On Reading Love, InshAllah

Title: Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: January 2012 

Genre: Romantic creative nonfiction 

(I made that up, but it sure beats “Women’s Studies”!)

Source: eGalley from editor

With the very conscious agenda to dismantle stereotypes and perceptions about Muslim women and love, Love InshAllah gives a glimpse into the richness, plurality, and self-actualization inherent within American Muslim women’s love lives. It holds the enormous potential to astonish both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, albeit for different reasons. This post is one Muslim woman’s reaction to reading about her fellow Muslimahs’ love lives in this remarkably candid, courageous, and soul-stirring collection.

Love, InshAllah, at first, brought me face-to-face with a glaring prejudice I have unconsciously created about what for me is fair game for love stories.

When Bollywood started to produce movies that involved more explicit love scenes, I remember my best friend, the least prejudiced person I know, saying “Aurgh, I don’t want to see that!” I chuckled: “So, what, it’s okay if white people do that onscreen?” She tried to explain what she felt: “No, but that’s brown people. That’s us!” Thanks to the media’s disproportionate portrayal of what particular acts should look like or whom they should involve, having intimacy is being acted out by people of “our kind” can be temporarily disorienting for even the least ideologically prudish Indo-Pakistani Muslim ladies like myself. 

I confess that, on some level, that’s what I was feeling when I read Love, InshAllah. It’s one thing to know, abstractly, that those stories are out there. Before reading this collection, I did know about gay Muslimahs, about the niqabis who have multiple sexual partners, about Muslim children having to live dual lives because they could not conform to their parents’ standards. But it’s one thing to have these faint blobs of abstraction floating around in one’s consciousness. And it’s quite another to be reading a succession of those stories by the women who own them. For reading such works constituted an experience I could never have readied myself for.

I, of course, mean that in the best way possible. 

Being a single person who’s been feeling a bit shortchanged in the love department lately, I did at times have to face the demon of loneliness while reading the stories. And being a Muslimah–which for me means having an inner universe that is shaped and conditioned by the moral tenets of the Islamic faith–means that the moral quandaries raised in some of those stories make reading them a gut-wrenchingly conflicted experience. Yet, ultimately, reading Love, InshAllah created a glowing, steadily increasing burn of recognition of myself in the stories as a whole.

The beauty of this collection lies in how pluralistic it is, and how any attempt to explain the experience of reading these stories will fail to do justice to this collection in its entirety. Therefore, I have decided attempt to group the stories based on my experience of reading them. These categories are far from perfect, but they help provide some insight into how varied the reading experience can get within the scope of such a collection. 

1. Deceptively Traditional Stories: These stories moved me because they revealed the beauty of what might, on the surface, seem to be unappealing ways to meet a significant other. Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” is a dream for any South Asian girl who’s had to go through strangeness of having her parents play matchmaker. “Otherwise Engaged” is an endearing account of Huda Al-Marashi’s yearning for a date with and formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry. 

2. Too Good to Be True Stories: Stories that seemed too good to be true to the point of irrelevance. Although I recognize that they were a necessary part of the collection and are as true as the other stories, they’re not the kind of situations most Muslim women are lucky enough to be in. Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both involved meeting gorgeous non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. Again, while I’m extremely happy for them and for all the women who have been so blessed, I’m too aware of the thornier issue of women who fall in love with good, worthy non-Muslim and are forced to choose between love and deen. 

3. Stories that are Not for the Faint-hearted: This collection of stories are better skipped by those who are squeamish, especially about Muslim women. In Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” Taqwacore sensibility intersects with the heartbreak and the transience of intense passion in a way that that seared my heart. Najva Sol’s “The First Time” recounts her coming to an understanding about her sexuality in a way that pulls no punches.    

4. The Real Stuff of Married Life Stories: These stories dealt with what married life (as far as I can tell) is really made up of. Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards” is a beautiful portrayal of true spousal devotion in the face of pancreatic complications. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn provides much-needed lessons about what real love, in the context of marriage, is, and the kind of trials or uncertainty one might have to go through in order to actualize this form of love. 

5. Self-Defining Stories: Rather than relegate these stories to some overloaded form of a “miscellaneous” category, I wanted to highlight some gems in this collection, freestanding entities that made impressions I won’t easily forget:

  • Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how she and her daughter found the right husband and father (who incidentally is none other than Hijabman!) for themselves. I felt that this story brings out the much-needed voice of the smart, independent, admirable Muslim woman who doesn’t become any less of those things just because she happens to be a mother and a divorcee.
  • Nura Maznavi’s “Last Night on the Island” I found to be a wonderful story not just for its plot and narration, but because it functions as a portal into a grander narrative about being single. To see this included in a collection of love stories was something I had not expected, and this act of inclusion deeply moved me. 
  • “Sex by Any Other Name” is a wonderfully uncomfortable read that explores virginity, perceived ownership of such a virtue, and the complications and anxiety that result when these phenomena are continuously confronted.
  • Asiila Imani’s story “Three” traces the usual journey of love towards an unusual and controversial form: polygny. Given that a considerable number of Muslim women hold Imani’s perspective and have had experiences similar to hers, I was especially glad to see the inclusion of such a voice in this collection.
  • Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” is a raw, powerful account of complex family relationships, a pronounced clash between first and second-generation immigrants, the trauma of assault, and redemption through faith and sex. Because there was not only redemption, but redemption through a worthy man, I feel that this story epitomizes what–to me–is the real stuff of romance stories. 

When I look back at the climate that surrounded my education on love and sex, I am bemused by the skewed ways that women of my religious and cultural background learn about these things: the way we would devour romance novels, the ridiculous myths about female anatomy that would circulate the unmarried girls’ side in dinner parties, the simplistically treated assumption that one transforms from being ‘innocent’ to being someone who knows of these matters over the course of a wedding night. To realize that I made the transition from that background to being part of a Love, InshAllah post-publication world gives me a great deal of hope and self-affirmation. It is now, by virtue of this book, becoming a world I want to raise my daughter in.

At first I wasn’t sure if should put myself through reading this book, thinking that it would only make me confront the demon of emotional loneliness. And to an extent, it did. Amazingly enough, however, by the time I reached the end, it had done the opposite. It instilled me with a sense of hope and empowerment I couldn’t have gained in any other way. Although a little disorienting at first, it eventually lead me to breathing sigh after sigh of relief, knowing that my story–be it that of failed love, triumphant love, or singlehood–is part of a narrative that can never be conveyed simplistically, a narrative whose beauty comes from the plurality of experience and candidness about the places they come from.

This collection may be subtitled, “the secret love lives of American Muslim women,” but this book brings those lives out in the open, making them secret no more. I applaud its honesty and its celebration of female sexuality from within the Muslim universe. And I hope it paves the way for more such works about Muslim women in other places and countries and other conceptions of intimacies, starting, perhaps, with Canadian Muslim women.


12 thoughts on “On Reading Love, InshAllah

  1. Cassie

    I’m so glad I read that this was Creative Nonfiction. I’m totally interested after your review. Maybe this is still up on net galley. I hope so.


  2. Awesome and beautifully written review, reading the book also left me feeling hopeful and inspired. It’s strange how love or love stories are somewhat taboo in the Muslim community. The stories that are commonly told often jump straight from being single to marriage with hardly a word about what happened in between.


  3. Pingback: ‘A candid, courageous & soul-stirring collection’ « Love, InshAllah

  4. I haven’t read the book, and personally I don’t know if I have the stomach to read some of those very “unusual” types of stories where women are discussing their experiences of crossing moral boundaries. But the fact that Muslim women have these kinds of experiences shows how narrow and artificial the approach our religious leaders and ulema is in regards to issues of gender and sex. I was lately feeling very disappointed about the interpretations and expectations of scholars towards Muslim women and your post ended up being the cherry on top. I feel bad for those Muslimahs who have nobody legitimate and kind to turn to when it comes to dealing with such issues, and so it is no surprise some of them go through what they go through. but i am complimenting your post lol. you did a really really really great job of giving us the “low-down” and i feel your sentiments are very much in line with mine. just upset at the muslim ulema who marginalize any interpretations that deviate from traditional ones. 🙂


  5. Thank you for such a beautiful review!

    Though I’m a brotha’ :-), I was thinking of reading this (I really enjoyed “I Speak For Myself”), but I have to admit, I don’t know if I could stomach or maybe not want to read about the more “out there” stories – but I’m glad that it has provided some comfort and relief that you expressing and for what I am guessing is the target audience – my female counterparts. I do agree though, the dialogue about relationships and the issues that unmarried people face or those that are looking for a spouse face, is definitely one that needs to be addressed more in the masajid and in other community gatherings/events.

    I think we all are aware of the many issues facing both those who are seriously searching for their future partner, as well as the younger crowd and their more illicit, secretive activities. In all falls under the same umbrella I think and I think the more open we are about such issues, the more likely we are to find solutions or at least make steps in improving the overall state of things within our communities.

    Also, I briefly stopped by a forum that I have been a member of for more than two years and I saw a thread that was discussing this book and from the comments, the ladies were turned off by what they had read in an article on Huff Post about the book (which I think I read as well). I say this because, it seems despite some reservations given some of the stories, both you and those that have read it and commented here, would encourage your fellow Muslim women to read the book.


  6. Pingback: Review: Love InshAllah edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi « Amy Reads

  7. I love your review of this – so honest and so much better than my attempt. I think the story with Lemon was one of my favorites but really I can’t pick just one or just a handful. I loved how all-encompassing they were as well. Although I can see that many who read it might have issues with one or another story (be it polygyny or be it stories where women identify as lesbian, or the punk one you mention, or etc) in that same way it pushes all of us a little bit to see the experiences of others too. I loved the huge variety of stories.


  8. hello,

    this is the first time reading your blog, and i stumbled upon your blog from organica muslimah.

    i will be placing an order for Love Inshiallah soon, so keep up with the bloggerwork

    jazakallah khair


  9. Pingback: On Reading Love in a Headscarf « A Muslimah Writes

  10. Pingback: The Men Who Are: On Reading Salaam, Love | A Muslimah Writes

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