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16 Novels About Muslim Life That Everyone Should Read

Culture January 31, 2017 By Vincent

Islam is the world's second largest religion (behind Christianity) with 1.7 billion followers considering themselves Muslim. To put things in perspective, that figure accounts for around 23% of the world's population despite Islam being an Abrahamic monotheistic religion that upholds that God is one and incomparable and that the purpose of existence is to worship God. Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet of God. Despite all of this, many people still do not know about the religion or the experience it leads many to have which brings about a level of fear and ignorance.

Image Source: via Pixabay

Here we detail several books that explore the Muslim lifestyle and experience and open up others to a greater cultural understanding and knowledge of the faith that we think everyone should read.


1. Minaret by Leila Aboulela

The story of a young, secular Sudanese woman living in the capital of Khartoum where she is privileged and educated, a political coup forces her family to flee to London where she is now an impoverished maid. Turning to her family's religion, she finds herself seeking solace in the more orthodox manners of the faith.

All the while she finds she is ignored by the upper classes employing her and so the book acts as a subtle portrayal of the complex internal world of an orthodox Muslim woman as well as a criticism of classism in Muslim communities at home and abroad.


2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

An autobiographical graphic novel that depicts the author's childhood up to her early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution as well as her teenage years spent learning in Europe. Although Islam is not the primary focus of the story, it shows how regimes have used it to oppress while true believers may interpret it differently.

It also shows the Western reaction to the faith and how this response affects people and how the religion shapes the thinking and beliefs of the protagonist. Also made into a stunning film, it is a fabulous introduction to the practicalities of the faith rather than just the theory.


3. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

A hugely controversial book and probably controversial including it on this list. Inspired in part by the life of the prophet Muhammad, the title refers to the satanic verses, a group of Quranic verses that allow intercessory prayers to be made to three Pagan Meccan goddesses. Whilst many lauded it as one of the best novels released in recent times, it provoked considerable controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references.

While Rushdie himself is from a Muslim family (although considering himself an atheist), the novel is about religious faith and identity and is an insight into the immigrant experience in Britain and disillusionment with diasporic culture. The controversy led to some Muslims claiming it as blasphemous and an insult to Islam and resulted in a fatwā calling for Rushdie's death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran. Others defended the right to freedom of speech and praised its honest and open depictions of struggling with faith. It remains extremely polarizing to this day.


4. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Depicting Afghanistan through periods of revolution, Soviet occupation, Taliban rule and then the American 'War on Terror' it talks about the ethnic and religious conflict in Afghanistan in a heartbreaking story of brotherhood and hierarchy that made it an absolutely massive hit at the time that has now been turned into a film and stage show.

Depicting Afghanistan and Afghani immigrants in an honest manner shower the triumphs and tribulations of humanity at its best and worst.


5. The Girl In The Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf

Chronicling a Syrian immigrant in America, it traces the fault lines between the various ways of life in the country through different races and then juxtaposes that with the devout Muslim way of life the protagonist returns to when she is back in her homeland.  Identity, bigotry, and love are all targeted through the eyes of a Muslim woman.

The interfaith relationships that spring up show how America could and does work for some people as well as the undeniable racism and misunderstandings that push others apart.


6. Moth Smoke

As a banker in Lahore, Pakistan loses his job, he turns to selling cannabis and along the way, falls in love with his best friend's wife. The story slides through many of the seedier aspects of city life, but it also shows a modern and forward thinking world that is so often not portrayed of Muslim countries in the media.

Chaotic and complex, it is set against the backdrop of a subcontinent in religious turmoil and uses the religious, mystical storytelling found in that part of the world as a part of its narrative structure.


7. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The lives of Bengali, Jamaican and English people become intertwined in complex and unexpected ways in modern London showing how a genuinely multi-cultural city lives and works together on a day to day basis and what each individual's identity means to them and how they interpret it from others.

Although Islam is not the central strand of this book, it is given equal time and lays bare the anxieties of a Muslim family attempting to preserve its commitment to its values while living in a forward thinking Britain.


8. A Map Home by Randa Jarrar

Set during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a larger backdrop, the novel depicts the struggles of Nidali and her family, exploring the question of what "home" means, and the character's identity. This also brings into play the concepts of the diasporic and immigrant identity.

The frank discussions of other subjects, such as sex and masturbation, in an Arab household are also hilarious and touching at the same time and offer up a perspective on subjects so rarely addressed in Western literature from an Islamic point of view.


9. Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

A tale of the interactions between Western and African culture, a young Senegalese boy goes to study in France where he soon loses touch with his Islamic roots. As the young man falls in love with his Qur’an teacher, he subsequently moves toward secular academia. 

Talking about both the advantages and drawbacks of both religious and secular education, it creates an image of mental strength brought about by religion and the mindset of someone who has been religiously raised.


10. Alif The Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Taking place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, a  mixed-race hacker delves into a world of metaphysics and fantasy in a world where djinns occupy the same space as WI-Fi.

This creates an excellent mix of cultural folklore and modern identity politics in the internet age in a story that also explores faith, political opposition, and the status of Indian migrants in Arab countries.


11. Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Set in the slums of Casablanca, Morroco, the main character dreams of a life outside the slums and also with being reunited with his missing father. The narrative focuses on themes related to class, gender, religion, migration/immigration and cultural conflict with a specific view to the conditions that engender religious extremism and how these views can be particularly appealing to the poor.

In an honest and open dialogue about how religion is linked to terrorism, it shows how its strengths can be used to overcome, and its weaknesses exploited to poison a mind.


12. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Following a group of Turkish miniaturists during the rule of Ottoman Empire, one of them is murdered, and it becomes a mystery as to by whom. The chapters shift to completely unexpected narrators that not only tells of Islamic history but also tradition and art forms in a loving testimonial to the Islamic art tradition.

The novelist is a Nobel Prize winning author, and this book contributed a lot to that.


13. The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

As Bangladesh fought for independence from Pakistan, it raises questions of what Islam should be and what makes a good Muslim. The story follows a doctor who returns from the war in 1971 to find it has distanced him from her as he has become a local religious leader.

Spelling out the ideological differences within the religion itself will open your eyes to the trauma of independence as well as the struggles within itself that a faith can face. 


14. The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammed Knight

A Pakistani-American engineering student moves into a house full of Islamic punk rockers, and it completely subverts his preconceived notions of Islam and what it is and can be, and it will do the same for the reader.

So influential is this book that it created a sub-culture of its own as it is a beautiful testimony to the possible diversity of Islam.


15. Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

About the marriages and sex lives of four women in Saudi Arabia, it is something akin to Sex In The City but in the setting of an Islamic state. This honest look into a world that many misunderstand is a grand opening up of perceptions around the empowerment of Muslim women and how they perceive themselves.

The book was banned in Saudi Arabia, but it goes a long way to bridging cultural gaps between Islam and the West.


16. Habibi by Craig Thompson

As brilliant as it is flawed, the book is a sort of Islamic fairy tale about two children who start life as slaves and then inhabit different bodies throughout the story and learn more with each transformation. Controversial for containing sex and nudity the debate seems to arise from depicting this in imagery but it certainly isn't gratuitous, and there is a point to it which is the essential difference between literature and pornography.

It is, however, an Orientalist portrait of Muslims and so doesn't offer up a first-hand perspective but will teach the reader about many similarities between Abrahamic religions.


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