The best books to make you realize that you don’t know what religion is

Who am I?

In the 1980s, I was living in Spain, teaching high school. On weekends and vacations, I traveled throughout the country, fascinated with the remnants of its flourishing medieval civilization, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims mingled. When I later became a historian, I focused on the rich history of Jewish-Christian-Muslim contact in Spain and throughout the Mediterranean. I also wanted to understand conflict and prejudice, particularly the historical roots of antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe. I have increasingly realized that classical religious texts need to be reread and contextualized and that we need to rethink our ideas about religion and religious conflict.

I wrote...

Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today

By John Tolan,

Book cover of Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today

What is my book about?

Muhammad has fascinated the West since the Middle Ages. Medieval Christians portrayed him alternately as a charlatan, a heretic, a lecher, or even the incarnation of Antichrist. During the reformation, Luther proclaimed that “the Pope’s devil was bigger than Muhammad’s devil,” adding a note of relativism; Catholics retorted that Luther and Calvin were worse than Muhammad. Writers in the 18th-century Enlightenment came to see the Muslim prophet as a reformer preaching a purified form of monotheism.  Napoleon made Muhammad into a role model: brilliant general, sage legislator, charismatic leader. My book shows that Muhammad wears so many faces in the West because he has always acted as a mirror for its writers, their portrayals revealing more about their own concerns than about the historical Muslim prophet.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity

Why this book?

How did Christianity grow out of Judaism and emerge as a separate religion? We all know, of course, that Jesus was Jewish, as were the Apostles. And it is well-known that it is Apostle Paul who first started preaching the faith of Christ to non-Jews. Yet we tend to think that by the end of the first century CE, Judaism and Christianity are two distinct and separate religions. Daniel Boyarin’s fascinating book challenges that idea. Throughout the first centuries of our era, some Jews accepted Jesus as their Messiah, others did not. Some Christians continued to frequent the synagogue and celebrate Jewish holidays, others did not. Only gradually, over the course of five or six centuries, did religious authorities (rabbis, bishops, theologians) construct and impose borders between the two “religions,” Judaism and Christianity.

Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity

By Daniel Boyarin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The historical separation between Judaism and Christianity is often figured as a clearly defined break of a single entity into two separate religions. Following this model, there would have been one religion known as Judaism before the birth of Christ, which then took on a hybrid identity. Even before its subsequent division, certain beliefs and practices of this composite would have been identifiable as Christian or Jewish.In Border Lines, however, Daniel Boyarin makes a striking case for a very different way of thinking about the historical development that is the partition of Judaeo-Christianity.
There were no characteristics or features that…

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

Why this book?

While Boyarin challenges what we thought we knew about Judaism and Christianity, Fred Donner does the same for the history of the origins of Islam. Most of what we know, or think we know, about Muhammad comes from the hadiths (traditions), sayings, and deeds of the prophet that were transmitted orally and put down in writing two centuries after the prophet’s death. Leaving aside hadith and the traditional biographies of the prophet, Donner looks at what we can say about Muhammad and his first followers based on the Quran alone. While the terms “Islam” and “Muslim” are present in the Quran, Islam is not a "religion" apart from other monotheisms.

On the contrary, Muhammad had no intention of founding a new "religion," but saw himself as the successor to earlier prophets, from Adam to Jesus and the apostles, who all preached the same message: condemnation of idolatry, declaration of unity of God, call for moral and spiritual reform. God chose Muhammad as prophet to the Arabs, but his message was addressed indiscriminately to all, pagans, Jews, and Christians. It was only towards the end of the 7th century, after two civil wars which tore the new Arab empire apart that Islam becomes a religious community clearly distinct from Judaism and Christianity.

Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam

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 Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

Why this book?

If Donner shows that Muslims don’t necessarily know who Muhammad was or agree about him, Pelikan shows that the same is true for Christians and Jesus. He looks at various ways in which Christians over twenty centuries have conceived of Jesus: a sage Jewish rabbi? An apocalyptic preacher, warning of the imminent end of the world? King of the universe, destined to preside over the final judgment, model for worldly judges and kings? The paradigmatic monk and mystic? An egalitarian preacher of social justice? He has been all of these things to different Christians over the ages, and Pelikan shows how different people in very different circumstances have reinterpreted Jesus the better to fit their own ideas of what Christianity should be.

Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture

By Jaroslav Pelikan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jesus Through the Centuries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A rich and expansive description of Jesus' impact on the general history of culture. . . . Believers and skeptics alike will find it a sweeping visual and conceptual panorama."-John Koenig, front page, New York Times Book Review

Called "a book of uncommon brilliance" by Commonweal, Jesus Through the Centuries is an original and compelling study of the impact of Jesus on cultural, political, social, and economic history. Noted historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan reveals how the image of Jesus created by each successive epoch-from rabbi in the first century to liberator in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries-is a key…

Book cover of Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages

Why this book?

In the US, when we think about Christianity, we tend not to think much about saints and when we do, they are at best a sort of role model for piety, an antiquated cast of characters in the history of religion. But to early Christians, saints were powerful patrons. The earliest saints were the martyrs put to death by the pagan Roman state: thrown to the lions, massacred by gladiators, executed at the orders of Roman officials. These saints’ bodies and tombs became objects of veneration, purported to produce miracles. In the middle ages, as Christianity became the dominant force in Europe, everyone wanted to benefit from the proximity to these holy men and women. But if you lived in Northern Europe, you didn’t have access to the hundreds of saintly bodies buried in Spain, Italy, or Provence. What to do? Buy them or steal them! In this fascinating book, Patrick Geary looks at how many Northern European Christians, monks, priests, bishops, or others, created a black market of bought or stolen relics: an arm of St. Perpetua, a tooth of St. Peter, etc. A reminder that Christianity was very different from what we think.

Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages

By Patrick J. Geary,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

To obtain sacred relics, medieval monks plundered tombs, avaricious merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers scoured the Roman catacombs. In a revised edition of Furta Sacra, Patrick Geary considers the social and cultural context for these acts, asking how the relics were perceived and why the thefts met with the approval of medieval Christians.

Book cover of Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Why this book?

In this book, Robert Gregg focuses on the narratives around a number of key figures in the sacred history of the Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are “shared stories” because these various writers agreed on most (but not all) of the biographical details of these figures. Indeed, the “rival tellings” often reflect intimate knowledge of each other: the Jewish stories about Mary and Jesus are implicit responses to (and refutations of) Christian beliefs, and the Mary of the Qur’an is a rebuke to both Christian and Jewish versions. Retelling and reinterpreting these stories is a key activity in the construction and delineation of communities of the faithful, whether defined broadly (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) or in their narrower components (ascetic movements within each of the three traditions, rival Christian churches, Sunnism vs Shiism, etc.). If telling stories can be a way to build bridges, it is also, as Gregg shows, a way of erecting walls.

These stories posed important questions and problems. Why did God allow Cain to kill Abel? If Jonah was one of God’s prophets, why did he disobey Him (and get swallowed by a whale in punishment)? Why did Sarah expel Hagar and Ishmael from her home? Did Joseph feel tempted when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, or was he securely protected by God from such temptation? Were Joseph emerging from the well and Jonah issuing forth from the mouth of the whale pre-figurations of Christ’s resurrection? These and other questions interested Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writers for their theological consequences as well as for the moral implications for a society of believers.

Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims

By Robert C. Gregg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shared Stories, Rival Tellings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

While existing scholarship informs us about early contact between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the nature of that interaction, and how it developed over time, is still often misunderstood. Robert Gregg emphasizes that there was both mutual curiosity, since all three religions had ancestral traditions and a commanding God in common, and also wary competitiveness, as each group was compelled to sharpen its identity against the other two. Faced with the overlap of
many scriptural stories, they were eager to defend the claim that they alone were God's preferred people.

In Shared Stories, Rival Tellings, Gregg performs a comparative investigation of…

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