Four Muslim women on Laury Silvers’ The Lover: A Sufi Mystery

Laury Silvers’ historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, follows the journey of twins Zaytuna and Tein as they confront the legacy of their famous mother, an ecstatic Sufi who preached in the graveyards and the streets as she wandered across the Muslim empire, to uncover the mystery behind the death of a servant boy. Silvers, a North American Muslim and retired scholar of early Sufism and early pious and mystic women, has written a compelling and historically accurate mystery that brings the early Abbasid empire to life. It is not a high romance set in the early days of Islam, the Lover of the story is ultimately God, but rather an account of the aspirations and struggles of everyday people that shines a light on early theological debates, mystical movements, social inequities, in the context of family and social trauma.

Four readers of the book got together to reflect on what the book meant to them in this group review.

From Safiyyah Surtee:

Too often, narratives of women in Islam are told from the vantage point of the privileged, the women of the wealthy classes … this novel turns that narrative on its head.

Silvers novel is complex; it brings together different elements of Islam – the legal and spiritual, and different social dimensions – class and gender, in a poignant narrative. Silvers allow us to look at life in Baghdad, not just through the eyes of a woman, but women of the working classes who live in poverty and face the hardships of day to day life, women who are often overlooked in history. Too often, narratives of women in Islam are told from the vantage point of the privileged, the women of the wealthy classes–I loved how this novel turns that narrative on its head–for example, in its portrayal of the hijab or dress code for Muslim women–which meant something very different to poor, working women, than it did to rich, aristocratic women. We get to see the real, raw spirituality in the day-to-day lives of these women, their interactions with men (some of whom were great depictions of male allies), their devotion to God, their struggles as women in accessing sacred spaces like the mosque, their participation in the Sufi communities, even as leaders–as in the case of Zaytuna’s mother. We see women fulfilling diverse roles, a far cry from the usual “women as wives and mothers” trope which dominates Muslim literature. All of these portrayals are based on very solid research, and although told fictionally, are actually a great way to understand the different perspectives on women, Sufism and Islam.

From Rosalinda Wijks:

Writing blackness is no small feat for a non-black writer.

One of the interesting aspects of The Lover is how blackness is one of the central themes in this book and how it is portrayed. Writing blackness is no small feat for a non-black writer, and the fact that a book about medieval Islam centers black people and dares to take on race without painting a rosy picture, or only portraying black people as pitiful enslaved persons waiting for an Arab, Persian or white saviour, makes it unique in and of itself. The main character has a Nubian mother and a, presumably, non-black Arab father. Her mother is only known as Al-`Ashiqa al-Sawda, the Black Lover, a woman of great beauty and spiritual depth, who is totally taken by her love for God. Zaytuna, her daughter, tries to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but goes through the motions without the ecstatic love her mother experienced. Her mother’s spirituality could not save her from rape, Zaytuna’s scrupulousness could not save her from colorism, and her twin-brother, Tein, from racism. Black people have a long, complex and intense relationship with Islam. The first hijra went to Ethiopia, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had many black Companions and family members. Black Muslims were, and are, scholars, warriors, saints, kings, Sufis, writers, poets and  musicians. God-willing, The Lover will become one of the starting points in exploring this heritage and legacy, and will help giving black Muslims back our rightful place: At the very heart of our religion.

From Sara Abdel-Latif:

These are the women I know. These are the women this author allows you to know.

I am an Arab woman. I have never seen Arab women portrayed in a way that felt familiar or inspiring to me. In this book, Zaytuna’s stubborn yet unfailing generosity, Saliha’s brazen sexuality and tough love attitude, and the endless women of the neighborhood that mother, coddle, nourish, teach, scold and admonish neighborhood kids and adults alike–well, they all remind me of home, of the Middle East, where the whole neighborhood is family and women are fiery, take no nonsense and love a good theological debate more than any self-righteous hadith-spouting mufti-wannabe. These are the women I know. These are the women this author allows you to know. I am also deeply passionate about Sufism. To see Sufis I have only known through medieval biographies and manuscripts come to life in this story and sketched out with such care and devotion makes me elated as a student of Sufi mysticism. I was particularly swept away by the deep mystical conversations the characters would have with each other. The author does not shy away from the tough questions, from laying bare the wounds that makes us human and shape our worlds–and I personally felt so much heart nourishment from watching the journey of Zaytuna unfold as she is called to confront the resentments she allowed to define her for the whole of her life.

From Rose Deighton:

Through their stories, Silvers models feminist approaches to Islamic scholarship.

In her new book, Laury Silvers captures how the everyday lives of Muslim women are complicated by the struggles we face in religious spaces. Characters like Zaytuna, the protagonist, grapple with the exclusion of women from mosques, the predatory nature of some male Imams and religious teachers, and the double standards women experience at home and in public. Through their stories, Silvers models feminist approaches to Islamic scholarship. Characters weigh intimately personal experiences of trauma and social inequality alongside religious wisdom, displaying the full range of cognitive and embodied dissonance that can emerge when the doctrines designed to keep us ‘right with God’ give rise to our trauma. In an age of #MeToo and #MosqueMeToo, Silvers conveys the strength of women fighting for equality and autonomy. She also highlights the helpful and unhelpful ways for men to be committed allies. Silvers weaves into her narrative a Sufi theology of trauma and its healing. Paradoxically, the path of healing through divine love is often intermixed with the overwhelming grips of anger and pain. For anyone who has suffered or been a witness to trauma, the stories of women from this book will be familiar. Zaytuna herself works to reconcile her immense piety and faith with her suffering and anquish. For her own health, she will have to learn how to productively channel her anger to enact justice in the world without letting it deprive her of the possibility for inner peace. As a Muslim woman on my own journey to reconcile social and gendered injustices in my religious community, this book made me feel seen and empowered like never before.

Safiyyah Surtee is a graduate student in Islamic Studies at the University of Johannesburg whose work centers on Hanafi fiqh and women’s embodiment, and a longstanding community activist whose work has centered on Islam, Feminism, Politics, and Spirituality in her native South Africa.

Rosalinda Wijks is a Dutch Muslim woman from Afro-Caribbean descent who studies law in Amsterdam and studied Arabic for a while in Amsterdam and Cairo. Identifying as an Islamic feminist, her interests are Sufism, Islamic Feminism, Black Feminism, Egyptian classical dance, literature and world music.

Sara Abdel-Latif is an Egyptian-Canadian Yoga Instructor and Ph.D. Candidate studying Women in Sufism at the University of Toronto. Sara grew up in Kuwait and is passionate about Arabic manuscripts, feminine mysticism and holistic healing practices.

Rose Deighton is a Phd Candidate at Emory University who specializes in the study of Islam and Gender as well as Sufism. Her research examines the spiritual pedagogies of Sufi women teachers, especially as they pertain to shame, self-worth, and embodied experience. Follow Rose on Twitter @deighton_rose

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