We had the good fortune of connecting with Sumbul Ali-Karamali and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sumbul, is there a quote or affirmation that’s meaningful to you?
Trying to explain Islam and Muslims in this country can be a depressing job. Some of my experiences have been upliftingly rewarding, such as when a reader of my books attributes an epiphany to my writing. But often, my explanations — though academically standard and right in line with what you might learn in an Islamic studies class in college — crash like breakers against the rocky shores of normalized negative perceptions and tall tales about Islam. Too many of us humans are not willing or able to rethink our worldviews. One day not long after my first book was published, I came home, battered and discouraged, from a particularly frustrating speaking event. I made myself some Good Earth tea, despondently pouring boiling water over the teabag, when I noticed the quotation printed on the tag. Feeling as though the words spoke directly to me personally at that very minute of my life, I read, “Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for.” The quote was attributed to none other than the fourteenth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren (1891-1974), a man who had brought together a divided Supreme Court to produce the unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which banned segregated schools and sparked the civil rights movement — one of the many landmark decisions of the Warren Court. He made mistakes he later regretted, but he is known for being one of the staunchest supporters of civil liberties in the history of the Supreme Court. If such an illustrious champion of justice could catch hell for everything he did in his life that was worthwhile, well then, I could, too. I keep the little teabag tag tacked onto my refrigerator, triangulated between a Harry Potter magnet, a Star Trek magnet (original series), and a Shakespeare magnet that reads, “Love all, trust a few, and do harm to none.” That way, it’s there on my refrigerator, easily accessed and surrounded by a triangle of inspiration, when I all too often need to reread it.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I grew up in Southern California at a time when I was usually the only Muslim the people around me had ever met. (For Star Trek fans who know about First Contact, that was me — the alien with whom most people made first contact.) Consequently, I learned from an early age how to answer questions about Islam and Muslims in a way that made sense to people. When I went off to college (at Stanford), I had an even more intense interfaith bridge-building experience, because I lived in the dorms where curious students knew each other’s business and were interested in learning about their peers. While practicing as a corporate lawyer, the questions continued but additionally my acquaintances began to ask me for book recommendations on Islam. Yet, there were none for the general reader! So I decided to write one myself. That’s why, when my husband’s job took us to London, I went back to school to earn a degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. And then I began to write books. In a nutshell, I synthesize academic material for the lay reader, personalizing it and relating it to an everyday, relatable context. I do this from both my Muslim background and my academic background in Islamic law. My books are aimed at Western non-Muslims, though many Muslims have written to me in appreciation of what they learned in my books. My books are academically reliable introductions to Islam-related topics, but I aim to write them in an interesting and engaging style that keeps the pages turning — that’s why they’re in the first-person narrative style and filled with anecdotes and stories of being Muslim in America. Few people are in my space, the space between academia (whose texts are not always reader-friendly) and general readership (which is not necessarily academically factual and accurate). Too often, academics write for other academics. In contrast, I’m presenting academically sound information on Islam and Muslims to general readers, in a way that I hope is fun and interesting. The most difficult challenge in writing about Muslims is that, because anti-Muslim stereotypes have become normalized in our culture, I am continually running up against confirmation bias. Just as institutional racism exists, so does institutional Islamophobia (or you can call it anti-Muslim prejudice if you prefer). Just as anti-Semitism was normalized and taken for granted for centuries, anti-Muslim rhetoric has been normalized in our discourse. That means that any attempt to set the record straight is dismissed as biased. People are much more likely to believe negative stories about Muslims than positive or even neutral ones. We all tend to dismiss stories that don’t agree with our perceptions. Another obstacle to my work is the prevalent notion in our culture that any Muslim is too biased to explain Islam. This is silly, of course: Muslims are the most qualified people to explain Islam — after all, they’re the ones who believe in it. Who best to explain a belief than those who believe in it? After all, we don’t assume Christians are too biased to talk about Christianity or Buddhists about Buddhism. Yet, people have asked me — to my face — to recommend a book on Islam by a non-Muslim. No wonder Islamophobic books on Islam do so well! it’s hard to change worldviews and discouraging to crash against walls of confirmation bias. But it’s worth the effort, because we all need to understand one another better. Our world is shrinking! Actions taken in one part of the world have ramifications in other parts. Opening the door to discrimination against one community opens the door to all communities. I see my work as helping people understand Muslims, but also as helping all of us. I’m helping people exchange our “us-them” worldviews for “all-of-us” worldviews. And that, as I do believe Star Trek teaches us, is what will make us strong.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
House of Pies in Houston! The Breakfast Klub! And of course a tour of the beautiful Rice University campus.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I wouldn’t be where I am were it not for the many people who asked me questions all my life, starting from the time I was in elementary school: What’s a Muslim? What do you do? How are you different? What do you mean you’re fasting? Doesn’t praying five times a day get old? You’ve never ever tasted alcohol? I got good at answering the questions! But also I learned to build bridges, draw out our common humanity, and nurture the ever-important skill of putting oneself in another’s shoes. And I learned to do it while staying unbullied and generally liked, not such an easy feat when you’re different. So thank you to everyone who’s ever asked me a well-intentioned question! As the daughter of Indian-Muslim immigrants, I was repeatedly told that my only options were to be a doctor or an engineer. More than anything, my parents wished for my financial independence. Writing was absolutely not considered the way to achieve this goal! So thank you to my parents who were always ambitious for me, and thank you to my many English teachers who recognized a writer and did their best — on public school salaries — to encourage my writing in all possible ways. Most of all, however, the credit for my books goes to my husband. When I gave up on getting a publisher for my first book, he threatened to publish it myself if I didn’t continue to submit it. Despite his 80-hour work weeks, he swept our young children off to the zoo or the museum or the park every weekend so I could write in peace, unbombarded by the four questions per minute typically asked by preschool-aged children. When I worried that I had only one book inside me, he told me not to be an idiot. And he considers my current three books — and hopefully more to come — his own legacy, having had a hand in reifying my desire to build intercultural understanding.
Website: www.muslimnextdoor.com, www.sumbulalikaramali.com
Other: Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Sumbul-Ali-Karamali/e/B001JS4NLO?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1590787402&sr=8-1
Evan Winslow Smith