The Qur'an and Mysticism: A Review of Craig Thompson's "Habibi"
Instead, the slave drivers and harem women feel like deliberate fictions, the purpose of which is to unpack universal human anxieties, primarily about the messy physicality of life and the permutations of love over time. It is not a comfortable read, but the discomfort stems from Thompson's profound emphasis on the life of the body—the way pain, mutilation, aging, sex and pregnancy affects not only how we feel, but who we are.
Innovative though Thompson's inversion of stereotypes may be, I found myself wishing he'd pushed himself a little more and taken us somewhere truly new. By the end of Habibi, the co-opting of clichés in the service of deep thought (black palace eunuch as meditation on body image and physical intimacy!) started to feel a little too artsy. And there were two points at which I thought Thompson, perhaps (blamelessly) by virtue of being male, simply misfired: One in which the main character dismisses her newborn infant in a way I, as a mother, found implausible, another in which the same character sheds her headscarf after catching her first glimpse of westernized women in a way I, as a muhajaba (one who wears the headscarf), found ridiculous. Nevertheless, the sheer dearth of sympathetic Muslim characters in western literature (and the fiercely secular world of comics and graphic novels in particular) makes me want to forgive a few small sins of inauthenticity.
Having said that, Muslim readers whose primary interest is isolating themselves from unorthodox uses of Islamic texts and imagery would be well advised to steer clear of this book. There are graven images of prophets galore, though the Prophet Muhammad, who is shown once, appears without a face. Short passages of text from the Qur'an occur in close proximity to depictions of nakedness. Reading the book, I reflected wryly that I should really have made wudu (ablutions made before Muslims perform prayer) beforehand, something I never thought I'd have to do before picking up a graphic novel.
Before diving into Habibi, Muslim readers of all stripes should ask themselves the following questions: Is the Qur'an bigger than we are? If a non-Muslim is able to derive wisdom from it—heterodox wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless—should we respect it? I am tempted to say yes to both. The Qur'an is God's property, not mine. To me, the fact that it can inspire a Christian-raised artist from Michigan is evidence of its beauty.
However—and Craig Thompson, if you're reading this, take heed—I realize that I am in the minority on this point. Habibi is the sort of book that could cause problems in the wrong hands, even in a post-Bin Laden world where extremists are rapidly discrediting themselves in the eyes of ordinary Muslims (those fabled ordinary Muslims...). In fact, I considered not writing this review in the interest of keeping Habibi off the radar of the shady characters that patrol the fringe of the Muslim community.
But in the end, I thought it was more important for me, as a Muslim graphic novelist, to address the book candidly as a work of art and in doing so demonstrate that it is possible for a practicing Muslim to separate the escapism of fiction from the reality of faith. Habibi is a complex and unapologetic work of fantasy—no idle undertaking for readers of any faith or no faith at all, but one well worth the trouble.