58 pages 1 hour read

Ayad Akhtar

American Dervish

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


In 2012, Ayad Akhtar wrote the novel American Dervish, a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani-American boy in 1980s Milwaukee. Akhtar, a Pakistani-American writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, explores love of God and love of others through the prisms of religion, family, and romantic love in this novel. This guide refers to the hardcover first edition. 

Plot Summary

The Prologue introduces narrator Hayat Shah, a college student whose mother’s best friend Mina has just died of cancer. The body of the novel occurs years earlier, beginning in 1981, as ten-year-old Hayat endures his parents’ rocky marriage. Mina and her son Imran arrive in to live with the Shahs. Hayat, instantly infatuated with Mina, learns about Islam from the devout Mina. After she tells him about a hafiz, a person who memorizes the Quran in its entirety, Hayat begins memorizing the holy book. 

At a family barbecue, Nathan Wolfsohn, a colleague of Hayat’s father Naveed, connects with Mina. The two fall in love and prepare to marry, to Hayat’s dismay. To satisfy Mina’s parents, Nathan must give up his Jewish religion and convert to Islam. At the local mosque, Hayat, Nathan, and Naveed listen to the imam proclaim divine judgment upon Jewish people. 

Hayat, compelled by what he heard at the mosque, repeats the imam’s message to Mina’s son Imran. Mina learns of Hayat’s hateful speech against Nathan and, in a fit of rage, accidentally pushes him down the stairs. Hayat undergoes surgery for his broken wrist and dreams about the Prophet Muhammad while in the hospital. 

Mina decides to end her engagement with Nathan, but Hayat observes her on the phone with him after this pronouncement. Using a family friend’s name, Hayat sends a telegram to Pakistan, which informs not only Mina’s ex-husband him but also her parents that she is engaged to a Jewish man. Mina, terrified that her ex-husband will take away their son, ends her romance with Nathan for good. Hayat, guilt-ridden, continues practicing his faith, but his father burns his Quran and forbids Hayat from studying it again.

Mina meets a man named Sunil, and the two quickly become engaged. Mina, marrying for security rather than love, rapidly loses weight and becomes unwell. At her lavish wedding, Hayat meets Sunil’s nephew, a teenage hafiz. Both the older boy and Hayat recite from the Quran during the wedding reception, but Hayat is humiliated to discover that a hafiz traditionally learns the text in Arabic rather than in English, as he has done.

Hayat ceases memorizing the Quran and embarks on his adolescence without his former religious fervor. Meanwhile, Sunil restricts Mina’s behavior and beats her. After the couple moves to Kansas City, his abuses turn much more severe. Mina develops terminal cancer, and the college-aged Hayat visits her in the hospital to confess that he sent the telegram. In the Epilogue, Hayat meets Nathan again as an adult and learns that he and Mina wrote letters for years after their breakup.