This site has several book reviews, two of which I have pasted here. I also recommend these books, and especially find that If I Should Speak is a wonderful way of letting people know about Islam in an unpressured manner. Wonderful writing!
Please visit her website: http://www.sunnisisters.com
Alternate text link: From My Sisters’ Lips
See below for more purchase links.
Although I first read about this book in a newspaper article about a year and a half ago, I didn’t feel any compelling need to pick it up. “Another book about women converting to Islam?” I asked myself. Let’s face it, there are a few of these books out there already, and they often deal with the same matters over and over again. Actually, the last one I read was so negative towards the whole enterprise (the usual Arab and Shari’ah bashing) that I figured I was done with the genre.
Then a friend spoke warmly about this book and sent it to me. I figured since I haven’t reviewed anything in a while, and this is sort of up my alley, as far as the blog and my sites are concerned, I’d review it.
The book is divided into two sections: “Finding Islam” and “Living Islam.” “Finding Islam” deals, as the name implies, with the journey to Islam. Ms. Robert focuses largely on her own personal story, and it is this section of the book that is most lively and original (and you definitely get the impression, throughout the book, that Robert herself is a lively and original person).
The next chapter deals with the different experiences of her friends, and this is also, in it’s own way, different. Many of the “Women Choose Islam!” books and websites tend to highlight women who were either deeply religious Christians or militant atheist feminists before seeing the Light of Islam. Roberts looks at the girls next door who convert: the religious Christians, the punk rockers, the feminists, the ravers, the single mothers, DJs, and so on. Some are from ethnic Muslim backgrounds, but had almost no Islamic education; others are from a variety of ethnicities, including Irish, Caribbean, and Chinese. Robert herself is part Scottish and part Zulu, and was raised in Zimbabwe. Few people who want to highlight the number of women who embrace Islam are willing to embrace their full-ness: the fact that one is a single mother, that one has tattoos, that one is from lower socio-economic class, and so forth. Indeed, the Muslim community seems to have a vested interest in portraying female converts to Islam as largely White, middle or upper class virgins who encountered Islam through innocent friendships with Middle Eastern men whom they later marry and have a dozen children with. Na’ima Robert’s sisters are real, and that realness is in your face. In a good way, mind you, but it can’t be denied. Sisters can’t be swept under the carpet or dismissed as not being a “real” part of the community. (It happens; don’t deny it)
Next, Robert deals with “The Joys and The Triumphs” of becoming / being a Muslim woman: the faith, the Qur’an & Sunnah, hijab, and sisterhood. This chapter was so perky and positive, my inner cynic had to remind me that the following chapter is about “The Problems and Challenges.” In this chapter, Robert deals with a problem and challenge that many Muslims are loathe to admit to publicly, and that is the difficulty in adjusting your lifestyle. And by this I mean beyond throwing away all the pork in the fridge. Sisters admit that they had problems losing friends, not going to clubs or pubs anymore, and so on. Because of the judge-mentality in the community, many ex-non-Muslims are reluctant to speak too publicly or openly about the difficulty of leaving these “fun” things behind. The response one often gets is that if one’s ‘iman was “real,” then one wouldn’t miss dancing with friends all night at all. One wouldn’t miss one’s “kafir friends.” And on and on. While it is an important Islamic principle that we conceal past sins, I also think it is important that Muslims, somewhere, put out there that one may very well have a difficult time giving up the things that are so acceptable in the non-Muslim lifestyle as a means of supporting new Muslims and encouraging seeking non-Muslims who think they won’t be able to do it. Robert’s sisters tell these folks, “I did it, and so can you.” To that end, Robert and her sisters also speak frankly about the struggles they went through to accept some core Islamic beliefs and ideals, including submitting oneself to the Highest Power — that of Allah subhannahu wa ta’ala.
Another aspect mentioned in “Challenges” is the hijab, but what is welcome about it here is that the challenges and problems sisters face with regards to hijab are spoken about from the perspective of Love for the Creator and Obedience to Him, hence love for the hijab. In this day and age, it is important that those of us who now wear the hijab without any difficulty (regardless of whether or not we are ex-non-Muslims) remember that there often was, at some point in our life, difficulty with it. Many sisters who are considering hijab often find a lack of support from Muslim sisters who’ve been wearing it for a while. When they go looking for content discussing the difficulties of it, they often encounter material written by women who have abandoned this Commandment of the Creator, and this material, if we’re being honest, is often written from a point of view that is hostile to the hijab (both the dress and the behavior). It’s important, I think, for sisters who embrace and love their hijab and consider it an extension of their physical selves outside of the home to speak / write about the difficulties, as Robert’s sisters have done here, so that other sisters find encouragement and, yes, validation in that.
The second part of the book deals with “Living Islam,” and right away, Robert dives into the #1 Muslim women’s issue: hijab. On the one hand, it bothered me a great deal — is this what is most important? On the other, I wondered if she didn’t put it first so we could get it out of the way and move on to other things. Let’s face it; a lot of times when we read these books about “women and Islam,” and so on, we skip ahead to the chapter that deals with hijab so we can see just what the author has to say about it (and sometimes, judge the rest of the book on that).
“Living Islam” is where I started to have some problems with the book. Throughout the book, Robert uses the term “we” to refer to — well, who? Converts in general? Muslim women in general? Or she and her friends? She says in the author’s note that the book is based on personal experiences only, but it often seems as though it is meant to be about a group much larger than one person’s circle of friends. It depends on the context of the section, but sometimes “we” is just too vague, leaving one with the feeling that if one isn’t doing exactly as “we” are, then one is outside of the circle. “We … (are) clad from head to toe in all-enveloping black, with only our eyes showing.” Well, we who, sister? The niqab is, in my personal reading, something assumed of the readers of this book or the sisters in general (again, hard to tell), and several times while reading, I felt that the language was alienating for sisters who (a) don’t wear the overhead abaya (called a jilbab in this book) (b) don’t wear niqab and / or (c) don’t wear all black.
It is with clothes that women in general, throughout the world, throughout time, compete with one another, and like it or not, Muslim women in hijab are no exception. True or not? I’m not saying this is Robert’s intention, but a few times in the book, it sure did come off that way. Okay, so ten years ago, we had slim pickin’s as far as what jilbabs were available, but I didn’t see the point in making fun of a style that is still quite popular with some women, or implying that we’re all hot mamas under our modest dress. “Maybe you are, sister,” I thought as I read that, “but I’m just naturally more like the dowdy frumpy mama you’re so loathe to be like.”
Sometimes, we Muslim women so much want to show non-Muslims that we’re “just like them,” that we’re not deformed under our veils that we say things that are hurtful to a large portion of Muslim women — either by making fun of old fashioned or more plain dress, or dissing Earth mama types, or whatever. As I said, I do not believe this was the author’s intention at all, but as a reader, I felt that certain passages came off that way.
Another problem I had with this area of discussion is that while difficulties putting on the hijab were mentioned in the “Challenges” chapter, there was no part of the book where difficulty with niqab was mentioned. This plays into the old stereotype that all niqabis love niqab all the time and that if you don’t love it, then there is something seriously wrong with your ‘iman. Now, some niqabis say that the hard part is the hijab — once you’ve got that one, then the niqab isn’t that hard. But I still think the “Challenges” chapter as well as the chapter “Covering Our Beauty” would have been more rounded if niqab (or full abaya) was mentioned as a stumbling block. The assumption in the book seems to be that, eventually, we’ll all reach a point on our path where we’ll put on the full abaya and the niqab. In other words, it’s only a matter of time. I don’t necessarily think it was intended that way, but it left me feeling that this is what was meant.
A third problem I had was that the author writes, “After a lifetime of showing off our clothes and our bodies, we suddenly felt shy to flaunt ourselves in public.” I don’t know about anyone else in the world, but quite honestly, in all the years I wore non-hijab compliant clothing, my intention was not to show off clothes, or to flaunt my body. I strongly dislike this constant implication about non-Muslim or non-hijabi women. Sometimes, you’re just dressed in those shorts and tee shirt b/c it’s hot and that’s what your culture is and you don’t know any better. I know there are many women who do wear clothes to show off their bodies and beauty (Robert mentions, several times, the travails of being a beautiful young woman, and how beautiful women are accorded certain types of treatment by men), but I wasn’t one of them, and I know a lot of you aren’t. At the same time, there are plenty of Muslim women in hijab who show their clothes off. Riya’ (showing off) in terms of the physical realm is not something limited to mini-skirt clad hipsters; you see it in modestly dressed women who are showing off their scarves, or who has the longer khimar, or who has the nicest shoes, and so forth.
But back to the book. Other chapters deal with marriage, motherhood, seeking knowledge and finding true submission, and sisterhood. I think I would have preferred to see the chapter on seeking knowledge and true submission to the Creator come first, because it is the true basis of everything else that follows: hijab, marriage, and motherhood. In these late chapters, the original bubbliness of the book comes back, without the unintentionally wounding words that accompany pretty much any discussion of Muslim women’s clothing (or women’s clothing in general!). In the chapter on marriage, Robert deals frankly with divorce, with sisters sharing their divorce experiences, something we usually treat with secrecy.
In all, I found the book to be an interesting read. The use of the word “revert” was a personal pet peeve, as was the ambiguous “we” used throughout the book. I was disappointed that Robert didn’t deal deeply with some of the big challenges of being a Muslim woman (esp. an ex-non-Muslim) and that is the Muslim community. In Robert’s circle, apparently the women attend the masjid quite regularly. Is this why Robert didn’t address the issue of masjid access – something that is a factor in the lives of thousands of Muslim women in the UK and beyond? Robert clearly wants to lift sisters up, hence the “We Are Family”-ish sisterhood stuff, yet for many, many Muslima converts, the lack of real sisterhood is a major, major factor in their diyn. In addition, in good conscience, I would warn any readers to ignore the “Further Reading” section in the back (although, oddly, one of the books is one I contributed to years and years ago). Finally, I felt that some of the experiences and references were so specific to the United Kingdom that they may seem out of place for American readers. The Muslim community in the US is, after all, quite different than the one in the UK.
Overall, I felt that this book was a breath of fresh air in the “Women Who Found Islam!” genre. It is certainly a fair balance to the more pessimistic “Believing As Ourselves,” which I found angry and depressing, and better than “Daughters of Another Path,” since it was written by Muslim women. The fact that “Believing as Ourselves” is so popular (despite the number of sisters who have told me that they also felt it was too negative) speaks to our tendency, as ex-non-Muslims in a problem-riddled community to be extremely cynical and hard-headed (no, we’re not the perfect Muslims, people). We sometimes take our problems with Muslims out on the diyn, particularly with the ‘ulema of the diyn who, if we’re being honest, have nothing to do with the fact that you got snubbed by the Arab guys, or that the Pakistani ladies won’t salaam you. It is true that the Muslim community as a whole needs a change in view and action, but it’s also true that converts are not immune from attitude issues and other problems as well.
Whatever faults it has, I’d rather see Robert’s book become the more popular one in this genre, because in the end, it embodies the Islamic virtues of optimism and hope better than the other two. Robert’s book is about sisters doing for self, it’s about finding joy in Islam and, yes, in the Muslim community. And that sort of talk is something that Muslim converts (male and female) sorely need.
Telegraph Interview This was the article where I first heard about the book
There’s not that much contemporary Islamic / Muslim fiction out there, especially in the United States. Umm Zakiyyah’s two books, If I Should Speak and A Voice, the sequel, have long been talked about among American Muslims. I finally got my hands on copies of them…
Umm Zakiyyah will stand, in our own community’s history, as one of the pioneers of Islamic American / Muslim American fiction. The book is Muslim authored and it might also be considered Islamic in the sense that it deals with diyn issues and adheres to certain boundaries of adab (no foul language, and so forth). When reading both books, however, one struggles to keep in mind that they are fictional stories dealing with one particular point of view and one particular group of people. As with everything in the media about Islam and Muslims, it’s very, very easy to get into the mindset that these characters and this prose represents all of us to the world out there. If you read these books with that mindset, you’re liable to get very frustrated.
If I Should Speak is about a born-again Christian college student named Tamika who needs to find a subject for a presentation in her religious studies class. She chooses Islam, and soon discovers that her new roommates, Dee and Aminah, are Muslims. While living with them, she gets information for her paper, but also, for the first time, confronts her stereotypes about Muslism and has real interactions with them.
In Dee, she finds a kindred soul. Dee is a popular woman on campus, because of her beauty pagent victories and her sweet singing voice. Tamika is also a singer and aspiring songwriter, and together the two of them bond over fashion and music. Dee, whose real name is Durrah, is the daughter of Latino converts to Islam. Once pious and strong in her faith, college has made her confused about the diyn and dazzled by the dunya. She removes her hijab and wears the latest fashions. She talks about “returning” to Islamic practice someday, and this aspect of Dee is something I’ll return to later.
Dee is the longtime friend of Aminah, the third roommate. Tamika finds Aminah to be patronizing and incredibly annoying, and chances are that readers will too. Aminah is a sort of archetype of the ideal second generation American Muslima: multi-racial, the daughter of born American converts, modest, knowledgable, intelligent, a high achiever. The problem is that many times, Aminah doesn’t come across as knowledgable so much as a know-it-all. In Aminah’s perfections, the reader is likely to find faults. It’s Aminah’s wonderfulness that makes her so irritating. Aminah’s brother Suleyman is a big man on campus, and Tamika can’t stand him either. Every month, his column appears in the student paper, A Voice, and is filled with admonitions and reproach for the students’ lifestyle. Tamika, like other students, resents this about him, and one can see that, in a way, Suleyman and Aminah are two peas in a pod.
A fourth character in both novels is Dr. Sanders, Tamika’s religious studies professor. His character and story is never fully developed, and one wonders if Umm Zakiyyah is planning to make him the central character of a future work. When Tamika chooses Islam as her study topic, he approves and reveals his own soul struggle with accepting its Truth.
As Tamika researches Islam and talks to Aminah and Dee, she finds herself struggling with aspects of Trinitarian belief that she’d never quite understood. She talks with a pastor, but the results are unsatisfactory. She argues and debates with Aminah, and Aminah always comes out with the upper hand in the debate. Aminah’s answers and arguments are always the most natural, most logical things, whether the topic is tawhid, hijab, jihad, or polygamy. Unlike most of us, Aminah doesn’t get flustered and frustrated when confronted with hostile or friendly debates. There are no “um”s and “ahhh”s and “uhhhh”s in her answers to Tamika’s challenges. There are also no “I don’t know”s. The impression the reader gets — at least from the first book — is that practicing Muslims have all the answers, and no one else has any.
After a few conversations with Aminah, and a look at the Qur’an, Tamika’s convinced in her heart, but finds it difficult to let go of her desire to be a singer and songwriter. Troublingly, Aminah doesn’t point out that a woman can and should take shahada, even if she’s performing songs for a crowd every night. The idea of sinning Muslims is one that shadows both books, particularly in the person of Dee. What is troubling is that my reading of the book is that Dee still believes in the core of Islam, even though she’s wearing fashionable clothing, singing, and having a fiancee (of “Muslim descent,” with whom she plans to “return to Islam” later). From the books, however, including the internal and external dialogues / monologues of Aminah, Suleyman, and Tamika, it seems that there is a sort of takfir being made on Dee. There is the idea, inferred in both books, that Dee is destined to burn in the fire forever for her singing, revealing dress, and laziness with the prayer, even though she never renounces belief in the shahadatayn, or in any aspect of Islamic belief (or even in the necessity of the prayer she approaches half-heartedly). I wondered where was the consideration of mercy for Dee, as after a certain point, no one seems to think it worthwhile to make du’a for her forgiveness — it’s as if her place in Hell is guaranteed, her fate sealed.
It is at moments like this that the reader is reminded that this book is written from a particular perspective, and that perspective may not be one that the reader believes in her/himself. In another passage of the book, Dee’s innocent little sister approaches Tamika and repeatedly asks her why she wants to burn in Hell for eternity. The ‘ulema themselves differed about who the non-Muslim denizens of Hell are. One question is whether or not non-Muslims will be held accountable for not accepting a religion they have only heard the worst things about. For Tamika, although she is slowly learning at that point of the book, this is the case. All she knows about Islam is war and women being beaten. It is also problematic to me, as a Muslim, that it is inferred that this is a direct and good approach to da’wah. “Become Muslim or you’ll burn in Hell.” Perhaps for some people, this approach does actually work, but it assumes a lot about the non-Muslim individual, and seems like it might cause more damage than good.
Also problematic for me was the idea that religious, practicing Muslims teach their children things like this, or that it is something we should be teaching our children. By all means, we do need to teach them what the consequences of disbelief are, but I’m not sure that burning flames are the best thing to put into the heads of small children. My belief may be reinforced by personal experience with this, when a teacher, who followed a particular minhaj, taught this to my daughter’s kindergarten class, and numerous children had nightmares and crying fits at home (the teacher was eventually removed).
So, as I mentioned before, it is at times like these in the book that the reader must struggle to get past the idea that this is “Islam as it Should Be” and try to simply approach the book as a work of fiction dealing with particular people with particular understandings. If you can do that, you may enjoy the story.
In any case, all of the imagery of Hellfire, combined with what she reads n the Qur’an about the dunya and jehannam and her own doubts about her Christian belief torment Tamika. She knows inside that Islam is the Truth and that she needs to submit, but as with many, many people in the world, the dunya holds her back. It is only after a tragedy strikes the college that she is able to utter the shahada and enter the fold of Islam.
One problem I have personally observed in Muslim / Islamic fiction is the tendency of writers to sermonize. “Everything is an opportunity for da’wah or enjoining the good,” we think, and so many Muslim / Islamic short stories and books are filled with passages that don’t further the story but simply lecture the reader. Umm Zakiyyah is better than others in this regard (there was one book I couldn’t even finish b/c of this), but she still does it. There is a point where Aminah makes an argument about the linguistics of the words “abiyah” and “jilbaab,” a point completely unnecessary to the story but a hot topic in certain circles (the idea is that using the word “jilbab” to refer to the modern garment is an innovation and incorrect).
There are whole passages that are verbatim quotes from da’wah books or the Qur’an. At one point, there is an multi-page passage that is supposed to be Tamika’s internal dialogue, but instead comes off as Umm Zakiyyah lecturing the readers on the fate of the soul and remembrance of Death. Surely, these are valuable things, but they don’t help the story move very far. In fact, as a Muslim reader, I started to feel irritated, as if the writer was trying to persuade me to convert. The core readership of these books is Muslim, and many times, the book reads as though Umm Zakiyyah is writing in the hopes that some non-Muslim somewhere will pick the book up and have her or his heart moved through it. This is admirable, but as I said, it comes off as lecture-y, and I felt like I was being da’watized for a religion and beliefs that I already have… as if my existent beliefs were not good enough. I also, in a way, felt that if I want to read these sort of admonitions, I can go read a book by a sheikh, not pick up a novel.
A Voice is the sequel to If I Should Speak and picks up where the first left off, in the first month or so after Tamika’s conversion. This book is both more involved, more enjoyable, and more troubling, in some ways, than the first.
A Voice, which is much longer than the first book, allows for more character development, as far as Amina, Tamika, Suleyman, and a few other characters are concerned, but it also gives Umm Zakiyyah the opportunity to meander with different subplots and storylines, and it gets a bit messy at times.
This book expands on Suleyman and Aminah’s family, introducing us to Ishmael and Sarah, their parents, as well as Sarah’s mother and her sister, Kate. Although this book is still mainly about Tamika and her journey in Islam, Umm Zakiyyah uses the characters of Sarah’s mother, Kate, and relatives of Tamika’s to make da’wah points to the reader. Somehow, however, it was a little less grating in this book than it was in the first one.
One aspect of the storyline that bothered me a great deal involves Tamika, Suleyman, and a brother named Omar. Less than two months after Tamika’s converted, Omar starts asking after her, and Aminah subtly encourages her and starts chatting up marriage. When Tamika says she wants to wait until she’s finished college to get married, Aminah makes a comment to the effect that waiting for marriage is strange and rare among Muslims. I nearly choked when I read that, considering so many Muslims actually do wait. Meanwhile, Omar’s been Muslim for only about a year, after converting in prison. The idea that he himself might not be ready for marriage is never discussed, and in fact, Tamika’s aversion to marrying a recent ex-con is frowned upon by Aminah.
In addition to that, another sub-story contradicts that when Tamika meets a Pakistani sister named Zahra and the Pakistani characters, as well as Suleyman, all ponder on how Muslims are all waiting to marry (Suleyman, as you may guess, does not approve of this custom and thinks it shows Muslims value getting a degree over obeying Allah).
In another passage, an older Pakistani woman lets loose on Tamika for considering marriage before she’s graduated, and Tamika becomes extremely angry. However, later on, Umm Zakiyyah shows us reflecting on the older woman’s words, and taking the wisdom from them — that if a young woman marries without a degree or some skills behind her, she may find herself in trouble if the marriage is not successful. We all know there is a tremendous amount of pressure on women, esp. converts, and esp. young converts to marry right away, and IME with certain communities, there is this attitude that the man will take care of you b/c it’s his right and you don’t need to worry about it. However, those same communities have a very high divorce rate and a lot of the women struggle financially or engage in serial marriages in order to get by. We can’t have women, esp. converts and esp. young converts, thinking marriage is the most acceptable route to keeping a roof over her head.
In fact, a large part of the book deals with Muslims in college, and some of the differences between people who take Islam as only part of their culture, and those who take Islam as a way of life. And while a lot of it rings true, to me, it was presented in a way that made me feel defensive. For example, the description of Tamika’s college’s MSA kind of riled me up, until I remembered that my MSA was almost exactly the same — an ethnic association with almost no room for converts or those who were wearing hijab and praying.
At the same time, even though I went to one of the nation’s most notorious “party schools” (whatever that means), and even though I know what college life can be like, I got a little annoyed at the constant harping in the book about non-Muslim college students. The fact of the matter is that there is a lot going on with most college men and women besides parties, beer, and sleeping around. It’s not only Muslims who take their futures, their studies, and their bodies seriously, and I kind of resented the way non-Muslim students at this fictional campus were portrayed. I can say the same for the person of Kate, whom the author uses to write about non Muslim single career-oriented women. While there is definitely some truth to the things she writes — the revolving door relationships, the lack of spiritual and emotional fulfillment — it’s not true across the board for every woman like that and feels like one of those “this is why we’re better than them” things. At one point, there is a comment made to the effect that the general population doesn’t understand real commitment, which bothered me, because it’s not true of everyone in this country and seems to mock the stable families that do actually exist in this country.
When Suleyman thinks back on the time his family has known Tamika, since she moved in with his sister as a non Muslim roommate, he thinks about how there was always something dignified and spiritual about her. Now, of course, these thoughts of his are part of the plot, but I worried that it plays into that idea that only “special” folk convert to Islam.
In the end, I felt that Tamika’s journey in Islam wasn’t entirely realistic. In less than a month, she’s wearing hijab and loving it, never struggling with it but once. This happens, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s the common experience. In less than a year, Tamika’s memorized large passages of the Qur’an — and their meanings in English. While I’m sure this also happens, the experience of most people I know is one of struggling just to get through the Fatiha and the last three chapters in the first year. Tamika barely struggles with any aspect of Islamic practice or adab — not fasting (Ramadan is not portrayed in either book that I can recall), not praying, not the social etiquettes, nothing. Is this a realistic or ideal portrait of the average convert? Is it meant to be an encouragement to new converts who pick up the book or is it the author’s idea of what the average convert’s journey is like? Tamika’s major struggle in the book seems to be in her interpersonal relations, not with becoming a Muslim in a non-Muslim country. While it would be nice to read a book about Muslims focusing on this type of issue — regular, everyday stuff that everyone can relate to — in trying to deal with both topics, and glossing one over, it feels a little scattered.
At this point, one has to remember, this book is not supposed to represent all of us, and all of our lives, to all people. This is a portrait of a particular group of people in a particular place and time with particular understandings of Islam. Like it or not, some American converts’ experiences with “ethnic” Muslims are those who approach Islam casually or who forgo aspects of Islam so that they “fit in”, and I don’t think Umm Zakiyyah means for Zahra and her family to represent all Pakistanis or immigrant Muslims. And it is definitely possible for a person to convert and find all of her struggles center around other people, and not practicing a religion whose dictates are almost opposite of the popular culture. I’m sure there are converts somewhere out there who are easily able to memorize the Qur’an, and so, as a reader, I have to say that Tamika is one of those special individuals.
Is Umm Zakiyyah’s portrait of Tamika’s relative ease in learning and accepting practices and ada’ib supposed to be realistic or ideal? I don’t know. If you want to enjoy this book as it should be enjoyed, you simply have to remember that this is a work of fiction, and decide that this is just one unique person. Although some readers may, like myself, find the descriptions of non-Muslims simplistic and stereotypical, the fact of the matter is that there are many Muslims, including those who convert, who do view non-Muslims this way. Is it right or accurate? That might not be the point. The point may simply be that they have a right to their voice as much as the rest of us do. Should Aminah, or Suleyman, or Umm Zakiyyah be silenced for their ideas? I don’t think so, even if I disagree with some of those ideas.
Another important aspect of Tamika’s journey to Islam in the book is her relationship with her mother and her family. Her mother, Thelma, is a committed Christian who tries to exert control over everyone around her. She’s already driven off Tamika’s father, Craig, and her brother and sister, Philip and Latonya, and Tamika knows she can’t fail her mother in the role of “golden child.” When her mother learns that she’s converted, she tosses Tamika out on the streets. Her normally accepting Aunt Jackie seconds Thelma in this, tossing stinging barbs at Tamika when she makes a timid attempt to bridge the gaps.
This experience becomes an opportunity for Tamika to renew her bond with Latonya, but it also leaves her twisting in the wind. With no home, no money, and no clothes, Tamika is left to fend for herself at the age of 19. Along come the Ali siblings, Suleyman and Aminah, to rescue her.
The Ali family represents the ideal American Muslim family in this book. All four are strong on the diyn. They’re educated professionals who are kind and loving to each other and everyone they meet. Throughout the second book Sarah and Ishmael continually perform acts of extraordinary kindness for Tamika, the new sister in their midst, from giving her a home to driving her all over Atlanta. In a way, such a picture is encouraging, because it’s what we want to see for our new sisters and brothers. In another way, I feel too cynical about the way most new Muslims are really “welcomed” to take it seriously.
In this book, the perfect Aminah begins to show cracks (besides the qualities of hers that might be annoying to the reader). We see that Aminah is quick to judge, and sometimes insensitive to others. She continually shows a lack of sensitivity to Tamika and says hurtful things to her, while at the same time, being a generous friend and sister. In this book, Aminah gains a third dimension. This Aminah is more real than the Aminah of If I Should Speak.
Suleyman, too, gets fleshed out in the sequel. Instead of the strong willed, sometimes harsh brother of the first book, Umm Zakiyyah shows us a brother riddled with doubts and contradictions. He’s still a young man, and sometimes confused about the path he should take for his future. It’s also Suleyman, the guy who comes off as so judgmental towards non-Muslims, who, in a way, becomes the instrument of healing for Thelma, Tamika, and her Aunt Jackie. At one point, Tamika thinks of Suleyman as a sort of prince, as royalty, and in a way, he is too good to be true. But maybe Muslims can do with a little idealism, with someone who embodies all these great things about the Sunnah and lives in our world today and now. Maybe Suleyman is, in a way, the sort of Muslim man a brother can aspire to be.
In the end, it is Tamika who is the realest of the characters. Tamika is moody and jumps to conclusions. She doesn’t always give people a fair shake, and she’s sometimes rude. She wavers, changes her mind, and kicks herself for the things she’s done — just like all of us do. Despite the way she seems to be presented as a perfect convert, she is not presented as a perfect human being.
Would I recommend these books? I definitely do. Umm Zakiyyah deserves respect and credit as a pioneering Muslim author of Islamic, American fiction. Her stories are, in a sense, original, giving readers a window into an experience many haven’t lived through, and showing us an authentically American Muslim life. Are the books perfect? No, they are not. Some readers might feel, at certain points, that they’re a captive audience being lectured to. For Muslims, some of the seeming inconsistencies might distract from the story. For example, the point is made, time and again, that Tamika’s talking to Omar on the phone or at her job is “sinful,” but the Muslims in here happily order Chinese take out and eat in non-Muslim restaurants with no mention of the word “zabiha.”
The dialogue is sometimes stilted, some passages run on too long, and the word “forced” (as in laugh and smile) is used way, way, way too often — sometimes once a page. Many passages come off as unauthentic, as if the writer chose making a point about Islam over prose that flows well. My inner freelance editor was making red marks and suggesting synonyms even as I stayed up half the night to finish both books. The best writing comes in the vivid descriptions of Tamika’s dreams, Dr. Sanders’ struggles, and Suleyman’s doubts and reminiscing.
In the end, the idea of these books makes up for their faults. I want a vibrant Muslim / Islamic American fiction genre, and I know that it will be years until we have books that are edited and published at the level of a Random House or Doubleday book. I want to support any Muslim, especially sisters, who takes the step of putting their writing out there. I want to support any Muslim who writes fiction without delving into anti-Islamic polemics and obscenity, as so many authors with Muslim names these days do. I want to read a book about Muslims where they aren’t complete and total hypocrites. The story is, in a very real way, original. The voices of people like Tamika, Sarah, Aminah, Dee, and Suleyman are virtually absent from American fiction — Umm Zakiyyah is introducing these people to the American readership, and she’s also mirroring at least some of the reality of a great many Muslims in this country. For all the things that grated on my nerves, for all the editorial bugaboos, I believe that If I Should Speak and A Voice are good reads, and I hope that they are eventually on the shelves and “to be read” piles of as many Muslim Americans as possible.
4 comments July 10th, 2006 <!–Umm Zaid–>
What I’m reading from today:
The Degrees of the Soul by Sheikh Abdal Khaliq al Shabrawi, which is basically a treatise on the states of the soul and his nasiha about them. It is very short.
Purification of the Soul by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. I’m not reading this one cover-to-cover. I’m just looking in the index and picking a chapter to read. I plan to read it front-to-back later, but for now, I just want to familiarize myself with the book (having listened to the course on tape). Actually, all of these books are like that for me.
The Removal of Cares by Sheikh Abd al Qadir al Jilani. I read this one cover-to-cover many years ago, left post-its as notes for particular passages, and now pick it up and read a discourse at a time, at random. I only wish that each discourse had a summary at the beginning, so you know what it’s dealing with. Today, I opened to the Sixth Discourse:
You really ought to desist from so much frivolous talk and gossip and wasting money. Do not spend too much time in the company of neighbors, friends, and acquaintances without good reason, for this is foolish. Most of what passes between two people is telling lies and backbiting, and it takes two to stage a sinful revolt. None of you should go out of the house except to attend to your own essential interests or those of your family. Do make the effort not to be the first to speak, but rather let your words be a response to someone who asks you about something — provided there is some mutual benefit to be gained by responding to him, otherwise you should not answer his question.
Indeed. If you want to read the rest of it, buy the book.
Don’t be Sad by ‘Aaidh ibn Abdullah al Qarni. This is a book that has many, many short chapters, some only one or two pages, and it’s advice on a variety of topics, mostly intended to lift people up out of a funk or even a depression, and to encourage people to remember Allah in their daily lives. He quotes from the Qur’an, Sunnah, the works of the great ‘ulema, psychologists, and other contemporary works. I try to read one or two short chapters before I go to sleep or just at some other point in the day.
2 comments May 5th, 2006 <!–Umm Zaid–>