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.

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The books I picked & why

The Moor's Account

By Laila Lalami,

Book cover of The Moor's Account

Why did I love 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.

By Laila Lalami,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Moor's Account as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1527 the Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez arrived on the coast of modern-day Florida with hundreds of settlers, and claimed the region for Spain. Almost immediately, the expedition was decimated by a combination of navigational errors, disease, starvation and fierce resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year, only four survivors remained: three noblemen and a Moroccan slave called "Estebanico". The official record, set down after a reunion with Spanish forces in 1536, contains only the three freemen's accounts. The fourth, to which the title of Laila Lalami's masterful novel alludes, is Estebanico's own. Lalami gives us Estebanico as history…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Reza Aslan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No god but God as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Much of the Muslim faith remains largely unknown and misunderstood in the West. To many in the west, Islam means jihad, veiled women and suicide bombers. Yet these represent only fringe elements of the world's fastest growing religion. While there have been a number of successful books on the topic of Islamic history - from Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Brief History to Bernard Lewis's The Crises of Islam, there is surprisingly no book for a popular audience about Islam as a religion, let alone one by an author from an Islamic background. No God But God fills that gap, addressing…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Fred M. Donner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Muhammad and the Believers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The origins of Islam have been the subject of increasing controversy in recent years. The traditional view, which presents Islam as a self-consciously distinct religion tied to the life and revelations of the prophet Muhammad in western Arabia, has since the 1970s been challenged by historians engaged in critical study of the Muslim sources.

In Muhammad and the Believers, the eminent historian Fred Donner offers a lucid and original vision of how Islam first evolved. He argues that the origins of Islam lie in what we may call the "Believers' movement" begun by the prophet Muhammad-a movement of religious reform…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Leila Ahmed,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women and Gender in Islam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic, pioneering account of the lives of women in Islamic history, republished for a new generation

This pioneering study of the social and political lives of Muslim women has shaped a whole generation of scholarship. In it, Leila Ahmed explores the historical roots of contemporary debates, ambitiously surveying Islamic discourse on women from Arabia during the period in which Islam was founded to Iraq during the classical age to Egypt during the modern era. The book is now reissued as a Veritas paperback, with a new foreword by Kecia Ali situating the text in its scholarly context and explaining…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Carl W. Ernst,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sufism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic introduction to the philosophies, practices, and history of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam

The Sufis are as diverse as the countries in which they've flourished—from Morocco to India to China—and as varied as their distinctive forms of art, music, poetry, and dance. They are said to represent the mystical heart of Islam, yet the term Sufism is notoriously difficult to define, as it means different things to different people both within and outside the tradition.
With that fact in mind, Carl Ernst explores the broadest range of Sufi philosophies and practices to provide one of the most…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Islam, Morocco, and the Arab world?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Islam, Morocco, and the Arab world.

Islam Explore 112 books about Islam
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The Arab World Explore 17 books about the Arab world

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