This blog was originally published via MuslimMatters.org
When I first began writing what would eventually become the novel His Other Wife, it wasn’t about marriage or polygamy, or even romantic relationships. It was about emotional and spiritual abuse, and it started off as a single narrative blog inspired by a toxic friendship that I’d recently broken off after having endured it for several years.
Amidst suffering from being slandered and ostracized by Muslims from my childhood community who were infuriated that I wouldn’t follow their brand of Islam or give complete allegiance to their favored imam, I was in the company of a woman who couldn’t keep quiet about any and every thing that grated her nerves. She prided herself in her straightforwardness and “honesty” in telling people “the truth,” but much of what she said sounded like downright cruelty to me.
Often she’d repeat what someone had said to her in confidence, revealing their identities and personal descriptions. Then she’d sit back with a smug grin on her face and say, “Can you believe it? You’d never guess it by looking at them.” Sometimes these people were her close friends, and other times they were respected imams and public figures who had trusted her with some of the most private details of their lives (She herself was pretty well-known for her inspirational work in helping others though she was not a professional counselor or life coach). Being in the presence of this destructive talk, I knew that I myself would be guilty of sin if I didn’t speak up.
So I’d often remind her to avoid mentioning names or personal descriptions if she felt the need to vent. Otherwise, we’re backbiting, I’d tell her. But she would roll her eyes and flip her hand dismissively at me. “There’s nothing wrong with mentioning names,” she’d say irritably. “Nobody’s backbiting.”
Because she was involved in so much charitable work and could talk for hours about the importance of prayer and staying connected to the Qur’an, it was easy to make excuses for her. I sometimes even forgot her faults altogether and just focused on the good. But her harshness and brutal character assassinations eventually became too much for me to bear. My final straw was a culmination of repeated disrespect toward me and my family, as I once shared regarding this experience:
For me, one of the many “light bulb moments” was when a toxic friend found out my daughter’s paternal grandmother was an immigrant. She laughed out loud as if it was the biggest “Aha!” moment of her life. She slapped her forehead and was like, “NOW it makes sense.” I was genuinely confused because I had no idea what she was talking about. For a moment, I figured she’d had some sort of epiphany completely unrelated to our conversation. “THAT’s why she’s so well-behaved and intelligent, maashaAllah,” she said to me. “This whole time I couldn’t figure it out.” She grinned, obviously pleased with herself for this remarkable discovery. “She has that ‘good blood’ in her,” she said. …Meaning, she doesn’t have only [my] Black American genes.
Snap Judgments and Sins of the Tongue
In addition to trying to wriggle out of an obviously toxic friendship, I was battling my own personal demons. As I began to honestly face the emotional pain I’d suffered due to enduring slander, public humiliation, and abandonment by Muslims I’d looked up to and trusted from childhood, I found myself making snap judgments of people myself. I’d hear about a situation someone was involved in or a troublesome statement someone had made, and I’d vent to my husband about how I vehemently disagreed with so-and-so. Till today, I’m not sure when venting in private to get advice and perspective crosses into sins of the tongue, but I remain afraid that a lot of my venting won’t be counted on my scale of good deeds.
This deeply personal struggle ultimately led me to explore a wider human struggle that I witnessed so many friends and loved ones facing: We know that labeling someone’s point of view or life choice as right and wrong is a prerogative that belongs only to Allah. Yet we still talk incessantly about how something is right or wrong according to our own personal convictions. And this was a tendency that I myself battled.
And I didn’t like it.
So it was with this honest self-reflection that I began writing a story about men and women suffering the repercussions of others’ snap judgments.
Judging By the Cover: More on Snap Judgments
As an author, I’m used to snap judgments. In fact, on a professional level, I’ve been consistently taught to embrace them. “We’re told not to judge a book by its cover,” writing advisors say. “But when it comes to publishing, that’s pretty much the only way your book will be judged.” Though it’s something I continue to work on, this lesson is one I strive to embrace with each book I release. But I admit, there remain moments that I’m taken aback by just how far these snap judgments go.
When I chose the title His Other Wife for my short story series (and now novel) and based the premise on a man wanting to marry his wife’s best friend, I expected some raised eyebrows. I expected some curiosity, and I even expected some heated debates. After all, that’s what a story of this nature (real or hypothetical) incites. But what I wasn’t prepared for were the attacks on me.
“Why are Muslims so disrespectful?” a friend asked me once. She’d converted to Islam after living years as a Christian entrepreneur and had dissolved her business to cater to the Muslim market. But she kept hitting a dead wall. From public criticism of her clothes when she was at a speaking engagement to Muslims grumbling about paying anything to buy her products or attend her events, she was at her wit’s end.
It was something she hadn’t experienced professionally prior to accepting Islam. Yes, she’d encountered disrespect, as this was inevitable, but she was unaccustomed to an entire culture of disrespect. Things had gotten so bad that she began questioning whether or not it had been wise to focus on the Muslim market at all. Her business decision was costing her so much (literally) that she found herself wondering if she’d be able to even pay her bills. Meanwhile, the Muslim market remained quite lucrative in the non-Muslim business world.
“What is wrong with us?” she vented.
I had mixed feelings when she asked me this. But I couldn’t deny she had a point.
For years, I made no profit in my own business while I dealt with constant criticism of everything from the covers of my book (which many Muslims deemed “inappropriate” or haraam) to the characters and stories themselves (which also were sometimes deemed “inappropriate” or haraam). Then I’d encounter Muslims who liked my books but refused to buy them because “they’re too pricey” (though I was often making very little to nothing with each sale, sometimes even taking a loss for the sake of the customer after the high costs of printing, distribution, and marketing).
Yes, there were always those gentle souls who’d insist on supporting my work, no matter what; and they wouldn’t even accept a standard discount, wanting to make sure I was compensated greatly for what I did. But these experiences and people were (and remain) very, very rare.
So I settled on telling my friend the truth: “I understand what you mean, and it hurts. I wish things were different. But they’re not. So I just try to focus on doing what I can to make my books and events worth whatever they cost.”
He Wants To Marry His Wife’s Best Friend?
“What kind of foolishness is this?!” This is often the response I get to the plot of the novel His Other Wife: Jacob and Deanna are a power couple. Aliyah is Deanna’s best friend…whom Jacob wants to marry.
Without reading the book themselves, many Muslims declare it’s sinful or a waste of time to read novels like this. Or they demand to know why a respectable Muslim author would delve into such an “inappropriate” topic. But by far, the strongest objections are to the concept of polygamy being presented at all.
Ironically, the book isn’t about polygamy so much as it is about Muslim men and women struggling with the long term effects of having faced emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse at some point in their lives. And the context of Jacob’s interest in his wife’s friend brings a lot of uncomfortable and painful realities to light for each character. As is the case in real life, complicated and painful situations often force us to face personal demons that would have otherwise been left festering, and dangerously so.
However, I do find it profound that our tendency to judge fiction books and plots so harshly (often without even reading them) mirrors our tendency to do the same with actual people we encounter in life. We hear one troublesome statement or controversial scenario from their lives, and we immediately pass judgment and assume the worst. Ironically, it is this very tendency that the story sheds light on.
But for those who are sincerely dedicated to continual self-improvement, what better context to examine our judgmental tendencies than in one of the most difficult scenarios to not judge harshly? A man seeking to marry his wife’s best friend.
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