Sunday, March 20, 2016

Muslims Represented in YA Fiction


I can't quite remember a time when I didn't read. I progressed from Ladybird books to Enid Blyton to Nancy Drew to Jeffrey Archer to Jane Austen and then much later to Suzanne Collins. Despite devouring hundreds of book, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen myself portrayed in these books

I identify as a South Asian Muslim. And the handful of books that have portrayed people of color? They have always gotten it wrong.

Misrepresentation is not just a problem relegated to literature. A study released by 416 Labs reveals that the New York Times portrays Islam/Muslims more negatively than alcohol, Democrat, cocaine and cancer (WAIT. WHATTTT?!!) among other benchmarked words. It's no secret that the media often favors sensationalism (who cares about facts and stats, amirite?!) over balanced coverage. But what's surprising is prominent 'feminists' like Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie that reinforces white superiority, erasure of Afghan women and the role of white saviors in 'rescuing oppressed Muslim women'. Not only are warped representations of Islam and muslims being propagated by media but now racist statements being tossed about in public by fear-mongering politicians. And it doesn't end there. We have Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other pseudo-experts on Islam who perpetuate offensive and untrue ideas about Muslims.

Often when literature with Muslim characters are published, they largely contain colonialist, orientalist narratives regarding Islam. They portray Muslims as a primitive, uneducated, backward, misogynistic and oppressed race. They show us as down trodden victims of war, caricature-like villains and terrorists. And often Muslims when represented are incredibly disappointing because they are made out to be two dimensional side characters who are included only to fill some kind of stupid quota of representation that writers have in their minds. These problems more often than not stem from people choosing to write outside of their own experiences.

Don't get me started on the book covers that do feature Muslim women! From Nawal El Saadawi to Jean Sasson, most covers feature semi-erotic, harem-like depictions of lone, veiled women in heavy eyeliner that are not even close in terms of representation of the content inside the book.


In an age where Islamaphobia is rampant, literature is a part of the solution to demolishing the alienation and demonization that surrounds Muslims. There's a gaping void in the publishing industry. The lack of Muslims employed in the publishing industry, the lack of representation of Muslims in fiction and the sheer lack of support for Muslim writers are only a part of the problem.

Unfortunately for me, I missed out on seeing my own experiences and struggles reflected in literature. It's not uncommon for kids who are coming of age to seek refuge in literature. So this kind of erasure has a significant and harmful impact on Muslim youth making them feel isolated.

Islam is an important part of this world's history. Our lives are a part of this world's story. We deserve to not be erased and to have our stories told.

While Islam is monotheistic faith, the Muslim identity itself is fluid. This means that our religious identity intersects with race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and ethnicity.

Many non-Muslims seem to have perception that Muslims equal Arabs. In reality, Muslims are a diverse community of people with different experiences in terms of ethnicity, denomination and background. Every individual Muslim has their own unique relationship with their faith and it is crucial that none of these experiences are erased in our fight for representation.

Being a Muslim is only one part of my identity. This is the same for millions of other Muslim kids around the world. Some of them are having their lives ravaged by war as we speak. Some of them have lost their families and homes. Some of them have had to leave everything behind restart their lives in a strange land while being subjected to a barrage of hate speech. Some of them are not unlike you, growing up straddling more than one cultural identity and struggling to find their place in this world.

Each of them deserves to have their stories told and heard.

We need more Muslims in literature because one day...

...I'd like to live in a world where I don't have to explain that my hijab is my choice. And no, I wasn't forced to wear it.
...I'd like to live in a world where women are valued regardless of what they wear and what they don't.
...I'd like to walk down the streets without the fear of being called a filthy terrorist, assaulted or worse, murdered in cold blood like Deah, Yusor, Razan and countless others.
...I'd like to not apologise on behalf of those who commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of my faith.
...I'd like to live in a world where I'm not pitied for the supposed oppression I have to face.
...I'd like to live in a world where I don't have to keep screaming that NO, all Muslims are not terrorists.
...I'd like to live in a world where people in positions of power wouldn't dare call Muslim women 'traditionally submissive' in public.
...I'd like my kids to be able to see themselves, their faith and their culture reflected in the books they read.

The list of Muslims who are taking control of what is being said about them by sharing their own unique narratives is growing daily. This is the only way to make sure our stories are told. Keeping that in mind, we also need to advocate for more books that address misogyny, homophobia, racism, colorism and classism within our own communities.


I believe in celebrating even the smallest of victories. While there is still a long way to go, there have been some incredible changes in the publishing industry in the past year. The introduction of Salaam Reads, a Muslim children’s book imprint from Simon & Schuster is one such victory! Three Somali-Canadian sisters, Hodan, Ayan and Ilhan Ibrahim who recently established the Qurtaba Publishing House to provide a platform for Muslims to reclaim their voices is another.

Publishing like many other industries is demand driven. The recent #RamadanReads campaign initiated by Aisha Rasheed proves that as readers we too can play a part in getting books with diverse narratives onto shelves. Speak to your local bookstores and express an interest in more inclusive literature.


I'm currently updating a Goodreads list that feature Muslim characters. It includes Children's Picture Books + Middle Grade + Young Adult + New Adult + Adult Fiction. Please feel free to add your own recommendations to the list but I kindly request you to avoid voting for books that feature tokenism, misrepresentation, sensationalisation, stereotypes and whitewashing!

Further Reading:


What's your take on the representation of Faith and Spirituality in fiction? Have you ever felt the impact of cultural, ethnic and racial erasure in literature? 

Have a recommendation? Leave a comment below or tweet your thoughts at @wordcontessa and let me know, I'll be sure to add them to the list! :)


  1. I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH NUZ! I totally understand where you're coming from. To be honest, I don't know much about Islam culture or religion, but one thing that my parents has taught me is that i should never insult or make other people uncomfortable by misunderstanding their beliefs in life! And I'd like to know more about it so I get to understand you better as well! I'm currently checking out that list of books you have! Thanks for such a heart felt and amazing post Nuz! :D

    1. Awww. Thank you so much for your kind words, Jules! Shoot me a tweet if you do pick one of those books, I'd love to hear your thoughts. :)

  2. Hi, Nuzaifa. I added 3 books to the Goodreads list you provided! :)

    The reasons you listed for why we need Muslims in literature were very honest and personal. Thank you for that.

    You'd think with over one billion Muslims in the world, there would be more representation of them in western countries. But there must be so many obstacles preventing these writers' lives and experiences from being published, widely disseminated, and discussed in the a positive light.

    Over the past year, I have tried to read more works by Muslim, South Asian, and Arab authors. The ones I've read so far have been excellent! I'll be sure to check out some of the ones you listed as well.

    1. Thanks for the additions, Naz! Saleem Haddad's Guapa in particular intrigues me because of the LGBTQ + faith intersection.

      The lack of minority representation in the publishing industry is partly to blame for this erasure in literature. As bleak as things have been in the past, the work of #DiverseReads advocates like yourself help a lot so I'm very optimistic about the future. :)

    2. I am optimistic too!

      I have said this before, but I definitely see my promotion and discussion of diverse authors as a form of activism. I make this point every time I meet new book lovers, even if I get a few eye rolls. hah

    3. Definitely, campaigning for diversity in Lit is an effective form of activism - Take a look at all of the past + ongoing Twitter campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks, #ToTheGirls & #OwnVoices. They were all highly successful and were an important reason for the progress we have seen throughout the past year. :)

  3. This is such a beautifully written and heartfelt post. If we're to be accepting of other people and their beliefs, we need to be educated on those beliefs. I read Written in the Stars and found it to be a really eye-opening and insightful book. Thank you for sharing this and, as always, fabulous post! ♥

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Zoe! :) I'm glad to hear that you loved Written in the Stars - I'm treating myself with this book for my upcoming b'day! ;)

  4. I must admit that I don't know much about the Islamic culture, which is why we need more Islam-featured books: for people like me! Especially with Islamaphobia unfortunately rising, it's important that everyone is educated on what they want to talk about. I was super surprised when you mentioned that they are portrayed worse than cocaine! I actually own Written in the Stars and the diversity excites me! Hopefully I'll enjoy it :).

    1. Precisely! In light of the recent events and the backlash that Muslims have to have face online + offline it is important now more than ever to build awareness. Looking forward to hear your thoughts on Written in the Stars. Jess! :)

  5. Loved this post, Nuz- I'm so glad you took the time for it and I daresay the research paid off pretty well, you've come up with quite an in-depth post here! The few characters that I do come across in literature are usually daughters of rich oil sheikhs/refugees/Scheherazade-doppelgängers (I wish I was kidding here) and it annoys me to no end that not many people actually take the pains to come up authentic, relatable Muslim characters. Why don't people realize the kind of impact they have on the readers' mind when they portray a whole culture in such a mundane, drab, and most of the time, racist way? The only solution I can see for this so far is promoting diversity and proper portrayal in literature, and people like you and me speaking up when and where we can. Also, increasing Muslim representatives in publishing would be a big boon to this! I checked out your GR list and I'm horrified that I've only read one book in it- I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amélie Sarn. I loved it, and you should definitely check it out if you haven't already!

    Ruzaika @ The Regal Critiques

    1. Exactly! Not all of us are daughters of Sheikhs(hah, if only!) nor do we live in harems so I find it highly amusing that existing literature featuring Muslims are all over-the-top exotic, caricatures created by White authors.
      I'll definitely shoot a tweet once I read Amélie Sarn's books. Thanks for stopping by, Ruzaika! :)

  6. So much yes!I'm so sick of the mostly geared towards white Western audience lit that gets published and marketed. And of the discussions with white feminists who just want to save us and being congratulated for being so 'integrated' :(
    I only have Alif the Unseen on my tbr, I think I'll have to stalk your goodreads and up my reads feat Muslim characters!

  7. Wow, this is such a thought-provoking and wonderful post! I think we really do need more representation of Muslims in all literature, because it's so important for you to be able to see yourself in books. There's plenty of Christian characters, but so much less Muslim ones. We really do need more representation, especially when Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. There's so much Islamophobia in the media, so books could educate people to think otherwise

    Thank you so much for writing this! It's such an important post and topic ♥
    Denise | The Bibliolater

  8. Wonderful, wonderful post! When I was first researching Islam, I was desperate to find fiction books with muslim characters (I know non-fiction is better, but I was a newbie and still worried about approaching non-fiction) and found it so difficult. Unfortunately, I read a lot of Jean Sasson's *embarassed face*, but fortunately, it didn't turn me away from Islam Alhamdulillah :-D Thank you for your recommendations and further reading lists! I'll be sure to check them out xox

  9. I grew up with a handful of the most vibrant and nutty Muslims; one was determined to marry her childhood sweetheart, one was Hermione Granger, one came from Japan and so had way more swag than was necessary, the eldest never grew up and the youngest dreamed of earning a reputation as a heartbreaker.

    What people don't seem to realise is that, being Muslim doesn't make you a whole other species of human. You are you, you are not your religion and your religion cannot be defined by the few that aim to desecrate it.

    Like a Sri Lankan Muslim is not just Muslim, they're Sri Lankan too.

  10. Great post. Courting Samira by Amal Awad is one book I might add to your list. I read it a long time ago, but my recollection is that it's an honest portrayal of Muslim women.

  11. This is such a wonderful post.

    The publishing industry needs to sort itself out. They really only need look to the bloggers. So many of us are expressing boredom and feelings of reading the same characters over and over again. We want to read different stories!

    You're totally right - especially in this difficult time with political figures constantly coming out with racism and stupidity - we need to see Muslim people represented in books so that we can overcome the prejudice and misinformation that's everywhere right now.

    Thanks for the additional reading.

  12. Thank you for this excellent post! I haven't read very many books with Islam as a focal point but G. Willow Wilson's stories have compelled me to look deeper into the culture and religion. I love her comics as well as Alif the Unseen. The Butterfly Mosque was such an honest look at her life and it opened my eyes in so many ways. We definitely need more books like this and I look forward to discovering more!

  13. can you, please, share the names of some novels in which Islam and Muslims are misrepresented. If those novels would be the part of American fiction, I will be highly thankful to you.
    Furthermore, if you have any list regarding such novels, you can share that too, please.

  14. Can you, please, share the list of novels containing the theme of misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims. I will be highly grateful to you.


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