Book Review: “Living Islam out Loud” (ed. Saleemah Abdul Ghafur)
By Aisha Sarwari
I’d frankly had enough of hyped up ethnic literature from the immigrant East that embellished the shelves of American bookstores describing the “other.” The women in them were almost hidden behind the glitter and jeweled glamour of ethnicity and multiculturalism that could neither be swallowed nor spat out. It came across as just another variety of exclusivity in the false pretence of pluralism. It was clamorous and in bad taste. These books made movies, but stories remained unheroic, because the characters were special simply because the events made them stand out as amusing transitionary creatures.
I yearned to land a book that had women who thought clearly and enunciated their life with such insight that even those deaf to feminism could hear it. It came from the most unlikely place: From Muslim women living in America in the book, “Living Islam Out Loud.” One would expect a minority community, and a minority within that minority to be whiny and confused. Though some of the essays certainly are on the brink of a complaint form, the courage and originality of the narratives to take destiny in their own hands are undeniable and admirable in this age of complacency.
Saleemah Abdul Ghafur, an African American Muslim woman has compiled this anthology of seventeen first-generation American-Muslim women with diverse experiences to talk about their hyphenated identities, thier struggles and triumphs with love and faith without any soapy commercialization.
Eighteen Scheherezades, including Saleemah reinvent the art of storytelling as they know it. They captivate an audience that has no sympathy for their voice and inspire empathy for their unique journeys. In the process, they have perhaps saved the first generation of American Muslim women an inevitable death of oblivion in the world’s non-fiction genre.
The absence of the Muslim narrative cannot be undermined nor deemed unimportant. It is precisely for this absence of experiences that these women have had to make painful mistakes and false assumptions and went though learning and adjustment processes all on their own.
Caught hanging from the pendulum of American and Muslim identities, they have often spun in a flux of confusion and loneliness only to face further alienation from the Muslim community. They were inadequately sheltered in a lack of preparedness to face the world in the 21st century. While they juggled these guidelines, they trampled on their own feminine voices to accommodate a narrow definition of what it was to be a Muslim woman. Sooner or later these women realized the freedom to have an opinion was perhaps tolerable but to air it was nothing short of anarchy.
With their parent’s experiences unhelpful and the alternative American experience not taking them in wholly, they had no choice but to pave their own paths, “pick up boulders and toss them over their heads in a bag carried on their shoulders.” And when the bag of boulders became too heavy they found that they had to choose a different path and abandon the bag, as the Sufi analogy that Sarah Eltantawi alluded to in her essay. Commonly, these women almost had to “abandon the tribe” to look at their self sans multiple lenses that distorted their self-image. This was almost a necessity for them, in order to find truth that Islam itself taught them to hold on to.
Another fascinating characteristic of these women was their inability to leave the traditionalism of Islam that they grew accustomed to. It was not simply a need for the familiar that kept them glued to their identity, but true love for Islam that compelled them to convert it into a reasonable and cognizant attachment, born out of choice and free will.
Almost fanatically in love with their faith, they would demand introspection on sexism and racial prejudice in their communities but they would not, under any circumstance tolerate bigotry against Muslims. The most radical of all essayists, Mohja Kahf writes: “Oh I was still Muslim. No one was gonna take that away from me. Especially not the anti-Muslim bigots. If there was anyone I was more sick and tired of than Muslims, it’s Muslim-Bashers. No one is allowed to criticize Islam and Muslims but those who do it from love. Those who do it from hate, step-aside!”
Embittered by misogynist and patriarchal interpretations of Islam that left many immigrant Muslim women black and blue from the battering of their Muslim husbands, Mohja Kahf was determined to novicely reconcile the issue by using Islam itself as a healing hand. She approached the Imams and Muslim scholars who vehemently opposed the undignified treatment of women. Although she may have compromised on her personal radical rights for women, but she found a functional solution to the crisis centers of abuse of Muslim women in America.
Had these women not lost everything, they would not have had the courage to gather their strength. Almost all these women lost their self-esteem when either the men in their lives or the community they belonged to shunned them as they hit puberty. Their sexuality was frowned upon - guilty before proven innocent was the prevalent notion that ended up choking their self determined ideals into a state of silence.
Soon they are tossed into the institution of relationships. Oftentimes these bonds are not what they’d have voluntarily opted for, be the reason a sexuality issue, or lack of intimacy, or an unfaithful/chauvinist spouse. They would have to fit in by matching all compatibility issues with guilty stillness. When failure would inevitably meet them, they’d be the only ones to blame.
As Samina Ali’s essay reveals aptly, it’s only after she gets punished for her obedience that she begins to question norms that were considered divine before, and realize that they are “man made.” When these women seek spirituality they realize, mosques are “men’s clubs,” as Ingrid Mattason of ISNA declares. Though not an essayist herself, Ingrid Mattason’s statement is quoted twice in the book.
Asra Nomani, a controversial figure for sparking the demand for women’s equal space in the mosques, says she “had to be the leader she wants to see in the world.” Even more controversial for being a mother of a child whose unwed father refused to accept him, Asra Nomani has an uphill task of lobbying for something with a tainted reputation. Respectability in the community she works in comes from obedience to a male member of family. She fails on this, and a number of other counts, but she too has managed to succeed to include far right conservative organizations such as ISNA to endorse her voice in their conferences and literature.
Although it is a worthy essay covering a very current topic in American Muslim circles, the futility of Asra Nomani’s cause is not lost upon the reader. Women must have more dignified space in the mosque, where they can hear and see the proceedings, but rather than imbibe the principles of spiritual equality as Dr. Amina Wadud has on a personal level for instance, or academically as Dr. Asma Barlas has, Nomani has taken the challenge of “reforming” the mosques, which totally defeats the subjectivity premise of a religious group. No matter how inequitable a religion is perceived, one cannot go about bringing the perceived wrong “down” because it offends the devout.
If enough people believe in segregated prayers, as the American constitution allows them to, one cannot barge into the mosque and violate its norms in the name of Islam. What then is the difference between this and the breaking of Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2000? Breaking people’s idols of belief can be just as aggressive, even if they can be backed up by scripture. Alternatively, Nomani can establish and align with circles of like-minded people and regroup with them. Islam in America should be allowed a normal evolutionary process, perhaps if this democratic process flows, a more inclusive and culturally “American Islam” will evolve led by the African American Muslims, who are in a majority and have a “Bilalilian” ethic of equality in their heritage.
The downside to such a well intentioned movement that ought to be just as effective is that it plays into the hands of right wing Americans who would save no breath to stereotype all Muslims in the US. Let’s not air our dirty laundry - rather we ought to distance ourselves from stench and spark a dandy fashion spree by example. I say this, not because I believe Muslims should be spared, but because it’s counterproductive to chastise Muslims in mainstream US media.
As a narrative of women, motherhood has been a themed expression of how these women found their way to God’s merciful strength. However, unlike the stereotypical motherhood discourse, parenting expressed by these women is nothing short of flawless poetic brilliance. Perhaps this comes from an instilled and worthy position of mothers in Islam, and the role of determining the strength of community placed on their ability to be steadfast in character and flexible in demeanor.
Never before was motherhood intellectualized to celebrate its intricacies and challenges, like it was in Inas Younis’s, “My Son The Mystic.” It deserves special mention because it has all the ingredients of what makes the entire book brilliant. Inas Younis moved to America from Iraq during Saddam Hussain’s rule in the 80’s, and is a mother of three. Her life demanded unbounded patience when her son was diagnosed with autism.
At first she copes with the stress in the conditional response of becoming more pious, more Muslim, outwardly and ritualistically at least. Unable to listen to her son’s cues, and his genius, she muted her own intelligence, until she realized how much depends on her ability to find solution for him. As a cryptic answer to her sincerity, she realizes after a silent prayer that she must do what is best for her son, and embarks on a selfless journey to take him to a specialist who helps to cultivate autistic children’s more egoistical side.
Interestingly, autistic children have very little sense of self-awareness, hardly any emotions of jealousy, betrayal, rage, envy and pride. It is through the dysfunctional condition of her son that Inas realizes the mystic in him. He taught her that the self-asserting side of a woman is just as important as the self-sacrificing side of her maternal instincts. To help him cope with the world, she concluded she must cast away the cloaks of obedience and rely more on her God-inspired courage to deal with autism head on.
Inas Younis’s prose is exquisite because her conclusions have crispness. She is a woman who thought hard and battled difficult questions through the night, probably falling back on the hundreds of books she has read. Like the dozen or so authors in the book, she relies on the intelligence of her own mind - a faculty that a religious devout may find too risky to be employed.
It is undoubtedly though the reliance of this intellectual faculty that the women make Islam both a spiritual haven for all humans, especially those marginalized and in transition, and enable Islam in America be carried on smoothly by the next generation of men and women.