The Reluctant Mullah, by British author Sagheer Afzal is a funny novel, and it is much more. It manages to be cute and chatty at times while, in the end, piercing, with a devastating thrust, into the depths of what it means to submit to God even in the face of excruciating tragedy.
Surrounded by the story of second-generation cultural upheaval among the kids of immigrant parents in the U.K., the central character Musa, a 20 something son of Pakistani immigrants, is a delightful anchor to the story.
At the start of the novel Musa is expelled from a U.K. madrasa, primarily due to his independent spirit. For example, strong-willed Musa doesn’t hesitate to confront an administrator at his school who fails to see the humor in Musa’s antics. Musa asserts, “I’ve always got the feeling that you and the other elders and alims [scholars] don’t really like young people. You just want us to act like we’re old.” Soon after his expulsion, Musa’s paternal grandfather visits from Pakistan to arrange his grandson’s marriage to a relative back in Pakistan. Musa objects and negotiates a deal: he secures one month of freedom to find a wife of his choosing, and agrees that if he does not succeed he will marry the woman his family has selected. Thus begins the main story of this novel– Musa’s quest to find a wife.
Along with telling Musa’s story, Afzal adeptly uses discussions among young adults in classes at a local Muslim center to provide a window into the diversity of faith perspectives among Muslim youth. The “Rude Boys,” “Holy Men,” and “Coconuts” debate in the men’s class led by Musa, while the “Housewives,” “Radical Girls,” and “Working Girls” have their own set of discussions in the women’s class led by Khadija.
Khadija humanizes and busts stereotypes some readers may have about women who, for some period of time, chose to wear the face veil. Khadija is smart, sharp-witted, and she stands on her own two feet. And although she comes from a broken home, she is anything but a “weak,” “oppressed” woman needing secular feminists to “rescue” her. Her reasons for wearing the face veil turn out to be complex, one of them being the prejudice she experiences from fellow Muslims because her skin is white.
The author sets up Musa’s drug dealing brother, Suleiman, as the protagonist’s foil. Suleiman is shaken out of his complacency after seeing a woman to whom he sold drugs prostitute herself in her desperation to earn money for drugs. But although he wants to leave his criminal lifestyle, he does not know how. Interestingly enough, Suleiman seeks out the church as a place of refuge, rather than the mosque. He feels alienated from his local mosque, which is dominated by first-generation immigrants with an entirely different set of concerns than his own. Suleiman identifies himself as a Muslim and he remains a Muslim through the story, but he doesn’t associate the mosque with a place of forgiveness, understanding, and the capacity to provide him with the guidance he needs. (When Suleiman turns to a local priest for help getting out of the narcotics trade, the scene feels as though it has been lifted out of the new documentary film Unmosqued which follows young Muslims who are not involved with a mosque community because of the disconnect they feel between their faith and what they find at mosques.)
Another sub-plot of the novel revolves around Musa’s oldest brother Javed, who left home years ago due to conflict with his parents. The resolution of Javed’s relationship with his family in this novel is no fairy tale ending. I do not want to let out a plot spoiler, but suffice it to say I found the way Javed is treated by his family both shocking and sad.
Afzal is a writer who brings readers inside some of the more difficult struggles of life — which is one of the gifts good novels bring us, namely to push us out of our comfort zone and make us reflect. If readers tire of the juvenile banter which fills quite a bit of the novel, don’t stop reading. These colorful characters develop as the novel progresses because Afzal successfully juxtaposes humorous events and conversations with the characters’ deeper battles. Be warned that the novel has an ending which may nearly rip the heart out of many a reader.
Sagheer Afzal is a young writing talent to follow. As The Reluctant Mullah progresses, the writing gets richer and deeper — a trajectory I suspect is a foretaste of what’s to come from this pen.
Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D. is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.