March 07, 2013
Muslim Journeys Bookshelf
— K. Rizwan Kadir
Since the catastrophe of September 11, ordinary Americans have sought reliable and easily accessible information about Islam and Muslims–people who are now their neighbors, co-workers, bosses, and so on. However, an intellectual gap exists between what an American typically sees in the sensationalism of media and where the reality, in all its complexity, lies.
Seeking to bridge this gap, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has launched a pioneering project, Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, as part of its wider Bridging Cultures initiative. As Chairman Jim Leach noted in NEH's 2012 Annual Report, "The sharing of language, philosophy, literature, and art–the history of peoples–is the most profound bridge between societies and across cultures." Educating American society about Islam is not just a matter of forming intelligent public opinion, but also of national security as our perceptions of a different culture and religion largely dictate our foreign policy mandates. The Bookshelf collection, awarded to 843 libraries and state humanities councils across the US in January 2013, consists of books, films, and other resources aimed at introducing the American public to the complex history and culture of Muslims in the United States and around the world.
That September 11 changed everything is not just a cliché; it is a multifaceted reality for American Muslims who have long felt that we did not only lose over 3,000 innocent souls that day--we also lost sight of what it means to be a Muslim in this country. With this project's reach into mainstream America, one can hope that our discourses will no longer be constrained by the terrorism narrative.
As an example of the project's utility and reception, consider the library in Morton Grove, a northern suburb of Chicago with a burgeoning Muslim population. The library received 25 titles out of 29 available from the grant, and will also be receiving free access for one year to the Oxford Islamic Studies Online database. Morton Grove's Mayor Dan Staackmann was very pleased to learn of his suburb's selection for this grant, saying that the Bookshelf " will be a great asset to our community." Illinois, with 57 recipients, is the state with the third-largest number of recipients for the project.
The collection, which spans genres from classical literary texts to purely American stories, was curated with input from professors of Islamic studies at several US colleges and universities. Ingrid Mattson's The Story of the Quran is a comprehensive introduction to Islam's holy book, while Orhan Pamuk's Snow and the classic Arabian Nights introduce literary contributions from Muslim lands. And bringing a particularly little-discussed perspective, physicist Jim Al-Khalili's House of Wisdom carries forward the pioneering work of S. H. Nasr's 1974 book Islamic Science to introduce the reader to the significance of knowledge in Islam and its advancement in Islamic societies.
Although the Bookshelf's selections are largely sound and significant, some important works have been omitted. For example, Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time portrays an objective picture of Prophet Muhammad as a spiritual being, but also as someone whose challenges in seventh-century Arabia are germane to political leaders today. Akbar Ahmed's Discovering Islam or his Journey into Islam are sincere and intellectually satisfying endeavors to bring Islam and Muslims closer to everyday Americans. Michael Sells' Approaching the Quran presents the aural aspect of the Quran. Similarly, while it is gratifying to see Sufi poetry by Rumi and Attar included in the selection, works by Iqbal are missing despite their relevancy to modern times. Zachary Karabell's Peace be Upon You looks at the lost legacy of harmonious interactions of the three Abrahamic faiths in medieval Europe and how that harmony can be modeled in today's world. Along the same lines, Jacob Bender's Out of Cordoba, a documentary, examines the legacy of medieval scholars from the three faiths, and draws on their relevance to our times.
No selection will ever completely cover all areas of inquiry, but the Bookshelf project is a great step in the right direction. The readers–or even casual browsers–of the Bookshelf at any library in the US will walk away with a fresh perspective on Islam and Muslims.
K. Rizwan Kadir, "American Muslims: New Kids on the Block," Niles Patch, June 28, 2012.
National Endowment for the Humanities Staff, "About the Bridging Cultures Initiative," April 3, 2012.
Author K. Rizwan Kadir is an MBA alumnus of the University of Chicago, a Director of the Islamic Schools League of America (ISLA), and President of the Pakistan Club at the University of Chicago. He is currently working on a project entitled Muhammad as an Entrepreneur, which will examine how Islamic teachings encourage financial entrepreneurship.
Guest editor Anil Mundra is completing his MA at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.