Novels from Muslim Countries

    Why novels? This modern literary form, adopted in the many colonized countries of the world from European models, has emerged as a powerful medium for reflection on the dilemmas of contemporary life throughout the world. Although not many Asian or African writers break through to become "mainstream" bestsellers in Europe or America, readers eager to find vivid depictions of real life in majority-Muslim countries will be well rewarded by seeking out these novels, many of which are excellent (and far less self-indulgent than much of contemporary American literature!). In countries with Muslim majorities or minorities, Islam is one subject that appears, like a thread, in many of these novels, but their realism makes religion only one of many elements of life that need to be examined; secular issues, politics, class, gender relations, colonialism, and local history make up the substance of most ot these narratives, not surprisingly.
    Travel books and novels about the East written by Western authors often carry their own prejudices and preconceptions with such strength that they perpetuate stereotypes or engage in unabashed fantasy (James Clavell's Shogun comes to mind), acting more like a mirror of Euro-American conceits than a window onto other societies. In particular, indigenous novels and short stories sometimes offer the best access to the voices of women from Muslim countries, who have scarcely any presence in the globalizing popular entertainment/news media. The selections mentioned below have been recommended by university professors in American universities on the basis of the reactions of students. Many are still in print and available from commercial websites or else used book websites.

     The list below is organized primarily by region or country, since the experiences there the focus of modern novels are so heavily dependent upon location.  There are enormous differences between the Muslim societies of countries as varied as Bangla Desh, Morocco, and Iran. For those who are drawn to historical fiction, there are some outstanding examples, such as the writings of Paris-based Lebanese author Amin Malouf, Samarkand (a revision of the story of Omar Khayyam and the Assassins) and Leo Africanus (based on the autobiography of a 15th-century Andalusian Moor and his multiple religious identities.
     See also the review article by Claudia Roth Pierpont, "Found in Translation: the Contemporary Arabic Novel," the New Yorker (January 18, 2010), pp. 74-80, as well as "The Contenders: Best of Arabic Literature (in English) 2011," compiled by Cairo blogger M. Lynx Qualey.

Post-revolutionary Iranian literature

Rachlin, Nahid. Veils: Short Stories. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1992. Green, John and Farzin Yazdanfar, eds. A Walnut Sapling on Masih's Grave and Other Stories by Iranian Women. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

Ravanipur, Muniru. Satan's Stones: edited with an introduction by M.R. Ghanoonparvar. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Sullivan, Soraya. Stories by Iranian Women Since the Revolution. Translated from the Persian by Soraya Paknazar Sullivan ; introduction by Farzaneh Milani ; foreword by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Austin, Texas: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1991.

Stories from Iran: a Chicago anthology,Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1991.
Danishvar, Simin,Daneshvar's playhouse: a collection of short stories. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1989.

Modern Persian short stories. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1980.

AmirShahi, Mahshid. Suri & Co.: Tales of a Persian Teenager. trans. H. Farmayan. Austin, Tex.: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Universityof Texas at Austin, 1995.

Danishvar, Simin. Sutra & Other Stories. trans. Hasan Javadi and Amin Neshati. Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 1994.

Khanum, Munirih. Memoirs and Letters. translated by Sammireh Anwar Smith. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1986.

Asghar Abdullahi, A Dust Laden Room

P. Sprachman, Suppressed Persian

Shahrnush Parsipur, At Home and Women Without Men

Muniru Ravanipur, The Future is All We Fear

Turkey and the Balkans

The theme of suffering that results from moral indecisiveness and spiritual confusion is wonderfully explored in Death And The Dervish by Mesa Selimovic, a contemporary Bosnian novelist.

The modern Turkish woman novelist Adalet Agaoglu has just published a book in English translation titled Curfew

Twenty Stories by Turkish Women Writers (Indiana U. Turkish Studies 8).

Orhan Pamuk has written several surreal novels that draw upon medieval Islamic culture in modern settings. The Black Book and The White Castle are among his most prominent works. His recent novel, My Name is Red, is a wonderful exploration of beauty and sight, cast as a murder mystery in the imperial artists' atelier in Ottoman Istanbul.

Yasar Kemal of Turkey has written some epic novels on the struggle of Anatolian peasants against oppressive landlords, centering around the Robin Hood-like brigand Memed: Memed My Hawk and They Burn the Thistles.

Arab countries

Kanafi, Ghassan.Men in the Sun and Other Palestinian Stories
-----------. All That Is Left To You.

Farah Nurudin’s Maps is another example of African fiction that subverts national, sexual, etc., identity in postcolonial times.

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfuz is one of the few Middle Eastern authors widely recognized in Europe and America. His story “Zaabalawi” is translated by Denys Johnson-Davies in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, introduced by Roger Allen (Norton, 1992), 2:1961-1965; and in The HarperCollins World Reader (Harper Collins, 1994), 2:1620-1627. His major novels include:
The Thief and the Dogs
Palace Walk. A marvellous and devastating depiction of an Egyptian family under British colonialism around 1920.
Autumn Quail
Midaq Alley
Wedding Song
Children of Gebelawi

Hanan al-Shaykh’s novel Women of Sand and Myrrh: The novel’s setting is a Saudi Arabia-like society with a diverse group of characters that illustrate numerous points regarding freedom, construction of gender, etc. in the Islamic world as well as generally. Note that the author, a Palestinian Christian, is prominent in the Palestinian Authority.

Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, while being an ethnography rather than a novel, contextualizes the use of poetry among the Awlad Ali bedouins of Egypt.

Short stories by the Egyptian author Alifa Rifaat have very interesting perspectives on the body. See Distant View of a Minaret and also the compilation Flights of Fantasy.

An Egyptian who writes in English is Ahdaf Soueif, In the eye of the sun (Pantheon, 1993), also Aisha

Egyptian feminist Nawal Sadawi has written numerous provocative novels on gender, society, and religion in Egypt. See Two Women in One

Awwad, Tawfiq (Lebanon). Death in Beirut

Ghanem, Fathy.The Man Who Lost His Shadow

Hakim, Tawfiq al- (Egypt).Maze of Justice (plays)

Jabra, Ibrahim (Palestinian). The Ship

Kamal, Ahmed. Land Without Laughter

U.S.-based Egyptian writer Samia Serageldin, writing in English, presents in her novel The Cairo House (Syracuse University Press, 2000), a "portrayal of a wealthy Cairo family's susceptibility to the winds of political change . . . a telling exploration of the ambiguities of status, loyalty, and belonging."


For an interesting novel that gives a good portrayal of Islamic themes and the Russian occupation of the Caucasusin the 19th century, see Hadji Murad, by Leo Tolstoy. It is on-line and can be reached on Alan Godlas's "Islam, the Modern World, and the West" page Scroll down to the heading "Islam, the Muslim World, and Contemporary Issues," and you will find it.There is even a movie version of it (with Steve Reeves!).

Qurban Said's Ali and Nino is a gorgeous novel on the dilemmas faced by an Azerbaijani Muslim boy who falls in love with a Georgian Christian girl during the period of WWI.


Balewa, Alhaj Sir Abubakar Tafawa. Shaihu Umar: A Novel about Slavery in Africa. Trans. Mervyn Hiskett. Markus Wiener.

Kane, Cheikh Hamidou (Senegal).Ambiguous Adventure

Saleh, Tayeb. A Season of Migration to the North (Heinemann, 1969). A savage portrayal of racial and sexual tension in the Sudan under colonial rule.


Australian Muslim author Amatullah Armstrong has written And the sky is not the limit (Kuala Lumpur, 1990's)

Zadie Smith, White Teeth, is a poignant and wildly humorous depiction of Bangladeshi immigrants in London.

South Asia

Ali, Ahmed. Twilight in Delhi. A deeply nostalgic evocation of the decaying Muslim gentry of old Delhi as they contemplate their fall from eminence after the failed revolt of 1857. His Ocean of Night is equally nostalgic and genteel.

Ruswa, Mirza Muhammad. The Courtesan of Lucknow. One of the earliest Urdu novels, this “as told to” classic immortalizes the courtesan Umrao Jan, evoking the ultra-refined courtly life of Lucknow under its last native ruler. A classic, made into two films (Indian and Pakistani versions)

Shah, Hasan.The Nautch Girl.Trans. Qurratulain Hyder. A Sterling Paperback.New Delhi:Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 1992. Ostensibly the earliest known Indian novel, dating from the 1790s and written in Persian, this may be an original creation in the guise of a translation. The “translator” is one of the leading novelists writing in Urdu. The story is a tragic romance set in the early days of British colonial rule in India.

Sidhwa, Bapsi.American Brat. On a Pakistani woman in America.

Sidhwa, Bapsi.Cracking India. Winner of 1991 Literature Prize from the Society of Asian, African, and Latin American Writers. A moving depiction of the breakup of society in the wake of the Partition of British India into India and Pakistan, as seen through the eyes of a young Parsi girl in Lahore in 1947.

Mukerjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World

Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land. A sensitive memoir by a Hindu anthropologist of his time in an Egyptian village, with amusing depictions of cultural miscommunication. This tale is interleaved with accounts of an Indian slave owned by a Jewish merchant who tradedbetween India, Egypt, and the Mediterranean nine centuries ago, gleaned from the massive store of Hebrew documents from the Cairo Genizeh trove. The contrast between medieval multiple identities and the modern attempt to create single authentic identities is poignant.

Qudratullah Shahab's Urdu piece "Maaji" (translated by Shafique Virani) is described as an extremely moving story. It is available at the link given here.

Southeast Asia

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta (Indonesia). This Earth of Mankind. The first of a four-volume series, this realistic novel offers a compelling portrait of the racially stratified society of Dutch Indonesia in the 1920s, written by a leading nationalist and leftist who was imprisoned both by the Dutch and by the Sukarno regime. The translator, an Australian diplomat, was declared persona non grata by the Indonesian government when this book appeared in English.


Although the case has been made above for not relying on European or American novelists for depictions of Muslim societies, this stipulation is starting to erode, in view of the very powerful effect of migration, which is changing the complexion of Europe and America. A few select examples of sensitive writing of this type are recommended here.

Camilla Gibb, Sweetness in the Belly, depicts a white London nurse interacting with Ethiopian Muslim immigrants; it has been widely and positively reviewed.

Finally, it had to happen: Punk Islam. Michael Muhammad Knight's The Taqwacores is a great read that the students respond to very well. Mike has written what has become the "Catcher in the Rye" for young Muslims.