By Amanda Mead
InshAllah, or “God Willing”, embraces the notion that it is only through the will of God that the individual attains what they seek in life. Health, prosperity, and love, as exhibited by twenty-five American Muslim women in Love, InshAllah, a collection of essays compiled by first time editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. Mattu and Maznavi begin by stating that “this book is not a theological treatise or a dating manual. It is a reflection of reality,” articulating their choice to publish work authored by an active, yet highly disregarded, cultural and ethnic minority. Although the premise of the collection does not lie in representing each and every American Muslim woman or issue of female politics, Mattu and Manzani offer Love, Inshallah as a way to begin a conversation that may otherwise not be had.
There was only one submission criterion for Love, InshAllah. Each author must self-identify as both American and Muslim. Subsequently, the book is narrated by a range of age and experience as women recount adolescent summer romances, or share memoirs of entering a second marriage during menopause. Each essay reconstructs the extremes through which we go to in order to find and maintain a loving relationship. Some do so by rebelling against family, others do so by converting to Islam.
While Love, InshAllah refrains from outright cultural and religious critique, the authors do exhibit a range of perspective drawing from orthodox and secular Muslim American narratives. Both the editors and authors are attentive to the balance of religion and practice, a concern that benefits the book’s composition in the end.
Love, InshAllah is separated into five sections depending on theme. In Allahu Alim: In Search of the Beloved, Aisha C. Saeed accepts an arranged marriage in her essay “Leap of Faith”. In “A Prayer Answered,” Tolu Abida discusses the challenges of living as a lesbian Orthodox Muslim. In the section Alif: Where it All Begins, Najva Sol recounts her sexual discoveries in “The First Time”, while Zahra Noorbakhsh speaks to a fear of men instilled by her mother in “The Birds, The Bees, and My Hole”. Time and time again, the women in Love, InshAllah speak to balancing faith in the modern world, finding and maintaining love abroad, through social media, moving beyond the individual experience in order to advocate for “love” in the context of family, faith, the romantic, and the self.
If you are a reader unfamiliar with the tenets of Islam, Love, InshAllah can prove to be a helpful text – like how converting to Islam before marriage works, or how much influence a Muslim woman has in choosing her arranged marriage. Throughout the stories, Arabic words pertaining to Islamic practices are colloquially used, like beta and shahada. In the back of the collection is a glossary that serves as a readers guide to potentially unknown terminology. You will learn that beta is a term of endearment used for a son or daughter, and shahada is a declaration of faith. Behind the glossary is a list of contributors, with a small bio for each author within the collection. Hailing from around the world, the vast majority of the contributors are pre-published authors whose work can be found in publications ranging from Look Look magazine to the Christian Science Monitor. Each bio is as individual as each story – one author has published two children’s books, another is a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and another is a ghost-hunter fascinated by paranormal activity.
It’s easy to see how the subtitle, The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, might generate controversy. Will this collection disappear into the fetishized Orientalist fantasy of the ‘other’, or is it a risqué expose of Muslim faith? How will this book contribute in deconstructing stereotypes? The editors propose to “challenge the stereotypes of the wider American audience,” an ambitious goal within a demographic that certainly lacks homogeneity. The book may easily [educate] and challenge stereotypes perpetuated by the American media, but the editors have yet to identify what, if any, subsections of this “wider American audience” these essays will affect.
If you are seeking an academic or cultural critique, this book will leave you disappointed. This is not a religious dissertation, nor do the editors provide us with suggestions on how to find and keep a relationship. I suggest looking for these tips on the backside of Cosmo. Love, InshAllah is simply a collection of individual voices representing a myriad of experiences. There is always something to be said for learning from the unfamiliar, and Love, Inshallah is no exception.
Amanda Mead is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is an active contributor to Sixty Inches from Center, an online archive of the Chicago art scene. She graduated from Beloit College with a joint degree in Creative Writing and Art History.
Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women
Edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi
Soft Skull Press, February 2012