Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

In the U.S. where I live, the second Sunday of May is celebrated as mother’s day. As a girl it became linked in my mind with church celebrations of Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. I was raised Catholic, and while that no longer is my religion, the songs we sang to celebrate Mary powerfully shaped me and my early ideas about faith. I had a deep admiration for Mary’s courage and her sense of purpose. With Mary on my mind, I have been re-reading a couple of books.

978-1-62698-004-4To understand Mary in her cultural context and to explore the impact of her faith on her way of life, I recommend In Quest of the Jewish Mary by Mary Christine Athans. This book does a beautiful job of presenting historical details and guiding readers to imagine a figure of tremendous faith. The story opens with the personal journey of the author, who writes from a Catholic perspective that is full of respect for other faith traditions. This volume will be of interest to readers of any background who enjoy interfaith journeys. I wrote a complete review of Athans’ interesting book when it was published by Orbis Books in 2013.



For a discussion of scholarly studies on the role of Mary in Islam, I recommend Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam by Aliah Schleifer, former professor at the American University in Cairo. I have met many non-Muslims who are unaware of the importance of Mary in Islam. In Islam Jesus is considered a prophet, and his mother is honored for her deep faith and model of pious living. Her story is told in Chapter 19 of the Qur’an, entitled Maryam.

Do you have a favorite title about Mary? I invite you to share in the comments below.


Disclaimer: The books mentioned here are from my personal library. No fee was received for this review.


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As the humanitarian crisis in Syria escalates, I long to recapture the electric sense of hopefulness brought by the Arab Spring. Two years ago, people across North Africa and the Middle East bravely stepped forward to demand change from their governments. Readers have an opportunity to hear directly from movement participants in Demanding Dignity: Young voices from the front lines of the Arab revolutions, an excellent volume from White Cloud Press.

Editors Maytha Alhassen and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin brought together twenty contributors whose civic engagement and inspiration have been powerful tools. There is much sorrow in the essays, which document police brutality, imprisonment, and other injustices. Commenting on the violence, one essay asks,
if this is spring
what will winter be like?

However, there is a persistent thread of hope: “a seed has been planted”; “the work has begun”; “first small steps.” These writers bear witness to a potent force for change moving through their midst.

News reports make it clear that the revolutionary movements are unfinished. The Syrian people are under attack by their own government; troubles with the military persist in Egypt; unemployment continues across the region. However, hope has been awakened and it will not be crushed. The young people who are working for change in their countries will not be giving up. As a Syrian friend observed, “The older generation was scared. For decades, we lived with corruption. Now, the young people have said, ‘We have had enough.'”

As we keep our eyes on the Maghreb and Middle East, we are wise to welcome opportunities to hear the voices of participants living through these critical developments. Just today, news from Saudi Arabia announced the criminalization of domestic abuse in that country. This, too, is a social change that results from the ongoing activism of people who are committed to justice and dignity.

There is much to lament in the news, but the seeds of hope remain. Yemeni American writer Atiaf Zaid Alwazir writes, “The determination of a people seeking freedom is an unstoppable force: sooner or later freedom will prevail.” I urge you to read Demanding Dignity and to be inspired by the voices of brave and determined Arab activists who are striving for the betterment of their communities.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided an advance reading copy of this book for review purposes. No fee was received.

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It is extremely refreshing to read a book in which American Muslim men speak for themselves, sharing about their faith on their own terms. The personal stories in All-American: 45 American men on being Muslim demonstrate the diversity of the Muslim experience in the U.S., free from the problematic limitations of stereotypes. Whether you are Muslim and want to read other Muslim voices, or whether you simply are curious about the American Muslim experience, I highly recommend this essay collection.

If you are Muslim, or have Muslim friends and loved ones, you already know that Muslim individuals are as varied as those of any other religious group. However, for Americans who do not have such relationships, the stereotypes commonly conveyed by the media can create strong misrepresentations. Muslim men get lumped together in a group that includes headline-makers who are not representative of the faith; violence and misogyny dominate. These images, and their accompanying fear and distaste, can get in the way of building real relationships with neighbors and colleagues. For this reason, I cannot underestimate the importance of this book. It provides a rich opportunity to hear the voices of a diverse group of people, shattering stereotypes and opening doors to understanding.

Editors Wajahat Ali and Zahra T. Suratwala have done an excellent job of gathering the stories of men from a variety of professional and ethnic backgrounds. Their stories are personal, direct, and powerful. Reading these essays is the next best thing to sitting across the table and listening in person.

I urge you to read All-American: 45 American men on being Muslim, and to consider providing a copy for your public library. Further, I hope that U.S. mosques will provide copies of this book to visitors, since it provides such a beautiful glimpse of lived faith. May we continue to build bridges across differences, and to grow in love for one another.

Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received for this review. 

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This month three million Muslims, including more than 11,000 from the U.S., will make the Hajj, insha’Allah (God willing). All Muslims who are physically and economically able are expected to make the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, sometime during their life. The Hajj takes place at a set time of year and requires pilgrims to follow a series of prescribed rituals and procedures. The pilgrim’s actions commemorate events in the life of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), as described in the Qur’an.

Author Na’ima B. Robert has written Going to Mecca, a lyrical children’s book that makes a beautiful introduction to the Hajj. Her text provides enough facts to properly inform and to create splendid scenes in the reader’s imagination; yet her language is spare enough to not overwhelm younger readers, or those unfamiliar with Islam. On page 6, a pilgrim arrives in the Sacred Mosque and recites talbiya, the pilgrim’s prayer:
Call with a pilgrim
As she utters a prayer,
And says the words
That will make her draw near:
“Labbayk Allahumma labbayk.”
“Here I am, O my Lord, here I am.”

The narrative carries the reader on a journey of accompaniment through the rites of pilgrimage to the welcoming home. At the end of the book the reader will find a small glossary, providing further detail about important places in the story.

The pages of Going to Mecca are richly illustrated by Valentina Cavallini with scenes of mixed media collage. The colors are varied and cheerful, and the people in the story realistically reflect the varied skin tones of humanity. When I shared the book with my artistic 8-year-old daughter, we took turns exclaiming over the detail and patterns within each page. I would not be surprised to see my daughter create some artwork inspired by Cavallini’s style. The textures and patterns in the artwork are absolutely lovely.

This book would be an ideal choice to share with children who have family members and friends making the pilgrimage, or for teachers to share with their classes. Parents will find that the text provides many openings for sharing more detail with children as their level of interest deepens. For this reason, the book is suitable for a range of ages. Older children even might use the poetic phrasings as models for their own writing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and enthusiastically recommend it. May all of those who are making the Hajj have safe journeys.

Note: The number of estimated pilgrims cited above is based upon US State Department figures from September 2012.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received for this review.

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Bookshelves and airwaves are full of voices that describe Islam as a monolithic religion, and Muslims as a homogenous body. This could not be further from the truth. Muslims are an extremely diverse worldwide religious group, and in the U.S. that diversity is especially pronounced. When we overlook diversity, we render invisible our fellow humans. With the book I Speak for Myself: American women on being Muslim, White Cloud Press highlights and lifts up the voices of individual, diverse Muslim women.

The essay collection is invaluable for furthering public understanding about the diversity of Muslims in the U.S. Editors Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala have done a superb job, selecting writings from forty women under the age of 40. The featured writers include artists, teachers, lawyers, journalists, PhD candidates, recent high school graduates, and CEOs. A few of the writers were familiar to me from their other published work, or their humanitarian achievements.

The emphases of the essays are as diverse as the writers, yet common themes emerge. Several authors describe their experiences of negotiating complex identity. Since each writer was raised in the U.S., encounters with the presumption of Christian identity were not uncommon. The authors typically had to balance religious expectations with cultural norms of contemporary U.S. life, such as high school proms, dating, and media consumption. (It is notable that these cultural expectations also become issues for religiously observant members of other faiths, as well.)

Another theme was the need to discover and embrace one’s faith independently. While these women had religious training either from parents, religious classes, or both, each woman had to live her own life before seeing what role her faith would play. Each woman had to discover on her own what it means to be a person with God-consciousness. Readers of other faiths likely will resonate with this experience.

In one of my favorite essays, a Muslimah shared about her calling to assist families affected by Hurricane Katrina. She writes, “I wanted to go out & help, but I knew I was only one person. Then I remembered the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings upon him) was just one person who’d had the guidance of God. I knew if I allowed God to guide me, even little ole me could make a difference.” In many essays, it was clear that strong faith had contributed to a wish to be of service to others.

I Speak for Myself should prove very useful for anyone interested in learning about the practice of Islam, or in sharing the faith with others. I would encourage readers with an interest in interfaith dialogue to read this book and to purchase a copy for the library of their house of worship, as well as their public library. The message of I Speak for Myself deserves a wide audience. It is one of the finest books I have read this year.

Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher. No fee was received for this review.

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“We humans may be barbaric and brutal, but we can get up every morning and strive for peace. And the first step in striving for peace is understanding the Other. In 21st-century America, the Other is Muslim.” —Sumbul Ali- Karamali

“Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of God, not one belonging to this or that race or nation.” —Qur’an (surah 49, verse 13)

Recent events in the U.S. news have me grieving, once again, the hate that people sometimes show toward other people. The need for friendships and community building across lines of difference becomes more urgent each day, as racism and discrimination continue to cause inexcusable violence. If we hope to create a future where such crimes cannot happen, we need to affirm our common humanity, and get to know one another respectfully. In the spirit of opening a door to learning about someone of a different background, I urge you to read The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing. This book effectively dispels myths and examines sources of stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims. If you are Muslim, read it, then share with a colleague, neighbor, or friend. If you are not Muslim, you will find it answers many questions you carry in your heart.

Author Sumbul Ali-Karamali was born in California to parents from India. She has been educated in Islamic law and offers a well-grounded primer on Islam (with references for further reading, which I always appreciate). Throughout the book she shares stories from her own experience of growing up Muslim in southern California, and the ways in which her faith and her choices inform one another.

For those who may not have close Muslim friends or family members, Ali-Karamali’s perspective as an ordinary Muslim-American woman is invaluable. Fear has caused many people to wrongly conflate “Muslim” and “terrorist” (or “Muslim women” and “oppressed”) and this needs to be undone. Ali-Karamali rightly points out that we do not typically judge all Christians on the basis of the actions of terrorist Timothy McVeigh, or on the atrocities committed by the Ku Klux Klan. Likewise, all Muslims should not be judged on the basis of a small number of criminals who claim Islam as their religion. She provides a thorough discussion, too, of the countless ways in which terrorism goes against the teachings of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.

Media coverage of Islam and of Muslims often fails to provide context or historical background for a given issue. As with other news topics, sensationalism and fear-mongering can take priority over sharing facts and details, exacerbating ignorance. With The Muslim Next Door, Ali-Karamali provides a remedy by giving readers detailed background for many of the issues that appear in the headlines, including women’s rights, the content of the Qur’an, and the dangers of fundamentalism.

One critical point that Ali-Karamali clarifies is the confusion about the meaning of “Allah.” Allah simply is the Arabic word for God. Muslims of all nationalities make their five required daily prayers in Arabic, and therefore often refer to “Allah.” Islam is monotheistic, and Muslims believe in only one God, the same God that was worshiped by Abraham and Jesus. Arabic speakers who are Christian would also pray to Allah. With all the coverage of Islam in the media, it surprises me that this is not yet settled; however, the media often present stories about Islam through a lens that makes Muslims seem alien or other. A seemingly simple difference in vocabulary can be abused to exacerbate this problem.

Media attention often is given to the modest attire required of Muslims during prayer. However, other religions also observe this requirement. Growing up in the Catholic church, my mother expected me to dress neatly and modestly to attend church. For a wedding at a church, a woman would be expected to wear a shawl or other covering if her shoulders were bare. As Ali-Karamali writes about modesty in Islam, “It is the same concept with different parameters.”

After you read The Muslim Next Door, I encourage you to provide a copy to your place of worship or your public library. The more we can learn about one another, in a spirit of love rather than fear or defensiveness, the more beautiful we will make our world.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, White Cloud Press, for review purposes. No fee was received for writing this review.

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Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year, now is underway. This season of fasting and extra prayers presents an ideal opportunity to visit a local mosque and get to know Muslim neighbors. I encourage you to call a mosque in your area and arrange a visit. There will likely be a community member to greet you and to provide a welcoming experience. The New Brunswick Islamic Center has compiled a very helpful guide to proper etiquette for visiting a mosque.

During this month, many mosques will have community iftars (meals that break the fast, after sunset). Breaking bread together, neighbors can talk and get to know one another. The first iftar meal I ever attended was part of an interfaith open house, and it was an extremely powerful experience. I met so many people who were eager and willing to answer my questions about Islam.

There are wonderful books for teaching young children (Muslim and non-Muslim) about Ramadan. You can find an excellent list, with descriptions of titles, at goodreads. Personally, I highly recommend A Party in Ramadan by Asma Mobin-Uddin.

During Ramadan, fasting from before dawn until after sunset helps the observant to remember those who live with hunger, and to feel increased gratitude for the daily blessings of food, water, and shelter. May we all remember those in need, and do our part to show mercy and increase justice.

May this be a joyful season of peacemaking and reaching out to one another in a spirit of love and friendship.

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