As a student of Mormon literature, I have a keen interest in Mormon literature-y things—comparable religious (and other) subcultural literatures whose study in the academy can help me to frame the study of literature as it relates to my own culture. In graduate school, for example, I took several courses on Jewish literature and developed a minor sub-specialty in the work of Saul Bellow. When I was an English professor in West Virginia, I worked every year with an Appalachian writers program that we sponsored. There are a lot of good comparable out there.
Over the last few months, though, I have become convinced that the closest parallel that we have to Mormon literature today is the burgeoning field of Muslim literature written in English and coming from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. There are several reasons for this.
Islam and Mormonism have remarkably similar origin stories. Both were founded by a prophet who produced a new book of scripture that complemented, but also radically reframed, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Both religions grew quickly, first through elaborate kinship networks, and then through aggressive proselyting. And both religious communities initially had issues with their closest neighbors.
In the 21st century, the Mormon and Muslim experiences align in different ways. In the United States, they represent about the same percent of the population (1-2%). They are both communities that emphasize education and professional accomplishment, but that also stand apart from the larger society through distinctive sartorial and dietary conventions and through their adherence to beliefs and practices that most people don’t understand. Muslims and Mormons score similarly (and similarly negative) in public perception polls, which show that neither religious community has quite assimilated into the American mainstream.
And then there is the fact that many American politicians, and far too many of their followers, are currently making horrible generalizations about Islam that sound almost exactly like the horrible generalizations that people made about the Mormons less than a hundred years ago.
In other words, if contemporary American Mormons don’t feel a strong kinship with contemporary American Muslims, then we are just not paying attention.
As it happens, one good way to deepen our understanding of an appreciation for other people is to read literature. I believe this as much as believe anything. It is the organizing principle of my life. And as it happens, English speaking Muslims are going through their literary Golden Age even as we speak—something not unlike what Mormon literature went through between 1935 and 1960. So much has been written in the last few years that it would not be possible to even introduce the basics in a short space like this. But here are five books that have added tremendously to my understanding of Islam that I would like to recommend to all serious students of the human family. (Links to full reviews in text):
The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson (2010). I first encountered G. Willow Wilson, who primarily writes graphic novels and comic books, through her wonderful urban fantasy novel, Alif, the Unseen, which is also a great read. The Butterfly Mosque is a great read too, and a really important one. G. Willow Wilson is an American writer who was raised in a progressive, secular, not-at-all Muslim family in Colorado. As a student at Boston University, she felt an absence in her life and began to search for a religion and chose Islam, not from any family or cultural connections but because she studied it academically and found it irresistible.
The Butterfly Mosque tells the story of how a progressive, intelligent young woman who was a religious free agent chose to convert to Islam because she felt that she needed a bigger God than the Christian world offered. It shows how her religious choices proceeded from her beliefs in feminism and social justice and did not require her to give them up. She travels to Egypt, meets and falls in love with a progressive Muslim man, and creates a life around her new religion that is challenging, frustrating, and difficult–but also beautiful and meaningful. If you don’t understand how a progressive Western woman could convert to Islam, adopt the hijab, pray five times a day, and still have a fulfilling life and an amazing career (she currently writes the Ms. Marvel comic for Marvel), then you need to read this book.
Minaret, by Leila Aboulela (2005). Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer who lives in the UK (Aberdeen), and Minaret is a novel about a Sudanese woman who moves to the UK (London), but it is not a memoir or an autobiography. It is, though, an important novel for those who want to explore religious experience in a diaspora. The heroine of the novel is Najwa, who grows up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. She is the daughter if a very wealthy political leader in a secular and thoroughly Westernized family and peer group. She is officially Muslim, but this plays no role in her day-to-day life.
When the government falls to a military coup, however, Najawa’s father is executed, and she becomes a political exile in London. In the process of rebuilding her life, she draws closer and closer to her faith, largely through the exile community that helps her family. She adopts the hijab, becomes a regular feature at the mosque, and works as a servant to a wealthy Muslim family. In much the same way that The Butterfly Mosque shows the power of Islam as a set of religious ideas, Minaret shows its power as the foundation of a nurturing religious community–something that should immediately resonate with Latter-day Saints who live outside of the Mormon cultural region in the Western United States.
The Language of Secrets, by Asuma Zehanat Khan (2016). The Language of Secrets is the second installment in the police procedural series featuring Rachel Getty and Esa Khattak, partners in Toronto’s newly created Division of Community Policing. Rachel is a second-generation career police officer, and Esa is a distinguished longtime officer, the head of the Community Policing Division, and a Muslim. The first book in the series, The Unquiet Dead, is extremely good. The second one delves much more deeply into Khattak’s conflicts as a Muslim-Canadian trying to reconcile his religious loyalties with his civic duties.
The event that drives the plot is an impending terrorist attack by a cell of Cell of Canadian Muslims who are headquartered at a local mosque–a community that reaches out to touch Khattak’s own family. Khan does a good job showing how apparently Westernized Muslims get swept into the orbit of fundamentalist leaders. These reasons vary widely and include a genuine belief in Islamist ideas, the influence of a powerful charismatic authority figure, the desire to fit in with a peer group, and the need to feel important within a community. She also depicts Muslim characters who love their religion, honor their country, and vigorously oppose terrorism or violence in any form. Khan’s mystery novels (Book 3 is due out tomorrow) do for Western Muslim’s what the recent mystery series by Mette Harrison and Andrew Hunt do for Mormons: they paint a more complex and nuanced portrait of a faith that most people still don’t really understand.
The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine (2008). Rabih Alameddine is one of the best American writers I know of from a Muslim background. The “Muslim background” part is contestable–he was raised in a Druze family in Lebanon and now lives in San Francisco and describes himself as an atheist. But the really important writers in a community often come from its furthest boundaries, and there is very little controversy over Alameddine’s status as a really writer. His 2014 book An Unnecessary Woman was a National Book Award finalist and one of the best works of recent fiction I have read in the last few years. That book, however, deals only tangentially with Islam. Not so for The Hakawati.
A Hakawati is an Arab storyteller. For centuries they have populated cafes and public squares, telling stories over weeks and months to audiences who are held in rapt attention by their narrative skills. Like The Thousand and One Nights, to which it is often compared, The Hakawati employs a frame tale set in contemporary times: Osama al-Kharrat, a Lebanese-American from Los Angeles, returns to Beirut to be with his family during his father’s last day. There, he reminisces about his life with his grandfather, a traditional Arab Hakawati, whose stories begin to fill the novel. Alameddine moves in and out of this frame to tell the stories of the Arab nations: stories from the Quran about Abraham and Ishmael, stories of the great military leaders, and stories of beautiful women and djinn and spectacular journeys. More than any other contemporary novel I know of, The Hakawati shows us the power and beauty of the Arab storytelling tradition–and the burden that two millennia of stories imposes on a modern culture trying to negotiate a complex world.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Moshin Hamid (2007). But what about terrorism? What about the fact that there are some Muslims in the world–even some who have lived in the West and enjoyed all of the good things that liberal democracy has to offer–embrace a fundamentalist ideology and set themselves in direct, and often violent opposition to Western ideals? This is the key question in Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The answers are stark.
The whole book consists of a single dramatic monologue by Changez, an anti-American professor, and an unnamed American auditor, in a cafe in Lahore. Changez tells his own story: he was a thoroughly secular Pakistani student at Princeton. He landed a good job after graduation and had a solid career. He dated a wealthy American socialite and seemed to be the poster child for assimilation. And then the 9-11 bombings happened. American society changed, and he found himself increasingly forced to choose between being a Pakistani and being an American. Although he never formally embraces Islam, he does embrace Islamic fundamentalism–not because it appeals to him religiously, but because it is the only form that his nationalism can take in a post-9-11 world. It is an uncomfortable message, but one that Americans really need to hear.