ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran.
What drives these groups?
What are they really about?
Why is there so much religious strife in the Middle East?
For that matter, what is Islam actually about? Is the religion really defined by these violent actors, or are they just the most visible because they’re what’s reported on in the media?
I set out to find the answers to these questions, and what I have found so far surprised me. If you are interested in understanding what’s going on in the Middle East today, you have to understand Islam. And it’s a fascinating story. There are a lot of books on the subject, but you don’t have to sift through all those I did. I want to share with you three slim books that I found to be the most clear and engaging introductions I’ve come across.
The first is Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World by Thomas W. Lippman, an award-winning author and journalist who specializes in the Middle East and spent years living in Egypt, covering the events, and traveling from Tunisia to Pakistan. Again, this is a slim, easy-to-read volume, but it is packed with information. If you want to know the basic beliefs of Islam, who Muhammad was, what all this business about Sharia is, and who the major Islamic groups of the Middle East are today, this is the book to start with. One note, you want to make sure you get the third edition of this book.
The next book is by Bernard Lewis, a man internationally recognized as one of our century’s greatest historians of the Middle East. The book is called The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror. Again, another slim, engaging, but information-packed volume. In it, Lewis explains what it is in Islam that is breeding these extremist groups. And what is leading them to target America, which is especially interesting because for most of the 1900s the United States was seen as the good guy by the Islamic world. What changed? Read this book to find out.
The last book, a lively, engaging read, is called After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Sunni-Shia Split by Lesley Hazleton, another veteran Middle East journalist. When you finish this book, you will understand why Saudi Arabia supported ISIS before they so recently turned against it. You’ll understand why they recently joined Israel, of all nations, in condemning Iran’s nuclear program. You will also understand one main reason why the Iraqis can’t seem to get along. In this book, Hazelton goes back to the beginning of the religion and tells the story of the splitting of Islam–the split between the Shias and Sunnis. It’s as significant a split as that of the Protestants from the Catholics in the time of Luther. But unlike that split, which has lost almost all of its heat, the antagonism between Sunni and Shia still leads to war. You cannot understand the Middle East today without understanding this.
So there you have it. If you’ve been wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, you’ll find these the perfect introduction. And if you’re religious at all, you’ll find much to ponder. There isn’t one god-fearing Christian, Jew, Hindu, or what have you who doesn’t think that submitting our will to God’s won’t help us build a better families, communities, nations–a better world. Would it surprise to you to know that Muslims believe the same thing? That Islam means “to submit” to God?
There are of course many differences between Islam and my own Christian beliefs, but there are also many striking similarities. And the experience I kept having reading these books was seeing over and over again echoes of my own faith and the history of Christianity. There are cautions, to be sure, but also things worthy of emulation. If nothing else, it felt like it did when I learned Dutch. Yes, it was all foreign, but I saw the ties and the differences and, surprisingly, understood my language better than I ever had before.
Now there are three other equally fascinating books I want recommend that focus on Al Qaeda, fighting terrorism, and Saudi Arabia, but I’ll save those for another time. Go treat yourself and read these fine introductions.