Ustadh Farid Dingle is asked about the use and benefit of literary fiction, and advises on their possible detriment to faith and love of Allah.
Assalam alaykum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh.
I would like to ask a question regarding reading literature:
I always enjoyed reading and, especially growing up, I spent many hours reading some of the greatest classics in my own language (Portuguese) and in English. After I became Muslim, I was discouraged from continuing doing so by fellow Muslims. I was told that it was a waste of time to read fiction and stories of people who never existed, regardless of how well these stories have been written. Also, from my own perspective, I started noticing that many of these novels tell stories of morally corrupt people (from an Islamic point of view) and that love, romance, betrayal, even adultery and substance abuse are commonplace. Before Islam I would not even consider this moral aspect, and the mastery of the spoken word was enough to engage me, but now I feel uneasy. Is my reluctance and my Muslims friends’ criticism justified?
I will be grateful for your advice.
Wa alaykum assaalam wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh.
Dear questioner, I will try to answer your question from a few different angles.
The book as your friend
And He has said of the believers that they ‘shun what is vain’ [23:3]
And He has said, ‘And when you see those who engage in [offensive] discourse concerning Our verses, then turn away from them until they enter into another conversion. And if Satan should cause you to forget, then do not remain after the reminder with the wrongdoing people.’ [6:68]
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) mentioned three people who would taste the sweetness of faith and of them was, ‘he who would hate to return to disbelief after Allah had saved him just as anyone would hate to be thrown into a fire.’ [Bukhari]
These verses and this hadith tell us that the general rule is to have nothing to do with ‘vain’ ideas and words and books that do not conform to the high morals of Iman, Islam and Ihsan.
And Allah Most High has told us, ‘O you who have believe, fear Allah and be with the true.’ [9:119]
And the Prophet of Allah has said, ‘ًA person is on the religion on his close friend, so let each of you look well to whom he takes as a close friend.
In view of this guidance, we have to make sure that the social, literary and cyber society is something that increases our faith, resolve to change, fear Allah etc., and not something that reminds us of disbelief, turning away from Allah, and preferring ephemeral pleasures to the worship and good-pleasure of Allah Most High.
For this reason, one should be very careful, as you have clearly expressed, of reading material, even if it be of high literary value, that does not lift us up, especially if it talks about clearer immoral and licentious deeds, and even more so if they remind one of a lifestyle and modus operandi that one once followed.
Personally, I have found certain great literary works like Les Miserables, Robinson Crusoe, and a number of Shakespeare’s works like Hamlet and Macbeth, morally uplifting. Even some “in appropriate works”, like Naguib Mahfouz’s Respected Sir, I definitely benefited from as a student of Arabic and as a reminder of the Faustian deal of this world.
Many others, personally, I have found more harmful than beneficial: much of Shakespeare’s work, and many 19th century works like certain works of Hardy and Dickens. The language is amazing, the characterization masterful, but very little moral benefit in the end.
I remember reading the Monastery by Sir Walter Scott and having to put the book down after a short while after getting the sense that although he was outwardly defending religion and, perhaps, religious freedom, he was actually organised religion. (Maybe that’s just my jaundiced view!)
The upshot is that we have to be very selective of what we allow to enter our hearts and minds. It is actually our responsibility to protect them: ‘And pursue not that which you have no knowledge of; the hearing, the sight, the heart — all of those shall be questioned of.’ [17: 36]
Calling others to Islam
Despite all the foregoing, it is important to note that calling others to Islam, and that can only happen properly with a full understanding of the language and culture of those being called to Islam. To be able to do this, we do need to read literature and get some level of cultural exposure, within reasonable bounds of course.
If we look at many well-intentioned translations of religious works, or if we listen to certain lectures by certain religious guides, we feel the huge language gap and we suffer from the disparity in cultural references and norms. All of this is relevant in calling people to Islam.
Do you need to read everything, pure and rotten, and watch every film that the target audience has watched in order to talk to them on their level? There is a level of god-fearing judgment needed to answer this question.
One of Allah many blessings upon us is that He has given us very short lives and very limited resources, both of which force upon us a very acute need to prioritize what we do, say, hear and see. Even if something is very beneficial, or even morally incumbent, if may offer be secondary to something even more important and pressing.
If we sit down and ask ourselves very honestly, our knowledge of the Quran and Sunna is very, very limited. Our familiarity and attachment to the live of the best person very to have lived (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is not really there, and the lessons that we have drawn from the best generations after him are very few. In light of this, for most of us, or many of us, to really dedicate our few hours of spare time to anything else is to some extent embarrassing.
We need to prioritize what is obligatory over that which is merely beneficial.
Find something in Portuguese that morally uplifts us to some extent, and read with the intention of giving yourself more energy to worship Allah; read with the intention that your language becomes above average such that you can translate the keys texts of Islam into Portuguese and guide people. Whenever you feel something bad in the book, go to another one, unless the benefit is clearly far exceeding the harm.
I pray this helps.
Checked and approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani.