Monday, November 29, 2010

Book: LIOL: How I Met God - Samina Ali

The first essay proper is from a Muslim of Indian descent. Her parents moved to Minnesota from Hyderabad, India in 1970.

She was raised in a fairly small community of other immigrant Muslims and their families. They were all from India or Pakistan and had come together out of loneliness - the desire to be with people who remembered places or things that you spoke of. People who spoke your native tongue.

It was an insular sort of childhood. Even though she went to public school the religious and social constraints kept her apart from most of her classmates. But, she says, growing up she wouldn't have changed places with the other 'normal' children for the world.

She and her friends were raised knowing that they were simply better than all their other classmates. 'Being South Asian, being Muslim, was an honor.' Chief among the concerns her mother raised again and again was that, should she ever have sex, everyone would know. She described daughters as valuable vases - even the faintest crack renders it useless. She enjoined her daughter again and again to not become 'useless'.

At the age of 19 she entered into a marriage arranged by her parents with a man from India. She lived with him and his parents in India until his green card could be approved. Samina quickly discovered that her husband would never be able to have sex with her. He found her body repulsive and whenever he came close to her he would have to rush to the bathroom to vomit. 'He blamed me, saying I was "too Americanized" for him. He wanted someone who was more "pure". Naive and still a virgin, I fervently prayed that Allah would rid me of any impurities I might be housing in my body so that my husband would consummate the marriage.' This, of course, never happened.

Two years later, back in the States after his permanent green card was received he revealed to her that he was gay and he moved to another state to live with a man. He sent her divorce papers from his new home. On top of the pain and anger that she was feeling - betrayed by her husband and betrayed (as she felt) by God, since the marriage had been contracted in the Islamic fashion and only after a series of istakaras which had all come out in favor of the marriage - the Muslim community that she had grown up in blamed her. They believed that she was only *saying* that her husband was gay to cover up her own failings as a wife and a woman.

Eventually she had to leave the place she had grown up in. Samina wound up in the University of Oregon's creative writing master of fine arts program. For the first time in her life, at the age of 24 she was on her own and away from everything that had formed her into who she was. Still feeling betrayed, she ignored religion entirely. During this time she met and fell in love with another student. They eventually married. Her father, in protest of this second marriage didn't speak to her for three years.

Samina's second husband and his family were atheists. At the time of their marriage his mother was dying of cancer. Her death had a huge impact of Samina. It was the night of the funeral and she accepted what her new family had been trying to tell her - that the body is without a soul. That belief in heaven and hell is childish and simple. She buried that old self with her mother-in-law. For a while this life was enough. Samina and her husband did what they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it. But she felt a discontent deep within herself. It grew slowly, but it was there.

Then she got pregnant. It was sitting in her garden, sunning herself and watching the natural life move all around her that she realized - there is a higher order to all this. She turned to Buddhism, but couldn't get behind the idea that people had to give up their egos. Her ego was her 'best friend.' It protected her, so how could she eradicate it?

She stumbled into Sufism by chance. Looking through the bargain bins at a store she found a book in which the author discusses how the ego is given to us by God and therefore should not be judged. The line, 'Allah is waiting for you to widen your eyes and see Him' opened up a well of repressed emotions. It brought her back to a place where she could feel and relate to God.

Later, during delivery of her son, Samina died. Twenty minutes after delivery she suffered a grand mal seizure. A later CAT scan showed two brain hemorrhages and they discovered that she'd had a heart attack as well. Basically, every organ in her body had either failed or was badly damaged. They doctors were essentially waiting for her to die. Samina says that during this period, when she was dead, she met God. Doctors call her recovery 'miraculous'. She is now healthier than when she went in to deliver her son and there is no sign of the traumas that she suffered.

'One cannot meet God and return unchanged. In these past five years, I have continued my studies in religion and have discovered that, at the core, all faiths say the same thing: God is omniscient, God is compassionate and forgiving, God is love, God is right here and everywhere and no where all at once. He accompanies us on this journey through life, this evolution of our souls. He is the breath within our breath, the light brightening our own.'


  1. Very interesting! Does she say how she met God? What happened? Or is it more like pro-Islam literature?

    Sufis I thought were big on letting go of ego?

  2. Suroor,

    She doesn't go into a whole lot of detail, but she believes that she literally met God during one of her near death experiences. I don't have the book with me, but as I recall she described death as a whole lot of vast nothingness. Which, to be honest, I don't find very inviting or comforting, but maybe it is to some people? More metaphorically I think she feels that she 'met God' after she'd lived a painful life for religion, given up religion and turned her back on it and then 'found' God again when she realized that there was an order and a will behind the universe.

    I left her story not even certain that she's a Muslim anymore. The essay isn't particularly clear on that point. If I had to categorize her I'd go with spiritual, not religious.

    These essays are like little windows into these womens lives - there's not a whole lot of 'Yay Islam! It's the best and here's why!' I think the editor and the authors were trying to get across just the view that these are the lives that they have. The first two stories had lots of awfulness in them. Spousal abuse, emotional abuse, all that. The story I read this morning was all positive. She feels that she's had a great life and that her childhood and being raised by good Muslim parents had a lot to do with it.

    So I think this book is meant to be a cross section of American Muslimah lives. Not so much pro or con, but just 'this is how it is'.

    I don't know anything about Sufis so I don't know if they're big on letting go of the ego or not.

    And one of the flaws of this book, as far as I'm concerned is that none of the writers go into detail about the theology or practices. They'll mention things in passing, like that she found this quote in a Sufi book, but that's it. Not even a short explanation about Sufism.

    Like she mentions that her marriage was only contracted after several istakharas but there's not even a little parenthetical addendum to let the reader know what that is. If I didn't already know, I wouldn't know. Maybe that's because the intended audience is people who are Muslims or have already learned about Islam, but I know I picked this book up when I first started learning.

  3. "only contracted after several istakharas "

    Can you tell me what this is, please?

    I really enjoyed this post! what a great miracle that she is OK!

    I enjoyed your comment too! Thanks, Amber!

    (Word verification is "hootrics." Ha, ha!)

  4. Susanne,

    Istikhara is a prayer for guidance from God before a major decision. It's based on (at least partially - there may be other hadith in regards to this):

    According to Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 21, Number 263: Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah :The Prophet (Sallal Laho Alaihi Wasallam) used to teach us the way of doing Istikhara, in all matters as he taught us the Suras of the Quran. He said, "If anyone of you thinks of doing any job he should offer a two Rakat prayer other than the compulsory ones and say (after the prayer):

    "O Allah! I seek goodness from Your Knowledge and with Your Power (and Might) I seek strength, and I ask from You Your Great Blessings, because You have the Power and I do not have the power. You Know everything and I do not know, and You have knowledge of the unseen. Oh Allah! If in Your Knowledge this action (insert the question here) which I intend to do is better for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here and the hereafter then make it destined for me and make it easy for me and then add blessings in it, for me. O Allah! In Your Knowledge if this action is bad for me, bad for my religion and faith, for my life and end, for here and the hereafter then turn it away from me and turn me away from it and whatever is better for me, ordain that for me and then make me satisfied with it."

    It's 'best' to do this seven times. So once a day for seven days in a row. But as soon as you get your answer then you stop. Apparently, according to what I've read, the answer comes to you in your dreams that night. But if you don't get a dream that tells you what to do when it's interpreted then you perform the seven days of istikhara and follow whichever intention grows strongest in your heart.

  5. Thank you, Amber. What a lovely explanation!

  6. Ah, I see. Thanks for that info.

    I agree with you. It seems like details are missing. If someone really met God, we'd like some details!!


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