While attempting to initiate an incoming class into the intellectual life of the campus, a UNC-Chapel Hill reading assignment generated a national debate. The contentious text, Michael Sells' Approaching the Qu'ran, critics say, is incomplete. In particular, Sells makes no mention of the Islamic notion of holy war--an overly favorable, forcefully proselytizing portrayal. So, we asked several professors what they would recommend as an informative and objective introduction to the faith.
"In some sense, all introductory books are similar since they treat Islamic history in a boilerplate fashion," says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor in the religion department at Duke. "I would recommend Islam: A Short Introduction by Abdulkader Tayob, and then a little lower on my list is Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History." Moosa says that "while most introductions deal with the history of the tradition, they do not give you the fine grain of what it is to live in a Muslim community." For that, he says, it's best to rely on works by anthropologists; one that relates most closely to our contemporary context, he says, is Mohammed Arkoun's Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers.
Eric Meyers, director of graduate studies in religion, says that it's long and tough going, but Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples is well worth the effort. "He describes how the new religion of Islam created a new world that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. It has the whole picture." One might consider reading this selectively, he adds.
Armstrong's Islam gets a second mention from Bruce Lawrence, professor and chair of the religion department, who likes it for its maps and figures, chronology, and glossary, since they aid in chronicling the rise of a "remarkable and resilient civilization that dominated the cosmopolitan world for 1,000 years--and still claims the allegiance of 1.2 billion believers." Other more insightful books on modern Islam are out there, he says, among them his own Shattering the Myth: Islam Beyond Violence, but "as an introductory level text, Armstrong commands the field."
According to Will Willimon, dean of the Chapel and professor of Christian ministry, if you want to know about Islam, "get a copy of the Koran in English and start reading." While it can be a challenge to read someone else's idea of scripture, he says, "I found my reading of the Koran to be enlightening. It's meant to be recited, in Arabic, but if you can't do that, reading it is the next best way to begin to understand Islam."