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Muslim Literature: The Pros, The Progress, And The Pitfalls

The burgeoning field of Muslim literature, and Muslim fiction, in particular, is an exciting development for the English-speaking Muslim community. However, it is necessary for Muslim writers to seriously consider the quality of their work.

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Once upon a time, it was extremely difficult for English-speaking Muslims to find good books – fiction and non-fiction alike – that was catered to their demographic. Fiction, in particular, was scarce, for both young children as well as teens. Much of it was poorly written, filled with atrocious spelling and grammar, and stilted from beginning to end.

It was not an enjoyable reading experience.

Alhamdulillah, the Muslim literary scene has evolved significantly since the early 90s. Today, we have award-winning Muslim authors such as Na’ima B. Robert, whose excellent YA novels have been published through mainstream publishers and numerous emerging writers whose debut novels are wonderful contributions to the existing body of modern Muslim literature.

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Muslim publishers such as Kube Publishing, Daybreak Press, and Ruqaya’s Bookshelf are taking the lead in producing and distributing stories by and for Muslims. In addition, the publishing company Simon and Schuster launched an entire division dedicated to books by Muslim writers. Hena Khan, S. K. Ali, Karuna Riazi, and Mark Gonzales are just some of the authors whose Muslim-centered stories have been published through Salaam Reads and made accessible to schools, libraries, and the general public. The We Need Diverse Books movement has also played a significant role in promoting multicultural and marginalized voices within mainstream publishing, and the results are wonderful. 

Elevating Standards in Muslim Literature

Within the Muslim community, however, work still needs to be done. Unfortunately, as ever, the tendency to fall short of professional continues to make itself clear, in both self-published works as well as work that is published through Muslim publishers. It is common to find children’s stories that are riddled with typos, run-on sentences, poor plot structure, and nonexistent character development. In the pursuit of promoting Islamic values, too many fall into being overtly preachy and moralizing, with no regard for the fine art of storytelling.

The result is that time, effort, and money are wasted; having a plethora of “Islamic books” does us very little good when the final product is of little benefit and serves to turn children and young adults away from Muslim-focused stories. Parents and educators also find themselves frustrated with these poorly developed books, especially when they are seeking stories more representative of religiously observant Muslims rather than those who take Islam as a cultural identity marker. 

While it is certainly encouraging to see more Muslims actively contributing to the field of Muslim literature, we must recognize the difference between quality and quantity – and the importance of the former over the latter. It is true that traditional publishing is a difficult niche to get into, especially for those with no previous experience with writing or the publishing industry. This is often a motivating factor for many Muslim writers to either go with a Muslim publisher or turn to self-publishing as a means of making their work available.

However, the push to keep costs low comes at a price of its own. The vast majority of the time, it is clear that a qualified, professional editor was not hired to look over the manuscript. While some people may think that it is not a serious issue, especially for children’s books, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Children’s books actually require extra attention; one must be clear on the targeted demographic and tailor the story and language appropriately, and the illustrations and the words alike need to be engaging and lively, regardless of the intended age group. In particular, when the subject matter is religion-focused, it is important that the approach taken is not dry, academic, or presented in a way that young readers cannot connect with personally.

The quality of a book should never be sacrificed in order to keep costs low; as Muslims, we should be even more particular about producing high-quality work that will be a valuable resource to be used both within our own communities as well as to the non-Muslim public. 

Self Publishing Woes

Self-publishing is particularly dangerous when the aspiring author has done little to no research on writing and publishing and has even less experience with writing well. Unfortunately, too many Muslim writers over-estimate their own abilities and rush headlong into self-publishing… with painful, often cringe-inducing results. It is particularly distressing when certain over-confident and under-qualified Muslim writers then exult over unearned praise from readers who, unfortunately, are not always as discerning as they should be – leading said writers to feel secure in their writing abilities and going on to produce even more subpar work.

The importance of having a strong editor cannot be overstated; having a “friend of a friend” with no qualifications to review and ‘edit’ the story simply does not cut it. Choosing the professional way to write and publish will inevitably take more time and effort – and yes, financial cost – to produce a final result, but that investment of energy will be much, much more worth it in the long run (and will also spare readers the agony of seeing “there,” “their,” and “they’re” constantly used the wrong way).

Having higher standards and holding Muslim writers (and publishers) accountable for their work is not meant to be discouraging. Rather, our intention is to encourage their success – in a way that is meaningful, not blindly supportive. We all wish to see our brothers and sisters in Islam succeed and to continue to contribute to an extremely important field. Addressing these weaknesses from the very beginning will ultimately result in long-term success and benefit the writers and the readers alike. 

The burgeoning field of Muslim literature, and Muslim fiction in particular, is an exciting development for the English-speaking Muslim community. However, it is necessary for Muslim writers to seriously consider the quality of their work, and to seek professional and qualified editors and publishers with whom to work and produce their books. The current substandard quality of many Muslim-produced books is counter-productive to the intended goal of providing beneficial resources for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. It makes parents and educators reluctant to use and share those works with their children and students.

Investing time and energy into improving the quality of our literature will only result in success, for the writers and their readership alike – so let us truly take our work seriously, and be committed to undertaking our efforts with Ihsaan.

Credit to MuslimKidsBookNook for her valuable contributions.

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Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a Canadian Muslim woman who writes on Muslim women's issues, gender related injustice in the Muslim community, and Muslim women in Islamic history. She holds a diploma in Islamic Studies from Arees University, a diploma in History of Female Scholarship from Cambridge Islamic College, and has spent the last fifteen years involved in grassroots da'wah. She was also an original founder of MuslimMatters.org.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Mirza Yawar Baig

    February 26, 2020 at 5:15 AM

    Very good points about quality of writing. I’d add that plagiarizing, copy pasting from Wiki and such activities are very common in Muslim wiring. Research is visible by its absence as also is totally lopsided and partisan reading of material before writing on the subject. All deplorable.

  2. Amina at Book Nomad podcast

    February 27, 2020 at 7:01 AM

    Thank you for this, Zainab! While this has been a problem for a long time (and is not as widespread now as it was, due in part to a maturing of the field), it is helpful to write it down clearly in black and white. Of course, digital self-publishing is by its open nature susceptible to producing a large proportion of badly written, badly edited work, regardless of the identity of the writer, but we want to aim for the best.

    I think another major issue is that people are so desperate for fiction that centres “religiously observant Muslims”, as you put it, that they are sometimes consciously or subconsciously willing to overlook lapses in quality. I know I have found myself doing this on occasion. While it may have some benefits in terms of contributing to expanding the quantity of Muslim-centred writing, the net effect is probably negative. As you mentioned, it leads to lower expectations of Muslim fiction and negative associations with books and writers who are openly practising their faith. I think the situation calls for some tough love combined with cooperation between Muslim professionals in the arts and those with the finances to develop a more solid foundation to support writers throughout the process.

    Blood Brothers podcast and Muslim Belal recently had a good discussion on a related topic, talking about Muslims in the arts more generally: it’s EP 23: Crisis in Islamic Alternative Industries.

    • Zainab (AnonyMouse)

      March 2, 2020 at 5:19 PM

      Jazaakillaahi khayran for your detailed and thoughtful response! Thank you for the podcast recommendation as well, I’ll definitely check it out inshaAllah.

  3. Umm Afraz Muhammed

    February 27, 2020 at 10:26 AM

    Love the write-up! جزاك الله خيرا Zainab.
    With the right editor and designer, إن شاء الله self-publishing will be focus more on quality rather than quantity.

  4. Spirituality

    March 2, 2020 at 4:23 PM

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    Would you recommend for us quality Muslim fiction?

    Jazak Allahu Khayran!

  5. Yacoob

    April 6, 2020 at 3:28 AM

    I fully agree on the need for professional editing, but if you’re going it alone – which, let’s face it, many have to do because it’s so difficult to get in with a traditional publisher – cost becomes a huge issue.

    There’s also the ‘for the sake of Allah’ crowd, who insist on pirating books and making anything ‘Islamic’ available for free (or low quality copies for their own profits) – further killing motivation to invest significant finance into the venture.

    Then we hear of the wonders of self-publishing, and the wonderful encouragement of people like Seth Godin talking of the generous act of sharing your work, gatekeepers now having far less power, etc… and we’re inspired to put our stuff out there.

    So, yes – we all *should* be aiming for ihsaan. But often, out of ignorance of the need for top notch editing (or lack of finance to afford it), that is sacrificed.

    And asking editors to work for free can take its toll on them.

    It’s an entire industry that Muslims are moving into. And we need to support each other if we’re going to up the quality.

    It requires a mindset shift on all sides.

    And Muslim readers should be more willing to pay extra for an Islamic-themed / written book, simply because they’re helping grow a niche that benefits our community now and in future generations.

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