The Muslim Next Door: The Qu’ran, the Media, and that Veil Thing, By Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Muslims are about one-fourth of the world’s population. If someone wants to be well-rounded in their world-view clearly you should know about something so important to so many. There are also approximately 3.5 million Muslims in the United States. That significant number is growing each year.
There is also a lot of ignorance regarding Islam. This book aims to educate the reader about its history and practices. This is done in the voice of Muslims by a Muslim. The final chapters particularly focus on myths and misconceptions, including in popular culture and regarding 9/11.
The book argues there is not one single Islam; it is often complicated. But, the author tries to explain “the majority view or, simply my own view.” This shows the book is also a personal one — that of a South Asian American Muslim educated woman. Thus, the book often uses “I” or “we.” It is not a third-person account that tries to provide a complete account of all sides.
Should I Read It?
The book provides a positive explanation of Islam through the voice of a liberal American Muslim woman. One that has a degree in Islamic law. She speaks from experience and educated knowledge. It covers the basics of her Muslim faith, history and practice. This provides a helpful resource, including regarding misconceptions regarding Islam.
The material is intermixed with personal experiences. Her personal voice, having a conversation with the reader, is appealing. Her “it’s complicated” sentiments might turn off conservative believers. Others might find it attractive, find it an open-arms approach.
It is not a critical book that provides “all sides” of the question. It is a personal account that sometimes feels a bit like “spin.” But, she argues her case well, including addressing certain myths and biased accounts. Factor this into your reading choices.
The book ends with a set of “questions for discussion,” which is useful for book clubs and classwork. It also has a helpful chronology of Islam from the birth of Muhammed to 2003. Her second book, “Growing Up Muslim, Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam” is also appropriate for teen readers.
There are no photographs or charts (some helpful charts are in the teen version of this volume). This sort of thing might turn off some readers. Breaking the text is a sort of “breather.” The book is written in a style okay for the educated high school student, but might be too detailed for some readers. I think charts, photographs, or the like would have eased things some.
People who liked the book Red, White, and Muslim by Asma Gull Hasan also should enjoy this one as well. Both are by daughters of immigrants and provide a positive view on the diversity of Islam and address various misconceptions.
A recent conversation I had with a friend guided the writing of this book. “Why do you live inside your religion?” she asked. “Why is an educated, thoughtful woman like you as committed to your religion as you are?”
The author states the book attempts to answer these questions, to show what it means to be Muslim. A “viewpoint of a South-Asian American Muslim woman who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles.” It is therefore a basic summary of the purpose of the book.
A “Note on the Qur’an” states that Muslims use the word “interpretation” instead of “translation” since the original Qur’an is sacred and no translation is totally accurate.
This is in contrast to translations, for example, of the original Greek of the New Testament of Christians. Christians generally accept translations into English and other languages without thinking that only the original language is the “true” scripture.
The Western view of Islam is an “evil caricature of the real thing.” Today, Muslims are “the Other” and peaceful co-existence requires understanding. She will explain the truth of the matter as she sees it; other Muslims might disagree with her on certain matters.
Nine chapters provide an in-depth discussion of Islam, including the practices of the faith, its origins and history, and some myths and violations (by believers) arising from it. I will not try to summarize all she said in this summary, but point out some basic highlights.
- Everyday Islam: How Muslims Practice Their Religion (Five Pillars, holidays, etc.)
Five Pillars: Declaration of Faith, Prayer, Fasting, Pilgrimage to Mecca & Charity
- Basic Islamic Concepts and How Islam Fits into the Judeo-Christian Tradition
Most questions she receives about Islam involve basic concepts; it is crucial to understand them since “an entire worldwview can shift on the axis of a basic truth.”
“Islam” means “submission” and “peace.” The central concept of Islam is gaining peace by submission to God (Allah). “Mohammedanism” is offensive — Islam is not the worship of Mohammad. The chapter also discusses the similarities and differences with Judaism and Christianity. (You can read about the differences of the faiths here.)
- Muhammed and the Birth of Islam
Note she generally respectively labels him “the Prophet,” arising from his role as the person who is believed to have had the Qur’an (sometimes spelled “Koran”) revealed to him. She also notes early on the Muslim practice of saying “peace be upon him” (usually in Arabic) after saying his name. She omitted it in the text as too cumbersome, but says it should be implied.
- Qur’an (Muslim holy book) — What It Is and the Complications With Quoting
Complexities of translation, the importance of context; overwhelming message: “forgiveness, mercy, peace and freedom to better oneself and worship God.”
- Who’s Who In Islam
The two largest groups of Muslims are Sunni (about 90%) and Shi’a (about 10%). She argues there are mostly “minor differences” between them, largely based on differences over who should lead the community after the death of Muhammad.
Sufism is sometimes labeled “mysticism,” but that has unfair connotations. Sufis focus on the “inner dimension of Islam.” The Nation of Islam (which Malcolm X belonged to) arose as a separatist, nationalist movement for African-Americans in the United States. In its original form and as practiced under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, it is separate from Islam itself.
Wahhabism is labeled as an “extreme” form of Islam which she underlines is a very small percentage of the whole. The Taliban is a militant branch of Wahhabism. Both are “not what Islam is about” though for historical reasons have (in her view tragic) special significance.
- Religious Hierarchy: Who Makes the Rules (no church and no priesthood; religious scholars make the rules; the wrongs done against the writer Salman Rushdie)
- Women in Islam
Women are treated the same as men in matters spiritual in Islam. The Qur’an greatly advanced the position of women at the time of its revelation. Oppression of women often is cultural. The limited differences between the sexes in the Qur’an itself should be applied in context of the times, such as rules of inheritance being financially different under modern conditions.
She also explains the “veil thing” without taking sides, noting she herself does not cover her hair. Her parents believed that it would make her stand out more given the norms of the U.S.
- Jihad and Fundamentalism: Not the Same
 Jihad” means “struggle,” not “holy war.” Military force under Islam can only be defensive and there are many rules of engagement including not harming innocents. Arab expansion after the death of Muhammad was often consensual (local peoples upset at their leaders; happy Arabs took over), but sometimes not defensive. Like harm to women, this would be cultural, not loyal to the tenets of Islam
 Fundamentalism is an effort to reform or purify the faith. It can be peaceful or militant. Sometimes, militant fundamentalism violate the tenets of Islam, such as terrorism. She lists various ways so-call Muslim terrorists are in fact violating their faith
- Theft and Adultery in Islam: Reflections on Disney’s Aladdin
Aladdin is discussed to show the various stereotypes and biases in cultural portrayals of Islam. She argues that the Qur’an has so many due process restrictions that it is basically impossible to punish theft and adultery even if the harsh penalties cited are taken literally. Any punishments basically are a result of secular laws or wrongful application of “religious” demands.
Chapter 10: An American Muslim’s Reaction to 9/11
This chapter is in response to a friend wanting a section on the author’s reaction to 9/11. She writes: “We American Muslims love our country and favor secularism and see that as reconcilable with Islam.”
She argues Muslims need to educate themselves about their religion to stop divisions and prevent extremists from winning. She notes much of the Islamic world are developing countries and dictatorships. Many Muslims are oppressed by unjust regimes.
Chapter 11: Why Misconceptions Persist: Separating Reality From the Murky Mythology
The author’s parents were immigrants to the U.S. and believed religion should be a private matter; one should let one’s actions show others that you are a good person. The author found this was not good enough to stop misconceptions, a major reason she wrote this book.
A large reason misconceptions persist are media distortions of what average Muslims are like. For instance, Islam is treated as particularly violent, when only a small portion of Muslims are violent while many other religious groups also have violent members. Also, there is selective reporting, many of the good things such as peaceful efforts toward democracy are ignored.
It is important to realize the difference between religion and culture. There are many very different cultures that are Islam; Saudi Arabia is not all of Islam. Language barriers also can lead to misconceptions, including lack of Western journalists that speak local languages.
Such misconceptions have had a long history in the Christian West. But, she lives in the U.S. because it can be a nation of many faiths. She lives “inside my religion because it is sensible, simple, and it teaches good things like forgiveness, tolerance and compassion.”
[Refer back here to my Favorite Quote.]
She ends the book hoping that instead of a “clash of civilizations,” we can avoid ignorance.
Points to Ponder
Sumbul Ali-Karamali often speaks directly to the reader, both by personal experience and using “we.” The book’s personal focus is highlighted by her picture being on the front cover. Does this change the basic content as compared to use of the third person? How so?
The author argues that Muslims have a duty to educate themselves and others as well as adapting to the modern world. But, she argues the media often does not fairly portray them. Do you think this is generally a fair argument? What other groups are not fairly portrayed?
Does the book, including a discussion of misconceptions of the faith, provide a helpful guide toward addressing ignorance of other non-majority faiths?
About the Author
Bio: Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up as a first-generation Indian-American 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 first book. Her second book is Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam, basically a teen version of this one. Her most recent book is Demystifying Shari’ah: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It’s Not Taking Over Our Country.
Is “the Muslim Next Door” a Reliable Book?
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 extensive endnotes and a bibliography. I found the book overall reliable.
The author is upfront about writing from a certain point of view, a Muslim opposing myths of her faith. The book is not a third-person account that gives a full accounting of each side. Few books probably are. The book is written in a particular “voice,” but in a fair and reasoned way.
By Joe Cocurullo