Islamic Fiction in Malaysia: Q&A with Hilal Asyraf

Muhammad Hilal Asyraf is an author from Johor, Malaysia. He studied Usul al-din at Yarmouk University, Jordan. He is now focused on writing Islamic fiction novels, and has his own business, Hilal Asyraf Resources.

  1. Tell us a bit about Nirnama.

Nirnama is derived from a Malay word that means ‘nameless’ or ‘no name’. I used this word as the title of my 20th novel under my own publishing house. It depicts a fictional story that takes place in 15th-century Malay peninsula. 

The story is about a Malay Muslim warrior committed to helping the oppressed but remains nameless because he has never shared his name with others. At that time, the Malay Peninsula is ruled by a powerful Sultan that uses sihr (demonic magic) to stay young, invulnerable and possesses many superpowers. The story will lead readers to follow the journey of this nameless warrior, and how he will fight this Sultan. The legend, despite being action-packed, will honour practical Islamic messages, especially aqidah (creed), iman (faith), honour, and so on.

This novel is fashioned by many illustrations, too, brought to life by a talented Malaysian female illustrator Ms. Hani Raimi.

2. When did you start writing? What inspired you to write this story?

I always joke that I’ve started writing from kindergarten, because all of us began learning to write there, right? Haha. But my career as an author started from 2007 when I started to follow the blogging trend. I actively wrote articles, some like diaries and short stories, almost every day, until one publishing company happened to stumble upon my blog and shared their interest in publishing my writings. So, in April 2009, at the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair, they published two of my books: one novel and a self-help motivational book.

What inspired me the most to write Nirnama was my ambition to make a novel that I can publish for an international readership. So, that is why I wrote this story, which blends two of my most crucial identities – a Muslim and a Malaysian. Nirnama brings so many elements from these two dispositions.

3. In your view, what purpose does fiction serve for the Muslim reader? Do you see it purely as entertainment or is there more to the medium?

For me, fiction serves as a medium for Muslims to enjoy entertainment and spread dakwah [da’wah] simultaneously. Fiction can be our medium to represent what is Islam, how this Western propaganda about Islam is not true, and how the West portrays Muslim/Muslimah characters in their fiction is mostly deceit.

Through fiction, we can bring many analogies or allegories that mirror reality, or spread messages creatively. So the message would come closely without the risk of sounding too preachy.

So we can be entertained, and at the same time, get a meaningful message to ponder upon. So when we close the books, after finishing reading them, we are left with many values that we can practise in real life.

4. How would you describe the literary scene in Malaysia? Would you say that Islamically themed literature is the most prevalent kind?

I do not have deep knowledge and data to describe the literary scene in Malaysia as a whole. But for the question about Islamic themed works, from my observation, it depends on how we describe something as Islamic or not.

When the literary work has good value and message, some people deem it as ‘Islamic’. Some do not agree with this kind of justification, and demand to look more beyond ‘good value’, but the implementation of Islam in the literature, usage of language, and breed of message the literature want to deliver.

And to gauge which is more prevalent, I do not have that data.

5. Has writing fiction presented you with any challenges in terms of faith?

For me, writing Islamic fiction makes me study more about my faith. Because, for me, when we want to write about Islam, we cannot create it on our whim. Even though the narrative of my novels is fictional, the fact of Islam, Al-Quran, Hadith, Sirah Nabawiyah (prophetic anecdotes) in it that I use is not.

So my mission in writing is to show people that if we follow the true path of Islam, we can be a better person, a better community. We can be strong. We still will be hurt if someone wants to do us bad, but we will get back up because we can strengthen ourselves with Islam. For that, I always delve into the verses of the Qur’an, many hadith, many stories from sirah nabawiyah and the companions to write the story I want to tell in my novels.

6. What has been the general response of readers so far? Have you received any criticism? If yes, what is the most common criticism?

Alhamdulillah, the majority of my readers give positive responses to my novels. They seem to like my style of writing that is fast-paced, full of action, but at the same time give them the value of Islam.

Of course, I’ve received many criticisms too, often about the characters and the plot. For some readers, they thought I could do better. I always encourage my readers to critique my novels to identify my weaknesses and faults, so that I will do better for the next novel.

7. Islamic fiction is still a young genre, especially in the West. Most literature and media here make Muslim characters either terrorists or have them struggle with faith, ultimately resulting in adopting a secular-liberal value system at the cost of religion. How do you navigate writing flawed, interesting characters but also emphasizing Islamic ideals?

I navigate that with acknowledgement that Islam is ideal, but Muslims are not. Because Muslims are human. Humans are not perfect. So my story always tells the truth about Islam vs falsehood. The Muslims characters in my novels have their flaws, but they will learn to repent. They will have their dark past, but they will learn to overcome it. They will have their doubts, their struggles with faith, but they will find the answer and be resolute. They will make mistakes, and they will learn from them.

Because that is Islam. Islam is not for perfect people. Islam teaches us to obey Allah ﷻ, follow the sunnah of Rasulillah, not for us to be perfect, but for us to be better than before. Islam is perfect. Muslims only can pursue perfection, to be better. That is how I represent Muslims in many of my novels, so they will always become a role model for my readers, because my readers are humans too.

8. What other genres have you explored? Are there plans for publishing an English version of Nirnama and your other works soon?

I’ve written non-fiction too. My write-ups are often about the reminder of us being Muslim, to obey Allah, to seek hikmah (wisdom) from His commands and prohibitions. But now, I’m focusing on fiction only. Many of my fiction explores action, have a lot of fighting, war, and fantasy elements.

I’ve written novels about sports too, about a team of volleyball players that have problems with their attitudes. And I have written a book, some sort of travelogue-like fiction, about a sinner who does not pray but was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Mecca and did the hajj.

Nirnama is now undergoing the translation process by Mr. Ayman Azlan, and being overseen by the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia’s editor, Mr. Muhaimin Misran.

InshaAllah it will be published around February 2022. It will be sold in Malaysia first. Then the next step, I’ve planned to publish and distribute it internationally through Amazon. But we are still weighing the best options for publication and distribution of Nirnama to international readers. This is the first time my novel is being translated to English and sold internationally.

Photo via Hilal Asyraf

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