As-Salaamu ‘Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh, and welcome back to another discussion post. Today we’re doing things a little differently, as I’ll be reviewing a book I recently read. Just a quick heads up this review WILL INCLUDE SPOILERS so if this is something you planned on reading, and you don’t want anything spoiled for you, this is your warning.
Still here? Okay, great.
So the book we’re going to be reviewing is called Ayesha At Last, it’s by Uzma Jalaluddin a Muslim author from the land of Geese and Maple leaves (Canada).
I’ve noticed that a lot of people in my circle aren’t too familiar with many Muslim authored books outside of online reading platforms like wattpad and the like. Not too many of the people I’ve spoken to have actually read or come across real-life Muslim fiction, let alone Islamic fiction. Quite a few were even
flabbergasted shocked to hear that such things exist in the real world.
To those of you saying right now that you feel the same, I can also relate. I’ve already said how I grew up yearning for books featuring Muslim characters in various genres, and how I never really found any. That fact has actually affected me so much so that nowadays, I hardly have any interest for books without at least one decent Muslim character. I’m picky like that, but it’s not like I’m OPPOSED to any books without Muslims. I still have fond memories of books I once read and honestly there are a lot of cool books out there now that seem pretty good too; but I just kind of view it like I owe it to my childhood self to catch up on the Muslim books I missed out on all those years ago.
And, as a Muslim author with a recently self-published Islamic Fiction novel trying to make it out there in the world of books, I realized the audience for Muslim/Islamic fiction is still rather small. We still need to build up, and I wanted to bring the people from my circles into the fold, to help increase that readership, not just for my own books but for the Muslim book population in general. For the kids, teens, and adults who need to see themselves in books sometimes, who need to see their faces, their beliefs and values represented positively in the world and media. For the people who know little to nothing about Muslims and Islam and are curious, but aren’t in for a lecture and class, to get a casual experience with Muslim characters and protagonists to admire and relate to just like in all the other books. I want to help that grow.
I’ve already written my own book, and while I will continue to advertise that (buy it here) and write more on its sequels, I also want to grow the field in other ways and explore it myself. I’m a reader too, and it makes me really happy seeing books out there with diverse Muslim casts and unique plots with admirable, relatable, Muslim characters. So today, I hope to introduce at least some of you into the world of Muslim stories and help the readership grow.
As I’ve already stated, the book I’ll be talking about is called Ayesha At Last, and I WILL BE INCLUDING SPOILERS. I’ll try to leave off some stuff for those who may want to read it afterwards, but some of the things I feel necessary to talk about to make a comprehensive review will be included, so you’ve had your warning. Just as well, if you don’t know by now, I am kind of an opinionated individual; I will of course be fair, but this will not be a neutral review where I just speak about the writing style and praise or attack the author in an a blind, indifferent manner. No, no, no.
Okay so first things first, this book is a Muslim retelling of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice. Admittedly, I have never read the original as I have no interest in that genre. But the other reviews for this retelling have conflicting views as to whether or not this sticks to the classic layout bit by bit or strays in a unique manner, but either way, I’ll be reviewing this as a separate book all its own.
Um, I don’t really have much to say about the cover. It’s fairly simple, but not in a bad way. It’s not super eye-catching but it’s not an eye-sore, and I much prefer Muslim fiction books that don’t have faces and images like that on them, for my listeners who are Muslim I imagine you can figure why that is. So yeah, the cover just has the silhouette of a hijabi and the title, Ayesha At Last.
We open it up and yeah. So the story starts out with the male lead, which was unexpected for me. His name is Khalid, he lives with his mother, and believes her judgment is best in all things, so as a young man ready for marriage, he’s trusting her to find his wife for him. The story and more so the characters paint him as a “mama’s boy,” and in some parts I agree, but let’s not get into that.
Anyways, it opens to a simple scene, he’s having breakfast and happens to take a glance out the window, where he sees our female lead, Ayesha, make a scramble to her car with a special red mug she always has. How he knows this, well… hmmm. Anyways, he doesn’t ogle her too long, reminding himself to lower his gaze, and then his mother soon shows up with a light chastisement.
“It’s such a lovely day outside, I can see why your eyes are drawn to the view.”
It’s nothing big, but that part actually made me chuckle a bit, just because I wasn’t expecting anything yet. So there’s that, and I promise I’m not going to run through the entire book like this.
The opening happens and then we cut to Ayesha and find out that she’s actually a poet at heart, but she’s having to work a job as a teacher to pay off some personal debts. Not going to detail that. Anyways, we’re also introduced to Clara, a white, atheist woman, who is her best friend and a big support for certain parts. Clara invites her to perform some poetry at a LOUNGE (which is “not a bar”) and yeah.
Elsewhere, Khalid is at work as an e-commerce project manager when his new boss shows up. Now, Khalid is an outwardly religious man. He wears a thobe wherever he goes, keeps a big beard, doesn’t party or intermingle with the opposite gender except in cases of necessity like work. In fact, his first bit of conflict is a result of this, because his new boss is a woman who is immediately put off by the fact that he won’t shake hands with her.
He tries to be polite and his co worker, Clara -yes that Clara- tries to vouch for him. Unfortunately the boss makes it very clear that she’s actually really bigoted against Muslims, citing her time working in Saudi Arabia, and so she not subtly states that she wants to find a way to get rid of him. But to avoid a discrimination lawsuit, she has to find legal ways to make him look like he deserved to be fired.
Clara works in HR, so she’s basically placed in the middle of this. And, she’s views Khalid somewhat sympathetically. He’s more than a good worker, and she respects his beliefs and personal choices. She doesn’t want to see him go, so she hatches a plan to loosen him up and show Sheila aka The Shark (ie the boss), that he can fit in; he’s not some rigid, misplaced, backwards guy from whereverstan (for the record, Khalid and Ayesha are both Indian, but whatever).
So, Clara invites Khalid to the lounge, promising him that it’s a nice place and he could unwind with their coworkers and blah blah blah get Sheila to ease up on him. He asks will there be alcohol at the lounge, Clara of course lies and says no (spoiler alert: there is alcohol). Anyways, I’m only detailing this because this will be the first interaction between the two main characters.
So, Khalid sees some coworkers there, one in particular is a guy I actually hated throughout the whole story. His name’s Amir and he’s basically the prince of sleeziness. Anyways, again, not going to tell everything about the story, but yeah so Amir and some other guys are having drinks blah blah blah one of them sees Ayesha at a table and okay this scene right here is something that bothered me a little.
Ayesha arrives before Clara and so she sits down and orders drinks for the both of them. Now, hers isn’t alcoholic of course, but Clara’s is. Not to sound like a meme but… THAT’S ABSOLUTELY HARAM (not gonna insert the image).
In Islam it’s not just forbidden to drink alcohol yourself, it’s haram to buy or help others get it also.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Allah has cursed alcohol, the one who drinks it, the one who pours it, the one who sells it, the one who buys it, the one who squeezes it, the one for whom it is squeezed, the one who carries it, and the one to whom it is carried.”
This hadith was narrated by Ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) and classed as sahih by Al-Albaani in Saheeh Abi Dawud.
In another hadith, narrated by Anas ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) in At-Tirmidhi, it says, ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) cursed ten with regard to alcohol. The one who squeezes it, the one for whom it is squeezed, the one who drinks it, the one who carries it, the one to whom it is carried, the one who pours it, the one who sells it and consumes its price, the one who buys it and the one for whom it is bought.”
So this little scene was not okay in my book because it’s not okay according to Islam.
Anyways, Khalid sees Ayesha there and he’s a little shocked to see the person he’d been silently peeking at from the window for the past few weeks in person outside of their little one minute morning routine. He’s saddened to see her in a place like the “lounge” because she seems so comfortable, like she totally fits in and is always there. When she buys the drinks, that just cements things.
Then Clara shows up and is ready to put her plan into motion, so she invites Khalid to her table to meet Ayesha. Khalid then tells her that he regrets coming to such an environment and that it was a mistake coming, he says he’s not interested in meeting the sort of Muslim who would frequent a bar.
Ayesha overhears this and is so upset she storms off. Instead of leaving though, she gets inspired and ends up on stage performing a poem of hers. I won’t put the poem here, because I still actually want some of you to check this book out for yourselves, so I can’t tell you everything. Anyways, the poem is about people being judgmental to Muslims without even knowing them, and she delivers the final line while looking directly into the audience at Khalid, a not so subtle jab over his remark.
He leaves and that’s the bitter beginning of their interactions and it lays out what type of characters we have.
Ayesha is a Muslim and unapologetically so, however, she practices and does things in her own way. The blurb for one version of the story I saw actually described her as a secular Muslim, and to be honest, had I seen that description before I read the book, I would never have opened the story. But after reading the story, I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s secular, but rather you could say she’s liberal. (Still not the best, but better than being completely secular.)
She still covers, albeit in pants-shirt-hijab type covering not necessarily abaya or even long dress. She still refrains from certain things or believes and practices certain rituals, she’s by no means ashamed of her Muslim identity. But she’s also quite liberal with certain things and in fact, while lamenting that Khalid was SOOoooo judgmental and rude, she actually proves herself to be more than a little judgmental by calling him a “fundie” and thinking he’s like some religious zealot.
Khalid meanwhile, is the conservative Muslim in this. And, to me, he’s complicated. You see, it’s not everyday that you get a practicing Muslim man as a character in these stories without him being the backwards crazy guy or the villain or the oppressive father/brother controlling the poor girl and trying to kill her for letting a single strand of hair fall from her hijab.
The book gives a rather nuanced approach to showing a regular, young Muslim man. He keeps a beard and wears a thobe and tries adhering strictly to Islamic rules, while still coming off as normal and relatable. He doesn’t have a backwards mindset, he’s not a misogynist, he’s not anti-western society, he has his hobbies and a normal job and all that.
He is a little awkward when it comes to social interactions, and that actually causes him a lot of grief throughout the story. He’s naive at times. He doesn’t know how to phrase certain things he says so they come out totally offensive and easily misinterpreted. At some points later in the story I think the author even purposely made him a little stupidly judgmental so he could look bad in those conflicts, but over all, he’s not the villain of the story. He’s still someone you’re supposed to be rooting for.
And I applaud that.
Muslims in general are often misrepresented in media. Books, movies, tv shows, you name it. The tropes are always the tubular errorists, the sexist, controlling hypocrite sheikhs or phony religious men, and on the occasion that they’re not the villains, then it’s showing Muslim women who are poor, oppressed damsels needing an all-American, GI Joe to come rescue them from their hijabs and religion and cultures.
There has been a push to undo these crooked narratives by telling positive Muslim stories, but those stories sometimes add to the problem or don’t help to fix it all the way. Case and point, a lot of the stories now are pushing to showcase empowered Muslim women taking on the world and challenging the stereotypes of the poor, uneducated Muslim woman who exists only to be a housewife and serve her husband. THAT’S GOOD.
Buuuuuuuuuuut unfortunately, in their efforts to subvert the expectation of the whole white knight savior plot-line, they go the route of “she saves herself.”
Now, why is that a problem?
Well, before I get a flood of accusations of sexism and misogyny, let me explain in five simple words.
Muslim women don’t need saving.
It doesn’t matter who you make do the rescuing, if there’s a hero who has to save the woman from the so-called restrictions and oppression of Islam, then you’re still selling the narrative that Islam is somehow backwards and unfair to women and ultimately, you’re making it evil.
Are there people around the world in various places who twist and abuse Islam to enforce their own harsh standards and oppress others? Absolutely.
But to constantly showcase that as the default and make it seem like an inherent part of Muslim life, you’re feeding the bigots and Islamophobes exactly what they want to hear. You’re contributing to their agenda.
And often times, in these stories, who are the ones being the antagonists? The Muslim men, of course. (Again, it happens in real life sometimes but the frequency portrayed lends to the trope and gives a nasty impression of all Muslim men). This creates a stereotype and leaves it to be understood that Muslim women are in fact victims of their religion and need to flee it to be free, meanwhile Muslim men are all aggressive, backwards, sexist zealots or creepy pseudo-pious slimeballs.
(That, or we get the sellout/secular approach so they have to disavow Islam to be considered decent and acceptable to western audiences)
So to see a character in this book who’s a Muslim man and he’s not the bad guy, he hasn’t cast off his religion on any level, and he’s not presented as a boring stick-in-the-mud, that’s great. As a young Muslim man, I felt pleased to get some positive representation as well. (Sorta.)
Anyways, throughout the story, Ayesha and Khalid have another run-in at a Masjid, this time it’s her turn to misjudge him because of another unfortunate circumstance and yada yada yada, they end up on a board to work on a Masjid project together. Through their work there, we learn more about some of their opposing views as well as some similarities.
Now, this is something that I will praise here. They do have nice, working chemistry as characters. When they’re interacting, there’s a good chance something humorous will happen or be said. Not laugh out loud, side splitting humor, but enough to be entertaining and build on their development. Obviously being a romantic comedy, there has to be humor in there somewhere, right?
And despite their differences, they do acknowledge that maybe they misjudged each other, there are some apologies, but without turning a 180 to the other’s side. Ayesha still views him as kind of strict and harsh, and he still believes she’s a little too out there, but they don’t think each other is the epitome of evil or bad Muslims either.
(Until she does)
Skipping over a lot, they begin to fall for each other and I do like the funny moments where they both realize that they are. Khalid is strictly of the view that any romantic feelings must only occur after marriage, and that marriage will be strictly arranged by his mother because he trusts that she knows what’s best for him. So when he finds himself with feelings well..
And Ayesha, she’s not interested in marriage at this point in her life either. She’s got other priorities, work and her dreams and her debts but there’s a constant question, when does Ayesha get to be happy? What does she want and when does she get it? So she’s also not too happy to find herself getting feelings for Khalid.
They both have this “Oh no, not her/him” moment which makes them face themselves and confront their own views and feelings.
I won’t delve into the details of where things go, I’m actually skipping a huge major plot point that details the nature of their interactions and the circumstances that would bring them together in the first place, though I suppose people who’ve read Pride and Prejudice can already guess some stuff.
So, ultimately in the end some stuff happens with the main antagonist, stuff happens with Khalid’s mom, and stuff happens with some other characters. Sheila gets taken down a few notches and the conflict is largely resolved with everyone pitching in. There are various small subplots which actually work fairly decently (even if I didn’t like them all), they make the side characters feel like they’re the protagonists of separate stories and not just side characters; so that’s good.
I’m really condensing things here because even though I said there would be spoilers in this review, I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who might be interested in reading. In fact, I’ll stop my summary here and get into my thoughts and feelings on it.
So, first off, as I read the book, my rating in mind for it did go down, and down, and down. I went from an optimistic 5 or 4 star to a 3.75, to a 3, to a 2, to a 1.5, to a 2.5, to a 2.75 to a 3, and ultimately, I think I might settle for a low 3 or high 2.
Well, while I mostly enjoyed the book, it did frustrate me at times. That was good and bad. When a character frustrates you, it can be a sign that they’re written really well. And I will say, this book was written fairly nice. I did enjoy the reading experience for the most part.
However, I said the book itself frustrated me, and that’s not a good thing. There were some parts where I felt the conflict was a little convoluted or exaggerated for plot convenience. There were some out of character moments, especially for Khalid when you feel like, “Oh, he’s changed a little for the better and has gotten some sense about speaking,” and then bam, he goes and says some extremely dumb stuff worse than how he even began in the book.
I also disliked the fact that everyone in the book who wasn’t strictly religious kind of in some way mocked those who were. Amir, Khalid’s sleezy drunk co-worker constantly mocks him and okay, for him it works because Amir is meant to be the annoying, loose, loser. Whatever. But When Ayesha or even Khalid’s sister are saying he wears a bed-sheet and looks like a “fundie”, when they constantly sort of use these terms that mostly ignorant non-Muslims use as if they’re not familiar at all with Muslims who adhere to whatever standards and dress-codes like it seems sooo foreign to them, that’s dumb.
In my family, I wear a thobe and turban just about everywhere I go, but neither of my brothers do, nor my cousins, etc etc. Never once have they been confused by my choice of dress, never once have my sisters called it a dress or bed sheets, even when they didn’t approve of me wearing it.
To see Muslim characters mocking this and constantly downing it, it just comes off as ignorant; but sadly, by the way of the writing narrative, those characters turn out to be “correct” and Khalid does need to change a little. Not TOOOOOOOOO much but still some.
So in the end, he has to trim his beard a significant amount and wear “normal” clothes and all that but they try to play it off like “clothes don’t make the man so you’re still you” which is a good message wrapped up in a whole lot of dumb.
If one’s appearance is completely insignificant to identity, then why the fuss over blending in at all? If you can say “hey, you don’t need to wear that because even without it you’re the same person,” then guess what, why do they NOT need to wear it, when even without they’d still be the same?
I also had an issue with some of the interactions and stuff I think the author didn’t pay attention to in regards to their true weight.
For instance, in one scene Ayesha scares her brother by popping into his room unexpectedly and he cries out something related to Shirk. Unfortunately, a lot of Muslims are negligent in this regard and don’t pay attention to the matter, but it really is severe and it doesn’t matter if you say it due to your environment but don’t mean it, and it doesn’t matter if your intention with writing it is just to make the characters appear “normal” in regards to their environment. Wrong is wrong.
On that note, another problem I had was the casual sins and immoralities SOME of the characters are engaged in or mention in like… a really nonchalant way. Like, when something particularly haram comes up, the story takes a neutral “don’t judge” or “no comment” approach to it. And if you’ve watched my last video, you know that that’s a problem. I’m not saying the book needs to get all preachy or stop the scene to have a character give a lecture on the awfulness of the sin, but I feel like it’s really wrong to have it played in the narrative as no big deal and it really minimizes the misdeeds in the eye of the reader, which can lead to dangerous consequences.
Further still, I feel like in some regards, Ayesha doesn’t have to learn much in the story or grow as much as the others. When she makes a misjudgment, half the time something happens to make her turn out to be right. When she thinks Khalid is overly strict and calls him backwards for the way he dresses and thinks, next thing you know he comes saying stuff about her not working outside of the home and speaking in a condescending manner about her religious commitment.
It really plays into this thing of forget taking the middle, moderate path, take Ayesha’s path. She’s evidently closer to practicing with moderation than everyone else because….just because.
The main theme is about judgement, so that’s the thing they focus on mostly, but like with Khalid for example he’s got to learn not to judge others who practice differently AND he has to ease up on how he practices. He’s too far to the right.
For Ayesha, she just has to not judge him, even though narratively speaking, she’s “right.”
The story doesn’t show her as being even a little too far to the left.
And I know the author has said that the story is meant to show that “there’s no one way to be a Muslim,” but like, it kind of feels like the story is totally telling you Ayesha’s way is the way, Khalid needs to come to her level, she’s already at a good place. She just needs to not judge him for not being there.
So that really bothered me. It was really biased and unfair.
Khalid’s mom is- well, okay no comments on her. I don’t want to spoil that. Let’s just say I didn’t like her. There are definitely real people like her, I’ve met some, but I just… I don’t know if she was the most necessary inclusion for the story since in some ways it helps further certain stereotypes.
And speaking of stereotypes, the book did address some stereotypes head on and that’s something I applaud it for. It tackled certain religious and cultural issues in semi-explanatory ways to help people get an inside view and understanding from a new perspective. It didn’t hammer you over the top with lectures on things, but I imagine someone who’s not accustomed to interacting with Muslims might learn a little bit.
That mostly plays in the side of Muslims though, not necessarily the religion of Islam itself, so I definitely wouldn’t class this as Islamic fiction. In fact, due to some content and language, I’d say it barely scrapes by at the bottom to be considered Muslim fiction.
Just a heads up to any potential readers, it does have a few cuss words. Well, depending on where you live, that’ll factor into whether you consider them cuss words, I suppose. I’m in America and yeah, these are cuss words for us.
There aren’t any overly explicit scenes, but there is some mature talk at some parts, so parents be weary. If this were a movie, it would be rated pg-13, but as a Muslim book, that doesn’t quite tell of it’s appropriateness now does it?
So, due to some things being mentioned
which I really would have preferred be left out, I’d say this is for late teens and up. This is partially why I struggled with even reviewing this book because aside from that stuff, I’d have no problem recommending people to read it, but now I’m like, I don’t want anyone to think I’m like approving of everything in this book or even them being mentioned.
Especially as a Muslim book, that kind of stuff earns it a lower rating for me. I just feel like as Muslims we have a responsibility to do better, you know? I hold my Muslim fiction books to a higher standard than ordinary fiction books, BUT I DON’T APPROVE OF IT IN THOSE EITHER JUST FYI!
That stuff aside, there were some things which would seem harmless to the average reader, but from an Islamic perspective, they’re slightly problematic. Since this is a work of fiction, I’m not really going to go into a lengthy criticism, these are fake people in fake circumstances, and I don’t need to be branded as an officer of the “HARAM POLICE” force or whatever. Just saying some of the interactions, in real life, would be Islamically improper.
It is a romcom, so I guess being half committed to romance means there would be some of the expected small stuff; so there’s the predictable “oops, our hands just accidentally touched and I’m blushing,” stuff, as well as like a scene where Ayesha brushes some twinkie crumbs from his beard, and they often find themselves alone together. Although, to be fair, the author does make one of the characters point out that bit and call it improper. So credit where credit is due.
But then you also have stuff like mentioning a character getting her eyebrows threaded, which is a big big BIG no-no in Islam. We’re talking being cursed, so not a small, overlook-able thing people.
My overall opinion of the book, if I were to give it a letter grade instead of numbers, I’d say it’s a C, maybe a C- with a “see me after class” note too. I mean, the writing is nice, the characters and the setting do feel real; I’ve never been to Canada but the story’s fits into its environment and nothing feels out of place. Overall, the plot is -decent- good, though I could do without some of the later conflicts, which I won’t spoil but eh… Um, I’ve listed my complaints and explained why I’d class it at best as Muslim fiction, but not perfect Muslim fiction, especially considering some of the risque details.
I feel like the author was going for a nice message, but some parts didn’t do it in the right way. Nonetheless, the book is worth a read, if for no other reason than to see some of what Muslim fiction has to offer and support a Muslim author trying to make it in the world of books. If you don’t like it, that’s not an issue personally, I’d say let it be inspiration then for you to write something BETTER and offer up something superior to the Muslim fiction readership. Allah knows we need that.
And um, with that said I guess I’ll conclude my review here. It’s a lot longer than I intended it to be and at the moment I’m not sure whether to post this as a written review or a video considering its length. Guess we’ll see. (spoiler alert: written).
Anyways, thank you all for reading/listening to my opinion here, I hope it was at least entertaining maybe? If you’ve read the book, I’d really like to hear some thoughts from you. Did you like it, did you love it? Hate it? Despise it? What did you think was good about it? What was bad? Share your thoughts in the comments down below!
And to everyone else, what did you think of my review? Are you now interested in the book or did I put you off from it? Are there any other Muslim or Islamic fiction books you have read and would like to share? Anything else you think I should read and review? Let me know in those comments down below.
And finally, with all of that said, thank you everyone and I’ll see you in the next discussion, In Shaa Allah. Until then, Happy Reading everyone,
As-Salaamu ‘Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh