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Someone asked me recently for some recomendations for books on understanding the complexities of Islamic practices. So I thought it might be good to start a thread for recommended readings on this much misunderstood subject.
By no means am I an expert but one book I found very interesting and useful was Albert Hourani's: [url=http://www.amazon.com/History-Arab-Peoples-Albert-Hourani/dp/0446393924]... of the Arab Peoples.[/url]
This is not a theological text, but interesting because it explains much of the way politics and religion are intertwined in the Middle East as history covering the main points in Islamic thought, and its divisions and schools of thought, and how those are manifested in political structures.
I found Akbar Ahmed's Discovering Islam to be a very useful one-volume introduction to the subject. It's particularly helpful for understanding Islam in South Asia.
Depending on what kind of Islam or what part of the world you want to understand, of course, other books and authors would be better. For example, Ahmed Rashid's book on Central Asia is excellent.
To understand modern Iran, the satirical novel "My Uncle Napoleon" by Iraj Pezeshkzad and the two-volume graphic novel "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi are both excellent introductions. The first also became a popular TV series in Iran. If you want to work on a puzzle, watch the excellent 1960s-era Iranian film "Gaav" or "The Cow"--Khomeini loved this movie and watched it dozens of times in his life; the only movie he personally owned.
A very good non-fiction intro to Iran is called "Persian Postcards" by a Canadian journalist named Fred Reed. I don't know if it's available anymore.
As for the Arabic-speaking countries, Indonesia, or Turkey, I don't have much to add--I would have recommended Hourani's book as well.
[ 26 October 2007: Message edited by: rasmus ]
Although the subject is, in fact, Delhi, much of Theodore Dalrymple's "City of Djinns" deals with the traditional Mughal culture of Delhi. It's a very enjoyable read.
Which reminds me--Ibn Battuta's accounts of his travels would also be a great introduction to the mediaeval Islamic world.
Also, though it is not really explanative, but literary Nobel prize winner Nagiub Mafhouz. The Thief and the Dogs (which strangely paralled Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, for me), Midaq Alley (which is a really evocative look at everyday life in Egypt) and his later work the Journey of Ibn Fattouma, (which is about society and spirituality in general.)
For the past few years I've been working my way through "Women and Gender in Islam" by Leila Ahmed.