The best books about Islam and Islamic history

Who am I?

My interest in Islam was kindled when I lived in Eritrea, East Africa as a teenager, and in my youth fell in love with the mystical Sufi tradition. I went on to live in the Muslim world for over a decade, making many dear friends whose kindness overwhelmed me. I studied the Qur’an in Cairo and exploring various corners of Muslim civilization, including in India. I have taught Islam and Middle East History for nearly 40 years at the University of Michigan and devoted myself to writing several books and many essays on Islam. For geopolitical reasons, the subject often gets a bad rap these days, but it is an impressive religion that produced a beautiful, intricate civilization. I hope you enjoy these books about it.


I wrote...

Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires

By Juan R.I. Cole,

Book cover of Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires

What is my book about?

In this masterfully told account, preeminent Middle East expert Juan Cole takes us back to Islam's --and the Prophet Muhammad's -- origin story. Many observers stereotype Islam and its scripture as inherently extreme or violent. Cole shows how Muhammad reacted against the unparalleled violence of his era. The eastern Roman Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Iran fought savagely throughout the Near East and Asia Minor. Muhammad envisioned an alternative movement, one firmly grounded in peace.

The religion Muhammad founded, Islam, spread widely during his lifetime, relying on soft power instead of military might, and sought armistices even when militarily attacked. Cole sheds light on this forgotten history, reminding us that in the Qur'an, the legacy of that spiritual message endures. A vibrant history that brings to life the fascinating and complex world of the Prophet, Muhammad is the story of how peace is the rule and not the exception for one of the world's most practiced religions.

The books I picked & why

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The Moor's Account

By Laila Lalami,

Book cover of The Moor's Account

Why this book?

This fictional account of the first Muslim to set foot in the Americas, Mustafa al-Zamori (d. c. 1534), is based on and closely follows the Spanish primary sources. The author takes us into the subjective experiences of a Moroccan enslaved by conquistadors, who has to live among them and whose facility with languages quickly turns him into an asset in their dealings with Native Americans. This reminder that Islam is no newcomer to North America is a rollicking read that nevertheless brings us to meditate on the profound issues in meaning and identity.


No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

By Reza Aslan,

Book cover of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam

Why this book?

Aslan writes engagingly and urgently about Islamic history from a contemporary Muslim-American perspective. He grounds his account in academic scholarship but does not let it overshadow the excitement of the rise of a new world civilization. Aslan attends to the potential within Islam for democracy and for greater rights for women and rejects the bigotted “clash of civilizations” model that sees Muslims as always outsiders in Western society.


Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

By Fred M. Donner,

Book cover of Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

Why this book?

Donner’s account of Muhammad and of the early Muslim empires is breathtaking in its scope, always original in its insights, and a challenge to hidebound traditions of writing on these subjects. Donner sees early Islam as ecumenical and the first Muslim empire as a multicultural enterprise of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. He challenges the black legend of the spread of Islam by the sword.


Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

By Leila Ahmed,

Book cover of Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate

Why this book?

This pioneering volume was the first major single-author work to survey this important subject, and it remains an essential read. Ahmad examines the major issues in the treatment of women in a clear-eyed way. She theorizes that urbanizing families in early Islam constrained women’s freedom beyond what had been common among pagan rural and Bedouin society, but admits that the picture is mixed, and that at the core of the Muslim religious tradition are accounts and insights of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad.


Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam

By Carl W. Ernst,

Book cover of Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam

Why this book?

Ernst writes about the Muslim Sufi tradition for the general public with passion and verve, making sometimes complex ideas intimately accessible and conveying the excitement and passion of male and female Muslim seekers after union with their divine beloved. He covers Sufi forms of worship, the role of saints and intercession, and ecstatic poetry, dance, and song. It is a fascinating exploration of a widespread and essential Muslim spiritual tradition that contrasts with the sober, puritanical Salafi strain with which many readers may be more familiar.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Islam, Morocco, and explorers?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Islam, Morocco, and explorers.

Islam Explore 56 books about Islam
Morocco Explore 21 books about Morocco
Explorers Explore 66 books about explorers

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Forgotten Queens of Islam, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam's Mystical Tradition, and The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan if you like this list.