“Halal fiction” and the limits of postsecularism: Criticism, critique, and the Muslim in Leila Aboulela’s Minaret

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This article examines Leila Aboulela’s 2005 novel Minaret, considering the extent to which it can be seen as an example of a postsecular text. The work has been praised by some as one of the most cogent attempts to communicate a life of Islamic faith in the English language novel form. Others have expressed concern about what they perceive as its apparent endorsement of submissiveness and a secondary status for women, along with its silence on some of the more thorny political issues facing Islam in the modern world. I argue that both these readings are shaped by the current “market” for Muslim novels, which places on such texts the onus of being “authentically representative”. Moreover, while apparently underwriting claims to authenticity, Aboulela’s technique of unvarnished realism requires of the reader the kind of suspension of disbelief in the metaphysical that appears to run contrary to the secular trajectory of the English literary novel in the last 300 years. I take issue with binarist versions of the postsecular thesis that equate the post-Enlightenment West with relentless desacralization and the “Islamic world” with a persistent collectivist and spiritual outlook, and suggest that we pay more attention to fundamental narrative elements which recur across the supposed West/East divide. Historically simplistic understandings of the secularization of culture — followed in the last few years by a postsecular turn — misrepresent the actual evolution of the novel. The “religious” persists, albeit transmuted into symbolic schema and themes of material or emotional redemption. I end by arguing for the renewed relevance of the kind of analysis of literary “archetypes” suggested by Northrop Frye, albeit disentangled from its specifically Christian resonances and infused by more attention to cultural cross-pollination. It is this type of approach that seems more accurately to account for the peculiarities of Aboulela’s fiction.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Journal of Commonwealth Literature
Early online date13 Feb 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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