A Pilgrim's Progress

Reviewed by Leila Ahmed
Sunday, May 1, 2005


An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam

By Asra Q. Nomani. HarperSanFrancisco. 306 pp. $24.95

This affecting new book tells the story of a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, undertaken by Asra Q. Nomani in a time of personal crisis. She was living in Pakistan when Islamists murdered her friend and fellow Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, and she found herself recoiling from the faith in which she'd been raised. "Could I remain in a religion from which so many people sprang spewing hate?" she agonized. Days later, she discovered that she was pregnant, that the Muslim father of her child had no intention of marrying her and that the laws of Pakistan could mete out the most brutal punishments to unwed mothers. She returned home to Morgantown, W. Va., to give birth to her son -- and gave him the Arabic middle name Daneel in tribute to Pearl.

With this traumatic background, a fearful but determined Nomani set forth with her baby on her journey to Mecca and "the sacred roots of Islam." Her object was twofold: to perform the hajj , the ritual pilgrimage required of Muslims who can afford it, and to use her journey to forthrightly investigate her religion -- its origins, ethics and history.

Standing Alone in Mecca provides the reader first of all with vivid glimpses of Saudi Arabia, including its litter-strewn highways, with their huge billboards for American products and their signs reading "Muslims Only" on the route to the holy cities. Both literally and figuratively, Nomani sees signs of the "repressive ideology" of Wahhabism, the country's puritanical version of Islam. She also offers descriptions of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and their inner sanctums -- among them a lavish new mosque that reminds her of Disney World.

As Nomani explores the history of Islam, her book gives an often informative and engrossing overview of Islam's internal debates -- as seen through the eyes of a young single mother wrestling with her faith. Her empathetic recreation of the story of Abraham's second wife, Hajar (known in the biblical version of the tale as Hagar, Abraham's slave), is particularly moving. Abandoned by Ibrahim (Abraham) with their infant son, Ismail, in the desolate place that Muslim tradition says later became Mecca, Hajar, in Nomani's inspired meditation, is a prototype for the resourceful, courageous mother who, although abandoned, nevertheless single-handedly raises her child -- with God's grace.

The title further aptly echoes Standing Again at Sinai (1990), in which Judith Plaskow, a prominent American Jewish feminist, similarly wrestled with the patriarchal groundings of her religion. Nomani's quest to discover if she can commit herself to her faith without compromising her ideals of justice and equality is also profoundly shaped by the ideals of today's liberal America.

In fact, for Nomani, the hajj proved transformative, confirming her beliefs in both Islam and feminism. Thus her book, besides telling the story of her pilgrimage, is also a self-declared "manifesto of the rights of women based on the true faith of Islam." When she prayed in the Masjid al-Haram, the sacred mosque at Mecca, no formal division, not even a curtain, separated men from women -- in stark contrast to Morgantown. This powerful experience fueled her subsequent struggle for women's rights in Islam, particularly for equality in mosques and religious leadership. The book's last chapters recount her bitter arguments over egalitarianism with the mosque authorities in Morgantown.

Indeed, Nomani's struggle has continued beyond the borders of her book. In March, she and others organized an event in New York described as "the first mixed-gender prayer on record led by a Muslim woman in 1,400 years." It garnered huge media attention. Although women have been quietly leading prayers for years now in some Muslim communities (the Ismailis, for instance), Nomani's activism and media savvy have made the issue a topic of important public debate. The denunciations from many Muslim authorities worldwide were predictably furious. But one notable exception -- Egypt's top religious authority, Sheik Ali Guma -- reportedly declared such worship permissible: "If the congregation accepts a woman as imam, then that's their business." Nomani is helping create new ways of expressing Islam in the world and fundamentally challenging the symbolic and deeply patriarchal order of things.

Nomani is just part of a growing trend of progressive thought and activism among American Muslims coming of age in these times, compelled to renegotiate their religious heritage in the shadow of 9/11. (Consider Faisal Alam, founder of the gay-rights organization al-Fatiha, or the members of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America.) Meanwhile, Islam has become America's fastest-growing religion, even as few American Muslim institutions have the power to impose uniformity of thought.

This new generation of activists is distinctly bolder and more forthright in its demands than earlier Muslim feminists -- daring to demand gay rights and women's rights to religious leadership and women's "Islamic right," in Nomani's words, "to consensual adult sex." At the same time, however, they seem more committed believers than many of their predecessors, who, indeed, were often secularists. Finally, they seem more willing to neglect or erase the key role of interpretation of Islam, which, like other faiths, looks different depending on whether you are a fundamentalist or a mystic. Nomani herself sometimes asserts that her manifesto is "based on the true faith of Islam," as if defining "the true faith of Islam" were not today (as always) a hotly contested matter.

Nomani's book offers a vibrant and engrossing account of the hajj . She also brings the skills of a fine journalist to her task. As well as being a good story, the book is packed with facts, figures and interesting information about Islam and Muslims today. Standing Alone in Mecca is of far more than sociological interest. ยท

Leila Ahmed is Victor S. Thomas Professor at Harvard Divinity School and the author of "Women and Gender in Islam."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company