Book read: The Butterfly Mosque

G. Willow Wilson, The Butterfly Mosque (2010)

G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam, has written an engrossing memoir* of her finding of God, how that brought her to Egypt, and of her new life there. This is, at heart, a love story—God, her husband, her new family, Cairo. One of the tragedies of the current “war on terror” is that Americans must objectify the peoples of the Middle East. Hopefully this book will help to reverse that by allowing us to share the experience of Wilson, who seems at times a cultural hapa. I highly recommend this book.

Her conversion story was different than others I’ve read about converting to Catholicism. She converts because she discovers a God-sized hole in her heart, and her realization that God is causes her to embrace Islam long before she becomes a Muslim. “In Islam, which encouraged conversion, there were words for what I believed.” (p. 12.) By way of contrast, stories of conversion to Catholicism usually involve the intellectual rationalization and acceptance of the institutional church with comparatively little stress on God. This may be because the Catholic conversion stories I’ve read are written by those already Christian, but I wonder if the difference is in some way related to the nature of the faiths themselves–Catholicism very much concerned with accidents and Islam with substances. Not that there isn’t minutiae of religious life in Islam, but as Wilson writes it, everything very much flows from the discovery of God and the details are almost irrelevant in comparison. Kun, fa yakun.

Finally, and speaking of converts, I must share the bit of genius description that made me laugh out loud during my read. Wilson talks about her avoidance of other Westerners who act like “Ugly Americans” writ large or new colonial masters. She says of this time (p. 214-15),

More and more, I avoided what few Americans, Canadians, and Britons I knew.

In doing so, I ran the risk of falling into a particular category of white converts: those who are ashamed of the lives they led before Islam, and who try to erase their pasts by flinging themselves headfirst into Arab or Pakistani culture.** Because Al-Azhar University is headquartered in Cairo, the city plays host to a large cadre of converts with this sensibility. I sometimes saw them in line at the duken or coming out of the mosque: the women were veiled up to their eyelashes and the men sported unkempt, vaguely pubic beards.

* Why did the word “memoir” supplant “autobiography”? I have a rough mental distinction between the two words, the latter seems more historically grounded than the former. But nobody refers to St. Augustine’s Confessions as the world’s first “memoir.”

** Why does it always seem to be Arab or Pakistani culture? Why do converts not seem to immerse themselves in Persian or Indonesian culture?

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