My life: Literature points the way to social change

Fatima al Shamsi on why her reading ranges from Homer to Harry Potter

As a child I was a bookworm. I would stay up past my bedtime squinting to finish one last chapter with whatever light would filter into my bedroom. I did not care that I was going to need glasses, or that I was missing out on sleep. Nothing was as exciting to me as the stories I was reading.

From my first chapter book till right before I started college, my sister and I would battle to see who would be the most prolific reader during the summer; with endless flights and commutes always part of our summer package, there was plenty of time set aside to devour some literature. While she has surpassed me the past few years, I still like to make sure that at all times I am halfway through a book (at this point I'm halfway through four). While my sister likes to dabble in everything from philosophy to supernatural to fantasy to young-adult fiction, I tend to stick to classics or best-sellers. I like to see what all the fuss is about.

I enjoyed Crime and Punishment very much. I got through The Odyssey and The Iliad quicker than anticipated. I couldn't suffer all the detailed descriptions of scenery in The Lord of the Rings, whereas the Harry Potter series will always hold a place in my heart.

Although my primary interest while growing up was fiction, I've recently got into including a few non-fiction books on my summer reading list. This year, in addition to my small stash of novels, I've decided to read Malcolm X's autobiography as well as No god but God by Reza Aslan.

The first I've just finished and would recommend to everyone because it looks into the life of a man who tried to stand up against the racism and discrimination that was systematically ingrained into all aspects of his society. But Malcolm X's story also appealed to me because of his involvement with the Nation of Islam and his subsequent conversion to Sunni Islam.

I began reading No god but God in 2005 when I first heard of it, but have only recently been able to finish it after somehow managing to misplace it. I found it a compelling read given the political and social situations around the world. Above all, the book is a condensed, well-organised history of the birth of Islam starting even before the Prophet Mohammed. Unlike all those writers trying to "explain" Islam or attempting to outline the supposed "clash of civilisations" between the Islamic world and the rest, Aslan says the tensions that exist in Islam today stem primarily from its different communities. He suggests that the trouble comes from a clash between the so-called "liberals" and "conservatives" within Islam as opposed to an East-meets-West tension.

Aslan explores how the rise of literacy in the Muslim world and the access to new means of communication have created momentum for change. Now, more than ever, Muslims debate issues such as how to apply or interpret Islamic law or how to engage in a society not governed by these laws.

In the rise of western interest in the Islamic faith that followed the events of 9/11, as well in as the various Islamic societies around the world, Aslan argues that a reformation is brewing in the Islamic world and that the struggle is an internal one as to who will get to define it. What I enjoyed most is how he traces the dogmatic splits in Islam to their historical origins while systematically providing a speculation on how Muslim beliefs are likely to evolve.

That's a highlight of my summer reading list. What's on yours? I encourage you to mix it up a bit, with some fantasy, some history and even a graphic novel.


Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York.

Published: August 10, 2011 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one