by Ayad Akhtar
Little, Brown, 368 pages, $24.99
Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish has been hailed as the first “Great Muslim-American Novel,” but that’s not saying much. Prominent post-9/11 books like John Updike’s Terrorist, Amy Waldman’s The Submission, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist inevitably offer precious humanizations of the Muslim-American Other that are set in direct reaction to pressing geopolitical and national debates.
The problem with this approach to fiction is that it assumes that Muslim Americans need to be humanized to begin with. Islam itself usually figures as an inert, exotic monolith, handy for weighty invocations and pretty embroidery.
Exploring the formative moments in the life of a Milwaukee-born Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s (Akhtar grew up in Milwaukee), American Dervish avoids the politically overdetermined pressures and reactively sentimental payoffs of representing post-9/11 Muslim-American life. Moreover, leaving aside its unfortunate opening and closing frame chapters, where the struggle to believe is treated in banal, secular-triumphalist terms from the protagonist’s adult vantage, this novel persuasively represents Islam as an active, complex source of theologically framed consolation and challenge for Midwestern Muslims, who emerge as variously flawed believers at odds with each other about the nature and imperatives of their faith. Its representation of Islam in America resonates strongly with parallel situations for major Christian and Jewish denominations, specifically the phenomenon of stark, even pointed, internal differentiation intensified by outsiders’ usually simplistic, reliably critical assumptions.
The novel’s protagonist and narrator is twelve-year-old Hayat Shah, whose life changes when his beautiful, devout aunt, Mina, comes to stay with his family in suburban Milwaukee. Mina, a cousin of Hayat’s mother, is trying to escape a bad marriage in Pakistan, and her arrival immediately alters both family and faith dynamics for the better.
Hayat’s father is a philandering alcoholic neurologist who wears his atheism proudly, scorns the local immigrant Muslim community, and regards all religions and Islam in particular as backward and embarrassingly crude. Hayat’s mother is an embittered stay-at-home wife who endlessly complains to her son about his awful father while habitually invoking the superior goods of Judaism, based on her own father’s admiration for Jews’ traditional commitments to learnedness and intellectual life.
Unsurprisingly, Hayat grows up with a very limited and rather peculiar understanding of Islam, at least until Mina nominates herself to form him in the faith. She offers a willing Hayat a nightly catechesis structured around stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. He becomes captive both to the beautiful teller and the beautiful tales and soon takes up Mina’s challenge to become a hafiz—someone who has memorized the Qur’an.
He does this to impress her, but also because she tells him that a successful hafiz can secure the salvation of his otherwise lost family members, and Hayat plans to save his sinful, God-hating father this way. He memorizes from an English translation, unperturbed by Mina’s other less-than-orthodox formulations of the faith, as when she assures him he needn’t always utter “peace be upon him” after invoking the name of the Prophet, because, as “with everything in life, Hayat, it’s the intention that matters.”
Hayat’s daily life becomes both site and source for wondrous intimations of the Divine. The tree-lined streets of his middle-class neighborhood appear
bathed in a glorious light that seemed like much more than just the sun’s illumination; the white clouds sculpted against blue skies, stacked like majestic monuments to the Almighty’s unfathomable glory . . . . Even the grease-encrusted axle of the yellow school bus slowing to its morning stop at the end of my driveway could captivate me, its twisting joint . . . seeming to point the inscrutable way to some rich, strange, and holy power.
In literary quality, we’re a ways off from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ evocations of a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” and likewise from the “garlic and sapphires in the mud” that “clot the bedded axle-tree” in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Nevertheless, Akhtar conveys what it means to discern the divine in the here and now. Importantly, he does so in a way that draws on one of Islam’s distinguishing features, played out in decidedly American terms: In Midwestern blue sky and Milwaukee schoolbus tires, his protagonist intensely experiences the magnificence of creation, qualified by an accompanying awareness of how much greater and how separate is the magnificence of the Creator.
Hayat’s enthusiastically developing faith soon becomes more complicated, however, when his boyhood crush morphs into a confused adolescent longing for his aunt and catechist, just as she becomes romantically involved with Nathan, a Jewish colleague of Hayat’s father. In ways good and bad, the novel becomes far messier as a result of this entanglement.
The author devotes too much attention to family melodrama around Nathan and Mina’s courtship—mostly about accompanying questions of propriety and plausibility. This provides the sort of cheap entertainment one expects from pulpy ethnic chick-lit: lots of screaming and crying, curry-making while screaming and crying, etc. But this romantic relationship, and especially Nathan’s decision to convert in order to marry Mina, also affords Akhtar a means of exploring American Islam’s internal tensions, particularly in the novel’s two major set pieces.
The first occurs when Nathan, Hayat, and his resistant father attend Friday prayers at an Islamic center in downtown Milwaukee. A doctor and East Coast Jew, Nathan is made to feel abundantly unwelcome in a room of mostly lower-class Muslim immigrants. And this is even before the knuckle-dragging imam offers a harsh, well-received sermon fueled by anti-Semitism and formulations anchored in both qur’anic citations about the Israelites’ putative failure to live as God’s chosen people and in fever-swamp criticisms of the State of Israel.
Shocked and outraged, Nathan protests, “This is not Islam! This is hatred!” and is quickly roughed up. Afterward, he argues desperately with Hayat’s father over whether this is “real Islam” or not. The novel’s description of multiple iterations of Islamic faith, all within the Greater Milwaukee area no less, suggests that the imam’s sermon is not mainstream Islam, but the believable intensity of the scene as Akhtar evokes it highlights the reality of this troubling strand.
Hayat himself isn’t troubled: He thinks Nathan should welcome an Islam-framed criticism of Jews as further encouragement to his pending conversion, though he’s inspired to this position by unceasing jealousy of Nathan. He also moves, through his newfound faith, from feelings of awe and gratitude to a grim hardening and self-righteousness, which becomes evident when he confidently wields qur’anic citations against his mother in arguments about Islam’s accounts of marital relations and when he invokes Islamic teachings while arguing with his father over his sinful ways.
Indeed, whether in the name of Islam or against Islam, the novel’s main characters commit a series of ugly, wreckful acts against each other, their personal hurts and vices intensified rather than relieved through their differing contacts with the faith. The ensuing events introduce new characters who offer still more variations of Islamic belief and cultural practice, and all of this culminates in the book’s second major set piece, a wedding scene at a downtown Milwaukee hotel.
At the reception, Hayat is unexpectedly invited to demonstrate his status as a budding hafiz: He recites from the Qur’an by memory but scandalizes listeners by doing it in English. Afterward, another reciter makes fun of him, both because Hayat didn’t know that the memorization must be in the original Arabic (contra Mina and her good-intentions theory) and because Hayat unguardedly admits his faith convictions. “What a dork you are!” the more orthodox-seeming hafiz snickers. “You actually believed all that stuff!”
You feel sorry for Hayat here, while elsewhere you find him admirable, objectionable, exemplary, and sinful. You find him, in other words, perhaps like you were at his age, struggling to be strong in your faith and a regular old kid at the same time, without knowing yet what either involves, or leads to, or leads away from. Hayat is at once a new and old kind of American character, a devout schemer for whom God is great all of the time, even if that greatness offers clarity and consolations only some of the time.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and chairman of the English department at Ryerson University. He is working on a biography of Richard John Neuhaus.