While Ramadan is most commonly known as the month during which Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset, it is also a month of increased contemplation and reflection. This month-long spiritual retreat brings with it an opportunity to get a better understanding of one’s self and spiritual state, and to rejuvenate the body and heart. For many Muslims, spending more time with books on or about Islam is central to this period of contemplation. But as Ramadan enters further into mainstream American consciousness, people of different spiritual backgrounds are becoming more aware of the month. The increased visibility of Ramadan provides everyone an opportunity to deepen their understanding and engagement with the Islamic literary and spiritual tradition.
This list was created with a broad audience in mind, including both Muslims and people of other faiths, to provide some books for the month of Ramadan for a wide variety of purposes. Whether you want to familiarize yourself with the faith and its spiritual depth, get a richer understanding of Islam in America, or just read a heartfelt novel written by a Muslim author, I invite you to check out one or more books on this list during this month.
The Conference of the Birds
By Farid ud-Din Attar
Translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis
The Conference of the Birds is one of the most well-known Persian epic poems in the Islamic tradition. Written in the 12th century in the city of Nishapur (in present-day Iran) by Farid ud-Din Attar, a master of Sufi poetry, it tells an allegorical story of a group of birds who embark on a journey to find their king, the Simorgh bird. Each bird who ventures on this journey has a different weakness, and in journeying to the Simorgh they are forced to learn the true nature of their weakness and how to overcome it in order to reach the Simorgh. The poem as a whole is an allegory for the journey of one’s soul in pursuit of spiritual illumination and Union with God, and the various vices and spiritual deficiencies that must be overcome along the way, such as excess love of wealth and the material world. This excellent translation by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis maintains the rhyme scheme throughout the work and presents its literary beauty and spiritual insight, and is a great introduction to classical Persian Sufi poetry and the spiritual path as understood by Muslims.
Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States
By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
New York University Press
Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a professor at the University of Michigan, analyzes how young American Muslims forge their identities at the intersections of hip hop, Blackness, and Islam. In doing so, they push back against the white supremacy found in American society, but also the Arab and South Asian hegemony found in many American Muslim communities. Islam is often portrayed in American media—and in some Muslims’ own articulation of Islam in America—as a religion of Arab and South Asian immigrants. But such a portrayal erases the native expressions of Islam rooted in the Black American community, and the rich history of Islam in America which stretches back to the country’s founding, as roughly 30% of the enslaved people brought to North America were Muslims, and they made significant contributions to early American life and society. This is a brilliant, sharply written book and is essential for understanding contemporary Islam in the United States.
The Beauty of Your Face
By Sahar Mustafah
W. W. Norton & Company
The Beauty of Your Face, is a heart-wrenching, soulful novel by Palestinian-American writer Sahar Mustafah. The book weaves together two different stories: the first narrates how Afaf Rahman, a young Muslim girl growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs, comes to develop her relationship with Islam while simultaneously navigating familial pain and trauma; and the second follows Afaf, now an adult and the principal at an all-girls Muslim high school, as she responds to a gunman entering her school and opening fire. While the book explores heavy themes of gun violence, Islamophobia, and shattered familial relationships, its beauty and sensitivity cannot be overstated. This is one of the most moving novels I’ve read in years and is a thoughtful exploration of how one grows into and with faith in the face of pain. (I wrote a full-length review of the book for South Side Weekly, which can be found here.)
The Monk of Mokha
By Dave Eggers
Coffee holds a special place in Islamic history and Muslim life. Sometimes referred to as the Muhammadan Bean, coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and traveled to Yemen where it became the favored drink among Sufi orders, who would brew it as a part of their spiritual rituals to stay up at night and perform extra acts of worship, spiritual remembrance, and meditation. This history is woven into the riveting book The Monk of Mokha, the unbelievable true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American man who grew up in San Francisco, fell in love with coffee, and risked his life to travel to Yemen in the midst of civil war to revive the cultivation of speciality coffee in Yemen. This is a story not only about coffee and entrepreneurship, but about what it means to revive and connect with one’s cultural and spiritual heritage, and the lengths one is willing to go in this pursuit.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
By Malcolm X & Alex Haley
It is not an exaggeration to say that Malcolm X is one of the most important figures in the history of Islam in America. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a classic text for many reasons, not limited to its searing insights about race, white supremacy, and American society, which still ring true to this day. I first read this book when I was 16, and I am among the countless number of people whose lives were forever changed by it. In the spirit of Ramadan, the life of Malcolm X exemplifies a sincere quest for truth, and the willingness to transform one’s life in pursuit of the truth, by any means necessary. Malcolm X is widely revered and celebrated as a saintly figure in the American Musilm community today, and his life story of spiritual transformation, sacrifice, and the pursuit of justice represent the embodiment of some of the highest ideals of Islam.
Women and Gender in the Qur’an
By Celene Ibrahim
Oxford University Press
Women and Gender in the Qur’an by Celene Ibrahim is a comprehensive indexing and thematic analysis of where, when, and how women and gender are mentioned and discussed in the Qur’an. Ibrahim pays specific attention to the context and substance of the ways in which women and gender are mentioned in relation to female sex and sexuality; kin, procreation, parenting, and family life more generally; women speakers, interlocutors, and witnesses; and women as exemplars and roleplayers in political contexts. This book is a thoughtful analysis and exploration that brings to light connections between the physical and metaphysical understandings of selfhood and gender in the Qur’an.
Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy
By Jonathan A. C. Brown
Misquoting Muhammad by Jonathan A. C. Brown, a professor at Georgetown University, is an accessible yet erudite intellectual history of how the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad have been preserved and interpreted in Islamic history, with a focus on Sunni tradition. In addition to the Qur’an, the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad are the wellspring from which the theological, legal, ethical, and spiritual traditions of Islam have emerged. But how do we know what the Prophet said, and how did the various schools of intellectual thought develop based on their interpretation of what he said? This book provides an account of the emergence of competing ways of verifying, interpreting, and utilizing the legacy of the Prophet, and how the Islamic tradition born out of his teachings have been negotiated and renegotiated across time, up through the present day. This book is one of the best places to start with when seeking to understand the Islamic intellectual tradition.
Essential Koran: The Heart of Islam – An Introductory Selection of Readings from the Qur’an
Translated and Presented by Thomas Cleary
It is impossible to overstate the role of the Qur’an in the everyday lives of Muslims, but also in Islamic art, philosophy, spirituality, law, and ethics. Everything ranging from the study of melodic scales and calligraphy to grammar, theology, law, and spirituality trace their origins to the Qur’an. Central to the Qur’an is the complexity and beauty of the Arabic in which it was revealed, and so any translation of the Qur’an falls short in conveying its full meaning and depth. But what is nice about this selection from Thomas Cleary is that it renders verses from the Qur’an in short stanzas, as if they are poems, which captures some of the aesthetic grace of the text. This selection does not contain any commentary on the verses themselves, but it provides a nice introduction to some of the Qur’an’s chapters and verses. For a full translation that not only features commentary but a thorough introduction—as well as essays written by leading scholars on topics such as death and the afterlife in the Qur’an, the Qur’an and Sufism, the Qur’an and schools of Islamic theology and philosophy, and more—check out The Study Qur’an.
Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition
By Omid Safi
Yale University Press
This is a selection of original poetic translations by Omid Safi, a professor at Duke University, of verses from the Qur’an, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and the poetry of some of the greatest spiritual sages of the Islamic tradition, including Farid ud-Din Attar, Hafez of Shiraz, and Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Safi’s translations get to the core of a message that has permeated the heart of the Islamic spiritual tradition since the time of the Prophet, as Muslims have understood and practiced it for over 1400 years: the path to God and spiritual illumination is a path of love and service.
Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
By Omid Safi
Of course, one cannot speak of Islam without speaking of the Prophet Muhammad who delivered the message of Islam in the seventh century. When I was in undergrad, I lived down the street from Powell’s Bookstore in Chicago, and I vividly remember walking in early during my freshman year and picking this book up off the shelves. I also remember fondly the thrill of reading it, as both a practicing Muslim and as someone seeking to know more, not just about the Prophet, but about how people know and have known the Prophet Muhammad. A biography of the Prophet, Memories of Muhammad is also a contextualization of how the Prophet is understood by Muslims and what role he and his life play in Muslim life, as well as how the Prophet has been understood historically and in contemporary times by people of other faiths. What emerges is a readable, layered portrait of the Prophet’s life and legacy in conversation with some of the questions that people unfamiliar with him have about his life and legacy.
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.