Nonfiction Books » Religion

The best books on The Meaning of Ramadan

recommended by Tharik Hussain

Ramadan Mubarak: A Little Inspiration for the Blessed Month by Tharik Hussain

out now

Ramadan Mubarak: A Little Inspiration for the Blessed Month
by Tharik Hussain


During Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast during daylight hours and refrain from sinful behaviours. We asked Tharik Hussain, author of acclaimed travelogue Minarets in the Mountains and the new companion guide Ramadan Mubarak, to choose five texts that offer readers insight into the true meaning of Ramadan.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Ramadan Mubarak: A Little Inspiration for the Blessed Month by Tharik Hussain

out now

Ramadan Mubarak: A Little Inspiration for the Blessed Month
by Tharik Hussain

Buy all books

Ramadan Mubarak, Tharik. I believe the Islamic holy month is upon us. Would you talk a little about what Ramadan stands for?

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. For most people, Ramadan is tied up with the idea of fasting. From the outside, it can look like we are all just starving ourselves and walking around like zombies. In truth, that’s how it can feel to begin with! But what Ramadan really is for me—and for those that truly understand it—is an embodiment of the most beautiful aspects of Islam. It is about heightened spirituality. The food and drink are a metaphor for the material world; when we deny ourselves food and drink, we are asking: if you can deny yourself the essentials for survival, do you really need all the other things? What we’re supposed to be doing in Ramadan is taking a moment to stop, take stock of our lives— in that respect, it’s very similar to how secular culture experiences January. You sign up to the gym, give up alcohol, meat, and so on, but often, after a week you realise that you’ve slipped, whereas because Ramadan is an obligation, observant Muslims have to stop, at least for a month. That’s why Muslims refer to it as a ‘gift.’ In that respect, it’s a bit like when you are young, and your parents tell you to do something, but you don’t really understand the rationale until you are older.

In my book Minarets in the Mountains, I talk about how I hated Ramadan when I was young and would sneak off to eat, then pretend to my parents I’d been fasting all day, because I didn’t understand the wisdom. Now I’m older I appreciate how life gets away from us; our spirituality and vices are difficult to keep in check. What Ramadan does is say: okay, that’s fine, we understand you need this, so we’re going to make it an obligation for you to stop and at the very least fast, and while you do that, you might begin to appreciate how easy it is to do away with the vices, bad habits and other things you’re finding difficult to manage.

In the past, I’ve used Ramadan to give up smoking. I’d test myself to go from Ramadan to Ramadan. That’s why, when I speak to people about Ramadan, I ask them: okay, beyond the food, what else do you need to check in with? What else might need curbing or reining in? That might be attachment to our phones, social media, our manner and attitudes towards people, poor diet, maybe even the way we speak to the bus driver or the person who makes our coffee in the morning… it’s all connected. Ramadan allows us to reflect on even the ‘small’ things.

Ramadan is also about giving. By fasting and observing abstinence, you start to recognise you don’t need as much and maybe empathise with those that have very little or nothing at all, which is why every year, the Muslim community breaks records on how much it gives to charity during Ramadan. Like I say, Ramadan really reflects the most beautiful aspects of Islam.

Earlier you explained to us that there aren’t many specific books about Ramadan aimed at the general reader, but that your selection offers a broader view of the values and history embedded within the practice. I should also mention your own new book, Ramadan Mubarak, which is a rather beautiful gift book offering inspirational and reflective quotations.

Usually I write narrative nonfiction: travel and history. I was approached by the publisher, Summersdale to produce this book, after they included my Hajj Diaries in their anthology, The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century. They saw I was comfortable writing about my faith, and wanted someone to put together a book that embodied the spirit of Ramadan.

After initial doubts, I saw it as an opportunity to represent the beauty and deeper meanings of Ramadan. As a gift book, it was always going to be a collection of verses from the Quran and Hadiths (Prophetic traditions), as well as quotes by inspiring Muslims past and present. It also includes tips for how people can get the most out of Ramadan, as well as a little bit of historicity around the festival. So it’s also a book that educates people about Ramadan by getting across the spirit of Ramadan and is meant to be accessible for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Yes, I think a lot of non-believers are interested in learning more about Muslim beliefs and practices. And this list of recommended books should help. Shall we start by discussing Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by the Islamic scholar Martin Lings. It’s often described as the definite biography of the Prophet and was first published in 1983.

The reason this particular biography is so well respected by the Muslim community is that it was the first one written by someone who is a Muslim whose native tongue is English but is able to access the original Arabic sources—the sources closest to the time of the Prophet. Ling primarily bases this book on eighth- and ninth-century sources, such as the early historian Ibn Ishāq. He also uses the earliest collections of Hadith, including the most respected one by Imam Bukhārī. On occasion, he even references the Bible. As a result, many of us Muslims in the Western hemisphere who are unable to access those sources, absolutely loved this glimpse of the Prophet’s life through them, especially because Lings writes well, making it a wonderful and comprehensive narration of his life.

Since then, others have also written wonderful biographies of Muhammad and these usually use Lings as a source. We’ll talk about one of those authors shortly. But at that time, it was like, finally! Somebody was writing the Prophet’s biography from a Muslim perspective in the English language and it wasn’t polemic. Lings is clearly a believer, and some people may have issues with some of his statements because they can’t be verified by non-Muslim sources, though that is unfortunately a matter of circumstance. Historians will tell you, much of Muhammed’s life is unverifiable in the modern academic sense because most sources we rely on are Muslim ones, although there are a few Persian, Byzantine sources.

“By fasting and observing abstinence, you start to recognise you don’t need as much”

As this is an interview about Ramadan, I should mention that one of my favourite sections is the beautifully detailed and almost ‘intimate’ narration of the most important day in Ramadan, Lay laytul Qadr—the Night of Power—when Muhammad received the first ever Qur’anic revelations from the angel Gabriel, that is, God spoke directly to him. Lings offers a detailed description of how Muhammad would retreat to the cave on Mount Hira to meditate and reflect, and how he had already begun to get an inkling that something was about to happen; we hear Muhammad’s doubts; his fear of being ‘possessed’—how he seeks out and confides in his wife, and his concerns, when the revelations briefly stop soon after, that he may have inadvertently displeased the Divine. It is a powerful glimpse into the most powerful night for Muslims.

What people also loved about this book is the way Lings connects the Prophet’s narrative to that of Ibrahim, contextualising it within the wider Abrahamic timeline.

I’m sure people will find more recent books they prefer, but the fact that this was beautifully written, uses primary sources, and by a believer— one who understands the expectations of a western readership—is why it was so highly respected on both sides of the fence.

A landmark publication, yes. Your second book recommendation is Mumbai To Mecca: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Islam by Ilija Trojanow. Would you talk, first of all, about the pilgrimage to Mecca—or Makkah, the name many Muslims prefer—for the Hajj and give us a sense of the scale of this mass movement?

By the way the Hajj is actually not the biggest Muslim pilgrimage in the world as many people often assume. The biggest is the Shia Arba’in pilgrimage to Karbala, which reportedly attracts 20 million people. When I went on the Hajj—just before Covid, officially there were 2.5 million people, and unofficially as many as four million—a lot of people enter the country before the Hajj and are not always accounted for. The Hajj rites are not just centred on the Kaaba, the black cube in the centre of Makkah. The ‘mini Hajj’, known as the Umrah, can be concluded entirely within the vicinity of the Kaaba, but the Hajj proper involves nights in tents in the desert; time atop Mount Arafat and even sleeping out in the desert in the open air. All of these are based on ancient rites we believe were originally set out by Ibrahim—Abraham—the father of all three monotheistic faiths.

A lot of these rites go back to the story of Ibraham and his second wife, Hagar, which is a story also found in the Bible—Martin Lings refers to it in his book—in which he has to abandon Hagar and his son with her, Ishmael in the desert. This is seen as the foundational story of Makkah as a town. Through the Hajj we reenact some of that story as well as other moments from Ibrahim’s life, such as when he is tested by God; being asked to sacrifice his own son and being tempted by the devil. Each rite, just like Ramadan, is a metaphor for aspects of our own lives.

You might have heard of how we chuck stones at three pillars? These pillars represent the ‘devil’; again, a metaphor for the ‘devil’ within; the vices and challenges we struggle with. In total, over a period of five days, almost four million people are moved from location to location within tiny windows of time. Logistically it’s an absolute nightmare.

I took this book with me on the Hajj. It’s beautifully written, but I hadn’t heard of Trojanow before I picked it up in a charity shop. One section, I remember vividly is when Trojanow is at the pillars and he thinks he is going to die because of the sheer weight of the crowd. He didn’t write this that long ago, so you can imagine how I felt reading it, thinking, my god! I had my elderly mother with me, and her twin, my aunt and her son. There have been some horrific incidents at bottlenecks in the past—I run through some in my Hajj Diaries—but to the credit of the Saudi authorities, they have done a marvellous job in putting in new safety measures. If you want to go chuck the pebbles at the pillars now, they are the size of high-rise towers housed in a structure resembling a multi-story car park. So, they’ve put some of their money to good use, but they really need to get the toilets in the Mina tent city sorted. I struggled there, and I’m somebody who rough camps!

And Trojanow’s book, you’d recommend it?

Absolutely. I loved it. It’s nice and small, so it popped into my bag very easily. It’s a very light and easy read. Some of the chapters are only a page and a half and others are much longer. It’s billed as the Hajj ‘through the eyes of a Westerner, but the heart of a Muslim,’ because he’s a convert to Islam of German-Bulgarian origin.

It’s a wonderful glimpse not only into his journey to the Hajj but his journey to conversion. To tell this, he flits back and forth in time, between Mumbai, where he was working at a kind of school for young ulema (scholars) teaching them English, and his Hajj—one of the great chapters is called Ramadan where he offers a glimpse of his first Ramadan as a new Muslim with the Indian Muslim community he is amongst; the excitement of that first day of fasting and the difficulty of the rest. Trojanow reveals how society changes to the demands of Ramadan, and how the Muslims around him become even more pious. We get a glimpse of a beautiful communal iftar when he breaks fast and his attempts at seclusion in the last ten days of the month, where he says rather than everyday life being interrupted by prayer it is ‘prayer interrupted by everyday needs’. Credit also has to go to the translator, Rebecca Morrison, as the prose is very beautiful. You can imagine, carrying lots of dry guides on how to perform the Hajj, the joy I felt having this beautiful book to dip in and out of.

That’s a great and very personal recommendation, thank you. We return to Saudi Arabia in Mecca: The Sacred City by previous Five Books interviewee Ziauddin Sardar.

Zia is somebody I’ve admired for a long time. He’s also been a great mentor to me, a very generous man in that respect. Here we have a wonderful book that is a biography of a city so often reduced to just the city where the Kaaba, the black cube, is. Zia gives us a series of chapters that take you right back to the pre-Islamic period that look at the city from a host of different perspectives including the commercialisation of the city, how it has been fought over and some really tragic moments too.

What elevates the book for me are the personal narratives Zia weaves in. We begin with Zia on his own pilgrimage stuck in the horrific traffic of Jeddah and later on a mission to find a donkey in the city! It’s witty, it’s funny. He’s a clever writer who uses lots of personal anecdotes to bring it all home for the reader. He also doesn’t shy away from the tougher things. He’s a Muslim, but he’s not there to paint Muslim culture in romantic tones, he’s there to tell it as it is. So, he’s transparent about the fratricide that has taken place amongst rulers of the past, and he offers a most fascinating glimpse into the advent of Wahhabism.

This is the arrival of the harsh, intolerant interpretation of Islam that has led to problematic situations across the world since. Zia takes us back to the beginning, which is meshed with the foundation of the Saudi Kingdom back in the 18th century, when the puritanical preacher Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb partners with Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi dynasty to marry one person’s political ambitions with another’s religious ones.

Zia goes back using people like Ali Bey Abbasi—a Spanish noble and convert—to present the most fascinating account of the Wahabis entering Makkah and the violence that surrounded their brief reign. One of the most amazing things I realised reading the book was that Zia was in Saudi during the Siege of Makkah, which happened the year I was born in 1979. This was the warning I feel the Saudis didn’t heed; the moment Wahhabism came home to roost in the most terrifying manner. Juhayman al-Otaybi—a follower of one of the great Saudi scholars, Ibn Baz—decided to occupy the Kaaba militarily using guns he and his followers smuggled into the sanctuary inside coffins. Whilst there, he declares the Saudi government disbelievers and that the Mahdi had arrived and was with him, the Mahdi is a person who, according to Islamic tradition will arrive at the end of time.

The Saudis have done a great job of sweeping the incident under the carpet. Most people don’t even talk about the siege anymore. Many don’t even know it happened. For the Saudis it was extremely embarrassing, given Juhayman was a student of one of their great scholars. During the eventual trial, he actually came face to face with his teacher. Zia gives us an account of it: the teacher agrees with almost everything Juhayman is accusing the Saudis of, but he cannot legislate the horrific, violent action Juhayman took, and so in the end he was put to death. The eyewitness account Zia gave as someone in Saudi as it happens just blew me away. He describes the initial confusion—have non-Muslims hijacked the place? Is it the Iranians? Then we have the complete mess the Saudis made of things, because they didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and never expected any Muslim would do something like this at the Kaaba. There’s a wonderful moment where Zia describes how CIA agents brought in to help are quickly “converted” to Islam so they can enter the sanctuary to tackle the terrorists. It’s quite brilliant, and anybody that doesn’t know about the siege should definitely read Zia’s account of it.

As well as Al-Abbasi, Zia introduces a number of European travellers that visited the city, including the Swiss Johann Ludwig Burckhardt and Sir Richard Burton as part of a series of wonderful, non-Muslim eyewitness accounts in the book, including the story of the lesser-known Dutch orientalist, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, credited with taking some of the earliest photographs of Makkah and the Hajj. He also recorded, on wax cylinders some of the earliest Quranic recitation made at the Great Mosque around the Kaaba. Recordings that go right back to the Ottoman period of Makkah in the late 19th century.

I think anyone who reads this book will begin to appreciate the city in a more comprehensive manner.

You spoke about defending the faith from prejudice. I think that might tie in with your next book recommendation, Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History. She’s actually a former nun. But I’ve read reviews that this history also functions as something of a defence of the religion and its followers.

I think the fact Karen was a nun makes her more sympathetic to faith in general. Most of us writers with faith respect other people’s decision to follow a different path, and it’s that respect that comes across loud and clear in this short history. Whenever people who don’t really read ask me how to get a snapshot of Islam, I point them to Karen Armstrong’s book, because it’s a wonderful entry point and you could knock it out in a couple of weeks by dipping in and out. This is dense history, but she makes it very accessible and, as opposed to Lings, she takes the archaic language out—in an entry-level book that’s necessary.

And yet it’s comprehensive in so many ways. At the front of the book there is a wonderful timeline, if you don’t read anything else, at least read that to get a sense of what happened and when! The book brings us right up to the modern period, Karen even covers the Islamic presence in Europe, which a lot of people neglect. You know that’s my bugbear. She talks about the Iberian presence—not enough in my opinion and she neglects one or two other important European emirates I would have put in, but I think she can be forgiven given the huge job she was doing and the general blind spot for that particular history.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

I love the fact that Karen even discusses the early theological, intellectual and spiritual divides that most people don’t understand. It’s bizarre how sometimes people can come from say a Christian background and are able to tell you all about the different Christian sects and groups. But then when they talk about Muslims, its as if we are one monolithic group of people, very frustrating. Every religion has divisions and different sects, and Karen explains how that came about in a very digestible manner, offering the reader glimpses of really interesting figures from each movement along the way. She’s also comfortable contextualising incidents and quite brave, especially around incidents that are sometimes weaponised—for example, the way the massacre of the men of the Jewish tribe of Qurayzah in Madinah came about, during the time of the Prophet—an incident often cited—cynically—as the beginnings of anti-Semitism in Islam. Those that say this then conveniently neglect the next 14 centuries of coexistence and flourishing together in almost every corner of the world, as though that never happened. She presents the context and explains why there was a ruthlessness to it— telling readers ‘it would be a mistake to judge it by the standards of our own time’ – this was the world they all lived in and those were the rules of that world. I appreciated she was trying to be fair, and trying to show that nothing happens in a vacuum. That was the seventh century. It was a brutal world. Many things happened then that most modern Muslims wouldn’t put up with today, because humanity has evolved.

When I pick up a book on Islam, I turn to the sources. Not many popular books will provide them. I loved that Karen didn’t use too many orientalist voices, in the Saidian sense. There are one or two in there, they’re unavoidable. But then she goes to the more empathetic and sympathetic Western scholars such as Montgomery Watt and John Esposito. Of course, the great Edward Said is in there, and others that I really admire like Annemarie Schimmel. And then, she cites a host of respected Muslim sources including Lings’ book, which is a thumbs up from me.

All of that made me feel it was a book that I could take a lot from as a Muslim. In every book there are flaws and there are good things, you take the good and leave the bad. Some of her interpretations are not how I would have read things, but that’s inevitable and she’s not a Muslim and is looking at his life as an outsider. Scholars of Sīra, the study of the Prophet’s life, might find flaws in the book. But I’m not a scholar and I felt, given it is talking to a Western audience, it’s a great introduction as is Karen’s biography of Muhammed.

I think that brings us to our final text: Islamic Mystical Poetry, as edited and translated by Mahmoud Jamal. Why do you think this is a good book to read during Ramadan?

As I said earlier, Ramadan really embodies the spirit and spirituality of Islam, and whether you are looking at Islam, or any other faith, the mystical figures always fasted. Some of them reportedly didn’t do much else, with the more extreme ascetics, fasting intermittently their whole lives. So, Ramadan is a perfect time for mystical poetry. Even the most conservative, puritanical Muslim has to engage with the spiritual aspect of Islam in Ramadan, because it demands that of us.

The reason this book is great—although I have my issues with it—is that it’s a translation by someone who has actually done translation work, and is a believer. I’m very much of the opinion that believers should be translating religious poetry and religious books. If not, and this is a real sore point for Muslims, there is a danger people take the work of great believers and de-Islamise it. For whatever reason. Perhaps they think that makes it more palatable. I don’t know, but it can come across quite cynical and frankly, offensive.

It’s not right to de-Islamise someone like Rumi for example. Rumi was a steadfast believer, he had faith beyond anything any of us might come close to achieving—that’s what he was really drunk on. He was also a scholar of Islam, first and foremost. And yet I grew up reading ‘translations’ of Rumi, that I later realised were not translations at all.

Jamal, the editor of this collection, is transparent that some of the work is his editing of another person’s translations and at other times he is translating the work himself. It’s comprehensive in its chronology— going right back to the early Islamic periods; it got me really excited because it starts with Rabia, this amazing early female mystic from the ninth century. But sadly, she’s the only female in the book. That’s where I was a bit disappointed with the book.

But I understand that it’s a big problem, not just within Islamic traditions and culture, but across most disciplines; the female voice is absent. That’s why, in my latest book, this was one of the things I went out of my way to do— ensure there was an equal number of female and male voices. I worked hard to achieve it, because female Muslim voices have been so poorly documented. But that’s also the reason why I can critique Jamal, because I went out of my way to find the female mystics, teachers and Sufis of the past and I feel he could have as well. There’s a beautiful, lengthy tradition of female poets, teachers and mystics in Islam and a wealth of knowledge and spirituality that has sadly been neglected. So that’s my major criticism of the collection, but then if you pick up any book on Islamic poetry, you’ll encounter this issue. A lot of female work either hasn’t been translated; is poorly documented, or simply lost.

That said, Mahmoud is very good in terms of coverage of all the major male poets. We’ve got everyone from the mystic Hallaj through to Attar. Obviously Rumi’s in there, Ibn Arabi’s in there…. All the ones you might expect and some you wouldn’t. So, anyone who has an awareness of Islamic poetry will find what they’re looking for. In that respect it’s a great introduction because you know as a translation it’s sympathetic to the original verse. A lot of it has been translated from Farsi, so it needed someone who knows how to turn it into beautiful prose in English and Mahmood does a great job of that.

Well, I think you’ve drawn up a great reading list for believers and non-believers alike. I thought I’d finish by noting that those who are not Muslims themselves may be wondering how they could support their Muslim friends and colleagues during Ramadan. What would be appropriate?

There are many ways to support Muslims. Maybe you could do a solidarity fast. There are lots of initiatives being instigated by organisations like the Ramadan Tent Project that encourage this, like their ‘Fast a Day’ initiative, and then there are the wonderful Open Iftars where they actively encourage Muslims to bring non-Muslims along and enjoy a free meal (iftar) and listen to inspirational speakers in amazing settings like the Royal Albert Hall and Stamford Bridge.

On a practical level; if you work with Muslims, maybe try to be extra flexible to accommodate them during this time. Their energies might be lower in the daytime, so consider helping them flip their working hours. We live in an age of flexible working hours, working from home, all of that, so it should be easier. Maybe also appreciate that someone who might not normally be that observant of religion is going to try in Ramadan. For example, if a colleague starts wearing the hijab during this month or wants to go off and pray in the middle of the day, which they might not otherwise do, just appreciate this is a holy month and they are trying to be as observant as they can. Try not to make a big deal about it or appear threatened by this display of faith. As I said earlier, Ramadan is not just about starving yourself. Most of us will try to be as pious as possible during this month, and some of that piety is inevitably going to creep into our daily existence. So, when that happens, try not to make a big deal about it. It’s a time to take stock for us. A bit like January resolutions. And, just like resolutions, we might start off praying five times a day in Ramadan and then it might fade. But that’s what we try to do in this month.

It’s also important to show allyship right now. I’ve been hearing ridiculous stories that people are getting upset about Ramadan decorations going up in their towns. Why is that a threat? If that’s you, you need to ask yourself what it is you feel threatened about? There are a lot of Muslims going into this Ramadan feeling very low. I know I am struggling at the moment to offer hope, offer inspiration, when all everyone wants to do is talk about how to stop the horrors they are witnessing daily. It’s very difficult. So, try to be a good friend to your Muslim friend, in whatever way you can.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

March 9, 2024

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Tharik Hussain

Tharik Hussain

Tharik Hussain is an award-winning author, travel writer and journalist specialising in Muslim heritage and culture. He is a Fellow at the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Centre of Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen. Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe, won the British Guild of Travel Writers' Adele Evans Award for best travel narrative book of 2022. It was also shortlisted for the 2022 Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year award and longlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize. In 2017 he was named one of the UK's most inspiring British Bangladeshis.

Tharik Hussain

Tharik Hussain

Tharik Hussain is an award-winning author, travel writer and journalist specialising in Muslim heritage and culture. He is a Fellow at the Royal Geographical Society in London and the Centre of Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen. Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe, won the British Guild of Travel Writers' Adele Evans Award for best travel narrative book of 2022. It was also shortlisted for the 2022 Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year award and longlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize. In 2017 he was named one of the UK's most inspiring British Bangladeshis.