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Mainstreaming Muslim Culture: 7 YA Books That Every Muslim Can Identify With

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 15th June, 2023

Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet, and Spiderman are three of the most iconic characters of all time. Their names and stories transcend borders, race, language, and religion. They are part of a trillion-dollar global industry that is pumping out endless creative content and producing a global culture rooted in fiction. 

But where are the Muslims?

After the fall of the caliphate, Muslim civilization lost its center of identity both politically and artistically.  It’s not that Muslim creators disappeared, but we have an uphill battle in producing content that is acceptable for everyone, let alone the Muslim mainstream.

It’s no secret that the entertainment and publishing industry producing the most viral and popular fictional content comes from the West – mainly the United States and Hollywood. While there are Muslim characters and storytellers out there, there lies a mountain of odds against them. As a result, authentic and relatable Muslim characters and stories are few and far between. 

It’s impossible to write a good character who isn’t flawed. But writing a Muslim character with real life flaws and drama is controversial. Portraying Muslim characters with modern day issues or having them deal with modern society’s many dangers—without a doubt—opens the door to slippery moral questions and issues of responsible messaging to Muslim youth. It leads many Muslims to just write off the industry in hopes of isolating themselves and their children from exposure to un-Islamic values and conflicting examples. 

We have the Seerah of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the biographies of many pious historic figures in Islam.

Do Muslims need fiction too?

Fiction matters. Fiction is one of the most underutilized ways to reach Muslims across all boundaries—artificial and real. It’s a way to reflect a Muslim worldview that resonates in our contemporary world. This is not an argument to replace Muslim histories and the Seerah, nor is it an argument in favor of exposing our children to all forms of depravity and fitna that exists in the industry. 

Balance is key. So, protect their innocence while recognizing that the digital world is pervasive and exposure to it is inevitable. Give them the tools and logic to work through conflict. And show them how Muslims don’t always have to be “the other” in the stories they read at school or see on a screen.

Muslims should be the protagonists, the heroes. 

From a psychological and educational point of view, fiction can provide a way for Muslims—especially youth—to have a controlled space to see, understand, and analyze how to be successful and deal with issues and conflicts of the modern world as a Muslim. (But this requires adults reading, watching, and facilitating discussions too!) In education, one of the most important principles of teaching is modeling behavior and expectations. And I don’t mean abstractly. I mean providing specific, targeted, and scaffolded approaches to dealing with problems and questions based on the experiences of Muslims today.

Stories are the safest space we can provide models for youth to learn right from wrong. 

The real world has real consequences and if we continue to operate with an abstract sense of right and wrong, we risk getting lost in translations and losing our Islam all together.

So, let’s start with baby steps. Fiction is a big field. YA fantasy literature is one area in which we increasingly see Muslim creators and Muslim-inspired storylines that can resonate with Muslims across the board. But not all of them are 100% “halal.”  This means most stories involve one or more of the following issues that many Muslims might shy away from: love, romance, sex, violence, conflict, crime, drugs/alcohol, and faith.

All the stories in the following list include a world drawing from Muslim life and heritage throughout history. None of them have characters who openly identify as Muslim (for better or worse—you can decide). All of them weave in Muslim stories, Muslim myths, and some begin to outline a Muslim worldview for the reader.

The great thing about fantasy is that from the get-go, readers know the story world is not real.

If anything, it can allow Muslim readers to loosen their expectations of finding the “ideal Muslim model” because these stories don’t offer that–not even close. What they do provide is a beginning. A beginning in which Muslims can see morals, values, and histories they can identify with in stories about imaginary worlds and Muslim-inspired heroes.

Here’s a list of 7 Fantasy Novels to begin with:

1. This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi

Intention is key to Islam and Mafi’s author’s note clearly addresses her aim with this series. She states that her tale is not religious in nature and that threads of Islam and Persian culture are just reference points for her totally fictionalized story. 

This is a story of Alizeh, a jinn with ice in her veins and a secret royal bloodline that will make her Queen of the Jinn. However, Alizeh lives in a world where humans outlaw and oppress jinn. She must hide her identity and the haunting spirit of Iblees that follows her. In a parallel story arc, the crown prince, Kamran, deals with prophecies foretelling the death of his king father and impending war. The two characters cross paths at odds with each other’s royal destinies but drawn together at the same time.

Halal Rating: 5 out of 5, Remarkably clean, no outright moral, or romantic depravity, but there is violence, talks of the devil, and a brewing love story. 

2. The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This is a 500-page epic fantasy that has a huge following and is masterfully written! It draws from Persian, Arab, and Turkic mythologies and cultures as well as alludes to various Muslim histories and loosely draws from Prophet Suleyman’s life. But the book is entirely fictional. It centers around a young con-artist named Nahiri, a young woman with unknown and sought after magical healing powers living in 18th-century Cairo, and Ali, a prince living in the jinn city of Daevabad. Each character is well-rounded and complex providing examples of spaces to contextually understand justice and equality in action. Hands down one of my favorite series out there!

Halal Rating: 4.5 out of 5, I want to rate this highly because it has so many allusions to Muslim history and pious religious characters. However, there is a romance b-story that some may find problematic even though there is nothing explicit or egregious. There is also violence in the story and instances of crime, lies, and magic. 

3. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

This series is a best-seller because it’s simply great writing and superb storytelling. It follows two protagonists from opposite ends of a dystopian social pyramid. Laia, an enslaved person who joins the rebellion against the oppressive empire, and Elias, a top-notch soldier who can’t stomach the tyranny he is trained to enforce. There are several artfully placed references and characterizations that come from different Muslim cultural traditions especially in South Asia. Overall, the series weaves in stories of jinn, afterlife, and morality and self-sacrifice that will resonate with many.

Halal Rating: 3.5 out 5, There are many instances of violence, abuse, and torture. There are allusions to rape, as well as a light love story tied in. 

4. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal

Written by a Niqabi teen, this story is often billed as a fantasy-romance series inspired by Arab mythology. It’s the story of Zafira, a famed huntress who hides her identity but uses her skills to feed her starving family. The secondary protagonist is the assassin-prince, Nasir, who upholds his father’s autocratic rule with lethal force. A dark forest, Arz, is filled with evil jinn and magic and is growing and threatening their world. They must team up to solve the problem but in the process Zafira’s identity is revealed and several new obstacles including a deadly attraction come into play.  Critics of the book often cite the heavy-handed Arabic and cultural references and imagery as a barrier to fully engage with the story, but I found them the exact reason to love this series! It’s filled with details and revealing allusions to Muslim culture that can really resonate.

Halal Rating: 3.5 out 5, The story has a pretty vivid kissing scene and depicts a growing emotional attachment between a romantic pair which some may find problematic. It also has a fair share of vivid violence and references to torture in addition to magic, misogyny, evil, and disloyalty. 

5. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

This story is part of a best-selling series, but it’s not penned by a Muslim author. So safe to assume that some of the subtleties and nuances present in the other books about Muslim heritage may be absent here. However, Ahdieh’s writing is captivating, and she includes many relevant cultural allusions and references that make this book absolutely worth reading. It is a fast-paced novel inspired by the story of 1001 Nights. It is centered around the character, Shazi short for Scheherazade, who opts to marry the 18-year-old Sultan of Khorasan with a track record of killing all his wives. It’s a refreshing take on an iconic story that has some wholesome, entertaining, and admirable characters. 

Halal Rating: 4 out of 5, The story has some violence, magic, and a some-what detailed romantic scene involving kissing. But the love story that unfolds is based on a relationship that is built in marriage if that makes a difference. 

6. Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

The series is often described as a mash-up between the American Western and 1001 Nights, which is only partly accurate. Nonetheless, it’s a can’t-put-it-down page-turner! The story takes place in the fictional desert-nation of Miraji run by humans, but jinn and other mythical creatures roam the open desert surrounding it. When Amani Al’Hiza, a top-notch markswoman destined for an unwanted arranged marriage, gets the chance to escape, she takes it. And it happens to be on a mythic horse named Buraqi with a mysterious desert stranger who teaches her the mysteries of the desert in her blood.

Halal Rating: 3.5 out of 5, this book has some great allusions to Muslim mythology and cultural folklore. It also has misogyny, violence, a love story with some kissing, images of drinking, and some discussion-worthy depictions of values like loyalty and honor. 

7. Dune by Frank Herbert

This classic science fiction novel has gained renewed popularity since the release of its less-fantastic feature film. It is a story of Paul Atreides, an off-worlder whose father is governor of Arrakis, a planet under the dominion of the interstellar Padishah Emperor. Arrakis is rich with “dune”—a life-sustaining spice for Indigenous Fremen and a highly profitable and vital fuel source for interstellar travel—think oil in our world. In a treacherous series of events, Paul finds himself called “the Mahdi” at the center of Freeman messianic myth and leads them in a jihad against the corrupt empire. This novel is well-known for its deep-rooted Muslim influences. It has endless references to Islam including allusions to the Qur’an, as well as imagery from the history of Andalusia or “Muslim Spain” and Shia philosophy. For an added bonus, Herbert openly acknowledged the influence that Islamic thought and anti-colonial Muslim history had on him while writing his world-famous novel. 

Halal Rating: 5 out of 5, this is an iconic science fiction novel that wasn’t penned by a Muslim but was heavily influenced by Islamic history and eschatology. The book makes direct allusions to the Mahdi, Ibn Khaldun, Shia and Sunni Islamic histories, as well as includes many Arabic phrases and cultural concepts.  It’s a high-level text that we all can learn a lot from!

*Recommended Age for All Books on this List: 14+

Sarosh Arif

Sarosh Arif

I am a Muslim, Pakistani-American writer (We Are the United States, 2022), an award-winning teacher, a diversity consultant & editor , & a Columbia University-educated entrepreneur. I split time between NYC, LA, and Istanbul writing, teaching, & designing award-winning education programming like Journalism 4 Juniors(J4J) for Syrian refugees. Having worked with the UN, Teach for America, & leading publishing companies around the world like the Big 5 publishers, Disney, Marvel, and Amazon Publishing, I use my experiences to advocate for Muslim voices and authentic representation. In 2022, I received the Walter Grant for Muslim writers from We Need Diverse Books.