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SISTERS Reads: The Butterfly Mosque

By G. Willow Wilson. Reviewed by Amira Elghawaby

Our book club tore this one apart. I contained my surprise as I listened to my fellow sisters in Islam hash out their critiques until I eventually offered a timid defense – pathetic in its failure to explain why I so thoroughly enjoyed this memoir.


Here’s what I should have said, prevented by considerations of time, space and opportunity:

The Butterfly Mosque is a lyrical tome detailing an American woman’s quest to understand Islam, and to balance worlds she believes are in artificial conflict. The sub-title, “a young woman’s journey to love and Islam”, makes it sound mundane, but the magic here is that G. Willow Wilson is a storyteller who connects big picture ideas with powerful details of her life – a life that comes to symbolize the global tension between Islam and the West. It’s a tension she argues is based on the “myth” of the so-called “clash of civilizations”.


“But like so many ugly ideas, the clash becomes a little more real every time someone says the word,” Wilson writes in her Prologue. “It is not through politics that we will be delivered from this conflict. It is not through pundits and analysts and experts. The war between Islam and the West is a human conflict [. . .] and we must learn to look out at the world not through the medium of self-appointed authorities, but with our own eyes.”


Who could find fault with that, or with Wilson’s decision to travel to the Middle East, to see the Muslim world with her “own eyes”?


That life-changing, post 9-11 decision is a culmination of Wilson’s time studying the humanities at Boston University, and the impact of a sudden hospitalisation.


Wracked with pain from rare side effects of an injection, Wilson makes a pact with a God she acknowledges instinctively: if she gets better, she’ll become a Muslim. Islam seems a natural choice at that vulnerable moment; the friend at her bedside, his mother, and her nurse all share the faith, though she admits to knowing far too little about it, even after having spent $30,000 a year on an education exploring the world’s religions and philosophies.


Wilson starts out as a lukewarm atheist with parents who had rejected a God they saw as being “a bigoted vengeful White man”. So it’s no wonder Wilson takes her time to think deeply about her choices, having awakened to the reality of a unified force, a Creator who had set health and illness in motion. She becomes a “zealot without a religion”.


She settles on the Islamic concept of Tawheed, “the absolute unity of God”, as the closest articulation of what she has come to believe.  Wilson has one of the 99 names of God, Al Haq or “The Truth”, also translated as “The One Who Truly Exists”, tattooed to her lower back as a reminder of her growing awareness, mentally working her way towards conversion, and beyond “chemical and social crutches”.


Wilson musters up the courage to convert on an airplane, on her way to Egypt to teach English. It is there, in the air, transcending borders and constraints that Wilson enters into the “service of an ideal”.


“In the darkness over the Mediterranean, in no country, under no law, I made peace with God. I called Him Allah. I didn’t know what waited for me in Egypt. I didn’t know whether the clash of civilizations was real, or whether being an American Muslim was a contradiction. But for the first time in my life, I felt unified – that had to mean something.”


The remainder of the book chronicles her struggle to bridge the endless gulfs which stretch out between cultures and which constantly threaten to swallow her new found being. Her reflections are lucid, poignant and witty, and she captures the dichotomies and quirks of the local culture with a capable pen. When Wilson falls in love and marries Omar, an Egyptian acquaintance who is deeply spiritual but well-versed in Western currents, it seems a natural extension of her attempt to create a symbiosis between multiple identities.


Her knowledge of the faith may indeed be limited, at times inaccurate, and even immature, as my friends argued during our meeting, pointing to her decision to wear hijab only to please her new mate and not out of religious conviction. And yes, in the end, she decides to return to America, with Omar, who she acknowledges belongs to Egypt. Yet I forgive her because she sees something far too few even notice. She sees the butterfly in a jar – the delicate and natural beauty of Islam – and she desperately wants to set it free from its confines.


Amira Elghawaby is a writer and teacher based in Ottawa. She is a founding member of the Sisters Reading Collective.