So you want to learn about Islam —

So, you want to learn about Islam — by Peter Burrows 11/5/20 

(Note: I’ve probably missed citing some important Islamic literature in this article, and there are probably plenty of experts who would disagree with some of what I’ve included. All, however, would agree that the sheer volume of material is HUGE, which is the point I’m trying to make.)   

The study of Islam can be a daunting task. There is so much canonical literature that it would take a LONG lifetime to read it all. To complicate things, the two major branches of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, each have their own libraries, full of holy interpretations of the Koran and Muhammad’s guidance, and they are often in disagreement.  

Since the Sunnis are 85 percent of all Muslims, and since Sunni literature is widely available and Shi’a literature isn’t, we’ll stick to “just” the Sunnis’.  

While both branches use the same Koran, Islam’s holiest book, even there I would strongly recommend two different translations, detailed below, each of which has extensive explanatory and complementary explanations of various verses.  

The problem with a “straight,” unannotated Koran is that in spite of describing itself as a book in which “there is no doubt” (Verse 2:2), and which offers “a clear proof” (Verse 6:157) of its divinity, it’s full of contradictions and verses that are difficult, if not impossible, to understand.  

Over the centuries, this has motivated many of Islam’s devoted scholars to write extensive Tafsirs, a tafsir being a Koranic exegesis. (An exegesis is “critical explanation or analysis of a text.” My apologies to those of you who knew its meaning. El Dummy had to look it up.) 

Of the 30 or so tafsirs, the most respected is the Tafsir al-Tabari, written by an Islamic scholar named al-Tabari in the Ninth Century. A 30-volume edition was published in Cairo in 1903. If you find it inconvenient to travel to Cairo’s Al Azar University to enjoy all 30 volumes, you can buy a 13-volume set on Amazon, 8,000 pages, $300.   

Next would be the Tafsir Ibn Kathir, written in the 14th Century. Ibn Kathir relied on al-Tubari, added other sources and, I am told, is relatively easy to read. Ibn Kathir’s is probably the most relied upon tafsir.  Amazon has a 10-volme set, 6,600 pages, $208. 

Rivaling Ibn Kathir in popularity, is the Tafsir al-Jalalya. The work of two scholars who shared ‘Jalal’ in their names, it was published in 1505 and, wonder of wonders, is only one volume, a mere 675 pages; $40 at Amazon, paperback. 

Tafsirs are important because they embody scholarly consensus, which over the years has solidified into unassailable dogma, from which there can be NO disagreement. Any credible Islamic scholar should have all three of the above tafsirs.  

Since those are all many centuries old, you may wish to have some modern tafsirs. I know of three and there may be more. My choice would be the tafsir by the Pakistani scholar Sayyid Mawdudi, who died in 1979.  The English translation is 14 volumes and at least 4,000 pages.

So far, we’re up to over 19,000 pages. You think that about does it? Oh, no-no-no, mon ami. We’re just getting started.  

The other problem with the Koran is that it specifically deifies the sayings and doings of Muhammad, Allah’s “Messenger.” Since the Koran does not, ostensibly, have anything in it that was said or done by Muhammad, we need to refer to the biographies of Muhammad, called the “sira”, and recollections of what Muhammad said and did, called the “hadith.” 

Unsurprisingly, there is some overlap between the two. Combined, the sira and hadith are called the “sunnah,” the way of Muhammad.   

The most important biography of Muhammad, and the one most referenced, is “The Life of Muhammad,” a translation by Alfred Guillaume, an Oxford professor, of Ibn Ishaq’s biography written in the Eighth Century, some of which has not survived. Guillaume supplemented his translation with numerous additions from other early sources, and the result is an 800-page scholastic tour de force.

Another book, The Life of Muhammad by Al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi, is often called a biography but is really about Muhammad’s raids and military expeditions. It’s 608 pages, and was written by one of the earliest Muslim historians, Al-Waqidi, who nonetheless dies almost 200 years after Muhammad, in 823.   

The History of Al-Tabari is a 40-volume history of the Arabic people and was written by the same man who wrote the 30-volume Tafsir al-Tabari. Al Tabari, 828-923 AD, was surely one of the most prolific writers of all time. Volumes 6 through 9 are about Muhammad, total about 1,000 pages and should be added to our biography list.

Finally, The Sealed Nectar,published in 1979, is a 600 page ‘modern’ biography of Muhammad written by a Muslim scholar in India.

This puts us up to 3,000 pages of biography, not a trivial read unless compared to the thousands of pages of hadith, which are handed-down stories about Muhammad, roughly comparable to the Christian Gospels.

Since the Koran says that Muhammad spoke for Allah, it is understandable that after his death some Muslims fabricated self-serving stories about what Muhammad said. To sort the wheat from the chaff, a number of Islamic scholars set about determining which stories were true.  

The most respected scholar of hadith narrations was Muhammad al-Bukhari (810 AD – 870 AD). He spent 16 years traveling throughout lands ruled by Islam, and collected almost 600,000 hadiths. That’s right, 600,000! (For you pedants, the plural of hadith is ahadith, not hadiths.) 

Bukhari condensed these down to 7,500 in total, or about 2,600 if we take out repetitions and different versions of the same story. Amazon has a 10-volume set, 4,050 pages, for $220. The next most authentic hadith collection was by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, also known as Imam Muslim (822 – 875).  You can buy a seven-volume set, 4,000 pages, for $134 on Amazon.   

Those two collections of hadith are called “Sahih,” meaning, roughly, most authenticated, and have a status almost equal to the Koran. There are four other collections of hadith that are considered canonical by Sunni Muslims, and these are called “Sunan,” short for sunnah, the way of Muhamad.  From Wikipedia:  

The Six Canonical Books of Hadith: 

  1. Sahih al-Bukhari 
  2. Sahih Muslim 
  3. Sunan Abu Dawood 
  4. Sunan al-Tirmidhi 
  5. Sunan al-Nasa’i 
  6. Sunan ibn Majah 

You can find all of them on Amazon. I tried to get a total page count but Amazon was out of the four-volume set of al-Nasa’i and didn’t offer any details, e.g., number of pages. Abu Dawood’s three-volume set was “only” 1,200 pages; ibn Majah’s 5-volume set was 2,678 pages; al-Tirmidhi’s one-volume was 936 pages, and was probably an abridged version. 

As a rough guess, the above six total at least 13,000 pages and represent the principal “Gospels” of Sunni Islam. To these we could add some lesser but still important collections. Wikipedia lists 34 of these, which we’ll save for another lifetime. 

At this point, we’re somewhere around 35,000 pages of tafsir, sira and hadith. Before you shop for more bookshelves, you should check the Internet, where many of the above mentioned tafsirs and collections of hadith are available. I have Googled up “Tafsir Ibn Kathir” for specific verses on numerous occasions, and you can find all six of the above hadith collections at  

The Koran, sunnah and tafsirs form the basis for Islamic law, sharia. The Sunnis have four schools of Sharia jurisprudence: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali, named after the jurists associated with each. The Shafi’i book of law is The Reliance of the Traveller (sic), over 1,200 pages and available on Amazon for $55. I believe it is the best-known and most quoted book of Sharia law in Western nations. 

The Hanafi book of jurisprudence is the Al-Hidayah (The Guidance) and is available on Amazon, two volumes, for $65; about 1,000 pages.  The Maliki book is Al-Muwatta of Iman Maliki; 1,164 pages, $46. The Hanbali school is extensively covered in a two-volume work titled Umdaht al-Fiqh, 1234 pages. (I don’t know if that was an English version.) I couldn’t find any of these posted on the Internet.  

(The above are my selections from many, many works covering the four schools. I’m quite certain about “The Traveller” and “The Guidance” for the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools; not so certain about the others.)

It is my understanding that these schools of jurisprudence are in total agreement on the basics of sharia law but differ on details. For example, zakat, charitable giving, is a basic requirement for Muslims, and there are eight groups of designated recipients, all Muslim, by the way. The Hanafi school allows the donor to designate amounts to each, the other schools require equal amounts to each, i.e., one-eighth.

Concerning the Islamic obligation to wage war on infidels, probably the most important religious duty of Muslims, all four schools are in agreement. Those who might doubt this should see pages 27 and 28 of Andrew Bostom’s “The Legacy of Jihad.” (An incredible scholastic achievement. Over 700 pages, but I won’t add it to the total. I’ll also leave out all of Robert Spencer’s and Dr. Stephen Kirby’s books.)    

So, we must add about 4,500 pages of “law book” to our total, which now stands at roughly 40,000. (19k tafsirs + 3k biographies +13k hadith + 4.5k law.) That’s about 7,000 more pages than The Encyclopedia Britannica, and I’ve left out the most important text of all: The Koran.  

The shortest translation I have is by Yusif Ali and is 423 pages, first verse to last, no commentary. My favorite translation is by the renowned Pakistani Islamic scholar Sayyid Mawdudi and is 1,006 pages, Introduction to last verse. The Introduction and Forward are very important reads, so I’ve included those pages. Also, the text is extensively footnoted, with very clear interpretations.  

This translation is frequently given away to mosque visitors in England, which is how the Islamic expert Robert Spencer received his. I even have a photo of an imam presenting one to a visitor in a mosque in London, a police officer, of all people. 

In very close second-place on my favorites list is “Interpretations of the Meanings of The Noble Qur’an In the English Language” by Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali. It’s almost 900 pages and is also extensively footnoted. Adding to its length is an accompanying Arabic text.   

Which reminds me: before you undertake all of the above, if you really want to do it right, you should take the time to read and understand Arabic. If you take care of that little detail, then you will be able to say to someone who disagrees with you, “You can’t read Arabic, so you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s what the Muslims do. 

By now, most of you are thinking, “Enough, Burro, enough! What’s your damn point?” 

My point is that all of the above is unnecessary. Understanding Islam does not require much effort at all. A couple of bites is all you need to get the essential flavor. A different metaphor, one I bury at the end of long blogs because it might provoke devout Muslims to kill me, is that Islam is like a huge septic tank: once you pop the lid, you don’t need to dive in to know what it’s full of.  

My recommended “lid-popper” is my own “How To Read The Koran (and understand Islam.)” It’s only 40 pages, but the gist is in the first 22 pages, through Appendix Two. It’s on my blog site,, where it is a 23-page CRT read. Here’s a direct link:

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