‘The Butterfly Mosque’ by G. Willow Wilson
Religious experience is, by and large, ineffable. This indescribability is, in fact, one of the defining characteristics of mysticism and other forms of spiritual awareness. As listening to a piece of music that moves us to tears may defy our ability to explain those tears, spiritual encounters often resist our desire to describe them.
But we do have moving descriptions. William James’ seminal 1902 book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” offers a parade of stories focused on a multiplicity of spiritual encounters. St. Augustine’s “Confessions” describes in moving detail his conversion to Christianity. It can be done, but is difficult to pull off.
In “The Butterfly Mosque: A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam,” author G. Willow Wilson, who’d been raised in a staunchly atheistic home in Colorado, writes of moving to Cairo after college, meeting a Cairene man, falling in love, converting, marrying and choosing to make her home there — both physically and spiritually. This memoir follows her journey from the earliest sparks of her interest in Islam to her full embrace of the religion, culture and the people who make up her community.
Much of the book addresses the “clash of civilizations” — that “theory supported not only in the West, where it was invented, but also in the Muslim world, where plenty of people see Islam as irrevocably in conflict with western values” — and all the ways the author (and her Western friends and family) stumbles as she tries to assimilate. Given even more focus is the author’s inability to explain to her loved ones back home what her conversion means to her and why she’s choosing the path she is on. Regularly, she works to defend the people she’s come to embrace to those she’s left behind in America and vice versa. Cultural obstacles trip up her progress.
“It would be years before I could have what I would call a normal conversation — that is, one that wasn’t half composed of dancing on cultural razor blades — with most of my friends from home…" she writes. Many back home cast her as “the wayfarer in search of a spiritual homeland in the East” which she sees as a dishonest characterization. “I didn’t believe in spiritual homelands, and found God as readily in a strip mall as in a mosque. My faith did not require beauty or belonging — the deeper I went into my practice, the less it required at all.”
What’s difficult for her friends and family in the U.S. to understand — and for readers — is what is at the heart of her attraction toward Islam and how it manifests itself daily, growing and blossoming to a full commitment. This is given short shrift. Religious experience may be hard to put into words, but more of an attempt should have been made here.
A close friend who is adamantly opposed to organized religion asks her why she’s chosen Islam. Her reply is more focused on why she didn’t choose other faiths: “I discovered I was a monotheist. …That rules out polytheism. I have also had a problem with authority, which rules out any religion with a priesthood or leader who claims to be God’s representative on earth. And I cannot believe that having given us these bodies, God thinks we should be virgins unless we desperately feel a need to reproduce. That rules out any religion that’s against family planning or sex for fun rather than procreation. Islam is antiauthoritarian sex-positive monotheism.”
Her first flicker of interest in spiritual things dates back to when, as a college sophomore, she is hospitalized with serious reaction to a prescribed drug. “Addressing a God I had never spoken to in my life, I promised that if I recovered in three days, I would become a Muslim.” Why Muslim? Why at that moment? How does this attraction feel or appear or shape a daily life? Those questions remain largely unanswered. Likewise, her later decision to adopt a hijab, or head scarf, comes out of the blue. She tells her soon-to-be husband “I want to give you something bigger than anything I’ve given anyone else,” but readers aren’t invited into the decision-making process, nor fully understand whether the choice is to please her fiancé or to align herself more closely with Islamic traditions.
It’s as if the author believes that to describe the cultural divide she is learning to straddle is enough. And it may be for some readers. The tales of life in Cairo, how she makes a living, how she integrates herself into her husband’s extended family are all fascinating — but readers who were looking forward to learning about her religious experience are left hungry. Repeatedly reading about how the writer has difficulty explaining these things does little to sate that hunger.
Murphy has published three books of narrative nonfiction and is the author of a forthcoming novel, “Grace Notes.”