Several Islamic blogs have recently started a discussion over means to combat the “pornographic imagination in Arab literary works through the spread of what has been labeled the Islamic novel.
This type of novel calls for the need to follow the right path of true believers who should steer clear from the obscenity of word, imagination, and action.
The idea of an Islamic novel was embraced by some Saudi writers who started their career with an ambition to spread the moral values embedded in the faith of Islam. These writers think that the literary work is the new method to convey the daawa or mission of spreading the values of Islam.
Some of the new Islamic novelists are surprisingly young women, such as Joumana Ali and another writer who publishes under the pseudonym of Al-Muhajira. Most of these writers have been criticized by literary critics who evaluated their work as lacking in literary merit. But driven by their ambition of being part of the daawa, they ignore their critics and focus on their readers.
Joumana Ali reported that she uses a literary style to preach the values of Islam, and that her targeted readers are Arab youth who are exposed to immoral influences. She has published a collection of short stories and is currently working to publish a novel. Al-Muhajira, on the other hand, considers herself a preacher, rather than a novelist. For her, the novel provides a good medium to convey the morality of Islam.
Another interesting aspect of the new Islamic novelists is avoiding the romantic plot and their use of figures from the history of Islam or among contemporary scholars and preachers in the development of their work. But the fact that their novels are Islamic does not necessarily mean that they agree with the existing Muslim rhetoric. On the contrary, some of them heavily criticize the extremist rhetoric and invite the fundamentalists to embrace a more compassionate discourse that can mobilize the youth in a non-aggressive way.
Al-Muhajira, in her critique of the extremist rhetoric in books, speeches and tapes widely available in Saudi Arabia, mentions that she expected her opinion to draw angry criticism. She published three novels that could be tracked in a lot of online discussion forums. Her latest novel titled “So that we do not lose the veil is an unstructured debate about the meaning and the purpose of the veil. Several female characters struggle to reach a common ground, and the writer consciously tries to lead them to a good path away from extremism and rebellion.
These young men and women are definitely caught between two dilemmas in Saudi society: Wahhabist extremism, and underground rebellion against a repressive system. Deciding not to be caught in either, they attempt to create a new voice that can reach young minds in a way that can discuss real issues instead of avoiding them.
But one serious problem with such an attempt is it forfeits the individual imagination that can only come out of a creative and free-thinking mind. All plots will eventually have to prove the values; all dialogues will have to observe the red lines, and some themes will always be taboo. Imposing Islamic topics on the plot sounds more like the creation of a pre-planned forum to convince.
Amidst all other aspects of blooming Islamic forums for fatwas, daawa, jihad, and match-making, the Islamic novel is definitely a novelty worthy of consideration, especially that it never received praise either from the literary critics or from the Islamist scholars. It may be used to counter the effects of several recent Saudi novels that harshly exposed the repressive aspects of Saudi society, and were well-received by readers. But it’s hard to see how the Islamic novel could succeed as a literary genre and survive its loaded ideological purposes.