American Dervish Summary

American Dervish is a 2012 novel about Hayat Shah, a Pakistani American boy growing up in Wisconsin in the 1980s.

  • When Hayat’s mother’s best friend, Mina, comes to live with the secular Shah family, she begins teaching Hayat about Islam, and Hayat develops romantic feelings for her.
  • Jealous that Mina is dating his father’s Jewish friend, Nathan, Hayat begins espousing rigid, intolerant religious beliefs and sabotages the relationship.
  • Mina marries an abusive Muslim man and later dies of cancer, having forgiven Hayat, who is now attending college in Boston and dating a Jewish woman.

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Last Updated on March 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Hayat Shah is a ten-year-old boy, the son of Pakistani immigrants living in a suburb of Milwaukee, when his mother’s friend Mina comes from Pakistan to live with them, bringing her four-year-old son, Imran. Mina is beautiful and highly intelligent, with a magnetic personality, and she understands Hayat in a way that neither of his parents do. Hayat’s parents are both from Muslim backgrounds in Pakistan but have no strong religious beliefs and have given Hayat a largely secular upbringing. It is Mina who introduces Hayat to Islam, telling him stories about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and giving him a copy of the Quran for his eleventh birthday.

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Hayat studies the Quran with Mina, and his enthusiasm for Islam increases alongside his devotion to her. One day, however, he sees her naked in the bathroom and watches her as she masturbates. When she notices him watching, she slams the door in his face and behaves coldly and angrily toward him for months. It is through his diligence in studying the Quran that he wins her over and manages to establish normal relations with her again. Shortly after he has done this, Mina meets Nathan, a doctor who works with Hayat’s father, and is instantly attracted to him, arousing Hayat’s jealousy.

Mina’s relationship with Nathan becomes more serious, but he is Jewish, and she sees this as an obstacle. However, she asks Hayat how he would feel about her marrying Nathan and, when Hayat replies that Nathan is not a Muslim, reveals that he is thinking of converting to Islam. Hayat believes that Nathan’s motives for conversion are insincere, driven by his desire to marry Mina rather than a recognition that Islam is the truth. Hayat himself is becoming ever more pious, striving to memorize the Quran. He does this partly because he believes that his father, who drinks and has affairs, is going to hell. A hafiz, one who has memorized the Quran, saves not only himself from hell, but his parents as well.

When Nathan goes with Hayat and his father to the mosque, the imam preaches an incendiary sermon on how the Jews, God’s chosen people, have failed God in their selfishness. Nathan stands up and accuses the imam of preaching hatred and being untrue to the spirit of Islam. They leave in confusion, and Nathan is no longer certain that he can convert, though he continues to insist that the imam’s bigotry against Jews does not truly represent the Islamic faith. Hayat, however, has decided that it does. He tells Mina’s son, Imran, that Nathan, who is likely to be his new father, is a Jew and that all Jews go to hell. When Imran repeats these words to Mina, she attacks Hayat with furious violence, fracturing his arm.

Hayat’s arm is set in plaster at the hospital and he returns home, where Mina is contrite, though she still tells Hayat he was wrong to speak about Jews as he did. After a brief rift, it appears that Mina is growing closer to Nathan again, so Hayat sends a telegram to her ex-husband in Pakistan, telling him that Mina is about to marry an unbeliever. Mina’s ex-husband immediately tells her parents, but although they are very angry, there is little they can do while Mina remains in America.

Hayat’s father was infuriated by his comments about Jews and told him not to read the Quran again. When he finds Hayat reading the holy book in defiance of his instructions, he tears it to pieces and then burns it while Hayat cries out that he is going to hell. That same night, Mina meets Sunil Chatha at a dinner party she attends with Hayat’s mother. Sunil’s wife has recently left him, and Mina feels and demonstrates sympathy for his plight. Soon afterward, Sunil’s cousin, the wealthy Galeb Chatha, approaches the family about arranging a marriage between the two. Unable to speak to Hayat’s father, and not content with his mother’s approval, Chatha contacts Mina’s family in Pakistan, who are delighted that she has the chance to marry into a respectable Muslim family.

At the wedding, Hayat meets Farhaz, Sunil’s nephew, who is already a hafiz at the age of fifteen. Farhaz is completely uninterested in Islam and talks only about sex. But when he recites the Quran, he does so to the approval of the imam, in Arabic. When Hayat recites his surah in English, Farhaz and the imam both explain to him that a hafiz must learn the holy text in the holy language of Arabic, and all his study counts for nothing.

Sunil quickly turns out to be a jealous and abusive husband. He beats Mina, forces her to wear a burqa, and forbids her from speaking to other men. After eight years of marriage, Mina is diagnosed with terminal uterine cancer. Two months before she dies, Hayat visits her in the hospital and confesses that he sent the telegram telling her parents about Nathan. Mina forgives him and says that she made her own decisions. Years later, when he is living in Boston, Hayat meets Nathan in a coffee shop. Nathan also says that he does not blame Hayat for what happened. He reveals that he remained in contact with Mina after she married Sunil and that she was the love of his life.

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