I became interested in American Dervish because I wanted to read something from a different perspective: in this case, a novel by a Pakistani author reflecting on a young American Muslim boy’s experience. The story opens with Hayat Shah when he is college-aged, as he attends an Islamic Studies class. The professor, with whom Hayat is friendly, makes statements that are blasphemous to some of the other Muslim students in attendance, but Hayat himself has a somewhat blasé attitude toward his professor’s claims. Afterward, a friend opens a discussion on the subject with Hayat, which prompts Hayat to reflect on his past and current relationship with Islam.
The Shahs are not particularly active or devout Muslims; they don’t attend mosque and aren’t connected with other Pakistani Muslims in the region. When Mina, a longtime friend of Mrs. Shah, reaches out after escaping an abusive situation in her native Pakistan, she and her son come to live with the Shahs in America. Possessed with a fierce intellect and innate sense of independence, Mina was threatening to her husband and his family for not fitting neatly into the role that was expected of her. Nonetheless, she has a deep spiritual connection to Islam and begins to practice study of the Quran with Hayat. Mina’s fervor, insight, and unique analysis of the meanings of the Quran are arresting to Hayat, and as a result, his growing zeal for Islam becomes inextricably linked to a similarly growing infatuation with Mina.
So, it is a combination of jealousy as well as some well-timed remarks from an influential man in the Muslim community that contorts Hayat’s faith and guides him to actions that he thinks will bring Mina closer to him, but in fact push her away and splinter his family. Unpacking his mistake takes a great deal of time and reflection, and it causes him to, like his father before him, turn away from Islam and leave his Quran study behind.
I liked the basic plot of the book, and as a coming of age story I found it poignant and interesting. In terms of going into the book seeking a different perspective, I certainly believe that I understand the author’s bias regarding Islam. Perhaps unfortunately, his viewpoint, even as a man of Pakistani descent, is almost exactly similar to the popular American narrative about Islam and Muslim families, so I wouldn’t say that my perspective was broadened, per se. To that effect, there are complaints about the book that it panders to Americans and that it’s not an accurate portrayal of the average Muslim experience. Obviously I cannot speak to this, and I’ll confess that the version of Islam here is, as a secular feminist woman, one that upholds my expectations. I wonder if the author’s treatment of Islam was, then, intentionally one-sided? This seeming superficiality left me with a lot of lingering questions.