Hasan grew up in a Pakistani-American Muslim household in Pueblo, Colorado. She attended a Catholic High School, went to Wellesley for college, then NYU Law School, all the time trying to be both part of American mainstream and part of the Muslim community.
In my opinion, religion serves three functions: (1) to explain the world, (2) as a source of ethics and (3) to engender a sense of community. The author wisely stays away from the first (there is, however, a retelling of the Adam and Eve story from the Islamic perspective). She spends most of the book detailing the Quran as a source of sound ethics and discussing her place as a Muslim in her community (global Islam, and non-Muslim America). Regarding the Quran as a source of ethics, she does an excellent job presenting the commonality between the laws and constitution of a modern democracy like the US and the Quran and the earliest of Muslim rules. I also like the chapter on Sufism, which links many threads of Sufi thought from Turkey and Iran to the subcontinent.
The book would have benefited had it been an honest examination of her faith, warts and all, because after all the title Why I am a Muslim, implies choice. She does not articulate what her choice would have been if she were not born into a Muslim family. In the introduction (p. xii-xiv) the author asks "Islam does not preach violent aggression against one's enemies. Do you honestly think I would be Muslim if that were true?". Since at this point we don't know anything about the author, how can the reader answer that? At the end of first chapter while detailing the first of the seven reasons as to why she is a Muslim she states, "I am a Muslim for many reasons, but one of them is that I was born Muslim. I can't imagine being anything else." Most of the personal stories she recounts tell of her dealings as a Muslim with the external world, but few discuss her own relationship with God. The closest she comes is when she injured her leg in a ski accident and needed her faith to withstand the pain as she climbed her stairs. This is however, not to belittle Hasan's courage in standing up to the criticisms that she receives from both non-Muslim Americans and Muslims for her choices (e.g. wearing a veil or not).
As it stands, the author's motive seems to be to present an idealistic and simplified view of Islam and many thorny facts are either white-washed or swept under the rug. She only once alluded to being upset about an edict in the Quran, the one regarding the smaller inheritance for females. But the next day her Professor explains about the greater responsibility of the male to provide for his family and household, therefore they get to inherit more, and everything is right with her world again. But she fails to note that the role of the provider also accords greater privileges and power to the man. What happens if the male cannot be a provider? While Hasan details the lack of inheritance and low economic worth among pre-Islamic Arab women, yet she also presents the case of Khadijah, who as a widow was considerably wealthy, ran her own caravan-trading business, employed the Prophet and at the age of 40 proposed to him. How does one explain this anomaly in pre-Islamic Arabia?
Sometimes in her zest for presenting an ideal Muslim world, she ties herself up in knots. She recounts the case of Amina Lawal, a woman who was sentenced by a Nigerian Sharia court to stoning for adultery. She was later spared but other women have faced similar sentences. Hasan, explains it first by saying that the Quranic punishment for adultery is flogging and not stoning, but most importantly, four witnesses to the actual sexual act must come forward in court. As the latter is next to impossible, the flogging is "a legal fiction of sorts, designed to discourage adultery but unenforceable on its face" (pg. 137). However, Hasan fails to note that the while a majority of Islamic jurisprudence considers a child born of such act as "circumstantial evidence" regarding adultery, pregnant single women continue to be prosecuted (while the men do not face similar punishment). Considering her training as a lawyer one would have liked the author to draw more subtle distinctions about punishment for adultery. Just saying "it is not part of Islam" does not absolve the Muslim community from its responsibility towards such women. I would have liked her to highlight efforts being made to bring greater gender equality within the judicial systems in Muslim countries. Earlier she writes on pg 126 that "...Sex outside of marriage, or with a woman one was not married to, could have a negative fallout for the woman. She could become pregnant and face the harsh critique and mistreatment of her peers while the father would be unknown and blameless. For that reason, any child born in an Islamic household is the responsibility of the male head of the household." I find this problematic because she falls into the trap of blaming the woman and not the society which is discriminatory (at the very least) in its condemnation.
Her readings of history are spotty. For instance, she claims Fatima to be the only daughter of the Prophet to survive. Not true. Four daughters survived, including Fatima. No male children survived childhood. Further only Fatima's progeny survived, none from the other sisters. Hence the Prophet's lineage is traced through her. How did the scholars of Muslim history she acknowledges for vetting her book let this one slide? At various times she describes her father's migration from India to Pakistan due to partition. There is no sense that the bloody Hindu-Muslim population exchange happened to both communities and in both directions. A parenthetical remark (especially as this book is targeted to the American public not known for their world knowledge) would have been sufficient to give a more complete picture.
I also find her to be disingenuous about the issue of separation of church and state in Islam and about the role of patriarchy. She claims there is always such a separation and all Muslims take this for granted. Not so in my experience. She also states that regardless of patriarchy in the 'outside' Muslim world (i.e. outside of the house where in traditional Muslim societies women have a marginal presence at best), women have always ruled home and hearth. This is true from China to the West and the ability of some women to rule home and hearth is not a reliable indicator of the state of women's rights of that region.
Notwithstanding the criticisms, I did like the book. And here's why -- it is a fast and easy read (170 pages) and an excellent introduction to the lives of mainstream American Muslim women, particularly the author's as a "young, professional, American Muslim woman with an Asian heritage" (p. xiv). I liked the format of the personal stories interwoven with Islamic history and parables which illuminated an immediacy and connection to not only the lives of Muslims but also to those of non-Muslim Americans. I look forward to the day when explaining Halal or Eid will become unnecessary for the author (and me) and we can go on to more substantial questions about what makes us different (or same). And I think 20 years later, having experienced more, the author will be able to write a more nuanced, deeper book about being a Muslim woman.
Book Description: The author, a South-Asian-American, California attorney, and practicing Muslim, writes with the hope of modifying common American stereotypes about Muslims: that they approved of 9/11, that they pray to a different God, and that Islam oppresses women. Her writing encompasses her knowledge of her culture and religion, and her own experiences.
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