Book review: The Scope of Permissibility, Zeynab Gamieldien

A debut novel tracks the lives of a trio of friends as they explore university life and their Muslim faith.

Sara, Abida and Naeem are Muslim students in their first year of university in Sydney. Their stoic Muslim beliefs, feelings of isolation from Australian society and sense of not fitting in have drawn them to the Muslim Students Association (MSA). Bound by the traditions of their religion, Naeem and Sara are drawn to each other as they grapple with the traditions of Islam and courting, while Abida is constantly speaking up against racism, colonialism and other related issues. Yet as tradition and modernity clash, Sara, Naeem and Abida must face hard decisions about friendship, love and family. 

The Scope of Permissibility examines the way traditions can collide with contemporary practices through the lens of three traditional Muslims living in a very modern world. They are determined to maintain the respectability of religion, including in how boys and girls interact with each other – something that stands out when it’s not part of your everyday experience, and something that the characters comment on as stark differences for them too. These differences and commentary make the book intriguing and help readers understand the world of Islam, and the familial, religious and cultural expectations Abida, Naeem and Sara face.

There is also the implication that someone’s country and Islamic background shapes how another Muslim can see them, which adds layers to the characters and their standing in the story, and the diversity within Islam as well as within Australia. It highlights that there are many incorrect assumptions and misunderstandings that can colour worldviews and lead to isolation or the fracturing of interactions. It also reveals what sharing culture, cultural appropriation and integration means in today’s world – where everyone is trying to navigate the delicate balance of being part of a range of traditions based on their own lives.

Allowing the range of experiences within Islam and how different people interpret intentions, words and attitudes gives the narrative, and the characters of Naeem, Sara and Abida, a well-rounded sense of being that adds to the flaws and complexities of their interactions with each other and how they relate to Islam.

Showing the scope of Islam and the diversity within it is powerful as it shows that there is no single way to be part of a culture or religion. At its heart, The Scope of Permissibility examines identity and knowing where one comes from and who one is – something that Sara thinks about a lot due to having an unknown background, compared to Naeem, Abida and other MSA students. This highlights the role of politics in social inclusion and exclusion, which feels as if it could impact anyone in the story at any time.

Read: Book review: The Magpie’s Sister, Kerri Turner

Filled with ups and downs for all three main characters, The Scope of Permissibility allows three unique voices and their experiences to be heard alongside the fracturing of friendship and identity, and how to reconcile the pressures of religion, society and family with what you want from life. 

The Scope of Permissibility, Zeynab Gamieldien
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761152177
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320pp
Release Date: July 2023
RRP: $34.99

Ashleigh is a book reviewer at her website The BookMuse, and is involved in her local CBCA sub-branch. She has had items published in Good Reading Magazine, Facts and Fiction and Grapeshot, the Macquarie University student magazine. She has also worked with the ABC for International Day of Persons with a Disability in 2022.