The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson – Book Review

The Butterfly Mosque is a memoir of Wilson’s experience after her conversion to Islam, in the post 9/11 world. She traveled to Egypt and met Omar, who shared her Islamic faith and also shared her love for education. In Egypt, amidst the tremendous love and support of her new family, Wilson navigates many evolving concepts of religion, cross-cultural challenges, deeply entrenched prejudices, misinformation, role of women, as well as easy acceptance and overcoming of differences when for their families, Wilson and Omar’s love transcends the cultural chasm. Wilson says, “they agreed to love one another for no other reason than that we had asked them to”.

But beyond immediate families, Wilson found that her Egyptian acquaintances were much more forgiving of her strangeness and were protective of her, even when they did not agree than her American acquaintances were of Omar’s differences. She found that Westerners were often misinformed, not open to acquiring new information, and did not often respect local cultural boundaries. And in turn, this bias was hard on people on both sides of the chasm because they did not appreciate the lesser individuals that they became around others.

Wilson also explores the essence of Islamic preaching, specifically as it relates to women. Wilson finds Islam in its “purely textual form”, to be on her side. Quran treated women with respect as many examples of references to historical women like Khadija, Maryam and Asi attests to it. Wilson also found evenhandedness in bulk of Shari’a law. However, she found that often the fundamentalists “corrupted the faith in their supposed piety and unstinting legalism” and drowned out the voices from the moderates. Fundamentalists also did not like the converts and often isolated them. It did not help that the West often criticized both representations and did not differentiate between the extremists and the moderates and also often did not look kindly upon the converts.

Through her journey of navigating through the cross cultural differences in dating, how one relates to families, how families support individuals, role of religion in daily life etc., Wilson also discovers some fundamental truths, with “potential to change the world”. For instance, she opines that Islam is an abstract religion that demands quiet belief without much celebration and moderate Muslims who achieve this understanding can inspire doubt in extremists and this is no small thing. Another time she says, sometimes one must operate purely on faith and sometimes doing the right thing means to defend people who may not understand you or who may even fear you.

Wilson’s story is certainly not a straight path to a certain goal but rather it traverses back and forth as she discovers meanness in people on both sides of the divide and as she also discovers goodness in people on both sides when love supersedes differences. This is a story of Wilson’s personal transformation and I am ending with a littler verse from Rumi that she quotes in her book and it also captures how this journey influences her identity.

He gave me a bowl and I saw then with great insight
Oh Shams and sunlight both, come to my aid
For I am divided from myself, and yet myself
– Rumi


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