Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sumbul Ali-Karamali's Guest Post: Bending Genres

The hardest thing about writing a book on religion was how to make it interesting and fun to read. And, mind you, this wasn’t a book on just any religion, either, but Islam, a subject about which many people harbor fear and suspicion. What I had to do, I concluded, was write a nonfiction book that read like fiction. I mentioned this when conversing with my adviser, under whom I was earning my degree in Islamic law.

“Yes,” he nodded, “people believe fiction. I believe fiction.”

After a college friend of mine, a government terrorism analyst educated at Stanford and Harvard, told me that he couldn’t get past page 4 of Karen Armstrong’s Islam (written for the lay reader) because it was too dense, I nearly threw in the towel in despair! It was apparent that no matter how educated or intelligent my readers were, they didn’t want to study after a long day at work. I couldn't blame them.

Eventually, I found a solution. I avoided following the traditional historical or abstract theological approach. Instead, I wrote my book in a first-person narrative, interweaving the substantive information – seamlessly, I hope – with anecdotes and vignettes of growing up South-Asian American, Muslim, and female in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. I strove for a conversational tone reminiscent of a memoir, and I wrote it in as heartfelt a manner as I could. The explanations are set in an everyday, Western context; and, though the stories are personal, the information is academically reliable.

This is why The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing is a genre-bending book! It contains elements of both a memoir and an introduction. My personal stories illustrate and sometimes distinguish between Islamic doctrine. My approach was not to say, “Here’s what Islam says,” but instead: “Here’s what everyone agrees Islam says, but here’s where Muslims can disagree within the parameters of Islam, and here’s how it played out in my life.”

Speaking at the Commonwealth Club on the status of women in Islam, which is one of the top two subjects I'm asked about in my personal life and in public

I felt unexpectedly exposed while writing this book. (Do writers of memoirs feel minutely scrutinized under the microscope?) Although I’d always answered questions on religion freely, I had always grown up believing that religion should be private. I avoided talking about religion unnecessarily; rather, I wrote my book to answer all the questions I’d received, and continue to receive, about Islam. Writing the personal stories – many of which I had never revealed to anyone – bared my unprotected self to the public spotlight, and I didn’t like it. But I did it, because I wanted to build multicultural bridges. I wanted to write a book for all the people who didn’t have a Muslim next door to chat with at a kitchen table over a pot of tea.

Enlivening a book with personal vignettes can be I am with my husband, putting on my daughter's "Clown School" birthday party

The reactions to my book have been interesting. I’ve received a fair amount of hate mail from non-Muslim Islam-haters (including some threats), but by far the reaction to my book has been positive. I have received many letters that give me hope for the future of a multicultural, multireligious, pluralistic society, both in the United States and elsewhere.

And I love the letters from those who tell me that they read my book far into the night or read it in two sittings or couldn’t put it down. After agonizing for years about how to make the book readable, I deserve the big, happy sigh that brings!


  1. It appears to be very difficult for most Americans, if not most Westerners, to have a positive view of Islam. Probably the history of Islam as a religion reveals it to be no more inherently repugnant than Christianity or most other religions, or put another way, Islam can probably boast as many positive values during its history for its followers as any other religion. But for today’s Americans, and especially since 9/11, Islam often represents the “other”, a strange if not exotic religion, perhaps the religion of the “enemy.” So it is a great and positive thing to read your story—the story of a relatively typical well-educated American woman--and your explanation of how Islam works for you. Surprise! Your faith and how it affects your life and values turns out to be not that much different in kind from that of many American women of similar background other than a different religion. So you’re not the “other”, and if you’re not, perhaps there are other Muslims here and elsewhere who are not.

  2. Dear jclen,

    Thank you so much for your comment! And you're absolutely right: there's not that much difference between religions. If human beings didn't have religion to fight over, they'd find something else (and frequently have over the centuries). The real factors that cause conflict are poverty, lack of education, and unfulfillment of basic needs.

    Regarding history, well, wherever there are people there's been conflict. But history is also replete with numerous acts of multicultural and multireligious cooperation and pluralism. (Norman Gershman's "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II" is but one example.) I think using examples of cooperation and pluralism, not conflict, is the only path for the future. Again, sincere thanks to you for appreciating my efforts.