Ali-Karamali began talking about the veil by explaining what modesty is in Islam. I particularly liked how she drew parallels with Christian and world history in order to ‘real-ify’ matters. She gave examples from real life and popular culture as well as quotes from all different kinds of people to bring things alive to her readers and supplement her claims. For example:
“The definition of modesty has always been subjective. In The King and I […] the English governess stares, shocked, at the immodest trousers of the wives of the King of Siam. The wives stare, shocked in their own turn, at the wanton expanse of neck, shoulders, and bosom that the English governess’s dress reveals.”
She makes the argument that the Qur’an could not give women so many rights and require them to be “veiled completely and ostracized from society” and argues that:
“The basis for [veiling] is cultural rather than religious, although two Qur’anic verses have been manipulated to support it.”
She walks the reader through the stereotypes of veiled women, how veiling was seen historically, different interpretations of the verses thought to relate to veiling, and different reasons for veiling.
And even though she herself doesn’t believe in veiling, the fact remains that she addresses the other opinions, and makes the valid point that even if the verses do refer to veiling, they “have one inescapable features that is simple, crucial, and often ignored: the verses themselves are not sexist.” In other words, they refer to both sexes. She concludes this section by saying:
“I am not taking sides here. I do not cover my hair and I challenge the notion that Islam requires it. Nonetheless, […] the women who choose to wear one do so for a variety of reasons, none of which may be “oppression.” It is having the choice that matters.”
The author approaches the issue of polygamy (as she does everything) in a logical, clearheaded away, beginning by taking the reader through marriage in Islam. With regards to polygamy, she explains the situation in 7th century Arabia and then the verses relating to polygamy, concluding that:
“Polygamy is allowed but not approved. […] A man can have more than one wife if he can treat them equally […] but since that is impossible, the Qur’an is actually obliquely limiting a man to one wife.”
The mainstream Muslim view of polygamy, she points out, is disapproval. She also discusses why the prophet got to marry so many women and why Lady ‘Aisha was so young. She is perfectly rational, and I found myself going “Yes! That’s exactly what I wish I could articulate!” more than once. You can so tell that she used to be a lawyer.
Next, she talks about divorce in the same levelheaded manner, followed by inheritance. In (what I think is) a stroke of brilliance, she encapsulates Islamic inheritance law using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example, contrasting the world today and the world then:
“Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters would have been entitled to receive two-thirds of their father’s estate if they had lived in Islamic seventh-century Arabia instead of nineteenth-century England.”
And even though she does not go into the mainstream reasoning why women typically inherit less than men, and focuses on how “reforms [that keep] to the spirit of Qur’anic reform rather than to the letter of it” aiming to correct “injustices” (she believes women should get the exact same as men) her explanation is more than adequate.
She then quickly tackles the issues of slavery, concubines, The Three Gorgons, and addresses two common accusations: that One Women + One Woman = One Man in Islam and beating wives.
The only critique I might have of this chapter is that the author comes across as being very slightly apologetic, and keeps repeating that although now Islam’s status towards women may seem slightly strict, it was considered a revolution in 7th century Arabia and a revolution compared to women’s rights in European law as late as the 18th century. The problem with this logic that I see is that the Qur’an is supposed to be for all ages: what does it mean if she says the Qur’an was great back then?
In the end, I would definitely suggest this book to those who want a good summary of what Muslims believe and why. It tries to tackle a lot, and it’s therefore understandable than in just under 250 pages it would be impossible to delve deeply into issues surrounding Islam. However, because of Ali-Karamali’s conciseness and her style, she manages to cover almost everything of importance (though I do wonder why hadith [sayings of the prophet] make almost no appearance).
Although the very orthodox might find some things in her interpretations objectionable, many Muslims might not. The book is funny and humorous, contextualizing Islam in a context everyone can relate to (Star Trek, Shakespeare, and Aladdin all make an appearance) and yet it’s serious and scholarly.
I found myself laughing often, and nodding my head at other times. It’s a book you can read in one sitting and not feel tired, or one you can read in bits over a longer period of time. It’s a book for those who know nothing about Muslims, and for those who are Muslims. It’s a book that’s needed in our world today, where stereotypes of Muslims have instilled fear in the hearts of many. It’s a book that’ll make you think outside the box, and will stay with you long after you’re finished.