Ausma Zehanat Khan, former editor of Muslim Girl magazine, is a lawyer and author of the novels “The Unquiet Dead” and “Among the Ruins.”
Rarely does a book come along that captures the complicated nature of Muslim life in the West with such probing clarity and authenticity. Haroon Moghul’s “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story” is perfectly titled: part memoir, part history lesson, part philosophy. It is a profound and intimate book — the story of a single American Muslim that also illustrates the fears and strengths of a community.
This is not an easy or comfortable book, nor should it be. It is framed by Moghul’s discussion of an aborted suicide attempt and the lessons he draws from that terrible moment. Though he moves on to discuss his successes and failures, a deep vein of melancholy pervades Moghul’s story. He recounts his earliest understanding of faith in terms that are punitive and alienating, as he yearns to belong, to believe and to be loved. His early life is defined by continuous illness, a condition that adds to his marginalization as the child of immigrants who cannot help him find his footing in a place where faith, culture and race define him as an outsider.
But Moghul’s book is not a paean to despair. Through his personal story, he weaves an admirably precise and powerful history of Islam. He juxtaposes this with reminders of the religion’s significance today. As an insider looking within, his story is a thoughtful meditation on how we construe faith as a means of anchoring not only our philosophy but our actions.
Moghul makes a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, where he finds the sacred and the profane in equal measure. At the prophet’s mosque, he experiences a moment of reverence as he tries to pray at Muhammad’s tomb. But conservative religious authorities, who wish to keep pilgrims away from the holy site, intervene, pushing the crowds along and denying Moghul and the others the deeper grace they sought. For a Muslim who is connected to the supra-national Muslim community, or the ummah, Moghul’s search for meaning in places as disparate as Sarajevo, Jerusalem, Cairo and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba is instinctively familiar; indeed, the search for roots as a way of belonging is common to us all.
Moghul, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, also eloquently discusses differing interpretations of religious ideology, lessons learned by diving deep into Islam’s vibrant tradition of theological debate and discourse. One chapter features a brilliant exposition on the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, known to South Asians by his title Allama Iqbal (“the Vastly Learned”). Moghul displays a keen comprehension of the colossal stature of Iqbal in Muslim homes and Muslim understanding. Iqbal’s landmark poetical works — “Shikwa” (“Complaint,” as in humanity’s complaint to God) and “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (“Answer,” or God’s response to humanity) — and “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,” a seminal philosophical treatise, are routinely overlooked. Citing Iqbal, Moghul argues that Islam is a dynamic force, not a spent one: “It was meant to be [a] purposeful movement in a world fated to change.”
Moghul captures the beauty of a tradition so often overwritten and undermined by propagandists on both sides: violent extremists on the one hand, and on the other, Islamophobes who seek to divorce Islam from its place in history, thus rendering its adherents an infinitely assailable other — soldiers of a never-ending crusade that believing Muslims must wage publicly and bravely as an externally imposed burden.
As Moghul pointedly notes: “Outside Muhammad’s massive ummah the Prophet is often mocked, rarely acknowledged, and above all ignored. In the West we say ‘Judeo-Christian,’ excising Islam from the tradition of which it is undeniably a part.”
Such deliberately conceived misunderstanding, coupled with Moghul’s debilitating self-doubt, could drive the most robust spirit into retreat. As Moghul attempts to establish a communal Muslim presence on a university campus in the time between the fall of the twin towers and the invasion of Iraq, he is met with the realization that soon all of Islam — and its adherents — will be conflated with al-Qaeda. Like many Muslims in the public eye, he will find himself in a permanent defensive posture, as his tradition is read back to him as a perversion of his ideals. At the same time, he doubts his convictions, his rightness to serve as a campus or community leader when beset by these inner demons. These dual concerns wear away at his outer facade while redefining his inner truths, a process of continual self-examination and frequently of self-loathing, until he finally arrives at a pinnacle of grace.
With this memoir, Moghul has given us an extraordinary gift: an authentic portrayal of a vastly misunderstood American community. In place of the “reformers” who are trotted out to point to the failings of the civilization of Islam, he offers reasoned criticism alongside a humanistic reading of Islam as a universal message, as the foundation of successive empires, and as an individual template for grace and positive change.
In the face of virulent anti-Islam discourse, Moghul treats Islam as a source of personal redemption and as a force for good in the world. Deeply knowledgeable, “How to Be a Muslim” is a revelatory book with valuable lessons for these troubled times.
By Haroon Moghul
Beaon. 231 pp. Paperback, $17