Barrett Seeks Islam’s ‘Soul’

I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader of non-fiction, and judging by the title, I wasn’t expecting Paul M. Barrett’s “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion” to be a page turner. Not wanting to be a clichéd judger of book covers, I opened Barrett’s book—but with less than a healthy dose of enthusiasm. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.

Though not without its share of flaws, “American Islam” is a masterfully written and insightful examination of an increasingly important and growing group about which most Americans are not particularly well informed. Rather than scripting a manifesto proposing a way to cure the titular “struggle,” which would have been dull and ineffective, Barrett takes the approach of introducing his audience to genuine American Muslims. Each of the seven chapters describes a person who epitomizes a facet of Muslim life in America. Barrett introduces each one masterfully: his publisher, scholar, imam, feminist, mystic, webmaster, and activist are lifted off the page.

Each chapter’s title is a generalized description of one of the characters (such as “The Publisher”), which risks presenting them as archetypes instead of real people. How could a chapter entitled “The Scholar” capture the life of a man by reducing him to one label and all of its connotations? But after reading the chapter, the wisdom of Barrett’s minimalist chapter headings becomes clear.

By introducing Khaled Abou El Fadl to the world as “The Scholar,” Barrett strives to illuminate the role of the scholarly Muslim in American society. The chapter does not even begin with Abou El Fadl’s own name. It starts with an anecdote about an Asian American convert to Islam named Grace Song. Disillusioned with her new religion, she listens to some of Abou El Fadl’s writings on tape while driving in her car and feels her faith restored on an intellectual level. A connection is made and they eventually meet and marry. Rather than opening the chapter with a laundry list of “The Scholar’s” academic accomplishments, Barrett showcases the emotional impact of a scholarly approach to Islam and its potential to broaden the religion’s appeal. Abou El Fadl instantly becomes a character far more complex than his title suggests.

A journalist by training, Barrett relies heavily on dialogue with the family members, colleagues, friends, and even enemies of his characters so as to paint a clear and accurate picture. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and also one of its weaknesses. The diverse sampling of opinions represented in the book is a testament to the heterogeneity of the American Muslim experience. Not all Muslim females agree with the feminist leanings of Asra Nomani, and, to his credit, Barrett isn’t afraid to document the dissent.

But the myriad opinions from American politicians, journalists, religious and secular Muslim leaders, children, and others straddles the fine line between just enough and too much. The barrage of quotations can sometimes be overwhelming, and it is often difficult to keep track of the different voices—including Barrett’s, which is absent for the majority of the book.

Though there is a virtue in letting his characters speak for themselves, Barrett’s interpretation as an objective non-Muslim could have further illuminated the American Muslim community. When he does insert his own views, they often appear as one-sentence assessments of the impact of the characters’ actions on the “struggle for the soul of” Islam that are too weak to be effective.

While reading about each character individually is enjoyable, and while the information about mystic Sufism is especially intriguing, Barrett’s message would have been stronger if the characters were more in dialogue with one another. Outside the realm of Barrett’s book, in the life of real American Muslims, West Virginia feminists can also be interested in national politics and California mystics in Islamic intellect. The American Muslim collective is diverse, as demonstrated by Barrett’s seven categories, but some elements of each category can surely be found in each American Muslim, and this reality does not come across.

Still, Barrett’s reflections on the fissures that exist between American Muslims—important issues of Shiite versus Sunni, blame for Sept. 11, degrees of orthodoxy, gender, and race—even as they fight for unity are both necessary and insightful. Despite its shortcomings, “American Islam” provides a much-needed look into the lives of a burgeoning but too often overlooked sector of the American population.

—Reviewer Jessica A. Berger can be reached at jaberger@fas.harvard.edu.