The Common Good
June 2006

The Faces Of Islam

by Laurna Strikwerda | June 2006

What does it mean to be female, Muslim, and American?

“It’s hard for most people to understand that we Muslims don’t fit into boxes,” writes Yousra Fazili in Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak, an anthology of essays by American Muslim women. Fazili’s statement is emblematic of many women here who “don’t remember a time when they weren’t both American and Muslim.”

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Many Americans still think of Islam in monolithic terms, and link it indelibly to the Arab world, fundamentalism, and, most frequently, the repression of women. But as these writers demonstrate, the tapestry of Islam is much more diverse. About 80 percent of Muslims live outside the Arab world, including a small percentage in the United States—about 7 million. For those Muslims, there is often tension between American culture and Muslim religion.

Living Islam Out Loud gives extraordinary insight into what it means to be female, Muslim, and American. The voices here help break down the false barriers of American vs. Muslim while also demonstrating women’s empowerment. Themes about negotiating culture, romantic relationships, and faith and spiritual journeys often intersect in the 18 short essays that comprise the book.

The majority of writers come from families that immigrated to the United States from the Middle East and Asia, but the book also includes two essays by African-American Muslim women—voices that are often forgotten in discussions of Islam. Precious Rasheeda Muhammad and Khadijah Sharif-Drinkard describe a distinctly American Islam that has been part of U.S. history for hundreds of years, since its beginnings with African slavery.

While all of the essays touch on cultural intersections, several essays focus on this theme in relation to spiritual and faith journeys. Mohja Kahf, like others, describes her journey from a rejection of Islam, which she viewed as entirely oppressive, to embracing progressive Islam. She re-examines Islamic teachings and discovers the rights embodied for women within the faith. Importantly, she uses this newfound religious vision for activism within the Muslim community through her work in a battered women’s shelter.

THE RELATIONSHIP between religion and culture is an ongoing tension in these women’s lives, as it is in the many debates about the nature of contemporary Islam.

Feminist writers have generally approached this dilemma in two ways, both of which are embodied in these essays. For Khalida Saed, who represents one perspective, repression and patriarchy are not Muslim religious traits, but cultural practices. Kahf criticizes that approach, saying Islam is “what people practice as Islam....[It] is always manifested inside a particular culture and in specific, earth-rooted bodies.” But both women embrace the idea that it is “our job now [to] birth a new Islam, a new Islamic culture.”

Asra Nomani, a West Virginia Muslim writer and activist, is a prominent participant in this intra-Islamic dialogue. While she is featured in Living Islam Out Loud, her book Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam is well worth reading on its own. It’s a rich memoir of her personal experiences with Islam, and she includes, via personal anecdotes, valuable information on Islamic history and law.

Nomani was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, by Indian Muslim parents. As an adult, she watched as her local mosque became increasingly dominated by conservative men. Women were prevented from entering the mosque’s main area, from leading prayers, and from holding leadership positions on the board (see Sojourners, June 2005).

Nomani’s effort to find a more just vision of Islam led her to embark on a Hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims. Her journey through holy sites in Saudi Arabia, the center of puritanical Wahabbist ideology, offers a surprising vision of gender equality. Although the Saudi government’s conservatism is evident in its strict legalism—Nomani could technically be punished for bringing along her infant son, Shibli, who was born out of wedlock—the history of the Hajj and Nomani’s experience of it are powerful. She is part of a mixed group of men and women who circle the Ka’aba, participating side by side in one of the most central experiences of Islam.

This experience differs radically from the gender segregation at her local mosque, and this juxtaposition motivates Nomani toward education and activism. Like Kahf, she arms herself with knowledge of Islamic law and is able to articulate the gap between what is espoused in the religion and what is practiced. Her story, like those in Living Islam Out Loud, demonstrates what it means to have a deep, active, and courageous faith.

Laurna Strikwerda is a policy and programming intern at Call to Renewal and plans to pursue a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies.

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