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Understanding Islam
by Hilary Williamson (April 2016)

'In the green sky I saw the new moon reaping,
And minded was I of my own life's field:
What harvest will thou to the sickle yield
When through thy fields the moon-shaped knife goes sweeping?

(Hafiz, Poems from the Divan of Hafiz, Javidan Publication)

Understanding Islam might start with reading the works of Sufists like the acclaimed Persian poet Hafiz (Hafez) who lived in the 14th century and (as mentioned in Diana Darke's BBC article, The book in every Iranian home) 'targeted religious hypocrisy.' I visited the poet's tomb in Shiraz in 1978.

I don't pretend to understand Islam. But I do know that holding Muslims responsible for the actions of Islamic State thugs is like holding Christians responsible for the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, when all we know of a faith is based on images of rabid fanatics on the news, it tends to muddle our thinking. I travelled in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 70s - as described in A Day in Herat. I found that (to paraphrase our Canadian PM) people are people are people, warts and all - though they often lack the choices in life that Westerners take for granted.

Over the years, and especially since 2001, I've read quite a few books by and about Muslims and the Islamic faith. In the Aftermath has an initial reading list, that helped my understanding. Here's an update on many more fascinating and thought provoking volumes:

No god but God by Reza Aslan
Explains Islam from the perspective of a rational believer, making a strong argument for a tide of reform, and for Islamic democracies based on pluralism.

If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
A devout Sheikh explains how many modern practices of Muslim societies are cultural additions to Islam's original teachings.

Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer
A journey 'from one edge of the Islamic world, in Istanbul, to a classical centre, Mecca, and on through Iran to Pakistan' in quest of personal and Islamic history.

West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story by Tamim Ansary
An Afghan American articulates the experience of growing up with a foot in both Afghan and American cultures and siblings solidly in each.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Tragicomic graphic novel autobiography of life in Tehran from age 6 to 14, during the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq.

Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey by Alison Wearing
A record of a myriad of different voices encountered in 5 months' travel through Iran - generous strangers who 'try to be kind.'

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni
Views Iran - and all aspects of life there, from the political to the everyday - always with a reporter's assessing eye.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
Shares 2 years of weekly meetings with 7 female students in Iran, to discuss forbidden Western classics.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd
Offers 'a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves'.

Poets & Pahlevans: a Journey Into the Heart of Iran by Marcello Di Cintio
Journeys in Iran with interrelated themes: poets and their poetry, and the historical Persian passion for wrestling.

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran by Shirin Ebadi
An inspiring account of an indomitable woman and her passion - for justice, and for the country she believed that Iran could be again.

If you're looking for something lighter, dig into The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin by Idries Shah, a collection of short, addictive and entertaining, teaching stories from the Sufist tradition - over years of re-reading new layers of meaning are revealed. And for mystery fans, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written two excellent ones starring a second generation Canadian Muslim Community Policing detective in Toronto, Canada - The Unquiet Dead and The Language of Secrets.

While all of these books offer insights into other cultures, histories and faiths, they also reinforce what I found during my own travels - ordinary people who were as curious about my life as I was about theirs and who lived up to these words (from Alison Wearing's Honeymoon in Purdah) - 'We are strangers, but we try to be kind.'
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