Written by Tahmima Anam, The Good Muslim is the story of an educated, “modern” woman who loses her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. And perhaps this storyline is why the book has garnered so many rave reviews and literary awards—because Western critics and audiences enjoy literature that confirms their worst suspicions about Muslims. Its premise, a young woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history, intrigued me.
As someone who reviews books from a faith-based perspective, the book’s title, The Good Muslim, also piqued my interest. Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book A Golden Age, I picked this one up.
Alas, the novel didn’t deliver.
One of the reasons I can’t say I enjoyed this piece of writing is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. The protagonist, Maya, is a doctor and a fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran brother Sohail became so distant and deeply religious that she knew their relationship would never return to its happier, easy state again. Maya’s strong intellect and will continuously puts her at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, and she alone pleads with her brother to not send his son to the local madrassa. Her bright and bold character is admirable in theory, but for someone who has never lived outside of Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country. In a tumultuous, confused world, she appears to be the only one who has any common sense or consistency to her principles, a contrast I found suspiciously simplistic.
Anam makes yet another severe and therefore overly simple and naïve contrast in her book. She uses Islam to delineate stark “before” and “after” scenarios in Maya’s household. Prior to the war, Maya, her brother, and their college friends lived in a carefree, open world where they attended debates, music recitals, and poetry readings without giving a thought to religion and its place in their lives (and it is Maya’s insistence upon holding on to this distant past that later alienates her from her family and community). After the war however, Sohail returns home so haunted by the atrocities he both witnessed and committed that he completely disavows his older self, finding refuge in the rules and absolutes of religion. As Sohail burns his books, which he sees as the useless relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to Him—leaves no room for a literary inner existence. This sort of rigid either/or mindset that Anam paints in Maya’s household is both inaccurate and off-putting in its simplicity.
By describing Maya’s home life before the war as ideal and afterwards as bleak, Anam carelessly suggests that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I acknowledge that there are men like Sohail who turn to religion to make sense of war and poverty, and, in seeking this refugee, they become zealous and extreme. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced a dark side of human existence like war. What does sit well with me however, is Anam’s implication that Sohail becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—left him psychologically damaged.
The ostracized but heroic Maya serves as a likable enough guide to take the reader though this foreign, exotic land, but the increasingly predictable stereotypes used by Anam–the overbearing religious patriarch, the child who falls victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and a religion that demands its adherents disavow all worldly pursuits—feel trite. This book will not resonate with someone who might know something of war or its aftermath. It is intended to speak to Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life but remain far enough removed from her post-war reality that they can easily identify with her alienation and shake their heads disapprovingly at the atrocities taking place “over there.” It is disconcerting to think that a book which paints such a simplistic, skewed portrait of Islam and Muslims has garnered so many awards.
Sarah Farrukh completed her B.Sc. in Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently a Masters of Information student at the University of Toronto. She writes about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes.