Ever heard of Na’ima B. Robert or Randa Abdel-Fattah? Most people have not, but these women, along with a few others, are superstar authors in a tiny but growing category of books: Islamic fiction. Robert’s young adult love story, She Wore Red Trainers, is a favorite across the world, while Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big In This? has received international acclaim from all quarters. Authors range from Somalian housewives to Egyptian professionals, from Americans to Pakistanis. Readers are lapping it all up with a hunger that is surprisingly real.
Islamic fiction, not unlike Christian fiction, is a religious genre that spans many different categories: romance, young adult, mystery, historical and women’s fiction. What makes a book Islamic fiction is the content: generally offering creative ways to showcase an Islamic viewpoint without the graphic or explicit ideas rejected by Islam. Authors are mostly Muslim, but that is not a requirement.
Why and how Islamic fiction came to be a recognized category of fiction among Muslim readers is an interesting story. Some Muslims have found it difficult to accept fiction as an acceptable form of entertainment, preferring instead poetry or art. Some scholars have considered fiction as frivolous at best and lying at worst, and have recommended that Muslims stay away from reading such works. Others allow fiction if it serves a higher purpose, such as dawah (spreading the faith) and remains within Islamic guidelines. Most scholars frown upon authors including graphic sexual content, depicting sinful behavior such as drinking alcohol, or otherwise rejecting Islamic teachings. These are not seen as character flaws but as author flaws, and take the book out of the Islamic fiction category. A certain friction has developed among some authors on the one hand and some readers on the other, because some Muslims see authors who identify as Muslim but do not want to write Islamic fiction as indulging in forbidden activities. But Muslim readers also find themselves stuck between a genre that is still rudimentary and the desire to read great books by emerging Muslim authors.
It is a tough challenge for Muslim writers, who are slowly rejecting the idea that fiction contravenes Islam and are beginning to write both Islamic fiction as well as general fiction. The question of why this change in attitudes and perceptions has occurred may be impossible to answer. The mainstream success of a few Muslim authors who have written commercial fiction — including Robert, Abdel-Fattah and others such as Leila Aboulela (Minaret) and Mohja Kahf (The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf) — have motivated writers worldwide to try to break out as well. The problem, however, is the same as what commercially successful authors have to face: To break out into the mainstream, they have had to diverge from the Islamic fiction category and write about topics their brethren in faith consider haram (impermissible).
Another reason why more Muslims are entering the fiction field is that being published is becoming less of an esoteric exercise and more of an accessible pursuit with the rise and acceptability of self-publishing. Muslim authors who could not get literary agents or publishing houses to take them seriously can now publish their books on Amazon or other self-publishing avenues, and gain a small readership. Countless have done so, thanks to the support of millions of Muslims who want to read Islamic fiction. Goodreads, a popular social media site for readers, lists books by Muslim authors, introducing readers of every faith — and none — a new look at Islamic fiction.
Since self-publishing is often seen as less professional, there is a growing need for Islamic publishing houses. While costs and time commitments prohibit too many of such enterprises, there is a small community of independent Islamic presses struggling to publish Muslim authors and survive the cutthroat world of publishing. Many small presses are started by authors themselves, such as Mindworks Publishing by Janette Grant, while others are started by groups of concerned citizens, such as FB Publishing.
In many ways, Islamic fiction mirrors the rise of Christian fiction in the United States. Both have similar missions and offer a niche market for readers seeking authentic, clean entertainment. While Christian fiction is much ahead of Islamic fiction in terms of author success, readership and earnings, both genres still struggle with issues such as preaching and low professionalism. However, they are working to remove their hurdles, and Islamic fiction has a good model to follow in its Christian counterpart.
Whatever trajectory Islamic fiction follows, and regardless of how closely Muslim writers follow traditional guidelines, the fact remains that this sort of writing is necessary today. Storytelling has a unique benefit in helping to remove stereotypes, create empathy and share information in a way that nonfiction and academic writing do not. In a world where Muslims are seen as terrorists and Muslim-majority countries as poor, violent places, stories written by Muslims have a powerful impact.
There are benefits in encouraging and promoting these novels, even when the fiction is poorly written and unedited, and even if the books seem preachy and unappealing. Furthermore, there is a growing need for stories with characters that look and act like the readers they target, and efforts such as We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization to diversify children’s books, address this in the commercial market. Many readers are looking for Muslim protagonists and they don’t always care whether the characters act in an Islamically appropriate way.
To do all this, however, Islamic fiction needs to break out into more commercial fiction markets, and Muslim authors need to write more than just religious fiction. But the barriers to entry remain high for them, just as they do for writers of Christian fiction.
One reason is the lack of publishing exposure. Many writers start their careers by being published in literary journals or joining literary groups. It has long been difficult for Muslim writers of Islamic fiction. Only very recently has this aspect of the writing world opened up for Muslim writers: The Blue Minaret literary journal in the U.S. is an online venue to publish Islamic fiction, while the Muslim Writers Collective provides writing and presenting opportunities. In Pakistan, the Desi Writers Lounge offers networking opportunities as well as a literary journal. There is hope that more such magazines and organizations will be created with the express mission of encouraging and publishing Muslim writers.
There is much work to be done with the Islamic fiction category. Sacrifices will have to be made, resources will have to be shared and readers will have to bear some responsibility for financially supporting their favorite authors. Muslims will need to overcome any reticence toward writing fiction that bends categories, and at least some will attempt to break into mainstream fiction. Still, the future is looking bright for Muslim authors.
This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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