By Ali C.
Gryffindor or Ravenclaw? Aragorn or Gandalf? Air-bender or fire-bender?
For those who understood these opening questions, I hope you answered correctly (Gryffindor, Aragorn, Air). For those left wondering who’s Griff and what’s he doing in the door, and please, let’s not be bending any fires, let me explain. You see, growing up in the West, I and all the Muslim kids I knew were immersed in the literary culture of the West. Simply put, we grew up reading famous English young adult novels like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter. Their characters were our heroes; their adventures were our daydreams. We devoured their every story within days.
This isn’t just a personal anecdote: ask any Muslim American under the age of thirty, and a significant majority will attest to the influence of Western media (in the form of books, movies, TV shows, etc.) on their lives. Even parents who have resolved to curate any content their children consume are frequently undercut. You throw out the TV, but there are still tablets and smartphones. You pull them from public school, and Islamic schools are just as exposed. Forget insulating your children inside the US, it is difficult to find places in the Muslim world left untouched by the Western entertainment industry. In short, the dominance of Western literature and media cannot be ignored.
Even so, I think the fair observer would find some benefits to this situation. Characters in some of these stories model highly admirable traits, including bravery, honor and self-sacrifice. They show the reader how to persevere, how to stand up for the oppressed against the oppressor, how to be a pro-active force in the world — values not only compatible with but also integral to an Islamic moral education. Moreover, these stories deliver morals under the guise of fun, attaining by this means a reach most dry do’s-and-don’t’s Sunday school classes never can.
But there are plenty of harms to this reality as well. First, even in cases where the story’s heroes are morally decent in a universalist sense, there is still, I think, something detrimental in growing up as a Muslim whose literary and cultural heroes are almost all non-Muslim. I have personally experienced the alienation, the feeling of disconnect, that develops when the heroes you love to read about never pray like you do, never mention God like you do, never celebrate what you celebrate or wear what you wear or think like you think, but despite all of that are just so ‘cool’ that you can’t help but be drawn to their stories. Coupled with the portrayal of Islam in Western media as inherently violent or, at best, archaic and culturally barren, these feelings can lead to an inferiority complex and can ultimately result in weakened iman.
It may seem like an exaggeration that juvenile concepts like what is ‘cool’ could have such drastic implications, but imagine growing up in a society where, throughout your childhood, the people you found most interesting, exciting, down-to-earth, and real (even if fictional), were almost never Muslim. When young people observe that there is no room for someone like them in the stories they love best, they begin to disassociate themselves from that marginalized identity.
This was problematic ten, fifteen years ago, when many of these stories held to a higher moral standard. It is an utter disaster today, when those standards are deteriorating at a rapid pace. In contemporary entertainment, the role models of young America are, for the most part, morally bankrupt, rebellious, selfish, hedonistic, misguided and misguiding. Basically, things are getting worse, and fast.
Competing With Harry Potter
Hopefully by now we all agree that the situation cannot continue as it is. It would not be as bad if there were viable Islamic alternatives to this cultural dominance. However, for young Muslim Americans, it is, I think, almost impossible to find alternatives to this literature that are easily accessible, captivating, and fulfilling.
Some readers are probably thinking of a host of wholesome Islamic alternatives, and in a general sense I couldn’t agree more; we absolutely do have all we need in our Islamic heritage. What greater role model than the final Prophet (peace and blessings upon him), Sayyid of all creation? What greater heroes than the many Prophets before him (upon them all be peace)? And what ‘cooler’ cast of characters than the noble Companions (God be pleased with them)? But having said that, we must keep in mind the three conditions above and then look to some practical examples.
First, let’s agree that given the choice, most of us will naturally tend to read, learn about or otherwise pursue what is easily accessible. When the alternative is hours of entertainment just the push of a button away, it is unlikely that the majority of our youth will choose to pursue wholesome reading on a regular basis unless it is made easily accessible. But in the case of our Islamic heritage, set aside easily accessible, the vast majority of the material is completely inaccessible to the average American-Muslim teenager, because it simply has not been translated into English. For every one English text on the Prophet (peace be upon him), there are a great number more in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc. waiting to be translated. Many of those texts that have been translated are done poorly. The resulting text neither preserves the original beauty of the primary language nor recognizes the potential beauty of the target language. It is, in short, the polar opposite of captivating, which brings us to the second condition.
So long as producers of Western literature are honing their craft and tailoring their works for greater appeal, those trying to write Islamic alternatives cannot expect to compete using sub-par and unappealing work. While that doesn’t justify selling our morals and producing what we think people want to consume in a nafsani way, it does mean we must hold our creative minds to high standards. This requires a broad societal acceptance that writing, translating or otherwise producing literature is a respectable profession, not just a hobby, and that it has its own standards of excellence just like any other craft. Without this support and recognition, the majority of Muslim writers will likely produce sub-par content that barely holds on to its existing audience, let alone reach new ones.
Now let’s deal with those Islamic works that are both easily accessible and captivating to a young Muslim American readership. How many such works are there? I would say they altogether they total no more than a few thousand pages. That sounds like a lot, but to put things in perspective, the seventh Harry Potter book alone was 600-odd pages, and I know people who read it in a single day. The point is, if there is not enough material ready and available, the reader will inevitably move on to something else. I remember my first time reading Martin Ling’s biography of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) as an amazing experience. I blazed through the work with delight and awe and love and then came to the end and was hungry for more. I wanted a similarly beautiful, eloquent and powerful account of the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, or the Pious Forebears, or any of our other Muslim heroes. I re-read it, in absence of other high quality English Sira texts, but deep down I wanted more — a new quote, a new description, a new event, a new window through which to gaze upon the beautiful example of the Prophet (peace be upon him), or at the very least a new set of adventures to undertake with his beloved Companions.
The Limitations of Traditional Islamic Literature
The constant desire for something new is not ideal, but it is a reality for many of us. We are, in general, ungrateful beings. The wonders of the world are to us commonplace. Each breath is a miracle, but we’ve been breathing since birth and have not stopped to reflect since. The texts that we can access about the Sira provide us with enough material to ponder for several lifetimes, but as an impetuous youth, having devoured all the Sira stories I could get my hands on, I wanted a new story about the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him), so I could feel the joy that is felt only at the first taste — the awe and surprise and wonder and anticipation and thrill. I could re-read, yes, and did, but it was not the same. What I really wanted, deep down, was for this amazing story to go on to new horizons and never stop.
But the thing is, our Islamic heritage is not a story. It is the attempt to document a historical reality, not the product of an imaginative process. This means that the historian recounting an event or describing an individual of Islamic history has certain limitations that a storyteller telling a completely fictitious narrative does not, and understanding these limitations is crucial to recognizing the potential benefits of fiction.
The first limitation is that the amount of material we have on individuals or events of our Islamic heritage is constrained to what has been transmitted to us, while the material that authors have for their characters and storylines is limited only by their creativity. It is easy to guess who is going to amass more material.
Second, the material that we do have of our early Islamic heritage is, for the most part, atomistic. Knowledge of that legacy is transmitted in the form of single-unit, isolated anecdotes that do not flow continuously one into the next. Even if you collect these reports between two covers, they are generally unconducive to telling a ‘good’ story according to today’s popular understanding of the word. For instance, if we have one report saying that Sayyidunā Abū ‘Ubaydah b. al-Jarrāḥ (God be pleased with him) — one of the greats of the Companions — participated in the Battle of Badr, the very next chronological report narrates that he was present at the Battle of Uhud. All that happened in between — that combination of events and decisions and dialogue and real hard life that made Sayyidunā Abū ‘Ubaydah into the great man that he was — all of that is largely unknown to us. We simply do not have the reports to chart that development. Most often what we have of these Companions is a timeless portrait of their high spiritual states. Sayyidunā Abū Bakr was extraordinarily generous, Sayyidunā ‘Umar was justice personified, Sayyidunā ‘Uthmān had angelic haya and Sayyidunā ‘Alī was the paragon of chivalry, God be pleased with them all. That is who they were - as near to perfection as non-Prophets can be.
Children brought up with a love for the Companions will naturally love to look upon these timeless portraits. However — and I say this not as a criticism but as a recognition of the conditions of our time — children who were not raised with that love and who see in Western literature all kinds of complex, conflicted, deep character development filled with imperfections, flaws, failures and wrong choices may very well find themselves relating far more to the latter than the former.
This brings us to a third limitation: the transmitter of Islamic heritage cannot (or at least should not) consciously alter the core material to be more attractive to contemporary audiences. Authors, on the other hand, can adapt their stories with pinpoint accuracy to the demands of their audience. You’d like to shed some tears? Let me think of the saddest thing I can and write a story around it. You’re looking for some laughs? Let me imagine up a joke and then embed it in a perfectly set up scenario. Want to effectively promote any message? Let me slip it into all these emotionally attractive storylines that I know you will connect with right away.
Why Islamic Education Needs Fiction
Fiction done well is perhaps one of the most versatile tools for persuasion available to man, and we ignore its strengths at our own risk.
None of this is meant in any way to demean the Islamic tradition. On the contrary, I mean to emphasize the integrity of that tradition. But the point is that there is a difference between the function of history and of fiction in educating the next generation, and while history — especially early Islamic history — is by its very nature of a far greater stature than any and all fiction, it cannot do all the things that fiction can, and vice versa.
Some may argue that Islamic heritage does not need to do all those things, does not need to be all these things; it does not need to be easily accessible or attractive or captivating. In fact, they may argue, it is better not to be, so that in pursuing sacred knowledge, youth learn how to be patient, how to persevere, how to be content with what is provided to them. And I agree that we need to develop such skills, and handing us everything on a silver platter is not going to help us rise above our nafsani drives. That being said, I would ask the proponents of such an argument to consider the following:
First, while we may all share the high dream of training our nafs, it is more likely than not that only a minority of each generation will successfully do so. Everyone else — a vast majority — will probably continue at some rate or another to gobble up the easily-accessible, very entertaining media that is currently trending. Saying that we should not accommodate the weaknesses of the next generation because that will make them weaker is like saying, “No we’re not gonna take you onto the lifeboat because by God boy it’s time you learned how to swim!” It will produce a handful of gems and leave the rest in the dirt.
Second, if benefitting from our Islamic heritage is not made easy, it stops being a form of relaxation and starts being work, to be lumped together with school, job and all the other things labelled as “responsibilities.” Once it receives that label, people may persevere through it, but they will inevitably look for something else to fulfill their natural need for relaxation.
I am not arguing that we should stop educating our children with Islamic history and replace it with fiction — not at all. If anything, we should be increasing our exposure to stories of the Prophets (peace and blessings upon him) and the Companions (God be pleased with them) as much as possible, and doing that successfully is the best remedy to our deepest ailments. But while we all already agree on the benefits of Islamic history, I think we need to accept the supplementary role that fiction can have in the education of our younger generation, and to do that means to recognize the unique advantages of the fiction process in today’s competition over the attention of audiences.
Again, there will be some who think that competing for attention is beneath us, beneath the nobility of Islam. The latter is true, but as for the former, we can be as disdaining as we want but the reality is that the attention of mankind is today the subject of a vicious and world-wide war, fueled by a multi-trillion dollar advertising industry which keeps getting bigger, smarter and more cut-throat. We may try to isolate our families, but with the current trends continuing, our children, grandchildren or at the very least great-grandchildren will likely be victims to this industry unless we adapt now and start calling people to Islam in the lingua franca of our time.
In the modern world, where entertainment and literature dominate so much of our lives, we need to recognize the uses of fiction, study it until we are masters rather than juvenile imitators, and then produce stories that are at the same time awesome and wholesome, intriguing and educating, cool and good and always in harmony with Islamic values.
And it's not enough to have writers of a high caliber. On top of that, we need families to support them, communities to accept them, leaders to promote them and — this is crucial — scholars to provide input into this process, to advise on what is and is not appropriate, to use their knowledge of the traditional sciences and of the needs of local Muslim communities to help the writer produce a text that is of great beauty and great benefit. I don’t think this will be easy, but imagine the result: our children growing up in a community where their literary heroes aren’t Harry or Obi-Wan or Batman but Maryam or Omar or Husayn.
By Guest Author , 21 Mar 2018