The Butterfly Mosque: A Young Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam (Review)

Book cover for "The Butterfly Mosque" by G. Willow Wilson.Title: The Butterfly Mosque: A Young Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam

Author: G. Willow Wilson

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 320

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Purchased from Chapters

From the cover:

The extraordinary story of an all-American girl’s conversion to Islam and her ensuing romance with a young Egyptian man, The Butterfly Mosque is a stunning articulation of a Westerner embracing the Muslim world.

When G. Willow Wilson – already an accomplished writer on modern religion and the Middle East at just twenty-seven – leaves her atheist parents in Denver to study at Boston University, she enrolls in an Islamic Studies course that leads to her shocking conversion to Islam and sends her on a fated journey across continents and into an uncertain future.

She settles in Cairo where she teaches English and submerges herself in a culture based on her adopted religion. And then she meets Omar, a passionate young man with a mild resentment of the Western influences in his homeland. They fall in love, entering into a daring relationship that calls into question the very nature of family, belief, and tradition. Torn between the secular West and Muslim East, Willow records her intensely personal struggle to forge a “third culture” that might accommodate her own values without compromising the friends and family on both sides of the divide.

This is probably the first memoir that I’ve read of an American convert to Islam – or, really, of any convert to Islam. It’s like I live in a vaccuum; I don’t really learn about other peoples’ stories, or at least not in depth. There’s this joke – or, rather, a stereotype disguised as a joke – about how the Muslim scene in certain areas is overcome by an influx of white female converts. If that’s the case, then I guess that both Willow and I are part of that influx.

Aside from this, I found a lot of other parallels between my own story and Wilson’s, which definitely made the story resonate with me. There are also some very universal truths in her memoir, though, which makes The Butterfly Mosque just as interesting and relevant to Muslims and non-Muslims of both American and Middle Eastern persuasions.

Most of this memoir focuses on the cultural issues that Wilson is faced with as she tries to reconcile different parts of herself and different people that she loves. There are also bits and pieces – more in the beginning, decreasing as her story continues – about her conversion, as well as the events and inner monologues that happen both before and after she becomes a Muslim.

Although Wilson generally avoids other Americans while in Cairo, even other converts, there is one scene where she has a very profound conversation with another Western (half-Cairene, half-Scandinavian) convert about what life is like after taking the shahadah:

“[…] you know how it is, at first after you convert you cry every five minutes.”

I laughed. “It’s so true! You get so sensitive -”

“See something sad, cry. See something happy, cry.”

“There’s this Donna Tartt novel,” I said, referring to The Secret History, “that calls becoming religious ‘turning up the volume of the inner monologue.’ She’s talking about the Greeks, but the principle is the same.”

“Turning up the volume … yes, that’s what it was like. A very strange experience.” She smiled. “And here we are.”

Wilson’s memoir touches on a variety of topics, but what she does the best is illustrate the so-called “clash of civilizations” and the effects that this has on her own life. The Butterfly Mosque is the perspective of someone who finds herself to be a bit of an outsider both in her own homeland and in her adopted country, and it is interesting to follow along with her journey navigating the spaces around and between the two different cultures.

One thing this book will definitely do is shatter a lot of negative stereotypes. Wilson’s identity negotiates the line between West and East, intersecting both cultures and creating a sort of hybrid all her own.


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.

8 thoughts on “The Butterfly Mosque: A Young Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam (Review)”

    1. It was! I really enjoyed reading a conversion story from someone who isn’t conservative; the ones that get published tend to be written by super-conservative Wahhabi types, and they scare me.

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