I’ve never been an expert on Islam, but I didn’t realize how very little I know about this ancient religion until I
read Sumbul Ali-Karamali’s The Muslim Next Door. A practicing Muslim herself, the author’s ancestry is Indian,
but she grew up in California, so she is well acquainted with the perception — or rather, misperceptions —
that have taken hold in the United States and most of the Western world. Like many, perhaps most, Muslims in the U.S.,
Ali-Karamali and her family have experienced threats, ridicule, and discrimination simply because of their faith.
The Muslim Next Door describes some of those experiences and explains how and why Islam provides them with the
resources to stand up to such treatment.
The book covers broader issues (the historical context in which the Qur’an developed) as well as the minute
details (I don’t have a copy of the Qur’an; I have an interpretation of it), and gives thorough,
straightforward answers to some questions most of us think we have already answered. For example:
What is a fatwa? (not a death sentence) and who can issue one? (not Osama bin laden)
What is the Nation of Islam? (not an Islamic nation)
What is a jihad? (not a holy war)
What’s the difference between an imam and an Imam?
What’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims? What’s a Whirling Dervish? What is Rumi really writing
about in his poems?
Are Muslim women oppressed? (The Prophet Muhammad was an advocate for women’s rights as early as the 7th
Ali-Karamali is an attorney with a J.D. from the University of California at Davis, and she also holds a graduate
degree in Islamic law. Her education in addition to her life experience make her, in my opinion, as much an expert
in Islam as anyone, so I’m inclined to trust the information she’s given in this book. While almost every question
I could think of is answered, Ali-Karamali spends a large portion of her words to address two issues about which
she is clearly passionate: the rights of women in Islam, and the mistaken notion of Islam as a violent religion.
Her lucid clarification is backed up by numerous real-life examples and references, and the book includes an
excellent Suggested Reading list for those who want to know more. In addition, she’s provided a brief list of
questions that will be helpful to book discussion groups, but that are also helpful to the individual reader for
assimilating and evaluating the facts presented in the book.
At times Ali-Karamali repeats herself, but the repetition is in keeping with the topic being covered and spares
the reader the trouble of flipping through the book to refresh memory about a particular historical individual or
event. She also tends to go on a bit (not quite ranting) about the myth of oppressed Muslim women, but this is
understandable, and perhaps necessary, in order to counter long-standing but erroneous beliefs about that
particular area. The Muslim Next Door is packed with information and yet is a compelling read, sprinkled with
humor and some charmingly honest asides from the author. This one will definitely be on my Top Ten Books list for
the year, and will remain at hand so that I can check the accuracy of those television journalists who’ve handed out
so much incorrect information about Islam and its followers in the past.