For the brief period before the inevitable early Spring Minnesota re-freeze, while it was still nearly fifty degrees out, I walked down to the library to 1) see adults, and 2) pick up a book or two written by and for adults.
The most recent to catch my attention and ring some bells as something I’d hoarded away on my Goodreads “Hopefully Someday I’ll Have Time To Read It” list was Love, InshAllah: The Secret Lives of American Muslim Women, edited by Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu.
The book is twenty-five essays broken into five categories, all about women and their experiences with love as Muslims in America. The essays are written by a diverse group of women whose common thread is a strong Muslim and American identity. Some of them were born in America to Muslim families, some are immigrants, others are converts, and many are any combination of any of the above. Ultimately, no matter how their path, they all identify as Muslim and American and have dealt with the challenges that combination can pose, both in terms of conservative Islam versus liberal mainstream America and their peaceful, productive version of Islam versus America’s general “understanding” of Islam as necessarily violent and extremist.
Many of the writers were born into Islam and maintain strong family and social ties to the religion and familial Middle Eastern roots, but several are converts who came to it in adulthood after much thought, debate, and soul-searching. The purpose of including this second group of women in the book seems to be to show that women can choose Islam and the cultural and religious challenges, rules, and difficulties that go with it. These women show that the conservative nature of the Muslim courtship is not necessarily a male-centered burden shoved on women, but something that can be fulfilling and voluntary.
It was fascinating to discover throughout my reading how many assumptions and ignorant ideas about the culture had seeped into my thoughts about Muslim women. I was startled to discover that I was startled by the women’s stories of sneaking out to see boys, engaging in premarital sex, dating men of other cultures (but not surprised by the struggle with a woman of one club has with dating a man from another), divorcing and remarrying, and their uncertainty or certainty of marrying a man they barely knew (in some of the cases). My shock betrayed my ignorance. Each story showed how much these women’s experiences are similar because they’re all interpreted through the lens of the same religion, and how much they’re different because that lens is more individualized than popular portrayals of Islam generally allow.
The most irritating part of this book, for me, was the refrain by many of the contributors that “Muslims can…” or “Muslims don’t…” or something else along those same lines that suggests Islam (or any religion) is a mere set of hard-line rules to be followed by members of a club, rather than a set of ideas that helps shape the behavior and narrative of a human life. This approach to religion more often than not serves to absolve the adherent from responsibility for their own actions, and, more than that, from thinking. The line replaces critical thought and deep introspection with a simple look to a rule book and a statement that “it says this here, so this is what people of this club do,” rather than “here is this book and group of people who have input on my behavior and thought, and I can take into serious consideration their input while keeping in mind my own circumstances.”
It also takes away the reality that the adherent is a person with a set of ideas based on personal experience that happen to be similar to the ideas of others, and that all those people happen to use the same label. The truth is not that a person is a member of a club and therefor has these ideas; the truth is that a person has these ideas and is therefor a member of this club. The distinction is significant, and seems to have been made by most, if not all, of these contributors. For many of them, it seems they find their peace and happiness when they stop trying to be members of a club and realize that they are individuals who belong to the club because it supports them in developing ideas that make their lives fulfilling. They can be good daughters, wives, mothers, and Muslims while leading lives of thought and choice.
Love, InshAllah is enlightening and though-provoking, which I think are its primary goals. The reader needs to set aside previously held ideas about Muslim women and open themselves up to learning about it from real women’s experiences, which are clearly demonstrated by the articulate, engaging women who contributed. The stories are organized in a way that holds the reader’s attention and develops the idea of the independent Muslim woman who still needs her family, religion, and culture to create the fulfilling life she desires