Essential Readings from the Literature of the Muslim World: A Personal List

I recently posted these short book and author recommendations on Facebook. My reasoning was pretty simple: though we are now obsessed with the coronavirus and the re-emerging recognition of how pervasive racial injustice and inequality still is in America, it is only a few short years ago that we were obsessed with a quite different threat—“International Terrorism” (especially of the “Islamic” type.) It is my hope that some of the authors and work I suggest here will help serve as a corrective to the kind of stereotypical demonization of the Muslim world that has been a feature of our culture for longer than most people really understand. That demonization is essentially very similar to the demonization of American blacks that continues (in some powerful quarters) to haunt us today.

On 9/11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden launched a devasting attack on the US. Almost 3,000 people died. In the aftermath, the US spent trillions of dollars on wars, counterterrorism, security, etc. The obsession with foreign terrorism became a national obsession that lasted well into the Trump campaign of 2016, and the absurd “Muslim Ban” of his first days. It was accompanied by his relentless exploitation of racial and sectarian differences, his support of white supremacists, etc.

It retrospect—with the perspective of real threats like the Covid-19 pandemic more clearly in view, it is a good time to take a look at all the attention, money and power we devoted to the subject of international terrorism as it affects the US.

The facts are pretty clear. The 9/11 attacks were, and remain, a singular event. Leave them aside and the number of people killed by homegrown, American domestic terrorists far outweighs the handful of Americans who were ever killed by foreign terrorists. We need only think of Oklahoma City, and the huge numbers of death by lynching throughout the US from the Civil War on to get a better idea of where the real threat lies. In contrast, the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic is approaching 160,000. That is almost 54 times the toll of 9/11. It is about 40,000 time as many deaths as we incurred at Benghazi—though at the time Republicans screamed it was the worst incident since 9/11—and spent about 6 years investigating it.

In countering “Islamophobic” stereotypes, I thought it might be helpful start sharing some literature from the Muslim world. I will include mostly fiction, but also some memoir, biography, and history. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to Islamic religion or Middle Eastern politics.  I have simply chosen works that I think provide a humanizing glimpse into life in the Muslim world in very different times and places. I do not think any of them represents the life or views of an “average Muslim.” I doubt such a thing exists in their world any more than it exists in ours. I will start with a really beautiful novel by the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief.

Ahdaf Souief (The Map of Love)

It’s been a long time since I read this, but it was so good my wife Carol and I kept giving our copy to friends and then buying it again. I can’t locate my copy right now. I think I gave it to a young cousin. Roughly though, a young American woman is exploring documents left to her by her British mother, who lived in Egypt in Victorian times. It seems mom had adventures there and the girl (Isabel) is able to locate a living Egyptian woman who had some family connection to the matter. As she explores these complexities the narrative is advanced through these inter-related stories that are parallel in time and space. It is very nicely done. A bit of a detective story and several love stories with lots of insight into cross-cultural issues.

Tariq Ali (The Islam Quintet)

Tariq Ali is a British political activistwriterjournalisthistorianfilmmaker, and public intellectual. His five-novel series The Islam Quintet is one of my favorites. The first two, The Book of Saladin and The Sultan of Palermo are set (respectively) during the Crusades in 12th century Palestine, and in the late 12th century in the Kingdom of Sicily. Both revolve around famous historical figures (Saladin and the Arab Geographer Al-Idrisi). The third book In the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree is set in southern Spain as the Spanish conquer the last major Arab kingdom in Granada. The Stone Woman is set in late 19th century Turkey as the Ottoman empire is in its final days. The last volume The Night of the Golden Butterfly is a love story set in modern Pakistan. These are all interesting, witty, insightful, and very readable. Like many of the works I will post, the relationship between the western world and the Islamic world is a major theme.

Tariq Ali is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review  and contributes to The GuardianCounterPunch, and the London Review of Books.  He wrote many other non-fiction books, including  Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), Bush in Babylon (2003), and Conversations with Edward Said (2005). He is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review  and contributes to The GuardianCounterPunch, and the London Review of Books.

Amin Maalouf (Leo the African, The First Century after Beatrice, and others…)

Amin Maalouf is a Lebanese writer who writes mostly in French. He has won many awards. He has written a number of memorable and very readable novels and some non-fiction as well. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is especially worth reading. Like Tariq Ali, several of his novels are based on the lives of famous figures in Middle Eastern history. Samarkand follows the life of the Persian Poet Omar Khayyam. Gardens of Light recounts the life of the prophet Mani. Leo the African follows the life of the Arab traveler Leo Africanus—who lived during the renaissance and visited Europe at the time. The First Century after Beatrice is an interesting exploration of gender politics. The award winning Rock of Tanios is an adventure set in Lebanon, and Balthasar’s Odyssey recounts the travels of a book dealer hunting a manuscript in the Ottoman Turkey of the 17th century. All very readable and fun ways to get better insight into Muslim life and thought.

Orhan Pamuk (The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow, The Museum of Innocence, etc.)

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature and numerous other literary awards. His work has sold over thirteen million books in sixty-three languages. His novels include Silent HouseThe White CastleThe Black BookThe New LifeMy Name Is RedSnowThe Museum of InnocenceA Strangeness in My Mind, and The Red-Haired Woman. He teaches writing and comparative literature at Columbia University. Pamuk is the first Turkish Nobel laureate and the great storyteller of Istanbul. His fiction is as nostalgic, intricate and mysterious as the city itself. There are truly lovely passages in his writing that capture his life and childhood in the city. It sometimes gets a bit hard to follow, but is also always rewarding if you stick to it. Like many writers I have posted, his work often involves reflection on his country’s troubled interactions with the West.

Adina Hoffman/Taha Muhammed Ali (My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness)

With this you get two writers in a single volume. Adina Hoffman’s My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness is the fascinating biography of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. It is also a sensitive example of ethnography and through the poet’s experiences, an introduction to life in Palestine from the days of the British Mandate to the violent ethnic cleansing of the partition in 1947-48, and on though all the other tumultuous events up through the 90s. Hoffman is an American Jew who immigrated to Israel. This is also a very well written account of her long friendship with the poet and how it changed her perceptions of Israeli history. One intriguing aspect of this story is her doubt about some of the facts the poet recounted. These were not on record in the official Israeli version of history. Through a relative who was a high-ranking military officer, she gains extraordinary access to Israeli military archives. I won’t spoil this revelation for you, but this is well worth reading.

Suad Amiry (Sharon and My Mother in Law: Ramallah Diaries)

Suad Amiry’s Sharon and My Mother-in-Law evokesthe frustrations and misery of daily life in the West Bank town of Ramallah between 1981 and 2004. The author shares the enormous difficulty of movement the challenges of falling in love with someone from another town, the degrading absurdity of Israeli policy, and what it was like to have her ninety-two-year-old mother-in-law living with her during a forty-two day lockdown. A dark, yet humorous firsthand account of the absurdity and tribulations of life in the Occupied Territories.  

Oral History:

Edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke (Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation)

This book contains an interesting set of oral histories of Palestinians living in Gaza and the Occupied territories of the West Bank. A quite varied example of different perspectives of life under Israeli occupation. Our local art association sponsored a talk by the author when this came out. To support this event, I joined local peace activist Ginger Gouveia in creating a month-long display in our local art gallery. That exhibit featured her moving photos of her trip to Palestine. I created sculpture (bisque and Raku), print art, and some poems that evoked some of the issues related to the occupation. My cousin Mariah helped us assemble a set of music to go with this display. I will post a short video description that Ginger created which captures some of what we presented.

Coleman Barks (various translations) (The Poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi)

It is Sunday, and I thought it might be a good day for some spiritually uplifting poetry. No one combines the two like the 13th century poet Rumi. Because he lived most of his life in what is today Turkey, he is generally thought of as Turkish. Actually, he was Persian and wrote in Persian. In around, 1995 renowned journalist Bill Moyers did a series of interviews with American poets. For several years in a row, Rumi had been the most popular poet in the US—largely on the strength of Barks’ inspired translations. These interviews (“The Language of Life” and “Fooling with Words”) are well worth finding and watching. In the early 80’s I had had the great good luck to do a two-week-long poetry class with Barks. He was an absolutely charming guy and a very good teacher as well. Part of his gift in translating Rumi came from the fact that he was deeply immersed in his own personal exploration of the Sufi tradition. He had an inside track on the spiritual aspects of Rumi that are what matter most. If you love poetry and have never read Rumi, you have a real treat in store. There are many volumes of Barks’ translations now. Almost any of them will serve to get you started. Rumi was the founder of the “Mevlevi” Sufi Order (Whirling Dervishes). For many Muslims around the world, his work is considered second in significance only to the Holy Quran itself.

Taha Hussein (The Days)

Taha Hussein (1889 –1973) was one of the most influential 20th-century Egyptian writers and intellectuals. He was called “The Dean of Arabic Literature.” He was nominated for a Nobel prize in literature fourteen times.  Hussein was born in a village in central Upper Egypt. He was left blind by an incompetent doctor at age two. Still, he managed to get an education and eventually studied religion and Arabic literature at El-Azhar University. When the secular Cairo University was founded in 1908, he was admitted in spite of his blindness. He later continued his studies and received PhD at the Sorbonne. His autobiography, The Days consists of three parts. First, his boyhood and village schooling and second, his life as a student in Egypt. Many years later he wrote the third part, which described his studies in France. This is a really readable, evocative account of life in Colonial Egypt. He was a great advocate of free, secular public education in Egypt. In 1950, he was appointed to be Minister of Education.

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) (Miramar, The Cairo Trilogy, and others)

Following in the footsteps of Taha Hussein, the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. In awarding the prize the Nobel committee said that Mahfouz, “Though works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous—has transformed an Arabic narrative art that applies to all mankind.” He is best known for his masterpiece The Cairo Trilogy which depicts the life of a family from around the end of WWI up to 1952. A period of huge changes in Egyptian society. Though rewarding, the trilogy is a bit of a heavy lift. I am re-reading Miramar, which is much shorter and a good introduction to Mahfouz. Autumn Quail may be a starting place too. The Beginning and the End and The Children of the Alley are longer, but manageable. Mahfouz wrote about 34 novels and many essays, plays, etc. His ability to engage with modern western ideas (and his political views) often made him a target of both Traditionalist and Fundamentalist Islamists.

Idries Shah (The Sufis, Learning How to Learn, and others)

In my small hometown on the Oregon coast, the first serious bookstore only appeared around 1972. At that time, I was starting to explore other religious traditions. There was a lot of “Eastern Religion” on the shelves, but about the only things even vaguely related to Islam were Idries Shah’s works on Sufism. Born in India, the descendant of a family of Afghan nobles, Shah grew up mainly in England. His many works on Sufism were highly influential (Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing said that his work “The Sufis” had radically changed her life). “The Sufis” is an interesting, somewhat academic, intellectual history of basic Sufi concepts. Shah also collected many teaching stories, jokes and folklore from the Sufi tradition in several volumes about the famous folk figure “Mulla Nasrudin.” Nasrudin is also a central folk figure in Turkey (as Hodja) and Arabic (as Joha), and even appears in Slavic folklore. I should say that Shah talks about Sufism in a fairly academic way—he doesn’t usually much share information on specific meditation techniques or other practical matters which are at the core of Sufi training.  Still his books are quite fun and thought provoking. There is a long Wikipedia article on him.

Edward Said (1935-2003) (Orientalism, Covering Islam, The Question of Palestine, etc.)

I think anyone who seriously wants to understand Middle Eastern history and culture needs to come to grips with the work of Edward Said at some point. Said was an American literary theorist, cultural critic, and political activist of Palestinian descent who will probably be remembered as one of the great thinkers of the last century. He was professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His seminal work, Orientalism made him a major figure in postcolonial studies and had a transformative impact on Middle Eastern studies, Asian studies, history, sociology, anthropology, and cultural criticism. To early centuries of Europeans, the term “the Orient” really referred to the Middle East, (not, as it usually suggests today, points further east). Western civilization grew up in the shadows of the more advance and extremely powerful Islamic civilization which surrounded it on three sides. Said argues (and convincingly demonstrates) how most early western scholarship created a highly misleading “representation” of the region—one that was largely a projection of western fears and fantasies. Later western scholars built on this flawed foundation—a process that continues today and explains why so much of our policy in the region proves to be inaccurate and misguided. “Orientalism” is a fascinating work and a great tour of early western studies of the Middle East. It is not an easy read, but two easier starting points with Said are his shorter works The Question of Palestine (a good intro to that subject), and Covering Islam (which examines the various biases that permeate western media coverage of the Islamic world). Said also wrote a number of collections of essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Always an outspoken advocate of Palestinian human rights, Said was frequently (and usually quite unfairly) targeted by Neo-Cons and other fans of Imperialism.

Yashar Kemal (Mehmet, My Hawk, The Sea-Crossed Fisherman)

If Orhan Pamuk was the great voice of the city of Istanbul, then Yashar Kemal (1923 – 2015) was probably the voice of the Turkish countryside. He was nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature in 1973. He was not only extremely prolific, but also an outspoken advocate for Kurdish Human rights and the Turkish working class in general. His first big novel was Mehmet, My Hawk (1955). He went on to write a big trilogy The Wind from the Plain and other striking novels like Salman The Solitary. I think a good starting place is The Sea-Crossed Fisherman. It tells the story of a fisherman who is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This short quote may give an impression of his writing:

“Nobody had ever loved Fisher Selim like this huge 3-metre-long dolphin, not his mother, nor his father, not the comrades by whose side he had fought in the war, not his brothers, not the fellow-fishermen whose lives he had saved, only one other person, just one…  The fishermen would come to Selim and say: ‘He was beating about the sea again today, your pet, hey, Fisher Selim, looking for you!’ And Fisher Selim, his heart swelling with love and pride, would think that there was some beauty, some hope left in being human.”

Fazlur Rahman (Islam)

The area we call the Middle East is home to many different religious traditions. That said, Islam does generally set the dominant tone in most places and (even if you are not interested in “religion” per se) your understanding of the characters and conflicts in the various readings I have suggested will be deepened by a closer look at this multi-faceted tradition. I think Fazlur Rahman’s book Islam is a great way to take a deeper dive into the subject. He is neither a western denigrator, nor a Muslim proselytizer. He just gives what seem to me a pretty thorough, objective, academic account of the main aspects of the huge, complex edifice we call Islam. He takes it on as a religion, an intellectual tradition, a series of historical developments and an ever changing and evolving set of cultural practices. A pretty good place to start with a difficult subject. According to the Wikipedia article he “argued that the basis of Islamic revival was the return to the intellectual dynamism that was the hallmark of the Islamic scholarly tradition.” Naturally, he was criticized both for being too liberal on the one hand, and not liberal enough on the other. What a surprise.

Leila Ahmed/ Fatima Mernissi (books on gender and Islam)

For anyone interested in the often-contentious subject of the status of women in the Muslim world these two writers are a good place to start. Both authors made the point that far from being passive, Muslim women are well able to state their own views in their own voices and also (as their work amply shows) easily able to hold their own in academic circles. Both are exceptionally well thought of as insightful sensitive advocates for women in general and in the Islamic world in particular. Leila Ahmed wrote Women and Gender in Islam which is considered a classic in the field, as well as other books.  Fatima Mernissi wrote a number of interesting books on the same subject. I found her description of life growing up in a “Harem” in Morocco in Dreams of Trespass very interesting. It may totally change your idea of what the “Harem” was really about (i.e. NOT a bordello with a sauna and swimming pool)! Beyond the Veil, Scheherazade Goes West, Islam and Democracy, and The Veil and the Male Elite, are also good.

Hafiz (Poems translated by David Landinsky)

US policy towards Iran has been misguided and aggressive for a long time.* I would hate to compound this by failing to mention Iran’s great Sufi poet, Hafiz who was born around 1315, in ShirazIran. Hafiz had profound effect on Persian life and culture. He is probably regarded as highly in Iran as Rumi is in Turkey. Like Rumi, he was a mystical poet in the Sufi tradition. His primary mode of expression was the “Ghazal” usually a short lyrical love poem. (The word is related to our name for the animal the gazelle, which was admired for its grace and beauty.) These translations by David Landinsky are highly regarded by many. Like many other classical Sufi authors, (Saadi, Attar, Khayyam and others) some of the work of Hafiz was translated by “orientalists” of the Victorian era, who tended to tone down erotic references and also to reduce this ecstatic poetry into pretty traditional, rhyming verse typical in the England of their day. Modern translators are coming up with better versions all time.

*Anyone interested in the troubled US/Iran relationship should read Gareth Porter’s recent book A Manufactured Crisis.

Abdul Rahman Munif. (Cities of Salt)

Back when I lived in Saudi Arabia, I was two thirds of the way through this. I liked it, but got interrupted by moving back home etc., etc. and never got back to it, so I’m going to just cheat here and quote from the succinct entry in Wikipedia:

“Cities of Salt is a novel by Abdul Rahman Munif. It was first published in Lebanon in 1984 and was immediately recognized as a major work of Arab literature.[1] It was translated into English by Peter Theroux. The novel, and the quintet of which it is the first volume, describes the far-reaching effects of the discovery of huge reserves of oil under a once-idyllic oasis somewhere on the Arabian peninsula.

“Oil is our one and only chance to build a future,” Munif once told Theroux, “and the regimes are ruining it.”[2] In the novel and its sequels, great oil-rich cities are soon built, described as cities of salt. “Cities of salt,” said Munif when asked by Tariq Ali to explain the book’s title, “means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.”[3]

“Cities of Salt was banned in Saudi Arabia and few other countries because it satirizes Arab elitist government, exposes Americans’ cruel treatment,[5] and has the potential of evoking rebellious emotions.

“The only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country.” — Edward W. Said

“An Arab novel-and an excellent one at that. It opens up new vistas to the imagination.” — Graham Greene

“A powerful, untold story, done with humor, grace, and a resonant depth of feelings” — Kirkus

“Brings to life many of the political issues that have plagued the Middle East for most of this century … Munif writes from a unique vantage point: English-languages readers have been given few opportunities before now to look at this situation through native eyes … Theroux’s sensitive translation conveys the subtleties of ambiguity and nuance inherent to the Arab language and culture.”–Publishers Weekly

Nathalie Handal, editor (The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology)

Simply a great collection of moving poetry.

Salwa Salem (The Wind in My Hair)

Palestinian Salwa Salem dictated this on tape in 1990 as she lay dying of cancer. She was helped by Laura Maritano and the work was translated by Yvonne Freccero. It is an account of her life that reaches from the 1930’s (Palestine under the British Mandate) through partition, the ethnic cleansing and exile in various countries. She studied Philosophy at Damascus University and lived (like many Palestinians in exile, in a number of countries. I haven’t quite finished it, but it is a readable and evocative account of one Palestinian experience.

This is the end if Part 1. I hope to follow up with Part 2 in a few weeks. That will deal with good western writers who write about the Muslim world.

3 thoughts on “Essential Readings from the Literature of the Muslim World: A Personal List

Add yours

  1. This is somewhat of a tease, as I don’t know how I could get access to hese works, especially in the audio version I require. Y’ll see if Edward Said might be available.

    Liked by 1 person

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