PODCAST: EP. 44. When the Reading Gets Tough, Should the Tough Keep Reading? (Theme: Upsetting Reads)
On this journey, I’m joined by Leïla, Noor and Assia as we discuss
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سوار الذهب (or “Gold Ring” in English) is an Emirati manga written by Qais Sedki. It follows Sultan, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his mother in the old town (of Dubai, I assume, but the book doesn’t specify). Although his father passed away a few years earlier, he is a constant presence in Sultan’s decisions and everyday life and leads him to discover his passion and talent. The story starts with the finals of an international falconry tournament, Gold Ring, where Sultan and his friend Ziyad are attempting to sneak in to watch the competition without getting caught, despite the pangs of Sultan’s conscience. This sets off a sequence of events that see Sultan befriend a wild falcon, meet a mysterious and legendary desert-dwelling friend of his father’s and learn to train his new falcon friend, Majd, so he can take part in the next season of Gold Ring. The author’s intentions with this book are made very clear both in his introduction and in the story itself. He wants to use his books to encourage reading among Arab children and impart good morals and character in an "inspiring and stimulating” story. I think this down-to-earth, straightforward intention and execution is part of the appeal for me. His choice of manga to achieve this is significant in the Emirati context where anime, and Japanese culture in general, has been a staple of childhood for several decades, much like many other countries in the Arab world.
In imparting moral messages I think the book is overall successful. There are a couple of places where it is quite explicit, such as when Sultan tells his friend “الخطأ خطأ… و لو لم يُكتشف" (“wrong is wrong, even if you’re not caught”), but I don’t think this is a disadvantage and a child wouldn’t find this distracting. Aside from integrity, the story encourages respect for parents, upholding family ties, hard work and persistence, trustworthiness and the good treatment of animals. This is intimately intertwined with a strong sense of faith and trust in Allah, which is visible in the book and in Sedki’s interviews. I would have enjoyed finding out more about the women and girls in Sultan’s life, as his mother was the only significant female character, but I appreciate that a lot of the story took place in contexts where there would likely be more men and there aren’t many characters in the story anyway. Along with the moral messages, I also sensed a strong nostalgia for the traditional Emirati life, which I was happy to indulge in, in the choice of the old town for Sultan’s home, the pull of the desert and the man-of-few-words character of the desert-dwelling Suroor. The newer developments of the country are only present in passing reference to “the city centre”, which Sultan and his mother have no interest in being part of, and are never seen on the page, except in the modern falconry stadium. This is not to say that this is a story stuck in the past; it is still very much rooted in the present with mobile phones, dune buggies and the stadium, but these are just a small part of an active, organic and meaningful lifestyle. Perhaps in doing this Sedki also hoped to tempt his young readers away from their phones and shopping malls to explore the natural world around them.
A major contributor to creating this atmosphere in a manga is of course the illustrations. Drawn by the well-established Japanese illustrating duo, Akira Himekawa, the Emirati character of the book is taken to new heights and I loved every page of it! Although I haven’t given manga or graphic novels much attention until recently, I could immediately see the enrichment these illustrations brought to the book. Through Akira Himekawa’s drawings we could experience the beautiful simplicity of Sultan’s traditional home and neighbourhood, the majesty of the desert and the impressive Gold Ring stadium, all while maintaining their distinct Japanese manga style. A personal favourite in these drawings has to be the clothes: the Emirati men’s dishdash and ghotra in various styles, the women’s burqa’ and even an Afghani competitor wearing a Pakol hat, which was a lovely surprise! Sultan’s outfit was not always entirely accurate, in my experience (I’ve never seen a ghotra tied like a bandana), but it still somehow portrayed the essence of how a boy playing in the streets dresses. A frame that sticks in my memory most, though, is the simple scene of Sultan greeting his uncle with the Emirati touch of the nose, which is the type of evocative detail that creates truly authentic stories its readers can relate to.
All in all, I think this book would be a valuable addition to a child’s library, whether Emirati or otherwise. It portrays strong examples of characters with integrity, dignity and compassion and encourages a passion for learning and persistence in achieving a goal. Although I felt the end was a little rushed, the story was engaging and otherwise well-paced. While the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is quite popular with Muslim tourists, I felt that this book provided an authentic view of a traditional Emirati lifestyle that most tourists would not be exposed to. It also gives children insight into the traditions and way of life in another Muslim-majority country, which I feel is hugely valuable in inspiring in Muslim children a sense of unity in the Ummah that goes beyond borders and nationality. My dream Muslim child’s library consists of books from across the world portraying the real, everyday lives of children and adults in all its complexity, not just the pretty and not just the struggles, but always with faith and integrity!
Unfortunately, after all that, I have to add that this book is very difficult to find in its original Arabic and so far impossible to find in the English translation. There have been two books written (in Arabic) in this series, but after that it seems to have come to a halt.
Muhammad: Character and Conduct aims, as the title suggests, to explore the personality, attributes and behaviour of the last Messenger and Prophet of Allah, Muhammad, peace be upon him. In his introduction, Salahi adds that he will also address some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the Prophet, although he is quick to note that this is not out of any need to defend the him as he needs no defence. Adil Salahi has written a number of other books, including an 850-page book on the life of the Prophet, Muhammad: Man and Prophet, and a translation of the Qur’an entitled The Qur’an: A Translation for the 21st Century, which aims to offer a clear, accessible text for the English speaker. In this article, I will not be addressing the factual content of the book as, in my ignorance, I have no way of assessing it, but will instead explore my reading experience.
Knowing about his other works when I started reading the present book made clear to me Salahi’s style, which focuses on accessibility of language, and this is evident throughout the 300-page book. The language he uses is very simple and his sentences are generally quite simple too. He even goes to the extent of explaining the meaning of words that most people familiar with the story of early Islam would already understand, such as “hypocrites”. I found that some of the language was a little too casual at times and that there was also some repetition of descriptions of events that could probably be eliminated with a little reorganisation; in a word, Salahi’s work would be done great justice with another check by a proofreader. This didn’t take away from my overall pleasure in reading the book, however, and I think one of the reasons for this was Salahi’s tone.
The introduction establishes an open and honest relationship between reader and writer and the book doesn’t betray that relationship at any point. In his almost conversational tone, he takes us through a summary of the life of the Prophet, then proceeds to focus on the different roles the Prophet played in his life before and after revelation, shedding particular light on the way his character ennobled these roles and his relationships with the many different people and communities he interacted with. He provides footnotes with his sources and occasional extra notes at the end of each chapter and when he presents an idea that is different to the dominant interpretation, he humbly and methodically explains his reasoning. This not only serves to provide the reader with the sources they would need to investigate the matter themselves, but also instills in the reader a respect for critical thinking and logical argument for the sake of upholding the truth of the Prophet’s honourable character and ensuring that we are able to apply justice and good conduct in our own lives. A particularly honest footnote that struck me was one in which he pointed out an argument he had made in his previous book that he had later discovered was incorrect and this only led me to a greater respect for him as a researcher and sincere seeker of truth. The final element of Salahi’s tone that, I feel, makes all the difference in this book is his clear reverence and love for the Prophet, which is apparent on every page.
Before picking this book up, it had been quite a long time since I had read a book on the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. In the past few years, I have been more inclined towards taking courses or seminars or listening to podcasts on subjects related to Islamic Sciences, which are beneficial in themselves. I also realise that I have been a little distracted by books that explore the way people have applied Islam, whether correctly or incorrectly, in specific contexts (and particularly more recently), and therefore not given due attention to books on more fundamental fields that I need to understand in order to be able look at its application with a more discerning eye. While I read this, I was also reading books exploring oppression and suffering and striving for justice, which only served to further highlight the need for me to return to the basics. Reading this book reminded me of the great value of dedicating ourselves to just sitting down and reading about the Prophet. In the way he lived his life we can find so many of the answers we are seeking today for our own selves, for our families and societies and for the world. May Allah reward the writer, Adil Salahi, and his family for his hard work and the Kube Publishing team for their contribution to English-language Islamic and Muslim literature. May Allah send his peace and blessings on the mercy for all the worlds, the Prophet Muhammad, and his family, companions and followers.
Podcast: Ep. 43. What Does Memory Have to do with Justice? (Focus: Palestine: A Map of Absence, Ed. By Atef AlShaer)
On this journey, I’m joined by Alia and Safiya as we discuss
Book in focus: A Map of Absence: An Anthology of Palestinian Writing on the Nakba, ed. by Atef Alshaer (Palestine)
Find Safiya on Instagram @safiyareads
Contact Alia by email at elbak002 [at] gmail.com
Special thanks to Saqi Books for providing a digital copy of this book.
Palestinian book suggestions
Other episodes mentioned
Other books mentioned
Related resources (not endorsements)
Assalamu alaykum all of you, so generous with your thoughts, sincere with your feedback, kind with your support!
It has been two Gregorian years since I started this podcast (and two Hijri years as of the end of Sha'ban). Alhamdu Lillah for the opportunity to have thought-provoking, constructive, enjoyable discussions on the podcast with some wonderful readers and to share them with you all and continue them online.
Thinking about the point I've reached now in my reading and learning, I can only say that I feel possibly more ignorant than when I started (an ignorance that sometimes leads to a sneaky ego boost, may Allah protect us from ourselves and the devil)! But that is the blessing-in-disguise of learning, isn't it? As they say, the more you know the more you realise you don't know. Perhaps this is a mechanism Allah built into the nature of this world to allow us to stay humble and remember our ultimate fallibility. We will never even approach knowing everything, even if we live for a thousand years. Learning (and by extension reading), then, is an act that requires intentionality like any other. What is our purpose in wanting to learn about the world, about ourselves? Similarly, what is our purpose in reading? With such limited time and mental capacity, what do we want these acts to add to our lives and afterlives?
May Allah guide us all, accept our sincere intentions, forgive our shortcomings and mistakes and bless us with humility and ambition for His sake. May He accept all our fasts and good deeds in this most blessed of months.
I appreciate every thoughtful comment and respectful debate. I hope you will continue to push me in my thinking and tell me when I make mistakes and I hope I can do the same for you, in sha Allah. Thank you all.
I just came across the story of a Uyghur teacher of Islam, writer and translator, Abdulahad Mahsum, who died in a Chinese internment camp after a life of teaching Islam and undergoing serial imprisonment by the authorities. Recently, I've also been reading about the Algerian war of independence (discussed in this episode) and Palestine's history and continued resistance movement. Many of us have also had our attention drawn to the patient perseverance and dedication of doctors in vulnerable situations across the world (not a new phenomenon). Of course, in the month of Ramadan we all have our minds on the greatest role model and hero of all time, the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, along with his family, companions and the many other great prophets and people we are told about in the Qur'an.
All of this has got me thinking about the ideas that so many of us are constantly exposed to about ourselves and the standards we should hold ourselves to:
I'm not looking to make anyone feel bad about the fact that we don't live in a war zone or that we have enough food to eat. All our rizq is written by Allah. Nor am I suggesting that because a lot of us have relatively comfortable lives we shouldn't acknowledge when we feel pain and hurt. But we need to remember that Allah tests us both with hardship and ease. We need to think about how we respond to our situations.
From this perspective, we can see one of the great values of stories: stories of courage; integrity; justice; sacrifice for goodness; sincere love; compassion; dignity; self-reflection; sins, regret and repentance; honour; humility; and more. We can also see the way stories that glorify less aspirational qualities can be disempowering and lead us to hopelessness and lethargy. Stories and history are weapons that can be used for or against us. We need to take hold of them and use them for good.
A question I regularly mull over is the one of Muslim representation in literature (and media more broadly) and particularly the exploration of the imperfect nature of human beings. We are seeing in some parts of the world a rise in stories that revolve around the Muslim who has inherited Islam but does not necessarily aspire to implement Islamic principles or a deep awareness of Allah in their everyday life (and in other contexts this has been a theme for a little longer). As a trend and at a wider level, this is something that raises concerns for me about how it plays into a broader framing of Islam as a cultural identity rather than a comprehensive way of life. However, I can't deny the reality of these people's experiences nor do I want to strip Muslim stories of fallible, imperfect Muslim characters. Perfection is, after all, for Allah. Perhaps the way forward is two-fold. On the one hand, we need to amplify the stories of great Muslims from our past and present - people who through acts of courage and sincerity brought themselves and others closer to Allah (while continuously battling their flaws). At the same time, we should continue to tell the stories of struggle with living our faith while considering the lessons we can learn from them. Let us learn about how to face our own weaknesses, about the factors at play that can lead people to disconnect from the essence of Islam and with a sense of optimism and self-critique that can lead us all to aim higher, to improve ourselves and our communities and to keep the stage set for the continued rise of true Muslim heroes who live their lives in the service of Allah in the way He has taught us.
May Allah accept the heroes, past and present, prominent and less visible, into the highest ranks of Paradise and give us the sincerity, wisdom and courage to aspire to be bearers of light and justice for His sake.
On this journey, I’m joined by Safiya as we discuss
Find Safiya on Instagram @jscherfi.
- on iTunes, click here;
- on Spotify, click here.
Reader-submitted book suggestions
Other books mentioned
This mini episode is a bit different in tone from the usual. I take my experience listening to the audiobook of The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty as a launchpad to think about where and how we, as Muslims in creative industries, need to really up our game.
Other episodes mentioned
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Many thanks to Kube Publishing for the complimentary copy of this book.
I didn’t plan to write about this book until I had finished reading it, but with Ramadan coming up I thought it would be helpful for me to mention it a bit sooner. The Heart of the Qur’an is a commentary on Surah Yasin with a difference. At 111 pages, it is relatively short and in addition to textual explanations, incorporates the use of diagrams and bright colours to explore the meanings of this key chapter in the Qur’an. It is published by Kube Publishing, an established publisher of Islamic fiction and non-fiction in the UK, and written by imam and Islamic studies instructor Asim Khan. It also has a stamp of approval in the form of a foreword from prominent UK-based scholar Dr Haitham al-Haddad.
Tafsir, or commentary on the Qur’an, is an important field of study for a Muslim to have at least a basic grasp of. However, for the layperson it may seem like the books of tafsir are a big commitment, while the footnotes in your mushaf (Qur’an in book form) feel insufficient for your understanding or difficult for you to put into the wider context. I think this book is a very good example of an in-between solution and perhaps a launchpad into more serious study later on. The writing style is clear; it is easy to understand and gives enough context to connect it to other parts of the chapter or of the Qur’an. Khan has also used well-established sources of tafsir and referenced them clearly. He has divided the surah into thematic sections and addresses each section in a separate chapter, allowing the reader to understand how the surah progresses and the focus of each part. He also regularly takes time in between explaining individual ayat to connect the meanings discussed to our lives today and answers questions that may pop into people’s minds as they are reading. The questions he has chosen to answer clearly indicate that he has taken the time to think about the types of thoughts people might have as they are reading through the ayat and hasn’t shied away from addressing what some may consider more controversial questions. This clearly demonstrates Khan’s sincerity and focus on making the text as accessible and beneficial as possible to the everyday Muslim reader.
The use of visual aids in this book is one of the primary features that distinguish it from others in this category and I think it is generally very successful. I say “generally” because I think it could have gone further with incorporating more graphic representations of certain types of information that lend themselves to visual over textual demonstration (perhaps there were printing constraints that prohibited this). Colour is used to delineate the different sections and the same colours are used in diagrams exploring the entire surah, which helps the reader to understand how the sections fit together. Another effective use of colour is the word banks where a number of key words in the section are highlighted with definitions. Diagrams are used for a number of purposes, but one that struck me particularly as I started this book was a timeline of revelation and where Surah Yasin fit into it. We often come across textual explanations of when and why particular surahs were revealed, but I found this visual representation made its significance immediately clear to me and I was able to refer back to it quickly whenever I needed to.
When I first saw this book I knew I wanted to read it because I am quite a visual learner, but once I found myself with the book in my hands, I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. I felt like reading it cover-to-cover like a normal book wouldn’t necessarily allow me to process all the information inside or to connect it to how I interact with the surah in general. After some thought, I decided to try reading a section every Friday (or another day if you can’t fit it in alongside reading Surat ul-Kahf) and then memorising that section of the chapter during the week. This way, I would get an understanding of a few ayat (verses) and then have that in mind as I memorised them. I find that I am able to memorise a lot easier if I understand the nuances of the ayat and how they connect with each other. I also think the word bank feature of this book lends itself to being read alongside memorisation. It’s worth keeping in mind that the sections are of varying lengths with the longest dedicated to 20 ayahs and the shortest to just two, so if you do decide to approach the book in this way, it’s worth planning ahead and perhaps spending two weeks on the longer section and using the shortest section as a review week. Of course, we all have a different pace when it comes to memorisation of the Qur’an, so make sure you choose a realistic timeline for yourself. I wouldn’t advise going any faster than one section a week, though, if you really want to internalise the meanings of the ayat outlined in The Heart of the Qur'an at the same time.
Since Ramadan is almost here, this could be a very rewarding project for the month; if you dedicate a section to each week you could have memorised all of Surah Yasin - with understanding - by the middle of Shawwal. What an achievement that would be! If you have this book, how have you approached it? Have you found the visual representations helpful? I imagine people have found many ways to engage with this book and I would love to know what has worked for you.
This book is currently available to buy on the Kube Publishing website and they are running a Ramadan sale of 25% off with the code Ramadan2020, so this looks like a great time to buy it, if you are ready!
On this journey, I'm joined by Nour and Assia as we discuss
Books in focus: a trilogy by Zahia Rahmani (France/Algeria):
Find Nour on Instagram @nourstuckinabookstore.
Find Assia on Instagram/Twitter @shereadsox and her website whatassiareads.wordpress.com
Special thanks to Sabine Wespieser Editions and Deep Vellum Publishing for providing copies of these books.
Algerian book suggestions
For a list of Algerian literature that has been translated into English, have a look at Nadia's (@_madcha_) list on the Arabic Literature in Translation website.
Other episodes mentioned
Other books mentioned
Qur’anic verse mentioned: Surat al-Kahf, 18:82.
Related resources (not endorsements)
Categorisation of population in colonial Algeria
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.