Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Required Reading. The tenth anniversary of September 11th was a few days ago, and though I'd initially thought to mark it in some way on the 12th here on my blog, I picked up this wonderful, brilliant book on Monday morning and knew I had to postpone my entry. Islam Explained by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated from the French by Franklin Philip, The New Press, 2002) is a book you need to read, right now. Jelloun, a French writer of Moroccan descent, also wrote a previous book you may remember, Racism Explained to My Daughter (New Press, 1999, hardcover; 2006, paperback), originally published in France and translated into twenty languages, which is also a must-read.

Jelloun was moved to write this volume when he heard his own children repeat some inane remarks about Islam, and he thought that if Islam was misunderstood within his own family, how distorted was it in other families? He then read (or reread in some cases) books written by specialists, of which there is no shortage in France as Islam is the country’s second religion after Christianity. And then he started writing, with the goal of extracting the essentials and presenting them simply, clearly, and objectively for young readers in particular but also for adults (and I'd like to stress that this really is also a book for adults). It's “the book of a father who, talking to his children, would like to talk to all children everywhere,” and what Jelloun is seeking to do is “tell the story of Islam as it is recounted in serious books, to present it as something belonging to the universal heritage of humanity.”

In his Preface, Jelloun writes what is certainly among the best sentiments I’ve ever read about tolerance. He says that beyond the knowledge Americans may have of Islam and beyond a desire to know “the other” or “the foreign,” there is also a need to keep the doors of one’s own culture open. “We can enrich ourselves only by exchange, in cultural and economic intermixing, in the dialogue between different peoples. For this, we must not indulge in racism or impose our cultural and religious values on others. It must not be said that “Western civilization is superior to other civilizations,” nor claimed that the world is experiencing “civilization and culture shock.” Cultures travel: they move around and get into homes without even being invited. The only dominant culture is that of intelligence, knowledge, and sharing. In this way culture does not dominate, but opens doors to those seeking to learn and to know what is going on outside their own tribe.”

Written in a straightforward question-and-answer format, this little book is only 113 pages long, and you can, uninterrupted, read it in about an hour. It is utterly clear and simple, yet packed with key words (hegira, chachada, sura, Sunnis, Shiites, mullah, hijah, chador, hashashins, hadits, shari'a, fatwa, etc.) and key concepts, such as "Tolerance has meaning only if it is mutual. Intolerance is not accepting and even rejecting those who are different from oneself. It fosters racism." I was also fascinated by a list of words Jelloun provides that originated in Arabic. These are now used in languages derived from Latin, and in other languages as well, but most people don't know their origin. They include admiral, alcohol, algebra, artichoke, carafe, caravel, carousel, chess, divan, emerald, giraffe, lemonade, magazine, monsoon, rice, saccarine, safari, spinach, taffeta, tarragon, and zenith.

This is one of the most powerful and unsentimental books I've ever read, and I urge you to go out and find it and read it and share it with everyone you know. Maybe, just maybe, Jelloun's words will resonate widely.

Other related reads I particularly admire are:

*The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (Bernard Lewis, W. W. Norton, 1992).
*Islam: A Short History (Karen Armstrong, Modern Library Chronicles, 2000). In this slender but fine work Armstrong wisely warns that "Western people must become aware that it is in their interests too that Islam remains healthy and strong. The West has not been wholly responsible for the extreme forms of Islam, which have cultivated a violence that violates the most sacred canons of religion. But the West has certainly contributed to this development and, to assuage the fear and despair that lies at the root of all fundamentalist vision, should cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium."
*A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
*Oriental Treasures in the Mediterranean: From Damascus to Granada (Henri Stierlin, White Star, 2005) which features Islamic architectural, artistic, and scientific masterpieces in the Near East, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain.

And, see a terrific article I was unable to include in my Paris book: "In the Heart of Paris, an African Beat" by Seth Sherwood, The New York Times travel section, 18 December, 2005.

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