Reviewed by Anri Wheeler
In her memoir Heir to the Crescent Moon (University of Iowa Press, Nov. 2021), Sufiya Abdur-Rahman untangles what is legacy and what are the truths she must come to recognize herself in understanding her faith. Winner of the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, Crescent Moon intersperses scenes from Abdur-Rahman’s childhood and young adulthood with those of her parents’ conversion to Islam in New York City during the height of the Black Power era. Abdur-Rahman questions what being Muslim—more specifically a second-generation Black American Muslim—means to her.
“Before I even understood what a Muslim was, I knew I wanted to be one. Because my father was. Both my parents were. This meant that I was too. But simply being born Muslim was not enough.” These opening lines encapsulate the trajectory of the book itself, embodying the ways her father is the axis around which Abdur-Rahman’s exploration turns; her understanding of Islam is inextricably tied to their relationship, which is the central one of the storylines. One that opens with Abdur-Rahman’s father and ends with her son.
Abdur-Rahman’s writing is filled with lush metaphors that keep her descriptions fresh and vivid. Her use of numerous short, illuminating, bursts of chapters keeps the reader turning pages and seeking clarity alongside the narrator. Abdur-Rahman remains firm in her conviction that Islam is, “my birthright and my destiny.” Simultaneously, a strong need for external validation that at times runs throughout her quest—most often validation by her father.
Early in the book, Abdur-Rahman’s father teaches her, “To be a Muslim means to be ‘one who submits or surrenders to Allah’s will.’ ” She goes on, “I wondered then how much being a Muslim wife had to do with surrender.” This question—one that becomes all the more relevant as readers witness incidents of physical abuse and intimidation of Abdur-Rahman’s mother by her father—looms large. A memory of her mother cowering on the floor, her father towering above, is terrifying enough to the young Abdur-Rahman that she suppresses it for many years, simply concluding that “we were all at the mercy of [my father’s] wrath.”
There are myriad ways in which Abdur-Rahman herself does not submit—from choosing not to cover her head in her daily life, to how she goes on to interact with her father as an adult—yet the larger question she poses about surrender remains underexplored, even as she herself becomes a wife and mother at the end of the book.
Similarly, in looking back at old photographs of her mother at the time she converted to Islam, Abdur-Rahman sees in her “the promise of reinvention, of renewal, of commitment, for a higher purpose.” Outside of these words, however, we do not see this reinvention and renewal play out. She writes about her mother no longer joining in the nightly prayers that she, her siblings, and her father recite but we get little exploration of why and what being a Muslim woman means to her mother. The focus remains squarely on her father.
A large chunk of the book is dedicated to a detailed history of his life during the time of his conversion and subsequent leadership within the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB), which follows the teachings of Malcolm X. Through Islam, her father finds a brotherhood. One that far outlives his relationship with MIB—from which he abruptly separates after an act of violence by his peers about which he remains silent for years.
Abdur-Rahman’s parents divorce when she is 12 and she no longer lives with her father, causing her to feel “alone in [her] Islam.” By the time she enrolls at Howard University, she is the only one among her siblings who remains a practicing Muslim. At Howard, she connects with fellow Black Muslims, finding a community that was lacking during her adolescence outside of her immediate family. They teach her various rituals of Islam she never learned at home. She wonders, “did [my parents] never want us to explore the rituals of Islam, having abandoned them themselves so many years before?” This touches upon the murkiness of part of the storyline. We know that Abdur-Rahman’s father leaves MIB, but we don’t get a clear understanding of what either of her parents’ faith evolves into thereafter.
Just as Abdur-Rahman is finding herself in the rituals she is finally learning as an undergraduate, she is also exploring the parts of her—for example her love of going out dancing—that seems to be in opposition with her understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim. She again feels fractured. “I wanted to be both: I wanted to be the girl who found kinship with Malcom X and comfort in prayer…the girl who fasted all day and still danced to Mobb Deep at night.”
This bring us full circle, to another central point of Abdur-Rahman’s journey that is introduced at the start of Crescent Moon when her father says, “Your mother and I chose to be Muslim; we chose to be, but we’re raising you all to be whatever you want.” This choice, present ever since she learns about Islam itself, both liberates and binds.
Ultimately, Abdur-Rahman turns to her mother for answers. Mother voices what daughter has known—consciously or not—all along: “Islam is a beautiful religion, but some people’s interpretation of it can make it seem ugly. You can’t let those people get between you and your Islam.” Your Islam. This ability to carve out a version of spirituality that is deeply personal is at the heart of Heir to the Crescent Moon. In learning more about her parents’ personal journeys and placing them within the larger Black American Muslim movement, Sufiya Abdur-Rahman finally is able to contextualize herself as well.