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‘Islamic novel existed well before my time’

Novelist and academic, Prof. Aliyu Kamal, attended Bayero University, Kano, and the University of Edinburgh and specialised in Applied Linguistics in the area of writing,…

Novelist and academic, Prof. Aliyu Kamal, attended Bayero University, Kano, and the University of Edinburgh and specialised in Applied Linguistics in the area of writing, reading and grammar teaching. Aside teaching at BUK, he has authored 12 novels and translated seven of them into Hausa. Kamal in a seminal paper, is championing the theory of the Islamic novel and is going as far as creating an imprint for this genre. Daily Trust engages him on his theory and more.

Bookshelf: Interestingly professor, your paper which you recently presented dwelt on the ‘Islamic novel.’ What do you exactly consider as the Islamic novel?
Prof. Aliyu Kamal:
As a literary form, the Islamic novel tackles any serious topic or discipline in whose pursuit men and women adherents amass knowledge and impart it to those interested, making the writing undertaking partly enlightenment and partly entertainment. The writer maintains a balance between the two by the choice of suitable themes that have a bearing on mu’amalat (or human relations) and a deft handling of the task at hand, such that the reader is easily persuaded that the reading is worth their time and effort and is not, as in the English novel, done just merely for pleasure alone. To that end, the Islamic novel concerns the treatment of the major aspects of the Muslim life, which give shape and structure to this new literary form. As reported in a prophetic hadith (or pronouncement), the main preoccupation of the Muslim, who the Qur’an says was created for no greater purpose than divine worship, is the fear of God (or steadfastness in forms of devotion) and the cultivation of impeccable manners (or human relations with fellow members of the faithful or the kuffar, non-believing neighbours). Since the novelist’s work, as argued by the American novelist, Henry James (Cunliff: 1964:217), is made up of and depends on manners, customs and habits, the Islamic novelist has an endless array of themes to draw on people’s display of impeccable manners. There are different kinds of manners in Islam (Al-Shulhoob, 2003:11) for the Islamic novelist to choose from. Haram is the forbidden; wajib, the compulsory; mustahabb, the recommended for which one is rewarded for observing it but not punished for not doing it; makrooh, the disliked for which one is rewarded for not doing it but not punished for doing it; mubahh, whether done or not done, one is neither punished nor rewarded. The novelist’s interpretation is couched in deep knowledge of such manners before depicting living characters who give them expression. As stressed by Edith Wharton (Cunliff: 1964:225), “Every great novel must first of all be based on a profound sense of moral values.” On the part of the critic, a critique of the Islamic novel is best done based on deep knowledge of Islamic precepts, which inform the novelist’s choice and treatment of themes. There is a big market for this form of literary discourse. 75.1 percent of all Nigerians, for example, are Muslim – and still counting, taking up two-thirds of the land.
Bookshelf: Considering that this is not a popular genre in the classification of literature, how do you want to persuade critics into recognising it?
Critics hardly bother about a writer unless he or she wins an award. In fairness to them, I didn’t care about the American novelist Toni Morrison until she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even Soyinka for that matter, he had to be imposed on us by an American lecturer, who led us through his obscurantist ‘The Interpreters’ like blind freshmen and women, before I began to read him. Yet, as someone who writes prose as if it were poetry, the Islamic novelist has nonetheless a great deal to learn from his style – but politics. ‘My Fire in My Backyard,’ which is about a Muslim scientist conducting research on environmentalism in the wilds of Kano, won the ANA/Chevron Award in 2005. Yet, ANA failed woefully to make the novel available – as well as my other, ‘Silence and a Smile,’ which was shortlisted for the Spectrum Prize in the same year, by not bringing them to the attention of Nigerian readers. How does that help the campaign to encourage Nigerians to cultivate the habit of leisure-time reading? Advisedly, critics should begin by reading my seminal 29-page paper in which I discussed the structure and style of the Islamic novel in relation to the devices it borrows from the tradition of the English novel and those it offers to the art of fiction writing, which I exemplified in my dozen works of fiction.
Bookshelf: In your paper, you suggested that the principal concern of the Islamic novel is the promotion of virtues and morals, as laid down by the Islamic faith. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
I didn’t arrive at it. It has been there well before my time, as enshrined in the Qur’an and the Hadith. The task before the Islamic novelist is to enlighten people, especially non-Muslims, like one Kerekere in the North-west, the Shehu dan Fodiyo territory, about the Islamic life, which, in general, they don’t care to know of. A cartoon sometimes ago depicted Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist with a bomb hidden in his turban. How can a people who believe in God and cultivate impeccable manners incline to terrorism? Of course, they don’t, like Christians, too, who do not (not when America is still in Iraq being awaited), turn the other cheek, and remain quiet and not fight if someone pushes them to the wall. By depicting nothing but the truth of a people branded as terrorists, the Islamic novelist sets the record straight and shows the lie underpinning Western pretence of fair dealing in its relations with the Muslim world. It has always been divide and rule, such as in Kashmir between Muslims and Hindus and between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon or here close at home John Bull imposing the penal code to compete with Shari’ah. It is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan where Uncle Sam reigns supreme and by proxy in the West Bank. The strategy is called democracy but this, or ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people,’ isn’t democratic at all. Democracy originated from Greece, which was and has remained animist. But the Western world has failed to improve on democracy with biblical injunctions it doesn’t believe in. The Islamic novelist tries to show that interfaith interaction is possible following the example of Prophet Mohammed, who had a non-Muslim neighbour and went so far as to say that we should treat neighbours of all kinds, who stretch to 40 houses in all the four directions, as if they are blood relatives claiming their right to our inheritance.   
Bookshelf: Yet, in some of the books you used to illustrate your point, the novelist was very liberal with his imagination and it doesn’t seem as much of the story is about preaching morals or drawing from Islamic allegory, but rather about having Muslim characters. How do you reconcile this?
Like the English novel, the Islamic type is founded on high imagination and creativity, giving the novelist the chance to show his or her mastery in the craft of fiction. The two novel types are the most pliable of all literary forms, as they cannibalise and mix other literary models, such as drama, epic, satire, history and tragedy. Their major themes are property, money and marriage, social mobility and the nuclear and extended families, while ‘pre-modern’ themes like myth, fable, folktale and romance are mixed in with ‘modern’ ones like realism, reportage and psychological investigation. As the Islamic novel, in particular, isn’t on religion alone but a disquisition of a lifestyle, it isn’t preachy. It casts characters giving expression to their preoccupations through action in the ways they display their manners of handling issues that crop up in their day to day dealings with fellow adherents or others from the other religious divide with whom they live in the same neighbourhood. The Islamic novelist does draw from Islamic allegory but not in extended descriptions or sermonising most likely to bore the reader stiff but, as in the style of James, with the use of extended metaphor, such as in ‘The Ambassadors,’ ‘The Golden Bowl’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove.’ The proverb, too, as deployed in our conversations, is one other literary device that can be put to good use. The novelist also throws in a dollop of harmless humour in the effort to maintain the reader’s interest. In my own novels, I chose themes from my observation of how the people of Kano (it is 99.9 percent Muslim) lead their lives in issues concerning, say, gender relations or how native culture alongside religious precepts affects their lives. Writers from, say, Kaduna or Taraba (75.8 percent) or Lagos and Oyo (67.9 percent) who live with adherents of the other faith sometimes even in the same family can dwell on issues that crop up in their interfaith relations. Writers from elsewhere, such as the West Bank, Azerbaijan, Bayswater or Durban can treat Islamic themes that portray human relations in their workaday lives. For example and in general, if a Western man was to be asked to pray, he will yawn and reach for a bottle of Budweiser or diet Coke. Yet, as Jesse Jackson said sometimes ago, “Bud is dud and Coke is a joke.” Language use deepens the Islamic novelist’s knowledge of the people on the other side of the religious divide and what they think of him and his fellow adherents. As I also show in a poem I will soon publish in an anthology: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ – “How can you/ wipe your bottom/ with paper/ rather than wash/ with water/ and say I smell? The dung gwano beetle/ isn’t aware/ of its body smell.”
The idea is that the novelist only casts characters he or she knows very much and very well about to avoid casting those made of sawdust. That will require some fairness in treatment even if it is harsh – yet defensible, but never condemnatory, as people on the other side of the divide have shown the zeal to do about us innocent souls. In effect, the Qur’an stresses that the world is mere play and amusement. Man should know how to conduct himself in all the merry-making for which he will be held to account. A hadith drops the lifeline that he should to that end cleave to the middle in all his undertakings.
Bookshelf: How structurally different is the Islamic novel from the regular novel?
Interestingly, they have the same structure. They differ though in thematic treatment or style and in the grammar of their politics. Whereas one considers religion individualist the other respects it as communal. Like the English novelist who appreciates his style, Henry James’ seminal ‘The Art of Fiction,’ is read by the Islamic novelist, too, who finds it very instructive. In both genres, the serious novelist perfects his or her writing performance by undertaking vicarious bouts of pleasurable reading of highly literate fiction of commendable purity. From the West, it could be James, Trollope, Morrison and Tolstoy and here at home, Soyinka.
Bookshelf: Most of the novels cited were written by you. Is this aimed at creating a new genre of literature, especially one that is not popular in Nigeria yet?
A genre isn’t created out of a vacuum. The idea of the Islamic novel germinated with my first novel, ‘Hausaland’ (2004), and came to fruition with the 12th, ‘King of the Boys’ (2015) after which I wrote down the principles and practice of the genre. It remains for fair-minded critics to read the seminal paper first and the novels afterwards and contribute with journal articles or books of criticism. Already, the novels are being analysed for BA, MA and PhD degrees in some northern Nigerian universities, where also literature lecturers choose them for some of their courses.
Bookshelf: Pitting this against the Christian novel, one would see that with the Christian novel, one of the protagonists eventually comes to the understanding of God in the Christian sense. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the Islamic novel, is it?
In general, it is very uncommon nowadays for the English novelist to stress religion in his or her novel but to make fun of it just like Mr. Bean gesticulates very funnily at the priest while he delivers a sermon in the church. Christianity has taken a back seat in America. In the flick, Down and Out in Los Angeles, a Christian dips his mouth and eats along with a dog from the same dish. Why not Miedler? Why not Dreyfus? What (if any) is their religious affiliation? Alternatively, Islam is the fastest growing religion in that enclave of dreams. I know of Goldsmith’s ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ Eliot’s ‘Scenes of a Clerical Life,’ Butler’s ‘The Way of All Flesh’ and Walker’s ‘The Vicar of Christ,’ about choosing the next Pope who the aesthetic La Torre turns out to be. Such novels are nowadays rare. Thus, if the English novelist disregards religion, his or her rival, the Islamic novelist, writes with God at the forefront of their consciousness in the effort to receive divine guidance and not hurt the other fellow. With Satan within earshot, that is easily done if the writer let the devil lead him by the nose. I have not read any novel recently whether by a native English or a non-native speaking writer spouting religious dogma: the former will write tongue in cheek while the latter may not have much edifying material, especially concerning style or language use, that will convince me to read to the end. If the novel is really about religion, I will prefer to read about the religion in the original. The Islamic novelist, who drops hints that encourage the reader making meaning to read on, avoids a turgid prose style that will strike them dumb, so dumb as to throw the tome away.
Bookshelf: In relation to this classification, how would you categorise novels like ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘The Mountains Echoed’ by a Muslim author, Khaled Hosseini?
I have not read him. It all depends on his thematic preoccupation. In America, a visiting Muslim writer I read (a female – naturally, like the Bangladeshi, tarred with the same brush, who called for Shari’ah law to be re-written) whetted the appetite of our rivals by criticising Islam for no just cause but to be published for a fistful of dollars. The danger is that she not only further pushed her readers deep into the miasma of the ignorance of Islam but also supports the drunken aggression targeted at it. She chose to be individualist like the feminists – of all people! – who brought out their version of the Bible in which God was replaced with Goddess, and not communal by doing things to us as she would like us to do to her, as required by the Qur’an and the original Hebrew versions of the Torah and the Injeel, which last two have for long been lost without trace, forcing people to make do with erratic mind-boggling multilingual translations.
Bookshelf: What other examples of novels that fall into this category can you give our readers to look out for?
The African Writers Series has a lot of Muslim writers in its list. There are Yusuf Idris, Mahfouz, Driss Chereiby, Sembene Ousmane, Hamidou Kane, Taha Husain and many others. Readers will know the writer to read from their knowledge of his or her preoccupation, such that the dye in the wool pretender is easily spotted – and taken at his or her own real value. Such writers don’t mean well – but the Islamic novelist does. He or she bends over backwards to see to the institution of the rights of characters on both side of the religious divide while writing in a genre that is at once literary, scholarly and academic and couched in a style that will appeal to all whatever their religious preoccupations.