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Transformation of the Self through Islamic Practices in Leila Aboulela’s The Translator

Amrah Abdul Majid


This paper discusses the practice of religious rituals and doctrines and the effects that these have on the protagonist of Leila Aboulela’s The Translator. Although it is a love story that highlights the challenges of a relationship between a young and devout Muslim widow and an agnostic Scottish man, I suggest that the novel’s focus is on the spiritual journey that the protagonist goes through. She is portrayed as a selfish individual who uses religion mainly as an escape from her tragic life, and she has a flawed belief that she can only feel fulfilled if she becomes a wife again. In return, this belief causes her to be deprived of a contented life, as adherence to religious practices is not only a sign of piety but also a means towards gaining the capacity for self-improvement. This is based on Saba Mahmood’s analytical framework of piety that emphasizes the connection between the performance of religious actions and the creation of a moralistic self. In an extension to Mahmood’s argument, using Alison Weir’s suggestion that religious practices must have a clear purpose towards God, I further argue that the protagonist’s religiosity lacks the focus on God. Her desire to be married again suggests a strong dependency on the men in her life, which contradicts her devotion to God, as it demonstrates her inability to put God at the center of her life. This restrains her abilities to improve her life and, more importantly, it inhibits the creation of a relationship with the Divine. The novel therefore suggests that a complete sense of the self can only be achieved when one is able to relinquish worldly desires and depends only on God.


Muslim women writers; Leila Aboulela; Saba Mahmood; religious actions

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13185/KK2020.03326