The Perplexing Status Quo for Muslim Fiction

In the category of young adult (YA) fiction, one can find a relatively solid number of Muslim-oriented novels, some of which are consistently championed in the Muslim novel-reading community for their positive representation of Muslims. Through mass marketing, these portrayals are lauded and viewed as authentic. Though I do not personally read young adult fiction, it recently occurred to me that I could perhaps curate a small Muslim fiction collection in the library of the school where I work. I began to research the most popular YA novels which were repeatedly garnered praise across social media. The project was exciting, I hoped that teenagers seeing themselves in such novels would not only lead them to read more books, but also aid them in feeling proud and confident in their identities.

Alas, it did not take long before I came across the very un-Islamic elements in these novels. Given that this was alien territory to me, perhaps such elements stood out even more. These novels are not liberal in an ideological sense. The authors seamlessly weave Islam onto the pages, enabling the reader to discern the characters’ love for Islam and their unashamed observation of the religion. References to their Islamic identity include characters praying salah, declaring faith in God, reciting the Qur’an, and wearing the hijab. For example, in Zoulfa Katouh’s recently-published novel As Long As The Lemon Tree Grows, the female protagonist Salama ensures that her hair is only visible when there are no non-mahrams (men permissible to marry) around. She leaves her hair out in the presence of her sister-in-law, as is permissible in Islam. In this way, the author highlights the character’s adherence to the obligations of the hijab

While such incorporations of Islam are praiseworthy, these novels, so venerated by Muslim reviewers, do in fact contain several un-Islamic elements. They include some amount of swearing, characters lustfully gazing at the opposite gender, and a casual acceptance of mainstream music. Furthermore, freemixing is so pervasive in some novels that its impermissibility seems to have been swept under the rug for the “greater good” of portraying an Islamic ethos. Even if such content, when compared to other material available, may be the lesser of two evils, Muslim readers must be more critical in order to ensure that the  Muslim publishing world flourishes with Allah’s blessings. If these novels are touted to the extent that they become benchmarks of Muslim fiction, we can expect it to negatively impact teenage Muslim readers. By normalizing sinful acts, it can undermine their consequences and make it seem acceptable, a grave danger.

In As Long As The Lemon Tree Grows, the main love interests, Kenan and Salama, develop their bond over time, prior to marriage. The novel includes several scenes featuring the unmarried couple indulging in each other’s company. In one scene, they are alone on a rooftop, watching the sunset. In another, Kenan’s “fingers skim [Salama’s] sleeve,” as he sits “closer than ever before” to the point where Salama can “glance up at him.” Such inappropriately close proximity between the two is further detailed in the following passage:

“He  comes  closer,  his  fingers  touching  the  edge  of  my  lab  coat,  and everything stills … and I stare at his long fingers grasping the top of my pocket … His emerald eyes drop to my lips for a few seconds, and then he looks away. ‘Salam,’ he whispers, and then he’s gone.”

This, might I add, was not the only instance of the characters glancing down at each other in obviously inappropriate and unacceptable ways. This is especially disappointing considering how much emphasis Islam has placed on lowering one’s gaze — it should be obvious that this does not mean lowering one’s gaze only to meet the other gender’s lips.

Such juxtaposition of inappropriate gender relations and Islamic acts is immensely misleading, especially for impressionable teenagers. The issue here is that the characters’ actions are never textually condemned. In fact, they are even light-heartedly brushed aside: the male love interest in Katouh’s novel unabashedly confesses to flirting with her from the get-go. This laxity is reminiscent of another piece of popular Muslim-centric fiction,  S.K. Ali’s Love from A to Z. Although the novel makes explicit references to the Qur’an and Sunnah, it is not without its faults and is just as saturated with un-Islamic elements. For example, the female protagonist Zayneb describes a man’s physical features before remembering that her sister would perhaps chastise her to “lower your gaze like a good Muslim, Zu-zu.” Yet, with the detailed description of the man and the inclusion of relatable vernacular (“I think what pinged CUTE GUY ALERT…”), Zayneb’s internal rebuke falls flat.

Throughout the novel, the characters are conflicted between their lustful desires and the Islamic code of conduct. However, these conflicts do not culminate in endeavors to please Allah, nor do they result in a well-developed character arc. Rather, they are often presented in a humorous manner, weakening the seriousness of succumbing to one’s desires. For instance, after seeing Zayneb for the first time, her love interest Adam conspires to encounter her again under the pretext of using the airplane bathroom nearest to her seat. He undergoes a series of failings (and successes) to accomplish this goal, all meant to amuse the reader. Though the characters are evidently practicing Muslims, their behaviors grossly misrepresent the appearance of a union pleasing to Allah. As Ibn Qayyim says, “It is not possible for the love of al-Rahman and lust for images to gather in one heart. They are opposites that cannot coexist. One will certainly evict the other.” 1

In other instances, such as in in S. K. Ali’s novel, there are two particular moments when the characters suggest that they could needlessly freemix so long as they are in the presence of others. Not only do Adam and Zayneb disclose what they initially found physically attractive in each other, they also pronounce their mutual feelings in a highly suggestive metaphor. Zayneb is symbolized as water, and after Adam admits that he wants “to know all about the water. Everything about it. ’Cause I . . . like the water,” he admits to being “really thirsty” for Zayneb. This conversation is ultimately justified to the reader by the fact that the two are in a public place. 

The gender relations depicted in these novels occur in stark contrast to the Qur’anic story of Prophet Musa عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ and the two women who wanted to water their herd. As Sheikh Alomgir Ali expounds: “The two women withheld from watering their flocks because they did not want to intermingle with the men and so wanted to wait until the men finished watering their flocks. Musa عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ out of his kindness and wanting to help others, offered his assistance to them. When their father heard of his integrity and good character, he wanted to hire him as a worker.”2 In addition, Allah mentions the shyness by which one of the women approached Prophet Musa عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ when her father wanted to reward him for his kindness. 

These elements of shyness and abstention from unnecessary freemixing are absent in novels like As Long As The Lemon Tree Grows and Love from A to Z. In the Author’s Note of her novel, Katouh expresses her desire for the love story to be reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. However, even Western classical literature is not puritanical in an Islamic sense for Muslims to borrow from wholesale. With this in mind, it raises the question of why these un-Islamic acts are even considered necessary to include? Is it because writers themselves are unaware of the sinful nature of such acts, or do they consider this a lesser evil in the larger mission of crafting relatable characters for the youth of today? 

While there certainly is value in Zoulfa Katouh and S. K. Ali’s novels, we must ask ourselves: is this the standard we must accept for Muslim fiction? While many justify the more positive examples as outweighing the bad, it is nonetheless frustrating to see these novels marketed on a large scale within the book-reading Muslim community, sans any cautionary disclaimer. If a young impressionable mind consumes content in which haram acts are committed by a Muslim character, romanticized by the author, and publicly brushed aside by reviewers, it will only cause confusion in understanding religious boundaries.

This is not the first time that Muslim representation in the media has been questioned, particularly in media produced by Muslims themselves. For example, consider the Marvel Studios’ series Ms. Marvel: many showrunners, including executive producer Sana Amanat, are Muslims, yet they fail to clearly distinguish between Islam and the unlawful acts in the dominant, Western culture of the show’s setting. As a result, music, free-mixing, and even dating become common occurrences despite them being haram.

 In Surah Kahf, Allah says,

وَوُضِعَ ٱلْكِتَـٰبُ فَتَرَى ٱلْمُجْرِمِينَ مُشْفِقِينَ مِمَّا فِيهِ وَيَقُولُونَ يَـٰوَيْلَتَنَا مَالِ هَـٰذَا ٱلْكِتَـٰبِ لَا يُغَادِرُ صَغِيرَةًۭ وَلَا كَبِيرَةً إِلَّآ أَحْصَىٰهَا ۚ وَوَجَدُوا۟ مَا عَمِلُوا۟ حَاضِرًۭا ۗ وَلَا يَظْلِمُ رَبُّكَ أَحَدًۭا

And the record [of deeds] will be placed [open], and you will see the criminals fearful of that within it, and they will say, “Oh, woe to us! What is this book that leaves nothing small or great except that it has enumerated it?” And they will find what they did present [before them]. And your Lord does injustice to no one. [18:49]3  

We will be held accountable for every one of our small and great deeds, including what we propagate. While it may seem unrealistic to expect every Muslim novel to be stripped clean of un-Islamic elements, it is the task of Muslim reviewers to do their due diligence and highlight them. Reviewers must be more transparent with what they publicize, especially when that would not only benefit a parent, guardian, or educator, but teenagers themselves. Moreover, Muslim writers themselves should do better by writing against the current Muslim fiction status quo. Writers should research and study the Shariah regarding the different elements present in their stories. I do not believe that Muslim writers must engage their characters in the haram to satisfy the genre or their target audience, but this is not to say that Muslim characters must be one-dimensional, with no flaws. As long as their negative traits or shortcomings are not narratively condoned, these traits can always serve as part of a larger character arc. Ultimately, the gravity of these issues should not be diluted for the sake of Muslim representation or in an effort to conform to existing markets or industries. Instead, we should always consider the Shariah our standard in producing all media, including YA novels.

Photo by eliza petrovska on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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  3. The Quran, Surah Kahf [18:49][]
Mona Zaneefer

Mona Zaneefer is a graduate in English with Creative Writing. Her interests include literature, Islamic history and football.

One thought on “The Perplexing Status Quo for Muslim Fiction

  1. I feel like popular muslim fiction is an attempt to balance how teenage/YA relationships among Muslims develop irl and how they ought to be. In that sense the tension is always there.

    As a reader of muslim fiction, they come across as authentic. Perhaps ideally it shouldn’t be this way, but in reality YA’s navigate their university/early work phases just like Jalaluddin mentions; between growing attracted to people and trying to hold themselves back while slipping here or there.

    Also, personally i havent read khatouh, but I think Leila Aboulela’s books are much better than Jalaluddin/SK Ali/Sabaa Tahir

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