Love, InshAllah

Book Review
By Yomna El-Saeed
Freelance Writer- Egypt

This book aims to chatter the stereotype of the Muslim women as “oppressed, submissive women forced into arranged marriages by big-bearded men”

Title: InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Author: Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Co-editors)

Paperback: 256 pages

Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Original edition (February 17, 2012)

Language: English

It’s a poignant, captivating, and entertaining page-turner. It’s Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, a collection of 25 Muslim love stories written by their heroines.

This book aims to chatter the stereotype of the Muslim women as “oppressed, submissive women forced into arranged marriages by big-bearded men” who “hide explosives under their clothes”. This is done by giving an opportunity to American Muslim women to honestly share their personal accounts on love and relationships. The book shows through the wide range of experiences those women have gone through that Muslim women, like most women, are independent and opinionated, who under their clothes hide beating hearts yearning for love, not bombs.

The stories were compiled by two Muslim women – Ayesha Mattu, a civil rights lawyer, and Nura Maznavi, a human rights consultant, who both shared their own stories in the book. They started off the idea five years ago while joking about how a Muslim dating movie could be like. They turned to Facebook to ask American Muslim women, of all backgrounds, send in their love stories. And out of more than 200 stories they selected the best 25. Both Mattu and Maznavi left their daily jobs at the end of the last year to turn their full attention to the book.

The candour of the book is unusual among Muslims. But Muslims are humans, and humans make mistakes, and on occasion sin. This book portrays Muslims as people going through life experiences anyone of any other faith can go through.

Being an Arab Muslim, I was familiar with most of the foreign vocabulary frequently used throughout the book. I see, however, this being an issue for some readers. So, before you start reading you may want to bookmark the glossary in the back that has all the words you need to know throughout reading the stories.

The book’s dedication is to “all those searching for love”. And it was officially released in the US on the Valentine's Day.

How-we-met Stories

The beauty of this anthology lies in the diversity and depth of the experiences, and the honesty of the women openly telling them. They tackle happily-ever-afters, heart-breaks, singlehood, marriage, divorce, polygyny, and sexuality.

Some of the contributing women used pen names. Some are not professional writers; there is a school principal, an engineer, a physician, a prison chaplain, a translator, community organizers, attorneys, and homemakers. This created a variety in the writing style which, I believe, added more attraction and credibility to the book.

Throughout the book, you’ll love the romance lying in the how-we-met stories, and observing the ways how ordinary moments can become defining ones for two people.

Some tales sound old-fashioned, yet they reveal the beauty of what might apparently seem to be unattractive ways to meet “the one”.  Like in “Leap of Faith” in which Aisha Saeed met her man only once in a family arranged proposal, and fell for him and decided to marry him within 6 weeks. “Otherwise Engaged” is a sweet account of teenager Huda Al-Marashi’s craving for a romantic gesture within the formal proposal from the boy she was set up to marry.

Various accounts are more of the-serious-stuff-of-married-lives, like Melody Moezzi’s “Love in the Time of Biohazards”; a beautiful portrayal of her husband’s genuine devotion in the face of her pancreatic chronic disease. “Love at Third Sight” by Patricia M. G. Dunn about her exhausting cycles of trying and failing to actualize her love to her husband and become pregnant.  Aida Rahim’s “Brain Meets Heart” is a story about how a smart independent divorcee and her daughter found the right husband and father for her daughter (who turns to be Hijabman!) Asiila Imani’s story “Three” an unusual journey of love that lead her to polygyny.

On the other side of the spectrum, some tales are so romantic, to the point that sounded and too good to be true. Like Ayesha Mattu’s “The Opening” and Angela Collins Telles’ “Love in the Andes” both are about meeting strikingly amazing non-Muslim men who ended up converting to Islam. 

Ayesha Mattu (left) and Nura Maznavi,  co-editors of the book, left their daily jobs to turn their full attention to the book.

Muslim Women on Sexuality

But some of the stories are provocative, like the third story of the book, by Tolu Abida (pen name) who is a lesbian practicing convert. She wears hijab, engages in mosques’ activities, does charity, and reads Ibn Qayyim’s books. She tried to supress her homosexuality and got engaged twice to Muslim men but both engagements didn’t work. She has always prayed Allah to grant her a good ‘spouse’.  She met Hafsa, a fellow niqabi lesbian convert, and although their relationship did not last, the author is grateful for their years together. That’s why she called her story “A Prayer Answered”!

Some stories openly discuss virginity, premarital sex, and homosexuality in a way that can make some practicing Muslims tremble with anger. Stories like that of lesbian Najva Sol’s who tells about her young sexual relationships with boys and girls, and her doing drugs, and Zahra Noorbakhsh’s who started to feel free after she lost her virginity in premarital sex.

I confess I was shocked by the graphic sexual content in few certain stories. And I was more shocked by The Salt Lake Tribune of this book which started the article by “If you think good Muslim women wait for marriage to have sex, think again.” It made me question; is this book shattering a nasty stereotype by creating another one?

A negative review of the book on Amazon.com said:

“Many of the stories in this book are not a true reflection of any practicing Muslim… Even though the authors only two criteria for submitting a story, is for someone to identify themselves as Muslim and American, after reading the book I really didn't feel the Muslim aspect in many of the stories… This book is not befitting to have Allah (God) in its title.”  Another negative review from GoodReads.com said “I was expecting a few inspirational stories with the main focal point being Islam, but instead I read about breakups, new relationships, other relationships, more relationships, lust.”

Well, Mattu and Maznavi made it clear in their book’s introduction:

“This is not a theological treatise or a dating manual. It’s a reflection of the reality.. [The contributors] reflect a broad range of religious perspectives, from orthodox to cultural to secular. As such, they reflect the depth, breadth, and diversity of the American experience”

The candour of the book is unusual among Muslims. But Muslims are humans, and humans make mistakes, and on occasion sin. This book portrays Muslims as people going through life experiences anyone of any other faith can go through. Some of the writers involve themselves in acts they say their parents taught them good Muslim girls don’t do, others leave behind the religion of their parents to embrace Islam, devoutly.

This book raises important questions about the Islamic practice and identity. Is a Muslim someone who comes from a Muslim family and considers herself a “cultural” Muslim but neglects the five pillars? Or a Muslim is only the one who strictly adheres to the Shariah? This book made me also question who speaks for Muslim and how?

Personally, I’m not courageous enough to publish stories about my private life. Yet I admire the courage of the contributors who exposed their “secret love lives” and made them not more secrets to take part in asserting American Muslims as an intricate part of American society.

Related Links:
“I Speak for Myself”- American Muslim Women
To Each Her Own: Narrated by Single Women
Lyrics Alley Floating From Sudan
Who Is Zuma's Bastard?
Stop Islamization of America

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