Recite in the name of your Lord who created–created man from a clinging substance. Recite and your Lord is most Generous Who taught by the pen—taught man that which he knew not. [Surat Al-‘Alaq, 96:1-6]
THE FIRST QUR’ANIC revelation begins with the word “iqra!” “Read!” or “Recite!” Prophet Muhammad received this momentous command from the Archangel Jibreel as he felt a great weight crushing his chest. “But I don’t know how to read!” he responded. “Read!” The angel repeated. “But I can’t read!” “Read!” And suddenly the words began to take shape: “Read! In the name of your Lord…”
Allah’s first command to His Last Prophet— “read!”—was the greatest stimulus to literacy that humanity has ever known. Its effects were felt almost immediately, as the tiny Muslim community began to preserve Allah’s revelations in writing on whatever material was at hand. And then a little remarked-on miracle occurred. Within a few generations, the pure Arabic of the Quran had evolved into the world’s leading written language. This rapid transformation of an oral tradition into the premiere language of global scholarship remains one of the most astonishing events in all historical linguistics.
But what, exactly, do we mean by reading? In Arabic, the verb “qar’a” (read) has the same root as Quran (reading or recitation)—the name of our sacred book, the Quran, which is also known as Al-kitab “the book”. This linkage of reading and writing to holy scripture suggests that Allah attaches great importance to the written word. It also suggests that reading and writing are paths to the deepest, most sacred knowledge. As Muslims, we ought to take reading seriously. We ought to engage in “deep reading”—serious reading aimed at broadening our horizons and deepening our understanding.
Unfortunately, many of today’s Muslims do not make a habit of that kind of reading. In saying this, I realize I am addressing Muslims who do read seriously—the readers of Aljumuah—and find myself in the position of a university teacher berating a classroom half-full of students for their lack of attendance, when it is in fact the other half of the class—the half that is not there—that deserves the criticism. But even Aljumuah readers surely know people who do not read much. Some may even be close friends and relations. How can we convince them of the importance of reading, and provide suggestions that will help them become serious readers and knowledge-seekers?
Why People Don’t Read
The first step is to understand why we don’t read. In one sense, there are as many reasons not to read as there are non-readers: Allah created each one of us as a unique individual, with our own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, habits and inclinations. But in general, it is safe to say that most people do not read because they are doing something else that seems more important or enjoyable…or maybe just easier. Reading requires a certain minimum of effort, and the rewards it offers are not always immediate.
In today’s world, we are beset by distractions—television, internet, shopping, cell phones, and so on—that seem to promise a greater reward, for less effort, than serious reading does. Additionally, we need to make a living and take care of our families’ needs, which are immensely time-consuming activities. In whatever time we are left with after fulfilling our obligations, we may be too exhausted to contemplate expending serious mental energy on reading.
Though reading seriously is not a direct religious obligation like fasting and praying, it is an activity that is clearly encouraged in Islamic scripture and tradition. And like fasting and praying, it brings rewards that more than make up for the time and energy we put into it. Like the religious obligations, reading should be a habit. If we choose to become regular practitioners of serious reading, the difficulty of getting started will be more than made up for by the rewards later on.
As an extreme example of why people don’t read, and what can happen if a non-reader takes up serious reading, consider the story of Malcolm X. Malcolm Little grew up as an intelligent black man in a racist society, and spent his early adulthood immersed in the worst sort of distractions— drugs, sex, and crime. (These activities certainly seemed to offer quicker and surer rewards than reading did!) After finally landing in prison, he encountered, through the grace of Allah, a still-smoldering spark of the lost-found tradition of Islam that had been brought to America by prisoners on slave ships, then preserved, despite the many deviations resulting from the horrible conditions imposed on slaves and their descendants, to re-emerge when the time was ripe. That spark of Islam fell into the tinderbox of Malcolm’s soul, kindling a burning desire for knowledge. Malcolm began his career of serious reading, which ultimately led him to true Islam and to an impressive career as an orator, political activist, and preacher of Islamic dawah. Malcolm’s status as perhaps the single greatest dawah figure in North America is the direct result of his voracious consumption of serious books—the fruit of a search for truth inseparable from the quest for the deep truths conveyed in the scripture and tradition of Islam. All English-speaking Muslims should read his classic Autobiography.
Why People Should Read: Purposes and Goals
Though few of us will ever become communicators of Malcolm X’s stature, we can emulate him by seeking deeper and broader knowledge which will allow us to communicate with our family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in a richer, more enjoyable, and more effective manner than we could if we were not serious readers. To put it bluntly: Those who engage in “deep reading” are the masters of today’s communications environment, while those who do not are its slaves. In the U.S. today, a great many Muslims are highly successful doctors, engineers, business-people, computer programmers, and so on. Yet America’s communications environment—our newspapers, magazines, movies, television, advertising, public relations and book publishing industries—are dominated not just by non-Muslims, but in many cases by people who are actively hostile to Islam. This is less the result of a deep, dark anti-Muslim conspiracy, than of the fact that most contemporary American Muslims tend to focus more on narrowly vocational training than on the “deep reading” that can produce profound, flexible thinkers and effective communicators.
Another reason to become a “deep reader” is that by building up the brain’s reading muscles, we gain the ability to accomplish things that would be otherwise impossible. My great-uncle, a low-level government bureaucrat, was a voracious reader who had read most of the books on the Western “great books” list—including at least part of the Quran. (Unfortunately, he passed away before I came to Islam, so I never got the chance to discuss it with him.) This “deep reading” background allowed him to design and build a beautiful house by himself, without any professional assistance—he learned how to do it from books. He also built sailboats, and designed, built, and ran a planetarium, purely from the books he had read, with little or no help from anyone experienced in those fields.
Yet another reason to read is for the sheer joy of it, including the joy of discovery. Reading a book is like having a conversation with its author, except that the author has taken a whole lot more time to state things carefully, clearly and beautifully than he or she could in ordinary conversation. Since those who write books are usually, though not always, among the most interesting minds of their time, by reading a book we are having a great conversation with a great mind. It’s certainly more fun than chatting about the weather.
The goal of reading, in short, should be both instruction and enjoyment. A balance needs to be struck: Too much instruction can make reading a painful, boring task; while reading for sheer entertainment or escapism prevents the reader from ever attaining the benefits of “deep reading” with their ever-richer rewards and ever-more-profound joys.
How to Read
The above discussion touches on why we read. But how do we read? At first glance the question seems absurd, and the answer obvious: We read by scanning lines of print. But at another level, the question of how we read is much more interesting than it appears.
Scanning an overflowing email box, and settling down for an evening with Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddam, both qualify as reading, but are in fact quite different activities. We often read email with a “skim and dismiss” method, scanning quickly to eliminate the junk mail and rushing through the other messages in order to get through them as efficiently as possible. That kind of reading would not be a very rewarding approach to Ibn Khaldun, whose sentences deserve to be savored, and whose elegant, nuanced language attempts to convey the author’s vision of how history works. Ibn Khaldun developed a fresh, original way of thinking from Islamic tradition, and to grasp that still-fresh quality of his thought, we need to take our time with his sentences. Sometimes we may need to read them more than once; and, if we are reading a translation but have some knowledge of Arabic, we may wish to consult the original. (Even those who know Arabic may occasionally need to consult dictionaries and footnotes when reading Ibn Khaldun.) In short, we need to apply “slow reading” to Ibn Khaldun, and “fast reading” to our email. Like fast food, fast reading is a convenience that is sometimes forced on us by the hectic conditions of modern life. But like slow food, slow reading is far more delicious and nutritious. And like slow food, slow reading is what tends to get lost in today’s world. Yet it is what our minds need to grow to full maturity and strength. Setting aside time for slow reading is an absolute necessity. (The Quran, of course, contains a great many passages that reveal their beauty and meaning with time, and thus stands as the ultimate example of a book that demands to be read and re-read slowly and patiently. Each word of the Quran carries a kind of fullness and absolute sufficiency; it is the exact opposite of the kind of cheap-thriller or page-turner that excites the passions of the nafs while inducing a breathless “what happens next” race to the end. In this, as in so many other areas, the Quran provides a model for the practice of reading—in this case, slow, patient reading in pursuit of deep knowledge and truth.)
What to Read
Today, the information floodgates are open as never before in history. We are all faced with an almost infinite variety of reading matter. Just as cable TV often seems to offer hundreds of channels yet nothing worth watching, so too the print media, including the internet, often seem to be offering a tidal wave of junk. Faced with this excess of quantity and dearth of quality, how can we choose what to read?
First, and most obviously, we need to select trustworthy, accurate sources of information on topics that we want or need to know about. This magazine, for example, features articles by accomplished Islamic scholars, and is edited by people who are making a serious effort to present accurate information about Islam in a way that is useful to Muslims. Likewise, if we want to start a business, build a house, or understand the implications of quantum theory, we need to be able to sift through many potential information resources and select the best for our own purpose.
But how do we know which source is high-quality, and which is not? In those areas relating to scholarship, including Islamic scholarship, certain quality-control institutions are in place, if we know how to look for them. Particular names, publishing houses, and universities have established reputations for quality. Reviews—of magazines and websites as well as books—can be a useful tool in sifting out things worth reading.
In terms of general-interest books, it has been my experience that the various canons—that is, the list of books that are assigned in university departments—are reasonably good indicators of what is worth reading, especially in the humanities. But there are canons and there are canons. A Muslim who is fluent in Arabic, for example, might find a more useful and authoritative list of books on Islam from the reading lists at Al-Azhar and Al-Qarawayyin than from the religious studies program at an American university. But if that same Muslim wants to discuss Islam with non-Muslim Americans, the canon of “serious books on Islam in English” might also be useful—if only to give her a sense of what Americans are being told by their academic and publishing industries.
How can you find out about what books are considered high quality by people in the field? One way is to simply ask a nearby university. If you are interested in English-language fiction and poetry, for example, you can call the university’s English department and ask them to send you the reading lists from their courses. Another method is to just browse in bookstores and libraries. Books listed under the rubrics “classics” and “literature” are good prospects, and you also may find interesting items under history, sociology, area studies (such as “American”, “African”, “Middle Eastern” and so on) and other areas according to your interests. Good general-interest book review journals can help guide your search. In English, the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books are noted for high quality.
As a university instructor, I am supposed to teach “critical reading.” That is, I am charged with teaching students to think about the strengths and weaknesses of what they are reading, and to engage in a kind of active dialogue or even argument with the author. This kind of skill is essential for Muslims who wish to read a broad selection of contemporary books produced in non-Muslim cultures. Readers need to be aware that authors are always offering an argument or promoting a particular point of view; only Allah can give us pure truth, and even that truth is limited by our understanding. Especially when reading appealing but thoroughly non-Muslim authors like the atheist writers Camus and Vonnegut—both of whom are worth reading—we need to avoid being swept away by the seductive appeal of their ideas, and instead hold those ideas up to critical inspection. Sometimes, by doing this, we can find out things about the author’s books that even the author may not quite grasp. Vonnegut may be a professed atheist or agnostic, but like so many atheists his work betrays a profound religious impulse—the man desperately needs faith, suffers deeply from its absence, knows that the very morality he espouses makes little sense without faith, yet in the end cannot overcome his own cultural conditioning and embrace the faith he so clearly needs and yearns for. Existentialists like Camus and Sartre, likewise, face the problem that all values and actions in the absence of God are arbitrary and meaningless—and evolve admittedly unsatisfying “solutions” to this problem. By bringing our values as Muslims into dialogue with such perspectives, we can broaden our horizons and enhance our ability to communicate with a variety of audiences. But we do have to read critically.
We also need to hold up the authors with whom we identify—and ourselves—to this kind of critical inspection. What do we like about this author’s work? Are we merely identifying with the author (or protagonist) as a kind of authority figure, and trying to capture a part of that authority to bolster our own egos? Cult followers of certain thinkers with seductive but pernicious ideas—I am thinking of Marx, Trotsky, Leo Strauss, Hitler, Mao, and so on—often inspire this kind of misguided identification in their followers. We need to read critically to avoid being taken in by such false prophets. We also need to reflect on our own reactions to what we read in order to identify, and detach ourselves from, the selfish desires of the nafs. Many books, like many TV programs and films, appeal to the nafs by inviting us to identify with the hero’s wealth, beauty, pleasure, power, or status. We need to read critically to be aware of this, and to resist the temptation to fall into escapist reading habits that seduce and ensnare the nafs without uplifting the soul.