It is the Prophet Muhammad’s(s) Sunnah(example) which inspires and motivates us towards actualising the best in ourselves. The prophet used sacred stories to elucidate his visionary mission and charge our imaginations. This month, in conversation with Nigerian writer Muhammad Umar, we discuss the power of story and how it can shape hearts and minds.
“I am naturally a very curious person. I always wanted to know things. I am inspired by political themes more than others. As Muslim I am inspired by justice and fairness but as a writer, I get drawn to try my hand on other topics, just to prove that I can do it.” – Muhammad Umar
Muhammad Umar came to book writing after an established career in journalism. To date he has written several books for both adults and children. Only have I recently become aware of his work, I was curious to find out what inspired him to combine his love of realism with imagination.
Your first novel ‘Amina’ is a social document which recounts a startling reality whilst encouraging the reader to hope and dream. Why was writing this novel important to you?
When I saw what was happening in and around my area, I began to ask questions and no one seemed to have answers for me. It was the search for answers that led me to writing the story. I always wanted to be a writer and in my novel I wanted to show the reality for posterity. There is too much injustice and oppression being carried out especially in Muslim countries and especially in the name of religion. When I realised that I could write I decided to make sure what I experienced was shared in the form of a story. I just couldn’t keep those experiences in me. Someone ought to speak out loudly and expose the hypocrisy and outright lies of the ruling classes.
Your protagonist Amina has been described as an Islamic feminist…
Yes she is and I make no apologies for that. It is not a contradiction at all. Amina is a woman who became conscious of the way her beloved religion was being misinterpreted to suit the patriarchal society. She recognised the way in which women especially were being subjected to unnecessary restrictions in modern day society. These are restrictions she found hard to accept because they were not practised even during the time of our beloved Prophet Muhammad(s). So first she organised the women and educated them and when the government banned them she decided to demonstrate against such harsh policies with a view to making other people understand the inhuman nature of such practices.
What experiences whilst working as a journalist influenced your writing?
So many experiences. Straight after my expulsion from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in 1981, I was fortunate to be offered a job as a reporter in a radio station. I travelled to different parts of the state and reported from courts, offices, police stations, prisons, mosques etc. It was a huge experience because even though I was born and brought up in that area, I took so many things for granted until I had to listen to the stories of ordinary people and report these incidents. I think it was my experiences in the courts that made me think more than any other. It was there that I saw first-hand legal oppression and powerlessness of the poor. I witnessed the brutality of the security forces and corruption in government offices. Visiting and reporting on drought-stricken areas really opened my eyes.
Having studied Political Science and Journalism, is it fair to say you perceive the world through a particular lens?
Yes it is. Political science taught me to look at particular issues from a particular angle. I was very fortunate to have been exposed at an early age to different political systems and theories. When I accidentally became a journalist, the knowledge I acquired in the classroom helped me understand the way the society was formed and how it functioned. Journalism taught me to examine things critically before reaching a conclusion. I leant to ask questions and not to assume. I was very fortunate because I studied Journalism in Moscow under the Communists – an education that enriched my understanding of the system in the former Soviet Union. I then studied Political Economy at Middlesex University in the UK. The latter education helps me understand the system in the west.
Why do you believe there is a lack of imagination being exercised amongst Muslims?
The short answer is the type of education that has been in place in Muslim countries over the centuries. Muslims are not taught to have multi-dimensional thinking. Once a child is moulded in a one-direction mode of thinking it’s very hard to think critically and imaginatively. Partly, that explains why Muslim writers are not very prolific because their readers are not very receptive to imaginative ideas. There is also a fear factor. Most Muslim countries are very repressive and repression has a way of making people fear imagination. Although some Muslim countries are rich in resources, lack of imagination has made Muslims poor in utilising these resources.
Our lack of imagination is primarily down to our attitude to knowledge in general. As Muslims we do not take knowledge seriously. Knowledge that was once the strength of Islam is now its weakness. Ignorance is the biggest enemy of Islam. We must not forget that a lot of Muslim countries were colonised and have not really freed themselves from this yoke and become creative. In western societies, Muslims find themselves restricted by so many contradictions. While on the one hand we know we could do better because we are intellectually capable like any other people, we tend to sit back and hope instead of aspire to be better human beings.
How can engaging with story improve this?
Stories are the best forms of engaging the mind especially from an early age. It’s important the mind is opened as early as possible and only imaginative stories can do that. The developed countries are way ahead because of the way they engage the minds of the people. They spend substantial amounts of their resources engaging the minds of the people while most Muslim countries do the exact opposite. Having said that, it’s not in all cases that repression stifles imagination. The Tsarist period in Russia produced the most imaginative and prolific writers. Unfortunately in the Muslim world, repression has put both physical and mental veils on the people.
“Amina opens up like a soft music and it keeps that rhythm going even when tough things are happening. I think this is what is special about it. The soft music carries on even when the fury and anger grows loud.” – Fatema Mernissi, sociologist and writer
Mohammed Umar was born in Azare in Nigeria’s Bauchi State. He studied journalism in Moscow and political economy in London. Mohammed Umar serves as a judge for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009. His first novel Amina (2005) has been published in over thirty languages. His other books include the Adventures of Jamil (2012), The Illegal Immigrant (20160, and the Hunter Becomes Hunted (2016). He lived in London.
The novel Amina is available in paperback from Amazon