Traversing Tradition Book Recommendations 2021

As another year of the pandemic draws to a close, many across the globe have found their love for reading reawakened. With classes still online and less time spent commuting to and from work, hours have been freed for us to use at our discretion. A common complaint by those who don’t read is not necessarily that they don’t have time, it’s that they don’t know what to read. For some, it has been so long since they last picked up a book that they’ve forgotten what genres they used to enjoy. An easy way around this is to think about what you currently enjoy watching. Whether it’s shows on Netflix, video essays on YouTube or anime on your mate’s Crunchyroll, think about the subject matter and the overarching genres. Fantasy, political theory, history, sci-fi or religion; the jump between mediums isn’t as wide as you think. If you’re still a bit stuck on how to get started, fear not, for a diverse list of recommendations has been curated to support you in your journey back to books. We’ve included short novels on time travel, ‘Islamic’ fairytale retellings and the Muslim diaspora experience and some more informative works on the Muslim origins of psychotherapy. From quick fun reads to empowering educational works, you are bound to find something in this selection to enjoy. May your love for reading be rekindled (pun intended).

Sustenance of the Soul – Abu Zayd al-Balkhi

Living in an age where mental illness is at an all-time high and God-centred spirituality at an all-time low, medical practitioners and Muslim leaders alike are confronted with the challenge of improving the health and wellbeing of an increasingly unwell society. The effectiveness of therapy—particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)—in treating mental health issues such as anxiety and depression was established as early as the ninth century by Muslim physician Abu Zayd al-Balkhi (850-934). Sustenance of the Soul is the latter half of al-Balkhi’s work Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Bodies and Souls), which details the diagnoses, symptoms and treatments of various psychoses and neuroses. This fascinating work has finally been made accessible for English-speaking Muslim readers.

Bird Summons – Leila Aboulela

Centering on a bold expedition undertaken by three Muslimahs heading up north to the Scottish Highlands to visit the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold (Lady Zainab)—the first aristocratic British-born female convert to make Hajj in 1933, Bird Summons introduces us to a world that exists in spectacular dualities. A world in which good and bad coexist to provide humans with agency and freedom to make their own choices. The journey the women embark on is not only a physical endeavor, but also a profoundly spiritual one. Aboulela’s exploration of faith, identity and purpose in the dunya, paired with the abstract, indescribable metamorphosis that is spiritual progression makes Bird Summons a heartening and captivating read for Muslim readers.

A Dying Colonialism – Frantz Fanon

In an effort to elucidate the diverse anticolonial strategies employed during the first five years of the Algerian revolution, A Dying Colonialism showcases the resilience and dynamism of the Algerian people in ending 130-year long French colonialism. The conniving attempt by the French authorities to stimulate internal conflict by barbarising Algerian men and victimising ‘oppressed’ Algerian women was a way to de-structure Algerian culture. Much of the Islamophobia visibly Muslim women face today can be traced back to this era of colonial perversion, along with efforts being made by many a country today to ‘liberate’ Muslims from their ‘oppressive’ religion. A Dying Colonialism is a clear, concise and insightful analysis of the resistance tactics employed by the Algerian people, written in a way that is accessible to all.

Hearts Turn – Michael Sugich

Forgiveness, redemption and restoration of faith are central to each of the unique personal stories in this touching book. Author of Signs on the Horizons, Michael Sugich perfectly captures the diversity of Islam by amplifying the voices of Muslims from all walks of life who have made Islam their own. The powerfully uplifting stories encourage the reader to reflect on his or her own spiritual struggles and shortcomings. As humans, we are destined to struggle in this dunya, but Allah’s mercy encompasses all and returning to Him is the essence of our human existence. 

Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa

Displaced from their village of Ein Hod, Palestine and forced to become refugees following the establishment of the Zionist state, the story of the Abulheja family is one that is reminiscent of many Palestinian families that were displaced during the Nakba. The raw emotive tone and exploration of both dejection and hope in light of the illegal occupation does not interfere with the more lighthearted childhood scenes of the protagonist and her family. Abulhawa’s versatile writing poignantly portrays both the inspiring and traumatic tale of Palestinian refugees and diaspora.

Rumaysa – Radiya Hafiza

Like any child, I thoroughly enjoyed Disney movies—particularly the princess ones. Though I wasn’t too engrossed in matters of representation at five years old, as I grew older, I yearned to see someone like myself—a hijab-wearing Muslim girl—in the movies and books I read. Muslims today constitute around 24 per cent of the world’s population, and yet it seems the representation we routinely see resorts to pitiful stereotypes. Rumaysa is the Muslim version of three fairytale classics – Rapunzel (Rumaysa), Cinderella (Cinderayla) and Sleeping Beauty (Sleeping Sara). Whimsical and lighthearted, Rumaysa takes the young Muslimah on a magically empowering adventure, encouraging her to stick true to who she is and to carve out her own path. Thankfully, the stories steer clear of the age-inappropriate falling in love clichés and focus on the journeys of the protagonists and their newfound sisterhood. 

The Family Tree – Sairish Hussain 

Coping with the grief of his wife Neelam’s premature passing whilst attempting to bring newborn Zahra into the world and take care of his young son Saahil, Amjad has a newfound purpose in life – to raise his children as best he can alone. As the years go by, Amjad quickly comes to the agonising realisation that single-parenthood cannot protect his children from the struggles of the minority experience in Britain. The redemption arcs of the characters in this novel are realistic and incredibly meaningful. Hussain poignantly captures how faith is always accessible for the ones that perceive themselves unredeemable and for whom the enormity of their sins renders them hopeless. The book emphasises the blessings of good company and how the people you surround yourself with will elevate or lower you.

If Cats Disappeared from the World – Genki Kawamura

Upon entering his thirties and being diagnosed with a brain tumour, the protagonist in this short Japanese novel is confronted with a terrible, yet inevitable reality: he is going to die. Granted an extra day to live, the protagonist sets out to salvage his damaged relationships, begin funeral preparations and write his will. This extra day of life, however, comes with a condition – he is only allowed to live if he gives up something from this world forever. From mobile phones and movies, to clocks and cats, each chapter in this short but gripping novel details the impact of the young man’s choices on the rest of the world. If Cats Disappeared from the World is an unexpectedly touching and bittersweet tale that explores the fragility and brevity of human existence. The reader will effortlessly draw parallels between the Islamic worldview and the morals and lessons that this novel touches upon. 

Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon

Wretched of the Earth is a timeless work that highlights the necessity of decolonising one’s mind from the colonial indoctrination of ‘western values’. Fanon’s work is an analytical exploration of the impact of colonisation on the body and soul of the individual and the population. He uses the example of the French occupation of Algeria to showcase how exploitation and systematic dehumanisation of a native population was a tactic used to justify brutal colonisation and subjugation of the native population. This is a work that critiques both the mental and physical tactics of the colonial forces as well as the new post-colonial state that subconsciously adopts the language, ideals and techniques of the coloniser. Profoundly enlightening and informative, Wretched of the Earth is a liberating, radical analysis of the colonised world.

Rumours of Spring – Farah Bashir 

As a young girl growing up in Srinagar, Kashmir in the 1990s, Farah Bashir’s heartbreaking memoir recounts firsthand observations of the violence, oppression and colonial subjugation of the Kashmiri population by the Indian colonial authorities. The memoir is broadly split in two—the overarching narrative relays the death and subsequent funeral arrangements of Bashir’s Bobeh (grandmother), and the chapters in between relive Bashir’s childhood as a schoolgirl whose education and development were hindered by the trauma and anxiety of constant military brutality. Bashir’s deeply haunting childhood tale showcases the violence and oppression that is inflicted upon a colonised indigenous people. This memoir is incredibly enlightening and eye opening, particularly to those who want to learn more about the occupation of Kashmir.

The Beauty of Your Face – Sahar Mustafah

A captivating debut highlighting the significance of the Arab-Muslim identity in America – The Beauty of Your Face fleshes out a touching narrative detailing the struggles of a culturally conflicted Palestinian Muslim woman. When it comes to Muslim representation, this book succeeds where others fail; that is, in carving out a narrative that does not revolve around a compromised Muslim identity. The book by and large focuses on the protagonist’s religious growth in light of the difficulties she faces in both childhood and adulthood. This novel is deeply moving and emotional, tackling loss, trauma, mental illness, and most notably, the impact that a holistic understanding of religion has a fulfilling life.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Somewhere in the world lies a little basement café. Mundane yet mysterious. What distinguishes this café from others is that it allows its patrons to time travel. However, like with most time-travelling tales, there are some rules, and this café has certain conditions for the four eager protagonists that want to embark on a trip to the past. Refreshing and original, the whimsical premise is still very much grounded in reality, addressing many real-life struggles. The reader might appreciate the entwined narratives and emphasis on cherishing the relationships we have with our loved ones.

Photo via Jaredd Craig


About the author: Sahar is an avid reader who writes varied book reviews and is based in the United Kingdom. She is best known for her reviews critiquing Muslim representation in contemporary literature and amplifying the voices of authors reclaiming the Muslim narrative. You can find her reviews on Instagram and Goodreads.

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