Love, InshAllah, a new collection of essays about romance, love, and sex by Muslim American women, proves that love and faith can live in the same house.
“Muslim women—we just can’t seem to catch a break.” This shrug of a declaration opens the collection Love, InshAllah, an anthology of essays by Muslim-American women, detailing the rewards and challenges of trying to find love in an increasingly diverse yet xenophobic America. The editors of the collection, Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi, know how loaded their subject matter must seem from the very start, especially to non-Muslim readers. When the news presents us with multitudes of horrifying stories from the Middle East about child brides, honor killings, and restrictions of women’s rights, it has become too easy to assume that the trials of Muslim women are simply too terrifying and oppressive to comprehend. “We wanted to challenge the stereotypes of the wider American audience by presenting stories that are rarely heard,” counter Mattu and Maznavi, and here they have brought together voices of many different experiences, showing that the narratives of Muslim romance can be as rich and varied as those of any culture where love, family, and marriage are given considerable weight. “This book is not a theological treatise or a dating manual. It is a reflection of reality.”
“Reality,” here, is a subjective term, as these women represent many different situations in which both Muslim and non-Muslim women often find themselves in the crazy pursuit of love. The stories are divided into different scenarios and dilemmas, and the tone in the stories shift dramatically from confessional and defensive to declarative and defiant. The choices these women have made are often radical, even when they seem traditional, as is the case in Aisha C. Saeed’s “Leap of Faith,” in which she takes on an arranged marriage after one tension-free phone call with her future husband. And often one has to consider the weight that religion carries against the promise of romantic fulfillment—in Tolu Adiba’s “A Prayer Answered,” her commitment to Islam came from the religion’s simplicity, and so she remains closeted as a test of devotion: “If my faith was strong enough, I could pray, fast, or marry my way out of my sexuality.” The fear of losing the tight-knit Muslim community becomes as powerfully frightening as that of never having a full romantic and sexual life, and the value of keeping one’s faith intact is powerfully defining. One of the few laugh-out loud stories in the collection, Tanzila Ahmed’s “Punk-Drunk Love,” lingers on the author’s value of being both desi (“one from our country” and of the Muslim faith), and thoroughly punk, being a good Muslim girl by day and a secret activist by night. (Her hook-up with a hot mohawked man means one of the collection’s few steamy sex scenes.) “I had punk-rocked, prayed, loved, moshed, laughed, skated, cuddled, rocked, touched, kissed, and cried….Ramadan was around the corner.”
There are many stories here that will be relatable to non-Muslim readers—reading stories of adolescence in Part I: “Alif: Where it all begins” will bring up eternal questions of first romantic negotiations. How do you have a boy who’s just a friend—and what do you do if, as in Zahra Noorbakhsh’s “The Birds, the Bees, and My Hole,” your mother decides that all male companions are suspect? (Note: this story contains one of the most awkward versions of “the talk” I’ve ever seen.) And opportunities to seek out new loves abroad gain additional resonance when the very act of being Muslim abroad in the post-9/11 world is newly precarious. Angela Collins Telles’ tale, “Love in the Andes,” as an “American gone Muslim,” takes a moment of political conflict and turns it into a negotiation of new religious conscience. And the specter of 9/11, the question brought up so poignantly in Moustafa Bayoumi’s 2008 book, How Does It Feel to Be A Problem, looms over many of these stories. When Ayesha Mattu offers her own story, “The Opening,” she begins with her reassertion, two weeks after 9/11, that she should only date Muslim men. The constant stream of American flags on the streets (and the rapidly growing Muslim antipathy) reinforce her commitment to Islam, just as she falls for a non-Muslim man who admires her beliefs. “The woman climbing her way back to Islam found her soul mate in a self-described agnostic. . . . There is no map or chart by which to plot our course of brown and white, of American and Muslim of Pakistani and Albanian; we are simply creating a blended road as we walk forward, hand in hand, together.”
The stories in Love, Inshallah need to be told—and yet, for all their poignant details, I wished for a moment in which one of these women articulated, quite clearly, what it was about the religion of Islam that they wanted to keep, despite all the problems that being Muslim seemed to bring. How is faith as sustaining as love? Can it be more so? What does it feel like to be in a mosque and to feel newly galvanized by belief, even in moments of personal despair? (And when does romantic success patch the holes in a moment of wavering religious devotion?) No form of love is easy to come by, and we all carry our totems of belief into our expectations of romantic happiness. The idea is that God wills love to be present—“Love, InshAllah”—and that may be true. But it may be just as likely that the presence of love allows for a sustained belief in a higher power, and for belief that the world can be right again. In the final section, on finding love online, Suzanne Syeda Shah’s “Kala Love” begins with a teenaged plea through prayer: “Allah, I promise to finish this surah—just please give me Your blessings to sneak out.” “I was fourteen years old,” she says, “and nothing seemed more important to me than getting to my boyfriend’s house.” It seems that love and faith can live in the same house, and both need permission to sneak out the window.