A Muslim woman discusses the challenges of her faith, and her spiritual awakening, in this debut memoir.
In 9/11’s aftermath, Wahhaj, then a student pursuing a journalism degree at CUNY Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, confronted the ugly reality of prejudice against Muslims. Even some faculty members expressed febrile contempt for her beliefs, and she originally felt defenseless in the face of their discrimination. She came to believe that much of the antagonism directed toward Muslims was the result of ignorance. Wahhaj, who worked on the school newspaper, assumed a leadership position within the Muslim Student Association with the aim of spreading understanding regarding Islam or, at the very least, dispelling egregious misconceptions. In the process, she not only deepened her faith, but was provided with a series of opportunities to reflect on it and the difficulties attached to being a Muslim in a country largely not Muslim, and often radically secular. For example, she won an internship at a weekly newspaper in Queens but was unsure of what to do when a man offered to shake her hand, something prohibited by her religion. Later, the school newspaper’s editor-in-chief interrogated her on the issue of homosexuality, a subject she evaded for fear of appearing illiberal. Even her Student Association position created problems because, in the Muslim faith, leadership roles are typically reserved for men. Eventually, she married a man named Muhammad and moved to Egypt, where she had to reconcile her disdain for household chores, and her fierce sense of independence, with her marital obligations. Each difficulty the author encountered offers an opportunity to meditate deeply on what it means to be a Muslim. Her accounts should be particularly fascinating for those with intestinally modern sensibilities. For example, after receiving unwelcome attention from men at a computer lab in Egypt, she resolved to never leave the house again without being fully covered, and she frankly discusses the importance of female modesty. There is a similarly candid and sympathetic treatment of polygamy. While engagingly written and edifying for a non-Muslim, the arc of the memoir sometimes seems meandering, even for a brief remembrance. In addition, the story ends with jarring abruptness, leaving the reader with the suspicion that this is the first half of an uncompleted manuscript. Nevertheless, there is something gripping, and certainly timely, about the earnest attempt to calmly explain the radically unfamiliar.
A thought-provoking read, especially for those with a limited knowledge of Islam.