Something for the Muslim Writers Awards:
Am I a Muslim writer? American Jews and Russian Christians are what I read when I write. I like Syrian poets and Egyptian novelists too, but it would be difficult to argue that Nizar Qabbani is more ‘Muslim’ than he is ‘Arab’ or ‘Modernist’.
Is Islam a defining part of my personality? To be honest, it depends on the year. And what determines Muslim belonging anyway? Geography? Ideology? Linguistics? Surely not skin colour. Should Muslim writing be halal, and avoid beer and heresy? Should it intend to prevent vice and promote virtue? – if so, late Tolstoy was a Muslim writer.
It happens that my novel discusses tawheed, and that its most balanced character is a prayerful Muslim who wears hijab. I used the ideas and characters I found before me. But if I set my next novel amongst anarchist philosophers in the Ukraine, will I still be doing Muslim writing? It’s problematic, certainly.
I suppose if you can have Black writing and Gay writing and London writing you can have Muslim writing too. The label, like any other, is limiting if it’s used as a box, but liberating if we use it as a springboard. The point is, that as Muslims in Britain, many fictions are being written about us. Many are presented as fact. The Muslim label already looms large in the cultural imagination, and is skilfully brought into play by everyone from Martin Amis to Madonna. So we should write back. We – and I mean nothing more definite by ‘we’ than those who share a few key Islamic references, who don’t see Islam as foreign – have a million tales to tell. In Britain we are immigrants and natives, black and white and brown, rich and poor, taraweeh-praying and whisky-swilling, and mixtures of the above. For us to be heard in our variety is important, because heard voices empower. Voices heard through novels also work against ignorance, because novels, unlike the BBC, humanise. They deal in characters instead of abstractions, and raise questions, and so provide the human texture which the most well-intentioned news media cannot.
As Muslims in a non-Muslim or even Islamophobic society, I think we have something especially strong to contribute. We possess not only a fresh stock of stories and a range of new cultural forms, but also the enriched perspective and impatience with assumption that otherness and in-betweenness give you. To see all lands as foreign, through the eyes of a musafir – there is something in this which Islam and novel-writing share.