In January, I recommended some books that I posited will improve one’s deen, and I also deconstructed the idea that only non-fictional books can give this desired result. Rekiya and Z by Muti’ah Badruddeen is one such fictional account that fits squarely into this theme. As Muslim readers around the world share their “Ramadan reading list” in the hopes of engaging with more beneficial books during this month — in addition to the Quran — it is pertinent that fictions with realistic, authentic, and diverse representations are highlighted.
Rekiya and Z is set largely in the south-western city of Ibadan, Nigeria, as well as other cities in the country and around the world. The story focuses on the lives of two very different women, Rekiya and Zaynunah. Rekiya was born into a wealthy, inter-tribal and inter-religious household in Abuja – a concept that is not uncommon in south-west Nigeria as extended families often have adherents of different faiths. On the other hand, Zaynunah comes from a middle class, staunch Yoruba Muslim family in Ibadan, home to many Nigerian Muslims. They develop an unexpected friendship in their teenage years in secondary school. However, time, adulthood, distance, and trauma put a formidable strain on their friendship. When Zaynunah’s mother, mummy – who had welcomed Rekiya into their family at the start of their friendship—died, these women reunite in their collective grief. Through this grief, they set about rekindling their friendship; their relationships with themselves, their own families, and most importantly, with their faith.
Perhaps, the most profound quality of Rekiya and Z lies in its portrayal of Nigerian Muslim women of seemingly different levels of faith. Rekiya’s character fits the stereotype of the “liberal Muslim woman”. The woman that would get comments like “oh! You don’t look Muslim” from people with stereotypical ideas of who a Muslim woman is. On the other hand, Zaynunah fits the picture of the “oppressed, radical and conservative” Muslim woman. Yet, though they have different levels of commitment to their faith, they share similar struggles, nurture inspiring careers, and share a bond of friendship that transcends these stereotypical expectations.
Besides the fact that the characters challenge misconstrued views of Nigerian Muslim women, their decisions, views and thought processes also tackle rampant issues within the Muslim community. A case in point is the scenario where Zaynunah and Rekiya meet again after mummy’s death. Rekiya was dressed in a high waisted skirt with a blouse and does not get up for salah during its times – essentially fitting the stereotype. However, during the last portion of the night, Zaynunah hears Rekiya get up to perform tahajud. At that moment, she catches herself engaging in the problematic behaviour of stereotyping that mirrors the ones she experiences from outsiders as a niqabi. Another issue Badruddeen tackles in this story is the unfounded practice of not allowing women to work. Zaynunah, a niqabi, brought up in a staunch Muslim household, opposes her husband strongly, when he alluded to her giving up her career as an architect. Badruddeen does not tackle these issues in a way that is insensitive to the tenets of Islam. Rather, she humanizes her characters; she gives them nuances and imbues context and its influence on how they engage with the rulings in Islam.
Leading from this, it is also germane to highlight how well-represented Islam itself is in the story. As Muslims, we believe that every guideline on how to live our everyday lives is present in the Quran and Hadith. Rekiya and Z exemplifies this! I especially love that the story opens up with a practical and realistic portrayal of grief and how practising Muslims deal with it. In addition to this, readers will also see the characters bring to life, the Islamic rulings on maintaining the ties of kinship, marriage, polygamy, treatment of women, divorce, charity, and the belief in divine ordainment.
Mental health, childhood trauma and the healing process are also recurring themes in the story. Through Rekiya, Badruddeen examines what it means to experience mental health illnesses as a Nigerian Muslim woman. She also zeros in on the importance of seeking help from therapists that understand – or at the very least can relate to—the experiences of their patients. Rekiya notes how her journey towards healing is easy when she finds a therapist who can provide help with an Islamic backdrop. The importance of dua with therapy is also properly portrayed, as both Zaynunah and Rekiya finds solace in the dua for healing. This story depicts an admirable, judgment-free friendship between two strong but different Muslim women, whose daily experiences do not fit the stereotypes that are widespread in many parts of Nigeria. These women’s character development is exhilarating to follow. They grow as individuals, in their views, in their love and their deen.
Lastly, Rekiya and Z is a significant book because it carves a new space for the representation of sub-Saharan African Muslims in the contemporary literary world – where Muslim identity often equates to the MENA or south Asian regions. Rekiya and Z is not free from flaws, however, it is a brilliant debut novel that will hopefully give room for more authentic representations of the sub-Saharan African Muslim experience.