On Reading All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim

Title: All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim (I Speak For Myself, Volume II)

Editors: Wajahat M. Ali & Zahra T. Suratwala

Publication Year: 2012

Genre: Autobiography/Anthology

Source: eGalley from publisher

So far, I’ve talked about Muslim women and the female experience a great deal. Writing and meditating about stories I can identify with, however, has made me curious about the experiences that I cannot speak for. And that curiosity starts at home. What does it mean, I have wondered, to be a Muslim man?

That’s why I was very excited about reading the just-published All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim. The collection contains a vast array of essays from Muslim Americans who are poets, doctors, businessmen, fathers, religious leaders, political activists, and artists. They come from a mashup of highly varied religious and ethnic backgrounds and political allegiances. The only thing constant in throughout their narratives is their self-identification as Americans. Yet, as Wajahat Ali states in the introduction, “the American Muslim men profiled within these pages eradicate antiquated assumptions of what it means to be ‘Muslim,’ ‘American,’ and even a ‘man.’” Without a doubt, the book delivers as promised, opening the eyes of both non-Muslim and Muslim readers to how diverse and multifaceted the Muslim American male experience can be.

I now realize that as I read the collection, I was more sensitive to the “Muslim male” aspect of the essays than their “American” dimension. (It was simply a matter of personal preference, perhaps due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in North America and can’t relate to “Americanness.”) Furthermore, I feel the more effective stories were those that were focused on one topic or one incident, particularly those dealing with spirituality and the meaning of manhood. I’d like to pay homage to some of the most memorable essays in this collection by recalling what made them special to me:

  • Haroon Moghul’s essay “The Faith that Faith Produced,” the first piece in the anthology, opens with a chillingly honest admission: “I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God.” He continues to recount the implications of disbelief, illustrating how it was not until he suffered from spiritual angst and self-doubt that he truly start believing.
  • In “On Baseball and Islam in America,” Shahzad Hussain Abbass makes a memorable comparison between teaching his young son to bat and to stand still in prayer.
  • Baraka Blue writes beautifully in “Manhood” about how visiting Muslim-majority countries made him reexamine his own masculinity. He was struck by the easy physical intimacy between heterosexual men as well as their lack of self-consciousness about shedding tears during heartfelt prayer, realizing that these are manifestations of the genuine love fellow Muslims have for one another and Allah.
  • “Muslim After Midnight” by Obaid H. Siddiqui was definitely one of my favorite essays in this collection. He recounts a single incident of racist tension and the interior dialogue that goes takes place in his mind during the event. I feel that the piece illustrates the confusion and self-assertion that takes place in the head of a Muslim American man when his “belongingness” is questioned.
  • Tynan Power’s “Stepping Across the Gender Divide,” is a fascinating and must-read account from a transgender Muslim who experienced what it was like to be a Muslim woman before he became a man. He recalls the ambiguity and confusion of his transition in a way I will never forget:  “At what point, exactly, was I considered a man? When was I to guard my modesty from the navel to the knee instead of by drawing my veil down over my chest?”
  • Michael Mohammad Knight’s “From Islam to Islam” was one of the few essays that managed to have considerable breadth while leaving the reader with a single, pointed message. It spans the story of his conversion and his experience with numerous Muslim sects and perspectives, concluding that for him, to be Muslim is to find peace in confusion.

These are just a few gems from an impressive collection written by even more impressive and accomplished men. One needs to only look at the biographies of the contributors to know that their stories and successes are a great source of inspiration for those of us who want to make a difference for our ummah.

One of the shortcomings of this collection, I feel, were the stories that seemed a bit vague and unfocused in their subject matter. They just seemed to skim cover personal and professional history, religious beliefs, and how those don’t conflict with their belonging to United States and being American. Although I was interested in reading such pieces at first, after a certain point, they all started to sound the same.

In this great review of the book for Altmuslimah, Abrar Qadir highlighted another important caveat about this collection: the voices in this anthology largely come from highly successful professionals. My concern with the book is an extension of that: it seems to cater not just economic privilege, but social accomplishments. Every contributor had a lengthy and impressive biography teeming with degrees, titles and awards. As happy as I am that there are so many accomplished men in the Muslim community, I feel like having one overachiever after another also contributed to the tendency for for some essays to just be lists of accomplishments, making them alienated rather than more familiar.

Abrar mentioned the missing voice of the “taxi-driver or mini-mart owner, those who bear the brunt of the ‘go back where you came from’ rhetoric this book is designed to combat.” Along with this omission, I feel is that of another kind of contributor I’d like to have heard from: the guy from I.T. who can’t wait for his World of Warcraft session and pizza at the end of the day. The one who didn’t have a chance to make a difference and be recognized for it, who just does his part by being a great son, brother, friend, and colleague.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there is much benefit in having such accomplished individuals tell their stories: it makes one aware of the immense amount of work being done in business, the media, and politics by such men. Were it not for this collection, I would have may not have known about Mohamed Geraldez founding the world’s first vegan necktie company, or learned about Kamran Pasha’s approach to storytelling, or explored new avenues in music from Muslims (thanks to introductions to Baraka Blue and Adisa Banjoko). This book shows that there are endless possible paths to being Muslim and living a life that upholds Islam, however we define it. If I have a teenage son, I’m going to make sure he reads this book, so that he knows that as a Muslim man in the making, American or not, there’s a legacy he can look up to and be inspired by.

This book is a much-needed and very illuminating read for both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, American or otherwise. These stories are immensely heartfelt, humorous, and inspirational, and it made me very proud and happy to know these terrific men are a part of our ummah. It was a pleasure to hear from each and every one of them.


On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Caged Bird" and the Power of Metaphors

I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works. Knowing the basis of Submission and her simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils didn’t make me very eager to read her.

Thanks to Amy’s strong recommendation and her lending me her copy of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror, I learned a lot more about Ali’s life and her rise to stardom in Western intellectual circles. There were not too many surprises in this biography. If anything, I was a little taken aback at how little she has done to implement policies and practices to curtail the violence and oppression of women.

What struck me more deeply, however, was her explanation of the Muslim women who immigrate to the West and are reluctant to let go of their faith or culturally-instilled modesty as easily as she did. In Infidel, she writes:

Islam [is] like a mental cage. . . When you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment.

As a Muslim immigrant who strives to be reasonably self-aware about being shaped by Western culture, the metaphor of this caged bird is now what appears in mind’s eye any time I sense any kind of personal inhibition. When I seriously reconsider whether the hijab is for me and decide that it is. When I refrain from a lingering one-on-one sit-down with a man. When I am invited to a bar with a new group of acquaintances and say no (not because of being in an environment with alcohol, but because of being in such a loud environment around people I don’t know and am not comfortable with). Normally, I wouldn’t have given such choices a second thought. But now, there is a voice–call it my nafs, call it my baser self, call it my enlightened self, even–that tells me: “Shame on you for holding back. You’re that caged bird. The cage is finally open, and you just sit there.” Simply having that metaphor, that idea of a bird, is powerful in itself. It has latched onto my thinking, making my self-reflection spiral out of control into the place where there are no absolutes.

The book Deborah Scroggins refers to as “a thin patchwork of heavily edited opinion pieces.” Notice how the author name is in larger text than the title? That’s done when the book is riding the author’s coattails. Image source: openlibrary.org

What I have to do is remind myself that the bird and the placement of it in the cage is a construction, an illustration done with a very specific agenda and view of a Muslim woman. It presumes a cage. It presumes that ploughing ahead and being in every situation I am not comfortable in is the only way to escape that cage.

But it’s powerful. So powerful that as much as stunned as I was by the naiveté of some of Ali’s stances and her presumption in extending her experience of Islam to all Muslim women, this metaphor managed to lodge itself into my way of thinking. I may disregard and dismiss everything else she says, but the image, the metaphor, of this caged bird triumphs where all of her other tools failed.

Reflecting on whether one is being true to themselves is never a comfortable exercise. But this metaphor is not a means of complete self-doubt: it is a tool for that critical self examination, an acknowledgement of possibilities I may be too afraid to own up to. I cannot completely disregard it. But I would like to understand where this metaphor is effective for me and where it isn’t. Maybe I am a caged bird in a way that so many women–both Muslim and non-Muslims–are caged birds due to societal expectations. I may never know whether it holds water as far as my life and my self is concerned. But I would like to know. I’d like a metaphor, a model, that gives an alternate explanation of me. It’s only fair that this caged bird be countered with something else, something equally if not more powerful, and something that is a source of inspiration and encouragement rather than debilitating, guilt-ridden self-examination.

(7/6/12 update: Here is my complete review of Wanted Women)