Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sumbul Ali-Karamali's "The Muslim Next Door"

Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up in Southern California, earned her undergraduate degree in English, with Distinction, from Stanford University, then attended law school and graduated with her J.D. from the University of California at Davis. She began the formal study of Islam at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She graduated from SOAS with her L.L.M. in Islamic Law, with Distinction. She taught Islamic Law as a teaching assistant at the University of London, worked as a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London, and has lectured occasionally on Islam and Islamic law.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, and reported the following:
I laughed when I read about the Page 99 Test and thought skeptically, “Can that really be true?” So I turned to page 99 of my own book and experienced an epiphany.

The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing is the product of my wanting to write an introduction to Islam that was fun to read, hard to put down, filled with stories and anecdotes, and simultaneously academically sound and profoundly thought-provoking. This combination makes the book somewhat difficult to describe, because it doesn’t fit easily into preordained literary boxes – for example, it’s not a textbook and it’s not a memoir. It is an introduction to Islam focusing on the contemporary subjects I’m asked about all the time, and it is written in a candid, conversational style, filled with personal anecdotes about growing up Muslim and female in America.

So, given my occasional difficulty in describing my own book, imagine my surprise when I found that page 99 was a fair representation of its style and cadence! Page 99 begins a chapter called “Religious Hierarchy: Who Makes the Rules in Islam?” It’s not as humorous as many parts of the book, and not as lyrical or touching as other parts of it. But page 99 does illustrate the blend of information and conversational vignette that is characteristic of my book. So here’s page 99 of The Muslim Next Door:

The structure of Islam, or lack of it, confuses some of my friends. A devout Catholic from Mexico asked me distressedly, “But don’t you have a church? Who makes all the rules? Someone must be in charge!” It was hard for her to comprehend a religion in which no central figure, like the Pope, made the rules. And, indeed, Islam is very different from Catholicism, at least as far as its structure is concerned.

Islam has no church and no priesthood. No saints, either, because we have no religious authority to sanctify individuals and authorize their canonization. No popes, no ministers, no rabbis, no curates. No monks, no nuns. In short, no real structured clergy.

At least, we have no clergy in the sense that my friends usually ask about, which is, who marries people? Who gives the sermons? Who performs the funeral service?

Religious authority lies, more or less, with the religious scholars, who have always interpreted Islamic strictures. But there is no central authority, and scholars can (and often do) disagree on the religious guidelines. Although some attempts have been made to establish a top scholarly authority, such as al-Azhar University in Egypt, or the Shi’i designation of Ayat Allah (the anglicized version is “Ayatollah”), no agreement has ever been reached. Not even all Iranians, much less all Shi’i Muslims, regarded Ayatollah Khomeini as their religious leader.

“But,” protested my friend, “who marries people? Don’t you need a priest for that?” Well, no. In Islam, marriage is a civil contract between two people, valid if signed willingly and witnessed. No religious authority need be present. Islam, Muslims have always been proud to say, is a direct individual link to God, unencumbered by religious hierarchy.

“All right, then,” said my friend with abused patience, “how do you all know what to do?”
Read an excerpt from The Muslim Next Door, and learn more about the book and author at Sumbul Ali-Karamali's website.

--Marshal Zeringue