In January 2022, a romantic tale took readers on a heartfelt journey of faith, family, and love. Salaam, With Love captures the feeling of being different, of not fitting in, while also exploring one’s relationship with their cultural and religious heritage. And of course, it’s about first love. Set in New York, this comforting and wholesome story follows Dua as she visits her relatives during Ramadan, fasts during the holy month, grapples with issues of identity and Islamophobia, and is romantically intrigued by a cute drummer in a Muslim band.
But Salaam, With Love is also importantly about spiritual growth. It shows a young Muslim building a loving connection with Islam through her relationships, family, and rituals. This debut is truly —as Adiba Jaigirdar, author of Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating praises— “a love letter to Islam, capturing all the wonderful nuances of faith and culture”. So it’s a pleasure to have Sara Sharaf Beg, the Pakistani-American Muslim author of this YA contemporary romance, elaborate more on how religious identity shouldn’t be restricted by rigid lines and on writing a character who explores growth in faith. To view more such posts by Muslim authors, make sure to check out this collaboration, Muslim Musings, spanning over Ramadan 2022. This blog post may contain affiliate links. To know more about them, please read my disclaimer.
Sara Sharaf Beg, the author of Salaam, With Love, on pushing past rigid lines — writing a story that explores growth in faith.
As a proud Pakistani American-Muslim, my culture and religion have always been integral parts of my identity; I would not be myself without either. And while Muslims are not a monolith, we are still very much in need of positive representation.
I used to watch the Fox TV series Bones fairly regularly, and one gripe I will always have is the character development of Arastoo Vaziri. Arastoo is introduced as a gifted Forensic Anthropology intern of Iranian descent who is a practicing Muslim. His devotion to his faith is so great, he asks for permission to pray in the lab so he does not miss any of his prayers.
As the series went on, however, the visible, practicing side of Arastoo disappeared, until there was hardly ever any mention of him being Muslim. That shift was infuriating to witness, and at times it made me wish the writers of the show had never written him as Muslim at all, because what was the point of having a character so many could identify with, only to later strip him of the very same things that made him so memorable to begin with?
Time and again, Muslims have seen our characterization in the Western media as one of extremes – we are either backward fundamentalists to be feared and distrusted, or Muslim “but not practicing.” We are told, essentially, that the only way we can be accepted is to either not practice our religion or, if we must, at least do it in an invisible, silent manner.
Salaam, With Love by Sara Sharaf Beg
Being crammed into a house in Queens with her cousins is not how Dua envisions her trip to New York City. But here she is, spending the holy month of Ramadan with extended family she hasn’t seen in years.
Dua struggles to find her place in the conservative household and to connect with her aloof, engaged-to-be-married cousin, Mahnoor. And as if fasting the whole day wasn’t tiring enough, she must battle her hormones whenever she sees Hassan, the cute drummer in a Muslim band who has a habit of showing up at her most awkward moments.
After just a month, Dua is surprised to find that she’s learning a lot more than she bargained for about her faith, relationships, her place in the world—and cute drummers.
I was tired of being invalidated and explaining my faith countless times. None of us are perfect individuals and, truly, Islam is not about perfection, it is about self-improvement. I never asked for characters who were ideal Muslims, just ones that felt real – and yes, there are many people who identify as Muslim by name only, or as not practicing, but there are also many for whom Islam is incredibly sacred, and those individuals are also equally deserving of positive representation.
So, that was my motivation for beginning the process of writing Salaam, with Love. Not only was it another way for me to connect with my faith in a deeper manner, but I also hoped that my readers would understand that they do not have to shy away from being themselves. All too often, so much of what we’re taught about Islam is taught from a place of anger or fear, but Islam has so much beauty in it – a strong social justice focus at its core, emphasis on mercy and compassion, and divine connection.
We are taught to think that faith is absolute, either one has it or not. The truth is not that simple. Faith is not a static thing; it may ebb and flow, and I attempted to illustrate the same fluctuations in Dua’s journey in Salaam, with Love. Dua, like many young adults, struggles with feeling “not good enough” – as a daughter, friend, cousin, and as a Muslim. Her goals for herself are focused on becoming like her relatives, who she views as ideal Muslims, but she begins to truly understand Islam when she realizes that acceptance of her own unique self actually makes her faith stronger.
Faith is a seed that must be nurtured carefully; it needs the optimal conditions and environment to bloom. The process is far from instantaneous, and we may make mistakes along the way. In short, faith is a living, breathing thing, and keeping it alive is a labor of love. That stands true for faith in one’s belief system, as well as our faith in ourselves.
Sara Sharaf Beg
Sara Beg is the eldest of three, born in Orlando, Florida to a Pakistani Muslim family. Since then, she’s lived in New York, New Jersey, the suburbs of Central Florida, Seattle, Michigan, and has finally made Houston home. As a proudly hyphenated Pakistani-American Muslim, Sara loves a good story and was always found with her nose in a book, especially when her parents dragged her to dinner parties.
After graduating from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelor’s degree in Media Management and Operations, Sara worked as a freelance writer and social media strategist for a few years. Currently, as a mental health counselor licensed in both Michigan and Texas, she is often found poring over clinical notes or advocating for greater mental health awareness within the Desi and Muslim communities. If you’d like, follow Sara on Instagram at @chutneybinasamosa – especially if you like reposted memes, mental health reminders, and less-than-noteworthy pictures of food and half-drunk cups of chai.
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Everything stated in this post is independent of any compensation, and the guest writer’s comments and thoughts are solely their opinion; the formatting was done by the blogger but no changes were made in text.