The best books on Islam

10 authors have picked their favorite books about Islam and why they recommend each book.

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No god but God

By Reza Aslan,

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

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.


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.

Muhammad and the Believers

By Fred M. Donner,

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

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.


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.

Sufism

By Carl W. Ernst,

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

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.


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.

Forgotten Queens of Islam

By Fatima Mernissi,

Book cover of Forgotten Queens of Islam

This book has rightly become a classic in the field and is a book I keep returning to for Mernissi’s fantastic insights into the particularities of queenship in the Islamic world and her fascinating examples of the agency of royal women. Mernissi’s passion for the subject, and for the wider history of women’s political agency in the Islamic world springs from the page, making this an absorbing read. A more recent work that builds on Mernissi’s book and is also highly recommended is Shahla Haeri’s The Unforgettable Queens of Islam - both Mernissi and Haeri make clear connections between royal women of the premodern era and modern female politicians today.


Who am I?

Queens and queenship is a topic that has fascinated me since childhood when I first read about women like Cleopatra and Eleanor of Aquitaine. They ignited a passion to learn about the lives of royal women which led me from the ancient Mediterranean to medieval Europe, on into the early modern era, and has now gone truly global. I am particularly passionate to draw out the hidden histories of all the women who aren’t as well-known as their more famous counterparts and push for a fully global outlook in both queenship and royal studies in the works I write and the journal and two book series that I edit.


I wrote...

Queens and Queenship

By Elena Woodacre,

Book cover of Queens and Queenship

What is my book about?

This book looks at queenship in a global, timeless sense—examining the role of queens, empresses, and other royal women from the ancient and classical period through to nearly the present day on every continent. By taking a ‘long view’ of queenship, we can start to see connecting threads over time and place and comparisons of how the queen’s role differed in various cultural contexts. A wide variety of examples, including both more familiar figures and lesser-known but equally fascinating royal women, are given to explain key themes in queenship: family and dynasty, rulership, and image crafting.

Fundamentally, this book offers a fresh perspective on queenship which enables new insights into the queen’s role as the most eminent woman in the realm.

In the Shadow of the Sword

By Tom Holland,

Book cover of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire

Tom Holland’s excellent series of contextual historical books bring a rare quality, seeking beyond boundaries to understand the sweep of civilisation across continents. This book focuses on the period we call The Dark Ages in the West, from the Fall of Rome to the rise of the Anglo Saxons. But in Asia and the Middle East literature, science and religion flourished, just as the Vikings raided and traded through Europe across to Arabia where eventually they encountered the great cultures of the East.


Who am I?

I write about mythology, history, art, music, and cosmology. I also write science fiction. Mythology for me is an expression of a people trying to explain the world around them within the limits of their own knowledge. We are the same. Our search to understand the origins of the universe are limited by our language and mathematics, as were the Scandinavians who discovered countries for the first time, always expanding their horizons and adapting their legends accordingly. The Vikings had a rare vitality that sprang from every mythic tale and I love to explore both the deep origins of their worldview, and their influence in the cultures of today.


I wrote...

Norse Myths

By Jake Jackson (editor),

Book cover of Norse Myths

What is my book about?

Vikings are probably the greatest warriors of the Western world. A fierce, passionate people the various tribes that spearheaded the Scandinavian invasions harried and burned a path through Europe and far beyond. From the early Medieval years, they fundamentally affected the culture of Russia, France, Britain, and sought gold, trade, and farmland as far as the Americas and Arabia, North Africa, and Asia. They were deeply religious with powerful Gods such as Odin, Thor, and Loki whose muscular exploits have fuelled the superhero phenomenon of today, with their classic heroic themes of conquest, friendship, fate, and loyalty.

This book is an excellent introduction and part of a series on popular mythology offering the dramatic tales of myths from traditions around the world.

The Mysticism of Sound and Music

By Hazrat Inayat Khan,

Book cover of The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan

The first time I came across this book was in the late '90s in the National Gallery bookshop in London. I worked part-time at the gallery while studying for my art degree and had watched Bill Viola set up work for an exhibition there. The bookshop had dedicated a table with Viola's book recommendations, and Hazrat Inayat Khan's The Mysticism of Sound and Music was one of the titles put on display. My memory of the book is tied to the excitement of being an art student watching an inspiring artist at work. Yet, it is probably one of the most important books I have read that beautifully interweaves creativity, the web of life, music, and the spiritual, which are all themes close to my heart.  


Who am I?

Having graduated as a teacher before undertaking an art degree has made me think that art is not just the kind of stuff we encounter in galleries, but it is about creativity in a much broader sense. Two decades in art education and galleries across London have taught me that as creatives and teachers, we do not only teach others, but we all teach each other on our journeys through life. Creativity is intricately woven into the fabric of our lives and the list of books here are some of my favourite books on the subject.


I wrote...

The First Book I Wish I'd Had at Art College

By Ib Vindbjerg,

Book cover of The First Book I Wish I'd Had at Art College

What is my book about?

When The First Book I Wish I'd Had at Art College was published, it was written for my younger self when I started my BA at Camberwell College of Arts in 1997.

The book aimed to help participants in contextual studies and group crits to better understand each other's often different values and vantage points. Yet after writing it, the book turned out to be helpful in establishing good communication with anyone I discussed art with. It helped map out a starting point for talking, which I found enormously helpful.

Boyd

By Robert Coram,

Book cover of Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

In both war and business, size and technology are pieces of a winning strategy, but not the biggest factors. Otherwise, the Fortune 500 would never turn over! To figure out what’s missing, Boyd added insights from thermodynamics, quantum physics, physiology, and mathematics to Sun Tzu’s philosophy of winning without fighting, or, if that proves impossible, to win before fighting. The result was a revolution in the design of fighter aircraft and a doctrine of warfare that has been adopted by militaries from the US Marine Corps to the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Coram was a reporter and novelist before turning to biography, and his story of Boyd and his life, both personal and professional, is a page-turner.


Who am I?

I never had a real career. Closest I came was the Air Force Reserve for 27 years. Along the way, I built fighter-vs-fighter computer models for the Defense Department, served as an advisor to a Saudi Air Force prince, led a team that designed a replacement for the Air Force’s A-10 tankbuster (which was never built, unfortunately), sold C-130 transport aircraft in Saudi Arabia, taught statistics in business school, became a yoga instructor, and did PR work in Atlanta. Starting in 1975, I collaborated a little with a retired Air Force colonel, John Boyd, creator of the infamous “OODA loop.” I was never a published author in the US, although I am in India, Portugal, and Japan. 


I wrote...

Certain to Win

By Chet Richards,

Book cover of Certain to Win

What is my book about?

War is nothing like business. Countries go to war to compel opponents to do things they’d rather not: Change governments, cede territory, etc. Businesses, on the other hand, try to attract customers to their products and services. In his monumental study of warfare, Patterns of Conflict, Boyd described a strategy that had been remarkably successful: Use an advantage in the tempo of decisions and operations to seize the initiative and exploit it before the opponent could figure out what had happened. He also described a set of cultural attributes that enabled the most successful militaries to do this.

I noticed that a number of companies highlighted by Tom Peters in Thriving on Chaos used similar principles. Many conversations later – including between Peters, Boyd, and me  I had the concept for this book. 

Night of the Moon

By Hena Khan, Julie Paschkis (illustrator),

Book cover of Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story

This is a warm, family story about the moon. Yasmeen watches every night as the crescent moon gradually grows and the family takes part in the celebration of Ramadam. When the moon has reached its full size it starts to shrink, until finally, Yasmeen can no longer pick it out in the dark sky. We share Yasmeen’s excitement as the moon waxes and wanes, before becomes a sliver in the sky and the night of the moon has arrived. Eid!! Yasmeen and her family celebrate with relatives, friends, and neighbors, sharing traditional food and exchanging gifts. Ramadan takes place after the sun has gone down and the pictures are in deep blues and greens. When Eid arrives the pictures are in vibrant reds and oranges, and are filled with people celebrating. This is a family story as well as containing information about a Muslim celebration. I would strongly recommend it…


Who am I?

I'm a British writer of children’s books and poetry. The books I've chosen are picture books with vibrant illustrations, instantly pulling the reader into the story. The fascination children have with the sky, the planets, and stars, I discovered with my own children, and now my grandchildren, who gaze, star-struck, at the moon through the windows and doorways. As an ex-teacher I've found that books with a story will appeal to children who are discovering cultures other than their own. There are many picture books with sun and moon stories like the one in Chandra’s Magic Light, and I've chosen those I find particularly appealing, as a mother, grandmother, and teacher.


I wrote...

Chandra's Magic Light: A Story in Nepal

By Theresa Heine, Judith Gueyfier (illustrator),

Book cover of Chandra's Magic Light: A Story in Nepal

What is my book about?

Chandra knows the magic of a solar lamp, a tuki, will light her family’s home high in the Himalayas and help her brother breathe easily at night. But how can she earn enough money to buy one?

The story is about solar energy, but it is also about a family who cares for each other. Life in a Himalayan village is evoked with luminous illustrations. In lush colors of a dream-like quality, Deena tells Chandra the story of Chandra the Hindu Moon God, and Surya the Sun God. There are back notes on life in Nepal making the book a useful addition to the school library as well as being an engaging story.

Translating Wisdom

By Shankar Nair,

Book cover of Translating Wisdom

The findings in this book have opened my eyes to a truly unique moment in the history of cross-cultural translation and non-Western philosophy by showing how pre-modern Indian metaphysical teachings in Sanskrit were refashioned by the Persian Sufi philosophical tradition in early modern South Asia. I particularly recommend Translating Wisdom because it clearly points to an alternative quest for wisdom for those who wish to escape the stranglehold of Anglo-American and European epistemic systems.


Who am I?

I am a Professor of Islamic Thought and Global Philosophy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Perpetually drawn to ideas and concepts that seek to explain the underlying nature of things, I predictably read and write books on such topics as consciousness, self-awareness, mysticism, God, philosophy of religion, metaphysical poetry, and virtue ethics. The titles listed here are in my own area of expertise (Sufi philosophy). Intellectually rigorous and spiritually informed, they each represent perfect points of entry into Sufism, which is an ocean without a shore.  


I wrote...

The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism

By Ayn al-Quḍāt, Mohammed Rustom (translator),

Book cover of The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism

What is my book about?

The Essence of Reality was written over the course of just three days in 1120 by a scholar who was twenty-four years old. The text, like its author ‘Ayn al-Qudat, is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the earliest philosophical exposition of mysticism in the Islamic intellectual tradition and by far one of the most cogently argued cases for mystical knowledge in world literature. In conversation with the work of the philosophers Avicenna and al-Ghazali, the book takes readers on a philosophical journey, with lucid expositions of the flux-like nature of existence, the meaning of divine presence, the spiritual path, and how the awakened Sufi philosopher transcends conventional ways of knowing and being.

Feminists, Islam, and Nation

By Margot Badran,

Book cover of Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt

Readers of my book frequently tell me how surprised they are by Chapter 3, which tells the story of the fearless Egyptian women who took to the streets in 1919 to demand an end to British colonial rule and the establishment of a democratic state. To those readers interested in learning more about Egypt’s female revolutionaries, I happily point to Margot Badran’s pathbreaking scholarship and, in particular, to this book, which explains why feminism and nationalism ran hand-in-hand for so many Egyptian women in the early twentieth century.


Who am I?

When I was at university in the 1980s, I thought I wanted to become the ambassador to France. Then one of my roommates made me promise to take a women’s studies class—any class—before I graduated. I opted for “The History of Women’s Peace Movements.” Descending into historical archives for the first time, I held in my hands crumbling, 100-year-old letters of World War I-era feminists who audaciously insisted that for a peaceful world to flourish, women must participate in its construction. My life changed course. I became a professor and a historian, and I have been following the trail of feminist, internationalist, social justice pioneers ever since.  


I wrote...

Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

By Mona L. Siegel,

Book cover of Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women's Rights After the First World War

What is my book about?

As World War I drew to a close, statesmen and diplomats descended on Paris, promising to build a new international order rooted in peace, justice, and democracy. Women demanded they live up to their word. Excluded from the negotiations, female activists met separately and insisted boldly that peace would never be secured to the exclusion of half of humanity. My book follows dozens of remarkable women from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America as they demanded women’s right to dignity, security, and equality in civil, political, and economic life. It shows how, in the watershed year of 1919, nascent feminists from across the world transformed women’s rights into a global rallying cry.

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