Random Thoughts on Books about Islam and Muslims

Anti-Islamic polemics is older than the Crusades. The earliest work can probably be traced back to John of Damascus. As the Islamic Empire encroached deeper into areas that had at one time belonged to the Christian West the more vicious the attacks against Islam and its Prophet became. Most of these polemicists only proved how ignorant they were in their understanding of Islam and of the veneration of its Prophet (S) in the Muslim psyche. These abusers ignored the wisdom behind the Farsi couplet:

Ba Khuda deewana basho
Ba Muhammad hoshyaar

(Meaning: Play madly with God if you wish, but be careful with Muhammad).
These anti-Muslim, pen-pushing zealots know the place of Jesus [‘Isa (A), son of Mary (Maryam)] in Islam, how he and his mother are both venerated. [Most pious Muslims would shy away from replying to Christian polemics by drawing examples from the so-called New Testament that reflect negatively on either of these great personalities.] A sign of comparable nobility would have been to reciprocate the Muslim attitude in kind. But such an attitude is not expected from spiteful bigots. The Muslim nonchalance attitude is seen as a sign of their weakness, which only invigorates them to exploit the open field to further vilify Muhammad (S).

In recent days, there are scores of hate websites that feed hate literature to demonize Islam and its Prophet (S). There are many bookstores and public libraries that also display new books about Islam and Muslims, each purporting to present the "truth". Unfortunately, very few of these books were written by either Muslims or western non-Muslim scholars who possess good knowledge of Islam and its rich history. Most of these books, written with the primary goal of proving how evil Islam is and how every Muslim is a potential Mohammad ‘Ata or a John Allen Muhammad, cannot qualify for anything but hate literature. Their delusional and mendacious authors preach that the world of Islam ought to be confronted now, and defeated both militarily and culturally, before it triumphs over and imposes jizyah upon western non-Muslim citizenry, lowering them to the status of dzimmis, and takes away all their rights and privileges. Such books tell us more about the mental health of their authors than they do about Islam or its people.

We have learned from history that fascism is always preceded by carefully concocted ideological distortions. The unabashedly hallucinating and criminally insane scare-tactics practiced by these anti-Muslim propagandists remind me of the testimony of Hermann Goering, given at the Nuremburg Trials, where he said, “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them: they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifist for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” And this is a very chilling thought! Before the hooligans of Hitler and Mussolini went for executing their ‘final solution’ to exterminate millions of European Jewry, their people were fed with lies and distorted images of Jews. And this happened not too long ago, just a mere six decades separates us.

So, what is happening in the western world in post 9/11 is a very distressing phenomenon: the spread of the worst form of anti-Muslim hate literature that tries to demonize Islam and dehumanize one quarter of humanity who calls themselves Muslims. Demonization, as Susan Buck-Morss has argued in her book “Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West,” legitimates unilateral, lawless violence that otherwise would not be condoned.

While, so far this hatred is mostly limited to the non-physical means (i.e., intellectual sector), thus limiting its harmful effect, against Muslim minorities living in the West (outside loss of jobs or harassment in schools and workplaces), its uglier side is already being played out meticulously across the globe through the overt wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere); through the military alliances with repressive regimes in Russia, India, China, the Philippines and Israel (just to name a few) against liberation (or civil/human rights) movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Sinkiang, Mindanao, and the Occupied Territories of Palestine; through economic blockades; and through cutting off academic, social and intellectual exchanges with Muslim nation-states.

It is equally disturbing to find many Muslim intellectuals living in the West to have succumbed to such dehumanizing pressures, the psychological/intellectual traps, the forces of cultural alienation or estrangement, each competing to show how ‘different’ or ‘modern’ or ‘moderate’ he or she is compared to ‘other’ Muslims. Some even go to the extent of blaming most Muslims for exhibiting ‘cognitive dissonance’ syndrome, while being painfully oblivious of a simple fact of life that when a bull gets hurt those knocked down earlier [by it] rejoice. [This reminds me of a marvelous story in Shaykh Sa’di’s Bustan: (THE STORY OF A BULLY)

“A bully fell down a well and passed the night in wailing and lamenting. Some one threw a stone down on to his head, and said, "Did you ever go to any one’s assistance that you should today cry out for help? Did you ever sow the seeds of virtue? Who would place a salve upon your wounds when the hearts of all cry out by reason of your tyrannies? Across our path you did dig a pit, into which, perforce, have you now fallen." If you do evil expect not goodness never does the withered grapevine bring forth fruit. O, you who sow the seed in autumn! I think not that you will reap the corn at harvest time. If you nourish the thorn-tree of the desert, think not that you will ever eat its fruit. Green dates come not from the poisonous colocynth; when you sow seed, hope only for the fruit of that very seed.”]

Osama bin Laden, as Prof. Ziaudddin Sardar has put it, is a product of the history of American aggression that places no value on Muslim lives. He is motivated by a sense of outrage against all those who caused so much misery and injustice to the Muslim people (see, http://msanews.mynet.net/Scholars/Sardar/alamut.html).

When someone tries to understand Islam and Muslims through the lens of 9/11- event it is a sheer dishonesty on his part. Unfortunately, in these days, such an intellectual dishonesty or debauchery sells, and sells big time, with lucrative deals made out to all the foul-mouthed individuals vying to present their ‘discoveries’ about ‘real’ Islam.

David Need reviewed three recently published books about Islam and Muslims. These are — Robert Spencer’s Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World’s Fastest-Growing Faith; John L. Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam; and Lawrence Rosen’s The Culture of Islam. See the link below for his analysis:http://indyweek.com/durham/2003-01-08/ae.html

Having read the first one, I agree with Mr. Need that it is a hate literature. The book is written from a Catholic missionary perspective and is reviewed by missionaries/propagandists like Anis Shorrosh (himself an author of another hate literature –” Islam Revealed) and rev. Richard J. Neuhaus. ‘It’s intellectually dishonest, basing its representation of Islam on its worst examples while carefully shielding both Christianity and the West from comparable critique.’

Mr. Need found flaws with the other two books as well. Here is his summary review: “If you must read a book on Islam, don’t read Spencer’s. It’s hate literature, and will only feed the hate and fear within you. I could only read it in five-minute chunks before my blood pressure rose, making me too angry for a moment to see. I wouldn’t read Esposito’s book either. It’s sort of like eating dry crackers: at best something to shove in your mouth, but not terribly nourishing. While you might want to sift through Rosen’s book in a bookstore café for ideas, to really begin to understand Islam, however, you have to go beyond these books to the tradition itself.

Some places to start are an older biography of Muhammad, like Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings’ (Inner Traditions, 1987, 368pp., $19.95), and, ironically, the book chosen by UNC for its freshman seminar: Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (White Cloud Press, 1999, 224 pp., $21.95). Written before the Sept. 11 attacks, this last is nevertheless is the first book I’ve ever read that has brought the poetry of the Quran alive. Perhaps that’s why UNC was so vehemently attacked for suggesting that students read it. Actually knowing something about Islam might make it harder to sustain the fiction that Muslims are an "other" we can only meet with violence.”

I personally recommend two more books. One is Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002, 338 pp., $22.95). Nasr’s book is a landmark presentation of enduring values that offers hope to humanity. It challenges members of the world’s civilizations to stop demonizing the faith of ‘others’ while identifying themselves with repositories of pristine goodness. And the other book is Minou Reeves’s Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth-making (New York University Press, 307 pp., $34.50). Ms. Reeves was a career diplomat in Shah’s Iran. She was Queen Farah’s international secretary. Unlike others who worked for the toppled monarch, in her books, she displays no trace of bitterness for the new regime. Her new book, as the very title implies, is a scholarly work that surveys historical records of European denigration of Muhammad (S), while also explaining why the latter was vilified. In her book, she tries to promote understanding about Islam and its Prophet.

Surely, no one wins from vilification of a religion or its founder. What we sow today we shall surely reap tomorrow.