I occasionally get asked for recommendations about books to read on Islam, particularly if lately I’ve been grumbling about superficial descriptions of the religion.
Usually I pull out some intro-to-Islam undergraduate textbooks. There are many good examples. But I wonder if they are really not to the point. After all, especially for skeptics, there may be little useful in learning about ritual details, the history of the Sunni-Shia split, Muslim legal doctrines, specifically Islamic theological notions about God etc. etc. And what I want to get across is that, stereotypes aside, Muslims are mostly boring and usually harmless, much like any other religious population. (Not always. Mostly.)
Now, one of these days I may well start writing The Skeptic’s Guide to Islam. Meanwhile, here are some suggestions.
First, to get a view of some varieties of Islam from an ordinary believer’s point of view, it’s best to read books written by such people. I suggest two, both by women: Suzanne Haneef’s What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims, and Sumbul Ali-Karamali’s The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and That Veil Thing.
Haneef is a convert from Christianity, and she represents a more rigorous, conservative form of Islam. If you’re interested in The Rules, and a constant stream of apologetics from a conservative point of view, it’s a pretty good book. Don’t expect a lot of intellectual depth, but it gives a decent idea about how some Muslims think.
Ali-Karamali is a liberal Western Muslim. If you’re interested in finding out how many Muslims perceive no conflict between their faith and the modern world, it’s pretty good. You’ll get a constant stream of apologetics from a liberal point of view. It probably won’t be any more convincing than conservative versions, but the point is that this is how many Muslims think.
Esposito has been accused to be an apologist for Islamic movements, and to a certain extent this comes across in the book. But it’s an interesting look at some very current political Islamic thinking, and Esposito represents a positive spin on it. If anyone is interested in criticizing Islam, this is a good sample of what is out there to criticize.
Lewis is known to be more critical of Islam. His and Churchill’s book is a nice introductory survey which doesn’t look like it’s been put together just for an undergraduate course.