A pastel pink background with glossy rose-gold text is not your typical cover for a book on religion, especially one centered on Islam – a realm where academic discourse has been historically dominated by men – but that's exactly what you'll find on Big Little Steps. Written by French Muslim convert Mathilde Loujayne, it offers a breath of fresh air for someone seeking an easy-to-read, engaging and informative take on the religion.
It took almost a decade – nine years to be precise – for Loujayne to write the book, from conceptualising the idea to drafting the synopsis, putting it all together and then finding a publisher. The project was deeply personal, inspired by her own conversion to, and experience of, Islam. "The idea of writing this book started haunting me for years and I slowly watched it become an unattainable dream, the longer I did nothing about it," she tells The National shortly after the global book launch last month and before it's released in North America in January.
Loujayne was brought up in the South of France and Oman, before moving to Dubai, where she has lived for the past 12 years. Her journey as a new Muslim takes up much of the book, which will appeal to teens and young women seeking soulful guidance. "As a teenager, I was eager to learn about Islam and to have my questions answered, but it was nearly impossible back then to find books that were adapted to me as an audience. As a female, I also found it difficult to relate to male authors. So I felt like I could make a difference by making the book visually appealing to the female audience with a pale colour palette and hand-drawn illustrations to bring my stories to life – the visual aspect meant just as much as the content I was writing," Loujayne explains.
Readers are kept engaged with quirky watercolour illustrations, such as of constellations when describing the history of the Quran, and of a woman praying. Personal notes to the reader are also scribbled in the margins, giving it the appearance of a well-kept journal or diary, as opposed to a heavy book on religion.
Its first sentence sets the tone for what's to come: "I hope there will be croissants in paradise". It might be an unlikely opener for Islamic literature, but, throughout, Loujayne uses simple, everyday language, while retaining an educated, informative tone. For example, when describing the obligatory prayers, she writes: "He has prescribed for us set meeting hours to talk to him, confide in him, and it's up to us whether we RSVP or not. This rendezvous strengthens our relationship with God, deepens our spirituality and holds many rewards."
There's also an undeniable focus on women, as Loujayne highlights Islamic Hadith and practices that relate to females. She also shares "10 groundbreaking sharia laws that improved women's status after the rise of Islam", and another section features excerpts written by modern-day Muslim women, including a motivational speaker, Miss Universe contestant, artist and fashion designer. "Sisterhood is a huge part of Islam and our community," explains the writer. "Through conducting research while writing the book I could not help but marvel at the inspiring Muslim women who paved the way for us today and I did not want them to be forgotten, so I made it a point to highlight their stories, whether they lived thousands of years ago or are living among us today. I would have personally loved to read this when I was doing research on the religion in my teens."
Loujayne also sheds light on wardrobe essentials for women seeking conservative clothing. This includes “instant sleeves” – essentially fabric tubes that can be worn under short-sleeved T-shirts to cover the arms – and “underscarves”, which are worn under hijabs to ensure the hairline is covered. There’s even a whole section on halal beauty secrets.
Loujayne urges readers to develop their knowledge through suggested extra reading material in a bibliography, as well as references marked in the margins. For example, she points readers to the Saheeh International translation of the Quran, which was interpreted by three American women who converted to Islam in the 1980s. She also invites those interested to join her online book club on Goodreads.com. "It's called Soul Sisters, and I want it to be an open space where we can exchange our thoughts on a variety of Islamic literature," she says. "It's open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, but I try to keep women at the centre of all book picks."
Loujayne has no plans to write another book. Instead, she's focusing her efforts on translation opportunities for Big Little Steps – starting with French, naturally.