Who defines a religion?
This is not only an interesting question, but a deeply important one – especially in America, where most people are religious.
You’d think I wouldn’t have a dog in this race, big fat heathen that I am. But I find the question of who gets to call themselves a “real” member of a religious group to be vital – partly because I have strong ties to groups that have been labeled as not "really" Christian (Catholic childhood, teenage fling with the Mormon church), and partly because the argument itself is a sort of cultural barometer.
Are we having thoughtful, engaged discussions about what it means to identify as part of a group? Are we seeing the human face behind the holy text? Are we becoming literate in what defines someone else’s worldview, and broadening our own view in the process?
Or are we having shouting matches, clutching old hatreds, and hiding our instinctive fear of the unknown as concern for national security?
Ranya Tabari Idliby brings up these issues in her book about being Muslim in America. The questions she asks are desperately important. The anecdotes she shares are valuable. The passion she feels is unmistakable. That is why I gave this book a three-star “I liked it” rating.
And it only got three stars out of a possible five because the writing Idliby uses to make her points is flawed and uneven. I kept tripping over mistakes and falling out of the story.
My frustration with Idliby’s writing has nothing to do with the fact that her “Faith Club” excludes me by definition. If anything, I would have felt more comfortable with her work if she were more conventionally devout.
Whatever I believe, I carry it to the extreme. When I was Catholic, I wanted to be a nun. When I started going to Mormon services, I longed for the day I’d be baptized. Now I’m a nonbeliever and have received my share of hate mail for an admittedly snarky piece about atheism I wrote that went viral.
I loved and still reread the Mormon book Families Are Forever...if I can just get through today!
I calm my ginger temper by silently quoting Julian of Norwich, a medieval Catholic mystic: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I see no contradiction between loving the works of women of faith and arriving at my own very personal conclusion that so far as I can see, nobody’s driving this crazy universe so we’d all better take care of one another as best we can.
And as I said, I am still deeply interested in the question I raised way up at the top of this review: Who defines a religion?
For instance, to take an example I’m familiar with: If an American woman calls herself a Catholic, has been baptized and confirmed, goes to church frequently, and considers her faith to be a vital part of her life, is she nevertheless not Catholic if, like many Catholic Americans, she disagrees with Catholic doctrine on the issue of birth control? Does it matter that so many other Catholic Americans also quietly disagree with the pope on this point? Should
Idliby grapples with similar questions regarding her own Muslim identity. Is she not “really” Muslim because she doesn’t wear a headscarf? What about the fact that she doesn’t pray five times a day? Should we be thinking of the very personal, emotional experience of faith as a continuum, or as clubs one can be kicked out of for failure to follow the rules?
On the other hand: Surely one must have some kind of definition of terms. I remember being deeply alarmed by a Mormon friend who casually consumed Coca Cola. She didn’t see this as any threat to her identity. I, as a newcomer to the club, was right to be concerned. How many tenets of a given religion can one set aside without quite literally losing the faith?
Idliby makes a strong argument against those who would call her not a “real” Muslim. Sadly, some of those people mean it as a compliment. She’s not scary! She’s not a terrorist! She doesn’t seem weird at all! She’s so normal, how could she be a Muslim?
Idliby is at her best when she keeps her writing simple and forthright:I am a daughter of Islam. I have loved its stories, poetry, and people my whole life. I have loved its heroes and heroines. I have loved its prayer beads in the hands of my father and my grandfather before him. I have loved its sights, smells, and sounds; its domes, minarets, and prayers; its art, architecture, mosaics and ceramics. To have loved is to owe. It is to stand by it in its hour of need. I know no other way.
Unfortunately, Idliby doesn’t seem to have much faith in her own writing. Her worst mistakes come when she isn’t content simply to tell her story, but feels the need to try to fancy things up.
For instance, Idliby tells an engaging story about her son shrugging it off when some boys in his class “spent the hour in study hall at school looking up racist Muslim jokes.” He doesn’t care until late that night, but then it hits him hard. He feels tired and vulnerable, and the incident brings him to belated tears. He asks his mother tearfully, “Why can’t I be like everyone else?”
This is the kind of story that hits home, especially if you’re a parent. Which I am.
I’m also a reader, a writer, and, yes, a bit of a grammar nerd. In spite of what Idliby says, her son did not “bemoan” those words. He moaned them.
Yes, that’s a small mistake, but the book is riddled with them – and they’re all the more annoying because they come across as efforts to be pretentious. “Even Diane Sawyer may have been held sway by the belief that Islam is by definition a violent religion” – no, but she might have been swayed by it. I suppose it’s technically possible for someone to grow up “navigating viscous currents outside the convenience of popular absolutes,” but it’s more likely those currents were vicious.
Every chapter has several such errors. This book should have been a swift, engaging read. Instead I kept having to stop – not to think about ideas the author had raised, but to mentally correct the text.
Sometimes the mistakes blur her meaning. She talks once about having her fear “effectively harnessed.” What she means, as I figured out after a minute, was that she felt muzzled by fear. Later, she says, “My son, an avid athlete and a keen sports spectator, asked me a question that succinctly parodies his evolving identity struggles and its inherent tensions.” That’s a hot mess of a sentence. Parodies? “Its” inherent tensions? Editor, please. And maybe a medic.
This book also seems to jump around quite a bit. Early on, Idliby talks about growing up celebrating Christmas as well as Islamic holidays: Maybe because Muslims believe in Mary, Jesus’ virgin birth, and the Jewish prophets before him, my mother never felt a contradiction in the Christmas stockings she hung to our bedposts, nor in the advent calendar she hung up in the kitchen filled with Santa-shaped chocolates.
In the next chapter, when she is grown up with children of her own, she is relieved when, after much research, she is able to assure her children that “if Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, then I do not see why Muslims who believe in the Quran – which has an entire chapter dedicated to Mary, a woman described as ‘chosen above the women of all nations to deliver the promised Messiah, Jesus,’ – we cannot enjoy some Christmas cheer.”
Well, yeah. You told us that already.
I might not have been as annoyed by Idliby’s writing if I hadn’t already been put off by her seeming to glory in being a lightweight. She carries the Quran into the delivery room, and sends a “mini” Quran in her daughter’s tiny backpack on the first day of school, but it takes September 11th for her to decide to sit down and actually read the Quran for the first time.
When her children are quite small, she says, “I soon gave up hope of ever finishing my Ph.D.” Why? “Motherhood consumed me. I could not even read the paper.”
I was reminded of one of my favorite books, The Family Nobody Wanted,
in which a minister’s wife adopts 12 hard-to-place children. She has no household help, and – this being the 1940s – no modern conveniences. But she and her husband are determined that she should finish getting her degree. Quite aside from the satisfaction it gives her, it will be “a good example to the children.”
Idliby, on the other hand, expresses concern about leaving her children “spiritually bereft” if she doesn’t raise them with strong religious beliefs, but she doesn’t have any concerns about what kind of message she’s giving her daughter by turning her back on her own education – not even reading the newspaper – because babies are so darned cute.
I won a free copy of this book in a Goodreads contest. No strings were attached, but obviously they’re hoping for reviews, which is more than fair. My review has to be mixed: good ideas, shaky writing.
So, do I recommend reading this book? I did learn a lot about Islam. I wasn’t bored. But I was often frustrated. If you enjoyed “The Faith Club,” which Idliby co-authored and which I have not read, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you’re a grammar nerd, you’ll probably bleed from both eyeballs. And if you want something rigorous on the subject, I’d recommend Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From The Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism,
by Karima Bennoune, which is on my own to-read list.