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The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam.

August 6, 2013

The Good Muslim, by Tahmima Anam.


A moving novel by a woman from Bangladesh exploring how people coped after their war for independence is won.

In her first fine novel, A Golden Age, Tahmima Anam told the story of a mother and her two college-age children during the war for independence in Bangladesh. In this novel Anam follows the same family after the war has ended but its scars remain.   The book moves back and forth through time, recounting what happened when the war ended and the problems that still festered a decade later when the mother’s illness and the problems of Sohail’s son force a new resolution.  Although a sequel, The Good Muslim stands alone and does not require readers to have read the first novel.  As in her first novel, Anam writes with great power, bringing readers to feel what her characters are experiencing.

 Before the war, Sohail and Maya, his sister, had been extremely close to each other and to their mother, Rehana.  Even though their side had won and Bangladesh had gained its independence, the war had taken its toll.  Their old patterns of life had been lost.  Sohail had returned to his family’s home, deeply shaken by what he did and saw during the war.

This is how the war made its way into their house.  Sohail, spilling water from his glass…A shake of the hand.  A silence between siblings.

The Good Muslim presents religion in a complex and nuanced manner.  Finding inner peace that was nowhere else available, Sohail became an extremely devote Muslim, so devote that he acted in ways that his mother and sister believed were thoughtless and dangerous.  For him, Islam became all that mattered to him.

The Book spoke to his every sorrow, to every bruise of his life. It spoke to the knife passing across the throat of an innocent man; it spoke to the day his father died, hand on his arrested heart; and it spoke to the machine-gun sound that echoed in his chest, night after night, and to the hollow where Piya had been.  And every idea he had ever had about the world, it spoke to those too.  That every man was equal before God—how foolish of him to believe that Marx had invented that concept, when it was ancient, even deeper than ancient, embedded in the germ of every being; that is what God intended, what God had created.  He wept from the beauty of it.

Even Maya found refuse in religious rituals when her mother was seriously ill.  Yet, as Anam shows, religious devotion created painful divisions between loved ones.  The issue is not about Islam, but competing claims of faith and family present in any deep faith and committment.

Sohail’s mother reluctantly accepted how her son had changed.

She was no longer the protective, panicky mother she had once been.  If Sohail wanted to burn his books, if he wanted to throw away his furniture and unscrew the light sockets and piss in a hole in the ground, so be it.  Once she had given everything for her children.  Now she was in retreat from them, passively accepting whatever they chose to do: turning to God, running away, refusing to send their children to school.  There was nothing left in her.

Maya was not so tolerant.   Before the war, neither Sohail and Maya saw any value in religion, viewing it only as the impetus for the Pakistani violence against the Bangladesh.  As a practicing doctor, Maya retained her commitment to scientific explanations.  She was determined to regain the same closeness with her brother that they had known as children when for a time they were forced to live with relatives,  rather than their mother.  Anam sympathizes with both Sohail’s extreme religiosity and Maya’s searing rejection of it.

Like Bastard of Istanbul, the last book I read, this is a story about what we choose to remember and forget, decisions that shape who we are.  In addition to what she saw as her brother’s abandonment, Maya was haunted by her own actions as a doctor and aware of what other women had suffered during and after the war.  Many Bangladesh women had been raped by the Pakistani soldiers.  After the war, Bangladesh leaders had lauded women for their sacrifices, but did not want them to bear children from the rapes. Her duty was to provide abortions, and their duty was to forget what had happened to them.

Defiled by the enemy. The child in your womb is a bastard child, a vial of poison. You must not allow it to come into the world.  You must not give it the milk of your breast. What has been done can be undone….Do not think of it as your child, it is the seed of the enemy.

Now Maya wanted the suffering of the women to be honored like that of the men who were soldiers.  Although the book is titled The Good Muslim, its story is Maya’s as much as her brother’s.

Anam is a scholar turned novelist who was born in Bangladesh and has lived around the world.  She earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Harvard but decided that the stories she wanted to tell were not the ones that could be documented with footnotes.  Rejecting “a certain notion of truthfulness,” she turned to fiction in order to write about ordinary people and how the war impacted their lives.  In this book, she again gives us fictional social history, as Jill Lerope and eighteenth-century novelists suggested.  What she achieves is another compelling book with characters with whom I empathize even though their world and their choices are vastly different from my own.

I strongly recommend The Good Muslim, and A Golden Age, to all readers who appreciate fine writing and strong characters, especially those interested in Bangladesh, in the personal costs of war, and the pain of those we love not sharing our deepest beliefs.


 A Golden Age.

The Bastard of Istanbul.

Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna.  A novel about war in Sierra Leone which I will review next week.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2013 1:54 pm

    I read an excerpt of Tahmima Anam’s writing in Granta recently (if I remember correctly, it’s a sequel to The Good Muslim) and I very much enjoyed her writing. I’ll have to read more of her work.

    • August 9, 2013 9:14 am

      Yes. Do read her books. I think the first one was the best.


  1. Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forma. | Me, you, and books

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