In American Dervish, playwright and author Ayad Akhtar draws from his own Midwestern childhood to tell the coming-of-age story of 10-year-old Hayat Shah, the son of Pakistani immigrants, whose humdrum world of baseball and video games is interrupted by the arrival of a family friend from Pakistan: the glamorous Mina, who's fleeing a disastrous marriage.
The spiritual and lively Mina lights up the glum Shah home, and Hayat falls under her thrall.
"She's a charismatic and brilliant and beautiful woman," Akhtar tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "She influences Hayat in a number of ways. He experiences his first awakenings of the heart and of the body in her presence, and he's also introduced to Islam, something his parents don't have much interest in. And he really takes to that."
Mina's faith is progressive and open; she believes in reinterpreting the Quran for modern times, something more conservative Muslims would reject. Hayat follows her lead, but when Mina starts dating a Jewish man, Hayat, ridden with jealousy, becomes, for a time, more orthodox.
"He begins to feel that there might be some certainty that he can latch onto by reading the book, the Quran in a literal way," Akhtar says.
Akhtar treats Islam with the same nuance he does his characters, portraying the faith in all its complexity, its "extraordinary beauty and wisdom," and its darker aspects, as in the centerpiece scene of the novel, when a sermon in a mosque devolves into ugly anti-Semitism.
"Just as it would be impossible to read the Old Testament and not to read or remark or have some awareness that the characters in the stories of the Old Testament are profoundly flawed, I think I'm bringing the same perspective to the Quran."
These contradictions are "true to the human psyche," Akhtar says. "The Quran, the Old Testament, the Gospels, these are books that embody the fullness of the human experience. For anyone to suggest that they don't have that darker side that we ourselves have, I think is only part of the picture."