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In the Name of God بسم الله

Reading novels

Guest Zahraa

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Guest Zahraa

I really like reading novels and it's one of my favourite hobbies. However, there are lots of bad things (haram) in books because the authors aren't muslims. Even muslim authors who write novels sometimes include bad things in several books. I thought about not taking English literature courses to discourage myself about this idea because they'll make me love this subject even more. I know that I won't know when the bad part is coming and even if I skip it, I will already see it and know what it's about. Any advice?

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This is from a laypersons perspective, so bear that in mind.

In my experience subjects vary in terms of their 'scientific' or cultural content.

Simplistically speaking at one end of the spectrum you have subjects such as maths and engineering whose science content is high and cultural content is low (in my opinion).

At the other end of such a spectrum you have the visual arts, literature and so on where the cultural content is high and the science content low (again generally speaking).

Where the cultural content is high you will tend to find that you will be exposed to material that embodies non-Muslim aesthetics, values and morals to a higher extent than would be the case in other subjects.

Now much of this material may be different to what may be considered good in Islam, but it may not necessarily be objectionable. However there may well be material which is grossly offensive to Muslim sensitivities or indeed any sensitivities. But the prevailing ethics seem to hold that if it is in the name of art it is ok. Though of course some subjects are still taboo and if you fancy having a career of any description you can't ask why some subjects can be treated in a particular way and others cannot.

You will also find that although western universities make much of their promotion of independent thought and critical thinking they do actually practice these within specific boundaries. Unless they are very liberal, your teachers will not appreciate your bringing into any discussion values and norms from your Muslim background.

I am using phrases such as 'generally speaking' because even within arts courses it is possible to study individual subjects that may have a high technical content e.g various forms of textual analysis - which are more likely to be independent of values etc. These may well provide you with skills that are very useful in any subsequent career and which can even be applied to improving your knowledge of your religion.

Personally I believe that the writing and consumption of fiction does have an important to role to play in society, but what we read and watch will ultimately influence us in some way. And as you correctly point out literature can have material that is unIslamic and sometimes grossly so. You could of course examine any syllabus and reading list beforehand to assess the risks.

An alternative approach may be to consider a subject such as history that involves similar cognitive processes, but where you are less likely to encounter the same problems.

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  • 2 months later...
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Quite late to the discussion, but for future readers, I thought I'd give my thoughts as an English literature student who's starting his Masters inshallah this autumn, and who has had the liberty to study literature in two countries (did an exchange year abroad).

Of course, I'm not a jurist, so I won't try to give any specific answers. Rather, I'll try and approach it from a reflective manner - which is what you essentially learn by studying literature. And hopefully, it may help you to look at the issue more objectively. 

First, I want to draw a distinction between reading literature and studying it.

When you normally read, in the vast majority of cases, you only consume. You read as a form of entertainment. That is very different to when you're studying literature. When you study literature, you do "close readings". You read with questions in mind. 

You look at things such as:

  • The life of the author (how did the author's life shape the work?)
  • Historical/cultural context (does it represent the current culture n society, or does it comment on and challenge cultural norms?)
  • Literary movements and periods (is the work part of a literary movement and/or period?)
  • Symbolism (are there symbols present? what do they represent?)
  • Historical and/or cultural significance (how did the work affect society and future writers?)

and most importantly, you'll look at:

  • Message and meaning (how is the work interpreted? and how do you personally interpret it?)

Now I want to add a quote my professors once told me, which went something along the lines of "you can hate the author, and disagree with their opinions/message all you want, but you can't disregard their historical significance". 

Whether we like it or not, literature with immoral values exists, and some of them, have had a huge cultural impact. But when you study literature, you're in essence dissecting works, and seeing how each part fits within the work and within its historical/cultural context. Instead of simply being a consumer looking for entertainment, you'd actually be more aware of why those immoral values are present, and how they affect and represent society. And I need to emphasize this, literature is a representation of society. It mirrors society. By examining literature, you can understand society, and how it has evolved. 

For instance, we once read a book about a non-religious woman living with her brother's family in a Christian society. She eventually moves away to a rural village where she becomes a witch and forms a pact with satan, who in turn gives her "freedom". Some of the messages and values of this book were really off and unislamic. And reading it as a normal reader, that might be exactly what you're left with: A woman struggles, who then achieves freedom by living on her own and forming a pact with the devil, which is not something you'd want to poison young kids with. But by studying it (as opposed to simply reading), you begin to look at it differently. There's something important you become aware of. You learn about women's experience in society during the times, and how certain issues, were enough to "push them" towards "new age religion" and witchcraft. You also understand some of the elements behind the rise of "new age religion" (women viewing it as empowerment in contrast with Christianity which was seen as suppressive). These ideas, in my opinion, will only help to protect and strengthen your deen as you become more knowledgeable about various issues and how they have shaped society and culture. 

Having said all of that, I should mention that in most cases, there won't be anything "that bad" in terms of halal-haram. Of course, this also depends on the course and university, but in general, literature studies tend to examine older works. As you move to newer periods, questionable values/messages may pop up, but again, you're examining them, not enjoying them. 

Hope this helped somewhat.

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