Posts Tagged ‘women in Islam’

In my search for children’s books with Muslim characters, I encountered the lovely volume Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World. Written by Natalie Maydell and Sep Riahi, the book contains brief biographies of 13 Muslim women, accompanied by Heba Amin’s rich paintings. The authors affirm a wish to provide an introduction to the contributions of Muslim women, and acknowledge that these biographies are but a sampling of diverse accomplishments.

Each story highlights the positive impact a women made in her community, beginning with Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad and the first muslimah. Women from Turkey, Indonesia, India, the Arabian peninsula, Iran, and North Africa are included, with accomplishments in the fields of the arts, spirituality, and politics. These women are strong leaders who embody piety, compassion, and learning. For me, perhaps most exciting was the story of Nana Asma’u of Nigeria, a 19th-century scholar, community leader, and pioneer of women’s education whose work was previously unknown to me.

The book’s pages are bordered with beautiful patterns that reflect the natural world and the geometric design common to Islamic art. Artful calligraphy of quranic verses accompanies the stories of Khadija bint Khuwaylid and Aisha bint Abu Bakr.

Published in 2008, Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World has received numerous awards. It fills a need for quality English-language children’s books about the contributions of Muslim women from diverse cultures. This book would make a beautiful gift, as well as a helpful addition to a library at home, school, or in the community.

Disclosure: This review is freely given, based on a book in my personal library.


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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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