[W]e all automatically assume that those who write and who put their knowledge down in texts have something more valuable to offer than those who simply live their knowledge and use it to inform their lives.

In this remark from Chapter 5, Ahmed explores the inherent conflict between “written Islam” and “living Islam”—that is, the oral tradition of religious stories and teachings that she knows from her grandmother’s circle. In Ahmed’s eyes, written Islam has been given more authority than it deserves, partially through the Western academic world, which values texts over all other manifestations of a given faith. The contrast to the official Islam of ancient texts is the living Islam that Ahmed experiences in the company of women in Egypt. This type of Islam is welcoming and humane, yet its ethical core is often rejected by the sheiks and ayatollahs who hold sway in the Muslim world. Ahmed argues that such an oral and aural component of Islam is intrinsic to the faith and also the Arabic language. She highlights a similarity between Arabic and Hebrew: no vowels are seen in written text, and so in a sense, the text cannot fully be realized until someone literally breathes life into it through voice. In this way, she emphasizes the importance of people who “live their knowledge,” as their knowledge is more alive, possessing many more dimensions than a rigid, literal interpretation.

This comment also points to the high esteem in which Ahmed holds the example set by the women around her. She indicates how much she has been shaped by absorbing their values and interpretations of Islam. She also recognizes the impact on the lives of the women around her the realities of living in a society where women’s prerogatives are not honored. She witnesses the fate of her Aunt Aida, who, forbidden to leave an unhappy marriage by her strict father, commits suicide. Ahmed views with disdain her mother’s traditional values and lack of a professional identity. She also feels pity for her grandmother, who is sentenced to a life of grief after the suicide of her son—a suicide that came about because of the son’s conflicted relationship with the family’s strict patriarch. Though she benefits greatly from the teachings and influence of the women around her, Ahmed is still critical of their refusal to see the implications of their roles in society.