Islam & the Daevabad Trilogy: 3 Vital Lessons on the Meaning of Faith – A Discussion

One of the reasons that I love reading so much is how much it teaches me. Poetry helps me to better empathise with other people’s pain and hardships. Literary fiction in all its forms gives me glimpses into an array of cultures, socio-political experiences, and multitudes of identities that make up the construct of individualism. Science-fiction helps me to better comprehend our current place in the world and the plethora of potential for our growth as an intelligent, technologically obsessed race. Then there is fantasy, a genre that pushes the confines of comfort zones to show us the dynamic differences in our idealism, political preferences, and even the various ways that communities partake in religion or choose to forsake it entirely. Out of the myriad of reasons that I adore The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, this is the element that I appreciate the most: the lessons on what faith means on a deeply personal level.

My personal relationship with Islam has always been quite complex, especially during my younger years from mid-adolescence to my late twenties. As a child I was incredibly fascinated by the notion of a greater power who had created the vast world around me. I attended Sunday school and received lessons on the history of how Islam became established and the correct way to practise salat or namaz, and how every choice I made would eventually impact my ability to get into Paradise after I died. With childlike curiosity comes the need to ask questions and that is when I started to feel a humongous disconnect from my faith and my family’s faith.

Because I was never allowed to properly learn and understand the true essence of religion, I became completely disenfranchised by it; not only from Islam, but from all organised religions.

Growing up, asking questions—particularly as a biological female—was viewed as a means of leaving the religion and venturing into hypocritical territory, or becoming a munafiq. Rather than viewing these inquiries as an attempt at deepening my relationship with Islam, and thus Allah (SWT), they were received with fear and astonishment. Because I was never allowed to properly learn and understand the true essence of religion, I became completely disenfranchised by it; not only from Islam, but from all organised religions.

Religion can be a profoundly intimidating entity. There is this terrible anxiety of doing it wrong, of messing up the rituals or falling so far out of its confines that regardless of having a good heart and spirit, a person becomes mortified of going to Hell—or some variation thereof—in the afterlife. The rigid black and white dynamics that are presented to us as children can have a significant impact on how we come to perceive the very concept of faith and a Higher Being, as well as how we shall live as our futures progress. In my case, I did not feel that I could embrace an omniscient, omnipresent entity if the simple act of acquiring knowledge was viewed as a grave sin. As a rather inquisitive child and teenager, it felt completely illogical and immoral to me to go to Hell for wanting to build a more profound connection with said Great Entity.

About five to six years ago, when I reached the darkest and lowest point in my life due to severe trauma, I needed hope. I needed to believe that there was something more to life than the turmoil that I was undergoing. A friend that I had met—whom I had shared many philosophical debates with in regard to religion (she was a Pentecostal Christian Pastor) and how I struggled with accepting Islam—suggested that I should look into Islam again as an adult. After explaining to her what my childhood was like and why I was sceptical about doing research on it, she kept urging me to give it a try. Now that I was an adult, my situation was vastly different, and I also had resources available to me now that I did not have as a child, as per the arguments she made.

My ignorance was a slap to the face, leaving me feeling enraged and deeply saddened, yet surprisingly inspired.

During this period, I was also learning about the We Need Diverse Books® movement and getting more involved in the literary world as a book reviewer. This work led me to interacting with Muslim members of the bibliophile community who guided me a bit with my research. They gave me suggestions on books that focused solely on feminism in Islam and how fundamental aspects of the faith respect women rather than oppress them; how asking questions is actually encouraged—something that I did not even believe existed or could exist as these two words (feminism and Islam) never seemed like they could go hand-in-hand. My ignorance was a slap to the face, leaving me feeling enraged and deeply saddened, yet surprisingly inspired. I spent the better part of two years extensively studying Islam from the lens of intersectionality; it is something that I still do passionately to this day, and something I suspect I will keep doing until my demise. The point is that this excursion drastically changed my life and helped me build that connection with Islam that I always yearned for yet felt was completely beyond my reach due to who I was.

I provide this backstory, this context as it were, so that I may talk about how The Daevabad Trilogy has taught me three extremely fundamental lessons on what it means to be a person of faith. Regardless of one’s religion, although I use Islam here because that is my personal faith, there are three unique guidelines to always keep in mind when practising. They have helped me to become more open-minded and self-aware about my place within my religion and how it does not have to be a shackle of oppression. Instead it can be the key to finding and embracing my own sense of individualism.

Lessons #1: No Religion is Perfect

Saying this statement out loud feels like it is a simple statement of common sense. However, there is nothing common or simple about it. No religion is perfect.

No matter how much we want it to be, or how much we believe them to be, they are not infallible.  The core precepts of every faith may have at one time or another been a doctrine of flawlessness, most likely when they first came into existence. However, since religion is passed from human to human over the limitlessness of time and space, and humans are decidedly flawed, thus religion can never be perfect.

In the books, we watch as Ghassan uses faith to control and oppress the people of Daevabad. Those who practise a separate religion than him are constantly beaten down and persecuted in a brutal fashion, while likewise practitioners are given rights and privileges that many do not even deserve (i.e.: criminals). Even so, there are boundaries that come with said freedoms.

The basic foundations of both faiths are vehemently against these acts, yet somehow they have been weaponised in support of the very acts they condemn.

Similarly in real life, more often than not, especially in the modern era, religion is wielded like a sword to uphold varying political agendas. People who hold great positions of power utilise religion as a tool to maintain absolute authority rather than to use it as a source of compassion, understanding, acceptance, and to be non-judgemental. In America, Christianity is used to villainise non-Christians, LGTBQIA+ communities, and to remove reproductive rights. In many Southwest Asian countries, Islam is used for extremist propaganda and the severe oppression non-male communities. The basic foundations of both faiths are vehemently against these acts, yet somehow they have been weaponised in support of the very acts they condemn.

I do not believe that any religion should be viewed and accepted with blind faith, more so when it stems from wilful ignorance. It is much more important to understand why the established rules and principles are there as it pertains to a specific religion, and what it means to you as a person is truly how it is meant to be perceived or regarded.

When Alizayd finally stated to question the lessons he learned as a child and how it impacts the people of Daevabad, and people he cared deeply for such as Nahri, he started to realise what was truly right and what was wrong. Everything he believed was a sin turned out to be nothing more than the musings of a tyrant who sought absolute power over people he feared. Ali grew as a person while developing a deeper connection to his faith and garnering respect for his willingness to accept, learn, and acknowledge that things are not always as they seem.

Lesson #2: It is Okay to Ask Questions About What You Are Taught

This brings me to the second lesson learned: asking questions is more than okay and more often than not, it is extremely necessary!

Because no religion is perfect and everyone has their own intimate understanding of faith, it is supremely crucial to ask questions about things that we do not understand or feel uncertain or anxious about. Asking questions also helps to craft a more spiritually richer connection with one’s faith, which can then positively influence us in other avenues of our life. Being curious is not a crime or a symbol of choosing disenfranchisement.

Being curious is not a crime or a symbol of choosing disenfranchisement.

When I perform namaz now, my heart feels calmer and more connected with the act. There is no overwhelming confusion or tension that makes me feel like I am doing something incorrectly. I no longer feel like an imposter. The experience is rather meditative and has become a gigantic act of self-care that I look forward to throughout my day. This is my own personal experience, of course, and I never would have developed this relationship if I never asked questions.

Darayavahoush and Alizayd are great examples from the book series that exemplify this. In the events that take place in the third book, Dara comes to realise that what he was taught and told did not sync with the actions and behaviours that surrounded him. He began to ask questions and see a whole new side of the war that he was right in the middle of; he saw the shades of grey within the obtusely harsh blacks and whites that moulded the core of his beliefs. His questions led to him wanting to pursue a different path, one that was filled with compassion and a desire for justice.

As I mentioned above, Alizayd starts to understand that everything he was taught was founded on lies and then he ventures forth to uncover what is true and what is not. In the aftermath of acquiring the knowledge he sought, he was able to grow into the best version of himself. One who was far more open-minded and empathetic; someone more willing to admit to his wrongs and to learn from them.

Lesson #3: Religion Does Not Have to Suppress Individualism!

This brings me to my last lesson learned: religions do no need to stifle or suppress our desires to be unique and individualistic within our communities, or even within ourselves. I fought this battle my entire life because I was taught from a young age that being religious meant that I had to live by a particular cookie-cutter mould of what it meant to be Muslim. Being a trans Nonbinary Queer Muslim who enjoys body piercings and being an unattached cat human was never a possibility in my future from my childhood gaze. Even the simple act of choosing to wear a hijab was frowned upon in my household as the perception was that wearing a hijab meant I was being subjugated, and it would also diminish opportunities for me in my future; opportunities my immigrant parents worked very hard to attain and make possible.  

Individualism is what helps a religion to thrive. It nourishes the very foundations of faith to help it blossom and evolve with its people over spans of time and space

Individualism is what helps a religion to thrive. It nourishes the very foundations of faith to help it blossom and evolve with its people over spans of time and space, while also allowing a diverse myriad of folx to visualise and experience perspectives of faith—and the meaning of faith—that they may have never even contemplated. For me, it was discovering the existence of intersectional feminism within a religion that was only every used to suppress me as a child, more so where conservative gender roles were concerned.

Dara uses his knowledge and ultimate freedom to carve out a life for himself that gave him meaning beyond the fetters of torturous slavery and mass murder. He sought redemption by bringing peace and value to his people, while also learning to build a reflection of himself that was not tainted by the opinions and shards of others around him. Alizayd uses his newfound knowledge and experiences to bring about an era of peace and co-existence among groups of people who have only always known blood and death, thus finding a path for himself that was unique to his own beliefs and independence rather than what was expected of him by others.

Final Thoughts:

Religion is complicated. Choosing to be religious or partaking in any faith-based belief system can be incredibly complicated. Choosing to not believe in anything at all can also be equally complicated. There is rarely a right or wrong answer when it comes to these things because of how profoundly intimate and candid they are to a specific person. Learning to see the multi-dimensional aspects of a single faith was something I always understood logically in the back of my mind, and was a project that I was working to comprehend on a much more intricate level, and being able to read The Daevabad Trilogy helped me on this journey in outstanding ways.

Seeing the various shades of grey and even the various colours that paint the everyday lives of communities from across the globe, how their unique ethnic cultures or experiences growing up have helped to shape that connection they have with a higher being is remarkable to me. It is something that should be respected, even if they differ from what is familiar and right to you. The Daevabad Trilogy has shown me that it is not our place to cast judgements and to act so volatilely upon these passionate perceptions. Our job is to harbour compassion and understanding with an open-mind. Everything else is between an individual and their maker(s).

The point of this discussion is not to convert visitors to be more religious or to force people into accepting that their choice to not associate with religion is wrong. My goals are quite contrary. My first goal was to celebrate an aspect of one of my favourite fantasy book serials that made it such a compulsory read within the fantasy genre for me as a bibliophile. The second was to show people that no matter where they are on the spectrum of believing or not believing, there is no right or wrong way to do it, to live. The best way is what feels comfortable, safe, and square within a person. No one else matters. Their opinions should not define your own individuality. Life is short and the greatest way to make the most of it is to put faith in yourself and follow the path that feels right to you, maybe with a smidgen of compassion and unbiases.

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The Trouble with TBRs & Finding Balance: A Small Discussion + November’s Planned Reads

One of the bookish goals that I have for 2021 is to create miniature monthly To-Be-Read (TBR) lists in order to give myself some discipline with reading books that I have owned for an extended period of time.  Like many fellow bibliophiles, I have a strong tendency to purchase stacks of books when I am feeling extremely stressed out or when I desperately need to indulge in a bit of self-care, usually when nothing else has worked. While it is a fantastic way to build up a gargantuan library, it can leave a person feeling wholeheartedly guilty when they go unread, catching layers upon layers of dust on those blood-red bookshelves.

In the past, I have tried to create TBRs, to no avail. I am someone who reads based on my mood in that moment. My cravings for thrillers and fantasy and literary works, to name a few, can shift from day-to-day, or even from hour-to-hour if my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is restless. The last time that I attempted sticking to a full-sized TBR (approximately six to seven books) was at the beginning of 2020. In the end, I became intimidated by own list and abandoned the stack entirely.

As someone who lives with at-times severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), not being able to stick to a list such as this made very little sense to me and worked to further exasperate my frustrations. Especially with having ADHD, creating and abiding by lists for daily activities and work tasks helps my brain to feel less untidy and prone to anxiety. When I mentioned this to my therapist, they suggested that maybe my lists are too ambitious. Their suggestion was trying to find a balance that could accommodate my impulsive reading moods while also providing me with a small semblance of the discipline that I craved.

Honestly speaking, I felt a bit sceptical about the idea. Maybe that is due to my poor experiences with TBRs in general, or it can be chocked up to the somewhat apathetic pessimist that resides deep within my heart. Either way, after giving it much more thought, I realised by trying out their suggestion, I was not really losing anything. There would be no damage, at least not more than the normal feelings of disappointment that comes with not finishing a task. If it did work out, then not only would I be pleasantly surprised, but I would have found a solution to a very large bookish annoyance.

So, for November, I have crafted a miniature TBR pile to experiment with my therapist’s suggestion and see how it fares. There are only three titles in this stack since the end-of-year holidays tend to be the months where my reading moods are the most fidgety. If this ends up turning into a success, I can experiment with increasing the number of books slowly in future months.

I stuck to one overarching genre—fantasy—in order to keep things simple. The only real variety are the reading levels (middle-grade and adult) and the cultural backgrounds with which these tales were crafted. Check out the list below. Clicking their titles shall transport you to their respective GoodReads pages.

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta: An own-voices Indian middle-grade fantasy novel that revolves around a young girl named Kiranmala. On the morning of her twelfth birthday, her parents mysteriously vanish and a rakkhosh demon slams into her kitchen, determined to eat her alive. She realises that her parents may have been telling the truth when they told her she was an Indian princess from a different dimension. When two princes arrive to rescue her, Kiran finds herself swept into a magical interdimensional adventure, where she must solve riddles and battle demons in order to rescue her parents and save the world. This is the first book in a series called Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond.

This book has been on my overall TBR for a long time and after reading through The Daevabad Trilogy, I am craving more fantasy that is near-and-dear to my cultural roots, no matter what audiences they are for. The Serpent’s Secret seemed like a fabulous place to begin!

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao: An own-voices Chinese middle-grade fantasy adventure about twelve-year-old Faryn Liu, who is the member of the Jade Society. Faryn dreams of honouring her family and the gods by becoming a warrior, but the Society has shunned Faryn and her brother Alex, forcing them to train in secret. One day while running an errand, Faryn tumbles into a battle with a demon—and defeats it. If she can prove her worth and find an island with immortals before the Lunar New Year, Faryn may have a chance at becoming the powerful warrior she’s always dreamt of being. This is the first book in a series called The Dragon Warrior.

I really like stories about people who are shunned or exiled and must find a way back to whatever community(ies) that exiled them, only to discover how fantastic they are without the blessing of said community(ies). That is one of the biggest appeals about The Dragon Warrior for me. Plus, I think it’s awesome that the story takes place in San Francisco, which is fairly close to where I live! Lastly, the author is such a cool human and I really want to support her work.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: An own-voices Chinese adult epic historical fantasy title that everyone on every social media platform that I engage with cannot seem to stop loving. The hype surrounding this is one of the main reasons that I have hesitated in picking it up. However, given how much I have been craving incredible fantasy narratives as of late, I decided to add it to my November stack. I know the third instalment in the series is releasing either later this month or in December, so if I end up loving it, I shan’t have to wait long to wrap it up (I also own the second novel, The Dragon Republic).

I did not include a synopsis here as I prefer to go into this book with as little information as possible. But if you would like to check it out, please click its title to visit the GoodReads page.

I shall keep my fingers crossed that this works out well! How about you? Do you find sticking to planned reading lists to be challenging? Do you have any tricks or tips that help you stay dedicated?

Until next time, happy reading.

Not Good Enough: A Diverse Books Discussion + #MuslimShelfSpace Tour

Even though I had the comfort of reading, I was faced with the same ostracization in the stories

When I was a child, I loved books, even though they were at times painfully unkind to me as a Person of Colour. Because I had brown-skin, hair on my legs and arms and face, and a strange accent when I spoke, I never had many friends. Books were my solace from the terrible loneliness and sense of alienation that I encountered while growing up in a predominantly White elementary school and then later on in junior high school. Even though I had the comfort of reading, I was faced with the same ostracization in the stories that I devoured as I had amid the scuffed linoleum and muddied walls of my educational institutions.

The characters of nearly all the books that I adored as a child were White. They either had blonde or brown hair with blue or green eyes and relatively slender forms. They never had to worry about things like misspeaking in a foreign language and having an accent people used to cast judgements about their intelligence. They rarely had parents who showed protectiveness or concern for them, or had any presence in their lives at all really. They were almost always obsessed with sex or violence, and if religion ever came up, it was related to Christianity or Catholicism.

The only time I ever got to read about a Black character, or even a Brown character was when they were being portrayed as villains

The heroes and heroines of the grand adventures that I had loved so much were never People of Colour. The only time I ever got to read about a Black character, or even a Brown character was when they were being portrayed as villains or being horridly mistreated. They were inciting violence and hatred, and as such, had to be treated with malice and aggression, or worse. When one is a child, especially a lonely one that seeks solace and hope in the beauty of stories, it becomes natural to want to be able to find inspiration in those same stories. The hope is that one day I can be just as strong as the superheroes that I read about. I can be just as beautiful or handsome or attractive as the princes and princesses in common fairy tales. Hell, that I do not even have to fit the Binary gender roles. I wanted to dream about being an honourable and brave human capable of experiencing magic and splendour as a Brown person. A person who did not need love in their lives or any references to whether they were a boy or a girl, because in the face of adventure, gender really does not mean much. My hopes were always shattered with the pieces flung away into the wind like petty trash.

Because I never received representation of who I am, because I never got the chance to hold rough-textured pages between my fingers that housed black ink blotches of anything other than villainy and abuse, subjugation and dehumanisation, I never had any confidence that someone like me deserved to succeed. It was my belief growing up as a kid that Allah had put People of Colour on the planet to serve the White Christian masses, and it never settled well with me. Somewhere in the very back of my mind and at the bottom of my heart, I knew this was not the case. Yet, when all there is to go by is what was in front of me in the books that surrounded me, it was difficult to perceive it differently.

For the first time in my entire life, I read a story about a Brown-skinned Muslim girl

Then about three to four years ago, after I began blogging and was trying to get established on Netgalley, I was approved for an Advanced Reader’s Copy of S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits. For the first time in my entire life, I read a story about a Brown-skinned Muslim girl who had an overprotective family that was passionate about their Islamic faith. She had struggles that were typical of the Western teenager experience, yet she never compromised who she was just to fit in. She was wonderfully Muslim. She was beautifully individualistic with amazing hobbies and interests. She was intelligent and proud of her identity and her brown skin and was steadfast in her choice to wear a hijab. While I’m not a woman, I identified with everything else in that book.

I sat down after finishing the last page and I cried into my palms for what felt like forever. I cried tears of sadness for not having something like this years ago. I cried in joy for being able to experience so many parts of myself in the thing I loved most. I cried for finally understanding that there was nothing wrong with me and that my cultural and racial differences did not make me less worthy of success or less intelligent. It was not that books had betrayed me and let me down. It was the world, and this systemised belief that if you don’t have white skin with blue or green eyes, and faith in Jesus as a god, then you were a failure and would amount to nothing. There was no room for anything other than this binary of idealised perfection. To learn how wrong and jaded that belief was, well, it was a monumental moment, to say the least.

I wish so desperately that I had Saints and Misfits, as well as other Muslim books, when I was a child or even a pre-teen. My hopes and my faith would never have gone through the blender of betrayal and disappointment that I felt from books back then. Yet, in other ways, while I can feel remorseful for what I lacked in my youth, I deeply appreciate and cherish that the youth of today shall not be deprived as such. There are Muslim kids and young adults, and even adults as well, who have stories with Muslims of all sorts, and so many different shades of humanity, to feel at one with. Tons of novels that can show them the hope and the inspiration that I had always frantically sought.

My experiences are the reasons why I shall never stop promoting and advocating for the necessity of diversity in literature

Today, I wanted to share my story of what it meant being a Queer Indian-Fijian Muslim growing up in a world where books with characters who looked or sounded or even loved like me did not exist. My experiences are the reasons why I shall never stop promoting and advocating for the necessity of diversity in literature, especially where People of Colour and Queer People of Colour are concerned. It may seem silly and unimportant for so many folx out there. However, I also know that for every one person who says diversity is pointless, there will be tens or hundreds to stand up and lay claim to how extremely vital it truly is.

No child should have to grow up feeling like they aren’t enough.  No child should have to open a book and be told that they shall never be anything other than a villain or supporting cast. They are individuals filled with potential and possibilities that shall be marvellously unique to them, and their stories and experiences are just as important, if not more so, than all the others that choose to keep them down.

“It is hope and inspiration. It is a dream come true and a dream to aspire to.”

That is exactly what my Muslim Shelf Space means to me, as both a reader and a writer, and it is why I wanted to take a moment during Ramadan this year to talk intimately about what my Muslim Shelf Space represents in this home and my heart. It is hope and inspiration. It is a dream come true and a dream to aspire to. All these books, and all the newest additions that we are blessed with and shall continue to be blessed with, and all the brilliant humans writing these narratives, are marvels that fill my life and mind and heart with so much warmth, compassion, and belief that marginalised people are not trash, but a beacon of what we can accomplish and the joy that we can shape the future with in spite of being told that we’re not enough. Because you know what? We are enough.

My Muslim Shelf Space

Authors A to F
Authors G to M
Authors M to W