Books ReviewEditor

WHY I AM A MUSLIM : AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY

By Asma Gull Hasan, Element, London, 2004, Price £12, Pages 174 . Reviewed by: Asmer Beg

The book under review is partly a memoir and partly a justification for the author’s commitment to Islam. In fact, she gives seven justifications. It was written in the wake of 9-11 events in the U.S. It is an attempt at presenting a vision of Islam, which is different from the picture of Islam as presented by the mainstream Western media. The book is basically addressed to American readers.

The author Asma Gull Hasan is a born American Muslim. She claims that her identity as an American and as a Muslim, are both her first identities, and neither of these needs to come after the other. They do not contradict each after, rather they compliment each other. She tries to explain that there are striking similarities between the Quran and the core values of American society. However, in her enthusiasm to find similarities between the two, at some places she goes a bit too far, for others to agree. For example, on page 148 she says, “…the requirement to do charity – called Zakat – in Islam is an American value as well an Islamic one.” In fact, Zakat is a religious obligation on all Muslims who have the required means, charity which in Islam is called Sadquah, is in addition to Zakat and is not obligatory. Similarly charity in American, or any society, is not obligatory. So charity can be equate with Sadquah in Islam, and not with Zakat.

Similarly on page 159, she writes, “Muhammad (the prophet of Islam) was a capitalist who made his living off of caravan trading.” It is true that the prophet was involved in trading but he was not a capitalist in the western sense of the term. A capitalist accumulates wealth, whereas, the prophet kept for himself the bare minimum and distributed the rest among the needy.

Ms. Asma Gull argues that being a Muslim is not only a matter of birth, but a matter of choice for her. One of the reasons she advances for this choice is that there is no clergy in Islam, only the Quran is the guide for everyone and for all times. No one speaks for all Muslims, like the pope. This, however, has its disadvantages as it makes it difficult to counter criticisms and generalizations. For her Islam is the simplest religion and it establishes a direct relationship between man and God. She appears to be enamored of the Sufi tradition in Islam, because of its emphasis on optimism.

She maintains that the beauty of Islam also lies in its diversity. The Quran calls the Jews and Christians as the ‘People of the Book’, and accepts their religions as long as they are based on justice and morality. She contrasts this with the verses in the New Testament which attack Islam, and are quite offensive. She presents the concept of religion minorities i.e. Dhimmis in Islam, in it proper perspective. It was a revolutionary concept for its time. Until then no one had treated minorities as any thing other than political pawns. This concept in its practise, saved the lives of many Christians and Jews. They prospered in Islamic Spain at a time when they were being persecuted in other parts of the world.

Ms. Gull acknowledges that she is a Muslim also because Islam is a women’s religion. It is the first religion, which gave women the right to inheritance. She explains the logic of inheritance laws in the Quran to negate the myth that these laws favour men.

The author explains the logic behind the apparently harsh punishment of flogging for adultery. She states that the important thing there is the strict law of evidence, which requires four witnesses to the actual act, which in reality is almost impossible. “So as harsh as the flogging punishment may seem, in reality, it was never meant to be enforced. …”it was designed to discourage adultery.

Overall, this book presents a decent defence of Islam, which for her is tolerant, encourages diversity and defends the rights of women. On the basis of her own experiences, the author has successfully tried to illustrate know her being a Muslim has made her a better American citizen. She has also quoted references from the Quran to prove her point. One might have difficulty in arguing with her understanding of some of the Islamic concepts and their practice, nevertheless, it is an honest work and could serve as a good introductory book for those who only know Islam as the media tells them. However it should not form the basis of our understanding of Islam. One needs to know much more to have the complete the picture

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