Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Review)

Book cover for "Standing Alone" by Asra Q. Nomani.Title: Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam

Author: Asra Q. Nomani

Publication Year: 2006

Pages: 352

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Purchased from Chapters

From the cover:

As President Bush is preparing to invade Iraq, Wall Street Journal correspondent Asra Nomani embarks on a dangerous journey from Middle America to the Middle East to join more than two million fellow Muslims on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims once in their lifetime. Mecca is Islam’s most sacred city and strictly off limits to non-Muslims. On a journey perilous enough for any American reporter, Nomani is determined to take along her infant son, Shibli — living proof that she, an unmarried Muslim woman, is guilty of zina, or “illegal sex.” If she is found out, the puritanical Islamic law of the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia may mete out terrifying punishment. But Nomani discovers she is not alone. She is following in the four-thousand-year-old footsteps of another single mother, Hajar (known in the West as Hagar), the original pilgrim to Mecca and mother of the Islamic nation.

Each day of her hajj evokes for Nomani the history of a different Muslim matriarch: Eve, from whom she learns about sin and redemption; Hajar, the single mother abandoned in the desert who teaches her about courage; Khadijah, the first benefactor of Islam and trailblazer for a Muslim woman’s right to self-determination; and Aisha, the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam’s first female theologian. Inspired by these heroic Muslim women, Nomani returns to America to confront the sexism and intolerance in her local mosque and to fight for the rights of modern Muslim women who are tired of standing alone against the repressive rules and regulations imposed by reactionary fundamentalists.

Nomani shows how many of the freedoms enjoyed centuries ago have been erased by the conservative brand of Islam practiced today, giving the West a false image of Muslim women as veiled and isolated from the world. Standing Alone in Mecca is a personal narrative, relating the modern-day lives of the author and other Muslim women to the lives of those who came before, bringing the changing face of women in Islam into focus through the unique lens of the hajj. Interweaving reportage, political analysis, cultural history, and spiritual travelogue, this is a modern woman’s jihad, offering for Westerners a never-before-seen look inside the heart of Islam and the emerging role of Muslim women.

I’ll admit it, I have a particular soft spot for personal narratives, especially when they involve women’s perspectives on Islam. It’s just something that I find incredibly fascinating. Being a convert myself, I didn’t grow up in the community, nor is my family Muslim, so it’s kind of like I can live vicariously through the author (and learn more about my faith in the process).

Such was definitely the case with Standing Alone. In particular, I loved reading the lengthy section about Nomani’s pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, and how it affected her faith and informed the next few years of her life by re-engaging her with Islam. Something that is done really well in this book is the descriptions of Nomani’s struggle to reconcile her faith and her life choices/circumstances, including her exploration of other faiths and her single motherhood.

Near the beginning of the book, I did find that Nomani seemed to have some very serious prejudices about Islam, and particular about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, but it seemed that she managed to dispel many of these misconceptions all on her own throughout her trip. It was interesting to read about a woman from inside Islam having these opinions and fears, because we often hear about others/outsiders having them, and have a hard time realizing that these concerns can be universal.

The second half of the book is largely a look into Nomani’s struggle to fit into her local mosque, and to reconcile its extremely conservative expectations (in supposedly liberal America) with the experiences that she had in Saudi Arabia, a supposedly ultra-conservative country. I found this juxtaposition fascinating, though ultimately not all that surprising. It was still interesting to read about her journey and her attempt to find a place for herself in her community.

I want to share a quotation from the book that made me smile. It’s from a section where Nomani has just been at a weekend-long workshop about the process behind issuing fatwas (legal rulings):

By the end of the weekend I had learned the first lesson in liberating myself from fear of reprisal. For any fatwa issued to condemn me, I could find a fatwa to affirm me. Sheikh Alshareef called it fatwa shopping. As I drove away from the weekend seminar, I saw one of my fellow students in full black nikab, looking like a Saudi Arabian woman. I read the bumper sticker on her car: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Even though she and I probably ascribed to different interpretations of Islamic law, we at least agreed on that one point.

If you’re looking to learn more about the experiences of American Muslim women, Standing Alone would be an excellent choice of reading material. It’s interesting mostly as a personal narrative, chronicling the author’s journey more so than exploring the scholarly concepts of Islam.


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

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