Navigating Islamic Literature

Muslims will often hear expressions such as: Islam is easy; Islam provides guidance for all areas of life; or, Islam provides a comprehensive code for life. Someone who has converted will also have heard that becoming a Muslim is a simple case of (sincerely) declaring the Shahada. This is all well and good until one embarks on educating oneself by reading literature on Islam either before or after conversion. Suddenly, navigating Islamic literature (even when limiting it to the English language) can seem like wading through a forest. When someone who has become a Muslim embarks on this journey, they will usually need a helping hand with the navigation process.

One may assume that a person who changes their religion to Islam must have read a lot and made an informed choice, convinced of the merits Islam offers. That, of course, is not always the case, as each individual will have taken a different path and read different books (or no books) along it.

This article does not set out a specific list of places to look for and source books on Islam or indeed a list of books one must read. It is to help others supporting a recent convert to navigate their way through the forest. A mentor will have their own ‘go to’ books that they will recommend. It is important not to overwhelm a new person with too many books in one go and this is where having a person to speak to and discuss information that may be confusing or simply evokes further questions will be invaluable.

Ideally a good text will provide balanced information, offering different perspectives. It will try to open a person’s mind rather than try to close it down. Books will also contain competing ideas and reflect the author’s take and disagreements with other writers and thinkers. However, this is rarely admitted by authors, and many books are presented as neutral and authentic explanations of Islam (despite other books claiming the same thing). In terms of themes: think about what the most important aspects of Islam are and what order we should approach them in – how did the Qur’an do this in its own introduction of themes? Inner strength and spirituality, purpose of life and morals, the basic beliefs – such themes were covered before more prescriptive messages of “what to wear”, “what to eat”, etc.

Some Muslims will commonly offer there is only one book that needs to be read, namely the Qur’an. Whilst all Muslims believe the Qur’an is God’s message through God’s Messenger, it not always a practical piece of advice as the only book to read. The Qur’an is in the Arabic language, and the English translations vary in their quality, meaning and even, to a degree, in their message. The Qur’an does not contain details to practical questions a convert to Islam will have, and the Index found at the end will provide incomplete answers to topics and themes (for example, prayer, faith, gender). So, what could practical advice here be? One can use the Qur’an for inspiration and spiritual awareness but other information will be needed to understand the Qur’an. Likewise, pointing a recent convert to the second primary source of Islam, the Sunnah of Muhammad, peace be upon him, is even more bewildering. Why is this? Because what someone is really being directed to is a vast collections of detailed reports concerning the Prophet’s life known as the Books or Collections of Hadith. This would be like sending someone to collections of medical journals for symptoms of not feeling well. There are however, some collection of the teachings of Muhammad, containing a chosen selection of hadith, that could be suitable for a recent convert. It is always sensible to read it yourself and be happy with the themes of the selection and the style of translation.

One difficulty with navigating through books on Islam, is that different catalogues or sellers will have very different lists. So, the Top 20 books on an Amazon search for Islam will be very different to the books promoted in catalogues mailed by a Muslim organisation, different again to literature displayed in a mosque bookshop, different again to the recommendations found in academic courses in a UK university. Much confusion!

Many books are aimed at Muslims rekindling their faith and use a language that assumes terminology and cultural habits that a convert will not be used to. It must be said that many such books can be written with a definite and frightening message. Pamphlets that are free are often trying to ‘sell’ Islam to its reader. They can also be aimed at lay Muslims, asking people to be observant in their religious practices. On the whole, the quality of free literature is below the standard of books sold commercially.

Books can be seen as part of one’s journey, like meeting one Muslim friend at a time and learning something from them (which does not have to be adopted). Working on single themes can be a helpful start. There are also a number of introductory books about Islam that are written by authors who are not Muslim but are learned in the study of religion and Islam. They can have great skill in explaining Islam well, especially to someone who has not grown up as a Muslim.

It is important that new converts are not overwhelmed by long lists of things to read. Keeping things easy and simple in the early stages is a part of the example of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Supporting a person to form an inquisitive and critical outlook will help their understanding and give them the tools to negotiate the terrain ahead of them.