I’m an avid reader. I like to think that I have read plenty over the course of my life, ranging from heart-warming romantic comedies (that I rarely admit to reading in public) to the “serious fiction” that is often esteemed by various prize shortlists. An area I am not properly acquainted with, however, is Islamic literature. As a Muslim and someone who loves to read, I am unsure why this is.
Like many others in Britain, my religious upbringing often entailed a lot of seriousness and obliquity. The rules and scriptures of Islam were nearly always in relation to what was frowned upon, impermissible and forbidden. I was also taught how to read Arabic by only learning the pronunciation of words rather than their meaning when reading the Quran. As a result, a lot of what I learnt was second-hand. The majority of these opinions presented religion as foreboding rather than something loving.
The trepidation that this information instilled in me likely averted my interest in finding out more about my faith. However, after an uncertain and strange year, I now feel ready to explore answers for myself. This Ramadan, I want to address this gap and read a few books that not only address my religion but embrace it. Ramadan is a highlight of the Islamic calendar and involves a month of self-reflection and improvement as well as abstinence from food and water. Gaining knowledge is hugely celebrated within Islam, and with more time on my hands not eating or drinking, this spiritual month is the perfect opportunity to learn something new.
After having a search, here are the books I’m adding to my reading list:
Jalal Al-Din Rumi, A Treasury of Rumi’s Wisdom – Treasury in Islamic Thought and Civilization
You will learn by reading, but you will understand with love – Rumi
A 13th century Persian poet, Rumi has been revered through centuries around the world. His poems continue to be best-sellers to this day, selling millions of copies in a multitude of languages over the past decade alone. Renowned as a mystic, preacher, and spiritual master, Rumi is not often identified as being Muslim, something Rozina Ali explores in her wonderful article “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi”. Islam is in fact at the centre of much of Rumi’s writing, with the religion influencing his captivating explorations of love and mortality.
As someone who has always found poetry dense and difficult to traverse throughout my many years of studying literature, I am surprisingly excited to explore Rumi’s work. The simplicity of his words remain as relevant as ever while also concealing layers of meaning that one can lose afternoons exploring. This anthology, edited and translated by Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, offers brilliant insight into Rumi’s writing as both a poet and spiritual guide.
A. Helwa, Secrets of Divine Love
Some linguists say that the word Allah is based on the word wa-liha, which translates to a love so passionate and ecstatic that it completely transcends the senses – A. Helwa
Love is at the centre of Helwa’s book, a text that is described as a spiritual journey into the heart of Islam. Love is the word her work begins with and the force that guides her writing as she displays deep affection for not only her faith but for her reader too.
Helwa’s dreamy exploration of religion diverges from the teachings I was familiar with as a child. She also describes how ‘growing up I was never taught how to love and be loved by God’, leading to feelings of detachment and being adrift. However, in her early twenties, she experienced a transformative reconnection with her faith that led to the writing and publication of this book.
Consisting of scientific evidence, exercises and guided meditations, Helwa’s work not only examines the history and teachings of Islam but ways to incorporate this knowledge into daily life. Her gentle words offer welcome calm amidst the business of daily life.
Mariam Khan, et al., It’s Not About the Burqa
Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths – Mariam Khan
My final choice differs from the first two, in that it is not specifically an exploration of Islamic spirituality. Instead, this collection challenges comments made by former Prime Minster David Cameron in 2016 as he stated that the radicalisation of Muslim men can be linked to the “traditional submissiveness” of Muslim women. A couple of years later, current prime minister Boris Johnson made his infamous comparison between women who wear the niqab and “letterboxes”.
Khan brings together seventeen voices that challenge these limited views, providing a platform for the Muslim women who are so often portrayed as silent and ‘submissive’, both in politics and popular culture. In this collection, the Islamophobia and misogyny that often leads to negative media portrayals of Muslim women is challenged, with the women’s stories tackling these misconceptions. Their own experience of the hijab, love and divorce, feminism, sexuality and queer identity are highlighted by the collection. This book has been on my ‘To Be Read’ list for a while now, and like the others, I am certain it will not disappoint.
With one week of Ramadan already flying by, I am looking forward to making the most of the rest of this month by diving into this literature. Everybody’s journey with spirituality is intrinsic to them and through reading these books, I hope to connect with my faith through knowledge I have explored myself. Through their fascinating portrayals of beauty, love and womanhood, these books make exciting reads for readers of all backgrounds beyond the Muslim world. Overall, I am excited at combining two things that are dear to me, my passion for literature and my faith, in order to discover new things about both and perhaps even myself.
Image Credit: Faris Algosaibi (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.