REVIEW: The Good Muslim

Book by Tahmima Anam

It speaks to the depth of story in Anam’s second novel that the identity of the title character remains a mystery throughout. The obvious candidate is Sohail Haque, who turned to Islam after fighting in Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. Now, some 13 years later, Sohail is the revered leader of a small community of devout Muslims who live in shacks on top of his mother’s home in Dhaka. For Sohail, religion is a salve for the psychic wounds he incurred during the war, the only way he can be “good” again.

By comparison, Sohail’s sister Maya is a heretic. An ardent nationalist, Maya is dismayed at her brother’s unwillingness to share heroic battle stories upon his return from the front. She disparages his gradual cleaving to Islam and is devastated by his marriage to the pious widow from across the road. When Maya tries to resuscitate Sohail’s love of the arts—rescuing discarded volumes of Rilke, Fitzgerald and Lawrence—Sohail burns the books. Maya then flees her family to work as a “lady doctor” in small villages where she saves scores of women and babies. Her continued flouting of religious conventions ultimately forces her to flee again, in 1984—this time back to her family—for her own safety.

But, as in Anam’s prize-winning first novel, A Golden Age, people’s experiences—of love, family, faith—are not so easily categorized. It turns out that Maya, too, can find solace in prayer; she even, for a moment, believes that her brother may have holy powers when his visit brings their mother back from the brink of death. And for all Sohail’s goodness, he has failed quite tragically as a father. Six-year-old Zaid runs around the compound untended, hungry and filthy. He longs to go to school, but Sohail sends him instead to a madrasa, where Zaid is abused.

Despite the ubiquity of religion, at the core of this story is a family torn apart by war. Rather than a single person, the title’s “good Muslim” seems to be embodied in the forgiveness each character seeks, both from themselves and from each other.

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