Figuring Out How to Be a Muslim

One of my favorite memories ever is of a trip I took to Spain in 2012. I was part of an “Islamic History” tour group for the south of Spain and I loved it. A lot of this was due to our tour guide, Haroon Moghul, an expert in Islamic history. He gave detailed lectures in key spots like at the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba that really elevated the experience. I may even have taken advantage of having someone with his knowledge around by pestering him with random questions that had nothing to do with the trip at hand (“What do you think of the Battle of Tours in 732, Haroon?”). He couldn’t have been a better guide.

What I didn’t know was that Haroon was going through an incredibly tough time in his personal life during that period, which I learned from his new book How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.

I didn’t know Haroon personally before the trip but I knew of him. I was already following him on Twitter and was familiar with his work as a writer and lecturer. He was pretty well known in Muslim circles. Over the years since, I’ve become a fan of Haroon’s writing and perspectives – check out my interview with him about traveling – and so was looking forward to the release of How to Be a Muslim.

I knew a bit about the book beforehand, that it stemmed from something he wrote for the book All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim about a period of time in which he stopped believing in God, despite growing up in a family with educated, religious parents who ensured that Haroon received a multifaceted education that included Islam, its practices and history.

I was already fascinated by that. What takes someone away from God and then brings one back to Him?

Haroon delves into that struggle and then some in How to Be a Muslim, writing about his physical health growing up, his mental illness, being an active member at the Islamic Center at NYU (which coincided with the events of 9/11), his failed marriage, and other moments in his life that now define who he is. He dives deep into his thoughts throughout. Considering that he starts the book with the time he almost killed himself, you can’t expect anything less.

I came away from the book incredibly appreciative of the author for being so upfront with his spiritual and mental state. Some in the Muslim community unfortunately equate mental illness as a deficiency in faith (Why don’t you just pray harder?!) so for him to be so open and honest about his own struggles is a Big Deal.

How to Be a Muslim: An American Story represents the inner machinations of the mind of someone you think you might know based on a public persona. If you’re thinking “I didn’t know of him” that’s fine, but then do yourself a favor and still check out How to Be a Muslim. There’s a good chance you’ll find a little bit of yourself in there.

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How to Be a Muslim: An American Story is published by Penguin Random House. Read an excerpt from the book here.

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