If there was one recent book I wish I could make my teen self read, I’d say Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali in a heartbeat. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that made me think so much about my identity as a Muslim as that book did. It was relatable in a way only a precious few books are, and unapologetically Muslim in a way that not many YA books have been in the past. It was refreshing to see a Muslim protagonist who wasn’t ashamed of her religion, who wasn’t constantly whining or complaining about how hindering one’s religion and culture can be, and who felt so real unlike other caricatures of characters I’ve been unfortunate enough to read about. This is not to say Janna, the protagonist, wasn’t without her flaws, and this is definitely not to say that she was a “model” Muslim- she struggled with certain things relating to faith too and she was tested multiple times throughout the story as well. Yet, despite it all, she was somehow all I expected of Muslim rep in a book, and the community, the world that the author built was extremely heartening to see depicted in a YA book.
One of my biggest problem with Muslim rep in books is that it often seems as if the author is holding themself back so as to not appear too Muslim. And the other thing that frustrates me to no end is that it is ultimately these books – those that are #ownvoices for Muslim rep and yet have leads that are just enough Muslim so as to be palatable to non-Muslim readers – that end up getting the most hype from the bookish community. Name a popular YA book with #ownvoices Muslim rep? Bet most of you named one of these books I am talking about. Be it Muslim readers/bloggers or non-Muslim ones, I’ve seen many rallying for these kind of books, whereas books that are more visibly Muslim end up being much lesser talked about.
True, not all Muslim girls choose to wear hijab, pray 5 times a day and recite the Quran regularly. Not everyone abstains from drinking, smoking, etc. and not everyone feels comfortable talking about their spirituality or lack thereof. Muslims are definitely not a monolith and we need more books portraying this, but when you present a book with Muslim rep, isn’t it the bare minimum that the Muslim characters at least speak of their experience of being Muslim, their relationship with Allah, or at the very least, show some indication as to they are Muslim after all? There have been times when I would startlingly realize that wouldn’t have identified some of these characters to be Muslim when reading the books, had I not known it beforehand from elsewhere.
Forgive me for putting this across so bluntly, but it often feels like nothing but a clever marketing strategy to announce your MC as Muslim- and maybe hijabi as well, and then go on to address nothing about being Muslim itself. What could have been a great opportunity to address various important issues are often done away with to make way for what is clearly more important – a love track (with a white male lead, of course). I love reading about Muslims dating and finding their one true love and all that – don’t get me wrong – but it becomes a problem when that is the only thing that is given importance in what could otherwise have been a truly great book. I would love to read of more Muslim characters who are “practicing”. More MCs that are comfortable talking about their faith and spirituality. More of those that drop an insha Allah, alhamdulillah and masha Allah in their convos, and definitely more that are unapologetically Muslim. I stress again, this is not to say that we don’t need Muslim characters who aren’t spiritual – we need those too, but it is just as important to have those that are!
This brings me back to S. K. Ali, Saints and Misfits, and her newest book coming out on April 30th, Love From A to Z (pre-order if you haven’t already – I know you won’t regret it!!!). Having loved her debut, I can’t wait for the author’s new book which is supposed to be her most unapologetically Muslim book yet. Adam and Zayneb (both Muslim) sound like amazing characters and OTP material already, and I’m pretty damn sure all my woes in the paragraphs past can be put to rest. I’m excited, to say the least. Here’s to Muslim characters that are not afraid to speak of their experience of being Muslim, and here’s hoping we see more of them in YA!
What are some of your favorites books with Muslim characters in them? Have any of them left you wanting – and if so, how? Have you read Saints and Misfits or perhaps even Love From A to Z? Let’s talk in the comments below!