Writer and broadcaster Robert Irwin is the author of The Alhambra, recently published by Profile. He is also the author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion and The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature as well as six novels. He has just finished writing a history of Orientalism.
1. The Koran Interpreted, translated by Arthur J Arberry
Strictly, Muslims hold that a translation from Arabic of the Koran is not possible. However, this is the best attempt at a translation into English. Not only is this one the most accurate, it also captures the rhythm and poetry of the original. Arberry was a devout Christian who nevertheless identified strongly with the mystical strain in Islam.
2. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook
However good the translation you read (or even if you can read it in Arabic), the text of the Koran still needs a lot of glossing and some context. Cook is erudite, witty and incisive and he packs a huge amount into his 150 pages. Even specialists in Koranic studies are likely to learn something from this amazingly efficient account of how the Koran was put together, what it contains and how it is studied and recited today. Apart from anything else, this book should serve as a model of how to write a very short account of anything whatsoever.
3. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran by Roy Mottahedeh
There is no other book quite like this. Mottahedeh, a brilliant Princeton professor, based his account of spiritual life in Iran on a series of lengthy interviews with an Iranian mullah, tracing the holy man’s career from childhood in the holy city of Qom to a senior position in the ranks of the Iranian clergy. This searching exploration of the spiritual and intellectual life of Shi’i Islam is effectively an insider’s account of an educational curriculum that has not significantly changed since the middle ages. Modern political and social tensions in the region are also explored.
4. A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century. Shaikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi by Martin Lings
This book changed my life. It is an inspiring account of the career and teachings of a great Algerian Sufi mystic master. Al-‘Alawi, a holy man and profound thinker, founded one of the most important North African Sufi orders. Lings is a convert to Islam and his account of al-‘Alawi’s teachings manages to convey something of authentic Sufism, (as opposed to the ersatz new age stuff that is otherwise so widely available in the west). This is a book that may give you some sense of why and how Muslims believe in Allah.
5. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism by Carl Ernst
This is an outsider’s account of Sufism written by an academic specialist in Islamic studies. Ernst lucidly sets out the mystical elements in the Koran and provides a potted history of the great Sufi orders from medieval times onwards. He is very good on the great Sufi poets, Hafiz and Rumi, but the most interesting chapter is the last, on contemporary Sufism.
6. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (3 volumes) by Marshal GS Hodgson
Hodgson died before he could quite finish this massive cultural history of Islam but, even so, it remains a great monument of learning and cross-cultural empathy. Hodgson attempted to rethink the way Islamic history was traditionally written about and he wanted to ditch Orientalist cliches. Since he was largely successful in these enterprises, his book has been hugely influential. It is particularly good on the achievements of Persian, Turkish and Indian Muslims.
7. Atlas of the Islamic World by Francis Robinson
This beautifully produced atlas is one of the books influenced by Hodgson’s rethink of Islamic culture. The pictures (of Persian miniatures, Mughal architecture, African mosques, modern political posters and much else) are lovely. The accompanying text is intelligent and entirely reliable. Robinson reminds us, if the reminder is necessary, that Islam is not the monopoly of the Arabs and that high Islamic culture did not come to a screeching halt some time around the 11th century.
8. A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
Although Islam is not the monopoly of the Arabs, they have played rather a large part in its propagation. Hourani was a fastidious stylist and this book, a glowing and sympathetic account of Arab achievements, was his last masterpiece. The narrative has a fine sweep and is not clogged with detail about people with unpronounceable names marching off to fight in unspellable places. Anyone thinking of going to the Middle East should read this first. So should Kilroy Silk.
9. Islamic Art and Architecture by Robert Hillenbrand
Hillenbrand is the top man on Islamic art in Britain today and in the past he has ranged extremely widely in his more specialist studies on Islamic art and architecture. His general book on this topic is compact and attractively illustrated. The quality of his prose and its effectiveness in evoking the appearance and aesthetic effect of the objects he is describing is marvellous. His description of the Alhambra, for example, is simply breathtaking.
10. Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices by Andrew Rippin
This is probably the best general account of what Muslims believe. Rippin instructs his readers in the elements of Islamic history and the evolution of theology and law, as well as meaning of such things as the hajj, salaat, Ramadan and jihad. He explains the differences between Shi’is and Sunnis. He is particularly strong on the challenges and opportunities facing modern Muslims, so that contemporary Islam’s encounter with modernity, feminism and democracy are all thoughtfully explored.
Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/feb/18/top10s.islam