December 27, 2012

Why I Write

When I was ten years old, I began writing The Great American Novel. A year later, having achieved over 100 handwritten pages in childish elementary-school script, I got stuck in a corner of the plot from which I couldn’t extricate myself and, in disgust, chucked the whole thing in the wastebasket. (This was before recycling.)

Having parents who had immigrated from India meant that I was nagged to do well in school and become a doctor. No other options. I wanted to be a writer and a professional violinist? Did I want to starve? Why was I at Stanford if I was going to starve anyway? My parents broadened my choices: become a doctor or transfer to a university where my school fees did not amount to over half of my father’s income.

I compromised and went to law school instead, but after practicing corporate law for a few years (and paying off my college loans), I took a step onto a path that would, unbeknownst to me, take me right back to the ten-year-old who aspired to become a writer: I earned a graduate degree in Islamic law.

Sumbul Ali-Karamali

I had always been a practicing Muslim, but now I had an academic knowledge as well, and – given the steadily increasing frequency of Islam featured in the media since the Iranian Revolution and then 9/11 – I decided to write a book on Islam. I didn’t want it to be a boring, historical, abstract description of my religion, either. I wanted to keep my readers awake.

And so I answered, in my book, all the questions I’d been asked about my religion throughout my life. And I added stories and anecdotes of growing up American, Muslim, female, and ethnically Indian in the heart of Southern California. An introduction to Islam, I hoped to write, only with pizazz.  My publisher picked the title: The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.

While on my book tour, though, I was amazed at how many teachers came up to me and asked me to write a book for middle school students. “We have to teach world religions in seventh grade,” they explained, “but there’s nothing age-appropriate on Islam. So can you write something?”

That’s how my new book, Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam was born. It’s written for ages 10 and up, though (I say with respect) it’s about the right speed and time commitment for many adults of my acquaintance, too.

For me, the amazing thing about having written these books is what I’ve learned after their publication. I never knew, for instance, that Americans would have such a difficult time reconciling me (an American Muslim woman lawyer, writer, and lecturer) with their notions of oppressed Muslim women. In my naïveté, I had thought knowing me would be enough to cause them rethink their ideas of Islam and “oppression.”  I’ve been surprised, too, at how many Muslims have written to thank me for my books, from professors to young Muslims who have no Muslim mentors and hear only the soul-devastating battery of disdain, contempt, and hatred leveled toward Islam and Muslims. And I’ve been privileged to connect to an entire network of Muslim women feminists, working toward raising women’s rights and human rights from an Islamic perspective (a fascinating enough subject to merit its own post!).

I’ve had my share of hateful attacks, as well, all from anti-Islamic groups and individuals. But I always repeat to myself the words of the late, great Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren: “Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for.”

I may catch hell for it, but promoting multicultural understanding is worthwhile. Our world is only getting smaller, and we can either learn to get along or we can kill each other. I personally think we should opt for the former. And if my two books are not as far-reaching and world-changing as Justice Warren’s decisions, still I have reached tens of thousands of people since their publication. I never thought I’d be writing on Islamic law rather than working on The Great American Novel or practicing law or even medicine. But, with a bow to the serendipity of fate and hats off to my parents, I’ve achieved my ten-year-old goal to be a writer after all.

1 comment to Why I Write

  • Sheila G

    I’m curious; have you ever received a negative comment from a Muslim who feels you do not fulfill their idea of Muslim womanhood? Irshad Manji, for example, gets plenty of hate-mail from within her own community.

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