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.


12 thoughts on “On Reading All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim

  1. Great review sis! In the middle there, I was feeling a bit disappointed though I think I was always going to purchase the book regardless, but as you concluded, rightfully so, both volumes have provided a much needed and welcomed insight into our lives as both Americans and Muslims. I was really looking forward to this collection, given my status as an American Muslim male.
    As far as I know, this I Speak For Myself project is the first of it’s kind, so hopefully, future generations can contribute to this narrative as the years pass and the upcoming generation have our (I hope I’m included in this, thus the word choice) chance to share our story when we reach a certain point in life, where we are comfortable to share our journey.

    Anyways, definitely looking forward to reading it in the coming months!


  2. This sounds like a really interesting collection. I am especially intrigued and happy to see that it included a story from a transgender man! Like you pointed out, it is too bad it focused on only men who were financially successful and accomplished in a certain way, but perhaps another collection will come soon with more voices!


  3. I finally finished reading this book! Started it back in September and finally did the bulk of it this month!

    I won’t go into too much detail but just wanted to point out a few of the ones I enjoyed for various reasons.

    I found Shahed Amanullah’s contribution inspiring and an example that I admire, in what he has been able to bring to the community during his service over the years.

    I too loved the deep spiritual feeling I got from reading Baraka Blue’s entry.

    As far as mosque leadership, the example and story told by Omar Suleiman gave me hope for future leaders to follow his example.

    Lastly, as far as someone who I could identify with and see as a having similar thoughts on how to make connections with non-Muslims, was Abid Husain. I was able to exercise this “sharing our faith with others as much as possible” that he mentions, just yesterday at an interfaith gathering. While I didn’t have the MSA experience as much of my fellow American Muslims have – I can still see that there are areas that I can make positive contributions in, just as many in this volume did in their respective communities.

    On the whole, hearing the stories of American Muslims, and yes, as opposed to the previous book in this ISFM series, that extra attachment and identification as a Muslim male, made these really hit home more – in other words, I know that I could be in their shoes one day – after all, there was the example of Aamer Jamali, a physician and given I’m in the same field, I will have my own journey as a Muslim male, a medical professional in the United States (insha’allah) while holding that American label that I hope will be a good example for those that come after.

    I agree some of the pieces were just ho-hum and didn’t always have a unique perspective, but most did strike a cord to some degree and did leave me feeling inspired and driven to continue to make strides in how I carry myself in all the roles that I will come into as life moves on.

    These men provide great examples/role models for me and those who will shall follow in future generations – and that gives me much hope for the coming years and where we are going as far as Islam in America.


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