Learning about Islam - Foundations and Introductions

Learning about Islam - Foundations and Introductions
Photo by Masjid Pogung Dalangan / Unsplash

“قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم :  "من يرد الله به خيرًا يفقه في الدين”

The Messenger of Allah said, "When Allah wishes good for someone, He bestows upon him the understanding of the Deen." [Sahih]

Recently a friend asked me what he can best do to learn more about the faith in his own time, either after work or alongside studies. I put together this list based on resources and recommendations. The aim is to provide a good set of introductory resources for both new Muslims and people looking to start learning about faith in more depth.

In my previous post I wrote about a few online resources we can use:

  • Seekers Guidance — For Q&A, articles, taught courses, podcasts and blog posts (https://seekersguidance.org)
  • Yaqeen institute – For answering common myths and misconceptions (https://yaqeeninstitute.org)
  • Basira Education — For Polemics and their excellent course on "Why Islam is True" (https://www.basiraeducation.org/courses/why-islam-is-true)

One of the simplest places to start when learning about Islam though is the Qur’an. Nowadays this is easier than ever with "translations", interpretations and explanations available in so many languages. Not just as physical books but so many apps for the Qur’an, offering translations, explanations, help with memorisation, language learning and even daily notifications and reminders.

Reading the Qur’an is also one of the most simple, effective and powerful ways of drawing closer to Allah. The divine word from God, sent down to us and preserved, right at our fingertips for us to engage with.

ذَٰلِكَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبُ لَا رَيْبَ ۛ فِيهِ ۛ هُدًى لِّلْمُتَّقِينَ

"This is the Book about which there is no doubt — a guide for those mindful (of Allah)" — Quran 2:2

Nowadays the Qur’an is more accessible than ever thanks to apps and the internet. We always have access to the Qur’an at our fingertips, simply a few taps away.

The Qur’an Interpreted in English

While the Qur’an in Arabic is the inimitable word of God and therefore beyond the bounds of translation, many accessible works have been written in English.

Some accessible "translations" in English are:

For the Qur’an we’re lucky to have so many "translations" in English, but it can be better to think of them as "interpretations" or "explanations", as they always take the inimitable word of God and filter it through a human lens that is imbued with its own context and perspectives. This provides great benefit but also something different from the original.

In this vein, we can use books written explicitly for the purpose of explanation (tafsir) to help us to delve deeper into the meanings. Books of tafsir are available in both English, Arabic and many other languages. They offer a deeper explanation of the Qur’anic text providing context, extra narrations (from hadith and other sources), as well as context around revelation of the Qur’an.

Some good works of tafsir in English are:

The Qur’an in Arabic

قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم  " مَنْ قَرَأَ حَرْفًا مِنْ كِتَابِ اللَّهِ فَلَهُ بِهِ حَسَنَةٌ وَالْحَسَنَةُ بِعَشْرِ أَمْثَالِهَا

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: "Whoever recites a letter from the book of Allah, then he receives the reward from it, and the reward of ten the like of it."

I often hear people say how moved they have been by the Qur’an. Even without understanding the Arabic, just through listening to the recitation and being touched by its beauty. The Arabic recitation of the Qur’an is the divine revelation that reaches us from Allah himself and we should strive to engage with it as much as possible.

"We send down of the Qur’ān that which is healing and mercy for the believers"

"وَنُنَزِّلُ مِنَ ٱلْقُرْءَانِ مَا هُوَ شِفَآءٌ وَرَحْمَةٌ لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ ۙ وَلَا يَزِيدُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ إِلَّا خَسَارًا" — Qur’an 17:82

Even if we don’t understand Arabic we should still seek comfort in the words, and soothing recitation of the Qur’an in their original language as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). We will naturally benefit even more if we’re using a "translation" and can reflect on the meanings that reach us.

We now have such easy access to the Qur’an on our phones, on Spotify, online and in the book itself, we can easily make an effort to introduce it further into our lives. There are now numerous apps we can install and websites we can go to for reading or listening to the Qur’an too:

Learning About Islam — Books on the Basics

As well as going straight to the Qur’an, it can be helpful to read introductory books that synthesise advanced topics into more digestible summaries. Some aspects of the religion such as prayer are mentioned often in the Qur’an but details on how to perform the prayer only reach us through the Hadith tradition. Introductory books can be helpful to explain the day to day practice of Islam as well as providing background, history and summarised info.

Beliefs and Teachings by Ghulam Sarwar

This is one of the earliest books I read that really helped to cover the basics of Islam for me. As well as having clear explanations about how to pray and having clear text summarising various prayers — this book also has great summaries of the other five pillars of Islam. Summarising the rites of Hajj as well as explaining the value of Zakat and how that fits in holistically to a modern society. The author does a great job at explaining the fundamentals of Islam and even has sections adding flavour to a holistic understanding of Islam. One of my favourite for example was the brief section on the seerah, chronicling the life of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) .

Other good introductory books:

Beyond Books — Podcasts and Video Series

For people more inclined to lectures and videos, a brilliant introductory talk comes from Jeffrey Lang — a Mathematics professor who describes his story of converting to Islam and how the Qur’an just made sense to him when asking the big questions in life. This talk is really incredible, and it helped to clarify a lot of things for me, even after a few years of being practicing. It helped to just succinctly answer some of the big questions in life and put things into perspective:

The Purpose of Life - Jeffrey Lang

Seerah Podcasts

One of the most important and moving aspects of the religion is knowing and understanding the Prophetic Biography, the seerah. The life of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) his life, his journey, his character, his miracles, his family, his companions and so much more.

It’s a life long journey, but provides the context of the revelation and the religion that reaches us today. It is truly the cradle of our Islamic tradition. Through better understanding of the seerah we aim to grow in our love for our Prophet (ﷺ); seeking to inculcate his perfect character.

Through understanding the lives, practice and sacrifices of the early Muslims too, we also come to appreciate how they understood the religion and the high status it held in their lives. We set a high bar for ourselves and think about what we want for ourselves, what we hope to achieve and how we best seek to serve Allah sincerely, as the early Muslims did.

When first studying the seerah, it can feel like a multitude of names, dates and places, very few of which are familiar to begin with. There are however many introductory books, lectures and podcasts that all aim to make the seerah easy to understand. They all aim to make the seerah easily accessible and simple for those who are previously unfamiliar as well as providing insight to those familiar with the narrative. A few highly recommended ones are as follows:

  • Qalam podcast (23 episodes) - “The Chosen One” by Mufti Hussain Kamani - short and concise but very moving and aims to capture the emotion of the journey.
  • Qalam podcast (200 episodes) by Sheikh Abdul Nasir - Very detailed and thorough exploration of the seerah — exploring the emotions and the reality of the Seerah in depth. An amazing series.
  • Yasir Qadhi Seerah series - Another huge and detailed work of Seerah that comes highly recommended.
  • Qalam podcast - “Heartwork:The Messenger” - Beautiful and touching podcast by Ustadh Abdel Rahman Murphy. Very accessible and engaging, aimed at students and young professionals with relatable anecdotes. (Also available on Facebook + Youtube)
  • In The Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan” - Engaging and concise book on the seerah aiming to capture the emotion of the journey and the key events. Very accessible for people reading the Seerah for the first time.
  • Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings” - a detailed telling of the Seerah based on early sources from the Islamic tradition. Presented in modern English, well written and easy to read. Very detailed and informative but can be a bit hard to keep track of all the details.
  • The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan” - “Really straightforward to understand and insightful at the same time. Encourages you to reflect on the different aspects of prophetic character” recommended by my good friend Dr Haroon
  • “Revelation: The Story of Muhammad by Meraj Mohiuddin” — A compilation of other texts of seerah, this book is an excellent study companion that brings a multitude of well-produced diagrams and appendices. Provides an excellent text-book and study companion when reading other texts.

Safina Society

I highly recommend the "Safina Society" podcast. Focused on spirituality and modernity, it’s really refreshing to hear the confidence and conviction the team has in their discussion. Presenting Islam in a way that holistically makes sense and enables better wellbeing and understanding in one’s life.

https://pod.link/1173266688

Hamza Yusuf - Sacred Text Messages

Always soothing and insightful, Hamza Yusuf has been an amazing source of knowledge and guidance for millions. Well known for his myriad of books and excellent talks. His book "Purification of the Heart" is a life changing book delving into "spiritual diseases of the heart" along with their cures. An excellent book on knowing oneself better and perfecting one’s character and mindset insha’Allah.

Renowned for his talks, many of them available on Youtube, Hamza Yusuf is well-known for being insightful, funny and engaging and his recent podcast "Sacred Text Messages" carries on this tradition with touching content that delivers deep & engaging messages, clearly and succinctly.

https://sandala.org/blogs/uncategorized/sacred-text-messages-podcast

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLLWosYrkNwE_K9VRWJofr4nyFTXHRi8SV

Hamza Yusuf also has an excellent book compiling a series of ahadith about Prophetic character and guidance on how to inculcate this into our lives. Compiled with beautiful translations and presented side by side with the English and the Arabic, the book is a truly touching and small gem for anyone’s library: The Content of Character — Translated by Hamza Yusuf (Amazon)

"'The Content of Character' — translated and introduced here by Hamza Yusuf — was influenced by his effort to be a bridge-builder, especially between the values of tradition and the norms of modernity, between the wisdom of religion and the compassion of humanity."

Cambridge Muslim College

Offering extremely insightful and engaging content, grounded in the Islamic tradition but with a deep understanding of the modern society we live in. Timothy Winters and his colleagues at the Cambridge Muslim College have an exceptional series of talks available to listen to online.

One of the most exceptional of these is Dr Timothy Winters’ early talk on "A Perspective on the Pandemic" providing some solace and perspective on how to deal with the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and the possible lockdown. This helped provide me with a new perspective to go into lockdown with a much more positive and holistic mindset, turning it into a time to benefit as opposed to a time to despair.

The "Paradigms of leadership" course also comes highly recommended. As do the weekly sermons/khutbahs from Cambridge Eco Mosque, often by Timothy Winters himself and always excellent. Additionally their channel has some wonderful recitation of the Qur’an with accompanying Arabic and translations in multiple languages.

Other Good Websites for Spiritual Content:

For continued learning and longer courses I highly recommend  SeekersGuidance(https://seekersguidance.org) with their vast range of courses. More details in my previous post here.

I also recommend and thoroughly enjoyed reading the following blogs:

Yasmin Mogahed - "Reclaim your heart"

A wonderful and engaging speaker, Yasmin Mogahed always makes things so clear and delivers her talks with such emotion. Many of her talks are available on Youtube and her podcast covers similarly relatable material. For me her most touching work that really changed my life was her book "Reclaim Your Heart" — comprised of many short reflections, each talk about our relationship with Allah.

"Reclaim Your Heart is not just a self-help book. It is a manual about the journey of the heart in and out of the ocean of this life. It is a book about how to keep your heart from sinking to the depths of that ocean, and what to do when it does. It is a book about redemption, about hope, about renewal. Every heart can heal, and each moment is created to bring us closer to that transformative return."

A lot of the chapters from the book can be found on her blog. Some of those that resonated with me the most were:

Moving stories from the Muslim world

Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-Mecca-Muhammad-Asad/dp/1887752374

The journey to Islam is different for all people. Some are inspired in their youth to embrace Islam while others are touched by the Quran in old age. There simply is nothing like listening to someone tell how they came to know about this beautiful religion and why they chose it for themselves.

In the book, “Road to Makkah”, a Jewish man, Leopold Weiss, travels across Arabia and through his travels he became a devout Muslim who took the name of Muhammad Asad. He met kings, shahs and ordinary people along the way.

If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran — by Carla Powers

Carla Powers, a non Muslim journalist spent a year studying the Quran with Shaykh Akram Nadwi, one of the foremost Islamic Scholars of our time. The book is about the journey they took together, their shared understanding and exploration of common misconceptions and ultimately their friendship.

The book is widely praised for it’s straightforward approach when confronting complex and often misunderstood concepts within the religion. "A journalist who grew up in the Midwest and the Middle East, Power offers her unique vantage point on the Quran's most provocative verses as she debates with Akram at cafes, family gatherings, and packed lecture halls, conversations filled with both good humour and powerful insights. Their story takes them to madrasas in India and pilgrimage sites in Mecca, as they encounter politicians and jihadis, feminist activists and conservative scholars.Armed with a new understanding of each other's worldviews, Power and Akram offer eye-opening perspectives, destroy long-held myths, and reveal startling connections between worlds that have seemed hopelessly divided for far too long."

Conclusion

This list aims to provide a good set of introductory resources for both new Muslims and people looking to learn about faith in more depth. Hopefully through investing the time into learning and delving more deeply into some of these authors, books and further resources we may grow in knowledge and draw closer to Allah insha’Allah.

May he accept all of our efforts, guide us to the straight path and make us of those who are successful on the day of Judgement.

لَهُۥ مَقَالِيدُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ ۖ يَبْسُطُ ٱلرِّزْقَ لِمَن يَشَآءُ وَيَقْدِرُ ۚ إِنَّهُۥ بِكُلِّ شَىْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

"To Him belong the keys ˹of the treasuries˺ of the heavens and the earth. He gives abundant or limited provisions to whoever He wills. Indeed, He has ˹perfect˺ knowledge of all things." — Quran 42:12