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Timely Hybridity: Writers Tackle Islamic Subjects in English
By Pauline Homsi Vinson
Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English
By Amin Malak
State University of New York Press, 2005.
In “Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English,” Amin Malak explores the ways in which Islam influences the literary productions of writers who come from Muslim backgrounds and write in English. Throughout his book, Malak cogently argues for the consideration of religion as an important component of identity. In so doing, he opens new avenues for the study of literature produced by writers who share the same religious background, but who are not necessarily aligned along the lines of class, race, gender, or even nationality.
The range of texts that Malak explores is impressive. He begins with a discussion of the Indian writer Ahmed Ali and the emergence of what he calls “Muslim Fiction in English,” and then moves on to cover such wide-ranging topics as “Pioneering Muslim Women Writers,” “Exilic Contexts,” and Salman Rushdie’s problematic text, “The Satanic Verses.” Covering writers from Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, North America and Europe, Malak ends his book with an insightful chapter on “Arab-Muslim Feminism and the Narrative of Hybridity” in the works of Ahdaf Soueif.
In justifying his inclusion of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” among “Muslim Narratives,” Malak explains that he is using the term “Muslim in the widest sense” so that it can refer not only to practitioners of Islam, but also to Arab-Christians like Edward Said who display a “non-Muslim affiliation with Islam,” as well as to those like Rushdie, who may have an ambivalent or irreverent attitude toward Islam.
While Malak’s attempt at including those who have been influenced by Muslim society within his discussion is both apt and laudable, his choice of term remains problematic, as the term “Muslim” in Arabic refers primarily to someone who is an adherent of Islam. However, regardless of the term that eventually gains currency – whether “Muslim” comes to encompass a wider range of meanings than is now the case, or whether a new term evolves that can refer to Muslims as well as Muslim-affiliated individuals who may or may not be of Arab origin – Malak’s project paves the way for an important though still nascent approach to the study of literature, as it recognizes the influence of Islam upon texts written in English.
Throughout his book, Malak treats both the literary texts he discusses and the religion of Islam with a great deal of sensitivity. In fact, his book appears to have a secondary purpose to the stated aim of exploring Muslim narratives in English, and that is to serve as a type of corrective both to reactionary forces within Islam and to Western misunderstandings and prejudice against Islam. This double effort is understandable, given that Malak’s potential audience may consist of both Muslim practitioners and non-Muslim Western readers.
“Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English” is an important contribution to the fields of literary criticism and postcolonial/hybridity studies. It is among the first to address the growing number of books written in English yet influenced by an Islamic heritage. This work will surely invite further inquiry into the complex dynamics of East-West interactions that come into play with literature produced in English by writers who hail from a Muslim (or Muslim-influenced) background.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.52, (Summer 2004)