Creatively using words to inspire Islamic values holds a long tradition. Perhaps one of the earliest examples is when the Prophet ﷺ encouraged Hassān ibn Thābit to compose poetry, saying
“Verily Ruh-ul- Qudus would continue to help you so long as you put up a defence on behalf of Allah and His Messenger.”
However, in the modern era, novels with Muslim characters are frequently scrutinised for being distorted, inauthentic, and even self-orientalist. These critiques are needed so that we as Muslims improve our standards and expectations of the stories about us. Our ummah holds immense potential in writers who are capable of inspiring us by the truths they depict through fiction, and these are the voices we should uplift and reflect upon.
Yet recent years have seen an increase in Muslim authors who write authentic characters. These characters’ identities as Muslims go beyond cultural representation, highlighting the spiritual component of their Muslim identity as well. Here we share some works of fiction written that feature Muslim characters in a way that does not pander to the Western gaze, but instead aim at highlighting the relevance of Islam, while conveying truths of the Muslim experience.
The Weight of Our Sky | Hanna Alkaf
This young adult novel is set during the 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when mass sectarian violence left thousands of civilians struggling to survive and hundreds dead. This character-driven story follows Melati, a high-schooler with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as she tries to find her mother after being separated in the conflict.
Alkaf is both thoughtful and creative when portraying Melati as a Muslim character with OCD. Melati believes her OCD is caused by a jinn whispering inside of her; her Malaysian Muslim family share this belief and seek out a cure. As she struggles to survive through her mental illness and the chaos of the world around her, we also see Melati struggle with her relationship with Allah, calling out to Him even when her thoughts become as scary and chaotic as the events around her.
The book is dark, often terrifying, and broaches difficult topics including violence, death, and mental illness. It is recommended for teens who can handle such heavy topics, but adults of all ages can appreciate this story for its representation of mental illness, Muslim characters, and Malaysian history.
Genre: historical fiction, YA (ages 16+)
Length: 288 pages
‘I’m too busy trying to deal with the Djinn, who has decided to climb onto my back and wrap his arms around my neck; I’m weighed down by dread and fear, and all the air is being choked out of me, painfully and slowly. You’re all going to die here if you don’t keep counting, he whispers in my ear, caressing my hair with long, tender strokes. Never stop counting again. Never.’
Zaid Karim Private Investigator: A Zaid Karim Mystery | Wael Abdelgawad
A former prisoner turned private investigator, Zaid Karim endures tough
circumstances as he struggles to make ends meet and reconcile with his separated wife. When Zaid is hired to find a missing child, he is determined to complete this case and bring the girl home, even if it means risking his own life. As the case intensifies, Zaid has to fight his way through the crime-ridden streets of California and the dangerous areas of Panama, while his tawakkul is repeatedly tested and strengthened. Along the way, he grapples with the consequences of his past violence and misguided intentions, and attempts to remain committed to the lessons he’s learned.
With colourful characters, gripping combat scenes, and meaningful reflections on living according to one’s principles, this is a great book for Muslim readers seeking an Islamic thriller.
Genre: Thriller, literary fiction
Length: 428 pages
The Moor’s Account | Laila Lalami
Thoughtful and profound, this novel is inspired by the true accounts of enslaved West African Muslims who were taken by the Spanish to the newly discovered Americas in the 16th century. Covering a span of eight years, we witness through the eyes of the enslaved Mustafa ibn Muhammad the atrocities committed by colonisers upon both Africans and Native Americans. The novel brings to light the resistance of Native Americans — often portrayed as passively accepting their oppression — as well as the agency of enslaved Africans. Taking the tone of a memoir, the book provides Mustafa’s own perspective of his journey, which he interlaces with reflections upon his faith and cultural heritage. Despite the transformations he undergoes as a character, he remains strongly committed to his religion.
This book necessarily describes violence and oppression, and is therefore recommended for a more mature audience. It nevertheless portrays an important and often neglected part of Muslim history.
Genre: historical fiction, adult fiction, literary fiction
Length: 321 pages
“I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.”
Bird Summons | Leila Aboulela
Through prose that is poetic but not flowery, Leila Aboulela tells the tale of three Muslim Arab-Scottish women, each with different circumstances that speak to the reality of many Muslim women living in the West today. As they embark on a journey to visit the grave of Lady Zainab Evelyn Cobbold, the first Scottish Muslim woman, they also embark on a journey of growth in terms of their identities, self-perceptions, and their relationships with each other, their families, and most importantly, their faith in Allah.
What’s masterful about Aboulela’s writing is her empathy to the women characters. They are allowed to be human, to have strengths and weaknesses and flaws and desires. And rather than villainising their faith, Aboulela shows how they grow through it. Each woman realises that she’d misunderstood her role as a human: rather than to define herself in relation to her role in the lives of the people around her, it is to define herself in terms of her relationship with Allah.
Weaving in Islamic tradition with Scottish myth, the story uses magical realism in a way that embeds the characters in a long history of people who understand the beauty of God and turn to him in askance and in gratitude.
Genre: literary fiction, magical realism, adult fiction
Length: 290 pages
“They had come to a country where people had stopped praying and not realised that they were the ones brought here to pray. They did not consciously take up the worship which others had left. They did not realise that they were a continuation, needed to fill a vacuum, awaited by the ancient forests and masses of rocks. They misunderstood their role. They underestimated their own importance and exaggerated their shortcomings. They inflated their problems and followed their egos, counselled each other but rejected what was right.”
Punching the Air | Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
This lyrical YA novel eloquently tells the story of a Black Muslim teen, Amal, who is sent to juvenile detention after being falsely accused of a crime. Co-written by Yusef Salaam, who was one of the Exonerated Five and himself wrongly convicted of a crime when he was just 15 years old, this story alerts readers to the gross injustice and racism of the American legal system and black incarceration.
Although Amal’s religious identity is not a major theme in the book, his thoughts about God, his mother advising him to pray, and memories of his parents as practising Muslims play major roles in his character identity. The lyrics are beautiful and easy to understand, but they certainly do not constitute a light read. It is justifiably saddening, angering, and poignant, while still emphasising the theme of hope.
Genre: lyrical novel, YA novel
Length: 400 pages
‘my name is Amal
and Amal means
hope means there
is still a tomorrow
But there’s no future in these
four walls four walls
boxing me in boxing me in
so I punch the air’
Once Upon an Eid | edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed
This collection of short stories is filled with joy from beginning to end. Set across the the world–from the North America to Australia to a refugee camp in Europe–each story follows a different Muslim adolescent as he or she celebrates Eid.
The characters are well-rounded, hailing from diverse backgrounds and facing a range of conflicts such as family issues, illnesses, and navigating new places and friendships. Through their conflicts, some characters learn to appreciate their ethnic backgrounds, others form deeper connections with their families, and yet others experience the value of generosity and kindness. Each of them portray the beauty of what it means to be Muslim, the joys of spending Eid with family and friends, and the Eid traditions that unite the entire ummah, like going to the masjid for Eid prayer. Together, the stories depict the diversity of Eid celebrations — from small family traditions to ethnic and cultural practices across a wide range of ethnicities.
This book is suitable for any reader — even those much older than the intended middle grade audience — who would enjoy a light, festive read that highlights Muslim identity and joy.
Genre: short stories, middle grade, YA
Length: 272 pages
“There are a lot of ways to show our faith and love to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. You pick the ones that are right for who you are right now.”
Ayah Aboelela 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.