Books interview: Sarah Eltantawi

The professor of comparative religion and author of on log-cabin Lincoln, the Koran and Islam’s political movements

June 15, 2017
Sarah Eltantawi

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

I spent a lot of time in the public libraries of various cities in the Los Angeles area as a child, so I think of reading in those days as mapped on to the physical space of the library. I remember being inspired by biographies of US presidents, especially romantic stories of Abraham Lincoln growing up in a log cabin that he used to sweep himself. I couldn’t believe that such a humble figure could become president. I read any biography of Lincoln that I could get my hands on. I also loved mysteries and fantasy fiction along the lines of Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s books.

Your new book, ‘Shari’ah on Trial’, analyses the ‘Islamic revolution’ in Northern Nigeria. Which books spurred you to become an expert on the Muslim world?

I grew up in a Muslim family characterised by what I now think of as a gentle Islam: fluid with both the transformational 1960s Egyptian culture my parents came of age in, and with the American culture I was born and raised in. The Koran was a mysterious, thick book in our family’s library that had a very distinctive scent, in Arabic accompanied by a particularly turgid English translation. I read it myself at a young age with no prompting. I would ask my parents to clarify frightening verses or verses that I felt were unfair to women. At a loss in the face of my endless questions, they said, “Just read more and more until you figure it out.” I continue to take their advice.

Which do you regard as the most illuminating accounts of recent Islamic revolutions?

A model of how to think about Islamic revolutions is Roy Mottahedeh’s Mantle of the Prophet, a classic on the Iranian revolution. On the recent Egyptian revolution, I am fascinated by the insights in Hazem Kandil’s Inside the Brotherhood. On Syria, although the book does not deal explicitly with Islamic revolutions, I’m excited about Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It ­Trembled.

Which are the best overviews of Nigeria’s recent history?

I feel that it is important to read as many accounts of Nigeria by Nigerians as possible. In English, Ibraheem Sulaiman’s work on Usman dan Fodio, one of the most influential figures of West African modernity, is important. I also very much appreciate Muhammad Sani Umar’s academic work on Northern Nigeria.

What is the last book that you gave as a gift, and to whom?

Matthieu Ricard’s A Plea for 
the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion, to a good friend who is working on animal sacrifice in the Islamic tradition.

Which books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

I have dozens of books on Egyptian history on my desk that I would like to read, or acquaint myself with, this summer, in the service of my next book project. What I see before me now are two that I bought in Cairo: a biography of Muhammad Ali Pashi by Agnieszka Dobrowolska and Khaled Fahmy, and a massive book called Defining Islam for the Egyptian State by Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen.

Sarah Eltantawi is assistant professor of comparative religion at Evergreen State College and the author of Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution (University of California Press).

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