Reviewed by Scott F. Parker
In The Butterfly Mosque, G. Willow Wilson combines the stories of her conversion to Islam and her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim with a case for the co-existence of Islam and the West in herself -- and by extension in the world. But what the reader takes away from the book, besides an appreciation for Wilson's limning of Cairene life, is not the feeling that Islam and the West (or more generally, religion and old-fashioned liberalism) should never have been at odds. Rather, if there is a theological revelation, it's the approach Wilson models as a literary critic: she's a better one, capable of reading ironically, than fundamentalists of any stripe.
Wilson's worldview, that is, is not shaped by her faith in the divinely inspired Koran. It's the other way around: in the Koran she finds the world she already lives in. And where the Koran is in conflict with her views, she's content to downplay it, noting, for example, that "tattooing is frowned upon in mainstream Islam," and that Islam "encourage[s] conversion." Obviously, some readers of the Koran would write these sentences with stronger verbs. But it is Wilson's strength not to read the Koran literally, as it is perhaps her weakness that she gives some cover to those who do. (Cf. Koran 9:5: "Fight and kill the disbelievers wherever you find them, take them captive, harass them, lie in wait and ambush them using every stratagem of war.")
There is never any doubt in the memoir that Wilson will convert. She was "raised an atheist but was never very good at it," and was attracted to Islam via friends in college. When she had adrenal distress in reaction to her birth control, long before she went to Egypt to convert, she attempted to bargain with God: "I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim." It would be over a year before Wilson recovered, but she decided to convert anyway. While this doesn't make for very sophisticated theology, the disclosure demonstrates the excellent self-understanding that Wilson's narrator maintains throughout the book. The bargain tells us nothing about whether there is or is not a deity, but it tells us a great deal about the kind of person she is. And we trust a narrator who is willing to expose her own rationalizations. Later, Wilson makes her inclination explicit: "I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it."
Concomitant with her conversion, Wilson meets and falls in love with Omar, who helps her bridge the Egyptian-American cultural divide that might otherwise have hastened a return to the United States. Omar and his large family come across very well, as do Wilson's family members when they visit Cairo to meet their in-laws-to-be; none of them are troubled much by religious difference. It's a happy story that gives hope for compassion larger than religion. But Wilson isn't satisfied with offering an example of harmony between Islam and the West -- she wants to make an argument about it. Unfortunately, the honest, reflective voice that makes her such a capable memoirist occasionally lets her down as a theologian. When she writes, "I didn't stop to wonder why the howling and snarling of the fundamentalists, who woke me at five a.m. every morning, and who were forcing us all to live in smaller and smaller boxes, had not turned me off Islam," we know her well enough not to be surprised, but that doesn't mean we don't stop to wonder ourselves. Islam in itself, Wilson shows, does not cause violence, but neither does her tolerant brand of Islam make amends for the world's fundamentalist strains.
Thus, while she wants to show that Islam and the West are compatible (and this is a memoir with a thesis: "The struggle for the Islam I loved and the struggle for the West I loved were the same struggle, and it was within that the clash of civilizations was eradicated"), the arguments aren't very convincing. Wilson writes early in the book, "When videos of angry men in beards flooded the airwaves, claiming their religion was incompatible with the decadent West, I believed them." And to what can she appeal to disagree with them except her own understanding of Islam, her own reading of the Koran? Wilson is in no position to convince the reader she has a stronger claim to Islam than do the fundamentalists. On a meta-level, what The Butterfly Mosque does is much more important. It reveals not the correct or final interpretation but the value of interpretation itself.
Wilson finds fundamentalists to be bad readers of Islam and herself a better one. But even if you disagree with her readings (and the skeptical reader will have no problem disagreeing -- see her argument for Islam as the best of many bad religious options, or her defense of Shari'a law), you will not disagree with the implication that religion is always a matter of interpretation, which is the insight that may one day dissolve the clash between Islam and the West. Wilson writes, "I worried I would soon be forced to choose between two halves of myself." Because of the generosity of her family and Omar's she never has to choose, but neither would she have to if the Koran were more often read as literature rather than as doctrinal text.
Books mentioned in this post