The Invisible Muslim

In late February 2020 – just in time to provide reading material for people entering coronavirus quarantine – my newest book, The Invisible Muslim, hit the bookstands. This travelogue-memoir deals principally with the complicated dance that takes place between religious and ethnic identities, particularly for white Muslims.

The idea for the book was first put to me by Samia Rahman, deputy editor of Critical Muslim, a quarterly journal to which I occasionally contribute. Samia suggested I pitch a book about my experiences as a white Muslim to CM’s publisher, Hurst, as they have a particularly international focus and are especially interested in stories from the periphery of the Islamic world.

My initial reaction was to cringe. How would a book like that be: ‘Me & My Whiteness: A Memoir by Cultural Appropriation Barbie’? Or ‘The Tragic Tale of the Little White Muslim Girl Who Didn’t Belong?’ The very idea of adding and centring yet another white person’s narrative to the vast amounts that already exist repelled me…but the idea didn’t go away.

Over a period of about five years, I found I’d think of the project nearly daily. I was realising I had a lot to say on the subject, as it’s one that has brought up many awkward questions throughout my life. How did whiteness shape my experience of being a Muslim? Did other Muslims give me special treatment, or invalidate my Islam as I was too European – or were those both possible reactions, albeit extremes of a very broad range? How to shape an Anglo-American Muslim identity when there were very few who had gone before me? And how did Islam work as a bridge between me and Muslims of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds?

All these might seem like personally specific trivialities, and in many ways they are. But seen in the context of global history, and the struggle against Islamophobia for those of us who live as minorities in majority secular or Christian states, they touch on much broader and more pressing concerns: can Islam overcome the stigma of Otherness and be accepted on these relatively new terrains?

It’s often been stated that Islam is like water: as it enters cultural containers it takes on their shapes and colours. This is why we have different manifestations of Islamic culture from Malaysia to Bangladesh, Iran to Bosnia, Somalia to Morocco, France to the US, and beyond. And yet there’s something that connects us.

We’re living in times of unprecedented globalisation, and diaspora cultures are almost ubiquitous; as children grow up in third cultures, a kind of religious Creole develops: a language that fuses two tongues and enables us to translate ideas across barriers that might formerly have seemed solid.

In the end, I realised that it was only my white fragility – my defensiveness at accusations of racism and resistance to relinquishing privilege – that was preventing me from talking frankly and critically about how whiteness impacts upon my own Muslim identity and experience. So I bit the bullet, partly as a kind of personal catharsis to put some of these questions to rest, and partly because I thought it might help others to talk about these uncomfortable questions themselves.

But I also believe that a piece of writing needs to be an artefact, something that weaves together history and poetry, texture and feeling and thought provocation, so that it becomes a kind of holograph of the writer’s being that you can stand up and walk around in. Thus The Invisible Muslim was born, a multifaceted meditation on longing and belonging, authenticity and spirituality, story and history, and the Veils that can block out the Other, or provide protection and a welcome invisibility.

You can get your copy at Hurst’s website or Blackwell’s (which seem to have free shipping abroad). Tag me (@medinatenour) if you bookstagram about it (I am, after all, an Instagran.)



‘An important contribution to the conversation about diversity that deserves to be widely read. A rare perspective—peaceful, balanced, lucid and attractive. It might well be a glimpse into the future of a British Islam, confident in its identity, at ease with its setting.’ — Leila Aboulela, author of Bird SummonsMinaret and The Translator

‘A bold and beautifully written memoir of searing honesty and warmth. Whiteman gracefully grapples with the complex layers of identity, whiteness and culture as she maps out the landscape of her life, all the while drawing in history and belief in her uniquely eloquent style.’ — Remona Aly, journalist and broadcaster

‘Medina Tenour Whiteman has approached a unique, complicated branch of Muslim identity with sensitivity and nuance. This book shows that faith is more than adherence to ritual—it is also a means to find oneself.’ — Hussein Kesvani, author of Follow Me, Akhi

His Old Clothes

Baraka de Ibrahim

There was a box on the table and a suitcase open on the gravel near the long benches, littered with large dishes now almost empty and being picked at by the last few lunchers. The box and suitcase were full of jumpers, polo shirts, a windbreaker jacket, trousers. They looked small for someone of his stature; he’d been solid, bear-like, as though carved from wood. A Russian Tartar with a full mouth of gold teeth and a neatly groomed moustache. I only ever saw him a few times before he got ill.

His widow Katya sparkled, her lipstick a girlish shade of candyfloss, her Spanish stilted and apologetic, her hands warm and squeezable and whitened with cooking fat scars. She was getting used to her new name, Karima, having become Muslim only days before he died. It was one way to remember him. Now she smiled with an immense joy for having people to give his clothes to, gratitude for having had him in the first place, excitement at sharing him out to everyone the way a musician is thrilled for a rapturous reception.

There were often things for sale or give away outside the mosque on a Friday afternoon after Jumu’ah prayers, boxes of Sadaqah clothes, halal chorizo and salami, booklets of transcribed teachings. Today another woman was laying out dresses, oriental perfumes and jewellery on one of the tables that sloped at an unfortunate angle.

The worshippers were already drifting to their cars, cajoling their children to get their shoes on, put down that poor kitten and get in. My toddler kept running off to see the older kids, the cars starting up, the two donkeys brought down belatedly by a neighbour for the last few children to ride on in the dustbowl car park. Some of the men, having lingered this long after the food – Karima’s unbelievable chocolate and almond cake – had called the adhan for Asr and were inside praying. Meanwhile, the rest of us (mostly ladies, no surprise there) were pawing through the clothes and perfumes, appreciating them in muted voices.

That was when I noticed the things Karima was offering, not knowing whose clothes they had been. I love a good jumble sale; I’d once planned on holding a monthly ‘Rumble in the Jumble’ in the sleepy English village where we used to live. My newest ruse was to find wool sweaters, over-sized, and to felt them in a hot wash cycle to make neat winter things for me and my son.

I could see, being slowly uncovered as others pulled overlying garments out of the boxes, a peach of a jumper. It was sort of oatmeal in colour, but it was more the feel of the wool that my eyes were already stroking that made me pick it out.

“Baraka de Ibrahim,” Karima said with warmth. 

So this jumper – these clothes – had been his! The man who, less than a month ago, was released from his breakneck descent into amnesia, incoherence and disability as his cancer metastasized and consumed him from the inside out – these were the textiles that used to hug him loyally, through pain and calm, hold him like those strong hands of Karima’s did. 

During that time there were men going to see him by turns every day, helping him to move about; he was too heavy for Karima to carry. She was also being visited by the women, who brought her cooked food so that she didn’t have to cook for herself, though her own cooking probably far outshone theirs. She was still working in the mornings, cleaning someone’s house and helping their decrepit mother to wash herself and go to the bathroom.

Maybe I thought that, being just pregnant with my second child, I was too close to the start of the existential roundabout to be an appropriate presence in their home, a mirror into what their own lives were like thirty years ago when their children were still in nappies. One way or another, I felt they’d understand if I didn’t call by. Ibrahim’ death didn’t need to be a bandwagon.

When he did die, mercifully not too long after the worst of his illness had started to bite, the men followed the traditional Islamic rites of washing his body so that it didn’t putrify in the ground too soon, wrapping him in shrouds, perfuming him, and laying him directly in the ground without a coffin. My friend, a carpenter, had made a sort of wooden deathbed for the body to lie on in the grave, so that it didn’t touch the earth immediately. The whole process takes a day, and the work of perhaps ten strong men to fill the grave – six feet of empty space, minus that occupied by the body, astonishingly small once the life that once animated it has left.

The whole way through this process, it was human hands that had touched him, held him, carried him, washed him, buried him. These were the same hands that had shaken his while he was alive, had passed him plates of his wife’s superlative potato and chicken casserole, or grapes and persimmons from friend’s gardens, or slices of watermelon to slake that unbearable summer thirst. The voices that sang his funeral cortege up the hill to the Muslim graveyard, where people could be buried in the ground instead of in slots in a concrete wall like in the Catholic cemeteries – cementerios as they are so aptly called – those voices were familiar to him, had also touched him acoustically.

The night of the funeral also happened to be the wedding celebration of the sheikh’s daughter. Some of the guests there had also been at the graveside only hours before. It had drizzled that day, a damp and welcome conclusion to the furnace that had been September – baraka, everyone said: blessings.

The rain didn’t dampen any spirits that evening. The double duty guests had changed their clothes, scrawled on some make-up, adjusted their outlook from one of grief to one that straddled endings and beginnings, joy and sadness being joined on an elastic band, one pulling the other after it in a perpetual hopscotch. The sheikh’s daughter danced; the flamenco dancers danced – even the random Senegalese guest who gatecrashed the party danced. It was a wedding that embraced all things sober and ecstatic, the Sufis and the teenage fashionistas, the old people (even me, aged with parenthood) looking back, wistful and relieved, and the young people looking forward, daring and unharmed.

At the Friday prayers a month later, the young couple had already moved on, as had so many other things. The plates of food had not yet been laid out, the boxes of jumble and perfumes still sat unopened. The bride’s father was away and an Algerian man gave the khutba which, admittedly, I largely spent stroking my son’s soft bare feet and round little nose. But several of the women were in tears, of release and not of sadness. Even one of the toughest, most self-abnegating ones among them was startlingly serene, her eyes closed, no longer clacking nervously on her tasbih beads and sighing with the hopelessness of her spiritual task.

The tears being shed fell from faces made tender through sudden exposure to an intense, boundless, undiscriminating love. There was no hurt, or guilt even, except perhaps regret for never having noticed it before, for having complained despite it. Even the usually raucous kids playing outside had inexplicably chosen not to beat each other up with sticks or throw one another into a hole.

I was hardly listening to the talk he gave, confronted as usual by the initial culture shock of going from my house/local supermarket/yoga group to this place where women wore dozens of layers of clothing even in hot sweaty weather and people stood in rows putting their foreheads on the carpet. Even though I was born a Muslim and brought up with Sufism as a daily part of my life, I still experience this jolt of misplaced expectations, of my perception of normality, whenever I come to a mosque without steeling myself for the turbulence in advance.

But when surrounded by people whose whole beings seem to have been pounded by some powerful waves, and who have yielded to them and come out freed from their stiff, powerless defences, it is impossible to be impervious. The love-ache spreads and you learn that you only feel bruised when you try to repel it.

The hugs and kisses that always come after a Friday prayer were this time long and fully felt, not the usual mosh pit of women trying to kiss each person, mentally ticking them off the list. It was as though all of us were rising out of a surreal and beautiful dream at the same time and recognised people they had just been dreaming about.

Not much was said that I can remember. Orders were called from the kitchen and we drifted out dozily to plates of rice, salsa, lentils, olives, pumpkin soup and Karima’s potato and chicken casserole, which was so delicious I have to mention it again. “Very easy,” was all Karima managed to say among the dazed chatter. And then came her chocolate and almond cake…never had so many women wanted a recipe so badly. I was sitting next to her. I wanted to eat her up, her food was so good.

In the porch of the mosque that afternoon, a golden sense of unburdening lingered on well after the meal was cleared away and digested, the obligatory Moroccan green tea drunk, the various tasks as home needing to be done remembered. I don’t know what it was. Sometimes a great collective weight eases from a people’s mind, the strain of keeping heads above water giving in to an overwhelming urge to let the tide carry them to shore – whatever shore it may be. I am reminded of something sweet my father’s sheikh used to say: “Relax your mind and learn to swim”.

And there was Karima, her husband now fully relaxed and swimming in the tsunami of the infinite, giving away her cake recipe and his old clothes in candyfloss pink lipstick. I wondered if she felt that neither had ever really been hers to possess. As the Prophet Muhammad said, peace and blessings be upon him, whatever you give away you will be reunited with in the Garden. Our greatest losses in this world are our greatest gifts in that ever-present other.

October 2009

Madre de Cueva, part 1

We looked at the lobsters, bobbing silently in their strip-lit tank, awaiting a quick boiling while their future eaters sat comfortably at neatly-linened tables, red carnations standing in elegant little vases. There are two kinds, I point out to him, noticing it for the first time myself; one has claws, the other is just like a big shrimp. Langostas y langostinos.

He was a little too grubby for such a chi-chi restaurant, I realised, my little 2-year-old boy with the grey gritty sand of Salobreña’s beach in his hair, dusted over his clothes, caked onto his sandals. Tom was holding Rosa Nour for a minute, watching the football – Brasil v. Argentina – ignoring the crashing waves on the rocks outside the window behind him. He exchanged knowing remarks with the manager, sitting at the till beside him, about this and that player’s season, who might win the World Cup.

The sun was beginning to set over the water. Waiters flitted about offering things to drink, the evening’s special, ever more complicated and expensive. The English couple at the next table cooed admiringly at our baby – 2 months old today, I say proudly – while Tom races about after Shamsie.

It is about now that I realise how peculiar and wonderful it is to be out at a fancy restaurant (something we do extremely rarely) with a rambunctious toddler and a tiny baby. Nobody bats an eyelid, even when Rosa starts crying and I end up squashed into a corner not designed for breastfeeding in, getting her to sleep before snuggling her up in the sling.

I wonder what the scene would look like if this were happening in England. Frosty waiters kindly requesting that we strap the child into a high chair while he eats the kiddie menu of chicken wings, peas and chips. Diners bristling at the sound of the baby’s tired mew. Quiet comments being made about my responsibility as a mother to have her kids in bed before 9 pm.

Imagined. Not real. I wouldn’t even try this scene if I were back home, if England is indeed home any more. People would be nice, cordial, polite. Maybe even relish the sight of parents so haphazard in their lifestyle.

But part of me is certain that I would be creeping about, apologising at every squeak, ordering little hands out of shelves and cupboards right now, lonely in my task – whether or not the world offered me such a cool reception.

So the flip side of that invasive Spanish bolshiness is the way in which they ruffle a cute kid’s hair, or warn him about running into the road, or berate him for knocking over a chair before giving him a lollipop and telling his mother how their own sons had had so much energy when they were that age. The weight is distributed over other people’s shoulders, most of whom you have never met.

They are a fabric of hands holding wrists, interlocking, making a mesh to catch the wild and the wayward, keep in touch with the touch organ of their neighbours, sometimes without ever saying a word to them directly. Not because it is a principle of theirs, a high-minded theory they found in a book, a movement growing online.

It is just the way we are held together, holding each other up.

Your Life, A Work Of Art

Two chestnut saplings and a rosebush

When I was pregnant with Caveboy, I had a little room in my mother-in-law’s expansive attic for myself, to use as a studio. There was a window overlooking a rather bleak field with a strip of ugly pollarded trees lining the marshy bank of a river. It also had a radiator, which was of the utmost importance, as I spent many hours there after the early winter nightfall, at a blue painted desk which had belonged to one of my brother-in-law as a kid, staring at my laptop trying to work, or toying with paints.

Behind me was a pinboard with various meaningful messages, hadiths, saying of Sufis, a copy of my album cover, and other tat stuck to it. At the bottom was an A4 sheet turned sideways that charted all the things I intended to do that year (2008), which had things like Short Stories, Novel, Music, Website, Artwork running along the top, and details in the columns below – work on this or that paragraph; find recording equipment, studio to make new album; learn how to silk screen.

Somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner were the words, in thick marker pen, HAVE BABY.

It sounds ridiculously detached, but at that time having a child meant putting all things personal and creative on an indefinite back-burner, so my due date was also my deadline for everything artistic I wanted to ‘get done’ – achievements, triumphs to notch up on an invisible cosmic post. Things to make me feel dense, that I filled some space in the world.

As the novel ground ever slower and slower on my creativity mill, I began to despair at the vague, lurking thought that I was going to cease to be ‘me’: an individual, an original, even some sort of starlet in my very tiny galaxy. Those great oeuvres of songwriting and literature that danced just above my page, waiting to be called down into materiality, would instead drift off to a better home, a more committed pen.
Not long before I was due to give birth I spoke to a friend on Caveman’s masters course, who was a working artist and a single mother of a 10 year old son. When I voiced my worries she replied, “Don’t worry. As soon as you see that baby you won’t be interested in your novel, or anything else.” It wouldn’t be forever, she reassured me, but the simple and mind-blowing fact of having a baby was sure to leave all other ambitions floundering in the dust miles behind.

I was still only half-convinced, so I spoke to my mother, and asked her how I would be able to put such an enormous, compulsive desire as writing on hold for what could be years, decades, even. Her answer was this: “When you have kids, your life becomes your work of art.”

I’ve thought about this response many times since then, and I’ve discovered that it means so many things. Not only the traditional housewifely role of making your house beautiful, arranging flowers – and growing them yourself, sewing snappy, chic outfits with limited resources, cooking splendid meals for bedazzled guests.

Making your life a work of art means greeting the world as a muse, looking for the telling detail, the great perception. It means observing your environment as though you had the world’s most expensive camera in your hands, being the captive audience of a collision of shoppers on a spring-lit street, falling deeply in love with a forest canopy and its infinite rearrangements of shifting light.

Where do all of the sparkling phrases, sublime paintings and boundlessly narrative photographs come from, anyway? There is a spring under the turf that sends up its fruit, water filtered through miles of chalk and limestone from eons-old rainstorms; you don’t just chip at the surface and find something to quench your thirst any old where. Refill the underground lakes. Let everything in reality percolate in.

And return it to the world, too – offer your whole being as the masterpiece you don’t have the time or the skills to execute perfectly right now.

The life embodied in you, what makes us distinct from a cucumber or a wall fitting, that becomes your work of art, too; work done without ever lifting a paintbrush or sketching out a plotline. Effortless work, being transformed in every moment into one endlessly regenerating story, a picture that never sits still.

To witness that life entering the world, not dipping in a cautious toe but leaping blindly into a vast unknown place without ever retracting its intention to do so, is to have your artistic apprenticeship forged in your own body and scarred into your belly’s skin. It should never be seen as a pitstop on the artist’s personal racecourse; let it be instead its fuel.