Many of us have grown up reading popular English fiction, in which the protagonists - namely, Jessica, Elizabeth or Archie - with their model-like looks, managed to keep us engrossed in their endless adventures (or misadventures) - comprising of violent behavior, rock star-revering young minds or finding a date for a prom party - that, at one point, left us desiring such a frivolous lifestyle.
The first revealed word of the Holy Qur’an is ‘Read’, but an examination of the myriad of magazines, novels, etc. that constitute our popular reading culture today, reveals their pro-secular themes and subjects, often bordering on the frivolous and the un-Islamic. One wonders where the dozens of Islamically-oriented books feature on our reading list. And we are not just talking about your standard Islamic Studies school textbooks.
“Obtaining knowledge is achieved through reading books. The Qur’an says that Allah (swt) will raise those who have believed among you and those who were given knowledge, by degrees (58: 11). Reading books is joyful for the soul and light for the heart. It brings the past, the present and the future together. The origin of knowledge is the Book of Allah, Al-Qur’an. Therefore, reading is mandatory upon every Muslim,” said Somayah Kassas, a lecturer in the Islamic Cultural Center since 1988 and head of the Jeddah Arabic Center for non-Arabic speaking women.
Islamic books are different from secular books. “Books that deal with different aspects of life are books of human experiences and secular knowledge. When the concept of these books is presented in coherence with the Islamic concept and the Islamic method, we call them good and beneficial books and their authors are good Muslims. Otherwise the book of psychology remains a book in psychology and the book of chemistry is a book of chemistry and so on and so forth,” said Kassas, adding that true Muslim authors today have entered most of the secular fields of knowledge and that “good Islamic books that are locally available here are a reasonable alternative for the widely spread western books.”
Of course, books of Fiqh, Hadith and Tafsir should be read by all Muslims in order to learn about their religion, while books of Da’wah are equally important for a Muslim to read in order to serve his or her Ummah and faith with insight and knowledge as is mentioned in the Qur’an.
“Additionally, every Muslim is required to read other kind of books because finding wisdom is the goal of the Muslim irrespective of where he finds it,” Kassas said. “If a book written by a non-Muslim teaches values that are not contradicting with our faith we should read it, such as, the book of Dill Karniji: How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Kassas believes that children should begin reading books whenever they become capable of doing so and that it is obviously their parents’ responsibility to find good and convenient books for them. “However, when a child starts reading books it doesn’t mean that the mother should stop telling him bedtime stories, because what she would deliver to her child of the values and the virtues of the story is much more than what he can achieve by reading. As for adults, they should force themselves to read, generally, every book and particularly the Islamic ones,” she said.
According to Amatullah J. Bantley - owner of Dar Abul-Qasim, the first publisher in Jeddah to concentrate primarily on Islamic literature in English - however, Islamic reading in general, is down among the Muslim youth in Saudi Arabia. “Their parents still read a lot, but we need to do more to reach the younger generations,” she said.
She said many of the books published by them are introductions to Islam, which people give to non-Muslim colleagues and friends, and basic books for beginners, which are used by several local Islamic teaching centers. “Additionally, new Muslims tend to be the ones who want to read as much as possible,” said Bantley, an American-born Saudi national who embraced Islam in 1986.
Besides Dar Abul-Qasim, the major local English Islamic publishers include Darussalam, Dar al-Alimiyyah (International Islamic Publishing House), Dar al-Khair, Darut-Talimiyyah and Dawah Corner.
Commenting on the existing choices of English Islamic titles available locally, Bantley said a larger and a more varied selection in the mainstream bookstores is needed. “Many visitors to the Kingdom don’t know where specialized Islamic bookstores are located, which is probably true for many residents as well,” she said.
Reynaldo Espino, who is in-charge of English books at a Jarir Bookstore branch in Jeddah, highlighted some sales trends of Islamic books. “Islamic book sales vary with seasons. For example, in Ramadan, Umrah and Haj seasons, expats prefer buying here and not in their homeland because of tax-free prices and the good variety of books here. Sales are down during the children’s exam time,” said Espino. He said that apart from copies of the Holy Qur’an and Tafseer books, Islamic book titles - namely ‘Medicines of the Prophet (Peace be upon him)’ and ‘The ideal Muslimah’ - and beginner books are most popular.
Saudi Gazette asked Bantley what books she would recommend to different groups of readers. “Dar Abul-Qasim’s bestselling dawah book is ‘Clear Your Doubts About Islam’, (ages 15-adult) which has been written to dispel common misconceptions about Islam. We recently published ‘Captain Arabia and the Baby Camel’ (ages 4-10), which was actually a school project for a 12th grade student. We were so impressed with the story she wrote, we just had to publish it. A two-part series entitled ‘I Am a Muslim’ teaches basic knowledge to both children and beginners (ages 7+),” she said.
For non-Muslims too
Somayyah said that non-Muslims should also be encouraged to read reliable books that would introduce them to the greatness of Islam. “Freedom of choice to embrace Islam or to remain in their own religion is their own decision; there is no compulsion in accepting Islam. Rather, it will be their responsibility on the day of judgment before their Lord, and you will be excused before Him, then, according to the amount of effort and the excellent method you used in approaching them,” she said.
Because it’s the age of technology, many Islamic websites have options where one can read online from a good collection of Islamic books. “I have read good books and articles on www.islamunveiled.com, islamqa.com and shareislam.com,” said Bantley.
She said for promoting the habit and practice of reading Islamic literature among children and adults alike, “I’d love to have a story hour for children at my store, reading competitions could be offered by schools and/or businesses, newspapers could ask people to do book reviews, and a sponsored campaign on a larger scale could be organized.”
Umm Zakiyyah, a Riyadh-based best-selling author of Islamic-themed fiction, such as “If I Should Speak”, does not think her Islamic-themed novels are a ‘solution’ to the likes of Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, because “I view my books as a completely different genre. I don’t imagine that it’s realistic that my novels will, or should, replace secular novels in general. I only hope to offer spiritually-healthy options that are both entertaining and inspiring. However, I do pray that my readers’ hearts are stirred, with the help of Allah, in making more spiritually rational choices in their lives, book choices among them,” she said.
Umm Zakiyyah doesn’t think that popular reading culture comprises of only frivolous text, “although I agree that the great majority of the reading selections of youth and adults tend to be a bit frivolous in nature”. “This is a reflection of personal choice, not literary options. Even in secular literature, there is a plethora of beneficial reading material such as historical fiction, autobiographical accounts, memoirs of respectable figures; novels based on mother-daughter relationships, personal sacrifice and so on,” she said.
According to Bantley, there has been “vast improvement” in the quality of many local Islamic publications from what it was ten to 20 years ago, “when the books lacked attractive cover designs, professional page layouts, etc”. “It is essential that publishers not only concentrate on the contents but make the overall presentation suitable as well,” she said.
Instead of making Islamic books more “appealing”, Umm Zakiyyah said publishers should pay more attention to the literary and grammatical guidelines of the language of publication.
“There is only a small group of avid readers who will pick up a non-fiction information book on any topic, and there is likely (to be) an even smaller group who will pick up one on religion. This is due to the fact that fiction is primarily for entertainment whereas non-fiction is primarily for gaining knowledge on a topic regardless of the book’s appeal,” she said.
She added, however, that when writing Islamic fiction, authors need to pay careful attention to what makes a novel appealing and readable with the help of reviewers and editors who would thoroughly critique the work before publication.
Reading is usually a secondary activity (reading while engaged with another type of media, such as, TV). “When you want to read a book seriously, you can’t occupy all your senses. You can’t read a book and completely comprehend it while listening to music.
However, reading a novel, a magazine or even a book of tafseer can be done while you are sitting at a desk, on a couch, in your bed, it doesn’t make a difference as long as you are concentrating at what you are reading and benefitting from it. Respecting the word of Allah and His prophet is required in all conditions, though,” Kassas said. – SG