Dear Prophet: A woman’s story by Ali Ansari is more a treatise on religion than a novel. The story (if there indeed is any story) is narrated in first person by Zarina who is faced with the meaninglessness of life and the inability of her religion to fill the vacuum created by the meaninglessness.
Zarina finds her religion, Islam, “a mishmash of beliefs and practices for self-purification, which I admired, and social and legal authority that allowed men to rule over women, which I rejected.” Zarina lived a substantial part of her life in America. The apparent indiscipline and meaninglessness that the Western civilization engenders in individuals is pitted in the novel against the discipline and spirituality of Islam. There is an implicit (only implicit) suggestion in the novel that Islam is superior to other religions in its potential to discipline the believers.
Why does Islamic terrorism keep increasing then? The novelist tries to give an answer to this in the character of Zarina’s son, Hamid, who raises the question: “How to save Islam from Muslims and the world from America’s greed?” Islam is right, the Muslims are wrong. America is greedy. These are the two major problems perceived by the novelist.
At the personal level, Zarina is left with her own inner conflicts: a simultaneous love for and aversion to her religion. The novel fails in dealing with the inner conflicts at the emotional level which is what literature is expected to do. Instead, the novel gives us a lot of sermons in the form of philosophical, psychological and especially religious discourses.
Here’s just one example of such a discourse: “His [Allah’s] existence, his presence, his aliveness in the believer’s life is a private truth. His objective qualities as mentioned in the Qur’an are not the point. You could call them metaphors or symbols or anything you like. If you listen to the Qur’an with your heart, even if you are reading a translation, you may feel something or you may not. The force of the feeling, if it is there, is your connection with Allah.”
Islam as it is practised today by the Muslims is not the real Islam, implies the author throughout the novel. The fact is that no religion is actually practised today in its genuine spirit by most believers. But the solution that Hamid arrives at cannot be a solution for the vast majority of people. I don’t want to spoil the possible interest of readers in the novel by mentioning that solution. Zarina herself does not arrive at any religious solution. Zarina’s own solution is not Islamic.
“We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against,” says Huntington in his much discussed book, The Clash of Civilizations.” Huntington goes on to say that Islam and Christianity, “each has been the other’s Other.” These monotheistic religions could never accept each other for various reasons. They have been fighting various wars in the name of crusades, holy wars, etc for 1400 years. Huntington implies that this conflict will go on as long as people continue to define their identity by “what they are not” rather than by what they are.
Inner hollowness and consequent quest for identity is not the only problem that the people of the Western civilisation or the Muslims are confronted with. There is the insatiable American material greed too which the novel has mentioned. But is greed a an American prerogative? Is the oil-rich, Muslim gulf region free from that evil? Is any country free from it?
The novel does try to address some very serious problems. But it leaves the reader disillusioned.
Dear Prophet: A Woman’s Story Author: Ali Ansari, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the U.S. and currently living in Coimbatore Publisher: Popular Prakashan 2012 Pages: 125 Rs.150