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The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.

July 14, 2013

The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson.  NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010.

Writing for an American audience, a young woman lovingly describes her conversion to Islam and her life in Cairo as the wife of an Egyptian and member of his extended family.

Gwendolyn Willow Wilson is a bright and sensitive young woman raised in Boulder, Colorado, by loving, atheist parents.  While attending Boston College, she responded to her own spiritual needs by learning about Islam.  After graduation, she privately began to pray as a Muslim and went to Cairo with friends to teach English.  Soon after she arrived she met and married a young Egyptian man and assumes the role of typical Muslim wife.  She was happy and grateful for the faith and life she has chosen, but troubled that so few in the USA understand her decisions.  She tells her story in order to bridge the gap between her two beloved cultures, East and West.

Wilson writes with clarity and grace, making her memoir a pleasure to read.  She has worked as a journalist for publications in both Cairo and the United States and has published graphic novels.  Her novel, Alif the Unseen, is rooted in Islam folklore and was long-listed for the Orange Prize for women’s writings.  Her own experiences enabled her to sooth the Islamaphobia that has become widespread in the USA.

Islam and the spiritual certainty that she has gained is central to The Butterfly Mosque.  Wilson does not proselytize or defend her faith rationally.  Instead she accepts and asks us to accept her experience of that religion.  Hers is not typical of Islam, of course.  For a time, she practiced it in complete privacy.  Then Islam became a common thread uniting her and her husband who was from a large extended family that included Sufis and Socialists as well as moderate Muslims.  His family gave her an opportunity to meet and write about a leading Muslim cleric.  She has no patience for extreme fundamentalists who claim to practice Islam, but whom she sees as betraying it.  What is most important in her discussion is that readers come to understand that there is a moderation and universalism at the core of the Islamic tradition that is compatible with much that she learned to cherish growing up in the United States.

At times, Wilson writes explicitly about her religious experiences, but elsewhere she tells of what she felt as she entered a new and very different culture that was shaped by being Muslim.  Gradually she comes to love Cairo, despite its heat, its grim, and its loud Muslim extremists.  She finds a place she can belong within the rules by which her new religion and culture define her.  Wearing the veil becomes a choice to remove herself from an aggressive and hateful world.  She comes to enjoy how she is cherished in Cairo and in her new extended family, and would be unwilling to exchange her life for one with more equality.  Although she had previously disdained housework, she finds contentment in cooking and caring for her husband and the rest of his family.  But a part of her also longs for the American part of who she is.

I strongly recommend The Butterfly Mosque to a variety of readers, especially those interested in Muslim woman.  As much as I like this book, however, it does not replace the books by women who grew up in the Muslim world, such as Leila Ahmed and Leila Aboulela, who know it in different, deeper ways.

There is an insightful and very positive review of this book by a Muslim woman at amuslimahwrites.  Check it out.


Crossing Borders, by Leila Ahmed. A memoir starting with growing up Muslim in Cairo

Women and Gender in Islam, by  Leila Ahmed.  An historical account.

Minaret, by Leila Aboulela.  A novel about a Somalian woman in London whose faith is central to her life.

Lyric Alley, by Leila Aboulela. A novel set in Somalia about a Muslim family divided by cultural values and practices.

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