By Daniel Pipes
At this moment of sequester and belt-tightening, the U.S. government has delivered a reading list on Islam.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has joined with two private foundations, Carnegie and Duke, to fund “Muslim Journeys,” a project that aims to present “new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, practices, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world.” Its main component is the “Muslim Journeys Bookshelf,” a selection of 25 books and three films on Islam sent to nearly 1,000 libraries as well as a website and some other activities. Marvin Olasky, who brought this project to public attention, estimates the whole project cost about $1 million.
As one of the taxpayers who unwittingly contributed to this project as well as the compiler of my own bibliography on Islam and the Middle East, I take interest in the 25 books NEH selected for glory, spreading them around the country.
Softness characterizes its list: the 25 books quietly ignore current headlines so as to accentuate the attractive side of Islamic civilization, especially its medieval expression, and gently promote the Islam religion. It’s not so exuberant an exercise as the British 1976 World of Islam Festival, described at the time as “a unique cultural event that … was no less than an attempt to present one civilization — in all its depth and variety — to another.” But then, how can one aspire to such grandeur with all that’s happened in the intervening years?
NEH’s list and mine do share minor commonalities: for example, one author (the Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi) and one series (the Very Short Introductions series issued by Oxford University Press).
But our purposes could not be more different: whereas I help readers understand why Muslims fill 30 out of 32 slots on the most wanted terrorists list and how Islamism came to be the main vehicle of barbarism in the world today, the endowment’s list shields the reader’s eyes from all this unpleasantness. Where I provide background to the headlines, NEH ignores them and pretends all is well with Islam, as is the federal government’s wont.
I seek to answer burning questions: Who was Muhammad? What is the historical impact of Islam? When is warfare jihad? Why did Islamism arise? How does tribal culture influence political life? Where can one locate signs of hope for Islam to moderate? In contrast, the NEH list offers a smattering of this and that – poetry, personal accounts, antiquities, architecture, religion and history, original texts, and a smidgeon of current events, preferably presented fictionally. (For example, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, tells about a boy growing up in Qaddafi’s Libya).
I suggest Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s three-volume scholarly masterpiece, The Venture of Islam, while NEH proffers Jim Al-Khalili’s derivative House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. I offer up books by sturdy anti-Islamist Muslims such as Khalid Durán’s introduction to Islam or Bassam Tibi’s Challenge of Fundamentalism. The endowment, of course – for what else does a government agency do? – promotes Islamists, including the Canadian phony moderate Ingrid Mattson and the Obama administration’s favorite Eboo Patel.
My books are personal selections based on decades in the field; theirs is a mish-mash brokered by a committee of four standard-issue academics (Leila Golestaneh Austin, Giancarlo Casale, Frederick Denny, and Kambiz Ghanea Bassiri) and one don’t-rock-the-boat journalist (Deborah Amos).
The NEH bibliography reminds one of the Middle East Studies Association’s annual meetings, which often avoid interesting or important topics in favor of such obscure feminist issues as “Problematizing ‘Women’s Place’ in the Multiple Borderzones of Gender and Ethnic Politics in Turkey” and “The Turkish Women’s Union and the Politics of Women’s Rights in Turkey, 1929-1935.”
As these titles suggest, today’s scholars have a strange tendency to focus in on questions no one is asking, as do many of the NEH books. Anthony Shadid recounts in House of Stone: a Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East his efforts to restore an ancestral home in Lebanon; Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verses: a Novel tells the story of a television journalist in Karachi.
As taxpayer and as specialist, I condemn the NEH list. Far from presenting “new and diverse perspectives,” it offers the usual academic obfuscation mixed with Islamist triumphalism. It reminds us that of the many things governments should not do, one of them is to compile bibliographies.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
Bibliography – Islam and the Middle East
Readers have asked me for a bibliography to help better understand Islam and the Middle East. Here are some English-language suggestions, starting with books on the religion and proceeding to pre-modern history, modern history, and then to specific issues:
The Koran Interpreted: A Translation (London: Oxford University Press, 1964) by A.J. Arberry. The translation I rely on is by an accomplished orientalist just in time, before Middle East studies went south.
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Cook. Very short, very interesting, very reliable, and very instructive.
Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews by Khalid Durán with Abdelwahab Hechiche. Despite its name, a survey of Islam appropriate for readers of all faiths, by a committed and moderate Muslim.
Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins by Robert Spencer. Builds on 130 years of scholarship to offer a completely different history of Muhammad, Islam, and the Koran.
The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years by Bernard Lewis. A survey of Middle Eastern history by the person who knows more about the region – and can explain it better – than anyone else.
The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (3 vols.) by Marshall G.S. Hodgson. A deep history of Islam and of its role in the public sphere.
Understanding Jihad by David Cook. A well-documented, convincing survey of how much the concept of jihad (which Cook defines as “warfare with spiritual significance”) has evolved over fourteen centuries.
Islamic Imperialism: A History by Efraim Karsh. Karsh argues for the existence of an Islamic imperial drive and traces it from Muhammad’s time to current Islamist aggressions.
Islam in Modern History by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. A masterful interpretation of the travails Muslims have experienced over the past two centuries. The book that, more than any other, influenced my understanding of Islam and public life.
Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 by Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh A brilliant reassessment of the nineteenth-century Middle East, showing how, contrary to the usual assumptions, the people of that region actively shaped their own destiny.
Among the Believers by V. S. Naipaul. A journey to four Muslim countries and some lively discussions about the nature and future of Islam.
Radical Islam by Emmanuel Sivan. One of the first and still one of the best analyses of this subject.
The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism by Johannes J. G. Jansen. A densely reasoned, brave attempt to explain militant Islam.
The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder by Bassam Tibi. An even more densely written interpretation of militant Islam, but worth the effort.
The Closed Circle by David Pryce-Jones. Perhaps the single most informative book on the cruel nature of contemporary Middle East politics.
Culture and Conflict in the Middle East by Philip Carl Salzman. Places the social and political life of the region in its tribal context. Changed my understanding of the Middle East.
The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations by Lee Smith. It’s simple: Politics in the Middle East boils down to seizing and maintaining power. But that central fact eludes Westerners.
Islam and Human Rights: Traditions and Politics by Ann Elizabeth Mayer. An understated and powerful repudiation of the notion of “Islamic human rights.”
Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism by Timur Kuran. Exposes Shar’i compliant financing for the 1930s fraud it is.
Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society by Fatima Mernissi. Explains the logic of Islamic ideas of sexuality, making sense of what is otherwise mysterious.
The NEH List
Here is the complete list of books from the NEH “Muslim Journey’s Bookshelf” list:
A Quiet Revolution by Leila Ahmed
Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel
The Arabian Nights edited by Muhsin Mahdi
The Art of Hajj by Venetia Porter
Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie
The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson
The Children of Abraham by F. E. Peters
The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States edited by Edward E. Curtis IV
The Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar
Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili
In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Islamic Arts by Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair
Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf
Minaret by Leila Aboulela
Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan A.C. Brown
The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Prince Among Slaves by Terry Alford
Rumi edited by Reynold A. Nicholson
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson
When Asia Was the World by Stewart Gordon