Urban Islamic Fiction, Really?

Urban Fiction has been out of my range for a while now, since it does lean away from my continually refining Muslim tastes. You know, unlike say a movie where you get visual and auditory hints, it’s difficult to avert your eye to upcoming unsavory bits in a book without losing key plot stuffs. So I just don’t go there. But Umm Juwayriyah (Maryam Sullivan) seems to think Urban Islamic Fiction can be crafted, seeing as that is how she classified her debut novel The Size of a Mustard Seed. Even if she could pull off an Urban Islamic Fiction story—I know, I know the adage!— the cover of the book really didn’t make me any less skeptical about the content.  It looks more like a juvenile fiction read, and I have read more than enough poorly produced Islamic books for kids that I wouldn’t want to waste my time and dollars on another. After two well-read friends insisted that it’s a good book, I finally ordered a copy.

A couple paragraphs into the first chapter the author had me with, “You didn’t think you were reading about the life and times of a super—righteous Muslimah?” Well yeah, I had, but immediately I was assured, quit hesitating and eagerly dove in! In short, the author succeeds. The Size of a Mustard Seed (TSM) is about Jameelah “Meelah” Salih, a very busy sister. She works at the Muslim-owned salon, Covered Pearls, and is a much sought after hairstylist, fulltime student, adoring and obedient daughter from a blended family (convert mom and raised Muslim dad), bossy big sister, and prospective wife.

Set in the heart of an active American Muslim community TSM covers a full and satisfying scope of issues real Muslims really face, including prejudice from within and outside the community, finding the balance between self and family, and marriage troubles, including both finding and keeping them as well as the complications of converting while married.

Spoiler: The story occurs during Ramadan and describes the spread at several iftars. This book may make you crave cake and/or your other Ramadan favorites!

Jameelah is a likable sister, but by no means a goody-goody, texualized-idealized Muslimah. She says things many of us would love to, unless she remembers to count to ten and say “alhumdiAllah” first–one of her Ramadan goals. The rest of the characters are also completely believable and even recognizable in me and people I know. There are the sage elders who offer unsolicited but wise advice, the new Muslims who simultaneously need patience while offering youthful (young to the deen) inspiration and also the strugglers, like Meelah’s baby brother Adam who her umm says has “been listening with his eyes instead of ears.“

I was really surprised by the quality of the writing. This is Umm Jawayriyah’s first novel and as far as I know it is the first Urban Islamic Fiction novel. It could have very easily come off prudish and lack-luster. But it isn’t. TSM has flow. The 300+ pages seem like they are going to be gratifying read, but the writing is so seamless that they do whip by too quickly. I put off reading the last couple of chapters when I realized that after this, there’s no place to go! I finished the book tonight, here in Morocco, and it made me long for the companionship of my sisters back home.

From the author’s statement I know this book is primarily written for American Muslims, (it is our stories) and I am sure they would enjoy TSM, but a larger range of persons could really benefit from this read. There is a lot of interest in Islam and Muslims on university campuses, but unfortunately most (like 95%) of the material presented to students is written by non-Muslims for non-Muslims. At best it is erroneous, at worse it is hurtful. For educators who have an earnest interest in learning about Islam, Muslim cultures and Muslims, The Size of A Mustard Seed is an ideal starting point for “meeting” Muslims right here in the US. In my experience, books read in classrooms about Islam/Muslims usually only furthers misunderstandings because we are not able to enter the reading without our western perspectives. We just don’t “get them over there” without a cultural attaché. The Size of A Mustard Seed is an excellent way to learn about some of the practices in Islam and readers will recognize the Muslim characters from amongst their own neighbors.

I noticed that the inside cover of The Size of a Mustard Seed says “Covered Pearls Series: Book 1.” Umm Jawayriyah—we are waiting–ya’la sister!

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Remade Moroccan Folk Tales

Eldest son went to the epicerie (bodega/corner store) the other night and when he got back I noticed his shirt was inside out. He often does this when he goes to pray and has some kind of image (person or animal) on his shirt. This one has different sets of eyes that glow in the dark, so turning it inside is kind of useless—but anyway—I asked him if he wore it like that to the store. “Yeah. And a couple of people said something.” “What did they say” I ask. “I dunno. I don’t understand what they are saying. It wasn’t English.” “Then how do you know they said something about your shirt?” “One lady pointed to it and then the epicerie guy pointed to the seams on his own shirt.”

Me, The SIL and The Hub had a good laugh about folks concern for Our Boy and then SIL told me this “Moroccan folktale” that I have since seen elsewhere online as various kinds of a “Middle Eastern folktale”-

An old man decides to take his donkey to the souk and sell it. The journey is not too far and they start off early in the day when it is still cool. After walking just a short distance they come across some people who tell the old man that he should make use of his donkey and ride it. So, the old man climbs up on the donkey and rides along a little further with the boy keeping pace at his side.

Just a little ways down the road they happen on another group of people. These people scold the old man for selfishly riding the donkey and making the young boy struggle to keep up alongside! So, the old man gets off the donkey and puts the little boy up on the blanketed saddle.

As they are getting closer to the market they come upon a third group and this group feels the donkey is too tired to even carry the child and again the old man is scolded for his thoughtlessness. Finally, coming into the marketplace, all the people turn to stare at the old man who is carrying a donkey across his shoulders with a small boy following sheepishly behind him. No one says a word to either of them.

~ ~ ~

That is exactly how I felt carrying my eldest son in a baby sling in Brooklyn. It seemed as if crossing the imaginary border into every new neighborhood I would be met by some sagely mother from another culture or era who would either praise me or chastise me for carry my baby like that!

So, my sil and I kidded my son that next time he goes to the epicerie he should wear his shorts on top and top on bottom. This wouldn’t be too hard since he already does sometimes pull a sweater onto his waist—as in the neckhole around his waist!—also for prayer, to cover up. And now, of course, we have to pretty much beg him not to go out like that—-yes, he has figured out a way to wear shorts as a top.