Teaching Diaspora Literature:
by Mohja Kahf
Is there such a thing as Muslim American literature (MAL)? I argue that there is: It begins with
the Muslims of the Black Arts Movement (1965–75). The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of
its iconic texts; it includes American Sufi writing, secular ethnic novels, writing by immigrant and
second-generation Muslims, and religious American Muslim literature.
I suggest the following typology of MAL only as a foothold, a means of bringing a tentative order
to the many texts, one that should be challenged, and maybe ultimately dropped altogether.
Movement (BAM) are the first set of writings in American literature to voice a cultural position
identifiable as Muslim. Contemporary Muslim writing that takes the achievements of the BAM as an important literary influence also belongs here, and is characterized similarly by its “outsider”status, moral critique of mainstream American values, and often prophetic, visionary tone.
in aesthetic terms, as writers who share a broad Sufi cultural foundation undergirding their
literary work. Their writings often show familiarity with the Sufi poets of several classical Muslim literatures (e.g., in Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Urdu), as well as with American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, and that which tends toward the spiritual and the ecstatic in modern American poetry.
Here is an example of just a few writers in each category, by no means a comprehensive list:
Prophets of Dissent
From the Black Arts Movement:
• Marvin X, whose Fly to Allah (1969) is possibly the first book of poems published in English
by a Muslim American author.
• Sonia Sanchez, whose A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is the work of
her Muslim period.
• Amiri Baraka, whose A Black Mass (2002) renders the Nation of Islam’s Yacoub genesis
theology into drama. As with Sanchez, the author was Muslim only briefly but the influence
of the Islamic period stretches over a significant part of his overall production.
Later Prophets of Dissent include:
• Calligraphy of Thought, the Bay area poetry venue for young “Generation M” Muslim
American spoken word artists who today continue in the visionary and dissenting mode of
• Suheir Hammad, Palestinian New Yorker, diva of Def Poetry Jam (on Broadway and HBO),
whose tribute to June Jordan in her first book of poetry, Born Palestinian, Born Black
(1996), establishes her line of descent from the BAM, at least as one (major) influence on
• El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) is an iconic figure for this mode of Muslim American
writing and, indeed, for many writers in all four categories.
• Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, an influential figure in the mainstream American
poetry scene, with a literary prize named after him at the University of Utah, brought the
ghazal into fashion in English so that it is now taught among other forms in MFA programs.
• Naomi Shihab Nye, Palestinian American, likewise a “crossover” poet whose work enjoys
prominence in American letters, takes on Muslim content in a significant amount of her
• Sam Hamod, an Arab midwesterner who was publishing poetry in journals at the same time
as Marvin X.
• Nahid Rachlin’s fiction has been published since well before the recent wave of literature by
others who, like her, are Iranian immigrants.
• Mustafa Mutabaruka, an African American Muslim, debut novel Seed (2002).
• Samina Ali, midwesterner of Indian parentage, debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004),
was featured on the June 2004 cover of Poets & Writers.
• Khaled Hosseini, debut novel The Kite Runner (2003).
• Michael Muhammad Knight, a Muslim of New York Irish Catholic background, whose punk
rock novel The Taqwacores (2004) delves deeply into Muslim identity issues.
• There are a number of journals where Muslim American literature of various ethnicities can
be found today, among them Chowrangi, a Pakistani American magazine out of New
Jersey, and Mizna, an Arab American poetry magazine out of Minneapolis.
New American Transcendentalists
• Daniel (Abd al-Hayy) Moore is an excellent example of this mode of Muslim American
writing. California-born, he published as a Beat poet in the early sixties, became a Sufi
Muslim, renounced poetry for a decade, then renounced his renouncement and began
publishing again, prolifically and with a rare talent. His Ramadan Sonnets (City Lights,
1986) is a marriage of content and form that exemplifies the “Muslim/American” simultaneity
of Muslim American art.
• The Rumi phenomenon: apparently the most read poet in America is a Muslim. He merits
mention for that, although technically I am not including literature in translation. Then again,
why not? As with so many other of my limits, this is arbitrary and only awaits someone to
make a case against it.
• Journals publishing poetry in this mode include The American Muslim, Sufi, Qalbi, and
New American Pilgrims
• Pamela Taylor writes Muslim American science fiction. Iman Yusuf writes “Islamic
romance.” This group of writers is not limited to genre writers, however. Dasham Brookins
writes and performs poetry and maintains a website, MuslimPoet.com, where poets such as
Samantha Sanchez post. Umm Zakiyya (pseud.) has written a novel, If I Should Speak
(2001), about a young Muslim American and her roommates in college.
Websites tend to ban erotica and blasphemy, for example. The Islamic Writers Alliance, a
group formed by Muslim American women, has just put out its first anthology. Major
published authors have yet to emerge in this grouping, but there is no reason to think they
will not eventually do so.
My criteria for Muslim American literature are a flexible combination of three factors:
Muslim authorship. Including this factor, however vague or tenuous, prevents widening the
scope to the point of meaninglessness, rather than simply including any work about Muslims by
an author with no biographical connection to the slightest sliver of Muslim identity (such as
Robert Ferrigno with his recent dystopian novel about a fanatical Muslim takeover of America).
It is a cultural, not religious, notion of Muslim that is relevant. A “lapsed Muslim” author, as one
poet on my roster called himself, is still a Muslim author for my purposes. I am not interested in
levels of commitment or practice, but in literary Muslimness.
Language and aesthetic of the writing.
Relevance of themes or content.
mainly at fiction and poetry, with autobiography and memoir writings selectively included. I have not included writings in languages other than English, although there are Muslims in America who write in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages. I have looked at the twentieth century onward, and there is archival digging to be done in earlier periods: the Spanish colonial era may yield Muslim writing, and we already know that some enslaved Muslims in the nineteenth century have left narratives. More research is needed. If one expands the field from “literature” to“Muslim American culture,” one can also include Motown, rap, and hip-hop lyrics by Muslim
artists, screenplays such as the Muslim American classic The Message by the late Syrian
American producer Mustapha Aqqad, books written for children, sermons, essays, and other
There are pleasures and patterns that emerge from reading this profusion of disparate texts
under the rubric of Muslim American cultural narrative. It is time! I hope, as this field emerges,
that others will do work in areas I have left aside in this brief initial exploration.