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Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Butterfly Mosque: An Individualized Approach To Islam

G. Willow Wilson is an American Muslim who has written a highly regarded novel, Alif The Unseen, which I haven't read.  I did read Vixen: Return of the Lion, a comic book series which is available as a graphic novel.  I loved the African location and folklore content.  I thought it was excellent and I hadn't noticed that G. Willow Wilson wrote it at the time.  I just found out that she was the author from her website.  I've been trying to find time to read the first Ms. Marvel graphic novel, which I knew she'd written.  She is the first female Muslim superhero. I know it's a must read for me.  It's been on my library books pile twice, and I had to return it unread.  I guess that I need to request it a third time.

The Butterfly Mosque is her memoir dealing with her conversion to Islam, and how her life changed afterwards.  I wanted to know about her approach to Islam, and how it worked within the American and Egyptian contexts that she navigates.


Early in the book, while she was getting serious about conversion to Islam, Willow did two things that astonished me.  She got a tattoo of the word for truth in Arabic to remind herself of her commitment to  convert.  At least it wasn't an image of a human or animal which would have been considered idolatry.  Like the stricter Jewish paths, Islamic tradition totally rejects all art that displays images of living beings.  She also did a Tarot reading to decide whether she ought to take a job in Egypt.  Both tattoos and Tarot are forbidden in Islam.  For me, this was obvious due to my Jewish background.  Judaism and Islam have commonalities. They have the same perspective on tattoos and Tarot.   Both believe that the body is God's temple and that tattoos desecrate it.   Both believe that Tarot is idolatry.    I was utterly dumbfounded that Willow wanted to convert to a religion without having done enough research to know its prohibitions.

Willow's approach to religion doesn't involve much study.  She is intuitive and mystical.   I admire people whose faith is based on their inner experiences.   Many years ago in an undergraduate class on ancient history I learned that religio, the Latin word from which religion is derived, means to re-link or re-connect.  This implies that religion is about re-connecting with the divine.  Willow receives dreams and visions that she believes come from God.  People who have never have such experiences question their authenticity.  Those who do receive these messages are innately spiritual.  They can't relate to the idea that the universe is Godless because their experience tells them otherwise.  She says on page 231 "I didn't believe in Islam, I opened my eyes each morning and saw it."   Unlike most people born into an environment of Western scientific materialism, Willow never struggled with atheism or agnosticism.   Religion is the bedrock of her existence.

This doesn't mean that Willow doesn't question dogma.  In fact, direct experience of the divine means that you are less likely to accept other people's interpretations.   Willow feels that she is qualified to interpret the Koran for herself.    In Christianity, Protestants were originally those who claimed the right to interpret the Bible for themselves.  The Catholic Church called them heretics.  Sufism is a sect of Islam that is based on the ability to receive mystical revelations which guide their practice. They are also called heretics by those who believe that only Imams are qualified to guide the practices of believers.

Willow was lucky to find an Egyptian Sufi who was looking for a woman who was both a believing Muslim and independent minded. Willow was a rare find for him as well.  I was impressed by their compatibility.

I was  delighted that Willow's Islamic name, Zeinab, is considered a variant of Zenobia, the Warrior Queen of Palmyra.   I re-posted my review of Libbie Hawker's Zenobia novel originally from Book Babe here.  I hope that Willow was thrilled by her name's association with Zenobia.

At the end of the book, Willow decided that she needed to return to the United States to fight Islamophobia, and her husband reluctantly applied for a green card to accompany her.  Even though she felt that her mission was important, Willow cried when she left Egypt because she had loved her life in Cairo.

 I felt that the book ended abruptly.  I wanted to know what happened next.  The cover flap says that Willow now divides her time between Cairo and Seattle.  How does that work out?  Does her husband still accompany her on her trips to the U.S. or does he remain in Cairo?   Does Willow work with allies in her fight against Islamophobia?  How successful has she been as an advocate for the rights of U.S. Muslims?  Will there be a second volume of Willow's memoir?  Questions, questions, questions.  This was a fascinating book, but I wish that it hadn't broken off where it did.  I might have considered the book more resolved if there had been a brief epilogue.



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