The best books to understand Islam, travel, and travelers in Arabia

Sumanto Al Qurtuby Author Of Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Networks: Migration, Education, and Islam
By Sumanto Al Qurtuby

Who am I?

I am an American-trained Indonesian anthropologist, teacher, writer, researcher, and academic nomad who has lived and taught at a Saudi university. I have travelled since childhood. When I was a kid or teenager, I journeyed to various places and cities for schooling away from my home village (and parents) in the isolated highlands of Central Java. I also travelled for shepherding my goats which I did after school. So, I love to travel, learn many things from my travel, and as a teacher of Anthropology of Travel, I have always been fascinated by literature on travel whatever its forms ranging from pilgrimage and nomadism to migration and tourism.   


I wrote...

Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Networks: Migration, Education, and Islam

By Sumanto Al Qurtuby,

Book cover of Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Networks: Migration, Education, and Islam

What is my book about?

What is the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia? For centuries, Indonesians have travelled to Saudi Arabia and have been deeply involved in education, scholarship and the creation of centres for Islamic learning in the country. Yet the impact of this type of migration has not yet been the focus of scholarly research and little is known about the important intellectual connections that now exist.

This book examines Indonesian educational migrants and intellectual travellers in Saudi Arabia including students, researchers, teachers, and scholars to provide a unique portrait of the religious and intellectual linkages between the two countries. Based on in-depth interviews and questionnaires, Sumanto Al Qurtuby identifies the “Indonesian legacy” in Saudi Arabia and examines in turn how the host country's influential Islamic scholars have impacted on Indonesian Muslims.

The books I picked & why

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The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'Ulama' in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

By Azyumardi Azra,

Book cover of The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'Ulama' in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Why this book?

This is an extremely fine book that traces and discusses the origins or intellectual roots of Islamic renewal and reformism in Indonesia (and the Malay world in general). What makes this book special is that, among others, the author used rare academic sources (e.g., Arabic biographic dictionaries that have never before been analyzed or utilized as research materials) to reconstruct the history of Indonesia’s Islamic reformism. The book shows that an orthodox form of Islam in Southeast Asia was the product of intellectual and religious networks between Muslim societies in the archipelago and the Malay-Indonesian Islamic scholars in the Haramain (Mecca and Medina) who transmitted Islamic scholarships, knowledge, and discourses to them since the seventeenth century. 

The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia: Networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'Ulama' in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

By Azyumardi Azra,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Origins of Islamic Reformism in Southeast Asia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Islamic renewal and reformism is an ongoing process which is commonly thought to have started only in the twentieth century. Professor Azra's meticulous study, using sources from the Middle East itself, shows how scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were reconstructing the intellectual and socio-moral foundation of Muslim societies. Drawing on Arabic biographic dictionaries which have never before been analysed or used as research materials, Professor Azra illuminates a previously inaccessible period of history to show the development of the Middle Eastern heritage in the Indonesian archipelago.

The reader can trace the formation and expression of Indonesian Islam and…


Indonesians and Their Arab World: Guided Mobility among Labor Migrants and Mecca Pilgrims

By Mirjam Lücking,

Book cover of Indonesians and Their Arab World: Guided Mobility among Labor Migrants and Mecca Pilgrims

Why this book?

To my knowledge, academic studies that emphasize the study of Indonesian Muslim pilgrims and labor migrants in Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states) are limited. Hence, this book is undoubtedly significant for both academic and non-academic communities. I have also noticed that the ways in which the author selected field sites (Yogyakarta and Madura, whose societies represent two distinctive Muslim groups in Indonesia) and presented her basic arguments in this study are also fresh and informative. The author argues that the pilgrims’ and migrants’ perceptions, opinions, understandings, and constructions of “Arabness” and the Arab world, as well as their mobility (pilgrimage or migration) to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, are strongly shaped, influenced and guided by a variety of structures and agencies. This, in my view, is certainly important findings.  

Indonesians and Their Arab World: Guided Mobility among Labor Migrants and Mecca Pilgrims

By Mirjam Lücking,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Indonesians and Their Arab World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Indonesians and Their Arab World explores the ways contemporary Indonesians understand their relationship to the Arab world. Despite being home to the largest Muslim population in the world, Indonesia exists on the periphery of an Islamic world centered around the Arabian Peninsula. Mirjam Lucking approaches the problem of interpreting the current conservative turn in Indonesian Islam by considering the ways personal relationships, public discourse, and matters of religious self-understanding guide two groups of Indonesians who actually travel to the Arabian Peninsula-labor migrants and Mecca pilgrims-in becoming physically mobile and making their mobility meaningful. This concept, which Lucking calls "guided mobility,"…


A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

By Ulrike Freitag,

Book cover of A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Why this book?

Jeddah in the western Arabia has long been an entrance for Muslim pilgrims around the world as well as a terminus for global-international trade routes for centuries or even millennia due to its strategic location in the coastal Red Sea. Yet, surprisingly, the region has not been the subject of a serious academic inquiry. Scholars of Saudi Arabia generally focus on Mecca and Medina, two most important pilgrimage sites for Muslims. To my knowledge, this book is the first biography of Jeddah that traces the city's urban history, development, and cosmopolitanism from the late Ottoman period to its contemporary era. The author in particular examines how Jeddah’s different groups of travelers (migrants, pilgrims, etc.) interrelated in a changing urban space and how their economic behaviors and activities contributed to the shape of the city’s socio-political framework. 

A History of Jeddah: The Gate to Mecca in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

By Ulrike Freitag,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Known as the 'Gate to Mecca' or 'Bride of the Red Sea', Jeddah has been a gateway for pilgrims travelling to Mecca and Medina and a station for international trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean for centuries. Seen from the perspective of its diverse population, this first biography of Jeddah traces the city's urban history and cosmopolitanism from the late Ottoman period to its present-day claim to multiculturalism, within the conservative environment of the Arabian Peninsula. Contextualising Jeddah with developments in the wider Muslim world, Ulrike Freitag investigates how different groups of migrants interacted in a changing…


The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean

By Engseng Ho,

Book cover of The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean

Why this book?

This book studies the historical dynamics of the Hadrami Yemeni diaspora in Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia. The Hadramis, especially progenies of Prophet Muhammad, have settled in these three regions for centuries but academic work that discusses the origins of their presence and transnational movement across the Indian Ocean is extremely rare. Professor Ho is a brilliant anthropologist and historian. I, in particular, like the ways he vividly utilizes and interprets various sources–biographies, family histories, chronicles, pilgrimage manuals, and religious law – to reconstruct the history of the diasporic Hadrami community from Arabia to Southeast Asia. 

The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean

By Engseng Ho,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"The Graves of Tarim" narrates the movement of an old diaspora across the Indian Ocean over the past five hundred years. Ranging from Arabia to India and Southeast Asia, Engseng Ho explores the transcultural exchanges - in kinship and writing - that enabled Hadrami Yemeni descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad to become locals in each of the three regions, yet remain cosmopolitans with vital connections across the ocean. At home throughout the Indian Ocean, diasporic Hadramis engaged European empires in surprising ways across its breadth, beyond the usual territorial confines of colonizer and colonized. A work of both anthropology…


Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj Under the Ottomans

By Suraiya Faroqhi,

Book cover of Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj Under the Ottomans

Why this book?

Concerning the study of the hajj (i.e. Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), I consider this book is pioneering primarily because it utilizes original sources and documentation left by Ottoman administrators to depict and recreate uneasy experiences of the pilgrims’ everyday life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of Arabia. During these centuries, Mecca was under the control and authority of the Ottoman sultans, and the hajj pilgrimage was an extremely tough journey: long, arduous, and fraught with danger. This work has contributed to our understandings of the pilgrims’ conditions and mundane activities and the sultans’ policies of the pilgrimage.  

Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj Under the Ottomans

By Suraiya Faroqhi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The pilgrimage to Mecca - the hajj - is a major aspect of the Islamic religion, yet little has been written about its history or of the conditions under which thousands of pilgrims from far flung regions of the Islamic world travelled to the heart of the Arabian peninsula. This pioneering book concentrates on the pilgrimage in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Mecca was ruled by the Ottoman sultans. At a time when, for the majority of the faithful, the journey was long, arduous and fraught with danger, the provision of food, water, shelter and protection for pilgrims presented…


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