It is difficult to write about something as ineffable as faith. Faith is fluid and formless and tender – to try to capture it print is, inevitably, to flatten and calcify it. Handled poorly, faith is too often reduced to the stark lines of religion, when it is both more and less than that, as elusive and inevitable as a shadow.
That is, however, the task that Anugerah: Pencarian Sebuah Makna, a bilingual collection of short stories and poetry by Bruneian writers and published by the Ikhtiyar Group, have set for themselves. The collection attempts to capture and motivate moments of religious epiphany. While there are some genuinely moving scenes, overall Anugerah comes across as heavy-handed, preachy and naïve.
Admittedly, I might not be the target demographic for this collection. Unfortunately, I don’t know who is. The stories skew young and/or melodramatic: university students in the UK who find faith due to homesickness amid the decadent immorality of the West; success after the patient prayers of martyred parents for their wayward children; near-death experiences triggering newfound revelations on the meaning of life and relationships.
The writing is unsure and uneven – there are large chunks of exposition throughout, and many of the stories use a rather belaboured third person omniscient narrator to tell the reader exactly how they should be feeling about plot developments.
The Malay is Malaysian, with footnotes to explain Bruneian phrases like “agatah” and “taruh”. In one unnecessary instance, a footnote explains that “hun” is an abbreviation of “honey”. Characters speak rather improbably in Quranic verse and hadith.
Overall, the collection is well-intentioned but I would have liked to have seen more complexity, more diversity, more nuance. The protagonists take surprisingly little convincing to reform and be reborn into faith, and once convinced, have minimal difficulty in changing their entire lives.
Anugerah has set itself the hard task of articulating this delicate internal moment of change; where this collection has not quite succeeded, it has paved the way for future collections to do so. Readers looking for other Muslim conversion narratives might want to pick up G. Willow Wilson’s acclaimed The Butterfly Mosque, which is complex, questioning, searching.
‘Anugerah’ is available through the Ikhtiyar Group.
Taking a different approach is Aisha Malik’s second halal romance, For You, I Do, aself-published novella available as an e-book on Amazon.
This story of two doctors, Raihana and Zaid, working together in a KL hospital and finding love has its faults – a regressive depiction of women, a romantic hero whose emotional stuntedness and consequent brusque behavior is played problematically as a tribute to the heroine’s ability to make him feel.
However, the writing is polished and easy to read, the story has pace and propulsion, and while you may not agree with the decisions and choices made by the characters in the way they choose to perform their faith, you can understand them. There is internal consistency and believability in the way Raihana and Zaid move through the hospital and towards each other, according to their understanding of Islam.
Yes, the limited prescriptiveness for Muslim femininity is grating – Raihana’s petiteness, domestic virtues, physical modesty and constant need to be saved are contrasted harshly by Zaid to the “dragon lady” Dr Lim, the “stick thin” maneater Dr Siti, and other “girls” who “whine and complain”.
Problematic as it is, however, the novella is lively and full of movement, and the antiquated gender norms and mild flirt-shaming, sadly, may be familiar and representative. Readers who are looking for other Muslim romances may wish to look at the works of Na’ima Robert, Leila Aboulela, the other Ayisha Malik, and most recently Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate & Other Filters.
Art can and probably should have a moral purpose. But it should also be art – skilled, crafted, and shaped. That’s what makes the difference between a lecture and a story, a scolding and a sharing, and ultimately, between Anugerah and For You, I Do.
‘For You, I Do’ is available on Amazon for USD$2.99.
Dr Kathrina Mohd Daud is a lecturer in the English programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is also an author, playwright and co-founder of Salted Egg Theatre, an all-female theatre troupe from Brunei.