Muslim Representations of Britain, 1988-Present

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


The publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses in 1988 and the fatwa that followed a year later saw a flurry of fictional texts being produced by both orthodox and non-practising Muslim authors. Much of this fiction seeks to portray the concerns of British-based members of the transnational faith group of Islam. No other critic has attempted to chart the historical development of such writing, tending to view it instead as part of broader ‘multicultural’ or ‘postcolonial’ canons. This Leverhulme-funded monograph is an attempt to fill the critical gap, examining various prose fiction forms, as well as the book history of their production and dissemination.

I will argue that 1989, the year of the collapse of communism as well as the Rushdie affair (see Ganguly, 2016), has been more of a turning point on perceptions of and by Muslims in Britain than 9/11. This is why Muslim Representations of Britain, 1988−Present begins with discussion of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and then examines the long shadow this text has cast on subsequent Muslim literary representations.

My research indicates that in the wake of the riots in northern England in 2001, the attacks on the United States later that year, and the onset of the so-called War on Terror, there was another acceleration of British fiction’s preoccupation with Islam. Moreover, literary strategies for representing Muslim communities have undergone significant alteration since 1989 and 2001. My contention is that in this century’s climate of Islamophobia and wars of questionable legality, growing numbers of writers are representing specific British Muslim communities in a more nuanced and stylistically experimental way than has been attempted previously. Non-Muslim British authors such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, and even the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have fictionalized terrorism and the figure of the violent extremist. By contrast, Muslim writers tend to examine Islam in subtler ways and from the inside, while often remaining critical of the religion, its practices and accretions.

The project will:
• provide the first book-length critical evaluation of fictional representations of Muslims in Britain;
• trace the evolution of these portrayals from stereotypical depictions in the wake of the Rushdie affair to the more varied post-9/11, post-7/7, and post-Arab Spring literary interest in Islam;
• explore connections between writers’ generic experimentalism and their interpretations of life as Muslims in Britain. Genres studied include fiction, short stories, autobiographical fiction, crime fiction, and chick lit or the ‘veiled bestseller’ (Whitlock, 2007)
• discuss the neglected area of the materialist aspects of literary production, particularly publishing and marketing, in relation to writers of Muslim heritage.

My research will overlap productively with recent studies deconstructing Britishness and post-war English literature (MacPhee, 2011), with writing on ‘postcolonial London’ by such scholars as Sukhdev Sandhu and John McLeod, and scholarship on devolutionary, provincial migrant writing (Procter, 2003; Pearce, Fowler, and Crawshaw, 2013). It will break new ground by offering detailed analysis of the ways in which novelists challenge attempts to constrict Islam into an exclusive, singular identity as distortions of the religion’s pluralist history.

This project is distinctive because no other work offers a comparable history of British Muslim writing. Because of Rehana Ahmed’s important emphasis on social class, her monograph Writing British Muslims focuses on the most impoverished and disadvantaged ethnic group, South Asian Muslims. Like my book, Geoffrey Nash’s Writing Muslim Identity incorporates literary criticism of Muslim writers from Arab, African, Turkish and Persian backgrounds as well as South Asians. However, Nash does not explore Britain in much detail, including just one chapter on British migrant Muslim fiction, while the book’s other chapters explore global issues (gender, modernity, and the figure of the terrorist). My book offers a comprehensive and cohesive account of the corpus of British Muslim writing, underpinned by salient theories drawn from postcolonial studies, sociology, and religious studies. I strive to create a new kind of critical practice that attends to the way in which migrant and minority communities and discourses are increasingly ‘re-marginalized’. This re-marginalization happens in and through resurgent nationalist, ethnic, and class hierarchical discourses, and often uses simplified, historically amnesiac, and politically expedient argumentation.

Not only is the content of my research innovative, but the way in which I will carry it out is also agenda-setting. I own what is probably the country’s largest collection of fiction by British authors from Muslim backgrounds. As part of the research for this book, I will draw on Moretti’s Distant Reading and James F. English’s special issue ‘Scale and Value: New and Digital Approaches to Literary History’ (Modern Language Quarterly) to create a spreadsheet into which will be entered the details of this and other post-Satanic Verses British Muslim fiction, such as the presence/absence of violent extremist(s), discussion of the veil, generic categorization, and whether each text confines itself to Britain or travels more widely. This literary-sociological enterprise will inform the chapter on publishing and the results will also be disseminated online, generating interest in the project beyond the disciplines of English and postcolonial studies.
Through this kind of crossing of disciplinary boundaries, I will bring my previous historical work (the volume covering 1780-1988) into the contemporary period. In doing so, I will raise it higher up the agendas both of literary and cultural studies – emphasising the utility of interdisciplinary humanities critical methodologies in an area until recently dominated by sociology – and of topical debate more broadly.

The work will importantly enable further enquiry into the new research agenda of Multicultural Textualities. Launched at a conference at Oxford University in 2012, I am one of six founding members of this research group and lead its active social media presence. Multicultural Textutalities defines new paradigms for literature, away from postcolonial, world, and global debates, emphasizing religious identity so as to set off a new trajectory within postcolonial studies’ concern to unpack the legacies of colonialism in discourses of secularism.
In sum, this risk-taking, interdisciplinary project will make an original contribution to knowledge of the highest significance and furthest reach.

Layman's description

Muslim Representations of Britain, 1988-Present is a major literary historical account of the development of fictional representations by Muslim-heritage authors over the last three decades. Grounded on close reading techniques supplemented by a version of Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’, the book will open with analysis of The Satanic Verses and the Rushdie affair. It will go on to trace the evolution of Muslim representations through sensationalist depictions following the Rushdie affair, to the burgeoning post-9/11, post-7/7 artistic interest in Islam. Finally, it will explore the neglected materialist aspects of literary production, particularly publishing and marketing, in relation to Muslim writers.

Key findings

Starts in September and runs until 30 August 2018. No findings yet.
Effective start/end date1/09/2031/08/19


  • PR English literature