The Muslim Writer’s Manifesto

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Quick, how many Muslim writers can you name? Now remove Khalid Hossein (The Kite Runner) and tell me who you have left. Seriously, tell me in the comments. Because, really, there aren’t many of us around. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem for many reasons, but one of the main reasons being that it only adds to the stereotype that Muslims are artistically stunted. But there is a rich and diverse history to prove otherwise. I’ve only met a two or three other Muslims who said “I like to write” or “I’m writing (insert story here)”. The written word is highly respected in Islam, but so few Muslims are willing to write it.

Being a writer is in itself difficult. You have to balance writing with reality, deal with deadlines, and holy God is it a lot of work. Being a Muslim writer only adds another layer of complexity.

I was in the Professional Writing program at MacEwan University and was one of the last students to get accepted before the program closed down. I was certain I was the only Muslim in the program—on the entire campus, even. It turns out there was one other, but I didn’t even meet her until third year and even then I didn’t even know she was a Muslim.

Being a writer and being a Muslim means dealing with issues that no one else—either writer or Muslim—will have to deal with. I’ll be frank: it’s a hard road. Either writers won’t understand what you’re dealing with, because you’re a Muslim, or other Muslims won’t understand what you’re dealing with, because you’re a writer.

For one, you’re going to come across things that you won’t agree with. That may even offend you. And you have to find a way to deal with it. Otherwise it’ll just tear you up from inside. There’s no handbook to being a Muslim writer, and turning to the wrong person could yield disastrous results. Very few imams talk about writing, only what has already been written*. It’s really something you’re going to have to square away inside yourself.

One of the classes I took was a class on short fiction, and the book we read was pretty much a weekly bombardment of things that either offended me or outright insulted me. But rather than throw the book across the room (though, in all fairness, that did happened once) I forced myself to read the offensive stories twice. Once the emotions had settled, I would go back and re-read the story to find which points irked me, why they irked me and what the overall purpose of the author’s story was. I was able to give the piece a fair critique with a slight dash of impartiality, while still voicing my displeasure. I would look at a story and divide it into things I agreed with and things I didn’t agree with, and give it a fair and critical assessment afterward.

And that’s another point: writers need other writers. The days of the archetypal shut-in writer like J.D. Salinger are no longer feasible. A writer cannot exist in a vacuum. And believe it or not, there are resources for Muslim writers out there. But if you cannot find a good group of other writers to critique your work—and, not only that, if you cannot stomach someone critiquing your work—you’ll just end up with people who aren’t writers telling you how good your writing is. And this becomes a problem if you believe your first draft is amazing, perfect, the next great thing that will change the world. Sorry, but it’s probably crap. In fact, every first draft is crap. As Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, “only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, “Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for.”” So find a writing group and brace yourself for a broadside of critical cannonballs, blowing holes in your prose and possibly sinking your story. Then go back and rebuild it, and patch up all the weaknesses your last draft had. Keep doing this until you have something that still floats after the onslaught.

Now the big question: what do you write? Well, that’s up to you. It depends, really, on what you’re comfortable writing. What rules do you wish to place on your own writing? I know some writers who disdain from even putting swears in their stories. As for myself, I prefer to write science fiction, partly because I grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, Discovery Channel and Space. But also because sci-fi was once quoted by Pamela Sargent as being “the literature of ideas.” Being a Muslim, I’ve also come to respect the power of the written word. For instance, the Qur’an states “Have you not considered how God sets forth a parable of a good word (being) like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in heaven, yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord?” (14:24-25). As such, I’m keenly aware of the impact my words may have on the reader. And so to be a writer, you must also be empathetic. You must be able to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. But not only that, you have to realize that your words are a reflection of yourself, and that one word can change everything.

I wish I had a formula, or a one-stop questionnaire to give a budding Muslim writer to take home and fill out. But I don’t. It’s difficult, and that’s all I can really say about it. But, as I mentioned before (link to previous post), my God is it rewarding. If you’ve ever watched a movie or read a book and thought, it would have been better if this happened instead—well, as a writer, you can make that happen.

Finally, as a Muslim writer—heck, as a writer—as a person, even—you’re going to question yourself. There have been times where I’ve wondered, is this what I’m meant to do with my life? But with alarmingly low literacy rates, the ability to understand and craft your words is nothing short of a God-given talent.

And I know I already quoted Stephen King once before, but I’m going to do it again. It’s a little piece of advice I’ve kept with me. One which has inspired me even in my darkest times as a Muslim writer. One which I hope you, the budding writer—Muslim or not— will listen to.

“If God gave you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”

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5 thoughts on “The Muslim Writer’s Manifesto

  1. Ahmed Saleem

    How many Muslim writers can we name? Thousands. The scholars of the past and present who have written books dealing with Islam; Ibn Qayyim, Abu Hanifa, Al Ghazali, Hamza Yusuf, etc. Then there are those who wrote on science and medicine; Ibn Sina, Al Khwarizmi, and those who traveled the world and wrote about their experiences; Ibn Battuta, Al Biruni, and so on.

    As you say, Islam places emphasis on the written word. Then only makes sense that there would be Muslims who are writing and Muslims who are reading. Fortunately, it has always been this way. Islamic bookstores, libraries, and publishers are alive and well.

    I know you are only talking about the shortage of fiction writers. And I like that you brought this up. I just want to underline the difference between fiction and non-fiction writers. Fiction is for amusement while non-fiction is for learning. The purposes are completely different. Here’s why I believe we have a shortage of fiction writers:

    The novel is essentially a European product. Storytelling, however, is a part of all cultures, usually verbal, musical or poetic. Arabs have the qasida, Persians have the ghazal. These poems are either about the poet himself/herself or a great person of history who actually existed. In the Qur’an, stories of old civilizations are told to us as reminders and lessons. Other cultures have short stories resembling Aesop’s fables, teaching us morals. In contrast, fiction is about creating imaginary characters and using specific words to describe their imaginary lives. It doesn’t make much sense for Muslims from other cultures to start writing sci-fi novels, unless they have succumbed to globalization. What I’m trying to say is that ‘creative writing’ has no basis in the Muslim civilization, which is why there are so few Muslim fiction writers. There is factual writing, technical writing, persuasive writing, creative poetry, creative singing, creative drawing, but little creative writing. Although, I should point out that there are many Muslim fiction writers today who write in their own languages. Just because they don’t write in English or aren’t as popular as Khaled Hosseini, doesn’t mean they don’t exist!

    To me, there is no reason why fiction can’t be a new Islamic form of art. Like yourself, there are many Western Muslims who practice art from their own culture. This automatically makes it a Muslim art form. I grew up reading English novels and still do. This form of entertainment gives us far more than we could get from television or the internet. I would love to see how Muslims writers can develop their own style of Islamic fiction.

    1. Great insights, Ahmed. The focus of the article was based on novelists (both fiction and non-fiction) in a North American context.

      It’s fascinated me how Muslim civilizations express themselves through their art, poetry and singing. I think because those have, historically, been the preferred mediums of expression in these civilizations, it’s only natural that there would be a high concentration of creative works in those areas. There have been some notable creative writing to come out of the history of Muslim Civilization (the most famous being 1001 Nights). It’s also interesting to note that one of the earliest examples of a science fiction novel was written by two men named Ibn Tufail and Ibn Al-Nafis, it’s English title being “Theologus Autodidactus”, written sometime around 1270 CE.

      I think the most important part to glean from this article, as you mention in your closing remarks, is that because the novel is so widely consumed in our society it’s only fitting that Muslim writers should take advantage of it to express themselves, just as they have done so with poetry over thousands of years.

    1. Salam, sorry for the late reply. I’ve been really busy lately. I can give you tips on writing, but I’m afraid I can’t commit to a full collaboration or teaching, not because I don’t want to, but because of all of my other commitments. Apologies.

  2. Zeenat

    So a tad bit late but I have read/am in the process of reading the works of a few muslim writers – Ayad Akhtar (American Dervish), Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows), Mohsin Hamid (Reluctant Fundamentalist), Fatima Bhutto (The Shadow of the Crescent Moon), Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes & Our Lady of Alice Bhatti ), Tehmeena Durrani (My Feudal Lord) to name a few.

    I grew up in Pakistan but discovered these writers recently (in the last couple of years only) when I moved to Edmonton about 5 years ago and got hold of these books sometime in 2012 and I have enjoyed reading the few that I have managed to finish. I think new writers are emerging now – hopefully we will see more and more in future!

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