Faith and Fantasy: Is Islamic Fiction Viable?

A Book Review of The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

One of the factors that has distinguished the literary tradition in the Muslim world from that of the cultural West for much of the past millennium is the modality adopted by popular literature. Poetry was very much a staple of literary expression throughout Islamic civilization, whereas fictional prose did not enjoy the same status that it did in the Western world. 

In Europe, indigenous folklore survived the shifts in religious tradition and the development of languages. Various fables of pre-Christian Europe have been carried by the vehicle of the written word and adapted into countless iterations that helped codify the genres of modern popular fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth – and all of Fantasy by extension – would not be possible without the influence of Beowulf and the Norse Sagas. Frankenstein (considered the earliest piece of science fiction) takes cues from the Greek myth of Prometheus. Even western Romance owes a debt to some of the motifs of Arthurian Legend. [1]

Broadly speaking, the same cannot be said for most of the Muslim world. While there are instances and cases of literary fiction that embraced folklore, these texts were not particularly held in high esteem. The 1001 Nights, for example, was considered a “lower” form of literature, and only began to gain some recognition after being introduced to the English-speaking world. The Nights, according to Robert Irwin, were “unworthy of serious consideration” amongst the more cultured classes of Arabs. [2]

In a post-colonial era and with the globalization of culture, the generations of Muslim diaspora settled in the West have gradually been exposed to industries exporting an Anglo-centric culture and European understanding of creative expression. Among the cultural commodities they have engaged with is western fiction. 

There has been a small but growing effort to introduce elements of the Islamic tradition and aesthetic features of Muslim cultures into this arena for decades. Some of these were well-received to a degree (Frank Herbert’s Dune, for instance), while others proved to be deliberately provocative and divisive. In recent years, a niche of Muslim authors have thrown their hats into the ring of genre fiction with their own attempts at creating narratives grounded in Islamic sentiments. One that particularly stands out is the debut novel by American author Shannon Chakraborty, The City of Brass

This review will approach Chakraborty’s novel from a number of angles. It will examine its influences and background, plot, characters, narrative style, world-building, and above all, how its lore relates to the Islamic tradition. The aim of this is to open a wider discussion on how Muslims could approach literary fiction and whether or not they have anything to offer in this field. 

*As a disclaimer, this review will contain some spoilers with regards to the plot of the book*

About the Book

The City of Brass is the first book in Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, which is set to conclude with this summer’s The Empire of Gold. The author describes this project as “Historical fan-fiction” that she did not initially intend to publish. As a convert who had embraced Islam in her adolescence, Chakraborty had plans of becoming a historian specializing in the Middle East. After her academic ambitions were curbed by other aspects of her personal life, she decided to invest her independent research and passion for the subject into creative writing, the product of which would culminate in the world of The City of Brass. 

Plot:

The City of Brass is set in the fictional city of Daevabad which, in the context of the novel, is the capital of the Djinn empire. The novel explores the tensions between the various tribes and classes of djinn as they are provoked by ancient feuds, religious conflicts, and tribal politics. 

Characters:

The narrative alternates between the perspectives of two protagonists; Nahri and Ali are the vehicles by which the reader engages with Chakraborty’s world and their backgrounds provide two varying lenses by which the reader experiences that world. Despite this, many might find there to be a rift between the pacing in their respective plot lines, which hinders character development in some respects. 

Having spent her life as an orphan in Napoleonic Cairo, we are introduced to Nahri as a con-artist posing as a fortune teller and pseudo-mystic. Nahri acknowledges that she isn’t like other people. She’s always had a gift for healing, and a natural intuition when it comes to seeing illnesses in others. Nahri is a misfit with dreams of abandoning her so-called life in Egypt to pursue the study of medicine in Turkey. Her plans are abruptly derailed when, during a mock-exorcism, she unwittingly summons a powerful djinn warrior or “Afshin”, and brings upon herself an army of bloodthirsty ghouls. Dara – the Afshin in question – whisks her away from her life to find refuge in Daevabad, a journey in which he reveals Nahri’s true heritage as the last living daughter of a noble clan of Djinn, and that a group of Ifrit (Devils) were forging a plot that threatened her life. 

Nahri is arguably the “main” character of the story, with her own arc making up more than half of the novel. It is a shame then that, of the two central heroes, Nahri appears to be the weakest in terms of character development. The first three chapters are dedicated to the first leg of her journey to Daevabad, and in it there is very little room for her to develop. 

Instead, she is placed as more of a stand-in for the reader to be introduced to some of the rudimentary features of the novel’s lore; flying carpets, Djinn history, magic etc. Furthermore, it is clear from their first interaction that the novel is setting up a form of romance between Nahri and Dara, which more often than not falls into the cliché’s made notorious by popular Young Adult fiction.

Nahri does come into her own as a character later in the novel as she arrives at the city of brass. Though her “Fish out of water” quality does not entirely dissipate, she demonstrates her wit and intellect the more she engages with the people of Daevabad, and particularly when her story converges with our second protagonist. 

Alizayd Al-Qahtani or simply Ali, is the prince of the Djinn realm and the youngest son of the Sultan Ghassan Al-Qahtani. A prodigy in almost every field; from all matters of academia to combat, swordsmanship and strategy, Ali has been poised to become the future Qaid (General) of the military. Despite his brilliance and capability, he is characterized as an outcast amongst his peers for a number of reasons. 

One of the traits alienating Ali is his disapproval of the social norms among the city’s elite, and particularly their mistreatment of the shafit. The shafit are an ethnic group of half-human djinn, who have been rendered to the ghettoized underclass of the city. Ali’s sympathy for their struggle, as well as his spiritual devotion, sets him apart from his clan and even his own family, despite them all being Muslim. Much of his arc revolves around Ali’s allegiance with an underground shafit group known as the Tanzeem, whilst evading the suspicions of his household.  

Of the protagonists, many readers will find themselves more invested in Ali’s story than any other. In an age where there is such an emphasis on moral ambiguity as a substitute for complexity in narrative, it is refreshing to see an upstanding hero. His character might especially resonate with newly practicing Muslims struggling with their social contexts, peer pressure, lack of familial support, and so on.

Alizayd’s character arc also offers the most thematically. The fundamental conflict underlying his narrative is a moral one. In addition to seeing his family compromise their principles for the sake of keeping up appearances, he is forced to navigate a socio-political scene riddled with deceit, discrimination, ancient feuds, and even outright debauchery. His allegiances also force him into making difficult decisions that escalate the plot when he is introduced to Nahri in the latter half of the novel. 

The motif of Ali holding on to his faith and character in the face of such adversity is another aspect of the novel that the Muslim reader might appreciate. 

World Building 

The lore and world-building in Chakraborty’s Daevabad is arguably the strongest aspect of this book, and largely makes up for some of the issues in pacing and development in the earlier chapters. The genre of High Fantasy has its aesthetic hallmarks, which are almost entirely grounded in European folklore such as Dragons, Elves, Druids and the like. The world established in The City of Brass challenges this standard in not only its setting but in the cultures it draws from. The influences are vast and serve to enrich the different castes and races.

There are six distinct tribes in the novel. Their languages, traditions, and religious practices draw inspiration from various cultures. The Gezeris are the stand-ins for Arabs, the Agnivanshis hail from the Indus, The Daevas – who claim to retain the “original” name of the Djinn – take many cultural elements from ancient Persia, and so on. 

The flair in Chakraborty’s style of writing shines through in her imagery and in how she establishes a setting:

“Fog shrouded the great city of brass, obscuring its towering minarets of sandblasted glass and hammered metal and veiling its golden domes. Rain seeped off the jade roofs of marble palaces and flooded its stone streets…”

“Marble paths stretched out across the sunny grasses, shaded by manicured trees. A cool breeze brought the smell of roses and orange blossoms.”[3]

The novel’s imagery is striking and vivid. Chakraborty constructs a cornucopia of scenes from across the Medieval Muslim world; imposing structures from a fabled Abbasid Baghdad, contrasting with gardens reminiscent of Islamic Spain. The different styles and influences are held together by the ostentatious vigor of the Djinn’s own creativity, such as the animated statues of fire breathing lions dotted around the city. 

Chakraborty also utilizes the folklore of Persian culture to inform the world in The City of Brass. As Djinn are creatures born of fire, she expands upon this with reference to creatures representing other elements, such as the avian Peri which represent air. This opens the novel up to the question of whether any aspect of the Islamic tradition can or should be appropriated for the sake of fiction.

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?

Belief in matters of the unseen (ghayb) is part of Islamic creed. Islamic theology commands that the Muslim affirms the metaphysical reality as well as the physical, even that which is beyond their comprehension. Angels and Djinn fall under this same category:

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:The Angels were created from light, the Djinn were created from a mixture of fire, and Adam was created as has been described for you.(Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2996)

Muslims do not regard these matters as folklore, but as truths beyond our immediate senses. However, it is important to note that what has been relayed from the Prophetic tradition regarding the unseen is scarce, and especially those concerning the nature of djinn. Though there are ahadith Quranic verses about their origins (such as the narration above), as well as some of their abilities, what we know about them is very limited. To the Muslim there is a wisdom in this, as the duty of the believer is not to obsess over these matters, but to affirm them and obey the One who created them:

The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord, and [so have] the believers. All of them have believed in Allah and His angels and His books and His messengers, [saying], “We make no distinction between any of His messengers.” And they say, “We hear and we obey. [We seek] Your forgiveness, our Lord, and to You is the [final] destination.” (Qur’an, 2:285, Sahih International translation)

It might seem strange then, for one to write a review of a novel that concerns itself entirely with the unseen. It might seem even more suspect that the author embellishes it with lore borrowed from pre-Islamic traditions, inventing a new culture around it. Though it may appear so at first glance, it is important to remember that Chakraborty did not intend for this novel to be taken as a religious text. 

It is, first and foremost, a piece of experimental fiction and an exercise in world-building. Its purpose is to be taken as such, and not to inform one’s understanding of Islam. That is something which should be clear but is easy to overlook, and understandably so. There have been numerous attempts at fiction drawing from the Islamic tradition, or stories expressing the Muslim experience. More often than not, the results range from derogatory and sensationalist puff stories (Rushdie’s infamous Satanic Verses comes to mind) or condescending attempts to – for lack of a better term – “white wash” the Muslim experience, (the recent film Hala has sparked some controversy in that regard). 

Chakraborty has expressed on a number of occasions that this text was written with a particular audience in mind, as she stated in an interview with SYFY Wire:

“I wanted to write a story for us, about us, with the grandeur and magic of a summer blockbuster.”[4]

This book is written for the Muslim reader before anybody else, and woven into its world are nuances and terminologies that will resonate with said reader. It is by no means a perfect reflection of Islam or the ideals of Muslims, and there are questionable aspects of the novel. There are points in which it attempts to explore the more scandalous side of medieval Muslim aristocracy by delving into matters of sexual promiscuity in a way that adds little to nothing to the overall plot, and appears forced at times. Its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, falls into the same problem. 

In addition, there is a subplot concerning an artifact known as “The Seal of Solomon”. This refers to the ring given to the Prophet Sulayman (عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَام) by Allah, with which he would have control over all Djinn. There is no explicit reference to the ring in the Qur’an, or any explanation of how Allah granted Prophet Sulayman control over Djinn-kind. There is, however, a narration attributed to Ibn Abbas (رضي الله عنه) that some of the scholars of Qur’anic exegesis considered strong (it appears in the tafsir of Ibn Abi Hatim). Though the chain of narration is considered strong, it is not clear as to whether or not this narration itself is a hadith relayed from the Prophet Muhammad or quoted from Judeo-Christian sources. The concern with this reference in the novel is it being an artifact attributed to a prophet. It is easier to dismiss the creation of lore dealing with the unseen – a realm that by definition is ambiguous – than something related to a clear figure in the religion. Others might disagree with this contention. 

The Verdict

There is no number being given here. Rating systems are disingenuous, as it is unfair to ascribe a quantitative score to literature, and art by extension, which is qualitative and subjective in nature. 

So is The City of Brass worth the time and investment? That is something that depends entirely on the individual. If you are a practicing orthodox Muslim with a strong grasp of your creed and an interest in creative writing and genre fiction, then this novel might be of intrigue. As a primer for your narrative experience, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative” by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah is a helpful guide to Islamic cultural production and adaptation.

If you are looking for a text to enhance your faith, or broaden your understanding of the religion, and are not at all concerned with Fantasy literature, then this book is not for you. 

Overall, The City of Brass is an interesting and refreshing take on the Fantasy genre. It subverts many of the aesthetic tropes established by The Lord of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dungeons and Dragons, and other forms of Fantasy entertainment. There were aspects of the pacing and subject matter that are problematic. Despite this, the novel still presents themes and motifs that create an immersive world of political conflict and (without spoiling any more of the plot) finishes with a suspenseful crescendo. It awaits to be seen what the conclusion of this trilogy and other aspiring Muslim authors have to offer in the literary market-place. 

Amazon link to the book here. This is not a sponsored post.

Works Cited:

  1. Bruce, J.D. “The Development of Arthurian Romance in Mediæval France.” The Sewanee Review, 13.3.
  2. Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.
  3. Chakraborty, Shannon. The City of Brass. HarperVoyager, 2017.
  4. Krishna, Swapna. “S.A. Chkraborty’s The City of Brass Started Out As History Fan Fiction.” SYFY Wire Interview, 13 Nov. 2017, https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/sa-chakrabortys-the-city-of-brass-started-out-as-history-fan-fiction. Accessed 20 January 2020.

About the author: Ibraheem Ali is a writer for Traversing Tradition. He is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include Literature, Film and Islamic History. He is not a fan of twitter.

2 thoughts on “Faith and Fantasy: Is Islamic Fiction Viable?

  1. The oddest/funniest thing about novels like these about jinn that are written by Muslims is the way they make the jinn so similar to human beings. The jinn are no where near as intellectually developed as human beings are – that’s a factual loophole that I can never get over so I couldn’t enjoy this book even if I wanted to. I’ve read ‘Alif the Unseen’ and suffice to say, I don’t think I’ll come back to this genre any time soon.

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