The Men Who Are: On Reading Salaam, Love

mattu-salaamlove

Title: Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy

Editors: Ayesha Mattu, Nura Maznavi

Publication Date: February 2014 

Genre: Sexuality / Religion & Spirituality

Source: eGalley from publisher 

Without a doubt, I am a different person from the time I read Love, InshAllah. Curiously, though, I put off reading Salaam, Love for the same reason I put off reading its predecessor. As someone as disconnected from the Muslim community as I am, I thought, wouldn’t this make me lonely? As someone struggling as hard  to find love now as I was two years years ago, wouldn’t this be a reminder of what is lacking?

Just like I was with Love, InshAllah, I was proven wrong. Through these beautiful, intimately-crafted essays, I met Muslim man after Muslim man who shared his experience with love. Mind you, I don’t use “meet” in the metaphorical sense of the word, or even the usual, everyday sense of the word. Rather, I feel like I was let in and given glimpses of the deeply personal, these men at their most vulnerable.

To look at it one way, the fact that these stories were told by men is almost irrelevant. More often than not, I was reading these stories with the sensibility that they were Muslims’ experience of love; gender didn’t matter. On the other hand, there is something original about men telling such stories. I have a considerably rich understanding of Muslim women’s experiences with love, thanks to having read Love InshAllah, Love in a Headscarf, and my day-to-day work at Altmuslimah (including a recent piece in which I discussed how to make the rishta process work for Muslim women). With this personal context, however, I needed to round off my exposure and personal experience by listening to the brothers in the Muslim family.

Hence, in this review, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the kinds of male Muslim-ness I came across in this story. Choosing which stories to focus on was an especially difficult task, but necessary for the purposes of in-depth reflections.

The Men Who are Imperfect:

No one’s perfect: that’s a given. Those of us who open ourselves to love have often failed on small or grand levels. Hence, no collection of this nature would be complete without the inclusion of a story that included a story of a major failure on the part of the storyteller. In this collection, one of those stories would be Maher Reham’s “Just One Kiss.” In a very candid, almost blunt account, Reham recounted the story of his hasty, lust-driven marriage and the confusion and hardship that followed afterwards. His marriage became so rocky that his friendliness and closeness to a co-worker evolved into an full-fledged extramarital affair. The admission of this story may be shocking and disconcerting to some. However, it is important to remember that such occurrences don’t just take place in the Muslim community–oftentimes, the betrayer excuses themselves for their actions. In this story, however, the complexity and depth of the issue is revealed, in which Reham holds himself accountable while making me seriously question the phrase: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” In a strange way, this magnitude of imperfection becomes beautiful, giving me great appreciation for this story.

In “A Grown-Ass Man,” Alykhan Boolani gives the story behind his once being the “Asshole [from the jamat khana] who didn’t call.” (Which is probably not how he would explain the reason behind writing this story, but for me, that’s what it boils down to.) So Alykhan meets a lovely girl who, like him, also happens to be Ismaili. There don’t appear to be any issues, just the promise of a beautiful romance. However, their local community is, to put it lightly, extremely close-knit, something Alykhan finds, again to put it lightly, suffocating.

Through the very rich and ornate prose in this story, what I managed to make out was this: while the author was walking on air for the time after that first date, something didn’t seem right, and he couldn’t place his finger on what it was. A friend then brings him face-to-face with the fact that she looked like his sister. I am not sure whether this was meant literally, but in any case, it makes it clear to him that he can’t go on with this. In the meantime, thanks to the very “small town” nature of their community, his sister, father, and eventually his mother have found out about his date with this girl. Then, after some time, there is a run-in with the girl after one of the Friday sessions at the jamat khana, and what goes through his mind, by way of explanation, is this:

I can’t deal with the way in which the ‘ism looms so large. . . I want to stand up from prostration and speak directly into the big, scary face of Tradition, and say, Hey, bow toward me a little bit, like I bow toward you! Just give me some room, and I’ll do this my way, and I’ll do it with good heart and a right mind, like you taught me! But is this really a conversation to have with an institution? Or is it really about my mother? As in Ma, I love you, but I’m a grown-ass man and you can’t play a major part in my love life, albeit by utter cosmic accident.

So here is my twofold reaction to this:

It strikes me as odd to think that something like this didn’t work out just because it was too close to home. Seriously? People are fighting to marry their soul mates when they fall outside their sect, race, or religion, even, and you don’t follow up with someone because she is too much like you? 

That said, this story is just one example of the many forces in play in the Muslim love scene. As is the case with many first-second generation immigrant families from the East, now living in the West, there is a serious struggle between the social and the personal, collectivism versus individualism. I can certainly relate to being put off by a suitor simply because they were being shoved so hard in my face–a suitor I would have gotten along with perfectly well had I met him on my own.

The Men Who Are Like Us:

…and by “Us,” I mean women. It can be delusion-ally comforting to think, especially through online discourses in the Muslim community, that male privilege is the reason for women’s struggles with love. While it is important to point out trends that favour men, it can become too easy for such explanations to become a safety blanket. By placing the blame elsewhere, we don’t have to take action, or face the truth of the situation. Truth being: we are all damaged. We are all struggling with love in this crazy, busy world, all the while fending off pressures from the community while trying to heal scars from our past.

Take Yusef Ramlize’s story “Who I Needed to Be.” Having suffered severe abuse and emotional neglect at his father’s hands, he had to find it in himself to forgive his father and “let go of the fear and pain” that had held him back for so long. This account was followed by his journey to love and a blissful union with a woman named Samira. The beginning and ending of the story are major contrasts  It was so heartwrenching in the beginning but ended beautifully, leaving the reader with much hope.

The title Arif Choudhury’s story asks a question many women ask themselves: “How did I end up here?” As an average-looking man of Bangladeshi descent who doesn’t follow a career path prized by parents of Bengali girls, he has been struggling to meet someone, a process that has left him “lonely and demoralized.”

To me, this story illustrates two key points. One: it’s not just Muslim women who have to pay the price for being original and going off the beaten path. Two: one can have the right attitude, pursue whatever paths are available, and have a very basic set of criteria, and yet still be unable to find someone. After reading this story and recalling others like it, I will never make the mistake for thinking that things are somehow “harder” for women.

Arif alluded to loneliness and demoralization; states none of us are strangers to. There was a much more sober take on loneliness in Haroon Moghul’s “Prom InshAllah.” In this piece, Haroon relates the story of a soul-shattering heartbreak he experienced when he was seventeen. His reflection: “My religion says a man should not be alone with a woman. But somebody should have told me a man should not feel so alone that being with a woman is the only way he can feel life is worth living.”

Women, more so than men, are conditioned to believe that their worth is derived from their having a spouse. But that demon of need that Haroon talks about does not discriminate. Only the luckiest men and women are immune to such a mindset. In immigrant families like Haroon’s and mine, alienation from one’s parents only deepens the need for someone to communicate with, someone who already understands your view of the world. When you happen to cross paths with that someone and they can’t stay, the devastation can really take its toll. I could thus completely relate to his taking eons to recover from a short-lived relationship at such a young age.

The Men Of God:

There were some pieces in this collection in which the respective men’s faiths shone especially brightly. The ones I will focus on  were shared in the the third section of the book, entitled “Sabr.” This section contained stories related to health-related crises. Without coincidence, it was here that the depth of the authors’ faiths could be seen. Take Alan Howard’s “The Promise,” his account of meeting, marrying, and caring for a woman who had cancer–until the day she passed on. His experience God-consciousness touched me incredibly deeply:

Through Joan’s ordeal, I learned to accept that there are things that happen in this world that I do not understand and cannot control, but must face with sabr anyway. Joan’s embodiment of Islam taught me how to understand and survive the tests I have been given in life, in order to grow and change and become more beautiful….my wife’s test in this life was cancer; it changed her and made her strong. My test was to take care of her, to never turn away. It was my duty to stand by her, but it was also my love. It was the core of my humanity.

The last story in this section and the collection is Randy Nasson’s “Becoming Family.” This harrowing tale opened my eyes to the trial he and his wife (one of the co-editors of this collection, Ayesha Mattu), went through. This made me ashamed of the assumptive reflections I had made in regard to Ayesha’s story in my review of Love, InshAllah. I’m grateful that the rest of the story was shared by means of her husband’s perspective, showing that “happily ever after” requires a great deal of work, more for some couples than for others.

To drive home why this book is relevant to everyone, we must visit the original question: “Why love?” Romantic love–whatever form it may take–can bestow one unimaginable bliss, while also forcing them to confront their demons and contend with underlying issues in their broader communities. In the case of an enormous, decentralized, and often dehumanized community like the Muslim community, all those “usual” elements of love stories are increased by tenfold.

I am not sure Salaam, Love is as revelatory or groundbreaking as Love, InshAllah was, and that could be a very good sign of how far along this enterprise has come. Yes, there are stories that could make some of a certain slant uncomfortable, but to someone like me, that isn’t news anymore. It is for this reason I took it as a continuation of conversation, rather than its beginning. At the time I read Love, InshAllah, I was bearing witness to my personal stories. I was learning that what happened with me were not anomalies or freakish incidents, but part of my personal growth and journey in faith.

Recently, however, I am becoming especially conscious of the shared struggles with love in the Muslim community, and this book assured me that I am not alone. I’m not the only one who had to overcome a lifetime of conditioning to learn how to love myself. I’m not the only one who is confused by inter-generational conflict. And should something work out for me, sooner or later (InshAllah), I will harbour no illusions about that being an end in itself.

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On Reading Alif the Unseen

Image source: Amazon

Title: Alif the Unseen

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: June 2012

Genre: Mystery/Thriller/Suspense

Source: eBook from local library

Please note that this book is a thriller-fantasy genre blend. I don’t read those genres, so I may not be the best judge of the book in that regard. However, there is a significant device used that led me to ponder the implications of reading this book as a Muslim. 

The book begins in griminess and heartbreak. Alif is an Arab-Indian living in one of the poorest districts of a large, nameless state in the in the Middle East. “Alif” is actually a screen name for his hacktivist activities, which involve protecting a variety of commercial and political entities subject to censorship by the state. He is betrayed by his lover and exposed to the Hand, the state’s digital security force and is forced into being a fugitive. In the process, a strange book is thrusted upon him. Titled Alf Yeom, or A Thousand Nights, it is a centuries-old narration by jinns that is transcribed by humans, imbibed with cryptic meanings, and, apparently, capable of elevating humankind to unprecedented technological heights. Or descent into complete chaos. As Alif struggles to understand the power of this book and out of the reach of the Hand, he finds himself in the company of jinn. Some of those jinn are helpful, others are mischievously vague, and some are outright demonic.

What I loved most about this book is how it enmeshes the spiritual and the digital. A toothless dervish blesses a USB key. A jinniya (a female jinn) who collects information in all forms tells Alif that “with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized . . . it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information.”

One of the most memorable passages in the book directly refers to one of the themes of this blog: living in strange times. A sheikh tells Alif that

We don’t live in ordinary times . . . I know it’s common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age . . . but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord something quite real.

I also adore Dina’s character and her embodiment of niqabi badass-ity. I’m still recovering from the the character Rabeya in The Taqwacores. Her bad-assity ventured too far near offensive territory. Hence, I needed another niqabi fictional character like Dina to counter her. I did, however, feel that Dina’s character development is a bit hasty (a concern I’ll discuss further below).

Dina gives Alif a searing critique when he suggests that they burn the Alf Yeom:

You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you’d be horrified if I suggested burning The Satanic Verses–because you have reactions, not convictions.

This made me think of how “Muslim rage” can be so reactionary, and the pitfalls of perpetual skepticism. Arguing for the sake of arguing cannot possibly be a sign of one with taqwa. Along with Alif, I felt that Dina called me out, too. (If you’re surprised by this, that’s because you have not seen the tiffs my mother and I have.) I was extremely humbled by this realization and am so glad that I could make such a personal connection to dialogue.

One of the turning points in the book starts with Alif’s realization about how he can penetrate the Hand’s digital fortress. This realization comes about—wait for it—when he hears the sheikh speak of how there are endless interpretations to the verses of the Quran, all existing simultaneously, without contradiction. What follows is a magnificent description of a two-day hacking session, where Alif’s creation is said to be a giant construction, and the Hand is anthromorphized as a beast. Wilson’s affinity for the comic book format, which often traditionally involve action and head-on battle with evil forces, are fully evident in this epic scene.

This book is best enjoyed as a fantasy/thriller novel, which means that it is more plot-oriented than literary. But I am not sure how I feel about some of the implications of that. For a nonbeliever who treats this book as a true-blooded fantasy, they may swallow this representation of other world of the jinn, hook, line and sinker. They temporarily suspend the outside world while living this story, and cheerfully put it away once it is over.

But can the same be said for Muslims?

When you are growing up in a Muslim-majority community, jinns are talked about in hushed voices, in a way that one might relate ghost stories with complete conviction. I feel that this attitude (although it may be more of a cultural than a religious attitude) is out of sync with the treatment of the jinn in this novel. In this story, a jinn is a being whose place of abode almost all of the main characters enter into fairly easily. They can be communicated and bargained with, even called upon in times of need. And there’s something a bit off about the nonchalance with which this happens. For an entity that we don’t have too much knowledge of, it feels as if the book goes too much into describing them.

As the sheikh in the book says, “We are not meant to fear [jinn] because they are powerful, but because we ourselves are so easily mislead.” Perhaps, this depiction of will unintentionally mislead us. While having living, speaking nonhuman characters works well for the purposes of a fantasy novel, it does not mesh well when it involves a fundamental article of belief. For a Muslim must believe in the jinn, whether or not she chooses to dwell on them.

Are the world of the unseen and its inhabitants something like what the author describes in this book? Are they an interplay between fur, claws, shadows, and smokeless flame? They vcould be. They could also be a thousand different other possibilities, all existing together, without contradiction. But I’m not sure we have the capacity to retain all those possibilities. We are beings who seek representations, generalizations. We drawn to depictions of people, places, and things from works that affect us deeply. (Try to think of the Titanic disaster without thinking of the James Cameron movie. Not easy, is it?) So it bothers me that the book has now given a concrete definition, a description, of the world of jinns. Will this mean that we will unconsciously start thinking that we have more knowledge of the unseen than we actually do?

I do want to emphasize that I am very, very happy with the subject matter of the book and cannot be more thrilled that some of the main characters in the book are jinn. What I can’t help pondering, though, is that they exist in the novel in between a fantastic and a matter-of-fact way while they should be more real. My personal preference would have been a magical realist treatment that takes this existence as reality, but that is a too tall an order for a book of this genre. Perhaps another more literary novel can attempt this treatment.

On a different note, I also felt that the character transitions of the female characters were rather abrupt and didn’t take place in a very organic manner. (If you have not read the book, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers.) The impressions I had of them in the beginning and towards the end of the book completely changed, but there was too much happening in terms of plot for me to understand or fully process the changes. Dina, for example, goes from being a fiercely religious character who thinks The Golden Compass is blasphemous to a sharply-witted woman who easily lays out Alif’s lack of convictions. Intisar goes from being a brilliant scholar and an enchantingly and inaccessibly beautiful aristrocat to a hollow, selfish, and petty girl who refuses to marry Alif because she didn’t want to “not have nice things.” Even if Alif’s change of perception in regard to these two women partially explains their drastic transitions, I still felt somewhat cheated as a reader, as though I was never supposed to see the two women the way I did at the beginning of the novel.

This is a marvelous story, a highly recommended read for anyone even mildly interested in a fantasy novel with refreshingly original characters in a currently relevant political context. I cannot be more thrilled that the book has met with so much mainstream success. I love that these characters now exist in the literary world without apology. I love its recurring Islamic motifs and its relevance to the digital age. I was terribly morose when the book finished, because, for now, I’m not sure I can have a similar reading experience again.

On Reading The Butterfly Mosque

Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Date: August 2010

Genre:  Autobiography

Source: Local library

This startlingly lovely book gracefully and tentatively walks the tightrope between being a gentle narrative and a grimly realistic testimony to the growing divide between the East and West.

It’s not inaccurate to say that this book is about a woman’s conversion to Islam, her move to Egypt, her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim, and her struggle to come to terms with the American/Muslim/Egyptian dimensions of her existence. I feel, however, that even that description alone does a disservice to this story. There are so many ways Wilson could have written a book that fits this description. The precise way she wrote it and her specific treatment of her subject matter, however, are what make this book a must-read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is what makes it so:

  • The Muslim and non-Muslim reader of this book is on equal footing. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I assumed that I was not the kind of reader Wilson was writing for. I thought that her treatment of Islam’s tenets and history would be very basic, and that this would be a mere readable and feel-good record of her cultural immersion. I was so glad to be proven wrong: her account and writing can be revelatory for readers of all faiths. She remarks, for example, on the fact that the Islamic calendar are not fixed, and therefore occasions like Eid can occur during any season, reflecting that God does not want us to worship nature or become to attached to the material, even if it is through associating a certain type of season with a holiday. Such a description is only one example of how she can introduce a fact about Islam while introducing a refreshing perspective for a practicing Muslim.
  • The author is very honest about her romantic relationship and her struggle with it. I loved this honesty, which is more heartfelt than raw, and I loved how she is very upfront about the realities of loving someone from a vastly different background. It isn’t for no reason that love blossoms between Wilson and the man who would become her husband: they are passionate about Islam, about Egypt, about art and spirituality, and both are anomalies in respect to their indigenous cultures. He is amazingly tender towards her (he’s so dreamy) and they have a beautiful wedding. I really, appreciated, however, how Wilson makes a point that love stories, even in memoirs, often miss out on: love is a struggle. The more disparate your backgrounds, the greater a struggle it is. She writes: “Love is not a benign thing. No corner of my life remained unaltered by the consequences of what I loved. The most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me brought me neither peace nor comfort. But it did bring me Omar. And that was more than enough.”
  •  She gives a similar treatment to the Egyptians and Iranians portrayed in the book. All too aware that she does not speak for them, she carefully presents their attitudes and norms without apology and with careful explanation from within the cultural framework. In fact, she goes even further by posing some striking perspectives when it comes to being a woman in an Egyptian society:

When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an e-mail from an editor saying, ‘Thanks, got it.’ When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.

  • Her description of Cairo is magnificent. Really, I’m at a loss to explain what made it so wonderful. I’ll only say that if I ever visit the city, I’ll make a point of re-reading the book and mapping out the monuments, buildings, and cafes she describes. I also greatly admire her for refusing to life the insulated life of an expat in the city and getting as close as she could to experiencing life as an Egyptian woman.
  • This, a passage that made me experience a deep sense of kinship that had me reeling for days:

In her book The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji smugly announces that . . . ‘it was Islam’s job’ to keep her from leaving the faith. I never thought it was Islam’s job to keep me. My faith was not a contract, not a deal; there were no clauses I expected God to abide by and which, if violated, would give me an excuse to back out. . . It was certainty that animated me; it was certainty that allowed me to watch the progress of the extremists and feel anger and disgust, but never disappointment. It was not my place to be approving or disappointed: I had submitted too completely for either. Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imams and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.

I have often wondered how it is that I could be confronted with a stream of staunch disbelievers, radically liberal reformists, and pathological conservatives and still believe. I now understand, for Wilson articulates in this passage what I could not put words to even after years of thought.

I don’t think it’s very often that one can get the kind of nuance and beauty in nonfiction this book offers, especially in nonfiction about transnational Muslims. By sharing her story, Wilson gives sensitively and remarkably-framed insights into the struggles of Egypt, the real struggle for the soul of Islam, and the turmoil that comes with being a Muslim who is forever battling the opposing sides of her cultural and spiritual heritage.

Notes:

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 Reading Love in a Headscarf

Image source: openlibrary.org

Title: Love in a Headscarf

Author: Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Publication Year: 2009

Genre: Autobiography

Source: I was lent a copy by Amy, who borrowed it from Carina.

So here, in my own words, is the underlying premise of Love in a Headscarf: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single, practicing, devout Muslim woman in possession of intelligence, wit, and beauty must be in want of a husband who has the same qualities. As well as romance. Lots of romance.

The novel is an account of the author’s search for “the One” through highly structured and family and community-oriented means. She also dwells a great deal on how her faith shaped her search for a partner, alongside more general discussions about Islam and being Muslim in the west.

One Amazon reviewer called the book “interesting, but not uplifting.” Their review is a good way to pave way into my experience of reading the book:

For those single Muslim men and women who are enduring the struggle to find mates or are preparing to embark on that journey, [this book] is not helpful and is even rather despairing at times, although that was clearly not intended by the author. The unwounded in the modern Muslim marriage plight may miss that negative tenor, but the potential emotional drag for those with real-life experience in this arena may be enough to recommend passing over this book.

So true. For the most part, this book was depressing. While I enjoyed seeing how the author’s experiences with meeting prospects mirrored mine (having to suffer through men who are inexcusably non-punctual, who hate books and those who read them, who show up simply because their parents forced them into it, who are fixated on matters of height even if it comes down to a few inches, etc.) they simply reinforced my frustrations about the deeply flawed assumptions that have crept into cultural practices surrounding marriage and courtship (or lack thereof) in the Muslim South Asian diaspora. Janmohamed does question some of these assumptions, but not at all in a way that I found satisfying or particularly illuminating.

I did like reading about how the author braved “the instruments of social compliance” designed to keep women in line by doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and buying a racing car. I appreciate the idea of her wanting to be the change she wanted to see. Another really interesting point she brings up is how, in the final stages of the husband hunt, she learns to see men not just as potential suitors, but just as who they are. “Each person,” she writes, “was a delicious moment to be savoured with respect for their humanity.” This healthy attitude is a wonderful way to grow and learn through what can often be a dreary, heartbreaking process of finding a spouse.

However, for a story that is so centred on finding deep, enduring, romantic love, I feel that the book is strangely devoid of it. On the occasions the author feels a deep attraction to a prospective spouse, the rapport between them comes off as fleeting and superficial. The result being: even when she met someone who seemed promising, I couldn’t be less indifferent about what the outcome would be. There are worthy points made about “capital ‘L’ love,” and seeking to be closer to the divine. While they were important and noteworthy, they weren’t particularly memorable for me. (This Altmuslimah review, however, is more appreciative of this aspect of the book.)

I also think the book had tangents into discussions about Islam and womanhood that seemed a bit elementary and intended for non-Muslim audiences who are not familiar with Islam. I could see how it was intended to frame the author’s experience of being a British Asian Muslim woman who wears the hijab, but to me they were just wearisome distractions, parts to be skimmed through just so I could get back to her story of how she finally meets her husband.

I suppose my not wholly enjoying this book largely has to do with my questioning whether the kind of marriage process that Janmohamed went through can always be equated to finding love. As much as I want to believe that parents, imams, and a vicious team of aunties have the potential to find “the one” for you, the whole point of the “one” is that there is something that grows organically with them, a process that I can’t imagine naturally occurring under the watchful eyes of community elders and inordinate pressures to get married. That is why Muslim stories that are not as “by the book” as community leaders would like them to be–honest, conflict-ridden accounts such as those in Love, InshAllah or of Muslim men’s experiences with finding a partner–resonate so much more with me.

I have great respect for Janmohamed’s enacting of the changes that she wanted to see by challenging stereotypes about Muslim women. However, as far as the marriage process is concerned, the changes I think are needed require something much more radical, something that skirts along the edges of conventional, accepted territory. It requires more than a few raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers over what kind of a vehicle a woman drives to the mosque. The system needs more than a poke: it needs a good shake. It starts with an acceptance of the fact that love can take on an unlikely, unpredictable form that our social interactions and suitor screening processes need to make room for so that it may be easier for the single Muslim to fulfill half their deen, so to speak.

Janmohamed’s story is not every Muslim woman’s story, for she is fortunate enough to exercise her agency in a close-knit community she has known her whole life. It is up to each of us to seriously and honestly examine our needs, contexts and values and forge a path to our future partner that works within our systems or in opposition to it.

On Reading The Good Muslim

Source: Wikipedia

Note: A different version of this review appeared in Altmuslimah and Muslimah Media Watch

Title: The Good Muslim

Author: Tahmima Anam

Publication Date: August 2011

Genre: Literary fiction; historical fiction 

Source: eBook from library

I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.

The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?

Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.

Alas, it didn’t deliver.

One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.

Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.

What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.

This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?

The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.

While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.

This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.

A Muslim Woman's Response to The Witch of Portobello

Title: The Witch of Portobello

Author: Paulo Coelho

Publication Date: February 2008

Genre: Literary fiction 

Source: eBook from library

This strangely mesmerizing book was a source of spiritual inspiration, even if its theological approach did not sit well with me.

Since I approach the world and my reading with a Muslim ethnographic approach, this book was no exception. I took it and enjoyed it on its own terms, but as I did so, another part of me absorbed its spiritual implications for my relationship with God.

This story is about a woman named Athena with a disposition towards high spiritual awareness. She evolves from being a devout Christian teenager to a pagan priestess, reminding me of the transition so many people like myself have undergone: starting from the outwardly ritual-oriented version of institutionalized religion and moving onto defining faith in highly personal and metaphysical terms involving God’s presence in all things and experiences. It is not the story, but the spiritual attitude that is laid out (as fact, true to Coelho’s style) that I feel is worth exploring further.

One of the things whose discussion I enjoyed and that I feel orthodox teachings in Islam don’t have room for is spiritual enlightenment through creative expression. Dance and calligraphy are two ways Athena cultivates her natural way of getting close to the divine. What she says of dance struck a resounding note for me:

[Dance is] a very ancient way of getting close to a partner. It’s as if the threads connecting us to the rest of the world were washed clean of preconceptions and fears. When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.

Shouldn’t one’s faith involve being able to surpass one’s context to celebrate who they are, as God made them? Even if extending this celebration continuously is, in my opinion, not healthy, isn’t the ability to have those moments a way of affirming our existence?

During the pauses in the music as she dances, or when she has to shift her calligraphy pen to go on to the next word, Athena experiences a void which is both a source of anguish and intrigue for her:

I’ve always been a very restless person. I work hard, spend too much time looking after my son, I dance like a mad thing, I learned calligraphy. I go to courses on selling, I read one book after another. But that’s all a way of avoiding those moments when nothing is happening, because those blank spaces give me a feeling of absolute emptiness, in which not a single crumb of love exists.

As I also discovered while I was reading The Gifts of Imperfection, the modern affliction of ‘busy-ness’ is a way of avoiding those gaps, of avoiding being in moments where one has to just be.

Athena’s guide and mentor Edda, knowing the depth of her anguish and her need for more than a normal life of contentment, instructs her being in a perpetual state of awareness and worship, even in the most mundane of tasks:

When you’re washing up, pray. Be thankful that there are plates to be washed; that means there was food, that you fed someone, that you’ve lavished care on one or more people, that you cooked and laid the table. Imagine the millions of people at this moment who have absolutely nothing to wash up and no one for whom to lay the table.

The boundary between the sacred and the profane—my washing up so that I can sit down and read the Book, for instance—is quite unnecessary. We’re Muslims not because we vocally enunciate words signifying submission: what really makes us Muslim is that we strive to be mindful of this submission as much as we can in such a manner.

Another beautiful moment in the book is when Athena asks someone why he has so many books, telling him:

You hang on to them because you don’t believe. . . Anyone who believes will go and read up about [things] . . . after that, it’s a question of letting the Mother speak through you and making discoveries as she speaks. And as you make those discoveries, you’ll manage to fill in the blank spaces that all those writers left there on purpose to provoke the reader’s imagination. And when you fill in the spaces, you’ll start to believe in your own abilities.

I was immediately reminded of the story of Ghazali and his notes and his realization that true education couldn’t possibly mean being only as good as one’s notes. This has made me think very long and hard about my library, my way of learning, and the physical possession of books and notes as a false form of intellectual validation.

Two final noteworthy points to highlight about this book would be: 1) its celebration of the feminine and 2) its depiction of how non-codified spiritual practices have been historically marginalized. Unsurprisingly, the two overlap in the phenomenon of “witchery,” society’s pervasive fear of the woman who establishes her life on her own terms without caring for the attitudes of those around her. A witch, I now more fully understand, is a placeholder label for a “radical” woman who believes in something greater than herself.

It would be hard to summarize the impact of this book on me, so I’ll just lay out the following symptoms: I’m more mindful of my prayers and have somehow learned to be more in the moment as I perform them. Washing up is a joy. I try to read and learn in a way that doesn’t involve my needing to hold onto an artifact. Most importantly, I’ve stopped feeling guilty for experiencing the void of those empty spaces. Instead of avoiding them, I now understand that it’s a symptom. It’s a sign of the universal human need to live a meaningful as well as a successful life.

I’ve developed a newfound respect for paganism and think that it’s spiritually perhaps a much harder journey to take. Because there are no established ways for spiritual practice, one has to find the one they have the greatest aptitude for. However, as much as I think I’d like to worship in a creative way, I’m still thankful for Islam’s structure and moral code. I’m glad that I’m given ways of doing dhikr while still being able to say duaas in free form. As a Muslim, I feel like I have the best of both worlds when I preserve fiqh and practice tasawwuf.

But hey. I’m all for the idea of the Muslim witch.