Due largely to the media's insistence on lumping people, places, cultures in simplistic, one dimensional categories, it's really no wonder that Americans know little to nothing about Islam, despite the fact that it represents the foremost threat to our way of life -- if not literally our lives.
There was an interesting piece in Opinion Journal today on some recommended books re understanding Islam (article pasted below). I would also add "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam" by
Sense of Ummah
These books are essential to understanding Islam.
BY KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE
Saturday, November 11, 2006 12:00 a.m. EST
1. "Islam" by Vartan Gregorian (Brookings, 2003).
Because the world is locked in a prolonged struggle with terrorists brandishing the banner of Islam, it behooves us all to know much more about the Islamic religion, with its 1.2 billion adherents, only 15% of whom are Arab. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Foundation, has produced the perfect primer. At 135 pages, it is simple but not simplistic. Subtitled "A Mosaic, Not a Monolith," the book traces Islam's origins, when the Prophet Muhammad received the religion's tenets from Allah, the only God, and its long evolution since. As both spiritual leader and temporal warrior, Muhammad forced Arabia's polytheists to worship Allah instead. Over the next seven centuries, the religion spread rapidly, from the Middle East and North Africa to Spain and Russia. Islam's more recent history has been marked by deep divisions between modernists and traditionalists--rifts that are likely to remain, Mr. Gregorian argues, unless Muslims are prompted to unite by the West's misguided insistence on lumping them all together as "the enemy."
2. "Muhammad" by Karen Armstrong (HarperCollins, 1992).
To understand Islam, one needs to understand the central role played by the Prophet Muhammad in the religion's creation and propagation. Orphaned at a young age, he was a successful trader when the divine revelations began. In Karen Armstrong's sympathetic and sometimes academic profile, she argues that, unlike Jesus, who could be a pacifist because he lived during Pax Romana, Muhammad faced warring tribes across Arabia. She paints a portrait of a very human prophet who is expedient and clever, who loves women and--despite having multiple wives--even mends his own clothes. But at his death, divisions over succession lead to the murder of three of the first four caliphs, or leaders, who followed--setting in motion the Sunni/Shia struggles that continue today.
[Nota Bene: one of my astute (and beautiful) readers notes that, in his FrontPage interview, Robert Spencer criticizes another book by Armstrong as "egregiously whitewashing" Islam. Accordingly, I would recommend caution with Armstrong's book here.]
3. "What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (Oxford, 2002).
How did a civilization, one that for centuries led the world in science, medicine and the arts, fall so low that it now lags in these areas while devoting its energies to fratricide, terrorism and despotism? In this slim volume Bernard Lewis, our foremost scholar of Islam, provides historical insight and nuanced answers. In sum, he says, the problem is that Islam mixes church and state, to the detriment of both. What is more, Islam has found itself--after its conquests were stopped in the 17th century--unable to live with and learn from those it cannot conquer. Instead of examining the religion itself for answers, all too many Muslim leaders blame outsiders, especially the West.
4. "The Koran Interpreted" translated by A.J. Arberry (Macmillan, 1955).
This translation is recommended by Bernard Lewis. Reared reading the Bible, I found much in the Koran that was familiar: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses and Jesus (as a messenger of God, not his son). Like the Bible, the Koran urges believers to do good or "fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for unbelievers." But the Koran is repetitive, often contradictory and, most frustrating to those outside the faith, insufficient to an understanding of Islam. One must also study the sunna (a collection of Muhammad's words and deeds) and the hadith (thousands of examples of his teachings). Given all this, it becomes clear that--for good or ill--one can pretty much interpret Islam as one wishes.
5. "Wahhabi Islam" by Natana J. Delong-Bas (Oxford, 2004).
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the l8th-century jurist, preached a back-to-basics form of Islam: Live daily according to the precepts of the Koran and hadith or be damned to hell. This book is an excellent introduction for the serious reader to Wahhabi fundamentalism, which is flourishing in Saudi Arabia today. Natana J. Delong-Bas explains the Wahhabi views of women, marriage and jihad. Regarding jihad, she argues that Osama bin Laden has radically distorted the founder's teachings. One is left wondering why Wahhabis don't speak out against bin Laden and his barbaric brand of Islam.Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Middle East.