Her novels have touched the lives of readers across the world, inspiring non-Muslims to accept Islam, Muslims to renew their faith, and avid readers to enjoy compelling, heart-moving tales.
Find out more about Umm Zakiyyah– “the Muslim author.” Read her latest blogs, get updates on her internationally acclaimed novels, and join in engaging discussions.
Biography of Umm Zakiyyah, Internationally Acclaimed Author
Umm Zakiyyah was born in 1975 in Long Island, New York, to parents who had come from devoutly Christian homes. Her parents, Clark and Delores Moore, accepted Islam that year, and thus Umm Zakiyyah became the first child of her parents to be born into Islam. Because of this, when Clark and Delores changed their and their children’s names to Islamic ones years later, they chose the name “Baiyinah” for Umm Zakiyyah, because the name meant “clear evidence”—and for them her birth represented the birth of spiritual clarity, when truth became clear from falsehood.
Umm Zakiyyah spent most of her childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she wrote articles for local newspapers and essays and poetry for college publications nationally. In college, as a student at the prestigious Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, she wrote articles for the school’s newspaper and received various awards for her leadership and academic achievements.
In 1997, she graduated from Emory University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education, and went on to make a name for herself as a writer, teacher, and inspirational speaker. She appeared on radio and TV in the United States and Canada, and was a guest lecturer at national conferences and youth events.
2001 marked the release of her first novel, If I Should Speak, which immediately received international attention from the United Kingdom and Australia, and quickly became a bestseller in stores throughout the United States. The novel earned national and international acclaim from professors and writers, as well as from magazines and newspapers, such as the American Muslim Magazine and the Muslim Link newspaper.
One of the most noteworthy reviews of this novel came from Dr. Robert D. Crane, the advisor to former U.S. President Nixon, who said of Umm Zakiyyah’s first book: “I could not put it down…I was fascinated not only by the plot of the novel, but especially by the brilliance of the writing itself. As a life-long, professional writer and editor, I can say that I have never encountered Umm Zakiyyah’s equal in portraying the nuances of encounters between persons at all levels from the most superficial to the most profound. She is a clear example of a person who has natural talent. A person can be trained to write well, but no amount of training can bring a person without superb, natural talent to captivate the reader as she does and exert a permanent intellectual and emotional impact.”
The author’s novel was further elected for university studies in multicultural literature at colleges such as Indiana University, Bloomington; Howard University; and the University of D.C. It was further featured at Georgetown University and in the publication Multicultural Perspectives through Saint Cloud State University and University of Saint Thomas affiliation. Professor K. Bryant of Howard University said of Umm Zakiyyah’s If I Should Speak, “The novel belongs to…a genre worthy of scholarly study.”
In addition to the acclaim and readership the novel received in the United States, readers reached as far as the United Kingdom, Australia, Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia, Uganda, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and India. Following this groundbreaking first novel, Umm Zakiyyah went on to write A Voice, and Footsteps, which formed the last two novels in the If I Should Speak trilogy.
In 2008, she was awarded the Muslim Girls Unity Conference Distinguished Authors Award.
A powerful story about three college students, one Christian and the others Muslim, who find themselves…
From the author of the internationally acclaimed novel If I Should Speak comes the anxiously awaited sequel.
Footsteps, the third in a trilogy to follow Umm Zakiyyah’s A Voice, is a story that stands on its own in both impact and inspiration. At the heart of the novel…
In this novel, internationally acclaimed author of If I Should Speak, A Voice, and Footsteps introduces us to the heart, mind, and life of Renee Morris, the narrator…
In this novel that spans the Atlantic, from Saudi Arabia to America, internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and…
Umm Zakiyyah’s online articles, blogs, and short stories
Most Popular: TOP FIVE MUST-READS
- But I Don’t Want Forgiveness
- From the Diary of an Extremist, a short story
- Are You a Sign of the Last Day?
- “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number”: Child Marriage and Maturity, a Reflection
- The Danger of Covering for Men
Other articles, blogs, and short stories by Umm Zakiyyah
- On ‘Arabized’ Islam
- Yesterday, I Cried
- The Myth of “Strong” Emaan
- Judgment of Others, a Mirror of Your Heart
- Iron Mike, a Generous Heart
- And His Cries Went Unheard: Husband Abuse Unveiled
- Do Expats Need SOLACE in Saudi Arabia?
- Lost Some Weight, or Gain Some Faith?
- Pretending to Obey Allah, a short story
- Is Writing Fiction Allowed? What’s Your Proof?
Interviews and Contributions
Tamara Redfern from SisterShine Life Coaching Interviews Internationally Acclaimed Author Umm Zakiyyah
Please share some background information about yourself, your occupation and past times.
My parents accepted Islam the year that I was born, so I was born into a Muslim family although most of my extended family are Christian, as well as some of my older brothers and sisters. Most of my childhood was spent in Indianapolis, where I graduated from high school and where I developed a firm concept of my identity as an American Muslim. From my experiences with teachers and schoolmates, I understood that Allah’s purpose for me was to be significantly different from that of other Americans, whose beliefs, lifestyles, and dress were welcome additions to the “melting pot” of American society. I don’t think that I have what I would term a “pastime,” but I read books, study Islam and Qur’an, and write novels on a regular basis.
Exactly what it is that you do that manifests your talents and passion?
I write Islamic-themed novels and teach high school English, both of which I enjoy thoroughly.
What is your life’s mission? What helped you to define that mission?
My life’s mission is two-faceted: spiritual and worldly. Spiritually, my life’s mission is to die as a believer in state pleasing to my Creator, as a righteous wife, mother, teacher, and writer. From a worldly standpoint, my life’s mission is to be amongst the best novelists in history, and to have these novels be an inspiration for readers to accept Islam and to better themselves as Muslims, thus making my novels of the residual knowledge that I leave behind as I am in the grave.
How has this mission manifested into daily living for you as a wife, mother, author, teacher?
Daily, this mission makes me constantly step back and check myself and my intentions to make certain that my worldly mission never takes precedence over my spiritual mission, but that they both go hand-in-hand working for me in a practical and spiritual sense. In order to achieve this, I’ve set certain “ground rules” for myself. For example, my first and most important motto is, Prayer is success, and I view all my spiritual and worldly success as resting in the realization of this motto. Thus, I constantly ask Allah to make my prayer “the coolness of my eye.” Also, I make my daily schedule around the prayer times, and I specifically allocate certain times to certain voluntary prayers that I pray daily “rain or shine.”
Practically, this mission translates into my gaining ideas to become a better wife, mother, author, and teacher by simply increasing my du’aa while I’m in sajdah and by making more voluntary prayers, of forgiveness and Istikhaarah. It also means that I write only when my husband is not home or when he is preoccupied in his own activities, and that, as a general rule, schoolwork is done at school, and “home work” is done at home, with exceptions taken only for necessity. It also means that I make certain that I spend quality time with my daughter and that she is engaged in her own activities whenever I am writing while she is awake. At school, this means every lesson, no matter how grammatically mundane, is an opportunity to use the English language for the purpose of reminding myself and my students of Allah and our purpose on this earth.
Life coaching is about applying success strategies to help individuals define and support their ultimate vision. Have you had professional coaching or used any strategies to motivate yourself to keep writing?
I haven’t had professional coaching, but I have two strategies that I stick to to keep writing. My first strategy is the motto I mentioned above, “Prayer is success,” so when I wish to write, I simply raise my hands in du’aa or pray in my sajdah asking Allah to guide my words, but only after I’ve made Istikhaarah about embarking on a particular project in the first place. It’s the one strategy that works without fail. The next strategy is one I read about once: “It’s about quantity, not quality.” In other words, in the first phase of writing, it’s most important to just get your ideas on paper and actually finish the book. Naturally, you’ll have to re-read, revise, and even rewrite some parts. But as long as you have something to work with, achieving the quality you want is much more attainable.
Who or what helped you to realize your passion for writing?
If I were to pinpoint what helped me realize my passion for writing, aside from my childhood love for the pen, it would have to be my parents and my younger sister Najla. My parents helped me realize this passion by constantly reminding me and my siblings to use our talents and gifts for the sake of Allah. They never told us, “I want you to be a doctor” or “This family needs an engineer.” They, rather, taught us that Allah will put in our hearts whatever we’re supposed to be professionally, but they had only one requirement of us: “Whatever you do, do it as a Muslim.”
In particular, I remember my father reading from the Qur’an, where Allah describes the believers as those “…who spend out of what We have provided for them,” and I knew that because Allah provided me with the gift of writing, I should write for His cause. This really instilled in me a determination to write.
My sister Najla was particularly inspirational to me because she was the one who listened intently to all my stories, even when I had no idea where they were going. I’d tell her stories before we went to bed, and she’d constantly ask me, “And then what happened?” When I’d tell her I didn’t know (because I hadn’t figured it out myself), she would grow upset with me, and the next morning, she’d ask me again, until I finished the story. That really stuck with me because her intense interest made me realize that my stories could, with the help of Allah, intrigue others.
How is writing different from teaching?
Writing is different from teaching in that writing is intensely personal. As I write, I feel that the pen and paper belong completely to me, but I know I will share it with others once I’m done. Teaching, on the other hand, is entirely communal. As I teach, I feel that the classroom belongs completely to the students, but I know I must find that personal voice as a teacher to make the lessons accessible to my students and true to myself. However, in the end, these two professions come from the same desire within me, to, with the help of Allah, make the world a better and more spiritual place, one person at a time.
MashaAllah we’ve witnessed the worldwide success of your trilogy If I Should Speak, A Voice and Footsteps. Now there’s your latest release Realities of Submisssion… (may Allah make it successful as well). Is there a typical amount of time that you take to develop a concept or story line?
In general, my time of development is simply Istikhaarah and du’aa. Once it’s clear to me that this is a project I should take on, I make du’aa, and the general concept and storyline come to me in floods. At this stage, timing is not an issue except to find a pen and paper or computer fast enough to keep track of the ideas. Once I’ve jotted down the concepts and storyline, I have to set time aside to actual write the story chapter by chapter until its end.
Once a storyline is created how does it develop into the many twists and turns that keep us reading?
What’s amazing about writing is that even as you write you don’t always know all the twists and turns that will occur until you actually write them. Naturally, some of the twists are developed in the preliminary stage (when I’m flooded with ideas); however, my experience is that many of the twists are actually surprises for me. Often, I’m inspired to write them only as I sit typing a particular scene while I’m at the computer, even as I myself never expected the story to move in that direction. For some of my books, I actually had no idea what was going to happen in each chapter, and Footsteps is one of those. Thus, I experienced my own level of intrigue as I wrote the story, going through some of the same emotions that I imagined the readers would. This level of story development I attribute to the mercy of Allah, as it is simply proof of His answering my du’aa for guidance while I write.
Instead of having your work published elsewhere you created your own publishing company, what inspired you to do this?
I founded Al-Walaa Publications because I felt that it is most beneficial long-term for Muslims to have a publication company focused on Islamic fiction alone. At that time, there were no publishers specializing in Muslim novels, and I saw the establishment of a publishing company as the filling of a much needed void in the creative, Islamic voice.
Is writing a dream of a lifetime or a dream developed along the way?
I suppose it is more of a dream developed along the way because my writing goals are constantly evolving for the better, both practically and spiritually, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel that I’ve attained my “dream.” Also, I don’t like to think of my writing as “a dream of a lifetime” because success is a process, not a solitary goal in itself. If I were to believe I’m fulfilling “a dream of a lifetime,” I fear that I would become complacent and focus on me as a writer fulfilling her personal dream when, in truth, my focus should be on my writing as a process (a developing amaanah—a trust from Allah that I’m accountable for—more than a dream) that is in constant need of revision and refocus as I strive to achieve my ultimate life mission: Paradise.
Please share what feeds your soul?
Prayer, du’aa, and Qur’an.
As women, sometimes we wear many hats, how do you take time out to care for your own needs?
For me, whenever I feel the need to take time out for “my own needs,” this is an indication that my focus has been disrupted, and the first places I look to levy blame are my prayer and my intentions. In other words, I don’t view my natural and most correct state of affairs as my running around incessantly and putting on different hats, only to find myself exhausted at the end of the day and in need of “me time.” Personally, I believe as long as my prayer and intentions are correct, everything will fall in line, and peacefully so, such that every moment of my day is “me time”: What better “me time” can I have besides my faith and good health, together giving me opportunity to earn blessings and seek forgiveness before I die? So I don’t view myself as “wearing many hats,” but as simply fulfilling the many roles that are natural to the state of affairs of every human on earth, male or female. Thus, to me, when I say, “Take time for yourself,” this means, “Umm Zakiyyah, stop and focus. Go pray and ask Allah to purify your intentions.” The best way for me to attain this refocus, I’ve found, is getting up in the last third of the night to pray and make extended du’aa.
Everyone has a story to tell, what are your top ten tips for aspiring writers?
Because I haven’t yet found my voice in telling a personal story that covers my and others’ faults at the same time, I can only offer tips to aspiring fiction writers. My list of tips, however, can be condensed to five key points, although I’m sure other experienced writers could add much more:
- Make du’aa that Allah guides you to do everything for His sake and according to the Sunnah of His Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
- Actively seek Islamic knowledge to make sure that your foundational Islamic knowledge is correct.
- Make Istikhaarah before you begin any writing venture.
- Throughout your writing process, seek the advice and feedback of: knowledgeable, trustworthy believers; average people representing your target audience; and experts in your genre’s field (by reading “How to” publications, as well as award-winning and bestselling books in the field).
- Make Istikhaarah again before publishing your final work.
Contemporary Islamic fiction is a fairly field new field, what have been some of the challenges you have faced in this area?
Due to the genre of Islamic fiction being a fairly new field, my challenges are primarily two:
During the writing process, I find it challenging to write an engaging novel up to standard with contemporary, bestselling fiction, while at the same time offering an authentic Muslim experience accessible to and spiritually beneficial for avid Muslim readers of all ages. I sometimes feel like I’m feeling my way in the dark, because, historically, there are no novelists for me to look to for guidance in this vein. When I began writing, I knew of no other authentic, Islamic fiction writers; this created a huge challenge for me. However, it also created a wealth of opportunity, and I was excited and grateful to be a pioneer in this field.
Possibly the greatest challenge I face is, due to the dearth of Muslim novels, there is a general expectation by many readers that my books authentically represent “the” Muslim experience, or that they present a particular Islamic perspective—or that they, due to their fiction genre, present very little Islam at all. I think each Muslim reader, particularly in the West, is hungry for a novel that authentically represents them, and rightfully so. Naturally, when they learn of the few Muslim novels that are out there, they eagerly read them in hopes that the writer has finally made that personal Islamic statement that they wish to make to the world. This is a natural sentiment when a minority’s voice is finally being heard; I have this feeling myself on occasion. However, this is a weighty burden to carry, and my prayer is that more authentic Muslim fiction becomes available so that more voices are accurately heard.
A question that many of my coaching clients ask is how do you find the time to write?
As I learned in a writing workshop I attended: If you’re a writer, writing is a natural part of your life, just as is everything else you do on a daily basis. Thus, I don’t look at my writing, teaching, or da’wah as “extracurricular;” it’s life, and, most specifically, it’s my life. In keeping this in mind, I tell myself: You don’t make time for life, you live it.
For me, writing is a part of my life, a part of me, in fact—so much so that there are times I have to pull back and utilize my time for other things. Nevertheless, I do have a general schedule that I alter from time to time, and that schedule includes, among other things, my writing.
The first aspect of my schedule involves my approach to my sleep schedule. In general, I’m most productive when I view sleep as a means and not an ends. In other words, I get the most done when I minimize sleep to meet my need to function, as opposed to when I maximize sleep to meet my insatiable desire for rest. I too am most productive when I sleep between four-to-five hours at night, pray in the last third of the night, and take a short nap after Dhuhr prayer (and sometimes one shortly before the Fajr adhaan). On this sleep schedule, I have the most energy, and following an adequate night’s rest (and voluntary prayer before Fajr), the best and most productive time to write, I’ve found, is early in the morning after I’ve prayed Fajr. Naturally, as a full-time teacher, I benefit most from this writing schedule on the weekends and during summer vacations.
What is the best feeling you’ve gotten from being a ________________. Please fill in and describe the situation.
Muslim. I know it sounds cliché, but for me that’s the one thing that is most fulfilling for me. I reflect often on how, perhaps, one day I will no longer be a writer or teacher. Perhaps, one day there will be no children growing up under my care, and perhaps even my husband will have passed from this world. So, to me, even today, my Islam is all I have, or ever will have, of worth in the end. I feel this most intensely when I see another person accept Islam and my eyes flood with tears, or when I’m praying late at night when everyone is asleep and tears slip down my cheeks as I realize that I have the opportunity for the best gift anyone can be awarded—Paradise, and I think, SubhaanAllaah, can there be a better feeling than this?
What is your favorite book (besides the Quran ☺) ? What are you currently reading?
I don’t know that I have a favorite book per se, because my favorites fall into categories, but I would say that my favorite Islamic-learning book is Du’a the Weapon of the Believer by Abu Ammar Yasir Qadhi ; my favorite Islamic-themed book is From My Sisters’ Lips by Na’ima B. Robert; my favorite “secular” book is The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle; and my favorite novel is The Land by Mildred D. Taylor. Currently, I’ve just finished reading Establish the Prayers and the Prize is Paradise by Abdul-Malik Al-Qasim, and I’m currently reading so many other books that I need to narrow them down and focus on one, which is extremely difficult for me ☺. But one of the ones I’ve set my mind to finish is Life is an Open Secret: Think About It by Zabrina A. Bakar.
Many sisters have hidden talents, what’s your advice to them about pursuing their passions?
I’m constantly intrigued when I meet so many sisters who have amazing talents, and I’m often in awe as I sit and listen to them speak and reminisce. However, there is a tinge of sadness in my heart as I witness how much of their talking is so past tense, as if their current life—due to Islam, marriage, or motherhood—is mutually exclusive to their ability, or right, to capitalize on the talents Allah has given them. I don’t know that I have one piece of advice that would suffice for all of my talented Muslim sisters, but I advise this: Take your life by the reins, and cease being a passive passenger on its inevitably bumpy ride. There is no “perfect life” or “perfect opportunity” wherein all the obstructions to your life goals miraculously fall away and an intense light illuminates your path to success, and you merely walk, unchallenged, down the road. Anyone who has achieved anything in life achieved it because they found a way to keep going, to stay focused, even through the turbulent winds and torrential rains that characterize every life—not because they weathered no storms. And know, too, that the grass is rarely greener on the other side—and even in the rare cases that it actually is greener, it’s only because someone watered their grass—and pulled weeds—more than you. So be honest with yourself and look deep within to find the real reason you aren’t tapping into your “not-so-hidden” talents to benefit yourself and others.
I know for some sisters the reason is simply that they haven’t found a way to recapture that talent and motivation in an Islamically appropriate context, or they have so many other burdens on their shoulders that they can’t see beyond the stress of daily life itself. I know too that others have deeply personal issues that require a spiritual and practical makeover in their lives and the lives of their families. However, in any case, it’s important to remember that Islam, as well as marriage and motherhood, is life itself, not separate from it. So find your personal motivation within your Islamic and personal life, and ask Allah to help you find yourself and practical purpose in a manner that is pleasing to Him, and that does not in any way take away from your spiritual or family life, but that, in fact, enhances them both.
What’s something that you want to leave as your legacy?
I hope that my legacy is established through the success of my novels in Muslim and non-Muslim circles as tangible evidence of a practicing Muslim of contemporary times having capitalized on success in this world and the Next without sacrificing, but rather enhancing, my worldly and spiritual endeavors in the process.
What’s next? Any upcoming engagements or events you’d like to share with us?
For now, I’m working on more novels, and prayers for their successful completion are certainly appreciated ☺.
My Goal is to use SIS to exemplify how we all can tap into our own personal strengths and use them to magnify Allah (swt). What are your final thoughts about achieving this lifelong challenge?
Focus on Allah, your prayer, and your soul…and you’ll find your personal strengths, as well as opportunities to capitalize on them, sprout from places you never imagined.
Lastly, Jazak Allahu Khair for your time and patience☺! May Allah continue to bless you and allow you to let your light be a shining example for others!
Wa iyyak, and may Allah bless you for being a means to show others that Islam broadens, not shrinks, our horizons, in this world and the Next…if pleasing Allah is truly our life’s goal.
Thanks for letting your light shine!
INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS COPYRIGHT © 2009 BY TAMARA REDFERN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. AUTHOR RESPONSES COPYRIGHT © 2009 BY AL-WALAA PUBLICATIONS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.