I was not brought up in a religious household. Both of my parents were raised in Presbyterian homes but Mom and Dad decided to not raise their kids (me and my older sister) n this way, opting to let us choose our paths when we were old enough to make that choice for ourselves. I’ve chosen to not take a religious path though I was curious in my 20s to attend Quaker and Unitarian Universalist meetings, both considered progressive and non Christo-centric.
In the back of my mind, I knew my curiosity about religion would get to me and I would pick up a bible or some interpretive text that help me understand the stories and teachings of the bible since in my experience as an American I have been nearly constantly surrounded by Christian references in culture.
Fast forward 20 years later and I’ve finally started reading about religion at age 45. However, never did I think I would start my religious reading journey with Islam.
An impending trip to Pakistan started me off with not so much an interest in Islam but of the culture and history of Pakistan, a country I knew only from news headlines. I quickly learned that Islam is interwoven into the country’s culture in a way that is more complete than modern-day America and Christianity. “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan” is a place where government and the mosque are tied together unlike the separation of church and state in the U.S. So, to learn about the country would have to learn about the Islamic faith.
Many of the historical texts I’ve read (“Pakistan: A Hard Country” by Anatol Lieven and “Pakistan: Beyond The Crisis State” edited by Maleeha Lodi, amongst several others) have assumed the reader has a basic background on the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. With the help of some Pakistani friends’ recommendations this led me to the works of the British author Karen Armstrong, a former nun and current religious scholar. I found her books, “Islam: A Short History” and “Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time” to be very helpful in understanding the basis of Islamic history and beliefs. The readings also led me to “After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shi-Sunni Split in Islam” by Lesley Hazleton.
Not all of my reading was non-fiction. I followed my interest in the Pashtun people by turning my interest towards Afghanistan. I thus read Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and “And The Mountains Echoed”. Another fiction book that I felt eerily connected to because of its Lahore setting and that I read after I returned from Pakistan was “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid.
More recently, I’ve continued my interest in Afghanistan by finishing Christina Lamb’s “The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan” and “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How The Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times”.
Finally, in my capacity as a staff member at an academic institution that hosts groups of Muslim students and faculty from places like Pakistan and Iraq I was able to review the answer to the following program application question: “What two books would you recommend to a friend?”. Maybe not surprisingly the most popular answers were either the Quran or the Hadith. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get that far into my interest in Islam to attempt to read either of those texts. In the meantime, I used other popular answers to the application question which led me to reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho and “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak.
Right now, I’m reading “The Lovers: Romeo and Juliet in Afghanistan” by Rod Nordland which may be my last Afghanistan book for the time being. I’m also looking for a used copy of an expensive hardcover book “The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key to the Future of Pakistan and Afghanistan” by Abubakar Siddique.
My interests are starting to drift a little away from Islam. From the library, I’m waiting for “Holy War”: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World” by Karen Armstrong. The Crusades pushed their way into the Muslim world which has now sparked my interest in this particular piece of Christian history.