City of Brass

City of Brass


The Butterfly Mosque

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

G. Willow Wilson is interviewed about her new book, The Butterfly Mosque, over at Religion Dispatches. Willow is a good friend and an amazing writer (and a sometime guest contributor to this blog). The book is getting a lot of well-deserved attention – for example, Reza Aslan called it “a gorgeously written memoir about what it means to be human in a fractured world.” Here’s an excerpt from the interview, which explores that boundary of culture and faith that she had to navigate, as she converted to Islam and fell in love with an Egyptian man:

As a white Muslim, married to an Egyptian man, writing comics, everything you do hits several audiences, some of whom probably rarely communicate with each other. Is it difficult to balance those audiences? Do you find yourself worried about alienating audiences? How do your audiences respond to content they’re not culturally familiar with?

It’s very difficult to balance different audiences and talk to each one without selling the others short. There is no universal literature-or if there is, I don’t know how to write it. Comic book readers tend to be pretty secular and anti-authoritarian; nothing is above satire, in their eyes. Muslim readers tend to have a very narrow, precise idea about what constitutes acceptable art. Then there are readers of mainstream lit to whom both religion and comics are like foreign countries. My career is a black comedy of sorts. I spent a lot of time explaining myself to various different groups. But more and more I’m finding that the desire to communicate, which all these audiences share, is a powerful thing. I’ve gotten a humbling amount of support from people I never thought would reach out to me: conservative Muslims on the one hand, atheist artists on the other; people who would hate each other but don’t hate me. I try very hard to deserve that mutual confidence.

If there is no universal literature, as you put it, what commonness allows us to translate between different experiences and values? Can we really understand one another, or do we only approach a respectful sympathy? Can a secular worldview engage a religious worldview?

Honestly, I hate to say it, but I think the answer is no. There is no real 1:1 translation of experiences and values that I have found. I think respectful sympathy is as close to understanding as we can get. And I think it’s vitally necessary-the grave problem with our Western idea of tolerance is that it hinges on understanding. Real tolerance means respecting other people even when they baffle you and you have no idea why they think what they think. And in this world, if we are being truthful with ourselves, one is baffled far more often than one reaches understanding. Humility and sympathy are two of the greatest unsung weapons against intolerance. This is something I learned from my friends and in-laws in Egypt, to whom my life before I converted and came to live with them was unthinkable. (Tattoos? Clubbing? These things don’t exist for them, especially where women are concerned.) Their love for me was a decision: even if we find her history alarming and bizarre, she is here now, she is our responsibility, and we are going to love her and accept her. I didn’t have to prove anything, to explain anything. That kind of acceptance blew me away. It’s shattering to be loved that way.

Go check out the rest of the interview!



  • Taha Raja

    “I think respectful sympathy is as close to understanding as we can get. And I think it’s vitally necessary-the grave problem with our Western idea of tolerance is that it hinges on understanding..”
    I cannot agree more. In the Western Culture the fundamental of acceptance hinges upon our engraved understanding of science which hinges on explanation to prove our understanding. Unfortunately, religion, culture, and traditions are rooted in a hodge podge of events, experiences and revelations that have very little basis in pure science. As such it absolutely defies the Western form of acceptance.
    Islam reveres learning, but one fundamental philosophical difference in Islam is that one must accept before understanding. The concept of blind faith so to speak. It is not blind faith really but rather the concept that you must demonstrate unconditional love and acceptance before you ask questions and understand or are given knowledge.
    It took me years to accept this fundamental shift and it allowed me to grow and be more patient. I became more tolerant and understanding. It is first the acceptance and then the slow but complete journey of learning that follows that for me is very fulfilling.
    For Wilson, her family in Egypt did exactly that. First they accepted and loved her THEN I am sure the process of discovering her and learning about her started – which I am sure is mutual and continues today.
    Humility is very difficult in a culture of ours where hubris narcissism runs rampant. “We are the greatest country on the planet….or we are the most powerful country ever…”, ever heard of these statements from our politicians and leaders? If that is not hubris and narcissism or elements thereof not sure what is?
    We have a lot of learning to do…I wonder if we approached life with Sympathy and Humility to begin with – acceptance before rejection, what could happen to our leadership role as a nation?
    Taha

  • Sadia

    ASALAM ALAA;Kulu Muslim Wal Muslimo.I am so Glad to reach out to this page. please i love islam right away from my background but ineed more to learn about Alqur’an ilearnt it earlier in Arabic language which i dont know the meaning. email me back on “motun4real@aol.com the rigth place to learn truth about ISLAM.

  • nagla

    I did have a positive first impression based on the essay published in The New York Time adapted from the Butterfly Mosque along with the interview conducted with the author. I do intend to read the book and then comment more comprehensively. However, I did relate to the comment on the Westernized upper middle class who do not seem to belong in either cultures.

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