Canadian Muslim Writing. An Introduction

Scientific Essay 2017 39 Pages

Literature - Canada



1. Foreword

2. Contemporary English Speaking Literature and the Role of Muslim Writers

3. Contemporary Muslim Writing

4. Canadian Muslim Writing

5. Outlook Canadian Muslim writers

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Foreword

In the past four decades the literary reflection of Muslim life in East and West has been characterized by the West with skewed perceptions of Islam and Muslim existence.

The events of 9/11 and its aftermath have worsened the traditional biased and stereotyped perception of Islam. This all had a negative treatment of Muslim existence by Western and Muslim writers alike. Many novelists disposing of a Muslim background were and (still) are trapped in the polarized notion of 'the clash of civilizations' which is so often embedded in many novels be it in the presentation of the characters or simply a negative portrayal of the Muslim world.

In contrast to many migrant writers with a British background who are labelled in terms such as 'Postcolonial', 'Migrant Writing', 'British Muslim Fiction', 'Muslim Narrative Writing' or 'Muslim Writing' American and Canadian based Muslim writers face a harder position since they are (historically, culturally and literarily speaking) not that deeply established as their British counterparts. This is partly due to the fewer number of writers and the shorter period of their literary presentation and a (logical) shorter literary tradition resulting from this.

Open questions emerging from this here are if critics and readers alike see Islamic English literature as being literature written by Americans or Canadians or if it is basically Muslim or Islamic?

Whatever the answer might be it is interesting to see that the renaissance of religion as a literary category has been pushed forward by Muslim writers since they see the importance of religion as a religious and cultural category with a great impact on character analysis, character constellation or plot.

The use of religion in contemporary English speaking literature itself has by now been noticed by many critics, too, while seeing a necessity to move 'from an uncritical acceptance of the category of religion, towards a critical interpretation of religion as a literary category '.

lt goes without saying that fiction in general is not only a reflection of reality but also a mode of tearing down the above mentioned stereotypes of Muslim existence as such. lt is interestingly speaking matters of identity which function as key elements of 'Muslim Writing' in Britain, America and Canada a clear indication for the fact that treatment and representations of Muslims have not only been neglected so far but also offer a wide field of possibilities.

The close link between identity and the options an Islamic background offers is partly due to the fact that most Muslims consider religion as a key component of their existence that supersedes class, race or gender. This basis especially becomes important for Muslim life in the West and thus logically speaking for its literary presentation where everyday issues are set against matters such as immigration, integration, assimilation, xenophobia, the role of women or state backed discrimination.

2. Contemporary English Speaking Literature and the Role of Muslim Writers

In the past literature has too long been looked at from a sociological, political, economical and only partly from a religious perspective. This neglection of the religious went along with two other important elements of society, culture and art. This is astonishing if you take into account that literature in general is one major part of a literary analysis of migration, it is something that Chambers (1994) calls “the making of identities” (ibid.: 82). Bhabha (1994) picks up this idea and continues it with his central notion of the “Third Space” (ibid.: 39). This term stands for a fictitious place, some sort of contact level, where cultures, religions and concepts of life meet and have to get along. Religion as one expression of culture is taken up and can (with radical Islam) newly be defined. Migration and its effects have made clear that any construction of identity is nothing but a permanent process that includes hybrid forms as well as demarcation. Any literary expression and description of migration is an example, in the widest sense of the word, of this reflection, and it continues the question of the relativity and instability of individual and group identity. It hereby becomes obvious that the world of the 21st century has become unstable and fast moving. Modern man, especially in global cities, lives in surroundings defined by religiously marked terms such as exile, diaspora or ghetto. Here difference and pluralism appear as two further terms to describe central elements of the concept of modern man. The literary presentation of the migrant experience marked by globalization and migrant processes is often connected with the religious and thus appears to be in contrast with a pluralistic world. Here the use of religion provides a clear opposite concept for a world that seems to be out of control (Kirchhofer/Stinshoff, 2010: 12). Religion in general and Islam in particular are seen as alternatives within the question of man’s identity. The incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism into contemporary British literature can thus be viewed as a continuation of the modern novel, since they appear as ideal platforms for a critical description of present migration processes.[1] It is against this background that it becomes obvious that Muslim writers belong to a new type of authors whose background is not modern but yet already globalized. This is also seen by Eaglestone (2013), who describes their literary basis with the following words:

As the process of globalization increased and changed the 21st century, so the novel and the ‘national imagination’ have changed to reflect this. Writers not only move globally themselves, publish internationally, and so on, but it is impossible to limit their work to a ‘national tradition' or their audience to one country. (Ibid.: 67)

Muslim writers, therefore, are products of our globalized world and it is (and will be) their (natural) task to reflect Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in their works. The fact that they have chosen the novel as the mode of expression shows that most of them understand (directly or indirectly) its importance and background. The term ‘novel’ basically means new, and many Muslim writers have truely renovated the novel, while re-using religion in the shape of Islam. They hereby added innovations in form, engaged in new ways of coping with past and present and threw a new light on the importance of modern man’s identity.

It was Said (1994) who stressed the responsibility of intellectuals and novelists who have to criticize the Western practice of power. That this Western point of view also affects Islam is of central concern here. The key question for him is that if people stress one point of view, then the result must be some sort of ethnic centralism. In the case of the relationship between the West and Islam, this means that if Islam is judged by Western perspectives and morality, then a dilemma is at hand because the West (still) constructs the East. History has proved this too often, because in the past, Islam has experienced imperialism, and therefore subjugation/ degradation and racism were logical results (ibid.: 3; 204).

The reactions of writers from former colonies were mainly concerned with this negative experience with the West. At first, their literary response took place in their home countries (King, 1980: 31–39; 48), but then slowly but steadily a literary shift to England set in.[2] So a different phase of the ‘writing back’ took place, “when Third World intellectuals have arrived in First World academe” (Dirlik, 1994: 329). This process of ‘writing back’ has not been completed and it is a dynamic process about which Childs/Williams (1997) state: “As we have already pointed out in this section, postcolonial can in no sense be regarded as a fully achieved state.” (Ibid.: 7)

The tension that arises from colonial and postcolonial writing does not only dispose of the dynamic character mentioned above, simply because “postcolonialism is both the aftermath and the reaction against colonialism” (Whitla, 2010: 306). Yet what became more clear with writers discussing Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in their works was a different perspective for both Western and Muslim readers: “But again and again, postcolonialism runs into the problem of narrating otherness” (Khair, 2009: 147). The topics picked up by migrant writers with an interest in Islam range from sex, sexuality, race, culture, class nationality to religion or consist in a mix of them (Edwards, 2008: 1; 132; 171). The final aim of this description of Muslim life is the presentation of characters with the intention of a critical reflection of all sides, because “postcolonial life-writing may prove equally useful in teaching the West a more credible and crediable conception of its place in the contemporary world” (Moore-Gilbert, 2009: 130). What also became obvious down the years was the fact that the implantation of Islam into literature unmasked Christian and European values which were transported with imperialism and which turned out to be shallow and as nothing else but a myth.[3]

One, if not the most important reason for the incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism into postcolonial writing was the experience of discrimination and racism.[4] The literary basis for this was laid by the writers coming from England’s former colonies. They started a literary tradition whose effects are still valid today (Head, 2002a: 162–163; 168). Legal measures such as the Commonwealth Immigration Act (1968) that were meant to curb the high numbers of immigrants destroyed the chance of a transcultural literature at an early age, because they simply denied a postcolonial responsibility and pushed back a postcolonial and Western heritage. This “culture of denial” (Head, 2002a: 164) showed that the topics involved in this dilemma posed a permanent literary challenge, especially for the novel, because of its close connection with the cultural and social developments. Thus, the novel turns ‚zum Stimmungsbarometer und fiktionalen Kommentar der jeweiligen historischen Konstellation‘ and delivers an “Experimentier- und Innovationsfeld” (Ashold, 2006: 69).[5] On the whole, the incorporation of topics connected with Islam and Islamic fundamentalism was not only a logical consequence of the discrimination or the renaissance of religion in literature, it was also a consequence of 9/11.[6] First and foremost, Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are elements of the contemporary English-speaking novel, which portrays immigrant life within two worlds. Nevertheless, writers with an interest in Islam point at the fact that postcolonial writers clearly neglect to portray Muslim life in two worlds. Gomille and Stierstorfer (2003) hint at this failure, because for them “little has been said about the sensibilities of writers or indeed migrants with ‘hyphenated identities,’ those ‘hy-Brits’ who are placed in between cultures” (ibid.: 40). What emerged from cultural hybridity as one central element of Muslim writing was an openness for traditional and experimental forms of narration. It included a tremendous amount of energy, which found an early climax in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) .

The terrorist attacks on America in 2001 and Great Britain in 2005, however, were followed by a new discussion on multiculturalism and cultural diversity which also took place in the USA and Canada. In the face of these terrorist attacks, it became clear that the traditional policy of integration had collapsed and become useless. The statement “We are now in a different world from the Sixties and Seventies” (Philipps, 2004-04-02) made clear that the generation of writers around Rushdie, Kureishi, Ali, Perera or Smith had finally emancipated themselves from the first generation of migrant writers such as Salvon, Lemming or V.S. Naipul. Their characters are completely different from their white British fellow citizens because of their ethnic and cultural background. Now human beings are at the center of attention who add their ethnic and cultural heritage, plus their religion, to Western society.

It remains to be mentioned that the social changes of Great Britain, along with the structural and cultural conditions resulting from them, had a tremendous impact on the literary development of the English speaking novel. The many different descriptions of immigrant writing all describe one specific element of it, yet a more open term seems to sum this up best. The concept of ‘fictions of migrations’ (Sommer 2001) seems to be ideal to cover all different directions of literature dealing with migration and immigration[7]. Sommer (2001) understands his suggestion as an open and integrative concept of interculturalism endangered by Islam and Islamism. Any Islamic search for identity in a diasporic situation takes place in the area of tension between an idealized notion of Islam and the personal I and any expectations from the West. The renaissance of Islam and its fundamental branches do, however, shift power to the Muslim side, simply because its former weakness is now experienced as a strength. The old notion of ‛ The Empire Writes Back with a Vengenance ’ has now turned into ‘ The Empire Writes Back with Religion ’ (a term coined by the author of this text). It can thus be understood as one central present answer of migrant writers to the military, political, cultural and religious tutelage of the East by the West (Novak, 1998: 76; Sommer, 2001: 9). Novels of this type present characters who give different answers due to their individual, collective and national past and presence. They face a tension that is characterized by the search for cultural and religious belonging in multicultural frameworks that seem to support the dissolution of a collective identity (Sommer, 2001: 58).[8]

The function of religion in most novels is to settle tension and inner strife within the characters, to accompany them and to offer a solution. Positively speaking, this solution can turn out to be a concept of identity-building; negatively speaking, it includes failure. Faith, in this context, turns out to be a reflection on the world as such. The personal wish or value are indications for the human attempt to shape the world according to his will. According to Mitchell (1995b), however, any literary presentation of failure involves a political consequence, because “if literature is a ‘representation of life,’ then representation is exactly the place where ‘life,’ in all its social and subjective complexity, gets into literary work” (ibid.: 15). The implantation of Islam or its faith elements thus turns out to be part of postcolonial ideology, it is a critical element for identity matters and must also be understood as a diverse description of Muslim existence in the West.[9] Their use in the contemporary novel stresses the literary representation of Muslims (in the West), it yet demands an answer from Western readers as well.[10] Critics in the past sometimes have talked about a cliché-ridden presentation of Muslim life in the West (see Uerlings 1997), this argument does not, however, fit for all novels. Many books offer answers to the challenge of Muslim life in the West. They function as a literary addition to the question of personal and cultural identity of which Whitla (2010) rightly says: “Postcolonial and ethnic studies of every kind enter the critical discussion of English literature by two fundamental gestures: one to find a place on the map, a gesture in space, and the other to find a place in history, a gesture in time.” (Ibid.: 312)

These attempts to find a place on the map or a place in history are clear indications of the embodiment of Muslim writing in postcolonial thinking. The evaluation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in this postcolonial background put religion in a key position in the ongoing debates of today’s world:

While postcolonialism involves numerous heterogenous discourses, making it impossible to view the world as uniform, there is a discernible common denominator that indicates a resistence to engage with religion as a key category pertinent to the debate about contemporary neo-colonial reality. (Malak 2004: 17)

What results from this is the fact that Muslim writing does not only empower people to write it also gives Muslims the voice to express itself.

3. Contemporary Muslim Writing

The radical development within the Muslim world during the last 30 years and the demographic, economic and (multi)cultural presence of Islam and Muslims in the West in general and Great Britain, the USA and Canada in particular were followed by a literary activity of novelists with a Muslim background. The incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in contemporary English literature can be seen as an attempt to bring Islam out of existing economic and social enclaves, where disadvantage, exclusion and prejudices have prevailed for several decades if not centuries. While doing this, Muslim writers reached three aims. They paved the way to discuss matters like xenophobia, racism, discrimination and integration policy anew, started an internal Islamic reflexion on topics, such as gender roles or the traditional role of women, and in general brought the Muslim world closer to Western readers.


[1] The theoretical basis for Muslim writers can be seen in Foucault, Said and Spivak, who criticized the traditional image of the Orient during the time of colonialism. Their terms ‘marginalization,’ ‘oppression’ and ‘subjugation’ (Hiddlestone 2009: 76–77) became central elements among these writers. They were based on the supposition that there was a direct link between politics and textual representation (ibid., 83 et seq). This widely seen concept of postcolonialism is also stressed by Acheson/Ross (2005), who rigidly state that “postcolonialism is a critical and theoretical term with an application wider than literature, also being used in relation to the analysis of history, politics” (ibid.: 3).

[2] In the mother country, the classical topics of the novel (class, gender and race) were completed with religion. Like Black immigrant writers, most Muslim authors stress the topic of location by describing Muslim life in global cities (Procter 2003; Cuevas 2008, Rupp 2010). Schabert (2006) points out the enormous literary quantity of literature resulting from an immigration background and stresses a present trend of the description of life in England (ibid.: 379–380). Stein (2004) talks about the importance of the character’s change, which seems to be predominant in Black Literature and Asian Literature. Her central term “postcolonial polyphony” (ibd.: 14) is also connected with hybridity. Interestingly, speaking at present, the former term migration, which was of central importance, seems to be replaced more and more by the notion of exile. For Black writers, the key term at the moment is ‘cultural memory’ (see Rupp 2010). For further analysis of memory and identity in contemporary British literature, see Birkle (2008).

[3] This myth, above all, consisted in a portrayal of Islam and the Far East as constructions of romanticism, the exotic and adventure. Writers with an Islamic background turn this concept upside down and make clear that Islam and Islamic fundamentalism play major roles in many countries and their political and intellectual cultures. In short, they show that Islam is part of our common world (Said 1995: 91; also see, Said 1978; Bhabha 1994). As a product of the “cultural transfer” (Mitchell, 1995a: 475), this group of writers stands right in between the former imperial powers and their colonies. Their writing ranges from opposition to representation and also hints at the self image of Europe as a tolerant continent and its demand to deal with ethnic diversity in a normal way.

[4] The use of topics related to Islam hints at the development the novel has taken. The old roots of colonial literature connected with the response of a ‘writing back’ were taken up yet had to make way for a multiethnic pluralism, which disposes of a strong vitality and which is well described with the term “fictions of migrations” (Nünning, V., 2007: 8). The result is a mix of minor genres that integrate many elements among which hybridity seems to stand out as the most important one. The fact that the use of religion within the hybrid delivers identification, provocation and polarization is at hand. It turns out to be the experience of racism as a key role of Muslim writing that makes clear that England is characterized by “many emergent ethnicities […] but also[ …] a residual racist animus” (ibid.: 74). Scheiterhauer (2003) also stresses the paradigm of racism and discrimination. For her, Islam turns out to be an “ethnic marker” (ibid.: 291) that unveils structures of discrimination and modes of rascism. Besides social criticism and the offer of an identity provider, the return of religious and philosophical questions related to Islam has to be pointed out as well. Muslim writers have returned God to the novel in which he has been declared dead (Spanos, 2002: 169). The result is a portrayal of modern characters who are characterized by “otherness” and “yearning” (Hooks, 2002: 424–425).

[5] Modern writers coming from the Third World, thus disposing of a migrant background, regard the English language as an essential component of an economic, cultural and linguistic network (see Marx 2005). Nünning (2001) here discusses the present dynamics of literature to cross barriers of text types, genres or national literature. Thus, hybridity is added by two other terms, “Intermedialisierung” and “Internationalisierung” (ibid.: 167).

[6] It was Zadie Smith who stressed the specific role of authors with a migrant background and their longing to find an answer to their question of identity in the face of 9/11: “We cannot be all writers all the time. We can only be who we are” (Smith, 2001-10-13).

[7] The basic literary decision to use a female main character and to set her into the hybrid complexity of the dilemma emerging from the Eastern and Western background has found a fixed place in current 'migrant fiction' and is common among many female authors. One splendid example for this development is Samina Ali's debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004) which prefers to concentrate on the former colony India as the place of action. It is the colonies - in this case India and Madras - which at present have replaced England or London as the former settings to further stress the complexity of Muslim women who have a British/ American or Bengali/ Indian background.

[8] For a closer analysis of the new relationship between literature and religion, see Dennett 2006, Walton 2007, Jasper 2009, Horlacher 2010, Wallace 2010.

[9] What becomes clear from this is that the use of Islam or Islamic elements helps describe something that Hillgärtner (2000) sees as the central element of modern times, namely being a stranger and the isolation of the cultural situation (ibid.: 9). What is new is the fact that heterogeneity, instability and insecurity are permanent companions of modern existence. It here becomes obvious that authors operating with Islam have discovered the fringes of man’s subjectivity as a literary source of tremendous creativity. They show that they do not want to present theological texts or problems in the purest sense of the word, they simply want to link religious topics with existential, moral, social or cultural questions. Although they bring back the religious into contemporary English literature, they depart from the traditional use of religion, which disguised the religious too often. Jasper (2009) on this past neglection: “Literature, in other words, was a mere cover for the real business of theology” (ibid.: 9). For a closer analysis of the literary use of Islam in modern literature, see Scanlan (2001); Houen (2002); Lentricchia (2003).

[10] This answer also includes the possibility of showing Muslim characters as nihilists “who can not suffer the impurities of this world” (Martiny, 2009: 165).


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Title: Canadian Muslim Writing. An Introduction