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.)

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Reviews:

‘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

You Forget

The same eternal newborn returns each time
to different arms, does the same belch
(in various tongues)
deposits the same spit-up
on T-shirt shoulders,
sealskin coats and jellabiyahs
saris, kurtas, kimonos
striped sweaters and batik robes.
Reeling back through its
tireless trajectory it
did the same on togas, Celtic cloaks
bare skin and button-neck Victorian blouses.
This is a well-practised baby
educated in how to curl its toes
when the sole is stroked
expert at rounding its lips towards
a touch on the cheek
it snuffles politely when hungry
– eyes closed to smell better –
or howls with gum ridges exposed
face the same outraged knot
no matter the colour of the cloth
and there is the same hiss as it feeds
same gulping, same satisfied silence
fists arrayed in sleep
as though a triumphant boxer.
I could be an Aztec and
the same rhythm would ensue:
change, feed, burp, feed, burp, sleep.
They cooed as I do,
kissed noses, tickled bellies
squished rolls of fat on arms
made up silly, fond names
crooned lullabies
walked about at night to calm a gassy gut.
All arms understand rocking
knees recall being half-crossed
to form a triangular bed
and bounced in regional variations of a horse
eyes find these delicate fingers familiar
rush to trace the extraordinary
tiny face, to meet the old, old gaze
so knowing it makes you bashful
lips always returning the refrain
“How amazing! So tiny! You forget…”
They intend it as parents of grown-older kids
who keep speed with their growth
so they never seem small
but inside that meaning is another:
they too were that ancient child once
fresh from the other world,
then the ancientness seeps out and
solidity creeps in
and you forget.
Go to sleep, little baby:
in sleep you are
returned.