Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Dear Reader -
Growing up in the Midwest, I was always aware that my classmates and friends - and, later, my colleagues - had no idea what to make of Islam. It wasn't ignorance; they were good, smart people. They'd just never been exposed to it.
I wanted to write a book that gave the American audience a felt sense of what it was like to grow up Muslim in America. To render the faith's beauty, its simplicity, and its vivid spirituality. All of which I wanted to express in an American setting, in an American idiom.
And yet, with Islam's beauty come - as with so many religions - more troubling traditions and tendencies. It was clear to me that no novel I could write would do the subject justice without also exposing some of these more painful aspects of my life in Muslim America.
In the end, my long-standing desire to write such a book - one that opened a window onto the vibrant and complex reality of Islam in this country - wouldn't come to fruition until I realized that another story I'd been wanting to tell for much of my life could be my vehicle: the story of Mina Ali, a remarkable Pakistani woman who comes to America and brightens the lives of the Shah family, with whom she stays. Here, she meets the love of her life, Nathan Wolfsohn, a Jewish doctor. The rest is for you to discover!
Writing this book was the most difficult and joyous thing I've ever done. I am so grateful for the course of events that has put it in your hands. I hope you enjoy it.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- How does the book's Midwestern, Muslim-American, coming-of-age point of view inform your own understanding of what it is to be American?
- Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?
- Hayat's mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?
- Do you think it's valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?
- What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?
- What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?
- What is the connection between Hayat's sexual awakening and his growing
fervor for Islam?
- One of the fundamental themes in the book is how we deal with pain, how we give it meaning, and how religion can shape our relationship to pain. What view does Mina hold about this? What does the imam at the mosque have to say? And how do Hayat's thoughts on this subject evolve?
- There are a number of stories about dervishes recounted in the book. Pick one and share your thoughts. Do you agree with this outlook on life?
- The word "Islam" means "submission" in Arabic. Pick a character and the different ways in which submission has informed this character's identity and choices, perhaps in ways s/he is not even aware of.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Back Bay Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.