Where can I get the Islamic equivalent of Jewish Literacy?
July 30, 2008 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Where can I get the Islamic equivalent of Jewish Literacy?

I've been working my way through some literature on Abrahamic religions and I've found Jewish Literacy indispensable. Now I'm wondering if I can find a similar sort of thing about Islam--quick deconstruction of notable events in the Qur'an and breakdown of important historical figures/movements.

Any suggestions?
posted by parkbench to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have to admit, the canon of reference material on Islam is pretty dire. Quite a lot of books are exceedingly racist and designed to offend (Let me put it this way: The Politically Incorrect Guide To Islam's equivalent analysis of Judaism is sold today under the title The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion.) Far too many of them are written exclusively in reference to understanding Islam relative to knowing how the terrorists think. That may be apt for the marketplace, but it's not helpful in more diverse interest such as yours.

Some authors, probably in response to the examples mentioned above, tend to gloss over some less admirable details of the history of Islam - every faith's got some. I like what Karen Armstrong says about Islam, but in reading her history of it, I knew she was being kind in places. Ditto John Esposito. These writers don't present an unbiased view, but at least their messages are good-hearted . . . so you might check them out, with that caveat.

The Koran For Dummies is pretty good, but its scope is limited to the book itself. The Idiot's Guide To Islam and Islam For Dummies both have a lot of flaws, though I guess they might provide a reasonable overview.

One fine book is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, though the time span it covers is limited too.

The Jews have been a largely self-contained people. (By this I mean, they've traditionally gained adherents through birth, not through subjugation of other peoples nor proselytization.) And though it's a generalization to say so, the Jewish people's almost unending persecution, plus the heavy emphasis they've historically placed on education and questioning as a means of acquiring greater depth of understanding, have created a culture of full of great humor, self awareness and a fine expositional style. Perfect for books such as Jewish Literacy, which I own and enjoy. Their longer-lived and more direct historical interactions with the Christian world have undoubtedly added to the English-speaking world's interest in Judaica as well - not for nothing do people refer to "Judeo-Christian" tradition and not "Islamo-Judeo-Christian" tradition. Possibly these factors account for some of the reasons you don't have quite as much to choose from when looking for books on Islam. I wish it weren't so, but I've looked and found little.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:24 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Muhammad by Martin Lings is the best biography of the Prophet in English, no question. It provides good context for approaching the Quran too, though it is hardly a concordance. It is perhaps more limited in scope and in greater depth than what you are after, but man it is a good book.

Understanding Islam and the Muslims by TJ Winter, a Cambridge academic. I haven't read this book, but I've read a lot of his other stuff, which is excellent (see Fons Vitae below). You could also try Understanding Religions: Islam, by Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood. I haven't read it, but the author is well-respected and the production quality looks ok (google books has 20+ pages available for preview). She's written a number of other introductory outreach books on Islam. She has a new one coming out in September, Need to Know: Islam. These three are all heavy on cross-cultural understanding and light on history.

For first-rate English translations of classic Islamic texts, check out Fons Vitae of the Islamic Texts Society.
posted by BinGregory at 12:04 AM on July 31, 2008

Ar-raheeq al-makhtoom
posted by Laugh_track at 6:01 AM on July 31, 2008

I'm no expert on Islam. But I did find Karen Anderson's Islam: A Short History to be worth my time to read. Short, readable, and seemingly written without any specific agenda. It goes over 1400+ years of history in 220 pages, so it's obviously skimming a lot, but I learned something from it.
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on July 31, 2008

Sea of Faith does a pretty good job of outlining the genesis and early development of Islamic-Christian relations.

Also I strongly second the recommendation of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.
posted by BobbyDigital at 9:38 AM on July 31, 2008

I third the recommendation of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, but it's not really an introduction to Islam, just a lively history of the Crusades from the Arab point of view. Two books I have found both insightful and well written are Malise Ruthven's Islam in the World and Roy Mottahedeh's The Mantle of the Prophet (about Shi'ism in Iran).
posted by languagehat at 11:01 AM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the replies guys. I should have noted that I've taken courses in Islamic history before and am fairly well-acquainted with some aspects of it already, so hyperspecific/intricate histories don't scare me.
posted by parkbench at 4:23 PM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: I'd also like to add that Dee Xtrovert is absolutely right about the lack of good resources--after I posted the question, I started looking at amazon and was absolutely floored as to the bias and popular (populist?) customer response to the books available (like the politically incorrect guide). I assumed there just would be adequate literature on the topic, I had no idea how much current (and past) politics mattered in this regard.

The only other thing I'm worried about is this: if there's so few resources that I basically have to use one of the obviously lacking ones, I wonder how much my own skepticism/scholarly intuition can prevent me from miseducating myself. That's the biggest worry I have, anyway.
posted by parkbench at 5:17 PM on July 31, 2008

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