The Bad Muslim Discount is the debut novel from Syed Masood that delves into the lives of two Muslim families that emigrate to California in the 1990s, following them through to the tumultuous landscape of 21st-century America. The novel draws the reader into a world of family relationships, coming-of-age trepidations and even an all-seeing landlord who grants rent discounts if you are a “good” Muslim. But we must ask, as the novel does, what makes a good Muslim at all?

Masood immerses the reader through two first-person narratives of Safwa and Anvar, introduced in such parallel ways that from the offset the reader wonders when and how their lives will intersect. Anvar and his family choose to uproot their lives from Pakistan, encouraged by the father Imtiaz Faris, and they all find their place in California to varying degrees of success. For Safwa and her father, their journey to America looks very different, both irrevocably changed by losses in their family. They are forced to leave the dangerous situation of war-torn Baghdad with Safwa’s manipulative suitor leading the way. 

But we must ask, as the novel does, what makes a good Muslim at all?

Especially in the first half of this novel, Masood’s effortlessly humorous writing shines through, with Anvar and Safwa’s sarcastic wit and observations leading to genuinely funny moments in the writing. Anvar tries to find his way as a teenager, dealing with girls, school, and his parents’ expectations, whilst Safwa shoulders the much heavier burdens placed upon her by her religion and her conservative Muslim father’s wishes. 

Much of this tale deals with the balance the characters feel they must carefully tread between their own desire and external expectations or influences. Anvar sneers at his brother’s conformity and need for social approval but then becomes increasingly discontented with his own life, frequently unable to go after what he really wants. He is followed by the idea of being a “good Muslim”. Sawfa (who becomes Azza) moves through the world with a moral and religious worldview due to her upbringing and her situation becomes increasingly fraught as she is caught amid family expectations and violence. Yet crucially, this novel shatters any stereotypes of deferential and voiceless Muslim women, with multiple Muslim female characters being just as forthright and sure of character as anyone else.  

The Bad Muslim Discount stretches across various genres, from it being a family saga, to an immigrant, philosophical or political novel. Masood’s tale does not shy away from incisive and reflective commentary on American politics and how the US has affected the world and Muslim countries through war and global dominance. This novel is both deeply personal in the lives of the characters and their experience as Muslim immigrants in America, as well as outwardly expansive in its observations of US power. As an American novel, it may be interesting to consider how this novel has no white characters, reflecting the reality of some insular communities within the US and a testament to how Masood is uninterested in dealing with a white character’s political perspective in this space. 

The pace of this novel is fast and engaging, with it turning to thriller-like territory in the latter half of the narrative. Once absorbed in the characters’ world, it is impossible to turn away. Masood’s characters are imperfect and full of life, humour, and conflict as they grapple with the hand they are dealt and the choices they make. This book deals with tough issues in a direct and unflinching manner, leaving you thinking of these characters long after the book ends.

Masood’s narrative ends with a feeling of hope, but it is not an oversimplified nor romanticised place in which we leave this world. The novel ties up against the backdrop of the American 2016 election of President Trump and the 2017 Muslim ban, grounding you in the reality of modern-day America, lest you get swept up in the emotions and triumphs of this narrative. Some of these characters may ultimately gain agency in their lives, but Masood reminds the reader that this will not be the case for everyone. 

The novel grapples with religion, morality, obligation, and societal pressure, with vivid characters and an unforgettable story that demonstrates Masood’s stellar depiction of contemporary Muslim America and his voice in American literature.  

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