On Reading The Good Muslim
Title: The Good Muslim
Author: Tahmima Anam
Publication Date: August 2011
Genre: Literary fiction; historical fiction
Source: eBook from library
I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.
The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?
Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.
Alas, it didn’t deliver.
One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.
Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.
What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.
This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?
The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.
While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.
This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.