A Muslim Writes on Islam
When Suzanne Haneef began home-schooling her two children more than a decade ago, she decided to incorporate religious education into their curriculum, only to find little available in English on the family faith, the Sunni tradition of Islam. So she began her own research, studying the Koran, the Ahadith and the scholarly commentaries in order to provide her young children with an accessible and historical account of their tradition. She had no idea then that she was beginning her research for A History of the Prophets of Islam Derived from the Quran, Hadith and Commentaries--forthcoming this month from the Kazi Publications Library of Islam imprint--an exhaustive two-volume work that documents the central themes of Islamic teaching through the prophetic tradition.
Readers know Haneef best from her first publication with Kazi, What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims, first published in 1986, but reprinted many times since and outselling every other title on Kazi's list except English editions of the Koran. About Islam was subsequently translated for release in Russia, where Haneef believes the vacuum left by the breakdown of communism has created a ready audience for religion books, particularly on Islam. Following on the popular success of her first book, she expanded her material, added more personal insights and published Islam and the Path of God (Kazi, 1996).
Haneef, a freelance writer and editor from North Carolina who now lives in Colorado, prides herself on presenting the tenets of Islam to as wide an audience as possible. "At the time I wrote these, there just weren't adequate general books on Islam." Haneef also believes women's writings on Islam make an important contribution. "If you look at the writings of the classical scholars, all of them were men, and they cannot look at things with the same perspective as a woman would."
The availability of good books on Islam has changed dramatically since the 1980s when she began writing, Haneef says, but the events of September 11 have initiated a new wave of books on Islam from non-specialists outside the tradition, about which Haneef has strong feelings: "There are a lot of non-Muslim scholars in America writing books about Islam, and I would put the majority of them in the garbage can because they are written for money," she asserts. Haneef draws mainly on the classical sources of Islamic scholarship available in English, Arabic and Urdu, and painstakingly documents her primary text material to satisfy both the academic and general reader.
Haneef is hopeful A History of the Prophets will be received warmly not only by Muslims, but also by those in the Jewish and Christian faiths, because these three traditions share many of the same prophets and have significant historical overlap. The first volume tells the stories of Adam and his lineage, through Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Lot, Joseph and Job, among others. The second volume will relay the stories of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Solomon, John, Mary and Jesus.
Laleh Bakhtiar, production director at Kazi, says the Chicago-based company was founded 30 years ago as a distributor specializing in English translations of the Koran imported from Pakistan to the United States. Now Kazi is also a publishing house dedicated to Islamic scholarship, in addition to being one of the major distributors of English-language books on Islam in America. Bakhtiar believes Haneef's work is unique: "There are many books on the lives of the prophets of Islam, but the benefit of her work is that she provides the documentation, footnotes and source materials." Kazi will feature the first volume of A History of the Prophets of Islam in its annual catalogue, which reaches more than 50,000 regular customers. Haneef is currently completing the second volume, which will likely be available later this year.
From an E-mail Grew a Book
Of all of the many people who aired their views via e-mail after September 11, Tamin Ansary is probably the only one whose cyberspace missive landed him a book contract. Granted, he's a professional freelance writer and, as an Afghan-American, one with a pertinent vantage point. Still, when he dashed off a quick e-mail to 20 or so friends on September 12, he had no idea how much it would change his life.
"I've been hearing a lot of talk about 'bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age,'" began the note Ansary thought would be read by a handful of acquaintances. Ironically, he wrote the e-mail because he was too shy to respond on the air to radio talk-show callers anxious to nuke his homeland, never mind the collateral damage. Four days later, he found himself putting World News Tonight on hold to take a call from Oprah's people.
In an Internet version of word of mouth, Ansary's e-mail had spread like a virus, eventually being forwarded to millions of people around the world. What they read was a call for compassion for the Afghan people. "The Taliban and bin Laden are not Afghanistan," he wrote. "When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think 'the people of Afghanistan,' think 'the Jews in the concentration camps.'"
Ansary has worked as a writer and editor for everything from an alternative newspaper in Portland, Ore., to "edutainment" math software. Between his most recent gigs as an Internet columnist and children's textbook writer, he worked on two more personal projects: a novel set in Afghanistan and a memoir about being bi-cultural.
Pieces of both of those works have ended up in West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Reflects on Islam and the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Apr.). "It's my story interwoven with my thoughts on religion and religiosity and how that has interacted with history," says Ansary, who was raised Muslim by his Afghan father and American mother.
The book presents his memories of growing up in Afghanistan until age 16 and his later struggles with understanding what he terms "Islamism," a combination of a political ideology with fundamentalist Islam. He also offers his thoughts on the current situation facing East and West. "I know where both sides are coming from," says Ansary, who has reluctantly accepted the role as unofficial spokesperson for his homeland. "What I would like to see, as much as possible, is a sense of compassion."
He's not sure if his now-famous e-mail had any effect on U.S. policy in the early days of the war, but he hopes his book will have some influence. "I just want to try to keep Afghanistan in the minds of people," he says.
That won't be hard given the number of appearances already booked for Ansary's author tour in May. Already on the schedule are 19 appearances in 12 markets, including a signing at BookExpo America, says Jeff Seroy, FSG's v-p of publicity. The publisher also expects quite a bit of national media coverage.
"What people know about Afghanistan is a military map and what they see on the news," says Seroy. "This book provides wonderful insights into family, community and civic life there. It's a compassionate, humane picture of life in Afghanistan."
Questioning a "Just War"
Like many members of the clergy, Dr. Rowan Williams, a distinguished theologian and the Anglican Archbishop of Wales, has plenty to say about the "war on terrorism." He has the perspective of an eyewitness: Williams was three blocks away from the World Trade Center on September 11, preparing to shoot a video for Wall Street's Trinity Church. From that traumatic experience was born Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Eerdmans, Mar.), one man's attempt to "find words for the grief and shock and loss of the moment," Williams wrote.
He only considered writing down his thoughts on the attacks and the following military response after Judith Longman of British publisher Hodder & Stoughton suggested there might be room for his point of view (Hodder published the British edition in January). "I was cautious about the danger of glib words for difficult things," says Archbishop Williams, who was able to write the book only after several months of reflection. "I would never have written it if I had not been there."
Although the Archbishop is the author of several books, including the newly revised edition of Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans, Feb.) and Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Eerdmans, 2000), none has caused a stir like Writing in the Dust. A meditation encompassing everything from the nature of globalization to questions of whether we are dealing with a "just war," the book has been criticized by the British press as an affront to that country's efforts in the war on terrorism. Williams condemns a military strategy that appears "confused," but one that Western leaders say will go on for years. He also condemns the use of anti-personnel weapons, described as aerial landmines, because of their randomly lethal nature.
Even though Williams defends the book as being "explicitly written from a Christian viewpoint," many Brits seem to feel the rhetoric might be a little too political coming from the man who is the frontrunner to replace Dr. George Carey, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. And while Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has a key role in the appointment, may be embarrassed by the hubbub, Williams was unconcerned with potential political entanglements while writing the book. He would like to see Writing in the Dust be embraced by a wide audience. "I hope that the book might be accessible to non-Christians as well," he says.
While Williams notes that he has received "a number of e-mails from the U.S., some abusive, some appreciative," there has been little discourse about the book and his thoughts on the appropriate response to terrorism on this side of the ocean. That may change if Williams becomes the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
Eerdmans hopes to attract a wide audience, with plans for print advertising in both religious and mainstream press and placement in book clubs. According to Vander Molen, the press is promoting Writing in the Dust to "people who are looking for answers or for another way to look at that day."