Book Review: “Reclaim Your Heart” by Yasmin Mogahed

A number of initiatives have been launched in the last few years to engage Muslim women in public discussions of issues related to Islam in general. In her post “Reviving the Spirit Without Recognizing Half The Audience?“, Sumaya, a guest contributor to MMW, suggested a list of women who should be invited on such events. One of them is Yasmin Mogahed (who has since spoken at the same conference that Sumaya covered), an internationally-renowned writer and speaker who launched her book, Reclaim Your Heart, in 2012.

The cover of Yasmin Mogahed’s Reclaim Your Heart. [Source].

In her book, Mogahed shares her thoughts on liberating the soul from all materialistic attachments, and on how to enable greater connection with God, as He is the only source of strength and inspiration for us as human beings. She talks about human relationships, love, dreams and life challenges, relationship with God, women’s status, and the state of the Muslim world at large.

Using examples from the Quran and Hadith, Mogahed presents the spiritual journey people go through, with all its success and downturns, in order to reach their goals. Mogahed says that people usually attach themselves to materialistic objects in their lives, forgetting about God, and the life hereafter. She suggests mainly that we, as human beings, should “free our hearts from this slavery.” This book will teach readers how to live in this life without allowing life to own them. In this sense, the book looks like a primer on how to protect their most prized possession – the heart.

Towards the end of the book, Mogahed discusses in details the status of women in Islam. She talks about empowerment of women, arguing that mainstream Western feminists erased God from the scene. The result, according to Mogahed, is that they were left with no other standard, except for men. She writes:

“What (women) did not recognize was that God dignifies both men and women in their distinctiveness – not in their sameness. When we accept men as the standard, suddenly anything uniquely feminine becomes by definition inferior.”

In her book, Mogahed clearly stands against the concept of feminism. She says “Western feminism erases God from the scene, and in that case, there is no standard left, except men.” She suggests that instead of following the ideas presented by feminism, which according to her, consider men the standard, a woman should discover her distinctiveness given to her by God. In Mogahed’s argument, a woman should be looking for privileges given to her and not to men.

The problem I have with Mogahed’s point of view about feminism is that it is looked at from a narrow angle. Feminism is not just about cutting hair short or joining the army like a man, which are examples given by Mogahed. There is much more to it. There are certain social and political roles a woman should be considered to play. There are also workplace, reproductive and electoral rights that feminists are fighting for. I think the chapter about women should have been tackled in a different way, in a way that does not look at men as the only standard, but also at other standards within society that could treat women unfairly. I would grab the opportunity here to use a quote from my colleague, Syma, who explained beautifully the definition of feminism in relation to Islam in the post titled “Responding to the Goatmilk Debates on Islam and Feminism: Part Two.

“Feminism is simple: the belief that all people, regardless of gender, are and should be equal in the eyes of society and God.  The rest becomes technicalities and matters of form that are not quite as important as the belief in egalitarianism…. Feminism feels totally compatible with Islam because its primary aim is to ensure that everyone remains equal, not just in God’s eyes, but society’s eyes as well.”

Mogahed also talks about the objectification of women, and how it is becoming the norm in public discourse. Society, according to Mogahed, has set standards of beauty for women. In that sense, many women became slaves to these standards in order to look beautiful in the eyes of men. What they have to know is that it is important to free themselves from such attachments, “because their bodies and their souls were created for something higher.”

The above disagreements aside, I find Mogahed’s book highly inspiring for a number of reasons. First, she uses a very simple language that is easy to understand and follow. It makes the idea of thinking about the content of her book more simplified and more applicable in real life. Second, towards the end of the book, Mogahed uses real life examples and stories to express her thoughts on any given idea. Those examples derive either from her own life or from the times of Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. For example, when she talks about men and how some of them treat women in our time, she invokes the example of harassment in Egypt. Mogahed gives the example of a young Egyptian woman in a taxi, who fought with the driver over money. Since there are no fixed rates for taxi trips, the driver got angry after the woman did not give him the money he requested. So, he grabbed the girl by the shoulder, and started shaking her. When the girl insulted the man as a result of that, he simply punched her face. What disturbed Mogahed the most is the fact that there was a group of men standing by, and none of them moved an inch to help the poor lady.

She also tells the story of the Prophet and how he kissed the grandsons of a villager on their foreheads. The villager said “I have ten children, I have never kissed any of them!” The Prophet looked at him and said “He who does not have mercy for others will not have others show mercy for him.” Mogahed’s use of examples such as this renders the book ideas more relevant to our living experience, and would most probably be easier to follow and practice.

Using examples from the Prophet’s days and from our present time makes it smoother for the reader to understand that there are certain things in life that never change, whatever the time is. These two examples, for instance, call for mercy on women and children. It is something the Prophet used to do, and people these days should be doing. Defining such actions as part of the Prophet’s Sunna makes it motivating for people to believe in and apply in their daily routines.

For some readers, some parts of Mogahed’s book may seem somewhat repetitive, such as her discussions of attachment to God vs. attachment to the materialistic life. However, I believe such a repetition can have positive impact on readers, serving to reinforce ideas in readers’ heads as they go through the book chapters. In addition, frequent references to the same ideas often enrich the discussion, especially when we realize that those ideas are approached from multiple perspectives.

Despite the abovementioned weaknesses when it comes to feminism and gender issues, I would recommend this book to people searching for a greater peace of soul and mind, fewer disappointments, and an enduring sense of achievement. This book could truly be a source of inspiration for people who are feeling ambivalent about different choices in their life. It is also a good starter for those keen on seeing life from different perspectives, and harnessing lessons from Quran and Hadith to improve their living experience.

  • pietrocrazy

    I enjoyed this book, though I had the same problems with it you did re: the author’s misinterpretation of feminism. But it is still worth a read, and I hope Yasmin Mogahed continues writing.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Dear Samya, I have not read this book, nor will I.

    I am tired of the continued whining by women who don’t seem to understand how much we have objectified our men and “God.” My joy in the women’s empowerment movement is as much for my son and his son as it is for my daughter and my three granddaughters.

    We are making progress on removing gender-specific roles on all but biological functions. Many men make better nurturers than their women do. We now have many male registered nurses. Many women are better at science than their men. We now have many female physicians. Many women are better at financial matters than their men. We have a female financial planner and a female accountant.

    Life in any community, be it family, neighborhood, religious group, or municipality consists of a series of tasks which require specific talents. Once a baby is off the breast, most tasks can be performed by either gender.

    The Spirit of The Sacred (YHWH, Allah, God) is in all of us, if we choose to embrace and build it in ourselves and in others. This Spirit is all genders and no gender.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    I also liked reading this book and found it very spiritually insightful. One of my favorite parts was when she talked about how we should really change our lives around once we’re determined to do so. Instead of trying to change our bad habits and practices first before starting to pray, we should always pray first for God’s help and then start changing our habits around. I also like her little anecdotes from her own life and her analogies (such as the one about living this life being akin to traveling by sea). Anyway thanks for this nice review!

  • Muslim Feminist

    I wanted to chime in with those who disliked Mogahed’s use of crude gender stereotypes. I find her writing on gender and women’s rights to be very sexist. She uses the idea of gender “complementarity” to justify unequal rights for women, and suggests that women who strive for equal rights are breaking a sort of Divine gender barrier and spitting in the face of womanhood itself. She writes some decent self-help stuff, but for me it is completely poisoned by the sexist views on gender that are woven into it. I cannot and will not support her.

    I wrote a more in-depth piece on this recently if anyone’s interested.

    (I tried to post earlier but it didn’t go through.)

  • Rin

    I am a little surprised that you are recommending a book that’s anti-feminist, since that’s no small thing, though I understand it is a trivial thing to some Muslims. So thanks for pointing out the anti-feminism where other reviewers wouldn’t bother. Maybe Mogahed doesn’t realize that feminism -which simply means women and men empowering women and fighting for their rights- is responsible for campaigns for equal pay -she may not care if she thinks the ideal pursuit for a woman is housewife- and campaigns against harassment in Egypt. I wonder if Mogahed would help women facing sexual harassment, if she would say that the problem is that these men aren’t lowering their gazes rather than not respecting women. The problem is that anti-feminists deny sexism exists and therefore apply the wrong solutions to problems, if they even recognize the problems. They also don’t support women. Do you see anti-feminists in activism? Does she realize we benefit from feminism without realizing? Empowering women should never be considered at odds with Islam. Such people have a misguided view of the religion and feminism.

    I won’t even go into the problems of “distinctiveness.” If she fits the stereotype of a woman with “feminine traits” and no “masculine traits,” including logic, then good for her. The rest of us will have to remain flawed creatures. I wonder when some people will realize that these stereotypes are not based on any reality and that we probably shouldn’t order our lives or laws around them?

    I also have seen a lot on “anti-materialism” lately, and I think people should explain what they mean when they say this because it can mean many things to many people. Are we talking about attachment to worldly goods? That movement is not “Islamic.” There are cultures around the world preaching asceticism, but the Prophet (SAS) never shamed people for indulging in art and entertainment within their means. Art is just expression. Back then, people embellished tea sets and woodcrafts. Today they embellish web pages and advertisements. Imagine what an aspiring Muslim filmmaker thinks when he or she hears that art is so valueless to some Muslims, or even preached against. I hear many people quote to justify this, “Be in this world as if you were a stranger,” but that is quoted out of context, unethically. The rest of the hadith elaborates that the point is to make the most use of your time and live Islamically. All this is different from saying don’t judge people based on their worldly goods or lack of, or don’t prioritize them above principles, people, etc.

    PS. The hadith was about the Prophet’s grandson rather than the villager’s grandson. It’s significant because so many men are detached from their children or caretaking.


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