Pride and Prejudice and Principles

Ayah Aboelela

Warning: This article will contain spoilers of the 200-year-old novel. 

Why do so many Muslim women love Pride and Prejudice? 

It’s safe to say that women have always made up the majority of Jane Austen’s fanbase, yet her work has also found particular appeal amongst Muslim women. From a dedicated book club in Pakistan (where women dress up to attend Austen themed tea parties) to the Muslim retellings of the story[1], there are some particular factors that endear her books specifically to a Muslim audience[2].

As Muslims, it can be difficult to find fiction that is both relatable and aligns with our moral standards, especially as wider society sees increasingly loose social norms. Jane Austen by contrast, uses her values as a Christian woman[3] to write unique, dynamic, and moral characters, and manages to create a world where Muslim women can draw parallels to our own values and circumstances.

Yet when reading Pride and Prejudice in particular, not only do we not fear any immodesty, but we can also appreciate its social commentary. As a study of character and personality, there are many messages on morals and values that Muslims can appreciate through an Islamic framework.

True Qiwaamah

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that women and men are dependent upon each other. However, contemporary dialogue — be it gender discourse or fictional portrayals — undermines the responsibilities that women and men have towards one another. For example, literary studies on the “strong female character” trope suggest that contemporary literature often equates “masculine” traits with heroism, and thus fewer female characters with “feminine” traits are portrayed as heroes.[4] This re-emphasises harmful gender stereotypes and does little to truly ‘empower’ women; it only (falsely) argues that each gender is capable of doing anything the opposite gender can, and does so by setting masculinity as the benchmark. In contrast, Austen tends to balance the individuality of her male and female characters while still emphasising their reliance upon each other. In an Islamic framework, we know that Allah has tasked each gender with responsibilities towards the other, hence we have the concept of qiwaamah, a defining feature of masculinity that relates to men’s treatment of women:

ٱلرِّجَالُ قَوَّٰمُونَ عَلَى ٱلنِّسَآءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ وَبِمَآ أَنفَقُوا۟ مِنْ أَمْوَٰلِهِمْ

“Men should be constant caretakers of women with what Allah has favored one over the other and with what they spend (for support) from their wealth.”

Al-Qur’an 4:34

This ayah clarifies that true qiwaamah requires men to use the blessings Allah has given them — such as wealth, physical strength or social status — to uphold the rights of their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, and nieces. The concept of qiwaamah is foundational to how we as Muslims understand masculinity and men’s roles, regardless of how modern concepts like alpha-beta binaries try to distort them.

Enter Mr. Darcy.

Austen interrogates notions of masculinity through her depiction of both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. Although she does not use the concept of qiwaamah per se, we can use it as a gauge since its tenets often align with Austen’s depictions. We see Mr. Wickham as a clear antagonist because of his dishonesty, selfishness, and desire for fortune; this prevents him from committing to a profession, keeping his promises, and fuels his gambling addiction. His chief fault lies in how he deceives multiple women, eventually harming Lizzie and her family. In short: he is not a good qawwam.

On the contrary, Mr. Darcy highlights the seriousness of a qawwam’s role in society. As we move beyond our first impressions of him, we learn that unlike the self-centered Mr. Wickham, Mr. Darcy is very considerate of the people around him. Mr. Darcy certainly does not fit the confident charming protagonist stereotype; he is awkward, blunt, and introverted. But that does not  diminish his good qualities: a man’s good character, especially in terms of how he treats the women in his life, depends on fulfilling the characteristics of a qawwam. Mr. Darcy does this by becoming a holistic caretaker to his sister — financially, emotionally, and scholastically — and by fulfilling  his role as a protector when he prevents Mr. Wickham from harming other women.

The concept of qiwaamah matters because of its impact on society: both men and women benefit when we have a positive understanding of masculinity, and when we are able to fulfil our duties and treat each other with respect and care.

Religious Hypocrisy

Religious hypocrisy is a phenomenon that is unfortunately not uncommon in our communities, and it was not uncommon in Austenian Regency Era England. It can manifest in someone who appears to be publicly pious, but is privately oppressive and deceptive. It can also be quite overt, including some scholars who publicly support oppression and use religion as a justification, or those who work in the counterterrorism industry, betraying both their people and principles for worldly gain.

Austen mocks religious hypocrisy in the often-hilarious, yet ever-unbearable character of Mr. Collins. As a clergy member, Mr. Collins had received an extensive religious education, but it is obvious from the start that his ultimate goal is to flatter his rich patroness. His insincere religious practice causes extreme self-righteousness, and his scornful comments on pastimes like reading novels are a source of humour in the novel.

Perhaps the epitome of all this is when Mr. Collins advises Lizzie and her father that though they should forgive Lydia and her husband for eloping, they should also “[never] admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your hearing” – to essentially completely cut ties with them.[5] The response to this hypocritical self-righteousness in the novel is an important lesson for us as Muslims, especially at a time many are disillusioned by corrupt community leaders. It is summed up in Mr. Bennet’s scoffing response to Mr. Collins’s advice: “That is his notion of Christian forgiveness!”

Mr. Bennet understands that, although Mr. Collins has a high socio-religious standing, he does not represent Christianity. The novel scorns Mr. Collins’s fake religiosity but does not blame religion itself for it. Religious hypocrisy appears across faith groups and time periods. So as Muslims, we are reminded that no one is infallible and immune from criticism, and that people’s faults–even if they appear to be religiously high-standing — are not representative of Islam.

Monsters as Saints

Expanding on the issue of religious hypocrisy, we sometimes (knowingly or not) hide the faults of people who seem outwardly righteous, but are privately oppressive.  As Muslims, we value hiding each other’s faults, as per the narration of the Prophet ﷺ that if we conceal the faults of our brothers and sisters in this world, Allah will conceal our faults in the next life.[6] We should not seek to deliberately embarrass our brothers and sisters. Yet Austen shows us how being over cautious of this can result in failing to warn others about problematic individuals.

Mr. Wickham — certainly a greater threat than silly Mr. Collins — is presented as a dashing, personable young man. This is perhaps what led many people, including Lizzie, to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was as good as he appeared. Even Mr. Darcy, who knew of Mr. Wickham’s evil past, did not want to expose him or ruin his reputation. However, though we may try to hide the faults of others so as not to expose them, this can sometimes only serve to put vulnerable community members in danger. We sometimes forget that oppressive actions and threats to the community should not be kept hidden. As the Qur’an reminds us:

لَّا يُحِبُّ ٱللَّهُ ٱلْجَهْرَ بِٱلسُّوٓءِ مِنَ ٱلْقَوْلِ إِلَّا مَن ظُلِمَ ۚ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ سَمِيعًا عَلِيمًا

“Allah does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged. And ever is Allah Hearing and Knowing.”

Al-Qur’an, 4:148

This is why Mr. Darcy regretted covering up for Mr. Wickham: he realised that hiding Mr. Wickham’s faults, after it was clear that he manipulated one woman, only allowed him to continue harming more women. This also connects to the concept of being a qawwam. In the novel, Lizzie falls for Mr. Darcy because he redeems himself for not having exposed Mr. Wickham earlier, by preventing Mr. Wickham from entering an abusive relationship with Lydia. Part of being a qawwam is speaking outwardly against other men who are abusive towards women, and not being complicit with their actions by remaining silent.[7]

Good Men for Good Women

Oversexualisation is a major issue in society today, with social media, the fashion industry, and pornography pressuring our individualistic egos to display our bodies and build identities based on our sexuality. This goes hand in hand with the acceptance of diminished gender boundaries, an increasing sense of individualism, and disregard for our elders’ opinions. However, as Muslims, we value the concept of hayaa’, a form of modesty that requires both a respect for gender boundaries and are wary of riyaa’, showing off. As hayaa’ becomes harder to embody in a world that places self-promotion on a pedestal, stories that condemn the lack of modesty become more appreciated by a Muslim audience.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s riyaa’ and lack of hayaa’ make her a cautionary character, obsessed with adorning herself for the male gaze, consistently ignoring any advice from her family. After going as far as eloping with Mr. Wikcham, Lydia faces moral justice in the novel when she suffers in the long term and realises that the match was not well made. Through Lydia, Austen shines a light on the sanctity of relationships, be it between husband and wife, or parent and child — bonds that are revered highly within our faith.

In contrast, Lizzie and Mr. Darcy did not enter their relationship on a whim, but looked beyond the exterior and recognised how much they valued one another’s character. They did not marry in pursuit of riyaa’, as Lydia clearly sought herself when she haughtily commented that by marrying young she would achieve a superior status to her elder sisters. Lizzie and Mr. Darcy abided by socially respectable customs and asked for the approval of Lizzie’s father. In today’s world, where the norm is to serve one’s ego, this classic novel refreshingly emphasises hayaa’ and the respect owed to parents.

The contrast between Lydia and Mr. Wickham versus Lizzie and Mr. Darcy, is echoed in the Quran:

ٱلْخَبِيثَـٰتُ لِلْخَبِيثِينَ وَٱلْخَبِيثُونَ لِلْخَبِيثَـٰتِ ۖ وَٱلطَّيِّبَـٰتُ لِلطَّيِّبِينَ وَٱلطَّيِّبُونَ لِلطَّيِّبَـٰتِ ۚ أُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ مُبَرَّءُونَ مِمَّا يَقُولُونَ ۖ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةٌ وَرِزْقٌ كَرِيمٌ

“Corrupt women are for corrupt men, and corrupt men are for corrupt women; good women are for good men and good men are for good women. The good are innocent of what has been said against them; they will have forgiveness and a generous provision.”

Al-Qur’an 24:26

Gossip and Riyaa 

Materialistic competition, gossip, and riyaa’ are all things that the Qur’an advises us to avoid. Lizzie, like many of Austen’s heroines, often finds herself in the company of people whose primary entertainment is to engage in these things. These traits are not exclusive to women, but they are often portrayed as stereotypical female qualities — across time, culture and even fictional depictions.  

The Qur’an addresses the believers:

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا يَسْخَرْ قَوْمٌ مِّن قَوْمٍ عَسَىٰٓ أَن يَكُونُوا۟ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَلَا نِسَآءٌ مِّن نِّسَآءٍ عَسَىٰٓ أَن يَكُنَّ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُنَّ ۖ وَلَا تَلْمِزُوٓا۟ أَنفُسَكُمْ وَلَا تَنَابَزُوا۟ بِٱلْأَلْقَـٰبِ ۖ بِئْسَ ٱلِٱسْمُ ٱلْفُسُوقُ بَعْدَ ٱلْإِيمَـٰنِ ۚ وَمَن لَّمْ يَتُبْ فَأُو۟لَـٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلظَّـٰلِمُونَ

“Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.”

Al-Qur’an 49:11

Austen’s heroines are so timelessly lovable because they often defy their contemporary social norms and expectations while still adhering to their morals. While Lizzie’s social circles are often filled with gossip, she learns not to trust every rumour  she hears about others—something we are also advised to do in Surat al-Hujurat[8]—and she craves more meaningful conversations that do not centre around judgmental gossip. On the other hand, Mrs. Bennet, though respected by Lizzie as her mother, is not regarded very highly in the novel overall, because she is very ostentatious and competitive with her social circle, often gossiping and displaying her jealousy. Lizzie feels the pressure of a society filled with negative judgement and constant comparison and scrutiny by certain family members, neighbours, friends, and acquaintances—things that are not unfamiliar to our social circles today.

Today, social media has proliferated both riyaa and negative judgement: it has become a medium to flaunt wealth and beauty, and comments sections are rife with harshness and hostility. Female Muslim characters (even those written by Muslims, unfortunately) are often celebrated as strong and empowered when they subvert norms by engaging in activity that is deemed Islamically immoral, such as removing their hijabs or having a boyfriend. While Austen’s characters also subvert norms, they are also empowered through their strong sense of morality, whether it is respecting and caring for a family member or avoiding mindless gossip.

Beyond Austen

Thankfully, we are starting to see works of fiction written by Muslims that embrace Islamic values. S.K. Ali’s novels are great examples; she incorporates authentic, flawed yet striving Muslim characters with important social commentary on some of the topics mentioned here, such as religious hypocrisy and monsters-as-saints.

But there is still much to be done. As we wait for the world of Muslim fiction to develop, we can recognise that there are many existing works of fiction with values that align with our own. In Pride and Prejudice, the compatibility is heightened for multiple reasons: the absence of immodesty, a focus on morality and social commentary that fits into Muslim societal experiences today. All in all, the protagonists can arguably be seen as role models in some respects for us as Muslims — women and men, young and old!

Both consumers and creators of fiction should use a semi-critical lense to consider how its messages and values align with our Muslim identities. As Austen’s classic excellently shows, novels can be well-written and much-loved even while adhering to certain values and guidelines. This should be an inspiration for Muslim writers to write while considering Islamic guidelines of modesty and morality, without worrying about whether this would limit the story’s potential.

Of course, this is not to say that Austen’s novels align with all “Islamic” boundaries, despite some overlapping values. It’s amusing to consider how dramatically Austen’s plots would have changed if the characters had followed Islamic inheritance laws! But regardless, thinking about the fiction we consume in terms of how it agrees or differs with our Islamic values can enhance our understanding of our own identity in relation to the culture and literature that shapes our world.

Ayah is a graduate student in World History and Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. She hopes to combine her background in software and love for history and storytelling to make historical stories more accessible to diverse audiences. You can follow her on Instagram @caveofkutub.

[1] Moni Mohsin, “Austenistan,” The Economist, Oct 9, 2017,

[2] Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (2019) and Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (2018), to name just two

[3] Morse, Anne. “The Christianity of Jane Austen’s Novels, “Breakpoint, Oct 16, 2019.

[4] Gonzales, Alexandria, “Woman Turned Warrior: An Analysis on the Strong Female Character Trope and the Influence it has on Gender Stereotypes Through the Use of Back Cover Copy” (2021). Book Publishing Final Research Paper. 55.

[5] Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 57.

[6] Sunan Ibn Majah 225

[7] The “monsters mis-praised as saints” issue is persistent in various Muslim communities, and the novel Saints and Misfits byS.K. Ali does well navigating its nuances. The story centers a Muslim girl struggling with an abuser who was seen by the community as being very religious. Ali does a good job addressing this real and serious issue without painting the entire community negatively, and I would recommend it to a Muslim young adult audience.

[8] Qur’an 49:12

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