5 Great Books on Islam - Selected by Choice Reviewer Steven Blackburn

It was not all that long ago that balanced treatments of Islam were relatively difficult to come by. However, with interest in the world’s second-largest religion growing, there are now any number of books that are both accessible and insightful, providing nuanced looks at the religion of about a quarter of the world’s population. The following selections include both post-9/11 works and some older classics.

An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith: An Anthology of the Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, translated by Ezzedine Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davies. Holy Koran Publishing, c1976.

This is one of numerous editions of the Hadith, which are reports of how the Prophet Muhammad lived and behaved. The Hadith serve to present readers with a model of how to live one’s life in the light of “the complete human,” as Muhammad is described in Islamic theology. Though there are hundreds of thousands of Hadith reported, An-Nawawi presents 42 of the most basic, and most representative, of the entire corpus.

A Common Word between Us and You.

The work of 138 leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals, this appeal to the West from the best and the brightest of modern Islam calls for both civilizations to behave civilly toward each other, especially in light of the events of 9/11. The approach is both practical and principled.

Guests of the Sheikh: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Doubleday, 1965.

A writer and filmmaker, Fernea accompanied her anthropologist husband to Iraq in the 1960s. As a woman, she was able to gain entry into homes (into areas where men in general, but especially Western males, were not allowed) to speak with Muslim women. The result is a timeless look at how Muslim women lived—and continue to live—their lives.

Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.

This is one of the few studies of Islam that deftly considers Shi`ism as part of the warp of woof of the religion rather than some exotic or marginal “denomination.” It also treats Islam thematically rather than reducing it to a historical phenomenon.

The Message of the Quran, translated and explained by Muhammad Asad. Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980 (dist. by Brill).

Asad was an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam. Accordingly, this volume expresses Islamic truth in terms that Westerners can readily understand and appreciate, but it is also recognized by Muslims of all backgrounds as perceptive and engaging.

About the author:

Steven Blackburn (Hartford Seminary, is a faculty associate in Semitic scriptures and the curator of the seminary library’s Arabic collection. He has taught the subject of Islam for more than two decades at Trinity College, Hartford, as a visiting assistant professor in the department of religion.