By Blaire (Ninglin) Zhang, V Form
What The Wedding of Zein Teaches Us About Islam
While The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih portrays the day-to-day life of various seemingly unconnected groups of people in a Sudanese village, it poses important questions about the religion of Islam. In describing events leading up to Zein’s wedding and reactions of the villagers, Salih reveals contrasting interpretations of Islamic faith. One comes to see that under the façade of Zein’s wedding and the author’s use of comic elements exist tensions between those who follow the Sufi tradition and those who prefer the more orthodox, non-Sufi way to Islam. Haneen and The Imam represent individuals who exemplify these two opposing views.
Zein, the main character of the story, is introduced as an eccentric, idiotic character every village mocks. His appearance is hideous, and his purpose of existence is exactly to serve “as a trumpet by which attention was drawn to their daughters” (Salih 42). However, his ceaseless and shameless pursuit of beautiful women points out to an important theme of Sufism – earthy human love as an expression of love for the divine. With this subtle hint we arrive at a new character Haneen, who “strengthened Zein’s belief [in Sufism]” (Salih 44).
Haneen is then the epitome of Sufism, “a pious man wholly dedicated to his religious devotions…disappearing for six months and then returning” (Salih 44). What did he do during those six months? “Haneen seldom talked to any of the villagers, and if asked where he went to for six months of the year would make no reply” (Salih 44). The portrayal of Haneen as such an isolated yet incredibly spiritual figure is Salih referring to the mystical aspect of Sufism, in which the understanding of humanity and God through close observation of nature is a major component. Unfortunately, Sufism does not seem to be fully understood by the villagers, which shows that in reality Sufism is only a practice of the minority and not the mainstream. This explains why interactions between Zein and Haneen seem esoteric to the non-Sufi villagers: “Haneen would not partake of food in any house but Zeins…The people of the village tried to learn from Zein the secret of the friendship between him and Haneen, but he would never say more than the words ‘Haneen is a man blessed of God’” (Salih 45).
To contrast the unconventional Sufi interpretation of Islam, Salih presents the readers The Imam. While Sufism stresses mental detachment from the mundane world through prayer, orthodox Islam is more about traditions and rules. Having received training at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (Salih 89), The Imam assumes the responsibility of regulating religious affairs as the head of the mosque. It is also revealed that The Imam is “not a person but an institution” (Salih 90) – an unsuccessful institution, it turns out. Not only does he want the villagers to pray at designated times, he “chastises them harshly in his sermons” (Salih 89) about punishment as a result of disobedience to God. His orthodox vision of Islam forms a clear contrast with Sufism’s inner spirituality as represented by Haneen. Unlike Haneen, The Imam’s goal is to impose strict interpretation of Islam. Indeed, the villagers are annoyed by him, for they “would experience no feeling of joy within [The Imam]” and he only talks about “death, the after-life, [and] prayers” (Salih 89). For Salih, The Imam plays the role of a “necessary evil” of the village and despite his leadership position, does not improve the religious well being of the village. Ironically, the villagers are often overjoyed at hearing stories about Zein, a Sufi.
Comprehending the characters in The Wedding of Zein and the various roles they play requires close examination of the religion of Islam, just as one cannot fully understand Muslims without any previous knowledge of Islam. The relationship between Haneen and The Imam perceives something more than supposed hostility or tension; it is a down-to-earth portrayal of a peaceful coexistence of mystical and orthodox Islam. The Wedding of Zein leaves the readers thinking that perhaps there is no one “correct” way of interpreting Islam and that the best interpretation of Islam is left in the minds of the “interpreter”.
Blaire (Ninglin) Zhang, V Form, is from Shenzhen, China. She plays squash, has a passion for music, and loves to travel.