I am often asked how long it took me to write this book. I might say, in response, that I spent half my life preparing for it. I grew up in California at a time when Muslims and even Indians were unfamiliar. Inevitably, then, I grew up answering many questions on India and – more frequently as I grew older – Islam.
When my peers finished their schooling and began working, they began to ask me to recommend books on Islam. I couldn’t. In those days, bookstores carried only dry, abstract textbooks meant for studying, not reading in stolen snatches after a long day of work. How were my friends then to find answers to their questions? They had me to ask questions of, but many Americans do not personally know any Muslims. The media sometimes raises more questions than answers, since media discussion of Islam has always, in this country, been crisis-driven, not explanatory. And there were no books.
So I decided to write a book myself. If I had written it at that time, my book on Islam would have been based on my cultural, “family” Islam, the Islam I knew and grew up practicing. But I didn’t write it then. Instead, I left my job as a corporate lawyer and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law, thereby adding an academic study of Islam to my knowledge of family cultural Islam. Now, I could write a book which not only came from inside Islam, but which also was based on an academic foundation of Islam. I could write a book that contained not only my personal views and anecdotes to make the book fun to read, but one that clearly discussed my personal views as one part of the whole spectrum of diverse beliefs that come under the heading of “Islam.”
And that’s why my book is unique. It is well-researched and contains academically reliable information. But it is also a warm, candid conversation. Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, it contains engaging anecdotes contextualizing Islam in a Western context that anyone can relate to. It contains stories that show in everyday life, not in the abstract, what Muslims believe, practice, differ, agree, argue about, condemn, and condone.
Moreover, my book focuses not so much on the history of Islam or the subjects typically covered in textbooks, but on the topics that constantly arise in my everyday conversations with my friends and acquaintances. It covers the topics that are most confusing and most interesting and most wondered about by average Western non-Muslims.
So The Muslim Next Door does feature chapters on the topics frequenting the media, such as women (marriage, divorce, polygamy, and the veil, or hijab), jihad and what it means, theft and adultery in Islam (because the mention of Islamic law inevitably invokes images of stoning to death for adultery or amputating hands for theft). But it also explains the foundations for those topics, such as: what all that terminology means (shari’a, fatwa, jihad, etc.); how Islam fits into the Judeo-Christian tradition; who’s who in Islam (Sunni, Shi’a, Sufi, Wahabi, Taliban, Nation of Islam); and who makes the rules in Islam (was it Khomeini? why does bin Laden issue all sorts of decrees? what’s an imam?). It’s the foundations of Islam that are important to understanding it, but that usually get left out in the rush to discuss the complex aspects of the religion. My book discusses the complex, problematic issues as well as the simple ones, but it gives the reader a foundation first.
And finally, when I was writing the book, a friend told me that she wanted to see a chapter on my reaction to the horrible attacks of September 11th. “Most Americans don’t know Muslims personally,” she said. So I include a chapter that describes my family’s reactions and thoughts, but that might very well describe the reactions and thoughts of Muslim neighbors across America.
I wrote The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing for all the people who have ever wanted to just sit down with a Muslim at a kitchen table, share a pot of tea or coffee or chocolate, and ask whatever they wanted. I hope you’ll come join me at the table.