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The Rediff Interview/Writer Asma Gull Hasan
May 21, 2004
Two years ago she published American Muslims: The New Generation. Now she has a new book Why I am a Muslim, published by Thorson Element, a division of Harper Collins in England and America.
She wrote her first book as she was graduating from the New York University School of Law, where she was a staff editor on The Review of Law and Social Change. The book came out as she accepted an offer with the world's largest law firm, Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells, to work in international corporate law.
Senior Editor Arthur J Pais spoke to her recently.
How did you get to be known as the Colorado Muslim Feminist Cowgirl?
When I was submitting a proposal for my first book, I wanted to write a catchy cover letter. I described myself as the Colorado Muslim Feminist Cowgirl. Eight years later people still talk about that description.
I wanted to tell the world that I am a Muslim and I am a feminist. I wanted to show that Islam and women's right are not non-inclusive.
I grew up in a small city in Colorado. I went to Wellesley College, well known for feminist activities, before I joined New York University.
I ride horses and I am not scared of the outdoors. To me being a cowgirl meant someone who was spirited, independent, bold and at the same time someone who cared deeply about people.
So I called myself a Muslim feminist cowgirl and the term got attached to my name. Some traditional Muslims did not like me calling myself a Muslim feminist.
They thought Islam had enough provisions for women's rights. By explicitly declaring myself a Muslim feminist, they thought, I was telling people that the two terms -- Muslim and feminist --were not compatible.
How would you describe Why I am a Muslim?
It is part memoir, part guide and represents the side of Islam that is left out of daily newspapers and television.
And that would be…
A vision of Islam that is ethnically diverse, tolerant of others, and supportive of women's rights. The book is about my personal journey, of growing up in America, going to the best of schools, studying law, and being modern and Muslim.
Would you tell us about the readers you have in mind for your new book?
It is meant for mainstream readers everywhere, in America, in England, in France or any country. It is for people who want to know more about Islam. I also have Muslim readers in mind.
What kind of Muslims do you have in mind?
Those who know little about the faith they were born into. Also those who ought to know that religion is much more than a list of dos and don'ts.
What is your ideal concept of religion?
Every religion should feed one's soul and spirit in the first place.
Your book also extols Sufism. What does Sufism mean to you?
Sufism focuses on inner divinity that is in all of us. When Sufis sing and chant, it is electrifying. Sufis believe that one should keep an open heart to welcome the divinity.
How have you experienced Sufism in your life?
Let me give an example. I was thinking of writing a hard-hitting book following 9/11. I wanted to shout how wrong Islam's detractors were.
Suddenly I heard from a publisher that they wanted a book called Why I am a Muslim. They wanted a young female to write it. The book came to me, unlike the first time around when I had to look around hard and found a small publisher.
I decided to write the book in seven chapters. Seven because the number has religious and mythical connotations. Sufism also provides me with easy-to-remember life lessons.
What kind of life lessons?
For example, if one is open to God, we will know that bad things happen so that good things can happen, too. Sufis will tell you to remain calm amidst disappointments and setbacks. As I was worrying about my second book in response to 9/11, I got the offer to write Why I am a Muslim. Instead of a hard-hitting book, now I have a book that is more spiritual. Surely the world needed this book more.
What is the story we hear about you upsetting Catholic nuns?
(Laughs) I only know what I heard from my mother. I was about five or six when I heard a teacher tell the class that Jesus was the son of God and he was God himself. I had been taught otherwise at home, that Jesus was a revered holy man, a prophet. When the teacher stepped out of the class, I told my classmates that she wasn't telling the truth.
I kind of felt like it was a little secret I had to myself. She heard about what I had said, and I was reported to the stern nun who was the school principal.
My mother was promptly summoned to school and I was asked to go home. I could return the next day but that day I had to be punished. My mother scolded me but she knew I was a mere child.
You have also talked and written about halal dating. What is it?
Young American Muslims have come up with creative solutions to dating -- they fall into roughly three categories.
The first group is Strict Muslims who date halal (in an Islamically permissible style).
The second group I call Eid Muslims, because many are not strict in practice and attend mosques only on holidays. While technically they date haram (unlawfully in Islam), without chaperones, they keep physical intimacy to a minimum and parental involvement at a maximum.
The third group dates Sex and the City-style (definitely haram), openly and freely leading a non-Islamic lifestyle, having premarital sex sometimes in a series of monogamous relationships.
Halal dating is a practice gaining much popularity in the American Muslim community among Strict Muslims and Eid Muslims.
Why is that?
Halal dating is the first cousin of arranged marriage, with young people finding their mates -- within the guidelines of Islam -- instead of their parents arranging marriages. Because the Koran advocates equality between the sexes, it does not permit premarital sex.
Young Muslims who engage in halal dating seek a commitment first and are vigilant about staying true to their religion.
You have also spoken against certain traditions that have become part of South Asian Muslim communities. Could you tell us more about it?
Take the practice of six happily married women accosting the bride to meet the bridegroom. This is not mentioned in the Koran. Yet so much is made of this tradition even in America. At such ceremonies, when we ask for volunteers every woman wants to be part of the group because no one wants to be seen as unhappily married. No one wants to let others know she is having a rough or loveless marriage.
When did you first think of this arrangement?
When my sister married four years ago. I was in law school, and I wanted everything to be done with due diligence (laughs). I did my own search and I found six women who were genuinely happy in marriage.
Would you have six women leading you to your would-be husband?
I am not sure I will marry in the South Asian community.
Imagine you marry a South Asian. What happens?
If my naani insists, I will go through it. It will be for her sake. But I will find out if the women are truly happy with their spouses.
And will they be Muslim women?
They don't have to be. Remember that the tradition is not part of Islam, to begin with.
What is the next book?
I am thinking of a couple of books. One could be a book about how religion has often united people and led to much good.
The second one could be a novel based on some experiences of my father and his parents when they migrated from India to Pakistan and then to America. It will have a lot of fascinating and life-affirming stories.
Could you tell us about one or two stories you cherish the most?
My father was about eight when he was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Everything was scarce: food, medicine, clothes. Every time supplies reached the camp, one person got the provisions first. My father wondered who he was. Even at age eight, my father told himself that he would want to be like that man. He soon discovered that the lucky man was a doctor.
My father decided he too would become a doctor. He achieved his goal.
Image: Rajesh Karkera
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