I’m excited to interview Kaighla Um Dayo about her new memoir, Things That Shatter. It’s a story about what happens when Muslim women are broken by Muslim men, and find the courage to heal themselves through the real Islam.
Click here for my full book review of Things That Shatter.
Q&A with Kaighla Um Dayo
I’m not going to go through the play-by-play of your book. As you have said, if people want to know the details about what happened to you, they can read the book (or my review). What I want to discuss is a little bit about the reasons why you wrote this book and why you think it is so important.
Why did you feel it was important to publish this work?
Primarily, I needed to publish this book because I feel a moral obligation to try my best to protect other naive young converts from my fate. I believe the reason stories like mine are a reality—and are much more common than we like to believe—is because we, as a community, hide them, we sweep them under the rug, and then new Muslims aren’t prepared to recognize the tell-tale signs they would have if it was more openly discussed. I’m on a warpath to protect my sisters in the way I wasn’t protected. If I had read a book like mine, I would have seen the red flags and tried harder to get away from him, or at least I would have internally cherished myself and my belief in God if I weren’t able to escape the situation.
Was writing this book difficult?
‘Difficult’ is an understatement. It completely destroyed any semblance of peace I still had.
That’s the nature of writing a trauma narrative: the pain was always there, hiding, lurking, waiting for a chance to jump out, and when I felt safe and loved, and decided to finally deal with it, all the windows and doors of my heart flew open, and black, oozing pain poured out, causing a plethora of exciting, debilitating symptoms, including strange medical emergencies and nightly panic attacks that prevented me from sleeping for more than four hours a night, for a year.
Yeah, it was difficult.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
The part when I’m done writing? Hahaha. No, but really, the process is awful for me. I don’t enjoy it at all. But it’s what I have to do, as it’s my heart’s way of processing stuff—not just trauma, but even love and fear and longing and more. I’d say I love the beta reader part, where you share your manuscript with some people you trust and they give feedback. It’s scary and risky but so encouraging when they love it, and when they see its potential. Coming back to it after that is so refreshing because you have fresh eyes.
We’ve talked about you receiving backlash from the Muslim community because it is “unislamic” or “haram” to out your abuser. Do you have a message for those people?
First, I’d point out that I didn’t out my abuser and went to great lengths, in fact, to hide his identity. But then I’d remind them that God commanded us in the Qur’an to forbid evil and to enjoin good, and Prophet Muhammad said we are required to help both the oppressed and the oppressor. When asked how one helps a friend who is an oppressor, he said one works hard to stop them from oppressing others. It’s haraam not to warn people if you know for certain your abuser is a menace to society—or in my case, if men like him are a menace to society, and outing him personally would only serve to move the spotlight on him and away from the bigger problem, making it seem as if he is just one bad apple in a basket of otherwise OK people, when the truth is much darker.
Do you think we are pressured to always present the shiny, attractive part of Islam and hide the bad actions of fellow Muslims?
Hahaha. Oh God yes. And it’s cruel and ineffective. See, people think if we only show the shiny parts of living life as a Muslim, we’ll be attracting people to Islam, but that’s both cruel and ineffective: cruel, because they will definitely, sooner or later, see the dark side of Muslims and extremist ideologies (not real Islam), and they will feel tricked and betrayed like me and so many other converts have. Then it’s ineffective because these people usually end up leaving Islam when they learn the truth. What are we trying to do here? Attract converts, so we can feel good about the numbers, or build a community? Those have two very different end goals and two very different methods, like having a great wedding vs. having a good marriage. Islam is perfect, if you can find the real thing, and it’s very different from what Muslims actual do, because Muslims are people. But the candy-coated image we give people about life in the Muslim community is downright deceptive.
Now that you have written two books, do you have advice for anyone that wants to write a book?
First I only wrote 1.5 books. Hahaha. Sharing the burden with Theresa, co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide [reviewed on KTLynn.com here]. helped a ton. Next, I’d say: know your why. There is no way I could have written either of these books if I didn’t feel a crushing urgency to do my best to stop the cycle. If you just have a great idea but there’s no passion or urgency behind it, it is sometimes hard to see it through to completion, because writing a complete manuscript is just the first step. Then there’s all the re-writing, editing, hashing out, and sometimes burning to the ground and starting over, like I had to do for this book. And then there’s either the fun of self-publishing (read: it’s not any fun at all) or even more fun (also not fun) of pitching to a publisher and dealing with all the drama a publishing house brings. So if you have a story you are passionate about, you need to commit, really commit, but be prepared for the difficulty. It’s not a glamorous thing, but it’s so worth it.
As a new convert, you are often vulnerable to what I call “belief tug-of-war.” Everyone from every culture wants you to believe in what they do, and tells you it is the only path to heaven. On your healing journey, how have you learned to shut out the white noise and to practice ownership in cultivating your own relationship with God?
I believed all of that when I first converted, and even up until two years ago. Because I was married to an Egyptian Salafi sheikh, I tended to think that way was the only right way to live out Islam. It’s very difficult when you don’t actually know much about Islam to counter that cultural war, to be able to separate authentic, objective Islamic teachings from cultural hullabaloo. But I studied anthropology and sociology in school, so I have a solid understanding that people always think their way is best if they have never seen another way. Most of the people who will try to influence a convert have absolutely zero understanding of the convert experience, and zero knowledge of the convert’s own cultural heritage. I’ve learned—through studying the works of people like scholar and human rights lawyer, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl—that Islam is broad, and deep, and inclusive, and is beautiful and merciful, because God is the embodiment of beauty and mercy and justice. And I’d learned over the years that my intuition is a gift from God that I should trust—it’s my fitrah. So if I hear a thing is “Islamic” but it seems neither beautiful nor merciful nor just, I disregard it. Full stop. I have come to trust my ability to recognize good from evil, and so much of what is thrust upon a convert is ultimately about social control and cultural assimilation, not connection with God—thus why it must be thrust on them. Real Islam is absolutely irresistible, but manufactured, culturally-filtered Islam is something hard which must be tolerated, managed, and swallowed with a load of sugar-coating.
Converting to Islam can strain relationships with non-Muslim family members. Abusive relationships can also strain family ties. How have your experiences affected your family and what are you doing now to renew the relationship?
Well, I did it all wrong. I didn’t prepare them for it. I just threw at them both my decision to convert and my decision to marry a man I didn’t know at all—and these two things happened in rapid succession. I broke their hearts and scared them, and then I demanded they accept him and love him, no questions asked. It was so wrong, and so harmful. But as you see in the book, my sisters both worked hard to forgive me and heal me, and I’ve even found healing with my mom. I think it was necessary for me to leave him and heal before I could imagine healing things with them. You can’t get better if you’re still drinking the poison, as it were. Now, with my new marriage, I am much more intentional. I don’t expect them to love him. I have allowed them to develop an organic relationship with him over the years, and as they see him loving me and my kids, they naturally love him.
If someone came to you wanting to know more about Islam, what would you say?
First, I’d tell them to order our book The New Muslim’s Field Guide. It’s the book we needed so badly when we converted, and we believe it can save converts from so much pain. Even my non-Muslim friends and family love our book! The next thing I’d do is recommend them to watch every YouTube video ever from Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl. He’s a gem, a diamond in the rough that is most Islamic teachings today.
Before you married your ex-husband, there were some concerns from the mosque you attended. How do you think that they could have helped you more than they did? Would having more close Muslim female friends have helped you in this situation?
I didn’t attend a mosque before I converted. I converted in a boarding school and had never visited a mosque before. Maybe that’s a misunderstanding. The women in the boarding school—both the other teachers and the older girls studying Islam in depth—were scared to lead me one way or the other on almost anything. They felt very unqualified, they often said, to advise me of anything, but didn’t know where to send me to learn more, so of course I turned to the internet, that bastion of ill repute.
Why do you think you chose to stay married so long? It was clear in your story, even before you went to Egypt, that the sheikh was abusive, so why did you stay married to him?
I was raised as a very independent woman, as a strong woman. How do you break a strong woman? From the inside out. The first thing I was taught when I converted at 22 years old was to doubt my intuition, and to disregard whatever felt to me to be wrong, unless and until the narrow view of Islam I’d converted into agreed with my feelings. So when the sheikh came along and taught me that God placed women in submission to their fathers and husbands, and that it was his right to force me to change my core identity to please him, of course all the alarm bells were going off, but I’d been very skillfully brainwashed to ignore my own gut feelings and to trust him, because the things he taught me were absolutely mainstream in the community in which we lived. I had no one to tell me there was another way, and even if someone had tried, I’d have suspected them, because of the first teachings I received. I stayed with him because even when I recognized that he was being abusive, it was still many years before I was able to see that God wasn’t ok with that abuse, and many more still before I was able to counter the pressure given to me by most Muslims I knew to “just be patient” with his abuse, and yet more years before I was brave enough to leave him and financially stable enough to support myself and my children.
Converts are always at the receiving end of naseeha, no matter how long they’ve been practicing. This time, I want to know your advice for anyone considering marrying into an intercultural relationship.
Don’t do it if you can avoid it. I’m serious. I am not coming from a bitter place when I say that, but a learned one. In ten years, I have seen a thousand failed, typically abusive, cross-cultural marriages, and only like seven healthy ones. If you can marry another convert, go for it, by all means. I know that’s tough to hear because most Muslims in America are immigrants or are the children of immigrants and haven’t yet come into their own as Arab-American or Desi-American, so converts can feel like it’s hopeless to find someone from their own culture. People have this wildly mistaken viewpoint that by marrying a heritage Muslim, a convert will be solidifying their Islam somehow. Or converts feel like Hey, if I marry a heritage Muslim, I’ll get a Muslim family with the deal!” That’s just laughable, at best. It very rarely goes that way, and more often than not, a heritage Muslim’s parents are not going to be very excited they’re marrying out of their culture. I am a living example of how very wrong that is. Not only was he a heritage Muslim, but he was the leader in the community; if anyone was going to solidify my imaan, it would have been him. It’s just good common sense that you will have an easier relationship with someone who understands your culture than with someone who doesn’t. The only situation I’d condone it is when both people involved have spent time living in and interacting with the other partner’s culture, e.g. like in my marriage now. He and I have both spent 4+ years living in one another’s culture, so we have a pretty thorough understanding of one another’s viewpoint—and even then, we have tons of clashes. At the very least, do not marry anyone, from your culture or otherwise, until and unless you’ve spent a year or more getting to know them and speaking with people in their community about their character—and not just their friends and family who will definitely be biased.
What is your favorite thing about Islam?
Lord, what a hard question. I’d have to say the way it truly fits all people, for all time, in all cultures—if it’s done right, and by right I mean done in a culturally-conscious way that takes into account the time and place wherein one lives.
What do you want the take home message for your readers to be?
First: this shit is happening, and it’s happening more often than anyone wants to admit. Let’s work harder to protect converts by not pressuring them into marriage as soon as they say shahadah, and let’s not abandon them the moment they say shahadah or we have some difficulty with them. Second: you, too, can survive the unthinkable and come out better for it. It won’t be easy, but we can do hard things, as Glennon Doyle says. I hope when people read my book, they are first shocked, then heartbroken, then enraged, then empowered, and finally relieved—because that’s how I felt living my experience, and the sign of a well-written story is that the writing is able to induce emotions in you akin to the ones felt by the characters.
About the author of Things That Shatter
Kaighla Um Dayo is a writer, editor, and story-teller extraordinaire. She is also the author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide—a practical, honest guide for new and newly-practicing Muslims. She is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University, and is working toward her Master of Liberal Arts degree at Johns Hopkins University. Her writings have been featured in American Road Magazine and on AboutIslam.net, Islamwich.com, and The Tempest. Kaighla lives with her husband and children in central Illinois.