Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam, By Sumbul Ali Karamali
Muslims are about one-fourth of the world’s population. If someone wants to be fairly knowledgeable about the world, you should know about something involving that many people. There are also millions of Muslims in the United States. That’s a sizable number as well.
But, there is a lot of ignorance regarding Islam and Muslims. This is problematic again because of the mere numbers involved. It is more troubling given the importance of the Muslim World to American affairs. Ignorance over the years has led to serious problems.
The author’s first book, The Muslim Next Door, provided a remedy. On the author’s website, she explains that on the book tour, many teachers complained there was no good book like that for younger readers. So, Sumbal Ali-Karmali decided to write one.
But, the first book was a more complicated account that also provided commentary on how Muslims are seen by others. The subtitle itself is suggestive there: “The Qur’an, the Media and that Veil Thing.” This book is more of a straightforward summary of Muslim life.
Often taking a helpful direct approach, like she is having a conversation, the author discusses the basics of the faith, its history, and breaking down the demographics (“who’s who”) of Muslims today. She provides an account of Islam that highlights the diversity of believers, who share basic beliefs, but disagree on various matters.
She provides a positive approach, explaining what Muslims believe, their point of view.
“I understand that you love bacon, I finally said one day. I’m sure it’s delicious, and I think there’s nothing wrong with other people eating it if they want to. But it’s just not something I eat.”
This was a response the author made one day to a teacher that kept on saying that she was missing a lot because she could not have bacon.
She’s proud of being Muslim, but realizes there are many different points of view. That is okay. The quote highlights the author’s support of diversity while also politely speaks her mind, educating the teacher as she does the reader here.
Should I Read It?
The author is Muslim, a first-generation South Asian American who grew up in California, and at times she discusses growing up Muslim. She is proud of her faith and this also comes out in her writing. The book provides a positive account of Islam, a religion often negatively portrayed.
The book would be particularly useful for Muslims learning about their faith, to have an informed, positive account of their faith. It also would be a helpful beginner’s guide for those who wish to learn about Islam. It covers the basics there.
The book does not have any pictures*, which might turn off some younger readers. It does have some useful charts. Those who wish for a more in-depth work might wish to look elsewhere, including her other two books. Also, the book is not a complete “all sides” approach that would provide a full look at all the possible criticisms of Islam.
The author on her website says the book is good for those ten and over. I think it would be good for someone in junior high or high school. But, it is not written so simplistically that an adult would find it lacking. This would be a useful book for beginning courses on Islam or religion.
* The book does have a charming cover of seven different young Muslims, showing the diversity of the Muslim community of believers (also known as the “umma”).
This book has three parts: Muslims’ beliefs and practices, the history of Islam, and a breakdown of Muslims in today’s world. I will not try to cover all the ground she covers but will note some highlights to give you a sense of the material.
Part I: Muslim Beliefs and Practices (or, What It’s Like to Grow Up Muslim In California)
- What Do Muslims Eat?
I have seen some reviews that suggest this book is rather concerned about food. It is true that multiple chapters have something to do with food. But, food is important, right? Who doesn’t like food?!
Food was important to Sumbul while she was growing up because it was the one thing that made her stand out, including her inability to eat pork. The rules of what is “allowed” or permissible is known as halal. The chapter also introduces the idea that Muslims disagree on exact rules.
- Definitions (Muslims, Allah) and Declaration of Faith
- Prayer (five times a day, why, how)
The Pillars of Islam are the five basic tenets of the faith. They are: the Declaration of Faith, Prayer, Fasting, Pilgrimage to Mecca, and Charity. The bare minimum for Muslims, however, is the first — the belief in God (Allah) and Muhammad being his messenger.
The chapter in prayer discusses in detail the procedure of daily prayers. Like foods, one way a Muslim stands out is an obligation to pray five times a day. A couple charts provides an example of the five periods of the day the different prayers would be said in Seattle, Washington on specific dates. This is an example of a helpful way she makes Muslim understandable.
- Fasting (Ramadan month; author’s personal experience)
This chapter provides a discussion of the Muslim practice of fasting during the day during the holy month of Ramadan. This includes the specifics, including who is exempt.
She provides an honest accounting of how this is not easy, but explains that it is a helpful way to obtain discipline. It also helps teach compassion by requiring each person to bear the physical and emotional experience of those who suffer hunger worldwide. Fasting also helps the person to concentrate on spiritual things. It is both an Islamic obligation and a useful one.
The chapter includes a recipe for African American Muslim Bean Pie. There is also a helpful “Islamic Calendar” that lists the Islamic name of each month, its meaning, and the holidays.
- A Muslim Pilgrim’s Progress
These chapters cover two pillars of the faith — the importance of charity (in Arabic known as “zakat”) and the obligation to (if you are able) to once in your life to have a pilgrimage (special religious trip) to the holy city of Mecca.
- Everyday Behavior
- Clothing (Basic religious demands but largely cultural)
- Relationships (she did not date in high school; notes different shades of belief)
These chapters cover basic behavior in one’s day-to-day life. Much of it does not stand out from what other faiths believe. There is a lot of individual flexibility involved in specifics, including what is deemed “modest.” The Qur’an, for instance, only has three verses (of more than 6,200) about clothing, and even those are general guidelines.
Part II: When Did Islam Start and How Did It Develop
- Muhammad and His Mission (Origins of Islam from Muslim point of view)
- How Muslims View the World (God, Sin, Angels, jinn/unseen spirits)
- Basis of Islam: The Qur’an [holy book], the Sunnah [word and deed of Muhammad] and the Shariah (religious law) [Author’s third book goes into more detail about Shariah.]
These chapters provide a brief history on the origins of Islam, Muslim beliefs about God and spiritual matters, and basics of religious law. A useful summary of the core principles of the “way of God” (Sharia) is provided as six basic rights: life, family, education, human dignity, religious freedom, and resources (protection of property).
- The Spread of Islam (history and golden age, including a discussion of jihad [religious struggle], which she argues is abused by terrorists)
Part III: Modern Muslim Demographics [data regarding people and groups]
 Who’s Who: Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, and More
This chapter describes the meaning of different groups of Muslims, including the origins of the Sunni and Shi’a division. Sufism is a “spiritual way” of practice and both Sunni and Shi’a (who the author argues are largely the same) can be Sufi.
She also discusses the American group, the Nation of Islam (which Malcolm X joined) and the Wahhabis (framed negatively as a “rigid, intolerant form,” which under 2% of the world Muslims follow) and the Taliban. The Taliban is a “militarized” form of Wahhabis.
 Muslims: Who We Are and Where We Live
This chapter provides a summary of Muslims today. Only 10-20 percent are Arab; the largest group live in Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The diversity of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are discussed. The section on women notes various problems, but also emphasizes the good news (women in leadership positions, education, how Islam protects women) as well.
The book ends on a positive note. Islam is “largely about justice and universal values.” Reforms and modernization takes time, but she is optimistic. She ends saying that she is proud to be Muslim and American, arguing the U.S. is “compatible with Islam,” because it promotes religious freedom and multicultural diversity. Muslims fit nicely into the mix.
Points to Ponder
The author writes what she knows — she is a Muslim and has studied Islamic law. What does her personal experiences and studies bring to the book? What benefits? Does it bring forth any negatives? Does she provide a good well wounded objective account? How so?
She ends the book by arguing that the United States is an ideal place for a Muslim to live, being very compatable with Islamic values. Do you agree? Why or why not? Would someone who had a different understanding of Islam, perhaps a more conservative one, share her understanding?
If you are Muslim, how does her view of Islam compare to your own? If you are not Muslim, did the book change your understandings in any way? How so?
About the Author
Bio: Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up as a first-generation South Asian Muslim in California.
She has a degree in English and law as well as a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She worked as a corporate lawyer, promotes multicultural education, and women’s rights, and human rights from an Islamic perspective. She also is a big Star Trek fan.
Further Reading: This is her second book. Her first book is The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media and That Veil Thing. Her most recent book is Demystifying Shari’ah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country.
Is “Growing Up Muslim” Reliable?
The author notes on her website: “Muslim American and my expertise is in Islamic law.” She follows the basic rule of authors — “write what you know.” The book has some endnotes and an extensive bibliography. I found the book overall reliable.
This book provides a Muslim point of view for middle and high school readers. It is not a neutral outsider account, but is a reliable application of an insider point of view.
By Joe Cocurullo