“In order to be enrolled in sex education, students needed parental permission. Every single student received it, except me. The only brown kid. The only Muslim,” writes Haroon Moghul. Moghul was sent to the library to do a project on the solar system, instead of receiving sex education. But did that stop Haroon from going on a date with the gorgeous Italian beauty, Carla, his classmate? Certainly, not.
The excerpt from Moghul’s piece is the crux of Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi’s edited volume, Salaam Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy. It captures the Muslim dilemma about love and sex outside marriage, considered haram or forbidden. The book, a collection of twenty-two personal narratives of American Muslim men’s struggle for love and intimacy, is divided into three parts: “Umma: It Takes a Village,” “Sirat: The Journey,” and “Sabr: In Sickness and in Health.” In this collection, love becomes a site for negotiation between cultures, races, spaces, and histories. Love is one of those ordinary practices that enraptures the mundane with utopic possibilities and enables the emergence of a new self.
This collection segues into their earlier exploration of American Muslim women’s romantic lives, Love, InshaAllah. While Muslim women’s romantic forays–in America and in the Middle-East–have been extensively explored, the love lives of Muslim men didn’t gain much attention, partly because of the accepted notion that the patriarchal nature of Islam confers on Muslim men a greater degree of autonomy in matters of love and sex. The editors of the collection intend to dispel such a myth. While Muslim men might occupy a privileged position in the public space, their emotional space is equally fraught with dilemmas like their female counterparts. As the editors write in the introduction: “But what about the emotional space to be honest and vulnerable about matters of the heart, without jeopardizing notions of masculinity and manhood? The space to talk about sex, coupled with love and intimacy, without it being a joke or the raunchy punch line from a movie?”
In America, Muslim men are caught between desires for intimacy and a tradition informed by religion and the attendant cultural assumptions. In the book, one comes across stories of secret rendezvous, dates, awkward sex filled, as Yusef Ramelize writes in his piece “Who I Needed to Be”, “with guilt and shame” to the extent that one runs “to the sink to make wudu… [dropping] to my knees in prostration, begging God for forgiveness.” The reader encounters professionally successful men failing to find a life partner; men who lack the language to express their emotions; men who turn out socially awkward after breakup with one’s fiancée; Arab, Indian, African American, and Japanese American men who face religious and racial barriers; men who undergo crisis of faith and acceptance after converting to Islam; men who feel alienated because of their sexual preferences, both within the family and the community; men who find love in Muslim partners after their failed relationships with the non-Muslim ones; men who persevere in their faith, faced with the unexpected death of a partner or facing personal setback; men who transgress the sanctity of marriage, despite knowing full well the Islamic injunctions against extramarital relations.
In various ways, the book foregrounds contradictions between the rhetoric of American freedom and democracy and the failure of such freedoms to translate into the personal and sexual lives of the immigrants’ children, prompting Alykhan Boolani to write, “What is this obscure desire for Freedom and Democracy in my love life? Is this–gasp–what assimilation feels like?” and hoping that the new generation will build “new, complex, and nuanced stories, alive and reflective of our changing conditions.” While the first generation immigrants appreciate the idea of political freedom and democracy, it doesn’t often translate into the sexual freedom of their children, who inhabit a hybrid space between the west and the east.
In the title of the book, the word “Muslim” seems to denote a unifying rubric, predominantly defined by a religious identity that exceeds all other barriers. However, many of the narratives in the book demonstrate the fallaciousness of such a belief, as the category “Muslim” is riven along the fault lines of ethnicity, geography, race, and culture. Such barriers and incongruous religious and cultural expectations don’t lead Muslim men to discard their faith. Rather, more often religion provides solace in the face of crisis. Khizer Hussain in “Fertile Ground” writes: “Allah says in the Quran that you will be tested in this life by what you have been given and what you have not been given.” In some cases, these men creatively negotiate their faith along with material demands, such as in Anthony Springer Jr.’s, “Finding Mercy.” Springer Jr. notes, “I could be Muslim and have questions about faith.”
The crisis of faith becomes most apparent in the case of same-sex relationships. Ramy Eletreby “spent years shaming myself and ‘praying the gay away’,” finally managing to reconcile his faith and sexual orientation after watching a play in New York City by two Muslim homosexual women. Likewise, A. Khan’s story narrates his spiritual experience after he finds his partner praying immediately after one of their love-making sessions: “Never before meeting him had I met another Muslim who could pair his sexuality and piety in this way.”
Love, intimacy, and sex do not always end in a happy ending, especially when men negotiate faith and bodily desires. Yet, what makes the collection immensely readable is cheeky humor that seeps through most of the narratives. Mohamed Djellouli finds out that the woman he has been dating is the daughter of his STD doctor, one who has more intimate knowledge of his physiology than his daughter. In “The Other Iran-Iraq War,” Ibrahim, an Iraqi American undergrad student, pursues an Iranian girl only to find out she is married to the man, who he had assumed was her father. Such awkward humorous moments abound in the book.
The question that this excellent collection might have to face: Why such curiosity about the love lives of Muslims? How does the western or non-Muslim gaze work in this case? The book’s premise faces the risk of intimating that Muslims never had a sex life, as if the bearded Muslim men and hijab-wearing Muslim women were sexless objects. The book is, however, a racy, humorous, and riveting read, and it compellingly dispels some of the myths about love, sex, and intimacy surrounding Muslim men. The book, simultaneously, feeds the non-Muslim gaze.
The global Anglophone market consumes such auto-ethnographic writing by normalizing the exotic into sameness: after all, the American Muslim men are just like “us” when they love and have sex.
[This review first appeared in Hyphen Magazine.]