Saturday, May 13, 2006

Writing About Muslims (in English & Spanish)

It makes me sick to enter a mainstream bookshop like Borders or Angus & Robertson and visit the religious or history or politics or culture sections. Why?

Because I see Jews writing about Jews, Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish politics. I see Christians writing about Christianity, Christian history, Christian society and Christian politics.

And I see Jews and Christians (and Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists and Jains and Parsees) writing about Islam, Muslims, Muslim cultures, Muslim politics etc.

Hardly ever do I see Muslims writing about themselves and their identity. Muslims allow themselves to be defined by others. And the way many young Muslims are making career choices, that situation is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Muslims are too busy studying medicine or computer science or engineering to worry about the social sciences.

It seems that the best starting point to learn about who are Muslims (in their infinite permutations and combinations) is to pick up the work of some non-Muslim writer. We just never seem to want to tell people about who we are. We almost seem disinterested in who we are.

Yet when other people paint us in a picture we don’t agree with, we automatically dismiss them as being biased or subject to some fundamental misunderstanding. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else.

Recently a young arts graduate sent me a 3,000 word piece on why some Muslim converts are attracted to “extremist” fringe groups like al-Qaida or JI. Her essay relied completely on people like Pipes and other writers. It also contained some fairly interesting factual errors (such as painting JI as the South-East Asian wing of the Pakistani Jama’at-i-Islami).

I could have written back to her in some pompous manner telling her about how she was just another ignorant conservative non-Muslim with an axe to grind. And I almost did (knowing my luck, she probably perceived my response in that manner).

But looking back on it, the fact is that she went to all that trouble to read and research the topic. She then produced over 3,000 words on the subject. She tried to understand her subject, and she even tried to get my (allegedly mainstream Muslim) perspective on the topic.

If the first and most accessible works she has on the subject are written by hostile Muslim-haters like Daniel Pipes, whose fault is that? Is it her fault? Or is it the collective fault of Muslim communities who rarely encourage their own to study and develop enough expertise to be able to write in these topics?

On April 16, 2006 the New York Times Magazine profiled another non-Muslim who writes about Islamic culture and history. The magazine profiled Spanish expatriate novelist Juan Goytisolo, a regular contributor to Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Goytisolo is q maverick character. At 75 years of age, he chooses to live in Marrakesh (a city in Morocco) with current and former gay lovers and their children. He is considered one of Spain’s greatest living writers. Yet he is hardly someone we could describe as hostile to Muslim values and culture.

His passion for Islamic culture includes a scholarly interest in tasawwuf (sufi theology) and Arabic and Turkish grammar. He isn’t necessarily well-known in the Arab or Muslim world, but he remains a leading intellectural in Spain and Latin America.

During the 1990’s, Goytisolo introduced Spanish audiences to Islamic culture through a documentary series entitled al-Qibla (“The Direction of Mecca”). He has reported from behind the lines in Chechnya during the war, and has also interviewed HAMAS leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Goytisolo appears to be doing more to introduce Spanish consumers to Islam than any Spanish-speaking Muslim I am aware of. For all this, he is still able to win numerous awards, including Mexico’s prestigious Juan Rulfo prize for lifetime literary achievement.

Hopefully, I will get a chance to explore some of Goytisolo’s themes (as reported in the NYT Magazine article) on this site. Those wishing to receive a copy of the original NYT article should e-mail me on

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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Jamila said...

Perhaps the problem is that bookshops do not want to stock books by Muslims. When did you last see a copy of Tariq Ramadan or Farid Esack on the shelf, or 'Islam for Dummies' or Mehmet Ozalp's '100 questions about Islam'? I have tried to get my humble book about Islamic law & society into bookshops but have been told they are not interested. The fault does not always lie with Muslims.

dawood said...

If that is the case Jamilla, then we are really in a sorry state of affairs! The thing that confuses me the most with things like this is - if Muslims can't speak about their own religion with authority, then who can?

Anonymous said...

Irfan you are correct in saying that young Muslims tend to study Mathematical Sciences then Social Sciences. However, that shouldn't be any excuse for writing books? After all you hold a BEcon and LLb. Thats a good enough grounding in the Social Sciences.


Julaybib said...

I think there are a growing number of Muslims writing about Muslims, but my local bookshops stock the usual suspects - Manji, Bernard Lewis, et al.

Having said that, I really don't care. A competent social scientist is a competent social scientist. Talal Asad (Muhammad Asad's son) has had a significant influence on religious studies, but by pointing out that the concepts of 'religion' and 'Islam' (as a cultural-religious identity) are relatively modern constructions.

Of course, most middle class Muslims ignore this kind of thing because it forces them to question their adoption of monolithic definitions of 'Islam' - be they Salafi or Ahl as-Sunna - which simply didn't exist 200 years ago (and still don't exist for many Muslims)



dawood said...

Julaybib: I totally agree, some of his stuff rocks. I think it depends on what the book is about though, as there are certain times when things need to be experienced/lived to get the nuance and such.