September Issue 2019
Book Review: Prodigal
Irshad Abdulkadir’s Prodigal begins with five young boys travelling in a cargo truck going from Karachi to Peshawar. During the long and taxing journey, two of the five boys, Akbar Ali, the well-educated son of the Sindh High Court’s Chief Justice, and Bairam Khan, an orphan who previously resided in Karachi’s Kati Pahari, strike up a friendship. They exchange their life stories, and what brought them to this journey. Akbar, educated at some of the best institutions in Pakistan and in the UK, is on his way to become what Bairam calls an Aalim e Deen. Bairam, on the other hand, is all set to join the mujahideen as a means to escape his dismal circumstances in Karachi.
More of why Akbar decided to give up his comfortable life in Karachi to pursue Islamic Studies is revealed through flashbacks. On reaching the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, previously known as FATA, Akbar and Bairam go their own separate ways, with the former joining the seminary of Jalal Baba, whose Sufi leanings and devoutness to God coupled with strong tribal connections help keep the rigid Taliban out of his hair.
However, Akbar and Bairam’s paths continue to collide over the years; the two meet each other at different stages in their lives, with their final encounter being the most dramatic. The novel mostly follows Akbar’s journey as he learns more about Islam and questions all that was once familiar. As with all spiritual journeys, his too sheds light on the role every individual plays, either by choice or by virtue of destiny, in the workings of the universe.
Prodigal has its heart in the right place. Like all well-informed scholars of religion, Abdulkadir too presents the alternative narrative, a counter to the mainstream and oft violent depiction of ‘religious’ Muslims, and he does so without sounding apologetic or defensive. What Abdulkadir explores through Akbar’s character, he also counters through Bairam’s – they are like two sides of the same coin. Abdulkadir also explores how one’s connection to religion affects those around; when Akbar’s belief about his divine connection is strengthened, those around try to talk him out of it.
The book’s strength lies in its many twists and turns. The author hits you with situations that you did not expect in the least, turning the protagonist’s life upside down in just a few paragraphs. Especially the revelation of Bairam’s choice of path, his extremist inclinations and his inherent belief that the choices he has made are, in fact, the right ones. Abdulkadir, through the book, poses many questions, most of which often run through the mind of the more left-leaning Muslims struggling to strike a balance between their modern beliefs and their faith. In Prodigal, the author presents both sides of present-day Islam, the Sufi school of thought and the more extremist one, and their utter failure to meet at a middle ground.
The only problem: he tries to do too much in 300 pages. While exploring various versions of Islam, from the modern and the orthodox to the liberal and the regressive, the book is constantly trying to maintain a balance that is often times not required. Although Abdulkadir presents no justifications and explanations for the prevailing radical version of faith that is taking root around the world, the constant juxtaposition of the two interpretations makes the book a convoluted read in parts. It is nonetheless a book that raises more questions than it answers, and perhaps that was the intent of the author all along – to ask the questions that no one is asking. However the author’s curious, as opposed to a definitive, approach to Islam comes at an opportune time, especially when so many mainstream narratives are hell-bent on painting all of the Muslim world with the same brush.