Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book: LIOL: Intro & Saleemah's Story

This is an anthology of essays and some poetry written by women who are born both Muslim and American. There are no converts in here and no immigrants. Their parents may have been converts or immigrants but these are women who cannot recall a time when they were not both Muslim and American.

'Our education was a colorful mix of home schooling, the local mosque, and Public School #9. We wore Underoos and watched MTV. We know juz 'amna (the final thirtieth of the Qur'an) and Michael Jackson's Thriller by heart. We played Atari and Game Boy and competed in Qur'anic recitation competitions. As we enter our twenties, thirties, and forties we have settled into the American Muslim identity that we've pioneered.'

These are women who believe that there does need to be an American Muslim identity. They have been told, by some, that this is not necessary. That they can simply apply the Qur'an and the sunnah to their lives. But this is simplistic and unrealistic. For example, the editor and author of this introduction, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur does not observe the rules of mahram and cannot imagine marrying as the contemporaries of Mohammed did - for political and business reasons with no thought to love or affection. In addition, she says, much of the Islam that American Muslim women know has been defined and interpreted abroad in cultures that are foreign to us. That's why Muslim women in different nations dress differently. Each culture has its own interpretation, so why not American Islam?

She believes that Islam is in the midst of a global transformation. That more and more Muslims are acknowledging the problems in their communities and are preparing to step into an egalitarian and humanistic future. This transformation is being led by Muslims in the West because they have access to certain academic freedoms along with the freedom of speech and the freedom of worship. 

The author travelled the country for three years, speaking to American Muslim women and listening to the issues that they face. She's grouped them into seven categories: intersecting identities, hijab, relationships, culture juxtaposed to Islam, sex and sexuality, activism, and spirituality. All of the essays that she included in her book deal with some aspect of these issues, though she says that all of the essays unintentionally dealt with the same two issues no matter what the piece was actually about. The juxtaposition of culture and Islam in general and hijab.

To get the collection started the editor tells her own story. She was born to Muslim converts in 1974. They named her Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur which translated means peaceful and servant of the most forgiving. She grew up in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey and led a fairly happy but sheltered childhood. Her parents were fiercely overprotective and she wound up being isolated socially. She had a small circle of friends that her parents approved of and, of course, co-ed activities were out of the question. When it came time to go to college she had to stay at home and commute because living on campus was antithetical to the life of a good Muslim woman. Prior to college Saleemah had worn hijab off and on, but her mother declared that the start of college meant that it was time to wear hijab full time. And so she did.

Her mother made all the decisions about her life and her father allowed it. He believed that a mother knew the best way to raise a daughter and so rarely interfered with what his wife decided was best. Saleemah was not a rebellious child and didn't want to displease them so she went along quietly with what they decided. As a result of her upbringing she never learned how to interact with men in a social and platonic way. She 'always felt uncomfortable when a man approached me or spoke to me. I became defensive around men and internalized a general distrust of men.'

The reason her mother gave her for limiting her social sphere was 'Muslims don't do that.' And so she believed that all the limitations were prescribed by Islam and that, as a good Muslim girl, if she complied then her reward would be a picture perfect life. 

After returning from hajj with her parents in 1998 she married an American Muslim convert. She believed that this was all a part of her perfect Muslim life - her reward for being a 'good girl'. Several days into her honeymoon cruise, however, her husband stopped speaking to her. When she finally convinced him to tell her what was wrong he told her that 'I don't want my wife to run the dinner conversation.' Apparently she had offended him by leading a discussion during the evening meal with other diners. They talked it through but nothing was ever resolved.

Upon returning home it became clear that she was not her husbands idea of a proper Muslim wife. Somehow she was always doing something wrong or inappropriate. She even needed a lot of instruction on the 'proper' way to do laundry and cut potatoes. They argued frequently and he told her that she didn't know how to be a woman. He stopped speaking to her for days at a time. He wouldn't touch her at all, even in the most casual of terms. So she would plead with him to speak to her, to talk the problem out with her and occasionally he would respond. But it was always with some reference to the Qur'an or a hadith - never trying to actually work through whatever issue was currently angering him. Once he justified his silence by quoting a hadith saying that a Muslim could be angry with another Muslim for up to three days. The author doesn't include any references to Qur'anic verses or hadith but I'm guessing that this is the hadith her husband likely quoted: '402. Hisham ibn 'Amir al-Ansari, the nephew of Anas ibn Malik whose father was killed in the Battle of Uhud, that he heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, "It is not lawful for a Muslim to snub another Muslim for more than three nights. As long as they are cut off from each other, they are turning away from the Truth. The first of them to return to a proper state has his expiation for that inasmuch as he was the first to return to a proper state. if they die while they are cut off from each other, neither of them will ever enter the Garden. If one of them greets the other and he refuses to return the greeting or accept his greeting, then an angel returns the greeting to him and Shaytan answers the other.' - according to the site I looked this up on it's from Sahih Bukhari. So her husband wouldn't speak with her for the three days and then would 'make up'. These 'fights' would be followed by periods of harmony.

While most of their friends remained ignorant of the problems they were going through, Saleemah's parents were aware and they did seek marriage counselling from several imams. Finally one imam recommended that they see a professional marriage counsellor. They went, but after a few sessions her husband refused to continue, insisting that she was the one with the problem and therefore the only one that needed counselling.

All through this time their fighting grew worse and worse and he became violent. It started with a push and then slapping the phone from her hand. And finally, one morning after she woke him for prayer he hit her in the face and threw her across the room. Rather than call the police, which she knew she should do, she called her parents. As she waited for them to arrive her husband told her to wash her face and then sat down to watch the morning news. Over the next few days she stayed with her parents and continued to go to work and live her life as normally as she could. She learned that her husband and confessed to an imam what had happened and that the imam was very upset by it. He had been one of the people who had vouched for her husbands character before the wedding and he now felt a degree of responsibility. 

They met with the imam and the imam explained that it is forbidden in Islam to hit someone in the face and made her husband apologize immediately. Her husband did, saying that he hadn't known he couldn't hit someone in the face. I've found a couple different hadith for that one. One that talks about not hitting livestock in the face or branding them there, but I'm pretty sure that's not one that would be extended to people. There's another hadith: 'If you fight your brother, avoid striking the face, for Allah created Adam in his image.' Narrated from Abu Hurayra by Muslim and Bukhari that would seem to apply as well as this one: 'Narrated Mu'awiyah al-Qushayri: Mu'awiyah asked: Apostle of Allah, what is the right of the wife of one of us over him? He replied: That you should give her food when you eat, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not strike her on the face, do not revile her or separate yourself from her except in the house.' - Abu Dawud.

Oh! And I should point out that I don't understand the whole rating system for hadith, so all I can do is quote what I find. However, I only take the hadith from Muslim sites so I can try and avoid the hadith that people who are anti-Muslim use because those tend to be the ones that Muslims turn around and claim are weak.

Anyway. Saleemah was angry at the clinical nature of the discussion of her abuse and the fact that anyone would need a sacred text to know that physical abuse was unacceptable. But she kept silent, though there was something inside of her that noted how dehumanizing and ridiculous her marriage had become. She returned to their apartment that night - against her parents' wishes and against her own better judgment.

That night her husband apologized again and asked if she would forgive him. She said she would, and cried. He embraced her and the comfort turned to sex. She did not want to have sex with him at that time, but remained silent yet again. 'In the back of my mind ran the hadith that I had heard during many Muslim marriage ceremonies. This hadith stated that if a man approached his wife for sexual intercourse and she denied him, the angels would leave her until she responded to her husband's request.' Which I think is this hadith: "If a husband calls his wife to his bed (i.e. to have sexual relation) and she refuses and causes him to sleep in anger, the angels will curse her till morning." - narrated Abu Huraira (Bukhari)

She remained in her marriage for a year before admitting that it was not a true marriage and divorcing him. Still, even after that she says that a part of her was convinced that it was her fault. That somewhere along the line she had not been the perfect Muslimah and that was why her marriage had failed. She remained depressed and the whispering at the mosque about her and her marriage didn't help. Being relegated to a small, cramped space for prayer, shunted off to one side enforced her feelings of being 'less'. It was at this point that she attended her first thikr (a session chanting remembrances of God). The imam welcomed her to the group and as she introduced herself the imam's wife asked what her name meant. She explained that it meant 'peaceful' and the imam corrected her, saying that it actually meant 'sound, as in without defect'. She says it was as though God spoke to her through the imam, sending a message affirming that she was okay as she was. This early morning was a major turning point of her life. 

Saleemah knew she needed to get herself back. Aside from the thikr she stayed away from mosques and many of the Muslims she knew. The mosques were not helping her get closer to God, they were not helping her find peace within herself. The fire and brimstone sermons  and people disrupting her prayer to correct her dress or actions distracted her and made it impossible for her to begin to heal.

She says that one day, during this period her mother, half joking said to her, 'Whatever your father and I have done to mess you up, let's discuss it and resolve it so you can move forward.' With that her mother gave her permission to acknowledge the issues of her upbringing so that she could move forward. They began to discuss her childhood and the restrictive nature of it. During one of these conversations she discovered that her mother had been assaulted at gun point when she was in her 20's. Due to this she became determined to protect her daughter from any chance that it could happen to her. She internalised this fear to the point where she never even realized that she was using Islam to hide her daughter away from the world. 

Saleemah reevaluated her life and specifically the rituals she performed. She decided to stop wearing hijab because she realized that she had never made the decision, for herself, to wear it in the first place. She put it on because her mother expected it and kept it on because of others. She has developed a profound understanding of taqwa (God-consciousness) and knows that her faith is not contained in her outer appearance. That if something doesn't resonate within her then she doesn't do it. She doesn't need to find proof in a sacred text because she already knows the truth of it within herself. Saleemah has learned that during the time of Mohammed women and men prayed in one common space and that Mohammed allowed women to lead mixed-gender congregational prayer. Her faith has grown stronger as she is 'no longer weakened by outside sources'.


  1. This was really interesting. I'm glad you shared all this with us. Too bad she had such a jerk husband. I'm glad it led her to talking with her mom and finding her own place in Islam however. Share more if you want. I'll be reading. :)

  2. What book is this from again? This is really interesting. (As if I needed to add another book to my wish list, lol)

  3. Susanne,

    Yeah, creeps will be creeps no matter what. Some of them just use religion as an excuse for their behaviour. I'll be sharing more, for certain. :)

  4. Heather,

    The book is Living Islam Out Loud. It's interesting. I know I've read it before, but I don't recall my impressions of it all that well. *shrug* So far the stories are interesting.


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