Halal Fiction?

It seems that there are virtually no Muslim authors who inject a fairly universal and positive Islamic worldview into their fiction (and I am speaking strictly about fiction). We’re all aware of the ubiquitous Muslim interest novel: the picture of a veiled woman, her kohl-lined eyes peering out from her black scarf, gracing the cover. And then there’s the literature that deals with Muslims in the Western setting. For example, White Teeth (although the author Zadie Smith isn’t Muslim), Nadia’s Song, Brick Lane, The Map of Love and so on.

I’ve just finished reading Minaret by Sudanese author (and UK resident) Leila Aboulela. Her books are highly regarded, and Minaret was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. See an excellent in-depth review of Aboulela’s work published by Al-Ahram Weekly.

I’m not a huge fan of the stilted writing form that plagues so much “award-winning” literature, but aside from that, in terms of content, I closed Minaret and wasn’t sure what to think. Is this halal fiction? I wondered.

Let me just clarify that I am an avid reader of fiction in general. But is there such a thing as “halal fiction”? What is taboo in writing? Does the message have to be one that ultimately promotes Islam? If so, Minaret is successful on the last point.

Aboulela’s story sees her heroine, Najwa, take a mighty fall in life, only to seek – and find – salvation in Islam. She is surrounded by women who, despite their personal difficulties, are married contentedly to religious Muslim men. I know characters like the ones she portrays. While Aboulela portrays self-haters and those who reject Islam, she has room and care for those Muslims we never read about: the ones who love being Muslim, who, despite their faults and weaknesses, continue to love being Muslim. The book is, I think, essentially about the beauty of religion and realising that your only reliance is on Allah.

Having said that, the journey to this discovery involves sin and despair for Najwa, and much like reality in general, nothing in her life is neat and pure. We skip back and forth, but in the present, Najwa is unmarried, without family, in her late 30s and a maid for wealthy Arab families. She’s working for a lady, Lamya, and her daughter, and Lamya’s brother, Tamer, also occupies the home Najwa cleans everyday. Despite both being observant Muslims, Najwa and Tamer become complacent in their interaction and fall for each other. Aboulela doesn’t glorify it, but I think she does try to keep it realistic (although I didn’t find their courtship entirely believable).

Now, let’s agree that this sort of thing happens in reality. We can expect, and accept, that literature and fiction will generally have such content, but would Muslims generally view this as haram or inappropriate at the very least to read or portray? Or is it like poetry, which has been written and regarded for centuries as a suitable creative form? If there are no explicit scenes, and there is an overall message to it, would Muslims be receptive to it? Although, I do think her general audience, much like for other Muslim interest authors, are non Muslims.

I think fiction has a place in our lives, and it can often deliver worthy messages more adequately than non fiction would, particularly given that it is likely to attract more readers. But what are the limits of narration?

51 comments ↓

#1 Baybers on 02.06.07 at 10:41 pm

The core of good writing is core of great thinking e.g. The Bothers Karamazov.

So great Muslim writing will ultimately be influenced by a DEEP appreciation and profound understanding of Islam, beyond the slogans that we use today and for that reason I don’t see great writing from believing Muslims at the moment.

A Muslim cannot merely write a book that seeks to promote Islam within a fictional narrative, that would be (rightly) perceived as crude propaganda. But principles of Islam can indelibly mark every page of a book, if these principles are deeply held.

How does one write Taqwa into a novel? the answer is: unconsciously and only when its it oozes out of every pore of one’s existence. This will influence the reader who is smarter than the viewers and not as easily manipulated.

So in order to write the “Halal novel” one must be “halal”. One cannot transmit to ones readers what the author himself does not posses.

I share your disappointment with contemporary “Islamic” fiction, but as Muslims begin to lead much more religious meaningful lives (beyond the ideological battles) I expect that this will improve.

#2 Amal on 02.06.07 at 10:56 pm

But principles of Islam can indelibly mark every page of a book, if these principles are deeply held.

Yes, this is an crucial point. A message doesn’t have to be explicit to be apparent and resonant. It can course through a novel, and I always think of classics like Jane Eyre by way of example, as such books have very Christian undertones and messages without explicitly promoting the author’s belief system.

#3 Hood on 02.07.07 at 1:46 am

Here’s a book that is slated to come out:
The Eigth Scroll
http://www.leveltruth.com/8scrollmain.asp

As for “Halal” fiction, there does’nt seem to be too much discussion in medieval Fiqh works on fiction. Some cover related topics when discussing the allusion, gender relations, and love as they are portrayed in poetry,

#4 Albert Campion on 02.07.07 at 8:08 pm

I wonder about Muslims and The Arts – I can understand (but deplore) the prohibition of artistic representation of the human, but I wonder if this ban goes far enough.

Merely outlawing painting/sculpting humans seems to me to be a bit limited and literal. Surely the reasons behind this ban also apply to creating “fully realised” fictional characters in books, plays, etc?

#5 Amir on 02.07.07 at 8:22 pm

Albert, the prohibition on painting or sculpting lifelike humans is because 1) it could lead to idolatary and 2) it may be seen as an attempt to ‘compete’ with God in creation. For this reason, Muslims believe that on the day of judgement the statue maker and painter of human images will be challenged to give life to his creations in the manner in which Muslims believe God gave life to humankind.

As for fictional characters in books, then although many characters — particular in Jeffrey Archer novels — are wooden and stiff, they are not likely to be worshipped nor is the author imitating the act of divine creation.

#6 Albert Campion on 02.07.07 at 9:11 pm

Hi Amir – I understand your first point but I think my query stands. Just because someone paints a BAD portrait doesn’t mean that they are off the hook?

Idolatry is surely not confined to physical idols – I myself ‘believe in’ Emma Woodhouse, J Alfred Prufrock, ‘Lord’ Jim and many, many others. The authors definitely have ‘competed’ with god in creating far more convincing creatures than (say) the Venus de Milo.

#7 Albert Campion on 02.07.07 at 9:13 pm

PS I also understand your 2nd point

#8 Amir on 02.07.07 at 9:32 pm

True, a bad portrait wouldn’t get someone off the hook because the intention of imitating the creation remains. The fact that they might be very bad at it doesn’t mitigate the sinfulness of what they have done. However, many scholars permit cartoons because they were not created with the intent of imitating humans. So there is a distinction made on the basis of intention.

As for your second point, then there is a principle in Islamic jurisprudence that the basis for all things is their permissability. That is, that everything is allowed except what has been explicitly prohibited. Therefore, literature is permissable because there isn’t any statement or other evidence to make it forbidden. Image-making on the other hand is explicitly forbidden in a number of narrations from the Prophet. The fact that, whilst reading a TS Eliot poem, you might be momentarily convinced of the existence of J. Alfred Prufrock doesn’t mean that the ruling against the making of images can be applied to this as well.

I hope that makes sense. I do understand and appreciate your points though.

#9 Muslimah_Mouse on 02.08.07 at 5:39 am

I think that what makes something halaal is its lack of haraam elements…

So while fiction is halaal, if it’s something like… an ‘adult’ romance novel… because of the haraam elements within it (all about zina), it makes it haraam, right?

But how do we distinguish what constitutes a ‘haraam element’ that makes the fiction haraam? For example, I know that there are many people who say that it’s haraam to read Harry Potter books because they’re all about magic and whatnot. Others say that it’s not haraam because it’s not describing *actual* magic (the Islamic definition of magic, anyway – like working with the jinn); it’s all fake and there’s nothing explicit in it.

And, in the book you described in your post – Minaret – you say that “the journey to this discovery involves sin.” Not having read the book, I don’t know if by ’sin’ you mean something like zina… but if that *is* what’s meant, then would it make it haraam, like the romance novel mentioned above?
Or, if it’s mentioned only in passing without explicit descriptions or whatever, would it be okay? Or does any reference to sin – whether it’s zina or something else like… oh, I dunno… stealing – make it haraam?

In which case, we probably wouldn’t be able to read *any* fiction, because ’sinning’ is often a major part of the plot, something that the character is either involved in or has to overcome in order to get to the climax and conclusion of the story.

Now I’m confuzzled :(

#10 Baraka on 02.08.07 at 6:17 am

Salaam,

Perhaps it’s when we ourselves as Muslims are steeped in Islam that its hues seep into our writing, living, breathing.

Paulo Coelho’s book “The Alchemist” is one of the most Islamic (or ‘halal fiction’) books I’ve ever read and yet it isn’t overtly about about religion nor is it written by a Muslim.

Warmly,
Baraka

#11 Albert Campion on 02.08.07 at 7:57 am

Amir – well, if literature isn’t forbidden, how can some CONTENT of literature be a problem? EG, if it’s OK for Joyce to create Leopold Bloom as an extremely lifelike character, why wouldn’t it be OK to describe his masturbating?

Anyway, this isn’t the place to talk about it but do you know of any forums where this sort of discussion is OK? (And having been banned from MV several times, that isn’t the place ;) )

#12 Amal on 02.08.07 at 9:06 am

well, if literature isn’t forbidden, how can some CONTENT of literature be a problem?

It’s kind of a no-brainer that limiting the content of fiction and literature is not reason to forbid it outright. Likewise, allowing it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to have obscene or crude content.

However, it does raise the question, as I mentioned in the post, what are the limits of narration? This is where it gets a bit murkier.

#13 ExEx Blogger on 02.08.07 at 9:20 am

Speaking of muslim fiction writers, there is one I read called Should I speak by Umm Zakiyyah. It was an interesting book.

#14 Muslimah_Mouse on 02.08.07 at 2:47 pm

ExEx Blogger – yep, I have If I Should Speak, and it’s sequel (A Voice) as well!
Masha’Allah, they *are* good… although I personally thought that, as a story, it could’ve been improved… as in the style of the writing, and sequence of events in the plot… but that’s just me :)

#15 Amir on 02.08.07 at 3:33 pm

Anyway, this isn’t the place to talk about it but do you know of any forums where this sort of discussion is OK?

I don’t know of any Muslim forums where discussions of Leopold Bloom’s beach side onanism in Ulysses would be acceptable :)

As for your question, then I think most people — regardless of their religious or moral points of view — can imagine things they wouldn’t like to read or find disturbing. This is the case for Muslims, like everyone else, and I don’t think it is necessarily concerning, surprising or even notable. Many people, for example, would find depictions of child sexual abuse disturbing in literature, just as many Muslims (and, I imagine, others) find James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom masturbating on the beach whilst viewing a woman from afar to be somewhat distasteful. As to whether that one scene renders the entire book ‘forbidden’ or inappropriate for Muslim readers, then that is a matter of personal choice and taste. It’s quite possible for books to contain some scenes that Muslims object to and still be of more general benefit or usefulness.

#16 Marc a.k.a., Marqas on 02.09.07 at 12:59 am

ASA,

Good post with a topic that deserves further investigation and contemplation. First, I would ask why “halal?” I say this because Jewish authors need not designate “kosher fiction”. In my opinion there’s an tendency of Muslims in this part of the world [or maybe just this Time and Place] to attempt to Islamicize everything. What about good fiction that also happens to be written from [hopefully the many varying viewpoints] of perspective of someone who’s either Muslim or has an understanding of what it means to be Muslim – and boy!!, that’s a lot of books [possibilities are endless I think]. But I do hope to see some good fiction from Muslim authors from sci-fi, drama, comedy, romance and all nooks and crannies in between. Heck, I’d love to see it jump from the page to the silver screen, plays, films, comic books. Ok…that’s enough for now.

– M

#17 Shazia on 02.09.07 at 7:57 am

I have just finished reading If I Should Speak and I liked it most for the way the author uses conversations between the characters to show the illogic behind Christian beliefs.

I will definitely keep it for reference purposes.

But overall I found Aminah a little condescending, even contemptuous of Tamika. From the moment they met, it was as if she was only interested in converting her. Then I found the speed with which the Tamika accepted the truth of Islam unrealistic.

I was uneasy about the emphasis placed on the idea of Unbelievers going to hell. I wish it had been pointed out that this means those unbelievers who have received the message of Islam and then rejected it, not those who do not receive the message. If they are people of the book and are righteous, Allah promises them heaven.

#18 Amir on 02.09.07 at 8:50 am

I haven’t read If I Should Speak although I’ve seen it mentioned from time to time. Given what you have said, do you think it is a book that non-Muslims would enjoy or is it a book more or less written for Muslims?

#19 Albert Campion on 02.09.07 at 9:09 am

As for your question, then I think most people — regardless of their religious or moral points of view — can imagine things they wouldn’t like to read or find disturbing.

Absolutely, but that doesn’t put it out-of-bounds. I find William Burroughs disturbing (on one level – on another I find him funny) but I would be intellectually poorer for not having read him. Ditto the early-mid 20th-century abd Ulysses.

just as many Muslims (and, I imagine, others) find James Joyce’s portrayal of Leopold Bloom masturbating on the beach whilst viewing a woman from far to be somewhat distasteful.

As above – ‘distasteful’ doesn’t necessarily negate its literary merit. (Actually, the scene of him taking his early-morning dump is generally regarded as being more distastefull; Molly Bloom’s masturbationary soliloquy of several hundred pages (from memory) is not objected to much at all. Says something about gender bias.)

It’s quite possible for books to contain some scenes that Muslims object to and still be of more general benefit or usefulness.

This is the crux. Art doesn’t have to be useful or of more general benefit. It just has to succeed on its own terms. It’s this that`I imagine Muslims have problems with (or maybe SHOULD have problems with).

#20 Musab on 02.09.07 at 10:31 am

Albert,

Your comments here have a recurring theme.

There is help available for these things.

We are all adults here, so tell us what is really on your mind?

#21 Albert Campion on 02.09.07 at 11:11 am

Musab, I really don’t know what you’re on about. Please expand.

My ‘theme’ in this thread is definitely not deliberately disruptive (or whatever you’re accusing me of). Literature and the arts in general are extremely important for me, and I find that ‘religious’ Muslims (possibly alone among adherants of the major religions) have an attitude to the arts which I can’t grasp. I’m attempting to explore that.

#22 Musab on 02.09.07 at 12:36 pm

I was only asking because you have returned to the theme of masturbation several times, so that I thought it maybe a sort of “cry for help” for a problem of a personal nature.

If so then there are professional counselling services that may be indicated, I am sure one of the webmasters here can point you in the right direction.

Don’t worry, you are not alone, I’m sure there are other people with the same issues that have recived help with it. I’m sure the others here will join me in wishing that God willing this is sorted out to your benefit.

Peace brother

#23 Albert Campion on 02.09.07 at 1:47 pm

May I suggest that you learn some manners, Islamic or otherwise.

#24 history_lover on 02.09.07 at 3:08 pm

I guess you must be talking about halal fiction in the English language.
What about literature in Arabic,Urdu,Persian and other languages ?

#25 Amir on 02.09.07 at 3:27 pm

Absolutely, but that doesn’t put it out-of-bounds. I find William Burroughs disturbing (on one level – on another I find him funny) but I would be intellectually poorer for not having read him. Ditto the early-mid 20th-century abd Ulysses.

I don’t think anyone is putting these sorts of books ‘out of bounds’ in the sense that they are trying to prevent you or anyone else from reading them. I think, for Muslims, it’s simply the case that, like everyone else, they naturally give their preference to books which are not going to disturb or bother them. Given a choice, for example, a Christian might prefer to read G.K. Chesterton over H.P. Lovecraft.

As above – ‘distasteful’ doesn’t necessarily negate its literary merit.

Agreed. Certainly, there is to be learned from even distasteful books about the period in which they were written, the cultural attitudes and so on which motivated the writing. However, people must themselves weigh up whether the net benefit of reading such literature is greater than the time it takes to read and whatever feelings of disgust or distaste they might feel from the book. In the case of Ulysses, for example, I’m not sure that the average person — Muslim or otherwise — could even finish it, let alone enjoy it or understand how Joyce criticised different institutions of his time through some of the characters. Therefore, I don’t think the average person is going to be poorer for not having read it.

This is the crux. Art doesn’t have to be useful or of more general benefit. It just has to succeed on its own terms. It’s this that`I imagine Muslims have problems with (or maybe SHOULD have problems with).

It isn’t just literature or art that should rise or fall on its own merits, but ideas in general. I don’t believe that censoring literature does much good just as I don’t believe that censoring certain ideas — such as, for example, ‘extremist’ Islamic ideas — does much good.

#26 Albert Campion on 02.09.07 at 4:37 pm

Amir – Indeed – and I’d love to give high-fives and leave the discussion in a climax of agreement, but I’ll have to be curmudgeony and say that there’s no ‘good’ that COULD come of censoring literature – that is, there’s no ‘bad’ that could come from not censoring it. But I’m be using a restricted definition of literature which precludes writing that is ‘for’ anything but itself.

#27 Amal on 02.09.07 at 7:12 pm

Albert,

I agree with some of your arguments, but I think that has been discussed enough by others.

Literature and the arts in general are extremely important for me, and I find that ‘religious’ Muslims (possibly alone among adherants of the major religions) have an attitude to the arts which I can’t grasp. I’m attempting to explore that.

Thank you for your concern for the state of arts in Islam. It’s touching to know people care about what Muslims can or can’t read, draw or not draw, etc.

I personally have a love of many things and can’t grasp why others don’t share my appreciation for them, but I see it purely as difference and I don’t explore it unless it’s completely inexplicable. I don’t think this is such a situation though, as it’s quite clear that Muslims judge and view material with a different lens.

So since it has no impact on you, you really shouldn’t take it so personally that we don’t think humanity is better for the existence of Ulysses.

#28 Phil Stein on 02.10.07 at 4:36 am

“It’s touching to know people care about what Muslims can or can’t read, draw or not draw, etc.”
Er, no, Amal. We’re much more concerned about muslims’ eagerness to stop other people writing, reading, drawing, making, listening to etc things that muslims disapprove of.

#29 AnonyMouse on 02.10.07 at 5:49 am

“do you think it is a book that non-Muslims would enjoy or is it a book more or less written for Muslims?”

It’s something that Muslims would like. Non-Muslims, not so much – both the language/style of writing would come off as sort of ‘backward’ (argh, I hate that word…) and the plot/sequence of events just wouldn’t work for them.

#30 Chicka on 02.10.07 at 6:47 am

Phil, that is actually not the subject under discussion, but to answer your question, the only books that have been banned here in Australia are by the government.

As for the situation regarding the Danish cartoons, I’m not sure why its an issue. Surely the freedom to buy and to trade with whomever one pleases for whatever reason should be respected.

There are also other instances where Muslims have used violence to stop censor public debate (e.g. the Popes speech, the cartoons and theo van gogh). These episodes are regrettable.

But in an era where the United States and its allies have invaded Iraq and slaughtered many tens of thousands, not many in the Muslim world care about your pious calls for freedom of expression especially when that is a license to demonise them.

So at a time when the west seeks to impose its values on two Muslim countries by force of arms, Muslims are as a group not terribly bothered by offending the sensibilities of those that they are in conflict with.

And the only person to have gone to jail for offending sensibilities by expressing his views was that mad anti-semite David Irving. That was in an enlightened European country, by the government.

so why don’t you post your comments on an Austrian forum?

Of course, because the only semites that are fashionable to demonise are Muslims.

#31 Albert Campion on 02.10.07 at 11:08 am

Amal – It’s that ‘different lense’ that I’m trying to explore. I don’t just put different worldviews down as ‘different’ and ignore them. I feel that I would have failed my life test (to perhaps use a concept you are familiar with) if I didn’t comprehend as much as I could of other humans’ thought-systems.

And it seems to be a uniquely Muslim worldview that I’m having problems with. I don’t think there are any other (educated) people who would claim that humanity isn’t better off for a great work of art (such as Ulysses), even if thery didn’t personally enjoy it.

#32 Amal on 02.10.07 at 12:29 pm

Er, no, Amal. We’re much more concerned about muslims’ eagerness to stop other people writing, reading, drawing, making, listening to etc things that muslims disapprove of.

No, Phil. At what point has anyone here suggested we should have a say in what others read and write, etc? At one point has anyone advocated that material for non Muslims be censored?

My post concerns how Muslims feel about these things for themselves. And in particular, my comment was directed to Albert who said that he is concerned about it because he has such a love of the arts.

#33 Amal on 02.10.07 at 12:33 pm

And it seems to be a uniquely Muslim worldview that I’m having problems with. I don’t think there are any other (educated) people who would claim that humanity isn’t better off for a great work of art (such as Ulysses), even if thery didn’t personally enjoy it.

Albert, I appreciate your point. I am the last person to argue against the arts given that I am and have always been an avid reader and I do appreciate other forms of art. The purpose of my post is to in fact explore these issues.
But your example of Ulysses is subjective. If a non Muslim academic agreed with me on that point, would that be alright? Or is it only that you think I am motivated by religion? What if I’m not? What if I just think it’s crap and my religious sentiments happen to complement my distate of the content?

#34 Albert Campion on 02.10.07 at 1:15 pm

1. I don’t think that my judgement of Ulysses (as a great work of art) is subjective, except in the sense that most or all judements are subjective. Whether or not they like it, you’d be hard pressed to find a scholar who didn’t regard it as the most important novel in English of the 20th century, and one of the most important works in any language ever.

2. I’m sure you can find an academic who disputes this, but they would be akin to the ‘academics’ who support 9/11 conspiracy theories.

3. I chose ‘Ulysses’ because I didn’t think there was any real dispute about its importance, and it’s relatively recent. But if you like I can change the example to ‘Emma’ or Shakespeare or something if you have a special dislike of Ulysses.

However, to answer your question, I would be very surprised if your thinking ‘Ulysses’ is crap was not related to your religion. And yes, it does appear to me that ‘religious’ Muslims are motivated to a very large extent by their religion.

#35 Amal on 02.10.07 at 3:22 pm

Albert, if you had any idea the broad range of literature I have read, I think you would give me a bit more credit. I do not have knee jerk reactions of disgust to what I may deem disturbing or distasteful in novels. And me saying Ulysses is crap is a ‘for instance’.

In any case, if the problem is simply that Muslims are motivated by their religion and make a choice NOT to embrace a certain type of art, then once again I stand by what I said: it does not have any impact on you. They have every right to shy away from such things without being judged. And really, to suggest that because academics value something that others don’t share an appreciation of are missing out, etc is just elitist. It reminds me of the reaction I hear from women on the subject of veiling. When I suggest that many women choose to wear it, they respond, “That’s because they don’t know any better”, which is a complete and utter falsehood.

Anyway, I think all the arguments on this have been articulated quite clearly, and you don’t seem satisfied by anything in response.

#36 Albert Campion on 02.10.07 at 4:50 pm

Amal, there seems to be a sub-text going on that I’m not getting. What arguments? I’m, as I’ve said more than once, exploring other ideas, not making an argument.

I don’t know if “the problem” is that Muslims are motivated by their religion. Jews, for example, are motivated by their religion but it hasn’t stopped Philip Roth et al. Ditto Hindus, pagans, Christians and so on. I’m curious.

Again, you can’t (literally as well as ethically) say that I shouldn’t discuss such topics because they “do not have any impact” on me. Can you really imagine a Hindu telling me that I should not read about (say) the caste system because it “doesn’t have an impact” on me? Or Spike Lee telling me not to talk about his films because I’m not a Black American?

(I’m happy to talk about how everything human DOES “have an impact” on me, but as that would inevitably bring us around to ‘The Satanic Verses’ and Mr Rushdie, and I suspect that would be inflammatory.)

An argument I would make, if we got that far, is that there isn’t such a thing as “a certain type of art” – all art is, pretty much by definition, just art. It succeeds or fails on its own terms.

#37 Amal on 02.10.07 at 9:31 pm

Again, you can’t (literally as well as ethically) say that I shouldn’t discuss such topics because they “do not have any impact” on me.

I don’t think you’re understanding me, Albert. Discuss until you’re blue in the face; my concern is that you seem to be judging (unfairly) others for their worldview. You don’t have to agree or like it (in fact, you used the word ‘deplore’ earlier to describe how you feel about Islam’s approach to artistic work), but I feel with your posts that you won’t give an inch or concede that, in your explorations, these other perspectives may actually make sense.

#38 Amir on 02.10.07 at 9:49 pm

Again, you can’t (literally as well as ethically) say that I shouldn’t discuss such topics because they “do not have any impact” on me.

I don’t think that is what she is saying. You can discuss your concern, disgust, anger, indifference or whatever at Muslim reading tastes, but the fact remains that if someone chooses not to read Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Samuel Taylor Coleridge or any of the ‘classics’, it is ultimately a personal issue which neither harms nor benefits anyone else. It may be motivated by religion, their absence of religion, their background, or just their personal tastes. For example, many atheists have an animus towards C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.

An argument I would make, if we got that far, is that there isn’t such a thing as “a certain type of art” – all art is, pretty much by definition, just art. It succeeds or fails on its own terms.

There are subcategories, classes and grades of art. The fact that you have yourself graded James Joyce’s book a classic and elevated its status amongst the canon of Western literature shows that you engage in the same sort of subjective assessment of literature as do Muslims. Whereas you grade it based on your own ideas, tastes and understanding, Muslims (and everyone else in the world) grade literature based on their own personal ideas. When Amal speaks of a “a certain type of art”, she is simply talking about the opposite end of the same subjective continuum as you do when you speak of the “classics”.

#39 Phil Stein on 02.11.07 at 5:28 am

Amal: no one here has suggested that muslims “should have a say in what others read and write, etc”. However, outside this forum there is a history of muslims practising censorship with extreme prejudice on people who said or translated things they didn’t like.

#40 Chicka on 02.11.07 at 7:24 am

As I said Phil, in the current circumstances there is little sympathy for that piously stated but insincere view. So what if in the past Muslims have censored things that they didn’t like?

Britain has invaded and occupied Iraq and used chemical weapons against Iraqis

Britain and France have invaded and occupied the middle east and secretly divided it up

The US has assassinated a democratically elected leader

And now in Australia books have been banned by the government

IN Austria the government has jailed someone for denying the holocaust

In France it is now illegal to deny the Armenian holocaust

In several other places in Europe there is a ban on books and speech and personal views, and you comes to this place and says that Muslims have been practicing censorship etc. What a joke.

Well I suppose it is one step better than assassinating people whose politics you don’t like

as I said before, if you had any sincerity in your views regarding absolute freedom of expression then you would have understood these examples and not made such an incorrect statement, but you are ignorant of history as well as of art.

#41 Albert Campion on 02.11.07 at 12:58 pm

Amir – I would have thought that an adherant of a religion which relies so heavily on the judgement of scholars would have appreciated the point that there are, in fact, learned people who can make judgements that are not (in a sense) subjective. There really is very little dispute that James Joyce expanded humanity’s ability to explore itself.

Also, Joyce (or whoever you like) isn’t just a supreme practioner of Western art. He is one of humanity’s treasures. As is Tagore, many Japanese authors, etc. Just about every literate culture has produced greats. And presumably pre-literate cultures do as well, but they tend to have been lost.

Anyhoo – I really wonder why my posts are being anwered so defensively, and why “Don’t dare talk about art when teh evul Us is bombing Muslims” is the reponse.

#42 Albert Campion on 02.11.07 at 1:07 pm

>>You don’t have to agree or like it (in fact, you used the word ‘deplore’ earlier to describe how you feel about Islam’s approach to artistic work), but I feel with your posts that you won’t give an inch or concede that, in your explorations, these other perspectives may actually make sense.

You see, you have prejudged me there. Why on earth assume that I won’t give an inch? Of course I’m coming to the discussion with intellectual baggage; but of course I am willing to discard it if it proves to be faulty.

(My ‘deplore’ was in fact about the ban on portraiture. You’ve generalised somewhat.)

#43 E. Mariyani on 02.11.07 at 5:22 pm

Albert,

Some quasi-random comments on what has been said so far.

You have suggested you have not been making arguments. I suggest that you have been making arguments, just that they are not well formed. Here is an example (a rational reconstruction, if you will).

You started out wondering why some forms of representation (doubling as art) are “outlawed” in Islam. The answer given was basically: where the intention of the representation is to induce sinful thoughts and/or behaviour, or it is likely to induce sinful thoughts and/or behaviour (irrespective of intention), it is forbidden.

Because you have personally benefited from works which could easily induce sinful thoughts and/or behaviour, you seemed worried about two things:
(a) Muslims would be (or are) missing out on something beneficial – and this is peculiar to Muslims; and (b) were the “ban” to be extended to non-Muslims, you and others would no longer benefit from such works.

There are two underlying assumptions here. One is that because you have personally benefited from some art forms, others will also benefit from those art forms. The other is that “forbidden to Muslims” entails that from the Islamic point of view it should be “forbidden to everyone.”

You have not provided adequate support for either of these assumptions.

You have attempted to support the first assumption by asserting that “educated” people know as a matter of objective fact (i.e., not merely as a subjective opinion) that Ulysses is a great work of art. The evidence supporting this is that “scholars” (by which one assumes you actually mean academics in English Departments) unanimously agree with you. First off, this not a valid argument. It is merely an example of the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam. If there is nothing more to your argument that this, it is easy to counter: either you have to concede that those who think Ulysses is worth the candle only make up a tiny, tiny fraction of a particular culture at a particular historical juncture, and that outside this culture and juncture, next-to-no-one at all would think it is worth cutting down a single tree to print it, thus rendering the claim that it is objectively true that the book is “great” questionable to say the least, or you have to (as you have effectively done) define literary competence according to whether one agrees Ulysses is a great work of art, in which case, one is not establishing anything, but rather merely defining outcomes according to desired conclusions (i.e., the petitio principii fallacy).

Needless to say, the fact that for Muslims “learned people [exist] who can make judgements that are not (in a sense) subjective,” does not necessarily extend to questions of aesthetic opinions. When ulama make statements about, say works of fiction or poetry, they are, by and large, not expressions of opinion about aesthetics but about whether content is, say, in conformity with halal intentions, thoughts and perhaps outward effects, as per the shariah.

As to whether Joyce himself is “one of humanity’s treasures,” I would agree with that. I would also say, however, that my grandmother, who has never written a word of fiction in her life, is also one of humanity’s treasures. For us to start ranking the worth of individuals according to some very recent historically and culturally specific criterion is not a road anyone should want to go down, morally speaking.

As a side issue, you have suggested that the problem of “forbidden” work is unique to Muslims. To support this assertion, you have suggested that Jews (one assumes you actually mean people following Judaism), Hindus, Christians “and so on,” have no such “issues.” This is quite obviously false. Perhaps you should have a look around. In Israel, try publishing a rip-snorting fictional glorification of Auschwitz. Better yet, try staying out of gaol! Is there anything holding Pope Benny back from writing (or reading) that new, provocative and deeply confronting one-man play, The Alter Boy Monologues ? Oh of course, his religious beliefs. Ah, but what of the ever-tolerant Hindus? Well, here’s a challange: write a novel about Chhatrapati Shivaji, and hint at the possibility of an elicit relationship with his mother without it getting banned by Hindus in India. …And so on and so forth.

Related to this, you make the general claim that there is no benefit in censoring any literature or art whatsoever. That is certainly something that has been debated for over 2000 years – and as noted in the above examples, is denied by manyof different faiths even today. As such, it is not exactly a self-evident or settled truth.

The second assumption is a matter of fiqh, and the rulings for different works are different for different times and different places, depending as they do on all sorts of particular factors. To claim that there are “transhistorical, universal, blanket rules” for such matters is merely to advertise one’s ignorance. As for Australia, for example, the entire issue is completely irrelevant, except as a matter of personal choice. (Incidentally, the very notion of “forbidden” – even for Muslims – can take on different manifestations. E.g. it does not necessarily mean “imposed by the state on the people, irrespective of their wishes” – which is what most Westerners seem to believe and be fearful of; it can merely mean, “imposed upon oneself by oneself, in accordance with one’s own intentions.”)

As to your question, why are your posts being answered defensively (or perhaps offensively), the answer, at least from my perspective, is that some of your comments have the odor of an arrogant cultural imperialism that many Muslims are able to detect a mile off (thanks largely to the accretions of colonial history combined with the current political climate). That you are not able to detect this odor is understandable. (When Jane Elliott in her confronting Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes workshops asks Anglos whether they derive any social power from being white, they invariably scoff at the question, yet all non-whites say they know that being white automatically confers social power because they are on the receiving end of it … and this annoys them greatly. What also annoys them is that Anglos are ignorant of it, deny it, an treat anyone who doesn’t deny it as either irrational or a liar.)

Kind regards.
EM.

#44 Baybers on 02.11.07 at 6:22 pm

E, I believe you speak for all of us in this matter.

#45 Albert Campion on 02.11.07 at 8:06 pm

I’ll respond fully when I have time, but really, your defensive reading of my posts is just … amazing.

#46 E. Mariyani on 02.11.07 at 11:42 pm

I’ll respond fully when I have time, but really, your defensive reading of my posts is just … amazing.

See the last paragraph. It is perhaps the least “amazing” thing for the majority of the world’s population.

But truth be told, this seeming “defensiveness” is merely the dance of shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. I’m not really being defensive, if that implies some kind of less than sanguine emotional response. I’m merely applying the Socratic dialectic; the most wonderful of intellectual inventions that the Greeks gave to humanity; the foundation-stone of “Western” discourse. If anything, rather than being amazed at the employment of this device, you should be entirely at home with it. I find it amazing that you’re not. :P

Kind Regards,
EM.

#47 Shazia on 02.12.07 at 3:42 am

Has anyone here heard of or read “From Utah to Enternity”?

Its the journey of a Mormon to Islam through his meeting Indonesians in Japan.

It was the first English Muslim novel I ever heard of and read.

#48 Phil stein on 02.12.07 at 4:22 am

” So what if in the past Muslims have censored things that they didn’t like?”
Er no, Chicka, so what if in the present muslims have killed people who said things they didn’t like?

#49 E. Mariyani on 02.12.07 at 1:32 pm

what if in the present muslims have killed people who said things they didn’t like?

Do you intend to make an intelligent and/or constructive point anytime soon?

#50 Aaminah on 02.15.07 at 4:55 am

Asalaamu alaikum.

Thank you for this insightful look at Islamic fiction, even if I disagree with some of your points.

To answer what seems to be the main question, i.e. if can a book be halal if it includes haraam behavior, I would suggest that there is a simple test.

– If the haraam behavior is explicit, glorified, dignified or excused, then the book isn’t Islamic. An example would, in my opinion, be Monica Ali’s Brick Lane in which the main character is “set free” from Islamic “constraints” by having an affair and justifying it.

- If the haraam behavior is present to show that even the most well- meaning Muslims have faults and make bad decisions, but the intent is to show the character grow and improve in their deen and/or learn a lesson from the bad behavior, then the book is Islamic.

For the record, there is alot more genuinely Islamic fiction out there than people seem to realize. Often it is difficult to find a publisher, or difficult to get it into mainstream stores. I would recommend that Muslims who are interested in supporting Muslim writers check out organizations like the IWA (www.islamicwritersalliance.net), and Islamic Artists Society (http://islamic-artists.blogspot.com) to see what is really out there.

#51 Baybers on 02.18.07 at 8:46 am

“I’ll respond fully when I have time’

its a week later and we are still waiting for you to dazzle us

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