In contemporary Anglophone fiction, there are not many fictional narratives exploring a character’s relationship to their faith, particularly if the path through their faith happens to be through Islam. Of course, there was a plethora of South Asian Anglophone fiction written post-9/11 that explored the role played by religious extremism or violent Islamic fundamentalism in the development of an individual or society. But a nuanced exploration of the role Islamic spirituality can play in a person’s life — without inevitably veering into zealotry — is rare to find in contemporary Anglophone literature. The one exception that I have come across is the works of Sudanese-Scottish writer Leila Abouelela, whose novels explore their Muslim characters’ varied and nuanced relationships to their faith as an important — but not the only — aspect of their lives.
Pakistani writer Irshad Abdulkadir’s new novel, Prodigal, is similarly concerned with exploring a young man’s evolving relationship to his faith, an exploration which is often rich and nuanced, but which — unlike Aboulela’s narratives — ultimately leads towards a brush with Islamic militancy. The intertwining of Islamic spirituality with violence is undoubtedly an important area of exploration, particularly in a contemporary geopolitical context, but it also feels a little well-trodden.
Abdulkadir’s protagonist is Akbar Ali, the rich son of a chief justice of the High Court of Pakistan, whose fascination with spirituality has made him, from a young age, stand apart from the elite, secular circles within which he exists. His evolving relationship to his faith — which he is unable to articulate fully even to himself, but which he feels compelled to explore through various avenues — takes him from a madressah in Karachi to an Islamic research centre in Taliban-controlled Fata and then, eventually, to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. There is a carefully rendered reflection of the academic and scholarly world of Islam, as depicted in Akbar’s stints at the Karachi madressah as well as the Dar-ul-Aman seminary in Fata.
A Pakistani novel explores a young man’s evolving relationship to his faith, but its complexity is let down by its simplistic prose
The most fascinating aspects of the novel are the ones in which Akbar is brushing up against various interpretations of Islamic faith, which often clash with and complicate his own view of faith as an ultimately peaceful endeavour. One such scene early on in the novel, for example, is where a seminary student questions the need to inculcate in oneself a fear of God in order to be a “proper” Muslim. In contrast to the imams of the place who are more inclined toward rigid and less layered answers to such questions, Akbar — by that point an unofficial intern at the madressah because of his incredible talent and passion for Islam — attempts to provide an answer. He brings the students’ attention to a Quranic verse that mentions the fear of Allah, and explains how the original Arabic word is uttaku, which, he says, “refers to a reverence which is like love, which fears to do anything which is not pleasing to the object of love, a fear of not losing the beloved.”
The translation of the word, Akbar explains, loses the connotation intended by the original Arabic word and leads to a more rigid understanding of “fear of Allah” that is popularly understood. Conversations such as these, where Akbar converses with people with different understandings of Islam, as well as with people who have simplistic and prejudiced views about the religion — such as his elite friends who make fun of him for being a “fundo” — make the novel enriching and interesting.
Seizing the opening to chat, Akbar asked, “Why are you taking this trip?” There was a pause. “I am going to serve Allah.” “How?” “By joining the mujahideen…what about you?” “Alhamdolillah…I am finding my way to Him too…I’ll be taking courses at a religious retreat.” “So you will become an Aalim-i-Deen,” Bairam remarked. “If I can absorb the learning…and you’ll be a warrior…for faith.” “Inshallah, I will go on jihad in His name,” Bairam said, reaching for his water bottle. — Excerpt from the book
On the other hand, this complexity of ideas and thought is often overshadowed by the prose, which is simplistic and bordering on amateurish in some places. There is a tendency in the writing to tell rather than show, which keeps the characters at a distance from the reader. There are also some very strange choices in editing, where all dialogues — as well as the characters’ inner monologues — are filled with ellipses instead of proper punctuation, which I found extremely distracting.
These are, of course, limitations in proper editing, which are sometimes found in books published in India and they speak more to the editing side of the publishing industry than to the skill of any individual writer. What emerges, however, is a novel that has interesting ideas, but feels half-baked in its prose and plotting. There is a much better novel that can be found within the pages of Prodigal — one which explores the complexity of being a person of faith at a time when many interpretations of your religion lead to fundamentalism or violence — which has better prose and tighter plotting, but that novel only peeks out occasionally from the shadows.
The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University
By Irshad Abdulkadir
Pan Macmillan, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 22nd, 2019