Islamic Civilization Studies

Q & A
In our Q & A series, IslamOnline.net (IOL)'s Art & Culture Section endeavors to provide answers to the readers' inquiries about the diverse cultures, customs and traditions of Muslims.

Today's question is answered by Ahmad Souza, an International Relations graduate from Tufts University. Souza pursues an MA in Arabic Language and Literature in Cairo, Egypt.

Robin : Peaceful greetings! I have been reading IslamOnline.net to gather news of the war. In doing so, I've come across your wonderful sections involving questions and answers on the intricacies of Islam.

I wonder if you might be able to recommend any texts about the history of the development of Islam, perhaps in context with Islamic cultural achievements. My sincere thanks for your time, and my fervent wishes for peace and happiness.

Souza: Salam Robin,

Thanks for your question; we appreciate your sincere interest in Islam.

In terms of texts, obviously a study of Islam must begin with the story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and so I highly recommend the biography Muhammad by Martin Lings. It is well written, accurate, and fascinating. When I first read it a few years ago, I could hardly put it down.

From there, Islamic history and development branches into numerous fields, many of which are regional in nature, some are too esoteric to be of use to you. A single-volume history book may give a good general picture, but it will naturally fall far short in detail and scope.

The Islamic histories of Anatolia, Arabia, Spain, Africa, and India could each fill volumes of their own. Unless you are planning to start a huge Islamic history library, the public library might prove useful to your study.

I have personally read an excellent book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, and I highly recommend it. Additionally, I recommend The Spread of Islam by Prof. Thomas Arnold. I also suggest that you avoid Bernard Lewis, as he is unapologetically biased in his historical analysis.

Islamic Art, philosophy, and Spirituality

Islamic philosophy, art, spirituality, and literature are naturally subjects you will want to explore. With Islamic art, there is only so much you can derive from books; the best option is to view the works in person to appreciate them fully (though this may not be a practical option).

Again, your local library should have books on Islamic art, architecture, and Arabic calligraphy. These arts will vary from region to region, so be sure to include examples from Persia, Turkey, India, Spain (Andalusia), and North Africa in your study.
Islamic philosophy is a huge science that has gone through many centuries of development and transformation. You will need a book that surveys the 1400 years of its growth. Though I have not read it, I have heard good things about A History of Islamic Philosophy by Majid Fakhry.

In terms of Islamic spirituality, you will want to read Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel. Additionally, I highly recommend Imam al-Ghazzali’s classical text The Niche of Lights, which has recently been translated into English.

Ocean of Islamic  Knowledge

Islamic/Arabic literature is hard to find in translation. Your study should include books on classical Arabic poetry, and perhaps check out the recent translation of al-Jahiz’s classical satire Avarice and the Avaricious.

Islamic knowledge is an ocean, and the aforementioned books will fill hardly a cup. Nevertheless, we hope our suggestions help you in your quest. To end with, it is reported that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

“Whoever strikes a path seeking knowledge, Allah will make a path easy for him to Paradise. Verily the angels lower their wings in satisfaction with the seeker of knowledge. That which is in the heavens and the earth, including the fish in the sea, seek forgiveness for the student of knowledge, and the superiority of the scholar over the worshipper is like the superiority of the moon over the other stars. The scholars are the heirs of the prophets. For the prophets do not leave for their heirs any dinar or dirham (gold and silver coins). The only thing they leave for their heirs is knowledge so whoever takes from it has taken a great share indeed.”

Thank you again and please stay in touch.


This first appeared on the Ask About Islam Page on Reading Islamand is republished here with kind permission.

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