Top Ten Books to Understand Islamism

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Illustrative picture. (Photo: Creative Commons/Christopher John SSF)
Illustrative picture. (Photo: Creative Commons/Christopher John SSF)


The debate about how best to deal with Islamism is a complex topic that raises many different questions.

How far should religion be accommodated in the public sphere? To what extent is Western foreign policy responsible for the rise of Islamist movements? Does Islamic theology support terrorism? 

Clearly to speak knowledgeably about the problem and potential solutions, a broad range of understanding is needed, taking in both the Enlightenment values of toleration and integration as preached in contemporary Western democracies as well as Muslim thought. Only by combining these spheres can one gain a fuller picture

So, here are 10 “must-reads” to understand the current debate about Islamism:


1.THE QURAN (700s)

Starting here is essential. Any translation will do, it won’t be perfect but it’s better than nothing. Pick up a copy and read it. Quran.com has it all online with a variety of excellent translations and a great user interface. I am told that the newly published “The Study Quran” is fantastic, and I can’t wait to dive in. It supposedly has excellent commentary from top contemporary English-speaking scholars interpreting traditional Islamic sources for this generation.



Crucial to understanding Western civilization, the Bible is one of the bedrocks of the whole edifice. Morality, law, cultural touchstones and assumptions about the world embedded in Western thought have their origins here. I picked the King James translation because more than any other it influenced the development of the English language and culture in the Anglosphere, even though the King James is not the most accurate.



This letter lays out the underpinnings of the beginnings of the Enlightenment move towards religious toleration and away from having one state/religious government. It is considered a seminal work in the development of human rights. Published in 1689, I am including it because it shows how far Western societies have come and that change happens gradually. It is easy to take our tolerance of modern America for granted without looking back at how it got that way.



The first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. They set out clearly the contemporary understanding of the acceptable limits of government in America, but also more broadly in the Western world. The Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen were written around the same time by people who moved in the same circles (Jefferson). They all both lay out similar visions of a limited secular state which guarantees the rights of the individual. Familiarity with these documents is crucial to understanding what people are talking about when they say “Western values” and why the issue of “sharia” is such a critical one. Of course, these documents build on foundations laid out in the Bible and in Locke’s work (among other philosophers).



This seminal Islamist text lays out the ideological framework for contemporary Islamism and lays the bedrock for the Sunni jihadi movement. It builds on Muslim Brotherhood principles to form a new way of seeing Islam and its role in the world as well as resurrecting the concept of jahiliyya to mean that contemporary states in Islamic countries need to be overthrown.

More completely than any other text, Milestones details the Sunni Islamist vision.



Here the leader of the Iranian revolution outlines his philosophical doctrine of Islamic government and Islamic Revolution. Unlike Milestones, this work of political philosophy explains how the government is actually to work, and ended up being implemented by the Islamic Republic of Iran as their official state ideology.

Governance of the Jurist is still looked on as the underlying basis of the Iranian state today.



Although the book has received a lot of criticism in recent years, it changed the way people perceive the Middle East. It also opened up the doors to promote non-Western authors telling their own stories and rejecting the portrayals of them put forward by Eurocentric academics. It posits “the Orient” as a construct existing in the Western imagination for the purposes of subjugating North African and Asian populations.


8.MANAGEMENT OF SAVAGERY – ABU BAKR NAIJI, translated by William McCants (2006)

Not for the fainthearted, the Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Ummah Shall Pass is ISIS’ strategic doctrine. 

The chilling work sets out how, why and when using extreme violence displayed publicly will achieve the goals of the Islamic State. Reading this book will show you that the actions of groups like ISIS are not simply crazed lunatics acting out their darkest fantasies (although don’t discount that element).

The document outlines how “savagery” will destabilize the existing world order and enable the creation of an Islamic State.

It will shock you with its rationality.



This Nobel Prize-winning book unpacks the nature of how our minds think. Kahneman divides our brains into System 1 (intuitive, fast) and System 2 (logical, slow) and painstakingly explains how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are. If you’ve ever been involved in a dispute that has turned rapidly into a heated argument, this book is for you.

It unpacks how humans rush to snap judgments about things, and why sometimes those judgments can be helpful. The book can help us understand disagreements better and also clarify our own thinking.

On the issue of Islamism, it can help us understand why people are so quick to jump to certain conclusions and how to frame our arguments in a way that can be most clearly understood.



This fantastic work of socio-linguistics lays out how cultural differences in communication styles leads to misunderstandings. Southerners talk slower than Northerners, for example. Some cultures layer every statement with irony and subtext, others value plain speaking.

Any who has travelled extensively will reaffirm the central tenet of the book, that people are not all the same and that culture has a huge impact on the way we communicate. This book will help you understand some of those differences and how they contribute to political conflict.

Reading these 10 books will bring you closer to a nuanced and broad understanding of the issues surrounding Islamism.


Do you have a book recommendation we missed out? Be in touch, send your titles to [email protected]



Is Muslim Reform Even Possible?

Learn about Sharia regimes here


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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