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Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey Books

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1 review about Why I Am a Muslim: An American Odyssey Books

Muslim Feminist Cowgirl Rides Again - and Stays on Her Horse this Time

  • Mar 25, 2005
Pros: Hasan's anecdotes and arguments are better this time - she makes fewer mistakes

Cons: She still ignores a couple of key issues

The Bottom Line: Can you tell I'll be writing about more books now?

Despite the fact that her first book was full of mistakes and weak arguments, I warmed quickly to Muslim rights activist Asma Gull Hasan upon reading American Muslims because of her character. She is the hip, all-liberal Muslim and all-American gal. Born in Chicago, raised in Colorado, high school at Groton, graduate of Wellesley and the New York School of Law. One of Islam’s most public stances involves the rights of women to have careers, and Hasan not only shouts it from the hills, she lives it as a lawyer in San Francisco. Given these facts, I can’t figure out why the hardcore Muslim community hates her guts. According to pretty much every Muslim on the planet, she has the right to do it. But the problem with hardcore Muslims is that a majority of them whine about women making something of themselves whenever it actually happens, as well as a bunch of other things they claim to practice. (“They judge by WESTERN standards” is the BS excuse they use.)

With American Muslims, Hasan attempted to slap Muslims with a brand of Americanism and say “We’re decent, hardworking people who believe in the same things you do!” American Muslims became an unexpected bestseller after its release around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and I guess Hasan was awakened to the sad truth of the Muslim community during her publicity tour. In Why I am a Muslim, she gets personal and speaks of her beliefs as a Muslim, and makes very good arguments for her viewpoints. Hasan has few delusions this time, and in defending her beliefs, she successfully promotes herself as a spokesperson for the liberal version of Islam which mainly attracts the converts who DON’T accept every stupid belief and rationalization they’re spoon-fed at the local mosque.

Describing Why I am a Muslim is a bit harder than describing American Muslims. American Muslims was easy: A half-witted attempt by a liberal Muslim to get the community to rally around her. Why I am a Muslim is part description of Islam (including some of the inner aspects pf the religion), part personal character description, with just a dash of history thrown in for fun compacted into a bite-sized, tasty little nugget which can be consumed in about the time it takes to fly from Buffalo to Chicago. It’s shorter and much easier to read than American Muslims, since Hasan cuts out all the guff and goes straight for the jugular. The format couldn’t be simpler: She describes a situation that exemplifies what she’s going to say, then she says it.

Hasan’s anecdotes about her personal life, family, and friends are thoroughly scattered around Why I am a Muslim. As with American Muslims, they’re there to set up her points. Since Hasan isn’t an unknown Muslim voice anymore, we get treated to anecdotes about her newfound publicity. While she’s not trying to make us laugh, sometimes she does anyway. At one point, she talks about a radio interview she did during Ramadan in which she was forced to admit she was going through her menses, and was told by the host that he wanted her to open up, but not that much! There are various stories about the reactions of Muslims to her first book whenever she makes a public appearence, and there’s even an interesting bit early on about her heritage: Seems Hasan is a direct descendant of Mongol leader Genghis Khan. That’s quite the contrast: This peaceful, brilliant woman as part of a genetic lineage best known for a barbarian leader who built an empire simply by carrying out the mother of all revenge sprees. Hasan will also undoubtedly irk a lot of Muslims when she admits being good friends with a Jew in one of these anecdotes.

In the first chapter, Hasan says that one of the reasons she’s a Muslim is because she was born a Muslim. At one point during the chapter, she goes into details about the birth of Islam itself: Muhammad casually going about one of his normal meditation routines in a cave before being interrupted by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel made Muhammad sit still while repeatedly commanding him to “READ!” However, it would seem that Hasan learned a slightly different version of the origin of Islam than most other Muslims. She claims the first revelation received by Muhammad was chapter 101, verses 1-5 of the Quran:
Oh, the sudden calamity!
How awesome the sudden calamity!
And what could make thee conceive what that sudden calamity will be?
(It will occur) on the day when men will be
like moths swarming in confusion,
and the mountains will be like fluffy tufts of wool...

The more commonly accepted version of the event says Muhammad was forced to recite chapter 96, verses 1-5:
Read! In the name of the lord who has created!
He has created man from a clot!
Read! For your lord is the most Generous!
He has taught man by the pen!
He taught man what he knew not!

Given the magnitude of this difference, I’m not convinced that if it was a screw-up, it was entirely Hasan’s fault. I’m no expert, but I know for a fact that there are different versions of the story floating around. The chapter also contains a quick story about what Adam and Eve supposedly did after being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

Why I am a Muslim has seven chapters, and I was most impressed by the sixth. Since Hasan branded herself a “Muslim Feminist Cowgirl” in American Muslims and has been referred to by that particular moniker ever since, it’s no surprise that she includes a chapter on the rights of Muslim women. What IS surprising is that she is able to answer for most of the arguments one might present in a debate about the rights of Muslim women, considering the way she ranted in American Muslims without presenting any evidence. Hasan covers a lot of the things she missed in American Muslims, including a more plausible explanation for the verse that promotes beating women: The Arabic word for “beat” is baraba, a word which contains a number of different meanings including “to walk away.” She also covers the controversial subject of polygamy, which she argues was necessitated by circumstances at the time it was revealed and eventually forbidden by Quranic verses saying men can only have more than one wife if they’re able to treat them all equally, but they’ll never be able to treat more than one wife equally. She also argues using the examples of the two most important Muslim women: Muhammad’s first wife, Khadijah, ran a successful business and proposed to Muhammad, not the other way around. Khadijah was the first convert to Islam, and she was married to Muhammad until her death. Hasan also points out Muhammad’s third wife Aisha, who passed down a countless number of hadiths. Unfortunately, Hasan fails to answer for the heavenly virgins again, as well as the privelege of men to have sex with slaves.

The third chapter sheds light on an aspect of Islam largely unknown by non-Muslims but is the cause of conversion to Islam for many people: Sufism, the tradition of Islamic mysticism which was followed by the great poet Maulana Jalaudin Muhammad Rumi. The part of the chapter that really caught me was the information that Sufism is NOT a seperate branch of Islam - as many Muslims believe - but more like an extension of Islam. Hasan focuses little on the history of Sufism, preferring instead to talk about the habits and practices of Sufis. Says Hasan on page 43: ”The goal of the Sufi, generally, is to become fully absorbed into God. All the unimportant matters - the religious divisions, the politics, the “I look fat in this dress”-type concerns - fall away. A Sufi, too, needs to keep himself or herself relaxed and un-stressed.” She goes on to mention the Sufi belief that while Muhammad may have been religious, he wasn’t overzealous, and he basically wanted Islam to be more of a spiritual thing for his people rather than endless lists of automatic rules and Hellfire warnings. Sufis, says Hasan, attempt to achieve the spiritual end by doing things like listening to music, isolating themselves and fasting for days at a time, and spinning (whirling) for long periods of time in order to reach what Hasan calls a “high” of sorts in order to feel God’s presence.

The seventh chapter, in which Hasan claims she’s a Muslim because being a Muslim makes her a better American (and vice versa) will cause the most unrest in Muslim-land. In this chapter, Hasan is very clear about the love she has for the United States, which is a far cry from the conservative Muslims who are only here for the money and educational opportunities. (Personal experience again. As Irshad Manji put it, “Down with America - but not until my kid graduates!”) This chapter feels more personal than the others. When Hasan writes that she was the first child in her family to be born in America, you can tell how proud she is to hold that distinction. However, she does write on page 168 that ”What surprises many Muslims and non-Muslims alike are the many striking parallels between the principles of Islam and the founding ideals of the United States.” While it’s true that Thomas Jefferson did keep a translation of the Quran in his personal library which he may or may not have used in writing the Constitution, this claim is still contestable at best. The vast majority of conservative Muslims will yell and scream that the laws of Allah are to be upheld no matter what, and that democracy is essentially evil. (Personal experience.) In fact, there’s an anecdote in this chapter in which Hasan writes about speaking at a convention during which one Muslim yells to her about how America means nothing to him. Hasan replies that Islam allows Muslims to follow the laws of whatever country they live in, and says that in hindsight, she should have told him to leave the country.

The three chapters I haven’t talked about require no explanation, really. In chapter two, Hasan talks about the personal relationship that Islam allows her to have with God. In chapter four, she argues that since God made us all imperfect, Islam allows Muslims to make mistakes and learn from them. In chapter five, she writes that Islam is a very diverse religion with people of all ethnicities following it, and she gets personal about the experience of watching her family become American citizens. Something I should have noted in my review of American Muslims was how Hasan never makes any mention of “Allah.” Since “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, Hasan uses the word “God” in order to let the Jewish and Christian communities know that Islam was revealed by the God of Judaism and Christianity and really drill it in.

Being a Muslim for three years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the habits of MANY devout Muslims up close and personal. I was completely disgusted by the hypocrisy they’ve shown me, claiming equality, peace, and all that other good stuff in public but cursing non-Muslims behind their backs. (Little did I know that much of it is Islamically sanctioned, and can be found in the Quran and argued for. But that’s another article for another time.) It’s people like Asma Gull Hasan who give me faith that there are enough Muslims in the world who practice the ideals they say Islam preaches. Even American Muslims may have been a lousy effort, but it was well-intentioned. Why I am a Muslim is much better from Hasan. She clearly knows what she is talking about now, and although you’d probably still lose a debate with the material in Why I am a Muslim, it would make great supporting material for certain arguments.


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