“We miss what is not in sight.” An introduction to the writers who will help you see through toxic misinformation about Islam.
The House of Islam: A Global History
By Ed Husain, Bloomsbury, 2018
“We miss what is not in sight, but is all powerful: feelings, narratives and perceptions. In this, a chasm has opened up between the modern West and Islam.”
Once a radical Islamist, Husain is now a government adviser who has founded a London-based think tank. He has been on quite a trip, and is better prepared than most to take us on a tour of the rooms of his beloved “House” of Islam. (Who is a Sufi? What is the Sharia?). He is a beautiful writer, and also affectingly and courageously open. The book is revelatory, not least for its quotes from one of his favourite, wine-soaked Islamic free spirits, Omar Khayyam.
Husain describes himself as a Muslim “conservative with a small c” and argues, persuasively, that Western conservatives ripped apart by populism and Trump have a multitudinous and overlooked natural ally: Muslims. We’ve allowed our view of Islamic intolerance and Sharia law to be framed by a recent sect of literalists, he explains; a noisy and well-funded minority who are as far from mainstream Islam as 17th-century Puritanism is from Christianity.
Husain’s belief that these Islamic arsonists should be effectively excommunicated is hardline, even for the conservative with a small c, although his faith-based views on the values of tradition, belief and family are, as he says, classic conservative stuff. Ironically, it is his sensitivity to women’s rights that would have raised the most eyebrows in stuffy men’s clubs of yore. He passionately decries women’s repression in “literalist” countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Young Muslims need to abandon “Sheikh Google” and reconnect with their own history, says the ex-activist. He would know. Now he is an ardent fan of Tory guru Edmund Burke (1730-1797), whose philosophy inspired the British Conservative Party. “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away,” Burke wrote, “the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us; nor can we know distinctly to what port we steer.”
Husain finds Burkean values in his faith: spiritual succour, compassion, charity, service, ritual, tradition and education, honouring “life, freedom, intellect, family and property”.
“We are yet to understand the power of conservatism,” Husain writes, “for building lasting alliances with the Muslim world.”
“I am a Westerner, and an observant Muslim. Caught between two worlds, I have learned to dovetail the two facets of my identity. [My book] is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West.”
No God but God
By Reza Aslan, Random House, 2005
Religious studies scholar and sometime television host Reza Aslan is one of the most interesting, fluent and well-read theological writers alive. His wife, the author Jessica Jackley, is a Christian – as Aslan was once himself. Born into a Shia Muslim family, he converted to evangelical Christianity at the age of 15 but returned to Islam a few years later. His 2013 book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth is enjoyably explosive, based as it is on original sources. But it is his earlier book, No God but God, which remains the classic reference for curious Westerners. Aslan describes the earliest origins of his faith, the very first Muslims and their culture, the disputes, the politics – and how Islam overflowed so quickly and successfully around the world. Aslan writes with dispassionate, erudite, objective elegance. This is a book that will help you spot the dangerous misinformation about Islam being spread online, better than almost any other.
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time
By Karen Armstrong, Gollancz, 1991; Harper Perennial, 2005
Shocking, right? It takes a former Roman Catholic nun to write the most sympathetic and readable biography of this revered figure you will find anywhere. An instant classic in 1991, Muhammad was re-released in a shortened version after 9/ll. (Go for the earlier version if you can.) Writer Karen Armstrong is an English scholar and writer and arguably the world’s leading commentator on religious history. She shows what a social reformer and electrifying political force Muhammad was, and also, in a needed corrective to much modern wittering, describes his transformative work for women. The Koran gave women property rights at a time when they were traded like camels. “His life was a tireless campaign against greed, injustice and arrogance. He realised that Arabia was at a turning point and that the old way of thinking would no longer suffice, so he wore himself out in the creative effort to evolve an entirely new solution.”
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
By Peter Frankopan, Bloomsbury, 2015
The great cities of the Middle Ages were Constantinople, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Cairo. “It was the region between East and West, linking Europe with the Pacific Ocean, that was the axis on which the globe spun,” writes Oxford researcher Peter Frankopan in his best-selling and evocative history. In those days London was a backwater and New York a grassy archipelago. If you want to know how the Crusades looked to contemporaries, you need to take those Western goggles off. “The present has washed away the past: gone are the days when the name of Kabul conjured up images of the gardens planted and tended by the great Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India… for centuries before the early modern era, the intellectual centres of excellence in the world, the Oxfords and Cambridges, the Harvards and Yales, were not located in Europe or the West, but in Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand.” The past, says Frankopan, has been rewritten by the West. This book is the welcome antidote.
The Islamic World: A History in Objects
By The British Museum, Thames & Hudson, 2018
This small, chunky coffee-table book has been put together by curators from the British Museum from their considerable stores of imperial loot (and donations). It is a remarkable exhibition in a book, exploring the history of Islamic science, philosophy, technique, trade, culture and ideas through the fantastic range of objects its empires produced. Each chronological section has its own theme, like the rooms in a well-ordered museum. Objects range from the revealing, like the 17th-century Ottoman dish depicting the most prominent female figure in the Koran (Mary, shown with the Christ child), to the intriguing – a brooch in the shape of a cross, more than 1000 years old, found in an Irish bog with an Arabic seal at its heart. And among the jewellery, ivory chess pieces, exquisite tiles, calligraphy, poetry, astrolabes and other princely masterpieces – there are also everyday housewares from ordinary kitchens and backyards, like the graceful but still sooty earthenware cooking pot imported from India. Call it the Scanpan of its era, which simmered on someone’s fire in Southern Iran 1000 years ago.
This story was first published on North and South.