about non-middle-east topics, of course, but it's a vital book.

I took a college course on Islamic history & civilization almost 25 years ago. So, I can't recommend any sources from that. However, it's worth noting that Islamic culture gave us math, astronomy, and anatomy.
posted by neuron at 3:37 PM on April 2, 2008

Best answer: "No God But God" should be required reading for every single person on the planet, by the way, if your friends' recommendation wasn't enough for you. See also All The Shah's Men to read about the CIA's involvement in overthrowing Iran's democratic regime to reinstate the USA-friendly Shah.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 3:43 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed reading and re-reading Bernard Lewis's book What Went Wrong? about why the Islamic world has performed so dismally compared with the West, despite the fact that it started out looking very promising. I'm sure many Mefites aren't big fans of his, as he's pretty conservative and was a prominent supporter of the Iraq War. But I say: read it and keep in mind that he has a bias. The way he tells stories and paints pictures kept me turning the pages, which is more important than whether he supports this or that war. (Also, the book was written shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11, so it doesn't directly address any of that stuff.) This is a short book written as an accessible introduction for a layperson -- I'm sure there are plenty of more learned options out there.

This may be a bit off the beaten path, as it's meant more to entertain than inform, but I have to recommend it because it's so interesting and well-written: V.S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief -- a novelistic non-fiction book full of gripping stories about people living in non-Arab Muslim countries.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:47 PM on April 2, 2008

Best answer: (self-linkyish) Mefi discussion of books on the middle east
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:49 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

"The Trouble with Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change," by Irshad Manji, Canadian lesbian Muslim. A quick read and delightful, too.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:20 PM on April 2, 2008

Best answer: A History of the Modern Middle East is what was assigned for a course on the topic. It also briefly covers Islam, and is one of the better explanations of the Sunni/Shiite split I've read. It was well-written, and relatively engrossing.

How you choose to define 'Middle East' will also change the answers. If expanding the scope doesn't scare you, I'd suggest also looking at Arabic-speaking countries as a whole, and Muslim countries as a whole. This extends the scope to Afghanistan, Pakistan, several former Soviet republics (by the way, a guy named Northrop has an interesting article on the Bolshevik unveiling campaigns in the then-relatively-newly-formed Uzbekistan, which can be interesting when compared to Ataturk's similar reforms), some parts of China, and many North African countries. Just seeing the differences in these countries as opposed to the countries that encircle the Arabian Peninsula can help you better understand the Middle East through comparative methods, as opposed to assigning all differences in Middle Eastern culture to Islam only. It may help to show you the diversity of Islamic practices.

I know you asked for books, but if you can, I've found that many mosques are very willing to answer questions. Why not phone some of the local mosques (Shiite and Sunni) and, if it is allowed, go in to ask questions? There's a huge difference, sometimes, between historically 'correct'/local practices and the your local reality. Many mosques will also allow for you to take part in a religious session, under certain conditions--I can think of no better introduction to Islamic culture.

Also, ditto LobsterMitten and hal_c_on. If you have an Islamic scholar at your university, take advantage of it!
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:01 PM on April 2, 2008

Best answer: As I said in the thread LM links to: For Iran, I would start with Roy Mottahedeh's brilliant The mantle of the Prophet: religion and politics in Iran (Simon and Schuster, 1985); it's not only well informed but highly readable, mixing history with description of a particular Iranian scholar and the biography of Khomeini. Hugh Kennedy is an excellent historian and writes quite well.

And for a basic understanding of the area and its history and civilization, you still can't do better than Marshall Hodgson's groundbreaking The Venture of Islam (three volumes). Every page is informative and thought-provoking, and there are lots of maps, time charts, and other aids to understanding.
posted by languagehat at 6:02 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:15 PM on April 2, 2008

The Place of Tolerance in Islam, edited by Khaled Abou El Fadl
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:56 PM on April 2, 2008

Power Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren
I highly recommend, definitely fits in with the American foreign policy and it's relationship to the Middle East.
posted by Kyokusen at 10:12 PM on April 2, 2008

the Teach Yourself series publishes on many topics, including ME/Islam.

Concise and comprehensive.

teach yourself middle east
posted by yoyobates at 11:19 PM on April 2, 2008

I'm reading The Looming Tower, on the recommendation of Cool Tools, and I'm really enjoying it so far. In fact, I think I'm going to go read some more of it right now!
posted by joshuaconner at 12:27 AM on April 3, 2008

Best answer: I'm an IAFF student myself with a couple middle-eastern history/culture classes under my belt. Here are the books I've found most helpful, in order from greatest to not-quite greatest:

Being Modern in Iran by Adelkhah
A History of the Modern Middle East by Cleveland
The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa by Long and Reich
posted by The White Hat at 10:29 AM on April 3, 2008

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