Polarity and the search for tolerance

April 12, 2020

Irshad Abdul Kadir seeks to revive our belief in the humanising influences in the world’s most misunderstood religion

Karachi-based novelist and lawyer Irshad AbdulKadir’s third book, Prodigal, marks a radical departure from his previous work. Clifton Bridge, his first literary offering, was a collection of short stories that, according to the author, “were mostly about situations experienced by real people in real life”.

The ten stories in Abdul Kadir’s first book were reminiscent of Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah’s The Young Wife and Other Stories and tackled social taboos with aplomb. In his next book, The Deriabad Chronicles, the author shifted his focus towards the fabric of social life in the fictitious princely state of Deriabad that has acceded to Pakistan. Though the narrative follows a fictional mode, it is firmly rooted in the raw and searing realities of our times.

Prodigal fits seamlessly into the author’s oeuvre because it draws upon the misperceptions about Islam – a pressing issue that remains at the fulcrum of our geopolitical reality. From an early age, the novel’s protagonist Akbar Ali Samandar has a deep-rooted connection with God and embarks on a quest to understand the Almighty. His thirst for spiritual knowledge pulls him away from the cloistered world of the Karachi elite as he seeks religious education at a madrassa and ventures into a Taliban-controlled region of the FATA to attend an Islamic research centre. Akbar’s stint at Trinity College in Cambridge allows him ample opportunities to put his scholarly acumen to practice.

“I was intrigued by the bipolarity of the life of an Islamic transcendentalist,” the author tells The News on Sunday. “Akbar provided a suitable medium for unravelling this phenomenon which includes a substantive life on earth [in addition to] a dimensionless, mystical experience in an outer world.”

The protagonist’s spiritual journey provides an intimate glimpse into how these seemingly incongruous worlds can coexist in one being. Abdul Kadir uses this motif to understand the external and internal impetuses that allow Akbar to negotiate this bipolarity and make “the incumbent switch” from one facet of his personality to the other.

Akbar’s search for tolerance and humanity is an austere counterpoint to the militant ideals of Islam that have gained currency and have fuelled Islamophobic policies in the West. Prodigal offers a useful meditation on the subject, though not without relying on academic treatises. This tactic comes as no surprise since the author is vehemently opposed to the idea of writing about Islam “without fully researching the subject in discussion”. “The hazards of venturing into this sphere half-prepared in the prevailing circumstances are well-known,” he adds.

Upon closer scrutiny, Abdul Kadir’s narrative showcases the myriad variations of Islam by using scholarly insights to vivid effect. Akbar engages in lively debates on Islam with his teachers and peers that skillfully depict a diverse menu of Islamic beliefs. These conversations are driven by a desire to bridge the gap between the conflicting understandings of present-day Islam through “an appraisal of [the] varying interpretations” of the faith.

At times, these discussions stand the risk of coming across as too cerebral. Once the narrative veers away from scholarly discourse and Akbar is compelled to test the insights that he has gleaned throughout his religious education in a social setting, these critical debates fall away and the plot gathers momentum. Prodigal benefits from a memorable storyline that keeps readers hooked from the outset.

Throughout the novel, Akbar’s spiritual voyage towards understanding the true essence of Islam is nothing like the journey that his friend Bairam Khan Afridi encounters. As the story races towards its denouement, Akbar and Bairam find themselves on parallel paths and navigate through their differences in an unpredictable way.

Abdul Kadir succeeds in bringing the polarising worlds of both characters to life in a realistic sense. The complexity of the narrative lies in its ability to highlight inconvenient truths about life in the country’s troubled tribal belt. As a result, readers can easily inhabit the setting of the story without feeling out of place. At no point does the depiction of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas come through as stereotypical or appear to be filtered through a Western lens.

With its swift, engaging prose, Prodigal is a promising tale suffused with passion and verve. However, the novel tends to lose its steam in the fleeting moments when the writer relies too heavily on the storyline and fails to examine the crucial relationships among his characters. For instance, Akbar’s rapport with his wife never seems to go beyond the superficial level. Nevertheless, their brief marriage is a turning point in the protagonist’s spiritual awakening and allows him to explore new vistas.

Through a chilling account of a man’s quest for tolerance, Abdul Kadir animates a longstanding debate within Islam with an action-packed story. Prodigal goes to the root of the polarity within the world’s most misunderstood religion and seeks to revive our belief in its humanising influences.


Author: Irshad AbdulKadir

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Pages: 310

Price: $13.49

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Irshad Abdul Kadir's Prodigal clears misperceptions about Islam