Monday, September 23, 2013

Books of Note online guide to learning more about Islam

With the events in Nairobi over the past few days I know a lot of people will be reflecting on why and how this has happened. I don't have any easy answers but I will try to point out some online resources for learning more about Islam.

For a brief introduction see this cheat sheet from the 'dummies' organisation


The rumour is that the terrorists asked the question who is the mother of Muhammad to verify if the victim was muslim.

Q. Who was the mother of Muhammad?

A. According to wikipedia the early life and upbringing of Muhammad was quite complex. His biological father – Abdullah died six months before he was born. Muhammad's biological mother was called Amina but he did not live with her, he was sent to the desert to live with foster mother - Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb and her husband.

Needless to say I think if you were in the situation I wouldn't be trying to argue when you are at gunpoint – but it doesn't seem to be a straightforward answer.

There are many different aspects to Islam and I think it is important to remember that this is not necessarily a religious problem. As has been pointed out in various films, with muslims it is not those who attend the mosque who are the problem but those who don't. This is where we face the problem of the clash of cultures and cultural misunderstanding which is to blame on both sides. Law enforcement do no understand and treat Islamic people poorly and in turn the west is seen according to the stereotypes of the Hollywood, a lot of which are not as common as one would think. I remember the first time I went to New York being amazed at how different it was to the films. Also remember a lot of terrorists have had bad experiences coming to the west to study, purely because the people they met did not understand them.

The Koran

The Quran, romanised as Koran or Qur'an is believed to be the revealed word of God as dictated to Muhammad by the angel gabriel. It was written in arabic so english translations are not accepted and most of the Koran is taught in arabic. Needless to say there have been many translations into english. The Dawood translation is considered the most user-friendly. I have found a document but it seems to be 'verse' only so I would advise buying a copy. I also have a copy of a translation by M.A.S. AbdelHaleem. I must admit I haven't read the Koran.

This is going to be quite a random selection of resources, forgive me for the order, this is just as they come to me:

The Yacoubian Building – an excellent novel on life in Egypt (BoN entry)

Response to Islam from Portugal in 'The Lusiads' (BoN entry)

Spycast – Author debriefing

Mastermind: The Many Faces of the 9/11 Architect, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed ***Bias alert*** spycast is biased towards the security services but still useful.

Krista Tippett – On Being

Krista Tippett has a knack of finding intriguing topics of all types in religion and finding obscure ideas and speakers. I admire her work, even though I have only listened to a few shows. Each of her shows is given a podcast and there is an almighty archive of shows on everything you could think of. I did a search for shows on Islam and found at least 20. Go explore, listen to a few.


Islam has a rich heritage. During the middle ages, when Christianity was in the doldrums it was Islam that was at the height of intellectual prowess. It was only in Arabic that many ideas in science and medicine were brought to the west. There is a rich store of poetry, literature and art to be found if you only want to go and find it.

Arabian nights. There is a new translation of Arabian nights by Malcolm Lyons (2010 in 3 volumes).  This translation is wonderful, full of life and vivid, fantastic adventures. This is the sort of thing that was told around the campfire in the desert and it has inspired probably the majority of fantasy writers up to now, only most of them did not have this fantastic translation. This will give you a sense of the mystery and intrigue of the arab world – an insight into a very different place to where we live now.

See the following previous Books of Note entries

The rise of Islam

Again I haven't read widely on this subject but I would recommend Karen Armstrong, her book Islam: A short history, looks to be as good as any. 

Why did Islam rise up and ignite the area of the middle east? This is indeed a fascinating question and I am sure there are books out there. As is normally case, much research is required.

What is Jihad?

See wikipedia:

Commonly thought to mean 'holy war' in a strict sense it means 'struggle'. The majority of muslims see this as in inner struggle for purity. It is a minority who quest for a violent struggle against the enemies of Islam. This is worthwhile investigating and researching.

See also this 'Books of Note' entry on Karen Armstrong -


A classic of poetry, translated many times, mysticism with a distinctly philosophical twist.

Popularised by Coleman Barks but Rumi has a rich heritage with many translations, fascinating and mystical. 

Sufi whirl dervish

Performance in Istabul of whirling dervish dance.

Ney flute
The ney (Persian: نی/نای; Turkish: ney; Azerbaijani: ney; Arabic: ناي; also nai, nye, nay, gagri tuiduk, or karghy tuiduk, Kurdish: Shimshal) is an Iranian A.K.A. Persian end-blown flute that figures prominently in Middle Eastern music. In some of these musical traditions, it is the only wind instrument used. The ney has been played continuously for 4,500–5,000 years, making it one of the oldest musical instruments still in use.
"The Persian ney consists of a hollow cylinder with finger-holes. Sometimes a brass or plastic mouthpiece is placed at the top to protect the wood from damage, but this plays no role in the sound production."[1] The ney consists of a piece of hollow cane or reed with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole. Modern neys may be made instead of metal or plastic tubing. The pitch of the ney varies depending on the region and the finger arrangement. A highly-skilled ney player can reach more than three octaves, though it is more common to have several "helper" neys to cover different pitch ranges or to facilitate playing technically difficult passages in other dastgahs or maqams.

What is halal?

Halal is the term used for food that is allowed to be eaten according to Islamic law. The following is expressly forbidden:

A variety of substances are considered as harmful (haraam) for humans to consume and, therefore, forbidden as per various Qurʼanic verses:
  • Animals slaughtered in the name of anyone but "Allah". All that has been dedicated or offered in sacrifice to an idolatrous altar or saint or a person considered to be "divine"[Quran 2:173] [Quran 5:3]
  • Carrion (carcasses of dead animals)[Quran 2:173]
  • An animal that has been strangled, beaten (to death), killed by a fall, gored (to death), savaged by a beast of prey (unless finished off by a human)[Quran 5:3]
  • Food over which Allah's name is not pronounced [Quran 6:121]
There is also a prescribed method of slaughtering animals. For full information see

The Islamic calendar

Note the months of the year and the days of the week.


The following link is to a page full of resources on the response of Christianity to Islam. Useful – explore if you wish.

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