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?”