'American Dervish' Author on the Feminine in Islam

In his new novel, 'American Dervish,' author Ayad Akhtar confronts the often-overlooked fact that Islam’s views of women are very close to those in Christianity and Judaism—and says we still haven’t realized the feminine fully.

01.10.12 12:30 AM ET

“What’s the deal with the virgins in heaven?”

What almost everyone asks me, when they feel comfortable enough to inquire about Islam. My response always entails a recourse to the metaphorical. I say:  “Just as Adam and Eve allegedly fell from innocent pleasure into the cycle of lust and shame, so too, the Islamic paradise promises a renewal, a rebirth, a restoration of the innocence of sexuality.”

Polymorphous pleasure, as Freud once called it. The bliss and plenitude of the virginal, childlike state.

Some find my response challenging and illuminating, but most are not convinced. If that’s so, they ask, then why are only female virgins promised? What about all the virtuous women looking for their own version of heaven’s restoration?

It’s a good question. And one that—in one form or another—has been on my mind for the better part of my life: what is the role and position of women in Islam? And how were the lives of the women in my childhood affected by our faith? It’s likely not much of a surprise that my first novel, American Dervish, derives much of its inspiration from this very question.

The Quran draws heavily on biblical narrative. Moses and Jesus are central figures in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. And we all share Adam and Eve as first parents, though in the Quran, Eve is not fashioned from Adam’s rib, nor is she the one the serpent tempted. But despite these differences, the continuities run very deep. Indeed, the treatment of women at the height of the great Islamic empires had much in common with the veiling and sequestering of women in Christian late antiquity.

Women are more powerful than we are willing to admit in even the most enlightened societies, and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition has never been comfortable with the place of the woman, theologically or socially. The startling success of a book like The Da Vinci Code attests to this discomfort. While Dan Brown may not have convinced many about the literal truth of the secret history of the feminine divine in the Catholic tradition, he clearly struck a deep metaphorical nerve. And rightly so. For there is much to be said for the task of unearthing the suppressed role of the feminine in our patriarchal monotheistic tradition. Whether it is Mary Magdalene as the true identity of the Grail, or the Judaic notion of the Shekhina, or the Islamic erasure of the three goddesses immortalized in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the story seems to be the same: hiding or banishing the power of the feminine, somehow finding a way to neutralize its charge.

The point isn’t academic. And yet, what exactly this suppression of the feminine has truly meant for us, we still don’t really understand. After all, our institutions have spent so long trying to hide and marginalize that power, how could we?

The debate over the place of the feminine is taking place in every circle of our societies. There are those who claim equal rights, others who call for equal but separate rights, and still others who wish to restore an order where the lines of force were more clearly, and unapologetically, drawn. We may laugh when Michele Bachmann extols the virtues of her submission to her husband, and yet Catholics across the world venerate the Holy Mother for nothing if not her service to her son and her husband, and her fidelity to her faith.

‘American Dervish’ by Ayad Akhtar. 368 p. Little, Brown and Company. $24.99.

In the Muslim world, a debate of similar complexity is raging daily. My sense of the polarities at play for the Muslim women I saw in my childhood is a good part of what makes up the central story of American Dervish. In it, the brilliant and beautiful Mina Ali emigrates to America to rebuild her life after a terrible marriage and ugly divorce back in Pakistan. In America, living with her best friend’s family, she transforms the lives of all she encounters. She is imbued with a spiritual force, the book’s most powerful and inspiring agent of change. And yet she is a paradox: deeply devout, bound by her tradition, subject—in tragic ways—to a patriarchal order with which she struggles.

In my novel, this is an unresolved tension, and one that I believe reflects a much larger picture, and one in which not only Muslims find themselves today.