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Navigating Muslim Representation In Books: The Good, The Flawed, And The Ugly


Muslim reading

How can Muslim readers distinguish between flawed Muslim characters vs a book that glorifies sins?

When Muslim readers pick up a book by a Muslim author, they’re (usually) looking for stories that reflect Islamic values, with Muslim characters who are also relatable and representational… and, of course, a story that pulls the reader in! With the push for more diverse literature, including Muslim representation, it can get a little tricky to realize what kind of Muslim narrative any given book is pushing.

Sometimes, well-meaning Muslim authors will be so zealous in providing “Islamic content” that they fall into the trap of presenting preachy, perfect characters, at the expense of a well-written story…leaving readers feeling bored at best, and frustrated at worst. On the other hand, there are others who, in their own push for “representation,” present characters who push back against Islamic values – which results in readers finding themselves negatively influenced.

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And then there’s a third type of book: stories with Muslim characters who are far from perfect, who are flawed and may be engaged in behavior that is questionable or even explicitly haraam…but during the course of the story, start changing for the better.

Is this third category of stories and characters the same as the second? Are Muslims only allowed to read the first kind of books (even if they’re really, really boring?!)? And how can Muslim readers figure out what kind of book is which?

So how do we navigate this thorny literary conundrum?

Flawed Muslim Characters vs Haraami Characters

How does one distinguish a flawed Muslim character from a character who not only is making mistakes, but is proud of it – and pushes for others to accept those grave sins? There is an important difference between these two types of characters, although many readers may struggle to identify these differences.

First of all, what is a flawed character? A flawed Muslim character is a character who is identified as Muslim, but isn’t the “perfect” Muslim: maybe they’re in a band, or in a haraam relationship; they could be criminals; they could be struggling to fulfill their Islamic obligations, like finding it hard to do their prayers on time, or in wearing hijab…or even just making ‘normal’ mistakes, like fibbing, or gossiping with friends all the time. Does this make the character an automatically bad character? Not at all!

Flawed Muslim characters reflect the realities of the world we live in, and can make for great protagonists… if they have a positive character arc. A flawed Muslim character can function as a symbol for any Muslim’s spiritual journey – if that spiritual journey is indeed a priority within the story. In any good story, characters don’t just start off as perfect heroes: they have positive qualities offset by realistic shortcomings, and during the story itself, they go through a process of experiencing challenges, confronting their enemies – both internal and external – and finally emerge stronger and most importantly, better. A real hero emerges through trials and tribulations to become stronger, rather than simply being flawless from the beginning. And this journey can often inspire others to strengthen their own faith.

In Muslim stories, this is demonstrated in the many ways that an author can show – within the story itself – that XYZ is haraam, and that the character(s) are moving towards becoming better from an Islamic perspective. The author can point out the character’s internal dilemma and struggle with the haram -something that makes them very human- and show the victory of their struggle being in how they realize that being true to their faith is what makes their hearts at peace.

A perfect example of this kind of positive character arc is Zaid Karim from Wael Abdelgawad’s “Zaid Karim, Private Investigator.” Zaid Karim is an ex-con turned private detective, who is struggling to hold onto his Islamic principles even as he finds himself unable to escape the hooks of his dodgy past. In the midst of a gang raid, stumbling upon dead bodies, and avoiding overtures from prostitutes, Zaid reflects on the story of Salmaan al-Farsi, reminds himself of Qur’anic warnings and reassurances, and strives to live by a higher standard.

It is this moving forward from sinful to improving oneself as a believer -even if they don’t suddenly turn into the “perfect Muslims”-  that distinguishes the other spectrum of Muslim writing, where the only ‘good’ character is one who has no shortcomings whatsoever.

In fact, Muslims are provided with the example of a ‘flawed Muslim character’ with a positive story arc in the hadith of the three men who were trapped in a cave by a boulder. The men decided to call upon Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) for help, referencing deeds that they had done sincerely for His Sake. One of the men said:

“O Allah, I had a cousin whom I loved more than any man could love women. I presented myself to her and she refused unless I could give her one hundred coins. I worked hard until I gathered one hundred coins and brought them to her. When I prepared myself between her legs, she said: ‘O servant of Allah, fear Allah and do not deflower me except rightfully (by marriage)!’ I stood and left her. If You know I had done that seeking your Face, then relieve us of this distress!’ The boulder was again shifted for them.”1

This man’s story comes off as quite graphic and shocking – and it is meant to be! His story arc demonstrates that he went from someone being obsessively in love with a woman, to the extent that he was willing to pay her an exorbitant amount in order to commit zina with her. At the crucial moment of consummation -when he would finally experience what he had been craving for so long, and so intensely!- the woman reminds him of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), and he is overcome by taqwa and leaves the situation immediately.

The moral of the story is not that the man’s du’a was accepted because he was a perfect Muslim. Rather, he was a very imperfect believer, yet still had the opportunity to change for the better and prove that his sincerity was so powerful that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accepted his du’a immediately. This is a powerful example of what RasulAllah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) provided for all believers to learn from, precisely because it demonstrates to us that none of us can be perfect all the time…but we can still earn Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Pleasure by being sincere to Him in trying to overcome our character flaws and failings.

Perfectly Preachy vs Projecting Islamophobia

Reading about perfect un-flawed characters in fiction is not only unrelatable to the average Muslim, but may also may cause some to steer away from reading Muslim rep in the first place! When Muslim readers feel like they are being preached at, or judged, they are unlikely to pick up that book again or even seek out any other books with Muslim rep -which might make them feel like being a good Muslim is something unattainable, something only angels can do- and that might discourage them from even trying to improve themselves in the first place. In the transformative journey of improving, readers find themselves inspired to transform themselves for the better, and this can be a true joy of representation.

But this can get muddled.

There are plenty of stories by Muslim (or Muslim-sounding) authors where the characters not only engage in haraam actions, but the story itself revolves around justifying it…and worse, criticizing or demonizing other Muslim characters who stand against the haraam actions.

Unfortunately these haraam actions usually include disregarding fardh actions such as prayer and fasting, haraam romantic relationships, music and singing, alcohol consumption, gambling, etc.

Such books often include a great deal of internalized Islamophobia by presenting religious Muslims as “scary,” villainous (preventing the main characters from ‘living their truth’ or ‘following their hearts’), or even inclined to ‘radicalism’ or ‘terrorism.’ At best, stories that normalize and encourage the haraam will portray other Muslim characters who disagree with their (haraam) choices to be unreasonable, backwards, judgy, and ignorant – playing into the Islamophobic trope that the only ‘good Muslim’ is one that fully accepts un-Islamic values and norms.

Critical Thinking Needed

Whether one is reading for entertainment or education, critical thinking is a necessary skill for all readers. What are the themes of the story you’re reading? What is the underlying message being imparted to readers? Even stories that are “just” for entertainment contain and impart meaning; some of the most obvious ones being love triumphing over all, good versus evil, the importance of family, loyalty vs betrayal, and so on. Whether fairy tales, superhero comics, or classical literature, every story is pushing a particular message that readers are expected to internalize.

It is up to the reader to identify what that message is… and for Muslim readers to consider that message in light of our own Islamic values and beliefs. Is the story’s message that someone who has made serious mistakes or has major character flaws can still change for the better? Or is the story trying to emphasize that the person’s sins are actually something good and that everyone should accept?

Sometimes it will be easy to tell; other times, it won’t be so black and white. Just as in real life, stories and literature can be -and often are- complex, layered, and sometimes difficult to completely figure out.

Instead of being discouraged (or deciding to just stay away from reading fiction altogether!), Muslim readers should view reading as an opportunity to hone our critical thinking skills, develop a greater appreciation for truly excellent storytelling, and consider the ways in which fiction can influence us for better or for worse.

For Muslim parents who are trying to find good books for their kids, this can be even more challenging. Many of us tend to have a sense of trust towards Muslim-sounding author names, but don’t realize that in today’s climate, even “Muslim” authors are actively engaging in normalizing of major sins and stigmatizing Islamic attitudes towards beliefs and ideas that are fundamentally problematic in our faith. It is our duty as Muslim parents, and as readers in general, to actively engage with the material we and our children are reading, to have thoughtful analyses of the messaging contained within that literature, and then determine for ourselves what is and is not in line with our Islamic values.

Books can and should inspire discussions about the state of our world today, and can be a useful tool in examining the nuances and diversity of Muslims around the globe. And in reading these stories -whether joyful, sad, humorous, or thrilling- we can hopefully find that theme and lesson that moves our hearts and improves us as humans, and more importantly, as Muslims.


Related reading:

–  Podcast: A Glimpse Into Muslim Bookstagram

Podcast: A Glimpse Into Muslim Bookstagram

From The MuslimMatters Bookshelf

From The MuslimMatters Bookshelf

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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

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