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Muslim Like Me

Stanford—'a wonderful place to be different'—helped inspire a guide to Islam.

Photo: L.A. Cicero

By Sumbul Ali-Karamali

When I first came to Stanford as a shy 17-year-old in the fall of 1981, at a time when the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis were fresh in the collective American mind, I previously had been away from home for only three consecutive days. Freshman orientation week was, for me, filled with dilemmas. How would I pray five times a day without my roommate's noticing? How would I inconspicuously say no-thank-you-I-don't-drink when the choice given me by the professor in the Burbank lounge was white wine or red? How could I know if the indefinable food emerging from the Stern Hall kitchens contained pork?

I suspect the Muslim experience at Stanford is different these days. (I am assuming, of course, that the Stern kitchens have improved.) Mine was shaped by a kind of philosophical isolation: at Stanford, I never met any other Muslim undergraduates. American-born Muslims would not begin attaining college age in significant numbers for a few more years. Muslim graduate students from overseas were irrelevant to my brave new self-contained world of undergraduate life.

But Stanford was a wonderful place to be different. Eclectic and quirky as the undergraduate population has often been, I found, on the part of my classmates, great curiosity regarding my way of life.

During law school and later while working in San Francisco, I had cause to appreciate the acceptance I had found at Stanford. A partner in my firm demanded to be told why Muslims (like me?) were more violent than other kinds of people. Another inquired why all Muslim women were oppressed, sensing no irony in asking this question of a corporate lawyer wearing new Italian pumps. But at least they asked the questions; sometimes they even asked me to recommend books.

Books on Islam? Bookstores then carried only dry textbooks and the occasional slim volume of Sufi poetry.

So I quit my job and earned a master's in Islamic law from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and wrote that literary demystification of Islam so many had asked me to recommend. By the time I finished, the world had changed again, thanks to Osama bin Laden. I rewrote and resignedly watched as bookstores added tomes on terrorism and the “clash of civilizations” to their collections of dry textbooks.

As I revised, I couldn't help reflecting that it was a “clash of ignorances” that really needed to be averted. The Western perception of Islam has become an evil caricature of reality, like some reversed portrait of Dorian Gray, where the normal reality hides in the attic and the visible portrait becomes increasingly repulsive. While attention is given to Muslim extremists, moderate Muslims try to chip away a great wall of media misinformation.

My book is as much a product of my development at Stanford as my degree in Islamic law. An R.A. once told me that I'd shattered all his stereotypes of Muslims. In the questions on Islam I receive today, I hear the echoes of my decades-old conversations with classmates. I find courage to answer with the interfaith hope that understanding is possible. My undergraduate experience is proof.


SUMBUL ALI-KARAMALI, '85, is a freelance writer.

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