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A Library on Islam

In moments of cold fury, my first girl friend, would predict a career for me as a Prep School librarian. I pretended great offence at the time though I was secretly charmed by the idea. Years later I was driven almost to the point of tears when a North African customs official intended to confiscate my travelling library packed away in the boot of a rusting Alpha Romeo. It ended on a happy note when he gave me a coffee in his office and neatly piled just three offending books on his desk ‘to await my return’. I felt like a child assured that his teddy bear would be well cared for on the first day of nursery school – but also subsumed by a warm internal glow. Three months later I had to leave through a different frontier post. I like to think they remain there to this day.

I often think about how to repack that boot full of books if I was sending a young traveller off on a journey. First to go in would be Karen Armstrong’s immensely readable and soul-searching examination ‘Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet’, balanced by the completely different perspective offered up by Glubb Pasha. His The Life and Times of Muhammad possesses a unique knowledge of landscape, desert tactics and bedouin lifestyle. Then of course there should have something by the great linguist Maxime Rodinson, informed by a cosmopolitan French world view that naturally includes a Marxist and phsychological perspective. There must also be something from F.E Peters, handsomely published in hardback by the Princeton University Press, probably his ‘Muhammad and the Origins of Islam’ but certainly his widely sourced ‘Hajj’. Then with due warning that one is entering a different mood, that of pious scholarship I should include Martin Lings’s impeccably sourced Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources as published by the Islamic Texts Society.

For an African-centred study of the expansion of Islam, J. Spencer Trimingham remains a heroic figure of industry. Among his many works: Islam in the Sudan, Islam in Ethiopia, Islam in East Africa and Islam in West Africa might now be dated but they have also yet to be superseded. I still revere my tattered copy of ‘Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times’ though this must now give way to Robert Hoyland’s masterly ‘Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam’. The multi-volume Cambridge History of Islam has been excluded on grounds of weight but there would be space for Ira Lapidus’s hefty blue covered paperback, A History of the Islamic Peoples and Hugh Kennedy’s green Longman paperback The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates which I have already test travelled with – and found there bindings to be remarkably resilient.

But what translation of the Qur’an to be included? For a non-linguist like myself there is safety in numbers. Like a bee after honey I flit from N.J.Dawood’s 1956 translation (Penguin Classic) to Rodwell’s 1909 (Everyman) to Marmaduke Pickthall’s; from the scholarship of an Iraqi Jew, an Anglican clergyman and an English convert to Islam working under the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad. A.J.Arberry’s Koran Interpreted (1956), Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s (Lahore 1934) and Muhammad Asad’s 1980 rendering of the Royal Egyptian Edition are also highly rated. Rodwell is no longer sited but I first read it, while grounded by illness in a shabby Saharan hotel, and now instinctively reach for his tone in preference to all others. Last but not least, there must be Robert Irwin’s chunky door stopping anthology of Arabic writing, ‘Night & Horses & The Desert’ - my copy so studded with post-it notes that it looks like a paper hedgehog.

Then stuffed deep in a jacket pocket would be Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World which in case of another customs confiscation could serve as a library in one volume. It does.

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