So How DO You Write About Muslims?

Long-time readers might remember a post from three years ago, where Sobia and I wrote a guide for How to Write About Muslims.  You can click on the title of that post for the full version, but here’s the list of rules we compiled:

Rule #1: Don’t assume that Muslim women need to be saved, or that you know how to save them.

Rule #2:Rather than assuming you know what Muslim women’s lives are like, try asking them.Rule #3: Be careful of who you talk to regarding Islam and/or Muslim women.

Rule #4: Understand that Muslims are just like anyone else in terms of their belief systems.  Not everything a Muslim does has to do with Islam.

Rule #5: Understand that there is no such thing as a “Muslim culture.”  Muslims come from a variety of cultures, and culture is dynamic – it’s constantly changing.

Rule #6: Don’t create a dichotomy between “Muslim” and “Canadian” (or “American,” “British,” etc.), or between “Muslim” and “Western.”

Rule #7: Tone it down! Be mindful of the language you use.

Rule #8: Take responsibility for the consequences of your writing.

Rule #9: Leave the headscarf alone.

We’re now working on fixing that article up for publication, as part of a collection of pieces related to Muslims and media (more details on that soon!)  It’s been a while since we wrote it, and it’s definitely not a comprehensive list, so I would love to hear thoughts from any of you on what can be added to it.  What are we missing?  What are your own pet peeves when it comes to media representations of Muslims?  (Most of this so far relates to non-Muslim journalists in the West; feel free to add in other perspectives about how Islam, Muslims, or Muslim women are talked about from within Muslim contexts as well.)

Please share your thoughts in the comments!

  • jaminazi

    I’m in favor of eliminating the term ‘moderate’ from media discourse. Who is a moderate? For the last 10 years it has been misrecognised as a religious category when it is more accurately an expression of poliitcs.

  • Sarah F.

    I feel that Muslims can and should be written about in a way that doesn’t make Islam or post-9/11 identity the center of the discussion. In the same way, a hijabi figure skater can be a topic of discourse that doesn’t have to focus on her hijab. We don’t have to be explaining ourselves all the time. Sometimes we have the right to just be.

  • Yasmin

    As an aspiring writer I found this list very helpful! I look foward to the rest of the series!

  • Monsura Sirajee

    What I find disturbing is when journalists or Muslims themselves will write “Islam says____” as if all of the voices of Islam can be reduced to that one opinion. Who is “Islam”? This type of “brochure Islam” as some scholars like Professor Kecia Ali have dubbed it, is just lazy journalism. Cite the specific Quranic verse/scholar/hadith/local imam you got it from!

  • Nicole

    I would add something else to rule number 9, calling them Rule Number 9b and 9c or something:

    9b “if you choose not to heed our advice and insist on writing about hijab, are you ABSOLUTELY 100% SURE you are saying something new? Because chances are you aren’t.”

    9c “do you want to save muslim women from hijab and the patriarchy and moan about hijab in Iran/Saudi Arabia/ Outer Elbonia? See the other rules.”

  • Duff

    Don’t assume that a person with an Arabic/’Muslim’ sounding name, or Middle Eastern/Asian/’brown’ background, or Muslim family background is automatically Muslim…research whether in fact the person identifies as Muslim. Along with the main stream media, Muslimah Media Watch has a pretty bad record of doing this too.

    Basically, white people don’t have assumptions made of their religious identity based on their name or ethnicity, so why should ‘brown’ people?

  • Michael Elwood

    Here are some of my suggestions for people covering (no pun intended) Muslims and Islam:

    1. Don’t use Arabic words that you don’t understand like: jihad, fatwa, taqiyya, sharia, kafir, etc.

    2. Don’t use Arabic words that you don’t understand to make English words that you don’t understand, like Islamist and Jihadist. If you don’t know what the Arabic words Islam and jihad mean, you still won’t know what they mean after you add the suffix “ist” to them.

    3. Don’t use English words that make more sense in a Judeo-Christian context like fundamentalist, literalist, infidel, etc. For example, Curtis Lee Laws coined the term fundamentalism to refer to a type of Christianity. When this and similar words are used in an Islamic context, they are often meaningless.

    4. Don’t use us/them type language to talk about non-Muslims and Muslims. For example, when 9/11 happened, we were told that “they” attacked “us”. However, dozens of “them” died in the attack. And one of “them”, Fire Marshall Kevin James, helped with the rescue effort.

    5. Don’t confuse the Skeptic’s Annotated Quran with the Quran. Reading the former isn’t a substitute for reading the latter.

    6. Don’t quote mine the Quran and other texts.

    7. Don’t quote mine Imam So-and-so With-a-cherry-on-top and other “experts”.

    8. Don’t try to make an opinion seem more authoritative and universal than it is by saying “all four schools agree that. . . “. None of the four schools existed during Muhammad’s time. There were/are more than four schools. And if all of them agree, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right.

    9. Don’t assume all Muslim men are hostile to Muslim women and indifferent to their suffering. The Quran says:

    9:71 The believing men and women are allies of one another. They advocate righteousness and forbid evil, they observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat), and they obey GOD and His messenger. These will be showered by GOD’s mercy. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise.

    Many Muslim men have criticized discrimination against women. For example, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) said:

    “Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talents. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this state of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues; they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labours.”

    Malcolm X (1925-1965) said:

    “In every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that’s progressive, the woman is progressive. If you’re in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it’s because the woman is aware of the importance of education. But in every backward country you’ll find that the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education. So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman.”

    10. Don’t assume all non-Muslim men are sympathetic to Muslim women. For example, Bill Maher has criticized the treatment of Muslim women. However, he refers to feminists as “feminazis”, and jokes that “no doesn’t always mean no”.

    11. Don’t assume people with non-Muslim sounding names like Michael Elwood are less Muslim than people with Muslim sounding names like Mohammad el-Arian.

    12. Don’t assume that because someone was a nominal Muslim in the distant past, that this gives them a profound, even esoteric, insight into Islam and Muslims (like Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, etc). I was a nominal Christian in the distant past, but no one wants to hear my “profound” insights on Christianity and Christians.

  • Duff

    Addendum to the above rule:

    You can write about how certain people/communities are constructed or portrayed as Muslim in the main stream media, or are affected by the general cultures/rules/social mores associated with Islam in that context (say for example Veena Malik’s posing might offend religious Pakistani muslim sensitivities) and base your article on that; but perhaps have the self-awareness to point out that the person/community/family whatever has not explicitly admitted to being religiously Muslim nor may not self-identify as such.

    Also to add more depth to your pieces, journalists could write about the subject being culturally muslim or religiously muslim, non/practicing or lapsed muslim or convert; if they have labelled themselves as such. Just calling someone a Muslims is very broad…what does that even mean?? Does that refer to the lapsed daughter of a Muslim family or the committed white woman with a serious case of ‘convertitis.’ I’m sure there are many ways of being a Muslim Woman ™ only one of which is the stereotypical idea of a practicing, religious Muslim.

    (For the record I know Veena Malik has said that she is a Muslim woman, but I’m just using her as an example…could easily put in Sila Sahin in her stead).

  • anneke

    Can I add something to Nicole’s number 9b: if you absolutely want to write about Muslim women, are you 100% sure you are saying something NEW? (Yes Islam LIBERATED me beyond comprehension, don’t need a research on that again, please)

    And in addition to rule 2: sending out a two question survey does not equal asking Muslim women.

    And: being a Muslim woman yourself does not make you an expert, and neither does knowing a lot of Muslim women make you an expert either. The fact that I have a vagina (check) and am Muslim has not made me an expert on the local female perspective on arranged marriages in Aceh. Though I would like to pretend….

  • Aurooba

    Dont assume your version of Islam is the “right” interpretation of Islam.

    Since Islam can’t speak, we don’t have a prophet, and our guides are the Qur’an, Sunnah, and supplication, and not everything is clear it, some things are open to more than one interpretation. Respect others.

    Don’t judge, leave that to God.

  • Krista

    Great suggestions, everyone. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  • Michael Elwood

    Recently, I read an article that reminded me of my rules about how [not] to write about Muslims. The article is titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” by Mona Eltahawy:,0

    Although she make some valid points about the oppression of women in the Arab World, the way she writes detracts from those valid points. For example, she broke rules 4 and 9 when she wrote:

    “Yes: They hate us. It must be said.”

    In the quote above, “they” are Arab Muslim men and “us” are Arab Muslim women. She broke rule 7 when she wrote:

    “I could find you a host of crackpots sounding off on Woman the Insatiable Temptress, but I’m staying mainstream with Qaradawi, who commands a huge audience on and off the satellite channels. Although he says female genital mutilation (which he calls ‘circumcision,’ a common euphemism that tries to put the practice on a par with male circumcision) is not “obligatory,” you will also find this priceless observation in one of his books: ‘I personally support this under the current circumstances in the modern world. Anyone who thinks that circumcision is the best way to protect his daughters should do it,’ he wrote, adding, ‘The moderate opinion is in favor of practicing circumcision to reduce temptation.’ So even among ‘moderates,’ girls’ genitals are cut to ensure their desire is nipped in the bud — pun fully intended. Qaradawi has since issued a fatwa against female genital mutilation, but it comes as no surprise that when Egypt banned the practice in 2008, some Muslim Brotherhood legislators opposed the law. And some still do — including a prominent female parliamentarian, Azza al-Garf.”

    And she broke rule 2 when she wrote:

    “This, however, is no mere Saudi phenomenon, no hateful curiosity in the rich, isolated desert. The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region — now more than ever.”

    I’d be interested to hear what others think about the article.

    • Krista

      Good job keeping score on that! I kind of like the idea of specifically noting which rules have been broken in various articles that we find problematic.

      And yes, we’ve got thoughts on that article – we’ll be posting a few reactions to it soon.

  • InPeace

    @Michael Elwood:

    Don’t use Arabic words that you don’t understand like: jihad…

    Jihad: primary meaning: holy war against unbelievers.

    Could you please confirm if my understanding of Jihad is incorrect? Thank you.

    • Krista

      The word “jihad” means “struggle,” and can apply to a number of situations. The meaning that you suggested is one way that it has been used, but no, it’s not the “primary meaning.”

    • Michael Elwood


      As Krista pointed out, the word “jihad” means “struggle”. For a detailed treatment of the word, see the article by Prof. Aisha Musa below: