Some people say Islam is a religion of peace. Others, that it is a religion of war. Some say that the recent massacre of Christians by ISIS was not in accordance with Islam. ISIS claims they were acting in proper accord with Islamic teaching. From celebrities and major political figures to priests and bishops within our own Church, there are conflicting and vocal opinions but no clear answer. Everybody has something to say about what Islam is (or isn’t), but few are taking the time to explain how they arrived at their conclusion.
As someone who has studied Islam for a very long time, I have views of my own on the subject. In this instance, however, rather than presenting my opinions, I’m going to take a different approach. I will offer you information about the essential sources of Islamic sacred scripture and tradition and how they are understood and apply to Islam, so that you may do your own homework – and draw your own conclusions.
Islam, like the Catholic Faith, distinguishes between sacred scripture and tradition. Islamic sacred scripture is the Quran, and Islamic sacred tradition is broadly classified as hadith.
According to Islam, the Quran is the literal, uncreated and eternal word of Allah. It has always existed, and there was never a point when it did not exist, as Allah’s speech is eternal. However, its existence is one in being but separate from Allah, although they share the same divine nature. While Islam explicitly rejects the Holy Trinity, it uses the exact same Trinitarian theology to describe the relationship between Allah and the Quran. This claim remains in force despite the well-acknowledged fact that the Quran’s chapters were edited by many people during Muhammad’s life, and later arranged in order of chapter size during the reign of Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656).
Islam teaches that the Quran was “revealed” to Muhammad through a being that Muhammad’s cousin Waraqa bin Nawfal and first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, told him it was “Namus,” who Muhammad later claimed was the “Angel Gabriel.” This book was channeled to Muhammad via “revelation” from “Gabriel” over a period of 22 years (610-632). Since it is a book of “revelation” alone, there is no historical context given to the writings.
Hadith means “report,” and is the basis of transmitting information about Islamic sacred tradition. The hadith are reported person-to-person, with each chain of narration carefully documented. The hadith are also rated by levels of quality and accuracy, with the highest grade called sahih (“pure”).
All books of Islamic sacred tradition are either (a) compilations of hadith with a full list of the persons in the order of who reported it, or (b) derived from hadith. The hadith is vital because it provides historical context to the Quran as well as communicates the story of Islam from Muhammad’s time through the late Renaissance period. The hadith is as important as the Quran and, from a scholarly perspective, may be considered more important than the Quran, since the Quran was “revealed” entirely during Muhammad’s lifetime and remains unintelligible without it.
The hadith manifests itself within Islamic sacred tradition through six forms, listed here in order of significance:
- Hadith collections – While the word hadith is used to refer to all reports about Islam and Muslims, the Hadith as a specific term are books that compile these reports and are organized by topic. These are the most important source of information about Islam, since these books contain the “raw data” which forms Islamic sacred tradition. Most of these books were compiled between the late 7th and 17th centuries.
- Sira – Also known as the Sirat Rasullah, or Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq. The Sira is really an extension of the hadith, given that it is written in the same style. However, it is so important to understanding Muhammad and Islam’s early history up until his death, it is considered an independent source unto itself. It is the first biography of Muhammad, written during the late 7th century, and is the earliest source of information about his life.
- Tabaqat literature – Miscellaneous literature which provides vital insight into all aspects of Islamic life without a particular focus. They are all written in Arabic and tell stories hadith-style of the exploits of Muslims across the world, spanning from Central Asia and India to West Africa, beginning with reports about Muhammad’s life and exploits. Because tabaqat literature has no specific focus as a genre, it often preserves curious and sordid details of great interest to scholars and enthusiasts alike. Its tales begin with Muhammad’s life and span through the late 17thcentury.
- Tarikh – The historical works written by later Muslim historians which often rely on the Hadith and Tabaqat literature. The most famous historical work is the History of Al-Tabari.
- ‘Itidal – This covers the practical application of Islamic teachings and theology, with an emphasis on Islamic Law, known as the Sharia.
- Tafsir – Commentary of the Quran given by orthodox Muslim scholars.
As you can see, there is a considerable amount of information about Islam. This was one of the problems faced by medieval Catholic thinkers, and was the reason for the foundation of groups such as the Toledo school of Translators to translate these books from classical Arabic. This challenge has not abated today, since many of the essential writings remain untranslated due to the sheer volume of texts.
The most important texts one must read if one wants to gain a complete understanding of Islam are:
- The Quran -This is the foundational text of Islam, and can be searched through online in multiple translations via keywords. I recommend the Yusuf Ali translation because it is the most commonly used one in the English-speaking world.
- The Life of Muhammad – Orientalist Alfred Guillaume’s translation under the title The Life of Muhammad is the premier translation of this monumental and most important source of Muhammad’s life and exploits.
These are, in my opinion, the most important books for understanding early Islamic history, theology, and Muhammad – who he was and what he did.
If one wants to read more, then I recommend the following books. (Note: There are many other books which I would recommend, but they are currently unavailable in English and thus, inaccessible to most American readers.)
- Sahih Al-Bukhari. The Hadith collection of Imam Bukhari, the famed Muslim traditionalist from Samarqand (in what is today Uzbekistan). His work is considered the most comprehensive, respected, and reliable collection of Hadith, and was compiled in the mid-9thcentury.
- A second equally-respected collection is Sahih Al-Muslim, compiled by Imam Muslim of Nayshapur (in what is today Iran). His work is slightly smaller than Bukhari’s, but equally reliable and respected by Muslims. It was compiled independently during the same period as Bukhari’s hadith collection.
The hadith collections are large and can be confusing or frustrating to read through, even for a trained scholar. Fortunately, there is an excellent English-language hadith search tool online where one can search by keywords to identify particular passages.
- The Life of Muhammad: Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi (Routledge Studies in Classical Islam). This is the Book of Battles, and is the earliest known Islamic writing. It chronicles Muhammad’s caravan robberies and wars up to his death. It is somewhat repetitive, and in many ways offers the same information given in the Life of Muhammad. However, for someone truly interested in Islamic history during Muhammad’s life, this is an invaluable asset to their Islamic library.
- Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat Al-Salik. This is a 14th century manual of Islamic Sharia law translated by Catholic apostate Nuh Ha Mim Keller. His translation is good, and his commentary provides an easy-to-understand and well-referenced guide to how Islamic law is derived and implemented based on the Quran and Hadith.
Currently, there is no Quranic commentary translated to English and in print that I would recommend. However, the Royal Aal-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman has compiled both English translations and Arabic original commentaries for searching online.
To finish this list, I would recommend one of the following three works by Muslim authors:
- The History of Al-Tabari is a monumental Islamic historical work, spanning from (theoretically) the time of creation up until the early 10th century. It is an excellent source of Medieval Islamic history. I do not recommend purchasing it, but rather finding it in a library through a search tool such as WorldCat.
- For those interested in the Middle Ages, Ibn Jubayr’s Travelogues is a first-hand account of the Muslim world written by a Spanish Muslim on pilgrimage to Mecca, which include his experiences in the Crusader States during the time of Saladin and three years before the massacre at Hattin in 1187.
- For a more modern and scholarly work, there is Spanish Muslim Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century Muqaddimah, which is the world’s first Islamic historiography and gives a Muslim perspective into history, sociology, economics, religion, and politics.
In addition, there is one non-Muslim source I would recommend – Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam (Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam). This was originally a doctoral dissertation, and the author provides a true wealth of primary-source texts translated within the book documenting how Christians, Jews, and Pagan peoples experienced Islam in their own writings.
These are the sources of Islam in the words of the Muslims themselves. You may disagree with opinions you find presented about the true nature of Islam, but reading the source texts should provide clarity about what is actually taught and believe. Ultimately, it’s their religion, and their words have the final say.
Originally published on October 4, 2014.
Andrew Bieszad has an MA in Islamic Studies from Hartford Seminary with concentration in the Islamic equivalent of Dogmatic Theology. He is the author of Lions of the Faith: Saints, Blesseds, and Heroes of the Catholic Faith in the Struggle with Islam and 20 Answers: Islam. He is a sought after writer and speaker on Islamic topics.