Hailed as the novel that could bring Muslim-American fiction into the mainstream, The American Dervish is about the coming of age of Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American who lives in Milwaukee with his secular Muslim parents. His father Naveed is an important doctor and an unfaithful, alcoholic husband. The Shahs are caught in an unhappy marriage. Yet, their existence is somewhat brightened up by the arrival from Pakistan of Mina, Mrs Shah's best friend who is escaping from her abusive husband. The woman has a powerful influence on Hayat as well who is fascinated by the Sufi stories that she tells and decides he wants to become a hafiz, someone who knows the Quran by heart. The fascination with Sufism, a less worldy and more ascetic version of Islam, accounts for the title of the novel as a Dervish is someone who practises Sufism and observes its precepts of poverty and austerity.
Hayat's fascination with Mina, however, will have unpredictable and even tragic consequences on the Shah family, their friends and Mina herself. The most obvious theme of the novel is the characters' search for identity. American Dervish seems to move from the question of what it means to be a Muslim in America. Akhtar problematizes the notion of homogeneous ethnic groups, showing how being a Muslim means different things for the secular Shahs, for the religious Mina who is, however, the victim of certain Islamic traditions, for the young Hayat who has grown up in a secular context but is fascinated by Mina's stories and for an outsider like the Jewish Nathan Wolfsohn.