The Limits of Sin in Fantasy: A Book Review of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

This review contains spoilers for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi.


Over the past few years, there has been an increase in published Muslamic fiction: fiction written by Muslims that depicts Muslim characters and culture. But, while realistic Muslamic fiction has taken the lead, fantasy — especially historical fantasy — has fallen behind. So when S.A. Chakraborty, author of the Daevabad Trilogy, published The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, a fantasy novel set in the twelfth-century Indian Ocean world, Muslim bookstagram was set abuzz with excitement.

What drew many readers to the story was its unique premise, setting and protagonist, all of which promised a refreshing perspective, not common in any genre of literature. Meant to echo the voice of Medieval Muslim travelogues, it narrates the story of Amina, a middle-aged Muslim mother and former pirate, as she embarks on a quest in search of riches for her family and a bit of redemption for herself.

As promised, the book is filled with references to Islam and Muslim culture — getting up for Fajr, making duaa, reciting Quran and reflecting on Islam’s teachings. It is also filled with action and adventure: swordfights, sea battles between ships and mythical sea creatures, jinn-haunted islands, treasure heists and more. Some readers enjoyed all the action, while others felt that there was an excess of unimportant external action, which grew increasingly distracting as the internal action, or the character growth, fell flat. Some enjoyed the banter between the characters, while others found the humor to be cringe-worthy and lacking any substantial value. The success of these elements boils down to personal preference. Instead of delving into the story’s literary value, this review will address a major point the story makes, one that has serious repercussions for Muslims and Muslamic fiction.

The Problem

The story starts with Jamal al-Hilli, a scribe, narrating the foreword to Amina’s story. Chapter one then moves on with Amina as the first-person narrator, and she remains so for most of the book, besides a few interjecting lines and chapters in which Jamal elaborates on some of the questions he asks and the mythological lore relevant to the story. As Amina’s story unwinds, we see that she is part-bribed, part-coerced into finding and saving Dunya al-Hilli, the supposedly kidnapped teenage granddaughter of a wealthy Adeni woman.  

After re-gathering her former band of pirates and encountering some of the above-mentioned action, she finds Dunya al-Hilli, who apparently left her grandmother of her own free will, but nonetheless needed saving. After several battles, contracts with fantasy creatures, and a great deal of banter, the villain (the sole white character, who is also a former “Frankish” crusader) is defeated, and the story ends with Amina, her daughter, and the pirate crew happily aboard their ship, ready for their next adventure to be revealed in Book 2. Among them is Dunya al-Hilli, who refused to return to her grandmother — perhaps justifiably, since her grandmother was to forcibly marry her off to the old governor of Aden. 

But she is no longer named Dunya. She is now named Jamal and dresses as a man. And Amina fully embraced it,  in fact, going as far as asking Dunya if she sees herself as a man before she even decided to change her name to Jamal. Additionally, Majed, the cartographer depicted as the most “religious” Muslim of the crew, picks out a men’s thawb for Dunya/Jamal, advising that it would suit her as it was something young male scholars would wear.

The way this character — and especially the other characters’ acceptance of her sin — was depicted is undoubtedly very problematic. Whether it is historically accurate or not, the issue is not that a trans person is represented in the story in and of itself. The issue is that it is depicted as something that is good, and one that practicing Muslims should embrace. 

Like any well-developed fictional Muslim character, Amina al-Sirafi is by no means a perfect Muslim. She readily admits to having lived a past life of sin, and, now reformed, she repents and avoids them. The narrative labels several actions as sinful in Islam (some committed by Amina herself, some committed by others) such as drinking alcohol, gambling, extramarital sex, practicing magic, and more. Reflecting on her past sins, Amina says:

There were a great many reasons I should not have done those things, no longer did those things, and wince when I pray for forgiveness from the only One whose compassion is that encompassing.

But the narrative does not label Dunya switching her gender as sinful. It praises it, in fact, in multiple ways: by promoting her to the role of scribe and intermittent narrator of Amina’s story, by portraying her character arc as positive and empowering, and above all, by showing Amina and Majed not only embracing Dunya’s new identity but encouraging it. The last is particularly problematic due to Amina’s depiction as a repenting woman and Majed’s depiction as the crew’s most religious, law-abiding character. The story sees neither Amina nor Majed as being inconsistent in supporting Dunya/Jamal. This contradiction implies two of the book’s messages: on the one hand, it is not wrong for a Muslim to adopt this identity, and on the other, Muslims should embrace those who do.

The Response

Although most of Muslim bookstagram’s reaction to this book was overwhelmingly positive, a few reviewers have voiced their concerns over this portrayal. The author responded to these concerns in the last few minutes of an Instagram Q&A. She defends her choices to include Dunya/Jamal by saying that queer people existed in history — even Medieval Muslim history — and thus should be included in historical fiction.

Indisputably, the book’s historical setting was, in most cases, well-researched. Through the story, we glimpse the politics of twelfth-century Aden, the trade routes between East Africa, Yemen, Oman, India, and even various islands in between, the cosmopolitanism of port cities in the diversity of the characters’ languages, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the sentiments about the Crusades far to the north, and much more. Even the fantasy elements were based on stories produced during this time and region — jinn tales, wonder and travel literature, astrological beliefs, and folklore — which is innovative considering the much-repeated Eurocentric tropes in mainstream fantasy.

The issue with Dunya/Jamal is not an issue of historical accuracy. It is not an issue of whether or not some individuals — including Muslims — saw themselves as trans and/or accepted other people who fully switched genders in the twelfth-century Indian Ocean. Even if they didn’t exist, the author is free to add imaginative historical elements to her story. In fact, while the author’s note before the start of the story tells us to expect accuracy, it justifiably warns us that it is not fully accurate:

The novel’s twelfth-century, largely Islamicate societies of the northwestern Indian Ocean littoral had their own rich and fascinating way of describing antiquity, their contemporaries, and the wider world, and though I’ve tried to re-create that here as accurately as possible, this is a work of fiction.

Under artistic license, authors can twist any part of history in any way. With any piece of historical fiction, readers must give the author some leeway in adding creative elements to the story that may or may not be historically accurate. As the author’s note makes abundantly clear, this is a work of fiction—fantasy, in fact, so we expect it to not be an accurate representation of the twelfth-century Indian Ocean world.

But with this novel, certain elements were stretched beyond the acceptable leeway. The issue is that the author used her artistic license to twist the historical and religious elements into a message for Muslims stemming from liberal Western ideology that is neither authentic to the historical setting nor authentic to Islam.

This is also why labeling the novel as a fantasy does not immunize it from criticism. Some have argued against those critiquing the way LGBTQ is represented in fantasy novels by pointing out that there are magical sea beasts, peris, jinn, magical powers, and more in the novel, so why can’t we imagine there were trans people — trans Muslims — and other Muslims who accepted and embraced them?

We are free to imagine that. But it’s not a matter of whether trans people and Muslims who accepted them existed in this historical context or not. The issue is the message sent about Islam, what counts as a sin, and what “good” Muslims entail. 

When fiction is carefully constructed to send a false message about Islam and what righteous, practicing Muslims should and shouldn’t do, we must draw a line. What the author defends is neither as simple as historical accuracy nor artistic embellishment. It is a preachy, moralistic, deliberate message that it is okay for one to be a good Muslim and trans, and that good Muslims should be “compassionate” to trans people by fully accepting them, embracing their switched gender, and encouraging them.


“Compassion” has become a contentious term lately. In addition to claiming historical accuracy, the author justified her choices in her Instagram Q&A by saying:

We live in a complicated society and I wanted to write characters who lived in that society and actually interacted with each other and had some compassion.

Here, the author is referring to Amina and Majed — the two practicing Muslims who fully embraced Dunya/Jamal and encouraged her to continue this sin. Islam undeniably applauds — demands — compassion. But those on the more liberal end of the spectrum use the term to mean absolute acceptance and support of everyone’s “identity,” oftentimes not even separating a person’s sin from their identity. The other side of the spectrum weaponizes the term to attack anyone with the slightest bit of sympathy or social activism. Yet there is a middle ground. Compassion means being kind and empathetic, while still being firm upon the religion without accepting someone’s sins. The Prophet ﷺ told us to help our brothers and sisters, and that includes helping them against their own sins:

Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 2444)

Applying it to Dunya’s case, helping her with compassion would have entailed empathizing with her struggle and preventing her from oppressing herself, not, as the author implied, encouraging her to continue sinning. The issue with this book and the author’s defense, however, is that adopting a trans identity is not even seen as a sin in the first place.

So What is Good Muslamic Fiction?

It is not inherently wrong for an author to depict a sinful Muslim character. In fact, the best fictional Muslim characters are those who are realistically flawed, face inner struggles, and go through internal character growth. Although we do not have an abundance of Muslim characters like this — and they are especially rare in fiction written for adults — they do exist. For example, S.K. Ali’s well-developed, relatable Muslim characters are all flawed. One character briefly removes her hijab, a few struggle with lowering their gazes, some burst out yelling at their parents. But just because the stories depict these sins does not mean that they applaud or promote them. Rather, they depict realistic issues and the different ways that characters addressed them as Muslims. These books are not meant to be moral guides. Rather, they are meant to showcase certain realistic struggles, allowing average Muslims to relate and empathize with them, and even see various possible ways of growth and overcoming such struggles.

With Amina, Majed, and Dunya/Jamal, however, the author was not attempting to show characters struggling with this specific sin. They were placed on a moral pedestal, and it was implied that they all did the right, “compassionate” thing as practicing Muslims.

Moreover, this is unfortunately not the only novel that sends this message. In the conclusion of the author’s first trilogy, a major Muslim character known for his religiosity not only accepts, but encourages his brother to pursue a homosexual relationship. It is implied that he grew from being a judgmental, practicing Muslim to a more compassionate, empathetic one. Nor is Chakraborty the only Muslim author to send this message: various Muslim book bloggers have helpfully called out several books by Muslim authors and/or featuring Muslim characters who embody this message. A quick search on the Islamic School Librarian blog reveals several.

This is where the lie is: that we must lose our values in order to become more compassionate and empathetic. It is unfortunate that character growth towards accepting Islamically immoral acts under the guise of compassion is quickly becoming a dominant narrative in fiction. 


On Muslim bookstagram, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi has been generally applauded. Reviewers gushed over the uniqueness of the protagonist, the worldbuilding, and the way Islam was weaved throughout the story. But the value of all this decreases dramatically when we notice that it deliberately enwraps a false message about Islamic morality. The book tries so hard to be non-Eurocentric, yet it ultimately fails by including a very Western liberal message and directing it toward a non-Western audience. The more we ignore the gravity of this issue, the more authors and publishers will include such depictions and messages in stories for and about us. It is our responsibility as Muslim readers to speak up for fair and accurate representations of our faith and values. 

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.

Photo by Jakob Braun on Unsplash

Ayah Miraj
Ayah Miraj is a graduate student who enjoys learning and teaching Quran, exploring fantasy worlds (of her own or others' inventions), and baking chocolate chip cookies.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Sin in Fantasy: A Book Review of The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

  1. I prefer the revisionist take on Islam than the reality. Compassion IS accepting people for who they are. If they are not hurting themselves or others, than how are they oppressing themselves or anyone else? Islam preaches compassion, but is logically hypocritical in its execution of that ideal. You cannot believe yourself compassionate while believing two men in love or a transgender person are doing something wrong. I actively hope more books of this kind emerge, and show young Muslim minds what true compassion and peace actually looks like.

    1. “Compassion has become a contentious term lately”….

      I laughed. Come on. When your idea of compassion is judging people, treating them with cruelty and hatred as a means to “help” them, you need to reevaluate what you think that word means.

  2. that’s my issue with Islamicate fiction whether it’s written by non-muslims or muslims is that they often end up writing from the secular liberal paradigm instead of the islamic paradigm. they also feel that they are trying to write “good” muslims that don’t offend liberal sensibilities instead of authentic muslims, especially for period pieces. If a story makes my muslim sensibilities uncomfortable then I don’t read it. frankly the ancient arabic seerah books like sirat sayf bin dhi yazan are better then what these modern authors are putting out. practicing muslims need to focus on translating and decimating those works instead.

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