Category Close-Ups

Islamic Publishing Is Poised for Growth
Marcia Z. Nelson -- 11/13/00
Books on Sufi p t Rumi and Sufism abound; books on culture and religion are on the rise

In This Article:
Also,Islam's Holy Book, in English

American ethnic and religious diversity continues to increase, but the offerings on bookstore shelves do not yet fully reflect that diversity. In particular, while many religion experts consider Islam to be America's fastest-growing religion, claiming upward of six million adherents, trade publishing has yet to address comprehensively the interests of Muslims in America. Yet signs of change are evident. Several major houses, as well as a number of small specialty publishers, are engaged in publishing books about Islam for America's Muslims and anyone else interested in this major world religion. And with continuing growth in America's Muslim population, there can be no doubt that more books are on the way.

Muslims Serving Muslim Readers

Books on a fast-growing faith from
Oxford (l.), Modern Library (top)
and Shambhala.
Many book-buying Muslims turn to Chicago-based Kazi Publications, the oldest and largest Islamic publisher and distributor in North America. Founded in 1972, Kazi is a not-for-profit that stresses its intellectual and financial independence. It d s not receive money from Islamic countries, as some publishing outlets here do, nor d s it carry political books. "We don't get into politics at all," said Laleh Bakhtiar, whose modest title of production manager understates the range of her role at the house.
Kazi's 144-page catalogue includes its own 100-plus titles as well as hundreds of books from other publishers, including works by the best-known Muslim writers in America today. It also carries a large selection of books, tapes and videos, as well as other educational supplies, to educate young American Muslims. This publishing area is growing as a new generation of American Muslims, whose parents or grandparents immigrated in the 1960s and 1970s, is in need of religious education.

"For people who are second and third generation here, they want books written in English," said Bakhtiar, a psychologist and writer who was born in Iran but grew up in the U.S. (Her mother was the first American woman to marry an Iranian in this country and emigrate to Tehran.)

Like other American minorities, Muslims are interested in their roots, and Kazi can see this phenomenon through traffic at its Web site (www.kazi.com) as well as its orders. The Internet has spurred the organization's growth.

Because of this growing interest in Islamic religious heritage, Kazi has begun publishing what will eventually be a 100-volume series of Great Books of the Islamic World. Chief consultant for the series is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an internationally recognized authority on Islam and Sufism and professor at George Washington University. Nasr said the series, originally begun by the government of Pakistan to mark the Islamic year 1400, is the equivalent of the famed Western Great Books developed by Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago. "It's a very important program," noted Nasr, himself a much-published author. "It's very hard to choose only 100 volumes." Among the volumes published this year are The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry by Kamal al-Din Husayn Kashifi, a 15th-century treatise on healing, and Diwan of al-Mutanabbi by Abu Tayyib Mutanabbi, a 10th-century Arab p t.

Nasr believes that publishing about Islam in this country will inevitably grow beyond pockets of specialty and academic publishing. But growth will require solving a number of problems that have hindered visibility. Distribution issues, factors of size, a lack of enough writers skilled in both contemporary American English and the complexities of Islamic religion and culture, and the provincialism of the general American reading public are all obstacles to an increase in published material that represents Islam accurately, Nasr believes.

Trade Houses Climb Aboard?Whether or not books on Islam are getting the attention they deserve, publishing execs like Cynthia Read, executive editor at Oxford University Press, agree that some segments of publishing--academic, for one--are regularly churning out books on the topic. Oxford author John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and author of The Oxford History of Islam (Jan.), is well regarded and sells well, Read said. The press's new No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam by Geneive Abdo (Sept.) is a more popular account of the current Islamic revival in Egypt that is both peaceful and grassroots. Abdo, a journalist, interviewed hundreds of ordinary Egyptian citizens for her book. An American citizen, she now lives in Tehran with her husband, a journalist who reopened the Reuters bureau there. Read, a 20-year veteran at the press with a background in religious studies, expects Oxford's Islamic publishing program to increase. "It's a growing movement and increasingly influential in many parts of the world," she noted.

One trade title on Islam doing well enough to go back to press for a third time is Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (Aug.), one of the first entries in Random's Modern Library series. "It has been selling extremely well," noted Adrienne Short, Modern Library publicist. Armstrong brings her bestselling name as well as an authoritative and accessible style to a work that also invites with the promise of being short. (The main text ends on page 187.)

Using Armstrong as one example, John Loudon, executive editor at Harper San Francisco, told PW that books about Islam for the trade have to be very well written to have wide appeal. Journalists like Abdo and Geraldine Brooks, who wrote Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Anchor, 1996), also fill that bill. "I think there will be a gradually increasing market," said Loudon.

J l Fotinos, director of religion publishing at Penguin Putnam, agrees, but right now no one is offering him manuscripts. Like many others in the trade, Fotinos believes that Kazi is doing an admirable job of meeting current needs. "They just do a fantastic job and service the market wonderfully," he said. Specialty presses like Kazi and some small "Western" houses such as Paulist Press--which includes major works within Islam in its Classics of Western Spirituality series--will eventually be joined by the major houses. "I think big presses are going to climb on board at a certain point," said Fotinos. "I just don't know when that point will be."

Also promising to bring more Islamic books into the general trade mainstream is a new partnership between Shambhala Publications and the Threshold Society, a Sufi group within the Mevlevi order, which follows the teachings of Rumi. Last year, Shambhala sublicensed rights from Threshold's book arm to publish selected titles "with the blessings of all concerned," said J l Segel, Shambhala associate editor. Shambhala purchased the inventory on certain Threshold titles, which will then become Shambhala Threshold titles upon reprinting, analogous to an imprint. Threshold codirector Kabir Helminski now writes books for Shambhala, including The Knowing Heart (Oct.).

One unique title comes from Continuum: American Muslims: The New Generation (Dec. 2000) is a memoir by Asma Gull Hasan, a third-year law student at NYU who was born in Chicago and raised in Colorado. And if all else fails, good old American do-it-yourself-ism may increase the numbers and availability of books about Islam. Novice author Javed Mohammed, a marketing manager in Silicon Valley, is self-publishing Gems of Wisdom, Heart of Gold (Nov.), a book of inspirational sayings drawn from the writings and speeches of Islamic prophets, caliphs and contemporary figures. He is currently working out trade distribution arrangements with Barnes & Noble and Ingram.

All Things Rumi As far as most Americans are concerned, rightly or wrongly, the Sufi p t Rumi represents the popular face of Islam. Thanks to a small cultural vogue in p try, persistent interest in spirituality and successful translations by American p t Coleman Barks, the p try of Jelalludin Rumi has been wildly popular throughout much of the '90s. Despite the fact that Rumi has been dead for 700 years, he is commonly thought to be America's current bestselling p t.

Publishers large and small are now complementing Rumi's p try with new book formats, translations and materials related to the 13th-century Persian author and teacher. Accompanying this wave are new books about Sufism that further plumb the tradition, putting the work of some of its other long-dead p ts and sages into the early-21st-century American publishing spotlight.

Continuing to enjoy robust sales of its TheEssential Rumi (1995), Harper San Francisco has just brought out The Illustrated Rumi (Oct.). The hardcover gift book features 150 illustrations and photographs of Sufi and Islamic art and relies on the work of one of the most authoritative translators, R.A. Nicholson, freshened by the author-packager team of Philip Dunn and Manuela Dunn Mascetti. The two also place Rumi's p try within the context of his teaching stories, the way the p t himself originally related his work.

Harper SF's 1995 Rumi edition, featuring translations by the p t Coleman Barks, has sold well over 100,000 copies. Combining personal passion with spiritual seeking, the metaphor-dense Barks renderings, undertaken at the urging of fellow p t Robert Bly, have apparently given voice to the current yearning for spirituality . "Especially with people hungry for spirituality, Rumi speaks to them afresh, and Coleman Barks d s it extremely well," said Loudon at Harper SF, crediting the modern adapter as well as his 700-year-old source.

More helpings of Rumi are on the way to satiate the prodigious appetite for the p t's work. Some are timed for holiday gift-giving, including The Pocket Rumi Reader, a diminutive book edited by contemporary Sufi authority Kabir Helminski (Shambhala, Dec.); Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved a paper reprinttranslated by Jonathan Star (Tarcher, Oct.); and A Rumi Anthology translatedby R.A. Nicholson (Oneworld, Nov.). The Way of Passion, a paper reprintby mysticism specialist Andrew Harvey, comes from Tarcher (Jan.); Rumi: A Spiritual Biography by Tamman al-Barazi from Crossroad (Feb. 2001); and Rumi: The Hidden Treasure by Shems Friedlander, a Sufi sheikh and dervish, is from Fons Vitae (May 2001). Next summer, Shambhala will reissue German scholar Annemarie Schimmel's work I Am Wind, You are Fire (1992) as Rumi's World: The Life and Work of the Great Sufi P t.
Volumes on popular p t Rumi (HSF, Tarcher) flank Kazi's compendium
of Muhammad's female followers.
"Clearly there's so much more than there was a few years ago," said Fotinos. "There's lots more competition, but also a much larger appetite for Rumi than ever before." This sustained interest has surprised some. "I figured the boom was over four years ago, and maybe I made a mistake there," said Steven Scholl, publisher at White Cloud Press, with a rueful laugh. But White Cloud is enjoying steady sales of The Unlimited Mercifier: The Life and Thought of Ibn Arabi by Stephen Hertenstein (1999), an introduction to a 13th-century Sufi mystic.
As White Cloud exemplifies, other Sufi teachers, philosophers and p ts are coming through the door opened by Rumi. But Sufism is more diverse than many Western readers may realize. As it has developed and spread over more than a millennium, it has also given birth to a variety of significant teachers and followers, splintering the tradition. Sufism, as it has evolved in America over the past 40 years, has split into two camps: "traditional" Sufism, which says Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and non-Islamic Sufism--what some would call "New Age" Sufism or others would term "universalist."

Nasr bluntly assesses some interpretations of Sufism that have gained adherents in the United States: "It's easier in America than in Europe to sell diluted interpretations of Sufism. There's less knowledge here, and the New Age wave began in America and went to Europe."

"There are people who would say it has to be Muslim, but, to quote Rumi, 'God d s not look at the outer form but the love within your love,'" counters Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, author and teacher at the Golden Sufi Center in Inverness, Calif. Vaughan-Lee has been publishing works about Sufism through the center's press for a decade, trying to put Sufism into what he terms "plain speak." He compares his effort to the work of a generation of Americans writing about Buddhism, who have applied it to contemporary Western life. "Here is this wonderful tradition that isn't available to people who can't read Arabic or Persian. And it's very much about life in the world, life in the marketplace," said Vaughan-Lee, an Englishman who studied with Russian-born Sufi teacher and writer Irina Tweedie, who herself studied Sufism in India. Vaughan-Lee's newest work from the Golden Sufi Center is Love Is a Fire (Oct.), an introduction to Sufism based on talks he has given.

Another small press from the universalist Sufi school is Omega Publications, which has published works by Hazrat Inayat Khan and his son Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Two titles by and about the elder Khan are forthcoming: The Soul's Journey (Jan. 2001), a corrected and completed version of previously published material, and A Pearl in Wine: Essays on the Life, Music and Sufism of Hazrat Inayat Khan (Feb. 2001), a retrospective look at the life and career of the man who founded the International Sufi Order, edited by Zia Inayat Khan. Omega publisher Abi'l-Khayr, an American Sufi, said, "What I see is that the market is growing slowly and quietly, but there's such a vast potential." He and others cite a growing interest in p try by 14th-century p t Hafiz, revered as Iran's greatest p t. Shambhala plans a new Hafiz translation, by writer Thomas Rain Crowe, for summer 2001 release.

In contrast, "traditional" Sufism stresses its link to the Muslim religion and Middle Eastern cultures, and this view also has its exponents and publishers. The Islamic Texts Society, founded in Cambridge, England, in the late 1970s by Muslims Gray Henry, an American, and Faarid Gouverneur, a Venezuelan, aims to preserve and propagate translations of traditional Islamic texts.

The Islamic Texts Society is an imprint of Fons Vitae, a newer enterprise, also founded by Henry, that publishes books about various world religions, including Buddhism. Among Fons Vitae's new titles on Islam and Sufism are al-Ghazali's Path to Sufism (Oct.) and al-Ghazali's Marvels of the Heart (Jan. 2001). Al-Ghazali was a 12th-century Asian Muslim jurist, theologian and mystic, a key thinker from medieval Islam. Also new or forthcoming are The Name and the Named (Oct.), compiledby Sheikh Tosun Bayrak of the Turkish Jerrahi order from classic Arabic and Turkish texts, and The Road to Mecca by Austrian journalist Muhammad Asad (May 2001).

Other current Sufi and Islamic mysticism titles include Three Gates to Meditation Practice: A Personal Journey into Sufism, Buddhism and Judaism by David A. Cooper (SkyLight Paths, Sept.) and Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rabi'a and Other Women Mystics in Islam by Margaret Smith (Oneworld, Feb. 2001).

With "new" old writers being made accessible through new translations and an abiding interest in Sufism as one tradition of mysticism, shelf space for Sufism will continue to grow, as PW predicted in 1995, when the Rumi boom was gathering steam. Appropriately enough for an author who was also a dervish dancer, Rumi has proved to have legs.

Islam's Holy Book, in English

In The World's Religions (Harper San Francisco), one of the signal reference works on the world's varied spiritual traditions, scholar Huston Smith writes: "No book in the religious heritage of any other culture is as inaccessible to Western appreciation as the Qur'an.... Many Muslims [insist] that the Qur'an cannot be translated. While Christian Bible societies have been busy translating God's Word into every known tongue, Muslims have turned their primary efforts to teaching the people of other tongues the language in which God spoke for all time with incomparable force and directness."

So what, then, do non-Arabic-speaking or -reading American Muslims do? They can use one of several standard English translations, which are usually published with the Arabic text, either in facing columns or facing pages. But a good Muslim is still expected to learn Arabic in order to pray and read the Qur'an.
Translations from
Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an
and Touchstone.
The standard and most widely used translation in English is by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, an early 20th-century Indian scholar of the Qur'an. Ali's translation, available through a number of publishers, has received financial backing for publication by the government of Saudi Arabia, making it easier to produce high-quality, affordable editions.
Another standard in English is by Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an early 20th-century English convert to Islam who produced an explanatory translation. Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an, revised and edited in modern standard English by Arafat El-Ashi, is new from Amana Publications in Beltsville, Md., which also has a new edition of The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an of Abdullah Yusuf Ali, with an index and revised commentary. Mohammad Habib Shakir, an early 20th-century Egyptian jurist, did a translation that is preferred by Muslims who adhere to the minority Shi'a sect, according to Laleh Bakhtiar of Kazi Publications. One publisher of this version is Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an.

In 1985, after 25 years of work, American Muslim convert Thomas Irving produced Qur'an: The Noble Reading. It bears the subtitle The First American Edition, and American Muslims helped finance its publication. The Light of Dawn: Daily Readings from the Holy Qur'an (Shambhala, Dec.) offers passages selected and rendered by Camille Adams Helminski, a codirector of the Threshold Society, a group of Sufi followers of Rumi. Helminski relied on existing English translations as well as the original Arabic in developing the text.

English-only editions also have been done. The Koran Interpreted (Touchstone, 1996), A.J. Arberry's translation, was published 40 years ago and tries to capture the p try of the original text. "It's really beautiful," said Bakhtiar. "It follows the rhythm of the Arabic." Less acceptable to Muslims is an English translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin, 1990). Bakhtiar said Dawood's translation changed the order of the chapters. While English-only translations are essentially theologically incomplete, they are considered acceptable for English speakers who are not Muslims. Sometimes English-speaking Muslims use them out of convenience, since those texts are shorter in length and easier to carry around.

Bakhtiar said that translating the Qur'an is a formidable task. "It needs a very special person who knows Arabic and knows English well," she said. "Because it's considered to be the word of God, it's not just something anyone would sit down and do." The Qur'an is really much more than an Islamic Bible, she added. Its significance makes it more like the person of Jesus himself than like the Christian Bible. "We shouldn't compare book to book," stated Bakhtiar. "In the Muslim tradition the Qur'an represents what Jesus represents."
--Marcia Z. Nelson