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  • From the Secular to the Sacred: The Influence of Sufism on the Work of Leila Aboulela

    Billy Gray

    Chapter from the book: Jonsson, H et al. 2021. Narratives Crossing Borders: The Dynamics of Cultural Interaction.

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    The contemporary Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub has used the term 'Transcultural' to describe a specific form of Literature which he argues: demands more, both of reader and writer. It does not have the support of those cheering, waving crowds who would like you to be European or Third World, Black or African or Arab. It can rely only on that crack of light which lies between the spheres of reader and writer. Gradually that crack grows wider and where there was once only monochrome light, now there is a spectrum of colours. (Mahjoub, The Writer and Globalisation 1997) Leila Aboulela, whose first novel The Translator (2000) is a contemporary writer whose fiction has been defined as embodying predominant elements of the transcultural experience. Daughter of a Sudanese father and Egyptian mother, born in Cairo in 1964, Aboulela grew up in Khartoum but currently resides in Aberdeen, Scotland and her fiction is attuned to emerging female Muslim voices within the migrant communities of the West. Aboulela’s experience of Britain and British culture provides her with a terrain against which she attempts to articulate a specific identity: the Muslim Arab/African woman in exile. In her novels, the migrant experience serves as the foundation for a mystical but nonetheless assertive religiosity that functions as an antidote to hegemonic Western materialism. This religious frame offers not merely consolation and a firm sense of identity; it also, according to Geoffrey Nash (2012) ‘shapes an emerging awareness of difference and helps articulate an alternative to Western modernity’. According to Lleana Dimitriu (2014), the last decade has witnessed a resurgence of interest, both theoretical and creative, in the complexities of what she terms ‘faith based subject positions’, particularly in the context of global crises and mass migrations and Leila Aboulela’s fiction suggests that in the midst of postcolonial ruptures and mass migration, there is the possibility of alternative forms of ‘re-rooting’ and belonging, with ‘home’ perceived as a state of mind and identity as anchored in the tenets of religious faith. My article will engage with the manner in which Aboulela is preoccupied with the ethical dilemmas faced by Muslims currently residing in secular societies and how a mystical form of Islam –in particular Sufism – serves less as an ideological marker for her characters and more as a code of ethical behaviour and a central marker of identity.

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    Gray, B. 2021. From the Secular to the Sacred: The Influence of Sufism on the Work of Leila Aboulela. In: Jonsson, H et al (eds.), Narratives Crossing Borders. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16993/bbj.g

    This is an Open Access chapter distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (unless stated otherwise), which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright is retained by the author(s).

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    Published on June 15, 2021


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