Robin Yassin-Kassab

Islam in the Writing Process

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If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.

enjoin the good

Photo by Rehan Jamil

Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.

Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.

So what is the place of Islam in my own writing process? I don’t make a self-conscious choice to bring Islam-qua-religion to my reader, and I’m certainly not interested in proselytizing. Instead it’s primarily a question of cultural influences. My novel “The Road from Damascus” makes use of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, but Qabbani was a secular nationalist rather than an orthodox Muslim, and often wrote against the traditional place of Islam in society, although he employed the Islamic culture and imagery he inherited. While I was writing my novel I was reading Saul Bellow, John Updike and Dostoyevsky, and these non-Muslims also had an important place in my writing process. Again, it is impossible to draw clear boundaries between West and East, or Christian and Muslim, or Muslim and Arab.

My characters are concerned by the great questions to which there are no certain answers but which must nevertheless be asked – Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Is there a purpose or a pattern to our existence? As a result, they sometimes quote the Qur’an and puzzle over its various possible interpretations. I write about these questions because they concern me too, and because I worry that contemporary European society often seems to have forgotten their importance. In a climate of extremist empirical materialism, postmodernism, and consumer capitalist amnesia (where people know more about Angelina Jolie’s romantic life than the Book of Genesis), I am a supporter of – if not a traditional believer in – the ‘grand narratives’. (These include Marxism as well as Islam, the Epic of Gilgamesh as well as the ahadeeth of the Prophet.) It is a fair generalisation that grand narratives play a bigger role in the lives of British Muslims than in the lives of their non-Muslim compatriots.

In retrospect, my novel was inspired by two cities, Damascus and London, or more precisely, by returning to London for visits during a long period of living in Muslim countries and therefore seeing it afresh, with newly foreign eyes. Migration as much as Islam is a source of my novel, but migration is a very Islamic theme. A group of the first Muslims famously migrated to Ethiopia to escape persecution in Mecca, and the Islamic calendar begins with the Prophet’s hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina. These are perhaps a couple of reasons why the traveller or musafir is particularly respected in Islam. Those who travel to do business – as the Prophet did in his early years – or to flee oppression, or to increase their spiritual or scientific knowledge (‘travel even to China in search of knowledge,’ says one hadeeth) should be welcomed, provided for and protected. And physical travel becomes a metaphor for the spiritual journey that our transient life consists of. An Islamic tradition quotes the Prophet Jesus as saying, “The world is a bridge; do not build a house upon it.” We are all travellers, out of place in the world, and physical migrants are those forced into awareness of this condition. The resulting sense of otherness and in-betweenness, when it doesn’t lead to a defensive fossilisation of identity, offers enriched perspectives and an impatience with assumption. To see all lands as foreign, through the eyes of a musafir – there is something here which Islam and novel-writing share.

A large proportion of Arabs in London are refugees from war, foreign occupation or oppressive regimes. There is an unusually high proportion of intellectuals among them, and many journalists. For a time after Beirut collapsed in civil war and under Israeli assault, and before the Gulf city states invested in the media, London was the capital of the Arab press. The London-based Lebanese novelist Hanan ash-Shaykh (author of “Only in London”) says she only needs to take a stroll down the Edgware Road to hear enough stories to fill a book. I was interested in this world. Specifically, I was interested in how newly arrived Arabs and Muslims saw the city, how religious and political questions are transplanted from countries like Iraq and Syria to London, how values and concepts are changed by the new location, and how an often traumatic past in Muslim countries weighs upon the present in multicultural London.

Novels begin with characters, and my characters are Muslims, not necessarily religious. To an extent they are types, which I hope are rescued by their self-contradictions from being too typical.

Marwan al-Haj is a high-living atheist poet until he is arrested and tortured by the Saddam Hussain regime. Out of prison, in Jordan, and then in London, he gradually becomes an orthodox believer. He remembers his idealistic past with shame, seeing his rejection of divine law as arrogance. The Islam that he turns to is quietist, defensive and rule-based. He despairs of politics and the public realm and needs to believe in a divine structure underlying the apparent chaos of the world. Marwan is in some way representative of a trend in the Arab and Muslim worlds over the last three decades, a return to religion and an abandonment of nationalist and socialist hopes in response to the disappointments of dictatorship, economic stagnation and repeated military defeat. (The return to religion, or the embrace of modernist forms of religion, has in fact happened almost everywhere outside western Europe in recent decades. In terms of the increased role of religion in the public sphere, the Arab world and the United States mirror each other, although the US has been the global superpower while the Arabs have faced disaster. An interesting paradox.)

Muntaha, Marwan’s daughter, comes to London at the age of twelve. Islam seems to play no significant role in her life until a decade after her marriage, when she decides to wear the hijab. She is the most balanced character in the novel, open-minded and tolerant, passionate about the suffering of Iraqis under sanctions and Palestinians under apartheid, but never giving way to generalised hatreds. She is intelligent and creative in her interpretation of Islam, which for her is Sufistic, flexible and much sunnier than her father’s version.

Ammar, Marwan’s son, is less balanced than his sister, and very much a British youngster. His Islam develops out of hip hop culture and black nationalism (although he isn’t black) and is characterised by anger and rebellion. This is Islam as Western identity politics, a somewhat panicked response to dislocation and racism. Ammar reminds me of the girls in the East End whose Bangladeshi mothers wore a loose dupatta headscarf, often fallen to their shoulders, but who themselves wear niqab, or face veil. The niqab is not a sign of greater gender oppression, and certainly not of traditionalism, but an equivalent to face piercings or fluorescent hair, a punk statement of individuality and defiance of convention.

Mustafa Traifi is a Syrian Baathist secular nationalist and a professor of Arabic literature in a London university. He doesn’t have a chance to change his thinking because he is dead, of cancer, and is present in the novel through the memory of his son, Sami Traifi. Sami is the central or focalising character, and Muntaha’s husband. He’s also a rather annoying anti-hero. It is Muntaha’s decision to wear hijab and to identify herself more clearly as a Muslim, as well as Sami’s discovery of a family secret in Damascus, that precipitates the personal crisis which is the motor of the story.

“The Road from Damascus” is set in the summer of 2001 leading up to and including September 11th. Perhaps in some small way the novel describes or explains the wider context the events of that day arose from, although it does not directly address the specific contexts in the Gulf, Palestine and south Asia. The terrorist attacks and the so-called ‘war on terror’ which followed definitely problematised the place of Muslim communities in Europe, particularly in Britain, which has seen a dramatic increase in Islamophobic attacks on the street as well as from the mainstream media and political parties.

Islam played a role in my writing in this negative sense, that I was responding to Islamophobia and Orientalist myths, directly or indirectly. I wanted first to give a sense of the complexity of Muslims, Islam, and the Muslim world, to show that there are many different forms of Islam, even within the same individual. (It should also be pointed out that there are many different forms of Islamism – Sunni and Shia, right and left wing, feminist and misogynist, violent and peaceable, local and transnational.) I wanted to show too that secularism has very often been violently introduced and enforced on Middle Eastern societies by post-colonial elites, and has been tied up with misguided notions of ‘development’. This is one reason why secularism does not smoothly equate with freedom in the Middle East in the way it often does in Western Europe.

What else? Muslim women are not simply the cowering objects depicted in the mainstream media but very often the heart of Muslim families, strong decision makers and managers. And veiling in my experience is rarely something imposed by men on women. My wife and my sisters, for instance, started to wear the hijab in opposition to the wishes of their menfolk.

Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is perhaps the most successful recent novel born out of a desire for dialogue post-9/11. It is in fact staged around a dialogue between a Pakistani Muslim and an American tourist, and it efficiently calls into question the notion of ‘fundamentalism’. I suppose my novel too came from an urge for dialogue against the complacent simplicities of the mainstream media. I was speaking from the Arab world (I wrote the novel in Muscat, Oman), and I did want to send a message to the West.

So my writing is Islamic in that it deals with Islamic (and other) religious concepts, the theme of migration, and (primarily) because many of my and my characters’ influences are Islamic. The text I am writing at present – which may well turn out to be another novel – includes a shaikh and a vaguely religious orphan as its central characters. Islam retains a key place in my creative practice, therefore, but I must stress one final time that the Islamic label is fairly arbitrary. “The Road from Damascus” is about men and women, about a marriage, as much as it’s about religion. And writing is writing, as wide and open, and as unfitted to categorisation, as life itself.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] Islam in the Writing Process, Taking the novel seriously November 2nd, 2009 // Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages. Islam in the Writing Process […]

    • way to go Robin! Story density is the true measure of literary complexity not infantile accounts of ‘intense experiences’ which is the main ‘serious’ literary model in the West.


      November 4, 2009 at 8:44 pm

      • Hello Mr. Twigger! Good to hear from you. Will be in touch shortly.


        November 4, 2009 at 10:50 pm

  2. […] sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very […]

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