Authors of Muslim heritage are any with a Muslim family background, whether practicing or not. As such, their writing is as diverse as the societies from which they write. Certainly, authors of Muslim heritage don’t have to write about topics that are specific to Muslims, but their identities are relevant and shape the words, thoughts, and experiences they share with the world. Whether they are Muslims who live in the diaspora or in countries where Islam has been around for centuries, or whether Islam is a central topic, a mere backdrop, or not mentioned at all, their work is likely influenced in some way by their heritage and experience.
As a Muslim woman myself, I am happy to share the following list of books because far too often, Muslims are spoken about but don’t get a chance to speak for themselves. If you’re looking to read Nobel prize winners like Orhan Pamuk or Naguib Mahfouz, or searching for books that talk about Muslim life in America, you can find suggestions in this article. There are also books about the social realities in Egypt during World War I, what the world may look like after the pandemic, and a memoir of a young woman’s life in the turbulent times of the Bolshevik revolution.
Here are 20 writers of Muslim heritage along with some of their best books to add to your summer reading list.
Books by Nobel Prize Winners
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk: This novel takes place in Istanbul where protagonist Galip tries to find his wife who has mysteriously left him. As Istanbul turns more and more into a maze, Galip explores the city’s many hidden layers. The city’s contradictory faces, a world where East and West meet, is the most fascinating character of the book.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz: The first installment of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy takes readers to a Cairo that experiences enormous political changes. From World War I to the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 against British occupation, we follow an Egyptian merchant family’s entanglement in political events as well as their social lives. Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy remains the most influential model of Arabic novels.
Life in the Diaspora
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: The playwright’s second novel analyzes the American dream as experienced by an immigrant family. It’s a personal look at how 9/11 and Trump have influenced the identities of Americans of Muslim heritage and has even made it onto Obama’s list of favorite books of 2020. This intelligent memoir is a reflection on what a Western Muslim identity might look like.
The Prophet of Zongo Street by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: This first book by Mohammed Naseehu Ali is a collection of short stories dealing with issues such as race, religion, and immigration from an African diasporic perspective. In ten stories set both in Ghana as well as NYC, the magnificently unconventional characters experience turbulent and moving situations.
Pilgrim’s Way by Abdulrazak Gurnah: This novel is an honest look at how immigrants experience their foreignness in a new society. Daud has been living in the UK for several years but is still marked as a foreigner due to the color of his skin. Nobody cares about his past, his personality, his life, and so he accepts the fact that he will never be embraced by British society nor will he be able to return home to Tanzania.
The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim: Blasim has been called “perhaps the greatest writer of Arabic fiction alive” by The Guardian. This short story collection tells us about the war in Iraq from an Iraqi point of view as well as life as a refugee in the West.
Books Set in Muslim-Majority Countries
Chewing Gum by Mansour Bushnaf: Chewing gum has become an obsession in Libyan society, and foreign-educated academics try to explain this expression of consumerism. Fatma leaves Mukhtar and becomes a chewing gum fan like the rest of the country, while Mukhtar stands still in the middle of the park for ten years.
Days in the Caucasus by Banine: The writer’s memoir is set in Azerbaijan between the 1900s and 1920s beginning with the author’s birth in 1905. Banine’s great-grandfather made it from peasant to wealthy oil merchant, but while Banine grows up leading a comfortable lifestyle, political and social upheaval transforms the region. After the Bolsheviks take over Banine’s home, her life changes dramatically when she goes from millionaire to owning nothing.
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov: This eerie novella set in Kazakhstan follows Yerzhan who has never grown into a man after plunging into a radioactive lake as a boy. As he stops growing, Aisulu, the girl he’s in love with, becomes an attractive woman.
Death and the Dervish by Meša Selimović: The most well-known book by Yugoslav author Selimović is set in 18th century Bosnia which was at the time a province of the Ottoman Empire. The story is told from the perspective of Ahmed Nuruddin, a dervish who tries to save his brother who has been wrongfully imprisoned. The novel looks at issues like power, rebellion, and betrayal and provides a lesson on Bosnian history.
Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare: Novelist Kadare’s love letter to his hometown Gjirokaster gives us a look at the experience of a child whose world is torn apart by World War II. Albania’s most prominent writer combines history, legends, and the innocence of a child.
Willow Trees Don’t Weep by Fadia Faqir: Published in 2013, Willow Trees Don’t Weep addresses several intense topics. In the mid-1980s in Jordan, Omar leaves his wife and daughter to join his friend Hani on his journey to Afghanistan to support the Taliban in their fight against the Soviets. His daughter Najwa grows up with her mother and grandmother, but when her mother dies she leaves Jordan to look for her father. Faqir’s approach to subjects such as radicalization, alienation from religion, and single parenting are both refreshing and eye-opening.
This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer: This historical novel follows the story of Minke, a descendant of Javanese royalty. It is the first book in Toer’s Buru Quartet written at Buru Island detention camp. Minke attends a Dutch elite school but is not accepted by the other students who are all of European descent.
The Rumi Prescription by Melody Moezzi: Moezzi explores the poetry of Rumi, known to Muslims as Mevlana or Mowlana, who has become the most popular poet in the US. The book looks at how even centuries later, the poetry of Rumi can help guide us in our everyday lives even when faced with modern problems such as isolation, anxiety, and depression. It encourages us to live with intention and find solace within.
My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit by Mohja Kahf: The award winning poet published her latest collection of poetry in 2020 and lets readers escape from the upsetting realities of a pandemic, social distancing, and lockdowns. Love is at the heart of Kahf’s words; love of food, love of community, love of language.
A River Dies of Thirst by Mahmoud Darwish: A collection of diary entries and poems by Palestine’s most acclaimed writer takes us back to the summer of 2006 and the beginning of the Gaza-Israel conflict. Darwish talks about love, unrest, and loss but always remains hopeful even as he ponders death. Given the outbreak of violence earlier this year, we could all learn from Mahmoud Darwish who, while critical of both Israel as well as Palestinian authorities, remained full of hope until his death in 2008 that peace would one day become reality.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire: Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Shire’s first poetry collection comprises issues like war, terror, and being a refugee all while asserting dominion over her physical being.
Into Solidity by Yusuf Misdaq: This book of poems depicts very somber feelings and is described as a book for people who contemplate suicide. Over the course of the book it moves towards a more positive approach to life and even motivates readers to see the bright side.
Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths by Sholeh Wolpé: The poet and translator’s third collection of poems shares her personal reflections on love, beauty, war, and loss. Wolpé seeks to give us an honest look at both her Iranian and American identities.
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria: As vaccination rates in Western countries rise, it would be easy to assume that the pandemic is over. But with the majority of the world still waiting for vaccines to be delivered, we should see the opportunity in this challenging time. Fareed Zakaria looks at the different ways in which our societies need to change so that the next pandemic doesn’t hit us the way COVID-19 has.
The view of who classifies as a Muslim or not is often under debate. These discussions are dominated by either non-Muslims who tend to view most Muslims as Arabs and all Arabs as Muslims, or by religious extremists who don’t allow for a broader definition of the term Muslim. The latter specifically exclude “cultural Muslims”: people who are not particularly religious but still keep a connection to their Islamic heritage via cultural practices.
Having grown up as a cultural Muslim myself, it is important for me to help broaden the perspective of who is and isn’t Muslim. I believe it’s necessary to include diverse voices from different countries that are not commonly mentioned when people talk about Islam or Muslims, namely sub-Saharan African, Central Asian, Balkan, or Southeast Asian countries. Many of these writers may not fit the traditional narrative of what a Muslim should look like or act like. However, I hope that in reading any of these books you will find that Muslims are just as diverse a group as the Christian majority in the Western world is.Become a Patron!
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