This is a critical review of the book ‘Standing Alone in Mecca’ by Asra Nomani. The author is a professional journalist and a self professed “modern Muslim woman”. The book, ‘Standing Alone in Mecca’ is a record of her personal experience in the course of a journey whereby she explores her religion and its tenets.
The book focuses on the role of the Muslim woman, the rights that are accorded to her by the Muslim religion as well as the place of the Muslim woman in this century as she travels to make Hajj1. The author has starred in a movie which shares the same sentiment with the book which is being discussed in this study, ‘The Mosque in Morgantown’.
The book is centred on themes such as redemption, courage, self determination and intolerance through the various Muslim women that she meets along the way who are in some of form of predicament with their faith due to their actions.
The book also focuses on various rights and freedoms that Islam women were able to enjoy in the past but which are no longer available today which is the reason the religion is perceived to be conservative today. In the course of the book, politics, culture and spirituality are also explored. The book ends with an ‘Islamic Bill Of Rights for Women in the Bedroom’ and an ‘Islamic Bill Of Rights for Women in Mosques’.
To begin with, the book seems to lack in depth research concerning the issues which the author confronts in the course of the book. This is in spite of the fact that the author wants to be a credible source or part of a revolution for more rights for Muslim women in this century. The book lacks relevant citations where the author has heavily borrowed ideas from sources such as the Quran or the numerous hadith.
Lack of these dissuades readers from referring to these sources and making judgement on their own which would enable them to agree or disagree with the ideas and theories which the author is proposing. Her ignorance in basic facts of the matter that she writes about is visible when she refers to Allahabad as the city of Allah.
The second shortcoming of the book is that it is written from the viewpoint of one who has been socialized as an American. This may be authors attempt to identify with her target audience who are the American people but this alienates the people that would have benefit most from the book; Muslims in other countries especially in the Middle East countries where Muslim women are seen to be oppressed.
This fact is especially apparent in the section that is sub titled ‘An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam’ and it only makes her target audience to be alienated from her ideas. Her attempt to alienate herself from the Muslim world and identify with the United States of America is further displayed by her ignorance of where Saudi Arabia is located.
This is in spite of the fact that she also wants to convince the reader that she has been brought up a Muslim and is knowledgeable of all the aspects of her religion having been taught how to say her prayers by her mother and spending a lot of her childhood in mosques2.
The ‘Islamic Bill Of Rights for Women in the Bedroom’ and the ‘Islamic Bill Of Rights for Women in Mosques’, which have been mentioned in the Appendix A of the book are bound to be controversial; for practicing Muslims as they are devoid of references to authorities in Islam such as history, the Quran, and hadiths as they currently seem to be heavily borrowed from the American social and cultural practices.
The book also contains a lot of repetition especially of the fact that Muslim women were free to pray together during Prophet Mohammed’s time. She also continually expresses her pleasant surprise at the fact that during her Hajj, men and women mingled freely, and that men and women in Saudi Arabia were able to do so in their day to day lives3.
This is in contrast to the situation elsewhere in the world whereby women cannot mingle with me even in the course of prayers and have been forced to pray in lesser rooms or within their houses. The fact that she has a child that was born out of wedlock is also repeated too many times in the book and that this may have meant death for her if she lived in Saudi Arabia.
Her argument for equal rights for the Muslim faithful are mostly grounded on the earlier stages of the development of the religion. She does not tackle aptly the issues that led to the practice of Islam to be what it is today for example the donning of the hijab4.
She fails to identify the fact that Islam is rather a rigid religion and considers itself above any other religion to the extent of prescribing punishment for people that convert from Islam to other religions, the apostates.
Her attempts to present the religion as kind, gentle, and forgiving are therefore out of place not only in this book, but in any other book that seeks to discuss the religion objectively. Islam is a religion that demands nothing but total submission of its followers; it is therefore inconceivable how one can be submissive and yet question.
The author comes out in strong opposition to the rules and laws that have come about in Islam for example those by the Wahhabi. This is a version of Islam that is relatively more conservative in relation to other Islamic sects. Its origins are the interpretations of Abdul-Al-Wahhab of the Quran and the doctrine of Tawhid.
Wahhabism has come under a lot of criticism and condemnation even from the other Muslim sects. The Wahhabi is of the opinion that since the prophet did not shave his beard, the Muslim men should also not shave their beards and that unmarried women may be killed for having sex or children.
This dislike is portrayed when she is in Saudi Arabia5. Asra also questions the fact that women are required to go to Mecca with their spouses. Being unmarried and with a child, she is the type of person who is not only allowed to travel to Mecca, but she is also liable to punishment. According to the author, she found this interesting, but not compulsory.
Her argument in this case may be insufficient as she has based it on a person whim instead of the reality of the world within which we are living in today. The world has become a global village and it is not always guaranteed that a Muslim woman will meet and marry a Muslim man. Some women have also decided to not marry.
In the face of such new situations, some women may never have companions with whom to go with for the Hajj. Therefore, Islam should make exceptions and accommodate women regardless of their marital status. In this regard however, the author is right to say that religion has been used to put up walls which deny women their rights and freedoms which are in the universal declaration of human rights.
The author has also attacked extremism and intolerance to other religions and not just by the Muslims. She is disgusted that Muslims and non Muslims, while at Mecca, cannot go to the same places; there are places that are clearly marked “Non Muslims This Way”6. In addition to this, she realizes that her friend’s husband, who is a Jew, is unreasonably proud of this fact which passes him off as intolerant of other religions.
She is also disgusted by the idea that women should be restricted indoors and that Jews are animals. However, this man is later killed by Islam extremists who do not also sit well with the author. It is easy for people in today’s world to associate with religious extremism especially that of the Muslims. It is a problem in society that has resulted in oppression of people, loss of life and conflict in almost all countries of the world.
The author also challenges the misogynist that is found within the Muslim religion. This she does by exploring aspects such as the wearing of the hijab, the fact that women are not allowed to lead prayers or to mingle with men while in the Mosques, and even the fact that some women are only allowed to pray in their houses.
In spite of the fact that the author may not have offered a convincing argument concerning the origins of these practices nor the reasons why these practices should be abolished, they are well known facts all over the world. Muslim women do not enjoy the same rights as the rest of the women in the world as far as worship, dressing and association is concerned.
Over the years, these oppressive rules seem to increase and spread to new regions on earth most notably in England where there is a group that claims to represent the Muslims in the country and thus claims to have the authority to institute religious rules.
The sexuality of Muslim woman is unacknowledged or totally ignored. Sex out of wedlock and having children out of wedlock is severely punished, most often by death. Interestingly, while the women that are involved in pre marital sex are punished, men go scot free.
In spite of the fact that this book has various anomalies and weaknesses with regards to its writing, it is a good attempt to bring to the fore the lives of Muslim women and suggest that there are alternatives to practice of the religion without unnecessarily interfering with people’s lives; both Muslims and non Muslims.
However, the author fails to offer alternatives given that most of the times when she does things that are contrary to the religion, she does them out of whim and really no in depth reasoning7. This does not invalidate her arguments, but it definitely does not offer any new insights to the reader.
Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. New York: Harper One, 2006.
1Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
2Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
3Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
4Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
5Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
6Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).
7 Nomani, Asra. Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam (New York: Harper One, 2006).