The subtitle, "An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam," of this book by Asra Nomani, an Indian Muslim born in the United States, is the heart of this memoir. Asra, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and friend and colleague of the late Danny Pearl, undertakes a pilgrimage to Mecca that is a once in a lifetime requirement of her faith. This pilgrimage, the Hajj, is not only a journey of a Muslim faithful but also a journey of a woman trying to find her place in a religion that so restricts the rights of women to worship equally as men. The title is wonderful taken in its literal sense. Asra was alone—a modern, progressive woman straddling two worlds, an unwed mother taking her child on the Hajj, the sacred and profound pilgrimage. Taken figuratively, Asra was anything but standing alone. The sense of wall-to-wall people at the holy sites, walking about the path of the pilgrimage made for suffocating scenes and a feeling of being trapped in the veil of both worlds. I especially admired the fact that while she made this ancient holy pilgrimage signifying that she is Muslim, Asra is a modern woman who fought and continues to fight for equality among the women of her faith.
Compelling writing drives this book, and it is made all the more so by the fact that it was written as George Bush was preparing to invade Iraq. Asra has many reasons beyond the fundamentalist requirement for making the journey. Among the most compelling is to seek to do what the Dali Lama answered to this question: "What is it that our leaders can do to transcend the issues of power that makes them turn the people of different religions against each other?" His answers are to read the scholars of each religion, talk to the enlightened beings in each other's religion and do the pilgrimage of each other's religion.
Beautifully interwoven with her story is the story of the original Islamic pilgrim, Hajan, called the mother of the Islamic Nation; whose 4,000-year-old footsteps Asra follows on her journey. Asra attempts to lift the "veil" of the perception of fundamentalist Muslim women. Her inspirations taken from ancient Muslim women fuels her task when she returns to the States to confront the sexism and intolerance of her local mosque. Asra questions how a religion can be true to its theological principles if it oppresses women. What it means to be a good Muslim is defined by core universal values of what it means to be a good person. She notes that "a spiritual umbilical cord connects all women through the timeless universality of womanhood."
This is an important and riveting book for its religious and historic overtones, let alone its compelling story. The core values of all religions and cultures are the ones that serve us best. Asra notes that these are truth, knowledge love and courage. In light of the world we find ourselves living in today, to keep an open mind, to engage in discussions of this religion, to try to find the common ground, is not only necessary but vital. Asra's journey is a testimony to the potential for all of us to become empowered spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. In so doing, we just may find that we are not standing alone.
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