Culture & Religion – Scattered Thoughts on the Book American Dervish

I went to a lecture last week on what Muslims think of evolution and the lecturer, a Muslim well versed on the subject, went on to say that what Muslims believe on that topic is dependent on the country and culture in which they grew up in. I thought it was a total cop-out. Aren’t there some aspects of evolution all Muslims agree on? Our culture can’t dictate everything about religion, y’know?

But sometimes all we do see is culture, masquerading as religion. That’s the stuff that trips us up now and then and that’s what we see in the book American Dervish, written by Ayad Akhtar.

Book Cover

The book is about Hayat, the son of Pakistani-American immigrants who was raised in Milwaukee. Hayat is narrating the story as an adult to a classmate about the time when he was 11 years old and his mother’s best friend from Pakistan, Mina, comes to live with them. Soon, Mina is courted by Hayat’s father’s friend, who happens to be Jewish. I don’t want to give away too much more but the reader knows that something terrible is going to happen since Hayat hinted as much before he tells the story in the first place.

The book is good but some of the characters the author creates who are practicing Muslims (or depicting themselves as practicing) are all mostly hypocrites and also called out as sheep who can’t think for themselves. I almost wanted to take offense to this and say that the author shouldn’t make Muslims look that bad but I realized that Ayad Akhtar didn’t set out to tell a PC story about Islam and Muslims. This isn’t about how all Muslims are bad though and so we shouldn’t take it as such.

So instead of being offended I’ll instead take the above, and other parts of the book, as a lesson about how we shouldn’t be ignorant about religion.

Islam is meant to be a very open, non-judge-y religion and yet we all sometimes act like everything is black and white with no room for interpretation. The problem is that a lot of us, and I include myself in this, just aren’t educated enough to know what’s what.* I used to think things were either right or wrong growing up. You were supposed to do this, you aren’t supposed to do that. Done and done. But things are never that simple.

A lot of the male Muslim characters in American Dervish are hardly role models but there is one person in the book that tries to embody Islam in her own way, Mina. She’s the one that first got Hayat interested in Islam and her telling Hayat that a lot of it is about intention is an idea that many of us should be able to grasp since that is what many of us were taught.

None of us are perfect. However, we can take a lesson from Mina and think about our intentions with our actions. Let’s not use religion as a way to make ourselves feel superior over others and understand that culture is all well and good, but try not to have it mess with faith.

So those are my thoughts on American Dervish. Not quite a review but more a reflection. If you’re upset that Akhtar didn’t tell your story as an American-Muslim-Pakistani, well then, write your own! We need more of these types of stories out there anyways :)

Take care folks!

*Huge sidenote:

I recently read the book I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of essays written by American Muslim women. There was one essay that really resonated with me because it dealt with the importance of educating oneself on religion. In one part of the essay, the writer was concerned a friend who had studied Islam abroad would judge her, much as the writer had previously judged her own husband and his religiousness. That worry turned out to be unnecessary. Here’s an excerpt:

Much to my surprise, she did not judge me at all. I worried my boisterous personality would offend her or my clothes would be too form-fitting for her sensibilities- or that she would interpret the speed of my prayers as insincerity in my devotion. When I later confessed these concerns to her, she smiled and said, “My teacher taught me that knowledge is mercy. The more you know, the less you will judge others.” I can think of no better representation of the spirit of truth and of Islam with that statement. The more we study and learn about Islam, the more we will realize how little we know about the truth – and the less we will insist on imposing rigid delineations of Islam on others and ourselves.

-From the essay Truth Is Not Always Self-Evident by Rabea Chaudhry from the book I Speak for Myself. Check out the book if you can. All the essays are worth reading.

Disclaimer: I actually know Rabea but that’s not why I happened to write about this essay – it happened to fit in with what I was talking about :)

6 thoughts

  1. This is a great post that I hope will help people at start to examine the ways they make assumptions. This post would be a great jumping off point for a classroom. Thanks Bushra! There was just a post this morning in a Yahoo article that said scientists found out that ignorance is directly related to conservatism and lack of education. I thought that was interesting. That is why I believe everyone should KEEP AN OPEN MIND. Keep Writing!

    1. As you mentioned, it’s unfortunate when people take away the wrong lesson and their becoming more religious results in more discrimination between “us” and “them” rather than enlightenment.

      In these cases, where the fundamental thought process is wrong, what can people do to help themselves see the truth?

      1. At some point, it becomes one’s own responsibility to seek the truth and educate themselves. There has to be a conscious decision to do so because no one can make someone else learn. It’s up to each individual to seek out proper books/teachers and learn about their own religion if no one else is helping them out. And for all the Muslims out there, I would say that it’s their responsibility to also learn about other religions so we don’t succumb to the ignorance to others as others are to us.

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