428: Important Books on Islam … provide boundary-crossing wisdom and some surprises around history’s corner

THIS WEEK, we’re exploring East-West connections, among the most popular themes here at ReadTheSpirit. On Monday, we gave you a detailed overview and links to some of our readers’ favorite stories.
    Today, here are three important books on Islam—a worldwide faith that plays a crucial role across Asia from the Middle East to the vast Muslim country of Indonesia. We’ve chosen three unusual perspectives on Islam in books that you’d likely never see, if we didn’t take the time to seek them out, check them out in detail—and then tell you about them here.
    On Wednesday, please don’t miss our Conversation With John W. Kiser, the author of the third book we’re highly recommending today.
    And, here are the three …


    This is a small book and easy to miss in the flood of new titles. Today, we’re saying: If you care about the future of interfaith relations globally, find this book. (Buy it from Amazon at right, if you’d like.) Read it. Talk about it with other people. Tell us what you think of its themes.
    Gergory Baum isn’t a household name in the U.S., but he’s a near-legendary figure in inter-religious relationships. Born in 1923, he is a Canadian Roman Catholic theologian who served as a major adviser at Vatican II on opening up the Catholic Church to other faiths. Specifically, he pushed hard and successfully for an end of Catholic efforts to convert Jews.
    Now, well into his 80s, Baum has given us a short but clear-eyed roadmap for engaging a cutting-edge figure in international Islam: Tariq Ramadan.
    He writes, “Catholicism and Islam … were both embedded in a pre-modern culture and resisted the arrival of modernity, even if for different reasons.” The catalyst to constructive dialogue can be three principles, Baum argues: “attention to the universal message regarding the human condition, attention to the changed historical circumstances, and attention to the Scriptures reread with a new sensibility.”
    He further argues that these same three principles already are at work in Ramadan’s writings—that’s the main reason Baum wrote this book.
    Baum sees an “affinity” here that could provide a new doorway for dialogue between Christians and Muslims at this turbulent moment in history. His roadmap for exploring the world beyond that doorway also includes a list of issues to explore in which the two faiths share basic assumptions—and issues where their basic approach differs significantly. It’s a mature, wisely charted course that Baum describes.


    Here’s something every reader can appreciate!
    I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Firestone lecture and it may sound odd to use the words “pleasure” and “lecture” in the same sentence. But his expertise on Judaism and Islam allows him to sketch fascinating and surprising connections down through the centuries. I was intrigued when Firestone tackled this book for general readers on behalf of the Jewish Publication Society. As I read through the book, I was impressed at how broadly he explores Muslim tradition, teaching and culture—in a style that will help interested non-Muslims understand this complex, centuries-old, global faith. I would argue that it’s not just a book for Jews, although Dr. Firestone is a rabbi, scholar and author who is well known within Judaism.
    The book is about 240 pages with an index, glossary and helpful notes filling out another 60 pages. It’s divided into three main parts: Islamic History, the Quran and Islamic Law and finally the Muslim community, which describes the branches of Islam that extend into today’s world. Within the three sections are a total of 27 chapters, each one focused on a specific topic. So, a small group in your congregation could read a selection of short chapters each week, then talk about that cluster of topics for an hour. It’s a great choice for small groups.
    After writing about world religions myself for three decades, I own a whole shelf of “introductions to Islam” that range from booklets to multi-volume works. For a single volume, aimed at non-Muslims, this is one of the most accurate, engaging, smartly organized introductions to Islam I’ve ever seen.


    What I love about the world of religion is that, however many years one devotes to in-depth study and travel and reading and interviews, stories pop up almost every day that I never expected to read. My journalistic colleagues who specialized in sports coverage, let’s say, often loved their beats—especially if they traveled with a pro team. But the world of sports produces precious few flat-out surprises—things we never expected to uncover.
    Part of religion’s advantage is that its vibrancy extends back thousands of years and its adherents circle the globe. There are thousands of religious groups to discover. Nevertheless, I’m surprised that it ws only recently that I encountered a Muslim figure who was widely celebrated in American newspapers 150 years ago. Somehow, he almost completely vanished from our collective memory since then.
    So, I’m reserving my highest praise today for the religious and historical detective work of John W. Kiser, who you’ll meet on Wednesday in an in-depth Conversation about his book. Kiser began making global connections way back in the Cold War, when he was a pioneer in new forms of technological linkages between the U.S. and what was then called the Soviet Bloc. Eventually, though, he moved from the realm of pure business to the worlds of history, culture and scholarship. Still convinced that the world is healthier when cultures find ways to mesh, rather than collide, Kiser became fascinated by Emir Abd El-Kader, a 19th-century Muslim hero revered by our own President Abraham Lincoln. Kiser had never heard of the figure in his earlier education. He ran across him while working on other books on Christian and Jewish themes.
    You’ll read more about this great new “read” (which also is an important contribution to our understanding of Islam) tomorrow. But keep watching Kiser and ReadTheSpirit, because we’re working collegially with him to spread word of this book.
    This year, Kiser launched a high-school essay contest to celebrate the Muslim hero in his book. He did so in a town in Iowa, named Elkader at its founding in 1846 to honor the hero whose exploits Americans were following at the time. In coming weeks, we’re going to tell you about the winners of that contest and encourage more students to enter the program next year.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

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