Evidence of Things Unseen
Author, journalist and licensed pilot Lesley Hazleton has mined religious history over the course of many books; her biography of Muhammad, The First Muslim, will be published early next year. G. Willow Wilson is the only female Muslim to have written Superman comic books for DC. Her memoir of religious conversion, The Butterfly Mosque, was published in 2010 and her first novel, Alif the Unseen, comes out this month.
LESLEY To me, a good memoir is not really about the person whose name is on it. It’s not autobiography. There’s a theme involved and you’re quite ruthlessly using yourself in order to reach, to explore, almost to figure out what the hell happened—no, what the hell is happening, rather. If you do it honestly, it’s a very effective means of exploring the world.
I’m really looking forward to going back to the first-person singular. My god! Oh, the sheer wonderful irresponsibility! I deliberately kept the “I” out of the book about Muhammad because it just didn’t feel right. This is not about me, it’s about him.
WILLOW Although your voice is very soothing. It’s very much a part of the book.
LESLEY I wanted to know who he was. To get a real feel for the man. Someone said, “But what do you really think about Muhammad? How do you really feel about him?” I said, “Listen, I’m not a masochist. I haven’t spent several years of my life writing, trying to get inside the mind and existence of somebody I don’t like.” I like the man tremendously—obviously I don’t consider him my prophet, but I like him and I respect him.
WILLOW That’s such an unusual point of view.
LESLEY But it’s not about reverence, you know? I just really wanted to know what it was like to be Muhammad. Are you nervous about Egypt?
WILLOW Yes, I am. Everybody’s nervous. It could go any number of ways. I used to think that the revolutionaries were doing exactly the right thing by not rooting out every single person in government who’d been associated with the Mubarak regime—because the de-Ba’athification had such a terrible impact on the infrastructure of Iraq. But now the magnanimity of the revolutionaries may come back to haunt them.
I was last there about three months before the revolution broke out. I was pregnant with my first child. People were angry. But even I could not have predicted that the outcome would be so profound or so soon. It was weird how much things had changed. When I first went to Egypt I was 20, which is late for a conversion. Most people, if they’re gonna convert to something, do it in their mid to late teens. It’s a very adolescent-y thing to wrestle with: What do I believe? Who am I? How do I express that?
LESLEY All the great questions.
WILLOW The Butterfly Mosque is certainly a snapshot of me as a person in her early 20s going through all sorts of things, the same sorts of things that everybody goes through. In my case, it took on broader significance. People say when they read it, “I don’t get a definite sense of why you chose Islam.” The reason for that is, it’s hard to say why you chose one thing without saying why you didn’t choose other things—and my goal is not to alienate or insult people from other faiths or from no faith.
LESLEY There’s a wonderful line in Alif the Unseen where the Convert character is asked why she became a convert. She said, “Well, Islam was presented to me as a matter of social justice.”
WILLOW Yes, and Alif wheedles her about God: Where does God come in? Which is the opposite way of how I came to Islam. For me it was all about God. I didn’t pay much attention to the social dimension until I went to Egypt and I sort of had to, because it was such a huge arbiter of daily life in Egypt. But that’s making it way more rational than it really was.
I’m not into this postmodern thing where faith is rational. No. If you get up every morning and pray to a virgin or do ritual ablutions or perform the mikvah after your period for no rational reason—these ritual things are meant to get us out of our rational minds. Behavior must be rational, but to make ritual rational, to say there’s a scientific explanation, to say the mikvah reduces the instances of cervical cancer, or the ablutions you do before prayer in Islam reduce the risk of disease, and fasting makes you healthier... To me that’s not why it’s there.
LESLEY That’s why I would never ask you that question. I recognize its complexity and it seems such an imposition to demand somebody tell you something that goes so deep.
WILLOW When you write a book about it, you do open yourself to that question, which is why I consider it fair. But it’s an impossible question.
LESLEY I must make a plug here for Judaism. Because Judaism doesn’t involve belief at all! It’s all practice. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God. You think God cares if you believe in him/her/it or not? Whatever. It’s far too great a concept! Personal relationship with God? You gotta be kidding! Who do you think you are?
WILLOW It’s funny that people make this reference to Judeo-Christian religion—do you realize how different these religions are? One of history’s little ironies.
LESLEY I was raised in a fairly Orthodox Jewish household, and I’m totally agnostic. I’m not observant at all. There’s a mezuzah on the front door. Doesn’t have the sh’ma inside it because I’m not gonna pay some rabbi extra to mutter over it. It’s there because it says who I am. Being Jewish is part of who I am the same way as being agnostic, being feminist, being socialist, being a psychologist, being an accidental theologist now, being a writer. It’s just an integral part of who I am. And it has nothing to do with belief in God. Which to me is a contradiction of terms. It’s a diminution of whatever it is we’re talking about when we talk about the divine. I don’t think it matters if I believe or don’t believe. But I have a sense. And a respect for belief—or not belief but faith, which I think is a very different form of belief. We need faith because it comes with the awareness that you might be wrong. [Laughs]
WILLOW You need faith!
LESLEY I hate to quote the Bible, but Hebrews 11, verse 1 says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” I first heard that on a racetrack. I was learning how to drive an open-wheel racecar.
WILLOW This is why I love coming over here. [Laughs]
LESLEY It’s turn three at Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut and turn three involves coming into it at full speed, into a corner that goes blurp [makes sharp angle with her hand] like that. And the way to take it is, apparently, to go full throttle in there. About what feels like five seconds past the last possible moment, put on really strong breaks and then the tiniest flick of the wheel and the car sort of shudders itself around that corner and then off again, right? This, believe it or not, is a very hard thing to do. It looks like you’re driving full throttle towards a brick wall.
WILLOW Which you are.
LESLEY Yes, you are. And finally the guy teaching me to do this, he yells, “Hebrews 11, verse 1!” That’s all he says. And I think, OK, just do what he tells you to do. And I did it and it was like a magic corner. Afterwards I was at the hotel and of course the Gideon Bible is there and I thought, Hebrews 11, verse 1. I looked it up and I thought, wow, that’s a good definition: “Faith is the substance of thing hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”
WILLOW The unseen...
LESLEY And unseeable.
WILLOW “The evidence of things unseen.” That could be a subtitle.
LESLEY That’ll be the subtitle to the Agnostic Manifesto! [Laughs]
WILLOW You’re really writing an Agnostic Manifesto?
LESLEY Yeah. I’m sick and tired of all these people going, “[Whiney voice] But I don’t know... I guess I should be, I suppose I should be an agnostic.”
WILLOW What you are is indecisive.
LESLEY [Laugh] Yeah. You’re acknowleging the unknown.
WILLOW What I cannot know. Yeah. When I read your books, The First Muslim especially, my thought was that you being agnostic puts you in a unique position to talk about these things with sympathy but without signing on or signing off.
LESLEY I think of it as empathy.
WILLOW Yeah, that’s a better word. With empathy. And the way you handle the possibility of divine revelation, the hagiographic root. Which is to say, let’s assume that it happened exactly the way that it was said to have happened and just go from there. And you, as the reader, can believe or disbelieve and I as the writer can believe or disbelieve, and let’s just go from there. It’s an acknowlegement of the sacred history of believers but also the emotional reality of Muhammad ’s life.
LESLEY The fact is that Muhammad experienced it. It behooves me as his biographer to ask what that experience was.
WILLOW I thought it was beautiful, the way you laid that out. Because it’s true—Muhammad’s initial reaction to the revelation was not to come down covered in light, with glowing choirs or angels. He was terrified. He went home and asked his wife to cover him, as if from a blinding light. He was afraid. That to me was one of the attractions of Islam, that humanness. Then, of course, you get into the religion as it’s practiced and that’s kind of written over. The idea of actual fear, that he might not have known that he was predestined...
LESLEY Or that he doubted.
WILLOW Or that he doubted! Never!
LESLEY Doubt is so frightening! To me, it’s what keeps us human. Isn’t that the danger we all face now? The danger of conviction? Isn’t that what militant extremism is about? So convinced that you become inhuman. There’s no faith there. There’s just belief, conviction that you are sooooo right and everybody else so wrong.
WILLOW And specifically that you are right, not that your religion is right. You specifically. The precise things you believe about your holy books is the way, and everybody else is stupid. That’s hubris. It almost has nothing to do with belief. It’s sort of a self-obsession.
LESLEY It’s anti-religious. It’s against the spirit of religion.
WILLOW It’s a very modernist way of thinking: My way is the best way. What I feel, what I want, what I see, my interpretation. For some people, that can result in great ideas and great art, but in people that are sort of intrinsicially disturbed it can result in terrible things. My way or the highway: The rebellion and the absolutism sounds cool, but when you apply it on a global scale it’s disastrous.
LESLEY I’m gonna serve dessert! [Laughs] I’m not gonna respond to deep thinking off the cuff! I’m sorry!
WILLOW You can tell me I’m full of it. It’s OK.
LESLEY You’re full of some very interesting stuff.
WILLOW [Laughs] So now are you in between books? Do you go straight into the next one?
LESLEY Oh, God, no. I went straight from After the Prophet into The First Muslim and I never want to do that again. So I’m in a state of happy collapse.
WILLOW Do you have your next book in your head?
LESLEY The Agnostic Manifesto. And I know what the one is after that as well. It’s amazing! Usually I finish a book and I think, now what am I gonna do when I grow up?
Photo by Steven Miller.