Does this mean American Dervish intends to condemn an entire faith? Not at all — but Akhtar is perfectly happy to expose its contradictions, and how easily it can be abused. Hayat is the perfect observer in that role, with Akhtar’s bright, fast-paced writing persuasively conveying a boy’s wide-eyed shock at adult behavior. When Naveed sets his son’s precious Koran ablaze — the father has finally had enough of the faith-based squabbling under his roof — Hayat’s emotions surge as if he’s witnessing a murder: “He flashed me a treacherous smile as he held the flame to the pages and waited. It wasn’t until the paper caught fire that I realized I was surprised. I had expected the pages not to burn.”
But if the hero of the story is Hayat, its emotional heartbeat is Mina, suffused with sensuality and intelligence but often culturally bound to suppress both. Later, after she falls into a new relationship as miserable as the one she just escaped, Mina will justify the wreckage by quoting a famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Is that a moral sentiment, or the avoidance of one? Akhtar doesn’t address the matter too closely, except to voice skepticism of fundamentalism of whatever brand. “Intention,” Mina tells Hayat. “That’s all Allah cares about.” On this point, American Dervish is wholly successful: Abruptly awakened to the complexities of faith, Hayat is forced to confront both the grace of a religion and the gazillion ways in which it can spark animosities among insiders and outsiders alike. Thanks to that accomplishment, American Dervish is a strong candidate for the title of the Great Muslim American Novel.
Mark Athitakis is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs about books at American Fiction Notes (markathitakis.com).
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