Politics & Society

The best books on The Essence of Islam

recommended by Ahmad Thomson

British Lawyer who converted to Islam in 1973 and founded Wynne Chambers - one of the first chambers to specialise in Islamic law in the UK - discusses five books on the essence of Islam

  • 1

    The Book of Strangers
    by Ian Dallas

  • 2

    The Way of Muhammad
    by Shaykh Abdalqadir As-Sufi

  • 3

    The Noble Qur’an
    by Translated by Abdalhaqq and Aisha Bewley

  • 4

    Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik
    by Translated by Aisha Bewley and Ya'qub Johnson

  • 5

    Ash-Shifa of Qadi ‘Iyad
    by Translated by Aisha Bewley

British Lawyer who converted to Islam in 1973 and founded Wynne Chambers - one of the first chambers to specialise in Islamic law in the UK - discusses five books on the essence of Islam

Ahmad Thomson

British Lawyer Ahmad Thomson converted to Islam in 1973. He is a noted speaker on Islamic matters and an author of several books on the subject. Thomson is a member of the Murabitun movement, founded by Ian Dallas, and a member and co-founder of the Association of Muslim Lawyers. In 1994, he founded Wynne Chambers: one of the first chambers to specialise in Islamic law as well as English law. He has actively campaigned for elements of Muslim personal law to be accommodated by English civil law. He says a whole zone of knowledge about Islamic truth and its wisdom has been kept at bay, if you like, by established educational institutions in what’s called the West. He tries to redress the balance here.

Ahmad Thomson on Wikipedia
Wynne Chambers

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Tell me about The Book of Strangers by Ian Dallas.

If you turn the clock back to the late 1960s, early 70s, everybody was looking for something and barking up many different trees. I had looked at many different philosophies and religions and writings, I’d got to the point where I’d read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and I always remember one line in that book where he says, ‘You could tell by the way his hand rested on his thigh that he was a man of knowledge.’ That indication of knowledge being something existential and embodied, rather than theoretical, was something that immediately attracted me. I met Ian Dallas in the early 70s, and what struck me at our first meeting was that he hardly spoke about Islam at all. He spoke about this society, and about how when you look at it, for all the freedom that people have, in many ways it’s a sick society.

Who is Ian Dallas?

At that point he was a muqaddam, the representative in London and America of a well-known shaykh from Morocco, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Al-Habib. He seemed to know everyone who was worth knowing at the time. He knew the Beatles, he knew Edith Piaf, he’d acted in a couple of films by Federico Fellini. He’d written some of the very early plays for BBC when they were first starting out. So he’d been at this pivotal point in the development of the media as we understand it today. He was clearly someone who’d gone through everything that people were looking for, and then beyond that – I found that very interesting. And in The Book of Strangers I saw what I had been looking for: it was a description of a society that was very much information-based, but very poor in terms of wisdom. In the initial stages of the book there’s a young man at a university, thirsty for knowledge but not knowing where to find it. Looking at all the people around him, he says: they don’t understand life, and then he goes out in search of this Book of Strangers.

It’s a work of science fiction, isn’t it?

It’s not science fiction, but it’s set at a point in the future, where very few people have access to physical books – all ‘knowledge’ is on microfiche, or electronically recorded data. So he foresaw the age of digital information.

And he envisions a people cut off from knowledge?

It’s an information-based society, where even students are monitored, and their access to information is restricted according to what is deemed necessary for their requirements. So there’s that Big Brother element that you’re not allowed to find out too much. But then the main character in the book decides to leave. He has this meeting with a nomad, and the nomad says, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow at dawn, if you want come with me.’ And they’re going out into the desert, beyond this bubble of so-called civilisation, into a completely different world, which this society would define as backward and primitive, but, in fact, amongst whose people are people of great wisdom and knowledge. Although it was written before the film, it’s a bit like THX 1138, George Lucas’s first film: it’s that journey from a completely covered-over society, where everything is regulated and monitored and conditioned, and making an escape from that into the open world, into the fresh air of creation.

Your next book is also by Ian Dallas, writing as Shaykh Abdalqadir As-Sufi.

The Way of Muhammad – this was written not many years after Ian Dallas had accepted Islam, and again one finds in it this extraordinary illumination and understanding of the meaning of the various acts of worship. It draws on the Qur’an, it draws on the sayings of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, it draws on the writings of some of the great people of wisdom of the past. The purpose of the book is to convey something you were never taught at school – it’s actually talking about a whole zone of knowledge that has been kept at bay, if you like, by established educational institutions in what’s called the West – but west of what?

Is it a critique of the capitalist system?

Not really. I think later works by Shaykh Abdalqadir are much more critical of the dominant culture, if you can grace it with that word. But the point of this book is not to say this is what’s wrong with the world. It’s really based on the five pillars of Islam, which are all to do with the worship of the Divine. And it’s going into the meaning of what these acts of worship are and what they do to you. The more that you follow the way of Muhammad, the more you embody what he embodied – the more you will understand what he understood. And, importantly, what this book does is actually trace in detail what the path of knowledge is, and what the man of knowledge is, and what the knowledge is. Shaykh Abdalqadir has a gift of articulating knowledge one had sensed, but couldn’t put into words, and somehow when you read it you say, yes, that’s what I was trying to put my finger on.

The Qur’an?

When I accepted Islam I’d done it on the basis of meeting Shaykh Abdalqadir and the people around him, and I realised that I knew nothing about it really. So obviously one of the first things was to learn the basics – and I thought I’d better read the Qur’an because that’s the book of the Muslims! At the time I had the Arberry translation which is accurate, and which in some measure conveys the poetry of the very pure Arabic of the original. In fact, at the time of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, some people accepted Islam on the basis of the purity of the Arabic in which the Qur’an is written: they said, ‘This couldn’t have been written by a human being!’ As the years passed I had access to the Muhammad Pickthall and Yusuf Ali translations, which are written in a rather Biblical English. Their use of vocabulary was not always appropriate, because sometimes it included words that have taken on certain connotations through the way they are used in the European Christian tradition. For example, the word ‘sin’ is used to translate the word dhanb in Arabic – but dhanb really means a wrong action which holds you back from the mercy of your Lord. So this is a completely different way of looking at a wrong action, and there’s no guilt attached to it.
The Bewley translation is a beautiful translation, where some of the key terms are not translated but transliterated, with a small glossary at the back defining what each term means. This helps you to keep to the original meaning of the Qur’an – it’s a clear, crisp rendering of its meaning in English. I often read a translation of an ayat and I think I never remember reading that before, and I compare it with how Pickthall or Yusuf Ali translated it – and I see that they didn’t quite hit the mark.

Tell me about The Muwatta of Imam Malik.

Imam Malik lived about 100 years after Muhammad, in the 8th century CE. After the Prophet’s death Islam was very much concentrated in Madina, but then it spread extraordinarily quickly, almost at the speed of light. It was initially spread by the Companions of the Prophet, and then the Followers – who had met the Companions of the Prophet, but hadn’t met the Prophet Muhammad. And the heart of this process was Madina, and people would come from all over the rapidly expanding Muslim world to learn, and to get knowledge by direct transmission from the people of Madina. Imam Malik was one of the Followers of the Followers, and he became established as one of the great people of knowledge in Madina.
Perhaps his most well-known book is The Muwatta, which means ‘the well-trodden path’. It’s like survival-kit Islam if you like – this is the essentials, this is what you have to know. And so you’d find all the great people of knowledge of that time would know both the Qur’an and the Muwatta by heart. It’s not just a collection of sayings – it’s about action, about behaviour: often he says: ‘This is what the people of knowledge (in Madina) do.’ There are many wonderful stories about Imam Malik. People would come from many hundreds of miles just to ask a question: he would ask: ‘Do you want me to transmit a hadith to you (including the human chain of transmission all the way back to the person who saw it or heard it), or do you have a question about jurisprudence?’ And often if they had a question of jurisprudence, he might do a complete washing of the body beforehand, and put on perfume, and listen to the question, and then say: ‘I don’t know.’ So there was no pretence to knowledge of what he did not know.
We’re 14 centuries-plus from the time of the Prophet now, and if you look at the history of Islam there have been high points and low points. As within any religion, you find people of wisdom and also people of great ignorance who use Islam for political expediency, who distort it knowingly or unknowingly. And so, for anyone who wants to follow in the dust of the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him, you have to get to the point before there are any schools of jurisprudence, before Sunni and Shia – and if you go to that point there's no argument, just knowledge. For anyone who wants to get to that point, and in so doing bypass some of the nonsense that’s around today – whether it’s people who don’t know what they’re talking about or ignorant attacks in the media – if you want to stay clear of that and get back to a pure Islam, this is an essential book. Translated by Aisha Bewley and Ya'qub Johnson

This is another extraordinary book. It was written by Qadi (judge) ‘Iyad, who lived in Spain in the 12th century CE, when it was ruled by Muslims. He was a great scholar, and by this time there were so many collections of hadith and commentaries on the Qur’an that it could be bewildering for a seeker who wanted to know more about the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him. As today, there were questions of: where do I begin and how do I know what’s reliable? As with Imam Malik, who was 100 per cent reliable, with confirmed sources, Qadi ‘Iyad had read it all, and had considered it all, and was intimate with the events that happened in the lifetime of the Prophet – and he puts these events together in a way that makes it digestible. What Qadi ‘Iyad was able to do was somehow translate his love of the Prophet into an account that was not limiting or limited and was reliable.
You have a section of the book, for example, about the Prophet’s miracles – and we say that his greatest miracle was the Qur’an, because he was illiterate, and yet had this revelation in pure Arabic that he couldn’t have made up, which contained knowledge he couldn’t possibly have had unless it was revealed to him. But, in fact, he had many other well-documented miracles. For example, Qadi ‘Iyad talks of events in the Prophet’s life like the well-known miraculous night journey, where he travelled on a winged beast called the buraq from Makka to Jerusalem and prayed there with all the Prophets who’d preceded him, and then travelled through the Seven Heavens, beyond the limit of forms in the Unseen, and beyond that into the realms of no-form, and into the presence of Allah – although we know from the Qur’an that Allah is not ‘far away’, but nearer to us than our jugular veins – and then returned to Makka, all in an instant. This journey has been debated for the last 14 centuries, but in the Shifa you have an account of it with all the evidences and proofs and what has been recorded, and he puts it together in a way that you can arrive at an understanding of what actually happened as best you can.
All these five books are reliable books, and inspirational books, for people who want to ask, what is Islam really about? As they say, the nearer you get to the source, the purer the drink. If you go to the source of the Thames it doesn’t taste the same as where it reaches the sea.

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Ahmad Thomson

British Lawyer Ahmad Thomson converted to Islam in 1973. He is a noted speaker on Islamic matters and an author of several books on the subject. Thomson is a member of the Murabitun movement, founded by Ian Dallas, and a member and co-founder of the Association of Muslim Lawyers. In 1994, he founded Wynne Chambers: one of the first chambers to specialise in Islamic law as well as English law. He has actively campaigned for elements of Muslim personal law to be accommodated by English civil law. He says a whole zone of knowledge about Islamic truth and its wisdom has been kept at bay, if you like, by established educational institutions in what’s called the West. He tries to redress the balance here.

Ahmad Thomson on Wikipedia
Wynne Chambers