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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love » User review

There are Two Things Worth Writing About: God and Sex

  • Apr 16, 2005
Pros: Very well-written and inspiring

Cons: A bit slow at times

The Bottom Line: Personal religious accounts are rarely more unique than this.

Well this is certainly an eclectic combination of personality traits for a person to have. Tantric Muslim? That’s just as oxymoronic as terms like crash landing, loud silence, or compassionate conservative. (If you want to know just how contradictory a conservative Muslim would consider a Tantric Muslim, I’ll give you another contradiction to ponder: Jewish Nazi.) And if you’re a conservative Muslim, it’s just another thought you’re going to have to get used to. While the author of Tantrika, Asra Q. Nomani, didn’t give herself this brand, it fits her just as well as “Muslim Refusenik” fits Irshad Manji or “Muslim Feminist Cowgirl” fits Asma Gull Hasan. Nomani is among the group of recently emerged liberal Muslims who are challenging the traditional norms of Islam, and her liberalism as a Muslim goes to certain extremes that even the feisty liberal Hasan would find unthinkable. Nomani regularly skips her prayers, implies that she is not averse to the occaisional sip of alcohol, and has had a series of intimate relationships with men she wasn’t married to - including one which resulted in the birth of her son.

To a conservative Muslim who reads Tantrika, it becomes clear very early on that Nomani is not a real Muslim. To anyone else, however, it merely shows that Nomani’s Islam is purely on the inside. Nomani didn’t give up her native religion when she became a Tantrika, a practitioner of the Hindu form of spiritual sexuality known as Tantra. She makes that quite clear in her writings, at least on her website.

Nomani’s first book, Tantrika, received a lot of attention from conservative Muslims for displaying a woman’s naked torso on its cover. (Female nudity in any public forum is a HUGE taboo in Islam.) However, upon reading Tantrika, the torso doesn’t come off as a statement so much as it does a symbol. Tantrika is not a defining explanation of the contrasts between Hinduism and Islam. Nor is it the account of the experiences of one woman attempting to fit these two wildly contradicting lifestyles into her day-to-day practices. Save for a few sentence-long explanations for those who don’t know anything about Islam, Hinduism, or Tantra, Tantrika is not even an informational. It’s a very well-written, very moving narrative about one woman’s quest for her inner spirituality. While we do get to feel - not just read, mind you, but genuinely feel - every lovingly-written word of Nomani’s bouts with anger and depression, there is a thread of positivism resonating through the book. And when that moment arrives when Nomani finally figures herself out, you feel her happiness. Through much of the book, Nomani writes like she wants someone to love and love her back. Hate to spoil the ending, but she gets him - in her illegitimate son, Shibli.

There’s a lot of symbolism in Tantrika. Things like birds, cats, and even her motorcycle all seem to represent more than just themselves. At one point, Nomani takes a motorcyle journey in which she thinks of her motorcycle as her tiger (and also gets a nasty case of road rage). They make for a very colorful narrative, and the more minor symbols always find a way to compliment a mood that Nomani is in. However, the main themes of Tantrika are unquestionably God, sex, and where the two of them fit in with each other.

Tantrika begins with a short autobiography. Nomani writes about her early years, her family, and other such things. Her father is a source of strength for her throughout the book. Despite his deep convictions to Islam and the fact that he knows his daughter is breaking a massive number of Islamic laws, he stays devoted to her to the end. This is unusual - stories of fathers stoning their own daughters for being raped are legion in the Muslim world, but ffor Mr. Nomani, little daughter Asra’s happiness comes first in any and all situations. Even when he’s forced into crises of the conscience over Asra’s behavior, he stays true to her and supports her. It’s because of this quality that Asra’s father appears to be the most important man in her life, with the possible exception of her son.

It isn’t long before she starts getting to the main ideas, though. Nomani talks about her first sexual encounter, which she performed in order to keep a boyfriend from breaking up with her. Nomani was lucky to be her father’s daughter, but after reading more, her choices in men leave something to be desired. Nomani makes it clear that she’s had a number of boyfriends, but she goes into detail about three of the worst boyfriends girls probably don’t want to know. (Hey, don’t ask me, I’m a dude. And I certainly wouldn’t treat a woman the way these pricks treated her.) The first would be the one I just mentioned. The second is Nomani’s ex-husband. Nomani writes about their marriage briefly, and how it basically ended with the two of them having a one-night stand with each other. The husband was emotionally distant, and Nomani, again, attempts to show him how much she loves him only to be blown off in the end. The third is the man who made her pregnant. Nomani writes as if she had invested more of herself into this relationship than any other, but the man becomes a coward who only proposes to Asra because his mother said it was the right thing to do, and who thinks he has certain entitlements to Nomani’s son despite claiming their relationship was all about the sex for him and the fact that he had done nothing to help Asra through her pregnancy.

Early in the book, Nomani starts writing about her friendship with a man who would become a symbol of the clash between freedom and religious theocracy: Daniel Pearl. Nomani has made no secret of her friendship with Pearl and his wife Marianne. The two of them were in the middle east at the time of Pearl’s kidnapping, and Nomani was one of the last people to see him before it happened. She writes about the experience of having to endure his death, and at one point refers to him as “Dear Danny.” The way she writes of Pearl, it’s obvious why she misses him: Pearl comes off as a man who finds thrills in life itself, a live-in-the-moment type who embraces even the littlest things, like beach volleyball, as adventures. Nomani doesn’t fail to mention that Islamic extremist leaders believed Pearl was part of a Jewish conspiracy against Islam, which shows just how insane and unreasonable Muslims can be. Even the regular people in Pakistan implored Nomani to write about this Jewish conspiracy they’re so convinced is real.

Nomani’s journey to becoming a Tantrika - and her road to divine love - begins when she is working for the Wall Street Journal. She is asked to write about the sexual phenomenon called Tantra that is sweeping the country. Beginning the assignment, she asks the people who know everything - her Indian parents - about Tantra. They tell her that it’s a form of black magic. Her journey begins when she visits the trendsetting city of the United States, Santa Cruz, where she meeets a practicing Tantric couple. Soon we’re following her to a cremation ground, caves in Thailand, the homes of her orthodox Muslim reletives in Pakistan, her parents’ home in Morgantown, West Virginia, and a spiritual camp along the Ganges River which some of the occupants nicknamed “Stalag 29.” Along the way, Nomani is introduced to a lot of Hindu practices and customs which help her to discover her ancestry, which is Hindu. There are very few points - if any - in which Nomani compares Hindu customs to Islamic customs. The Hindu customs and words she uses and writes about are often explained in less than a paragraph, as not to get the main subject of the book - Nomani’s spiritual journey - derailed. Nomani wants us to feel her emotions, and she succeeds using the aforementioned symbolism.

While Nomani makes very little mention of what she believes in the way of higher beings, she is clearly very spiritual. Tantrika has a very spiritual essence. It’s not so much about where she went as a physical being as she chased down a story for her employers, but where she was mentally and spiritually during that journey. Her emotions are a roller coaster in many points of the book. The first time she visits India, she returns home hating the place, but her hatred seems to disappear during subsequent trips back. She is descriptive about her anger at the father of her son, her shock at the hatred many Pakistanis displayed after the September 11 terrorist attacks, her joy at motherhood - and all that comes near the end of the book. There are times when she writes with senses of wonder or depression during her journey. And there are times when she appears to be finding the strength to write.

It’s clear the Asra Q. Nomani invested a lot of emotion into writing Tantrika. You may find yourself investing a lot of emotion into reading it. But like Ms. Nomani’s spiritual journey, the emotional payoff in the end is immense, and well worth the journey. If you’re looking for information, you won’t find it here. But if you’re seeking inspiration, you’ll read one of the most inspiring stories of the soul ever told.


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Nicholas Croston ()
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<p align="center"><b>A Foreign Correspondent's Search for<br />Her Cultural and Spiritual Identity</b></p><p>What began as an assignment from her editor at the <i>Wall Street Journal</i> to investigate "America's hottest new fad," the secrets of sexual ecstasy in Tantra, became a story that would lead reporter Asra Nomani halfway around the world and change forever her life, faith, and self-identity. From a New Age Tantric seminar in Santa Cruz to sitting at the feet of the Dalai Lama in India, from meditation caves in Thailand to crossing the Khyber Pass with Muslim militants and staring down the barrel of an Afghan soldier's AK-47, Nomani's trek unexpectedly climaxes in Pakistan, where she risks great danger in joining the hunt for kidnapped fellow reporter Danny Pearl. She travels the globe in search of this elusive "divine love," but ultimately hers is a journey of self-discovery in which the divine within herself and within all women -- all "tantrikas" -- is revealed.</p>
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ISBN-13: 978-0062517142
Author: Asra Nomani
Genre: Biography & Autobiography, Social Science, Religion
Publisher: Harpercollins
Date Published: May 01, 2004
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