By Marcia Z. Nelson and Emma Koonse
Mar 22, 2017
Books about Islam by Muslim publishers for English-speaking readers constitute a rich niche market, with centuries of classic materials in addition to contemporary work. But in addition to the usual challenges faced by small publishers trying to reach readers, several Muslim publishers we recently talked with spoke of an extra burden: countering cultural misunderstanding.
Athar Jatoi founded Mecca Books in Allentown, Pa., six years ago because he was interested in representations of Islam consistent with its traditions and written by Muslims. “When I would enter Barnes & Noble, every book that I saw there had nothing to do with Islam and was written by someone who is not in any way connected to Islam, giving the outside point of view,” said Jatoi. Mecca began as a part-time retail operation, added distribution, and will publish its first book under the imprint Ihya Publishing in March: Three Treatises: Mutual Reminding, Good Manners, The Aphorisms by Imam Abdallah ibn Alawi al-Haddad, a 17th century Yemeni Sufi sage and poet.
Founded in 1972, Kazi Publications in Chicago calls itself the oldest Islamic publisher and distributor in North America. With 400 titles in its catalog, the house is concentrating on classical Islamic writings. Its series Great Books of the Islamic World has just finished the five-volume Canon of Medicine by the 11th century physician Ibn Sina. Titles by the prolific medieval philosopher al-Ghazali have lent themselves to repackaging; a pricey two-volume Alchemy of Happiness set was broken down into smaller booklets containing individual chapters. “We can’t even keep them in stock,” Laleh Bakhtiar, production director at Kazi, said.
The school market is growing as public schools seek culturally appropriate material for Muslim students, and Kazi is developing titles such as Logic and Critical Thinking: An Introduction for Muslim Students by Edward Ryan Moad (Feb.). “Critical thinking is not a new term, but it’s been lost” amid very conservative interpretations of Islam within the religion itself, according to Bakhtiar.
Tughra Books in Clifton, N.J., grew from a bookstore that opened in 2001; it began publishing in 2004, starting with the works of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a figure at odds with the current Turkish government. Those books are a small part of Tughra’s list today of 200 books, including a children’s line and a related academic line, Blue Dome, that has a list of 70 titles. Tughra is growing modestly, “not landslide numbers, but there is some humble percentage” of sales growth, said Huseyin Senturk, director of publications. Tughra uses National Book Network (NBN) as its distributor, but many smaller Islamic bookstores aren’t part of a distribution network. Large events, such as the annual Islamic Society of North America convention and a similar gathering in Canada, reviving the Islamic Spirit, are important for marketing and sales.
Tughra largely aims at a Muslim audience, but it also publishes titles intended to be introductory books for non-Muslims. Bridge to Light by Kathleen St. Onge (2005), a Canadian convert to Islam, is one of the house’s bestsellers, having sold 6,000 copies. One focus of Tughra’s list is interfaith dialog and cultural understanding. “One of the biggest contributions of our publishing house is providing books that promote communication among the religions,” Senturk says. Its titles, including editions of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred text, are also requested in prisons, where chaplains have been using its books to teach about Islam.
Based near Leicestershire in the British Midlands, Kube has published more than 500 titles since it started up in 2006. It began with a focus on adult trade publishing and added academic and children’s imprints in 2013, and now publishes as many new children’s titles as adult. Children’s books are among its most popular categories, along with gift books and books on the Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Kube organized a panel at this year’s London Book Fair on publishing for Muslims and representing their experience authentically. Kube uses Consortium as its U.S. and Canadian distributor.
Amana Publications is best known for updating one of the standard 20th century English translations of the Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. It is a bestseller for the house, located in the Washington, D.C., area. Business has slowed down drastically over the last several years, Fakhri Al-Barzinji, CEO and president, said in an email. Amana has cut down substantially on its print inventory and on new titles, but it still publishes backlist, including its edition of the Qur’an.
Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads is the first imprint at a major publishing house to focus on Muslim characters and stories. Zareen Jaffery is the executive editor at the imprint, which launched last year. Her focus is on books that reflect the diversity within the Muslim community, but authors also explore issues that many Muslims face in the U.S. today. “Unfortunately Islamophobia has been going on for a long time, although it does feel like it’s been heightened today, with mosques burning down and verbal assaults increasing,” said Jaffery. “Feeling threatened tends to permeate the mind and writers respond to that in their work—maybe not directly, but it does show up.”
Salaam aims to publish nine books a year in three categories; picture books, mid-grade, and YA. A major initial release for Salaam, Yo Soy Muslim by HBO Def Jam poet and TEDxRamallah speaker Mark Gonzales, is slated to publish this fall. It celebrates a child’s multicultural heritage and encourages readers to take pride in their Muslim identity.
The imprint relies on authors’ platforms to get the word out about books, but a large part of its sales strategy is getting books into schools and libraries. “We have a school and library marketing department, there is an e-newsletter that goes out, and we’re at the school librarian conferences where people can learn about new products,” said Jaffery. “We also have school visits with the author, and Skype visits.”
Despite the nuances found in the Muslim publishing industry, one common goal between publishers is clear: to provide resources that accurately represent beliefs and experiences of distinct and numerous communities of Muslims in the U.S. and around the globe. Such books can “expand the base of knowledge” on Islam, according to Jaffery.
“There are 1.6 million Muslims in the world who all pray in Arabic, but some speak Urdu, Punjabi, Iraqi Arabic, and more. We celebrate the same holidays, but we don’t have the same traditions, if that makes sense,” said Jaffery. “This past year [in publishing] has been a huge education for me.”