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Progressive Muslim Identities: Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada is a recently-published anthology, edited by Vanessa Karam, Olivia Samad, and Ani Zonneveld. As described by Zonneveld in the book’s introduction,
“This is not a book of Islamic theology or history; a reader looking for that has other sources. This book is a snapshot that captures the brave face of individual progressive Muslims at this point in time. Their personal and honest narratives give readers a look into the lives of progressive Muslims in the United States and Canada. For the most part, the contributors are not professional writers or ‘famous Muslims.’ They are the voices you never get to hear.”
The writing included in the book represents an impressive diversity of ethnic backgrounds and religious upbringings, and it does indeed highlight stories of people generally not seen as representative of Islam or of Muslims. It’s not the first to do so, although I think it’s the first such anthology that I’ve read that includes perspectives from Muslim men. Books like Living Islam Out Loud, Voices of Resistance, and Shattering the Stereotypes, for example, all present some similar perspectives and personal narratives (even if they are not all framed explicitly as “progressive”), but are focused on Muslim women. (I haven’t read Omid Safi’s Progressive Muslims, which might bring in the male experience more clearly, although its focus is less personal.) Proceeds from the book go to Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), and there’s a fact sheet about MPV and its principles in the back of the book.
I particularly liked Tynan Power’s reflections on his son’s work as a young “spokes-Muslim” post 9/11. Dizery Salim’s piece captures some tender and perplexing snapshots of her Muslim childhood; on the other hand, her concluding reflection that “Islam is difficult in a world that is not Muslim” could have used some further explanation. The chapters by Sahira Traband, Sumaya Cole, and Daaiyee Abdullah also included some particularly moving observations and experiences, although all seemed to drag at points, and would likely have been better if they’d been a bit shorter. There are, of course, people who will feel uncomfortable with some of the ways that Islam is interpreted within these stories (and I certainly had my own disagreements with some of them), but I think they convey the complexities of trying to find ways of living Islam in a culturally relevant and ethical way.
One thing that really impressed me – and I’m not sure this is a comment that I would have ever made (or thought to make) about any other book – is that the glossary is really well done. A lot of glossaries are just there to give quick translations of terminology that might be used, but this one takes the time to give explanations in paragraphs, exploring the meanings in much more depth, and acknowledging the variety of spellings of some of the words.
Overall, the writing itself is a mixed bag. Some of the pieces are poignant and eloquently written; others are, well, less so. There’s a recurring theme of life trajectories, often coming from rigid ideas of Islam towards something more progressive, and it starts to feel repetitive. I don’t mean to knock the validity of the stories and experiences shared here, but this kind of general memoir-style writing is most interesting when the person writing is either well-known or exceptional in some way, and given that this anthology is deliberately compiled from the stories of everyday, non-famous Muslims, there’s often nothing particularly unusual about their lives. In other words, the stories are often very honest and human, but (especially in chapters when the writing is weaker) they just aren’t always that interesting to read. At times, the book reads more like a series of testimonials about how people ended up finding a home with Muslim for Progressive Values, and some of the pieces would probably be better off on the organisation’s website than in a book about progressive Muslim stories.
I actually think this anthology would have worked better as a collection of more focused stories or reflective pieces on particular aspects of Islam, rather than looking so generally at the writers’ life paths as they relate to Islam. Mona Eltahawy’s piece, for example, takes as a starting point a moment while teaching that led her and her students to reflect on issues of sexual purity in conservative Christian and Muslim communities. This serves as a much more engaging chapter to read than some of the other “life story”-type pieces, and I would have liked to see more written in that style. I also would have been interested in hearing more about progressive communities aside from MPV, or about struggles or tensions within progressive groups. (I can’t be the only one who’s experienced that, right?)
Zonneveld writes in the book’s introduction that
“It is very likely that you have met many Muslims like us before. We are your neighbours and colleagues. And maybe, through the stories presented here, you will see yourself in us.”
Although the writing could have been improved, Progressive Muslim Identities reflects lives of a group of Muslims living and understanding Islam in unorthodox and imperfect ways, and challenges assumptions (from inside and outside of Muslim communities) about what it means to be Muslim.