Best of 2020: Bookstagram Recommends

This month, we asked a few brilliant readers from the fascinating world of Bookstagram to share their favourite reads of 2020. Make sure to follow these sisters for more book reviews on a vast range of genres, from spirituality and history, to politics and fiction.

Have a title you think we should read? Comment down below or let us know on Twitter @QarawiyyinProj.

Read our previous recommendations here

1. Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences [Kitab dhikr al-mawt wa-ma ba’dahu]

Translated by T. J. Winter

Collectively, we shy away from speaking of death, because its true comprehension requires acknowledging its realness and confronting our own mortality. Yet, we are urged to remember death, for only through its remembrance can we dissociate ourselves from indulging in the dunya and work towards our akhirah. The self reflection and transformation it evokes should bump any read on death to the top of one’s list — for that reason, Book 40 of Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, is an invaluable resource, especially as we enter the new year with hopes for positive change. 

Packed full of ahadith, Qur’anic verses and anecdotes, it is an absolute goldmine. Al-Ghazali tackles death from various dimensions, beyond the realm of pure tragedy. He makes a strong case for the remembrance of death with a magnitude of examples of the greatest of men and how they dealt with Death and the Afterlife. The details are almost frightening, but serve as a much needed wake up call; one truly realises how distracted they are by the dunya, and how ill-prepared they are for the akhirah.

This book is written for the generality of mankind, reflective of Al-Ghazali’s view that death must be understood by all and without delay. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s eloquence perfectly complements Al-Ghazali’s style of writing, making it a pleasant read and maintaining the seriousness demanded by such a topic. I pray this book brings about change within the reader, for it humbled me greatly and helped put into perspective my priorities. As an educational resource or an iman boost, this is a must read. 

Length: 261 pages, excluding notes and appendix.

Highlight:

Now it behoves him for whom death is his destruction, the earth his bed, the worm his intimate, Munkar and Nakir his companions, the tomb his abode and the belly of the earth his resting-place, the arising his tryst and Heaven or Hell his destiny, that he should harbour no thought or recollection but of death. No preparedness or plan should he have save for it, and his every expectation, concern, energy, waiting and anticipation should be for its sake alone. It is right that he should account himself among the dead and see himself as one of the people of the graves. For all that comes is certainly near; the distance is what never comes.

Reviewer: Aaminah Y. Follow her: @yucireads

2. Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864

By Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack

Although I am ashamed to admit it, I had virtually zero knowledge on the 19th-century Sokoto Caliphate prior to this book. Not only does it provide an introduction to the history of the caliphate, it does so by detailing the life and legacy of one of its most important figures, Nana Asma’u, the daughter of its founder.

Almost immediately I was filled with awe at the incredible Muslim women led by Nana Asma’u, who made the foundation of this caliphate possible. An integral part of the success of the Sokoto Caliphate was the emphasis on education — not just for men, but also (and especially) for the women who were expected to carry on the Islamic tradition. At the head of this education movement was the brilliant Nana Asma’u: a scholar, poet, author, and translator of several works into her native language to increase its accessibility to her people. She was a teacher of women and children, and delegated educated women to teach others in different regions of the caliphate. Learning about her life and her role in the foundation and success of the Sokoto Caliphate is truly inspiring. 

There are so many lessons that can be learned from her life: her approach to social activism, empowerment through education, leadership, and self-care through her daily routine of dhikr (remembrance of God) and Qur’an recitation — all integral to her identity and forming the legacy that lives on until today May Allah have mercy on her, and allow her legacy to continue to inspire and empower Muslim women everywhere. 

Length: 231 pages

Highlight:

Throughout the itinerancy and battles attendant upon the Jihad that ended with the foundation (in 1808) of the Sokoto caliphate, Asma’u was simultaneously active as a social organizer, a scholar, and a poet (to say nothing of her roles as mother, wife, and sister). Everything she did and wrote was aimed at the betterment of society. She worked alongside her father, brother, and husband in war efforts, in administration, in literary and scholarly productivity, and in community welfare. In every sphere of activity they all sought to embody the Sunna, to establish, through their actions and written works, an ethical community of believers.”

Reviewer: Ayah Aboelela is completing her undergraduate studies in computer science and Arabic. She is an enthusiast of Muslim fiction literature, is fascinated by history, and loves teaching the Qur’an to children in her Massachusetts Muslim community. You can follow her @caveofkutub.

3. I Refuse to Condemn

Edited by Asim Qureshi

The burdensome act of condemnation is one that the lay Muslim is not unfamiliar with. Widespread Islamophobia, paired with a vitriolic pursuit to dehumanise the Other, has triggered the expectation that Muslims are to denunciate every appalling act committed in the name of Islam. As this silent demand awaits addressal, the perceptive writers of I Refuse to Condemn are more than happy to leave such an abysmal request pending. 

In this work, activists and academics join forces in a resistive effort to challenge the Orwellian surveillance of Muslims that is intrinsic to the global Islamophobia movement and perpetuated through ‘counter-terrorism’ mechanisms, such as Prevent in the UK. The moment it appears that the culprit behind a heinous attack is Muslim, the call to condemnation need not be made, for the expectation is so cemented within the fibre of our being that it is done on autopilot. 

This counterproductive endeavour only affirms the notion that we are personally to blame for not preventing such acts. Whilst people of other races and religions are absolved of personal responsibility when an individual of their background is found guilty of a crime, the same courtesy is never extended to us.

Not only do we refuse to condemn, we refuse to gratify a society that insists on defining our worth on a discriminatory and conditional basis. May Allah bless the contributors for such an empowering and crucial work.

Length: 264 pages

Highlight:

“Through the media, political rhetoric, popular culture, our courts, and our education, there is already a clamour to condemn people of colour for every misstep. Modernity is characterised by our condemnation.”

Reviewer: Sahar Aslam is an avid reader from the UK who writes varied book reviews. An advocate of diversification in literature, she endeavours to amplify the voices of authors that are reclaiming the Muslim narrative. You can follow her @bookifiction.

4. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

By Sylviane A. Diouf

Servants of Allah is a striking work for myriad reasons. Starting with the social, economic and religious context of West Africa before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, its ambitious scope also covers the daily experiences of enslaved Muslim Africans in the Americas, their leading roles in uprisings and their legacy there today. In every chapter, the level of detail and scholarly rigour is apparent, leading to a deeply rewarding and eye-opening experience for the Muslim reader. The only area that felt occasionally imprecise was some descriptions of practices by Muslims that seem to be specific to the individual context rather than the strictly Islamic practices an unacquainted reader might interpret them as, such as the use of talismans.

This book complicates the dominant narrative and steps outside the definitions and confines imposed by some Western discourse on a range of key issues. In particular, it explores conceptions of slavery, Islam in West Africa, racial versus religious identity, the intellectual and social status of people taken as slaves and, of course, their religious beliefs. Many discussions around these topics often skim over such nuances, leading to misconceptions and gaps in knowledge which may then be filled by people with less honourable motivations. While this book is certainly not an authoritative religious text, it provides much needed context to allow the reader to ask deeper, more fruitful questions.

Although this is primarily an academic book, Diouf’s tone is one of curiosity, humility and respect for the people she describes. This makes reading it not only an intellectually stimulating experience, but also an intensely emotional one. A sense of the vastness, beauty and power of our history and Ummah is felt in the intimate and empathetic descriptions of individual lives. It portrays the efforts made to hold onto faith against sometimes targeted oppression, and the strength and dignity of Muslims who didn’t just go through the motions, but lived Islam as an all-encompassing way of life. Perhaps the most significant strength of this book is how it flips the passive discourse around these men and women known simply as “slaves” and creates a deeply impactful picture of Muslims who knew who they were, where they came from and their ultimate destination. While rose-tinted glasses benefit no one and Diouf’s accounts are rightly not all positive, such a personal and empowered representation of enslaved peoples and Muslims is important for everyone with sincere interest.

As this book covers many complex topics, it is a good starting point that can then give direction to further reading, supported by a substantial bibliography at the end.

Length: 283 pages, excluding bibliography and index.

Highlight:

To be a Muslim meant to be part of a close-knit, upwardly mobile community that looked after its members, offered them diverse activities and services, and was charitable and well organized. It was a world in itself, with its own particular sets of beliefs that did not depend on the slaveholders’ view of the world. To be light skinned had no value; to be a domestic or a fieldhand meant nothing. A free man in this context was not superior to an enslaved one. Learned slaves were the teachers of free men; enslaved and jailed clerics were the spiritual leaders of the community.

Reviewer: Amina hopes to read her way around the world and gets excited about anything related to language. She is the host of Book Nomad, a monthly podcast by Muslims for those who love reading, culture and the occasional tough question. Each episode, Amina and a guest explore a book or literary theme, dive into the questions it raises and see how it applies to our real lives and communities. Website: www.booknomadpodcast.com; Instagram: @booknomadpodcast

5. The Invisible Muslim

By Medina Tenour Whiteman

The Invisible Muslim is a memoir in which the author generously shares her journey through Islam. Her experiences as a White Muslim woman are highly valuable as part of what she calls ‘Muslim marginalia’. While the introductory chapter focuses on her quite marginal position as a White Muslim woman and explores it with anecdotes, the rest of the book is less and less centred around the author as a margin. Instead, the author travels through time and space to elaborate the so-called Muslim marginalia, delving deep into the rich history of Islam so as to make the margins an central part of Islamic history. The theme of visibility, as suggested by the title, is prominent all throughout the memoir, but best embodied in the concluding chapter “Hiding in Plain Sight” in which Whiteman does an excellent job at presenting obvious notions from a completely different perspective.

The Invisible Muslim is a memoir that takes the reader on self-reflective virtual, religious and spiritual journey necessary for our understanding of Islam and Muslim communities.

Length: 288 pages

Highlight:

It’s perfectly understandable that white Muslims might seem a novelty, especially those of us who were born into Islam at a time when conversion was still rare. However I don’t deserve to be presented a poster child for Islam, nor to be held in esteem for my whiteness. At the other end of the scale, the suggestion that my whiteness somehow invalidates my Islam, although rare, is unsettling. Converts – many, though not all, of whom are white – often suffer from loneliness. Their families may angrily reject their decision, disinherit or disown them, while their local communities of Muslims might not be altogether welcoming either.

Reviewer: Assia is a French-Algerian book reviewer with a focus on Muslim and Arab & African literature. You can follow her @shereadsox.

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