Robin Yassin-Kassab

Muslim Writer

with 5 comments

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.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

May 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Posted in writing

5 Responses

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  1. It infuriates me that some people can’t see beyond our religion. As if it is so pervasive that it takes over every other part of our identity.

    I am a secular Arab, and I write on this basis. I may or may not be Muslim too – but that is part of my private life and is not something that becomes visible in my work. I thoroughly reject the label ‘Muslim writer’.


    May 22, 2009 at 12:11 pm

  2. Qunfuz,
    Very well put, as always. I fully agree that your work and that of other novelists and writers are important to break the West’s tunnel vision of Islam.

    Abu Kareem

    May 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm

  3. Writing about those who cannot speak or express themselves is a blessing.

    A Muslim Writer or not that is not as important as the writing itself.

    Have you asked yourself why some Arabs prefer a book or another,or prefer a particular kind of writers?

    When I started reading for Dan Brown, a girl asked me about the themes in his novels. When I did, she said that this can corrupt my religion and the whole idea behind such novels is to make others embrace Christianity! That did not stop me from reading for him.You see, I believe that some novels can change your life for ever, but they cannot change what goes deeper than the skin.

    Reading a novel for Dan Brown will not make me embrace Christianity just as reading a novel for Al’a Aswani will not make someone gay in a blink of an eye.

    Keep the good work, Qunfuz.


    May 24, 2009 at 10:42 am

  4. well said!


    May 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

  5. Hi Qunfuz.

    Forgive me for thinking about this like an engineer… but… if you’re blond, and a writer, then you are a blond writer. If you identify yourself as Muslim and you’re a writer, than you are… a Muslim Writer!

    Beyond the lexical parsing of this expression, I guess the real interesting question is in what way is your writing Muslim? Do you produce “Muslim Novels”? In what ways has your Islam faith or upbringing shaped the way you build a story, or more broadly view the world? These are questions that I somehow grapple with too, as a secular Jew. Most often I feel that even when I accept atheism, it’s fundamentally related to my Jewish heritage 🙂 The heritage of inquiry of “Talmidey Khahamim” (wise students) who were encouraged to study through the nights, juggle with ideas, sometimes bold, sometimes heretical and self-damning.

    I didn’t get the reference about all countries being foreign to a Muslim. I thought this was a Jewish thing 🙂

    Yossi Rumyal

    June 1, 2009 at 5:34 am

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