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David PinaultJune 19, 2006

Muslim Women in Americaby Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith and Kathleen M. Moore

Oxford Univ. Press. 208p $25

The authors of this book set out to correct what they describe as a widespread American perception that, in effect, Islam treats women, at best, as second-class citizens. To counter this notion they cite the testimony of women in the United States who are eager to assert their identity as Muslims.

The authors admit that their book concentrates primarily on Muslim women who are actively affirming Islam. Skeptics, doubters and agnostics are scarcely acknowledged (Irshad Manji, the controversial author of the important work The Trouble With Islam, is disposed of in a paragraph). The book’s unstated focus is Sunni Islam and the (African-American) Nation of Islam. Little attention is paid to women’s experiences in Ahmadiyyah, Ismaili Shia or Twelver Shia communitiesall of which are thriving in the United States. (The Islamic scholar Linda Walbridge’s research on American Shia communities would have been useful for the authors to consult.)

Despite its limited focus, Muslim Women in America provides valuable information on a number of issues: women’s struggles to be active participants in the mosque, changing definitions of traditional gender identities and women’s roles in the workforce, and the use of the Internet and matchmaker Web sites to reconcile the dictates of Islamic modesty with American practices of dating and courtship. Particularly valuable is the authors’ attention to the wide range of Muslim opinions on such topics, from fundamentalist to feminist.

The interviewees quoted here illustrate how the diverse ethnic backgrounds of individuals can generate equally diverse interpretations of what it means to be Muslim in America. In particular, this work documents one of the most important trends to emerge in post-9/11 American Islam: rather than self-ghettoizing and avoiding contact with non-Muslim society, more and more American Muslimswith Muslim women increasingly participatingare engaging mainstream American society in the areas of education, religious proselytizing and the public expression of Islamic identity.

In the United States, as elsewhere, the veil becomes one of the most visible signs of religious identity for Muslim women. Eager to counter anti-Islamic prejudice, the authors emphasize the testimony of those Muslim women who say the veil is liberating (they are no longer slaves to Western fashion, etc.). Critical readers, of course, might object. In the United States, where one is free to dress as one likes, such an argument might make sense; but what about Iran or Saudi Arabia, where Islamic legislation makes some form of veiling mandatory?

As part of the defense-of-Islam subtext in this book, whenever the authors allude to negative aspects of Muslim women’s status, they imply that such things are due to the persistence of traditional cultural practices and have nothing to do with authentic Islamic doctrine or Scripture.

This replicates arguments I have often heard from Muslim speakers who specialize in da’wah. (This Arabic wordliterally summons, call or invitationrefers to Muslim missionary efforts to convert individuals to Islam; in recent years many American mosque leaders translate da’wah using less egregiously evangelical terms like outreach or education when they interact with non-Muslims.) Many Muslim proselytizers explain away the Taliban’s seclusion of women, Saudi prohibitions against women driving, or the Iranian government’s harassment of women who wear lipstick as the unfortunate influence of local cultureas if there were any such thing as a religious revelation or Scripture that could be untouched by culture. Consider the Koran, itself a selective reworking of the biblical tradition within the cultural landscape of seventh-century Arabia.

Given the importance of Scripture for all Muslims, it would have been worthwhile had Muslim Women in America included a chapter that systematically presented key Koranic passages on women’s status in Islam. This would have helped readers make sense of the reference (on page 95 of the book) to Koranic verse 4.34, which, according to the authors, appears at first sight to give men the right to physically reprimand recalcitrant wives.

Let’s be precise. The Arabic text in 4.34, idribuhunna, utters a command to husbands for how to deal with disobedient wives: Beat them. Circumlocutions like physically reprimand seem intended to soften the blow. What is needed is acknowledgement of the problems inherent in any scriptural legacysomething Jews and Christians themselves have had to contend with in the Bible.

Muslim Women in America is at its frankest and most substantive in a chapter that describes in detail the experiences of American women who have converted to Islam. Interviewees reveal their reasons for conversion: a sense of loneliness in contemporary consumerist society and a hope for community and direction within the framework of a highly structured religious life.

A section called Contending with Reality explores the consequences of conversion. Some women express their disappointment at being ignored by fellow Muslims once they choose Islam. The da’wah proselytizers, eager for an increased body count, have already moved on to fresh potential converts.

Of special interest to readers of America are the reasons some ex-Christians offer for their shift to Islam. They call Islamic teachings straightforward, compared to the doctrines of transubstantiation, the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Islam makes more sense, is how the authors summarize these converts’ dismissal of Christian doctrinal intricacies.

Here the book intersects with aspects of my own professional experience. As a Catholic who teaches courses on Islam, I have met a number of ex-Christian Muslims. One former Christiana graduate school friend from Arabic-studies days, now married to a Muslim and the mother of two boystold me she became Muslim as a teenager when, bored with Christian dogma, she discovered Sufi mystical poetry. Tales of ecstatic visions, stories of whirling dervishes, the desire for God symbolized by the union of lovers: All this, as she put it, was heady stuff for a 17-year-old.

What she did not know at the time, my friend said, was that Christianity too has a rich tradition of mystical literature. But in Catholic high school I had never heard of Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross. She said this with some wistfulness.

Like many other ex-Christians I have encountered, my grad-school friend knew little of Christian literature and less of Christian doctrine. In a word, she was unchurched, hungry for direction, for a spiritual life.

Muslims’ evangelizing among unchurched Christians presents an opportunity for Christian educators to reassess the effectiveness of their own work. At the Catholic universities where I have taught, students are encouraged to become involved in social justice projects and learn about church pronouncements on solidarity with the poor. Engagement with such issues is essential to Christian life.

But it is also the job of educators to help students link social praxis with dogma. The challenge is to convey to students how the universal existential realities of the human condition are anchored in the doctrinal truths of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Haddad, Smith and Moore have done Christian readers a serviceeven if inadvertentlyby demonstrating what can happen when young people on a spiritual quest are not given the means to access the treasures of their own tradition.

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