He just looked at me condescendingly with that sort of smile that indicates a feeling of pity for the passion of idealism and said, "The Muslim community has other needs right now. You should get involved in the political struggle which I'm a part of." Then he proceeded to try and convince me to be a part of his little project. I left without committing to anything (with all the usual salaams and other platitudes). Here was another influential person who refused to share a common vision among Muslims educated and raised here.
Everyday Muslims and non-Muslims ask questions about Islam. Some want light reading and others want in-depth studies. Many seek spiritual solace or an increase in their Taqwa and Eman. I know, as a former Christian, that bookstores are full of inspirational Christian books and stories. When I first entered Islam eight years ago, I literally devoured book after book after in my thirst for knowledge. After a while, however, I began to feel that most for knowledge. After a while, however, I began to feel that most books were very mechanical in nature. They talked about law or the five pillars or presented the beliefs in a very rote way. The only reading that gave me solace was the Qur'an, hadith and a few books by Muhammad Asad and other miscellaneous writers.
As my knowledge increased, as I knew more and more, I wanted to delve deeper into the realms of spirituality and practicality. How should I live as a Muslim today? How do I relate my faith to others? What lessons can life teach the concerned Muslim? How does the Qur'an guide my hunger for truth in this society? I looked avidly for pleasure reading that would help me in these and other areas. But nearly every book, new and old, that I encountered still stressed the same mechanical themes. Truly inspirational writing remained elusive.
And what of leisure reading selections? I love science-fiction, historical fiction, classical autobiographies and great literature. Where can I find, as Muslim, such things that would satisfy my tastes and reflect my Islamic way of life? There's really not that much out there in these categories. The situation is even more bleak if you talk about good youth stories for teenagers and college-age Muslims. Sure there are lots of books in print, but most of them are, again, boring, written poorly or simply not interesting enough to capture our young minds.
When I walk through Borders Books, Barnes & Noble or any other books store, I see that shelves come alive in the religion section with colorful, interesting and inspirational books on Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and even Buddhism. But when I see the Islam section, most of the books are basic-style technical manuals on Islam at best, or shirk-inducing, Sufi-style mystical works that are totally outside the pale of Islamic teachings.
Where are the good, solid inspirational books which show an accurate portrait of Islam as a beautiful pattern for life? Where are the biographies of practical, everyday Muslim trying to make it through this life?
Perhaps my own experience can help in the understanding of this shortage. I have literally had a dozen influential men tell me to give up writing because Muslims don't read. These men were doctors, school administrators, Imams and political activists. When you hear you vision dashed by men you normally would look up to, it can be very hard.
Also, some Muslims really don't read or buy books seemingly on principle. My brother-in-law and myself sometimes hold book tables at conventions. Many people come and get our books because they've never seen anything like them. But a few people seem to walk by with a vacant stare on their faces. Even if their children drag them to our table and beg to get one of our youth adventures, this type of parent will say no and ask their children if they wouldn't want like a sticker or poster instead from another table.
It's amazing the reasons which have stunted the growth of our own writing industry are many and varied. We have publishers who seek to suck the best deal of starving Muslim authors; we have wealthy patrons shelling out thousands to print books that are boring, poorly written but they like. This floods the market and lowers prices artificially so that genuine struggling writers have to actually lose money in order to stay competitive. We also have booksellers and stores who will only carry a book if some Sheikh or Maulana wrote it. (This is an exaggeration, of course, but you get the point.)
In addition, Muslim immigrants are oftentimes simply not aware of the wide choices available in reading because writing styles in their home countries were limited. Can you imagine a man from Cairo reading science fiction, poetic-prose, great plays, youth adventures, mysteries and such in his youth? So when his American-raised child begs from an Ahmad Deen adventure or a Muslim-oriented novella, he doesn't see it as valuable reading. Instead he may try to steer his child towards reading he sees as worthwhile, like a boring technical manual on Islam.
Luckily, like situation is beginning to improve. More native-born and second-generation Muslim authors are trying their hands at writing and some true gems are beginning to shine forth. But in order for this growth to be sustained, Muslims must take another look at the books being offered. Some are boring, of course, but a lot of new books are interesting. Also, Muslim parents are beginning to get fed up with their children reading Babysitter's Club, Goosebumps, Fear Street and Sweet Valley High. These youth stories promote dating, lying, disrespect for authority and many other poor values. Parents want a Muslim-based alternative that are just as good as secular offering and written just as well.
I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with an elderly, Indo-Pak doctor. He told me that when he was young so exciting that you imam became strong and your enthusiasm for Islam was peaked. He lamented that there were no such books for Muslim youth in English. Now the situations are changing. All the well-meaning brothers could not discourage me and other Muslims like me from using the pen for the service of Allah. I personally am working book number 14. Uthman Hutchinson is on book number 30 or something like that. And many others are pushing the bounds of the market ever further so we can provide for the needs of all Muslim audiences right here in North America.
How can you help? Well, there's an obvious answer and a not so obvious answer. Of course, be more willing to buy Muslim-written books. But widen your horizon. Patronize new authors whose writing styles interest you. Encourage you children to read Muslim-fiction and even buy the books for them before hand. If there is an author you like particularly, follow up on them and see what new things they've produced. Order from Muslim booksellers at least once or twice a month. For you, it will only be a few dollars here and there. For them, it is an encouragement to try new products and take a chance on new authors.
Together we can build a viable alternative of good, inspirational and insightful Muslim-oriented writing that we can all enjoy. May Allah help us to succeed with the pen in this society as we have succeeded in others. Ameen.