For years after an event of monumental significance, a culture will still be chewing it over, trying to understand what happened and why. Political and historical interpretation is that much more complicated if the event is somehow tied in to people's religious beliefs. So it comes as little surprise that, in the field of books dealing with religions and their interrelationship with each other, publishers are still coming to terms with September 11, 2001.

What may be surprising is the conclusion that a new crop of interfaith books reach. Earlier books like Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998) and Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? (2003) sought the key to the tension between Islam and the West, and found it in Islam. The new books strike a much more apologetic tone. They assure us that, whatever negative impression non-Muslim readers may have formed about Islamic values, the religion of Mohammed is actually a religion of peace.

Eric Brandt, a senior editor at Harper San Francisco, forthrightly calls his author Feisal Abdul Rauf an "apologist, just like Christianity had its apologists in the early centuries of this era." An imam whose mosque is just 12 blocks from Ground Zero, Imam Rauf is the author of What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (Apr.). "He is a Sufi," Brandt told PW, referring to the gentle and mystical branch of Islam, "and Sufis are more in tune with spirituality and tend to seek commonality rather than distinctions. He's a bridge-builder, so he's not going to take on any other groups and rip them to shreds."

A Religion of Peace?

The majority of new books in the interfaith field tend toward some variation on Imam Rauf's conclusion that the authentic version of Islam is peaceful, democratic and pluralistic. Harper San Francisco, for example, is bringing out another book next year, Reclaiming Islam (Apr. 2005), by Muslim jurist Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, who defends what he takes to be the authentic "moderate" tradition in Islam, one that can live peacefully with the West, tolerates other faiths and rejects terrorism. Similar arguments are offered in Taking Back Islam, edited by Michael Wolfe and the producer team at the religion Web site (Rodale, July), as well as in Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey by Asma Gull Hasan (Thorsons/Element, Mar.). Another devotee of Sufism, looking on her book jacket like a spunky American college student (big smile, tight black top, no bhurka), Hasan makes an attractive poster girl for this unthreatening Islam.

Mahmood Mamdani, a political scientist and anthropologist at Columbia University, takes a more aggressive apologetic tack. In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon, Apr.), he explains that if Islam became "politicized" (in other words, prone to oppression and terrorism) this is no fault of Islam itself, which is not at heart a "political" religion.

Shelley Wanger, his editor at Pantheon, says she was struck by his argument that "the roots of terror don't lie in Muslim culture, which is a legacy that we can't do anything about. Rather they have to do with politics, which is a legacy we can change, that comes from us." That's "us" as in "U.S." Mamdani insists that terror wouldn't have taken root in the Muslim mind were it not for America's support of Israel and other U.S. foreign-policy mistakes. "You just hope that there's going to be more understanding after reading a book like this," said Wanger.

Less Sanguine Views

If most of the books coming out soon on interfaith themes seek to defend Islam to non-Muslims, that's not true of every book in the field. A couple of new works even seek to do the precise opposite, emphasizing the differences between Islam and Christianity in particular. There is David Goldmann's Islam and the Bible: Why Two Faiths Collide (Moody Publishers, May) and Mark A. Gabriel's Jesus and Muhammad: Profound Differences and Surprising Similarities (Charisma House/Strang Communications, Apr.).

Goldmann's editor at Moody, Mark Tobey, said the expected audience for Islam and the Bible will be "primarily lay people in the Protestant church market who are trying to understand the difference between Protestant Christianity and Islam." Asked what position Goldmann's book will take on the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Tobey replied, "Fundamentally, it depends on who you ask, but it does seem the God revealed in the Bible would be different from the God revealed in the Qur'an." Goldmann was a missionary among Muslims in North Africa for 25 years, while Gabriel is an ex-Muslim, formerly a professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, now an evangelical Christian.

Other books will trace the history of the centuries-old conflict between the civilization of the Qur'an and that of the Bible. In June, Random House will publish Andrew Wheatcroft's Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, while Palgrave MacMillan is bringing out Richard Bonney's Jihad: From Quran to Bin Laden (Aug.).

A curious twist on the apologist theme comes from a pair of Muslim-turned-Christian brothers, Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner. In Christian Jihad: Two Former Muslims Look at the Crusades and Killing in the Name of Christ (Kregel, June), they point out that if Islamic history has a dark side, so does Christian history with its "Crusade mentality." But while putting 9/11 in a fresh perspective, the Caner brothers aren't exactly cheerleading for Islam.

The brothers grew up in Columbus, Ohio, sons of a Turkish-born muazzin at the local mosque and a Swedish woman, a Muslim convert. Today an associate professor of church history and Anabaptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., Emir Caner explained that in 1982 he had become disillusioned with Islam and was subsequently "saved" as an evangelical Christian, along with Ergun and another brother. "I was disowned by my father," he said.

Yet here he is pointing out the "commonality," the shared legacy of violence, between the two religions. He told PW, "As early as 847, the Pope started saying that if you make war on pagans, you have two things promised to you: forgiveness and eternal life. It's eerily familiar to anyone who's read the third chapter, verse 169, of the Qur'an that says for going to war you'll have eternal life." The verse says, "Do not think of those who have been killed in God's way as dead. They are alive with their Lord, well provided for."

Caner points out that this was the sentiment that motivated the 9/11 suicide attackers. But while it finds support in the Qur'an, he said, "Nowhere in the Bible is that promised." The Pope's assurance, then, was not true to his religion, while the hope of heavenly reward that the 9/11 terrorists held, the same hope that motivates Palestinian suicide bombers, is arguably true to their faith, he believes.

It's also a very unusual kind of apologist for Islam who denies that Muslims even serve the same God that Christians do. Notwithstanding the affirmation of religion experts like Karen Armstrong and Jack Miles that "Allah" is just another name for the God of the Bible, Caner is emphatic: "I would wholeheartedly say no. A traditional Muslim rejects the Trinity. The idea that we all worship the same God would be quite offensive to him. We worship Jesus. That's the centrality of our worship."

Understanding the Qur'an

Part of the challenge for pro-Islam writers lies in explaining the Qur'an itself. "After 9/11," Harper SF's Eric Brandt points out, "a lot of people bought books about Islam." One of those books was the Qur'an. Those readers who made it all the way through what is, after all, not an easy read—the Islamic holy book has no narrative plot line, being mostly a work of exhortation—may have been surprised and alarmed at the amount of vituperation directed by Mohammed at unbelievers.

Writes the Prophet, quoting Allah (in N.J. Dawood's Penguin Classics translation): "Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them."

"Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate."

Some readers may have recalled hearing that the Qur'an uses the phrase "People of the Book," meaning Jews and Christians, to convey an attitude of friendliness and respect. Um, not exactly. As Mohammed declaims, "The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of creatures."

"Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christian for your friends. They are friends to one another."

The Qur'an's overall context of hostility to those who disbelieve in Mohammed's prophecy is downplayed in one forthcoming book, The Koran for Dummies by Sohaid Sultan (Wiley, May). Under the heading "Discovering the Basic Messages of the Koran," Sultan lists as Mohammed's basic themes "The unity of God," "Worship and service to God," "Prophets to teach and guide," "Completion of past revelations," "Guidance to a spiritual path," "Movement for social change," "Accountability of deeds." All of which sounds pretty harmless—nothing about making war on unbelievers.

Could the problem lie in the translation of Dawood, an Iraqi scholar whose Qur'an was originally published in the mid-1950s? In July, Oxford University Press will bring out a new translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, an Egyptian-born professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. The book's editor at OUP, Judith Luna, commented to PW that "The meaning [of key verses] is not always clear in existing English translations, either because they use archaic language or attempt to stick too closely to the Arabic, which produces very odd English. So Professor Haleem avoids archaisms and cryptic language and respects the context of the discourse to establish what it really means."

The context is of course vital to an accurate translation, not least where interfaith relations are at issue. Luna noted that, in the Qur'an, "hostility to other religions is not as clear-cut as people might think. There is respect for other faiths. In the Arabic of the time, the word 'Islam' meant complete devotion or submission to God, unmixed with worship of any other, and not the religion of the Prophet Mohammed, so respect is due anyone who is devoted to God." The problem comes when modern interpreters "wrest phrases out of context and ignore what the book really says."

As Haleem himself writes in his introduction, "The prevalent message of the Qur'an is one of peace and tolerance but it allows self-defense." To illustrate, he cites verse 29:46, which speaks to the People of the Book: "We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God are one and the same."

Another book that affirms the tolerance inherent in Islam is Adam Seligman's Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition (University of Notre Dame Press, April). Barbara Hanrahan, director of the UND Press, explained that Seligman's work seeks "not to impose tolerance from outside [the existing religious traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity], but to find it in the religions themselves." Asked if Muslims have to work harder to find grounds for tolerance in their faith, Hanrahan said, "Personally, I don't think so." She estimates that in this regard, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are "about equivalent."

UND Press is also bringing out a more general title on interfaith understanding, The Stranger's Religion: Fascination and Fear (April), by Anna Lannstrom. Another essay collection, this one explores the boundaries between faiths, the feelings of anxiety and loathing members of one religion may feel toward other systems of religious belief.

Islam and Women

Sometimes those negative feelings are based on misperceptions and misunderstandings. Two new books address what some call the misperception that Islam is oppressive to its own people, especially to women.

Particularly nettlesome is a verse in the Qur'an (4:34) that seems to endorse wife beating. Translated by Dawood, it reads, "Good women are obedient. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them." In The Position of Women in Islam: A Progressive View (State University of New York Press, Aug.), Mohammad Ali Syed is at pains to clarify that the Islamic perspective on husband-wife interaction isn't necessarily as regressive as might first appear to be the case: "While the majority of translators of the Qur'an translate 'wazribuu hunna' as 'beat them' (the wives), this translation is not accepted by some translators of the Qur'an. Both the Lisanul Arab and Arabic-English Lexicon (Lane 1980) agree that 'zaraba' does not necessarily indicate force or violence.... Among those translators who translate 'wazribuu' as meaning 'beating,' Yusuf Ali (1946), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1980), and Zamakshari (1977) recommend beating lightly." Syed, a British barrister, himself translates the controversial phrase as "beat them (lightly)."

Whether being beaten (lightly) will seem to most women like a big improvement over being beaten is an open question. Syed's book is not exactly an apologetic, being "a little more referency, very informational and Scriptural," as the book's editor at SUNY Press, Nancy Ellegate, said. In Ellegate's own opinion, "Women are oppressed in Islamic cultures."

A true apologist, Jennifer Heath, vigorously disagrees. Author of The Scimitar & the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam (Hidden Spring/Paulist Press, May), she objects to recent American military actions in the Middle East being justified by the mistreatment of women in Islamic society: "We often go to war with Islamic countries in the name of their women. We went into Afghanistan and much of our reason for bombing them was to 'liberate' the women. We use what we think of as the shrouding and mistreatment of the women as part of the reason why it's okay to go and bomb people."

A self-described "peace activist" and a professor at the Buddhist Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., Heath objects to a recent spate of books that seek to "unveil" Islam, exposing the oppressed status of Muslim women. She cited books with titles such as Beyond the Veil, Unveiling Islam, Veiled Courage, Unveiled, Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, and Rage Against the Veil. Heath complained, "It's almost like a rape, this constant reference to ripping the veil off Muslim women. It's very colonialist, very orientalist. The veil is actually a mystical thing, a spiritual thing, having to do with the place that's between God and us."

The Classic Conflict

But treatments of Islam for non-Muslims do not entirely exhaust the field of interfaith books. There are also some books that focus on mediating the inter-religious tension that interested more Americans before 9/11, the one between Christianity and Judaism.

Author Robert Schoen, who isn't giving up his day job as an optometrist, wrote What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew about Judaism (Loyola Press, May) because "I realized that Christian people don't always have a strong concept of what it means to be Jewish in American society—some don't have a clue. Also, most of the books out there about Judaism either are from an overly Orthodox viewpoint, or else you'll find a tongue-in-cheek picture that borders on—I hate to use the word 'sacrilege,' but I will."

Meanwhile, in the category of books by rabbis, Jewish Lights has just published Rabbi Kerry Olitzky's Introducing My Faith and My Community: The Jewish Outreach Institute Guide for the Christian in a Jewish Interfaith Relationship (Mar.). Ktav Publishing House will bring out Rabbi Philip Lazowski's Understanding Your Neighbor's Faith: What Christians and Jews Should Know About Each Other (May)—a somewhat unusual title in that it assumes that Jews can learn from Christians, as well as vice versa.

Asked why interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians has most often centered on explaining Judaism to Christians and not the other way around, Rabbi Olitzky suggested two reasons. "First, the Jewish community can be very insular. And second, often we refuse to acknowledge some of the historical commonalities between the two religions, because we're afraid of it evolving into syncretism"—the melding of distinct religious traditions into one.

The placid tone of these books by Jews for Christians will change soon, as publishing begins to digest the significance of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The movie was highly controversial, with the Anti-Defamation League citing the danger that Gibson would stir up anti-Semitic attacks—a threat that apparently has yet to materialize in any overt acts.

Though it's not, of course, to be compared with 9/11 in its relevance for religious thought, the impact of Gibson's Passion on interfaith relations will nonetheless have to be dealt with. The books on the subject are no doubt being written now.

Klinghoffer is the author most recently of The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism (Doubleday), which will be released in paperback this September by Three Leaves Press. His next book, to be published in spring 2005, is Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday).