Muslimah Media Watch thanks Aynur for the tip!
The title caught my eye.
The blurb promised that:
“The Muslim Next Door clears away the misconceptions about Islam and why they flourish –media distortion, confusion about what is cultural rather than religious, the language barrier, and the old tall tales that still persist after thirteen centuries.”
Lofty promises, I thought.
I bought it expecting another one of those “here’s why Muslims aren’t so scary, we are proud Americans and proud Muslims at the same time” books, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The first thing I noticed right off the bat is that this book is extensively researched: there are over 25 pages of endnotes citing sources (as well as a chronology, index, suggested reading list and discussion questions). But at the same time, it’s not a ‘true’ academic book—it’s conveyed through anecdotes and stories by the author, Sumbul Ali-Karamali, a South Asian Muslim who grew up in Los Angeles. In essence, you get the best of both worlds: scholarship and story telling.
The author has a graduate degree in Islamic Law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where she also taught Islamic Law as a teaching assistant. She’s also a research associate at the Center of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law. In other words, she’s qualified.
This book is basically what you wish you can give to those people who ask you all those questions that you have to answer over and over again. Now you can just hand them this book and trust that it’ll answer their questions.
Ali-Karamali doesn’t shy away from difficult questions, or gloss over them. She splits up her book into 11 chapters, and tackles the issues the media loves to talk about (veiling, stoning, jihad etc). She takes the major misconceptions about Islam and deconstructs them into base elements before explaining them.
The first half of the book introduces Islam to the non-Muslim reader and delves into more detail as the book progresses. The second half tackles the meaty topics: women in Islam, jihad and fundamentalism, stealing and adultery in Islam, American Muslim reactions to 9/11 and a concluding chapter on why misconceptions persist.
From the very first chapter it’s made clear to us that the author and her interpretations play an important role in the novel. She gives the various opinions, and then her own interpretation when it diverts from mainstream belief. For example, with regards to prayer, she says:
“Standing behind the men [in prayer] is insulting because the men never stand behind the women. (If they took turns, that would be different).”
Throughout the book, she is honest that there are many aspects about some interpretations of Islam that she finds hard to reconcile with what she believes is essentially a feminist religion:
“It is difficult, as a woman and a Muslim, to understand why the Qur’anic picture of paradise includes [houris: “dark eyed female virgins.”].”
She reconciles that by using an interpretation of a Muslim linguist that translates houris as “pure beings.” Elsewhere, with regards to the verse that is said to refer to a man’s right to “lightly slap” his wife under certain circumstances, she says:
“I wish this verse were not part of the Qur’an. […] I do not intend to blaspheme. A part of me can understand why it is there, but another part wishes away the need to explain why the Qur’an contains apparent permission for a husband to strike his wife lightly.”
Her honesty not only gives her book credibility, but makes it relatable to the average person.
Let’s move on to the 50-page chapter about Women in Islam (which is the longest chapter in the entire book). Ali-Karamali begins by giving us examples of Muslim women in history (Prophet Moses’s mother, The Queen of Sheba), and then moves on to discussing how the Qur’an treats women—the historical context, how the text treats women, and how 7th century scholars developed the law “imposing their own […] andocentric worldview onto the text and mixed culture with religion.”
She then tackles successively the veil, marriage, divorce, polygamy, inheritance, and what she calls “The Three Gorgons:” clitoridectomy, honor killings, and infanticide.
One of Ali-Karamali’s main arguments throughout the chapter is that women’s rights are a cultural issue and not a religious one. She is adamant that:
“Some countries oppress women by using Islam as an excuse. That is culture, not religion and largely the reason […] that Islam is perceived as sexist.”
She illustrates this by saying:
“When the Islamic empire appropriated Persian and Byzantine governmental institutions, Muslim rulers gradually appropriated their cultural practices as well, even those directly contravening Qur’anic reforms, such as harems, concubinage, veiling and seclusion for women.”
Onto “That Veil Thing:”
(I particularly liked the way she called it “that veil thing;” it somehow poked fun at the oppressive all-encompassing ‘Western’ belief that the veil is all there is to Islam, illustrated the ignorance attached to what exactly it was, and simultaneously conveyed how tired Muslims were of dealing with the same issue over and over again. The equivalent of rolling your eyes).