Islamic Literature

I recently read “Minaret” by Leila Aboulela as part of a book club. While discussing the novel, we brought up the notion of a Muslim voice in American literature.

The book deals with Najwa, a girl forced to leave Sudan as her father is executed for corruption after the fall of the government. She settles in England and leaves behind her life of short skirts and infatuation with Western culture and embraces hijab and the stricter aspects of Islam.

The book had a clear message: Najwa had a fulfilled life because she devoted it to her religion. She’s very vocal about this throughout the story, and her views of others is shaded by whether or not they’re practicing Muslims.

The consensus in our group seemed to be that most novels penned by Muslims – or at least ones that deal with a Western Muslim identity – go one of two ways: They either subscribe to the idea that you can’t have Islamic values and still be Western or that you must follow Islam in the strictest sense. The irony, of course, is that most Muslims don’t live their own lives that way. Most who live in Western societies don’t completely shelter themselves from any outside influence.

There are always the extremes. We all probably know somebody who rebels against the idea of being Muslim and is happy to date, drink and take on many other Islamic taboos.

We all probably also know those who only wear jilbabs and find any activities outside of a masjid to be appalling.

But I think we can agree that most Muslims living in Western societies find some sort of amalgamation of both ideas. We wear hijab and also read fashion magazines. We go to jumuah and watch a basketball game that evening. We go to the movies, listen to music and attempt to pray five times a day. So why hasn’t that come across in our literature? I’ve been hard-pressed to find any book that mirrors my life and experiences.

I think part of that is because we haven’t quite figured out our identity yet. We’re still a relatively young religion and a relatively new set of immigrants. It’ll take us a while to figure out our place. Many of us have parents who left their homelands to settle in a new country. It will take a while to establish generations of Muslims who grew up in their adopted land.

I also think there’s a fear to put down on paper something that isn’t the ideal. Those who completely eschew Islam are ready to defend their positions, and those who have the strictest interpretation have a relatively simple task.

It’s those of us left in the middle who have a lot left to figure out. Which of our parents’ teachings will we continue? What of our Islamic heritage is most important to us?

Even though our Muslim-American identity is in flux, I think it’s still very important to have a voice out there of the large middle group of Muslims. In my opinion, literature is a very important place to have in any society, and we can’t ignore it.

Unfortunately, many of those writers haven’t surfaced yet, at least not in a discernible way. I hope more of those voices come forward in the next few years so that our identity can be shaped the way we want it and not by what others write about us.


About The Author

Nadia Malik

Nadia Malik is a journalism graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has worked for six years a reporter for The Daily Herald, the third largest newspaper in Illinois, covering government, crime and education. She also wrote a first-person piece for the newspaper about her decision to wear hijab. She has appeared on CNN and NBC’s Dateline, as well as local radio programs, to talk about her work. She currently writes a weekly pop culture column for the website

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10 2011

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    Islam is a religion that has laid down some fix rules to be happy in life. At first they look like restrictions but actually every rule has a reason behind it. I agree that one has to mold as per the society but a strict Muslim will not do so. And there would be no versions of these rules. It just depends on the followers to follow or not.


  2. Imran #

    Great post, I especially like the line, “I also think there’s a fear to put down on paper something that isn’t the ideal”, which I think embodies one of the main reasons; this also reflects that most people fear that by writing about something that’s not ideal would automatically imply that they condone or even promote such ideals. And if they go on to refute/argue against it or support/promote it then their work would fall under one of the two perspectives that you already talked about. So the challenge is to present the reality without falling into the 2 prominent perspectives.


  3. Shereen #

    Thanks for raising this critical issue. There is a lot of talk about Islamophobia lately. More fiction containing regular characters who happen to be Muslim would help. This would mean fiction that has ordinary characters who shop at Target and file their taxes and aren’t praying all day. Art humanizes the formerly inaccessible,elusive mass that Muslims are today. If Muslims don’t define who they are, someone else will.


  4. 4

    Mashallah, very beautiful post! I completely agree that Muslim writers should also attempt to portray their characters in a more mainstream manner. The characters, like regular Muslims, can be devout Muslims while incorporating some aspects of Western culture in their lives!


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