Standing Alone in Mecca:
A pilgrimage into the heart of Islam
by Asra Q Nomani
Harper Collins, 2007
Asra Q Nomani’s Standing Alone in Mecca is at once compelling and predictable, clichéd and refreshing. Its moments of startling frankness and honesty prevent it from descending into another exercise in presenting the ‘positive’ side of Islam, of which there has been a regular barrage since the attacks of 11 September 2001. While Nomani’s work (which was first published in 2005, but has recently been released in India) does throw up more questions than it answers, the questions posed are piquant enough. Perhaps most importantly, Nomani does not attempt to gloss over uncomfortable facts.
The author, a Bombay-born journalist now living in the US, writes that she felt “compelled” to start work on Standing Alone in Mecca after “two defining moments shaped” her relationship with her religion. The first was the 2002 murder of the US journalist Daniel Pearl (Pearl and his wife had been staying with Nomani in Karachi just before he was kidnapped); the second was the birth of her son, Shibli. Shibli, it turns out, was conceived out of wedlock, and his father abandoned Nomani before the boy was born. Left a single mother, guilty of committing zinna, or adultery, Nomani subsequently turns to the roots of her faith – seeking both to understand her ‘status’ within Islam, as well as to question the existing norms.
How does one learn about a faith – any faith, whether one’s own or not? The Dalai Lama gives Nomani a clue: “Read the holy books of each other’s religions. Talk to the enlightened beings of each other’s religions. Finally, do the pilgrimages of each other’s religions.” Presumably, Nomani had already done the first two; now she embarks on a pilgrimage, albeit of her own religion. Standing Alone in Mecca – which begins, for no discernable reason, with reference to the destruction of the Babri Masjid – is about pilgrimage, and thus about journeys. Nomani’s is a two-fold journey: a physical one to Mecca, to make the Hajj pilgrimage; as well as a spiritual one, to simultaneously come to an understanding of the ‘soul’ of Islam, and of the author’s place in it as a single mother.
As Nomani travels to Mecca, where Saudi law prohibits women from making the pilgrimage alone, she is accompanied by her parents, as well as her son, niece and nephew. There she discovers the story of Hajar (Abraham’s slave, second wife and mother of his first son), a woman who stood in the same desert 4000 years ago, after Abraham abandoned her and her son, Ishmael. As the story goes, Hajar called out to god for deliverance for herself and her thirsty baby boy, at which time water suddenly gushed forth at a place called Zamzam. So significant is Hajar’s legacy within Islam that Muslims are obliged to jog between the two mountains of Safa and Marwah to emulate Hajar’s frantic run. Ishmael, of course, went on to be revered as the ancestor common to all Arabs, a tradition that was later extended to include all Muslims.
Nomani finds other women who have asserted themselves in the course of the formation of Islam, and so seeks to explore the “legacy of Muslim women who marched into battle with spears, challenged the Prophet and sculpted the society that was the first Muslim society”. Women like Khadijah, Mohammed’s first wife and ‘boss’, who had made invaluable contributions to the course of his life; Ayesha, Mohammed’s child-bride, who later participated in jihad; and Umm Waraqa, who was leading Muslim men in prayer some 1500 years ago. Unearthing these legacies allows Nomani a greater understanding of women’s contributions to, and therefore role in, Islam. Doing so also inspires her to arrogate those rights that she feels Mohammed had specifically granted to women, but which have since been stripped away.
Thus Nomani sets off on another journey, to reclaim the lost rights of Muslim women.
A new Islam
Perhaps inevitably, Nomani centres much of her wrath on the conservative form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia itself, Wahhabism, which has increasingly been exported to other countries. She also explores the magnitude of the hudud, or boundaries, “erected around women over the centuries”, and exposes the daily violations and crimes committed against women in Muslim societies, including in purportedly liberal ones such as Jordan. Nomani does not hesitate to point out that the same ummah that is so vocal when it comes to France’s decision to ban the hijab is silent when women are denied even basic rights in the name of Islam. She is also bold enough to touch on that most sacrosanct of subjects – Mohammed’s personal life, his multiple wives and child-bride, Ayesha – although she devotes only one sentence to this, preferring to leave her analysis ambiguous: “I had to admit that was something I was still trying to reconcile.” In the face of the usual clichés about ‘contextualising’, this brief confession is refreshing.
At the same time, some of Nomani’s other reconciliations seem a trifle half-baked. For example, how ‘Muslim’ can Hajar really be? On the one hand, Nomani specifically tells us that a Muslim is one who believes that “there is none worthy of worship but Allah” and that “Mohammed is the messenger of Allah”. But since Hajar was born at least two millennia before Mohammed, to call her a woman of Islam is confusing. Nomani is obviously attempting to draw a parallel between herself and Hajar, with whom she proclaims a “profound empathy”. Her own unwed motherhood thus becomes a heroic story of love and creation, a “will of God”. Yet, there is no escaping that the Koran is specific on what it considers ‘fornication and adultery’, as well as the punishment it stipulates – 100 lashes for each partner. Similarly, Nomani states that the Koran forbids a woman from marrying a non-Muslim, but then goes on to exalt, as the “perfect Muslim”, a man who allows his daughter to marry a non-Muslim.
Indeed, the most problematic element to Nomani’s spiritual journey is that, along the way, she seems to be manufacturing her own brand of Islam. While this new form may have its own merits, it still must be explained in terms of evolving societies and societal needs – an Islam not of a book and a prophet, but of living men and women. Scathing in her attacks on Wahhabism, the author would have done well to explore why it is that this version of Islam is increasingly finding favour throughout the world. She does not. Nomani completely dismisses the hadith, those statements and practices attributed directly to Mohammed, though the two compilations by Al Bukhari and Al Muslim are considered valid by all Muslim schools of jurisprudence. Instead, she places the blame for the distorted face of Islam solely on Abu Hurayra, a contemporary of Mohammed. Abu Hurayra does not figure at all among the six authors whose compilations of the hadith are generally accepted throughout the Muslim world, and this subsequently leaves a certain ambiguity in the approaches and codes of conduct that she seems to advocate.
Meanwhile, the greatest omission in Standing Alone in Mecca is the author’s near total silence on the women’s movement in Southasia, from where she takes pride in hailing. Nomani regularly reminds readers that she is “a Muslim daughter of India”, and that she continues to visit the Subcontinent. Even so, she can be accused of portraying only Muslim India, with scattered reference to Hindu practices. But even if it is argued that her India is only Muslim India, her silence on the many progressive female voices from ‘that’ India is notable. There is only cursory reference to the women’s mosque in Tamil Nadu, and a line devoted to “women in India” in the introduction. Such an act of omission can only be explained by the need to keep the spotlight focused squarely on the author herself.
Indeed, one way or another, the narratives tend even to move away from Islam, and steadily towards Nomani and her activism. In the end, the author reduces women’s roles and issues in Islam to the mere question of being allowed to participate in prayers alongside men. While this is undoubtedly important, including as symbolism, there are far greater and more worrying issues that women have to deal with in the Islamic world. Even Nomani’s repeated references to her unwed motherhood become tiring; she wears this almost like a badge. Finally, Nomani does not give the reader the long-sought answer as to why Islam remains so vulnerable to extremist interpretations, in spite of having maintained such a well- defined framework.
To the roots
Luckily, these shortcomings do not overwhelm the merits of Standing Alone in Mecca. Nomani has an easy, flowing style, full of rich imagery. The non-Muslim reader is not only given an excursion into Islamic history, but gets another premium – a narrative passage to Mecca, a place otherwise forbidden. The author conducts the reader on a well-detailed tour: we feel stuffy in the tents; we bask in the luxury of the Sheraton; we feel panicky and claustrophobic in the packed hall; we sigh under the mysterious, star-studded desert sky; and we, too, hold our breath and stare silently when at last we find ourselves face to face with the Kaaba.
Ultimately, Nomani’s work qualifies as a series of pleas, to non-Muslims and Muslims alike. She urges the former against judging the faith based on the acts of a handful of adherents. Nomani gently warns against essentialising a religion, reminding us that the best way to understand another tradition is by going down to its roots, as the Dalai Lama advised. This is essentially the advice the author gives to Muslims, as well: to go to the roots of their religion, back to Mohammed’s time, to understand injunctions and edicts in their proper perspective and context, and also to make room for other faiths. Here is a plea for meaningful coexistence.
The universality of this theme that the author embraces is perhaps the most redeeming feature of Standing Alone in Mecca. Nomani may even inspire women from other faiths to undertake similar journeys, to look into the hearts of religion, to dispel myths and sift core from rind, faith from dogma. Who better than women to take up the challenge “to discern our personal faith from the doctrines others try to impose on us” – having long been at the receiving end of male interpretations of traditions? With a fresher eye, women can perhaps uncover religious histories, find buried traditions, whose application to the present could help to make the world more compassionate and equitable. Nomani’s book thus places a certain obligation on all its readers.