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The best books on Islam

recommended by Shazia Khan

Reporter for the BBC World Service and Radio 4, who specialises in reporting on faith and culture selects five books on Islam

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Your first choice is The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

This is a very poetic book. It’s a series of 26 philosophical essays tackling lots of different issues. It’s basically about the chosen one, called Al-mustafa, and people come to him and ask him questions about love, marriage, and children – really the whole spectrum of life’s issues. And he shares his pearls of wisdom with these people. It is a really fascinating, beautifully written book. It is very profound and transcends religion. [donation]

It doesn’t really matter what your religious background is when you are reading this. In a way, what it shows is that, despite religion, we all have a lot in common and there are basic human truths that we should all aspire to.

All sorts of people, from teachers to hermits to poets, ask him different questions. So, for example, someone asks him about marriage, and I remember this in particular, because when I got married I was looking for a reading that I could use at one of my ceremonies and I found this from The Prophet.

But what he says is based on Islamic teachings?

Yes, it is a very Sufi-inspired book, so this is the esoteric, mystical side of Islam. But, I wouldn’t say that the book is specifically Islamic, even though it is set against that background. It transcends that.

Your next book touches on the opposite side of Islam. This is The Islamist by Ed Husain.

Yes, if you think of Sufi Islam at one end of the spectrum you’ve then got Jihadist Islam at the other end, and both are disapproving of each other.

This is a very different type of book. While the first is very philosophical and mystical this one is looking at Britain in the 1990s and one boy’s experience of being drawn into a more extreme type of Islam. He was drawn into a group called the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is regarded as an extremist group in many parts of the world. So it is a personal account of his life in Britain. But it is more than that because it is giving us an insight into the Muslim student movement in the 1990s. It gives a glimpse of what it was that got young boys into these types of groups.

They felt excluded from Britain; they couldn’t relate to Britain or their parents; they needed a sense of belonging, and it touches on all these issues. It is a very frank discussion of what was going on in Britain at that time. It is also really interesting because he is talking about real people and real institutions and real Muslim groups in Britain and in particular London. As a Muslim I know the places he is talking about and it is really interesting to see what he has to say.

It is a controversial book though. Particularly within Muslim quarters, not everyone received it very well. It was seen as a bit of a kiss and tell. People have questioned why he chose to write it.

Because he went on to reinvent himself and turned away from extremism?

Yes, he has his own think tank and he is seen as an advisor on Muslim issues in the UK. I am not so up to date on what he is doing now but I found it interesting to read his personal story and a lot of that is because I was growing up at the same time.

What brought about his turnaround?

I think his family background was much more Sufi. And two things triggered his move away from extremism. In the book there was a young Nigerian Christian boy who was murdered and that really gave him a bit of a shock, and his future wife started to pull him away from extremism.

Your next book is a real story even though it is not sold as such, Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul.

This is really a fantastically written book by a Norwegian journalist who went to stay with an Afghan family for a few months. And the reason why it is so cleverly written is because it is written as a story but it is actually based on the author’s own experience of living with this family called Khan. She writes it in a literary way – we are reading about characters, their feelings and what they are thinking. But it’s based on what she was told by various people from the Khan family.

Some of them don’t come out of it very well, do they, especially the men?

Yes, the book is looking at an Afghan family living in Kabul shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It’s really interesting because we are learning about the legacy of the Taliban. She touches on all sorts of issues and the central part of it is the male dominance of that society and the role of women.

And, of course, after the Taliban that started changing.

Their strict religious dominance had stopped girls being able to go to school but when they left girls could start going back to school. There were no religious police roaming the streets. But, of course, there were lots of remnants of Taliban thinking and the male dominance was one of them.

The bookseller has two wives. He takes a considerably younger 16-year-old wife. So the book touches on polygamy, marriage proposals and how young women are particularly sought after by these older men. Obviously it is looking at religion, but it is also looking at the cultural expectations at such a critical time for that country.

Your fourth book is also set in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Yes, this is his debut novel. I think this is one of the most beautifully written books. It’s one of my favourites. It is so poignant. It follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable. They spend idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors until an unspeakable event changes the nature of their relationship for ever.

It is a very powerful story with some really haunting images but, of course, it is focusing on Afghanistan in the 1970s rather than 2001 like the previous book. The Bookseller is talking about post-Taliban and The Kite Runner is looking at the portrait of Afghanistan pre-Taliban, and also when the war happens and the Taliban kicks in. So it spreads across a couple of decades. It’s the story of friendship, betrayal and one man’s journey to try and redeem himself.

And in terms of Islam?

Well, it shows that Afghanistan is not just dominated by the Taliban take on Islam because it is showing the country in the 1970s when people had a much more moderate view. And I find that very interesting because it is not how we see Afghanistan now, so it is really showing a different side to it. But that also applies to Islam – how you can have different shades of Islam.

What about your final book, Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea?

It’s a 21st-century look at Saudi, one of the most secretive societies in the world. There was a lot of hype about this book. The author was likened to Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City. So this was the Eastern version but without the sex!

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It was a glimpse into this secret society and that is what drew me to it. It talks about dating, relationships, love, Islam and expectations. And of course Saudi is a very conservative Islamic society.

Does it explore how the women really feel, because often in the West we project our views on to how women there feel about their situation and sometimes we get it wrong?

Well, I don’t think it challenges stereotypes about Saudi. It still shows it to be a very male-dominated society where the women feel stifled. There are so many expectations put on them in terms of who they marry, what it means to be a good Muslim girl.

It all sounds very Jane Austen.

It does. Although I didn’t think it was particularly well written. May be that was lost in translation, but it is still an interesting world to find out more about. Despite being such a male-dominated and conservative Islamic society, the women there still have hopes and dreams like women worldwide.

May 31, 2010

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Shazia Khan

Shazia Khan

Shazia Khan is a radio and TV reporter. She reports for the BBC World Service and Radio 4 and specialises in reporting on faith and culture. She has presented numerous documentaries on subjects such as women and beauty, sacred music and gay Muslims.

Shazia Khan

Shazia Khan

Shazia Khan is a radio and TV reporter. She reports for the BBC World Service and Radio 4 and specialises in reporting on faith and culture. She has presented numerous documentaries on subjects such as women and beauty, sacred music and gay Muslims.