**One of Time's Most Anticipated Books of 2017, a Bustle Best Nonfiction Pick for January 2017, a Chicago Review of Books Best Book to Read in January 2017, an Amazon Best of January 2017 in History, a Stylist Magazine Best Book of 2017, included in New Statesman's What to Read in 2017**
From the Ambassador of the UAE to Russia comes Letters to a Young Muslim, a bold and intimate exploration of what it means to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century.
In a series of personal and insightful letters to his sons, Omar Saif Ghobash offers a vital manifesto that tackles the dilemmas facing not only young Muslims but everyone navigating the complexities of today’s world. Full of wisdom and thoughtful reflections on faith, culture and society. This is a courageous and essential book that celebrates individuality whilst recognising it is our shared humanity that brings us together.
Written with the experience of a diplomat and the personal responsibility of a father; Ghobash’s letters offer understanding and balance in a world that rarely offers any. An intimate and hopeful glimpse into a sphere many are unfamiliar with; it provides an understanding of the everyday struggles Muslims face around the globe.
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Letters to a Young Muslim
By Omar Saif Ghobash
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Omar Saif Ghobash
All rights reserved.
THE QUESTIONS YOU FACE
You often ask me why I am writing a book and what it is about. Sometimes I tell you that I am writing it for you, sometimes for young Muslims like you. I watch you as you grow and I think of the challenges you have faced and will face. Sometimes I know that I am writing this set of letters for myself.
I remember when you realized that you were a Muslim. You were tiny. You were sweet and round and friendly. It was at an event at school. Your schools so far have been English-language curriculum schools and the student body came from more than a hundred nationalities. One day the students had to identify their religion and you came back "aware" of your religious identity. You took this identity very seriously. You began to ask me what you "had to do" to be a Muslim. I explained as best as I could the simple steps of knowing that the big Guy in the sky, who created the world, was really called Allah, and that hundreds of years ago, he had sent us his Messenger Mohammed with the Quran. I told you that we prayed five times a day and I reminded you of Ramadan, when we would not eat all day until the evening. Soon you were coming back from school telling me what I had to do to be a "good Muslim." It seems your Arabic teacher and his colleague, your religious studies teacher, had a better idea of what being a Muslim meant. You became a little aggressive and I began to realize that your mother and I were not the only ones bringing you up. I saw that we had competition for your attention. I panicked a little. I had images of you running away to Syria to fight in a war where people would exploit your good nature. I imagined you cutting yourself off from us, your family, because we were not strict enough Muslims according to the standards that you had picked up from these so-called teachers of yours. I had the urge to go to your school and punch them and tell them they had no right to teach you these things. Instead, I spoke to your mother repeatedly and at length. She is seven years younger than me and grew up three streets away from where I lived with my siblings. Unlike me, both her parents are from the same town in the Emirates — Al Ain. Her upbringing was more uniformly Arab and Muslim than mine could have been, given that my mother is Russian and descended from Orthodox clergymen. Your mother had also been through similar experiences. I know because we had gone to the same school. It was not that we were taught to hate groups of people in a formal way. It was the offhand comments that a teacher would make, or the playground gossip about the Jews or the Shia sect of Islam. The assumption was that you could condemn people you had never met, and who had themselves never done anything wrong. Your mother was, and is, adamant, as am I, that we are not going to let our children be educated to hate.
One by one, we spoke to you about the people you were "meant to hate." There was no reason to hate anyone. There is no reason to react to the world around you with hatred. You have to understand that someone has made the choice for you when they say you have to hate. The choice is yours and the only way you can make the world a better place is by doing the opposite of hating. It is by loving. It was not easy to change your mind. Your teachers had done a good job. This made us more determined than ever to win you back. Eventually, you came back to us and decided that hatred was unnecessary and unfair. In fact, hatred is many more things.
Recently, I celebrated my forty-third birthday. I had been waiting for this particular birthday for a long time. From the age of nineteen. Both years were of immense importance to me as I grew up and matured. As you know, your grandfather Saif, my father, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1977. My father was forty-three when he died. When I was your age, I used to think that forty-three was a big number. Now that I have passed forty-three, I feel that life is only just beginning for me. Before I go on, let me tell you why nineteen was also such an important birthday for me. When I was twelve I discovered that the man who killed my father was nineteen when he did what he did. Nineteen. When I was twelve I asked myself whether I would be able to kill a man when I turned nineteen. I waited for the day and then I asked myself the question. The answer was no. No way. Not in a million years could I lift a gun or a rifle and shoot another man. I felt like I was still a twelve-year-old.
I looked forward to the age of forty-three and I knew I would ask myself whether I could imagine my life ending at forty-three. When my birthday came, I felt the horror of having barely scratched life. I remember thinking how little time I had spent with you. I thought back to my father and imagined the horror he must have felt as he realized that his life was slipping away from him. My siblings and I, your uncles and aunt, were all under the age of ten when your grandfather died. I look at you and I know how much more time I spend with you because of this fear, and even this is not enough.
I am writing this book for you because I want you to have a piece of paper that will be there long after I am gone. I want to give you some of the love and guidance that I wish my father had been able to give me when I was your age and older. I am writing this set of letters to you because I want you to have some idea of the questions that you will face, and some of the answers that are out there. I do not want you to hear it from others. I do not want you to learn the most important lessons in life from people who do not love you as I love you. I want you to hear the lessons from the person who loves you most. If you think that I worry too much about you, know that I worry only about you.
I want you to know about the things I believe after more than thirty years of thinking about my father's death. His death forced me to try to answer a bunch of difficult questions; it shaped the way in which I view the world.
In these letters, I will tell you how I saw the world around me when I was younger, when I was your age and when I was a little older, and how I see similar things happening to you. I want you to know that the questions you face, and the solutions you find, or are presented with, are solutions that many of us were faced with as well.CHAPTER 2
THE GRAY AREA
You are growing up in a world that is radically different from the world of the 1970s and 1980s in which I grew up, even though I am only twenty years or so older than you. In today's world, you have access to all the information you could want about the most obscure ideas, events, and movements. You, and I, are overwhelmed by the media coverage of Islam and Muslims, intertwined with the constant linkage with terrorism and religiously inspired violence. You find that it is difficult to be a Muslim and live in societies that seem to be made up of lonely, sullen, and isolated individuals.
Where is the meaning and purpose in all of this? When you think about the history that you are a part of, the history of a young religion with a blessed Prophet named Mohammed, who set the world on fire with the divine revelation that he carried, it is difficult to accept the mundanity of the world you live in. Of course, there are the technological wonders that appear almost daily. These technologies intrigue and entertain, they satisfy and they fill your day with activity — but they have also taken over your time even as they are meant to be of service to you. The technologies that surround us seem to free us, but there is the niggling doubt that they have enslaved us by appealing to our wildest personal whims. There is the empty electrical buzz that we are left with after a day online, checking posts, looking for information, and then being sidetracked by interesting articles. You might compensate by looking at some of the Muslim websites. You watch, you listen, you read, you absorb. The West offers temptations, both physical and moral temptations. Freedom is worshipped and the body is yours to use as you wish. The Islamic scholars online, the ulema, "those who have knowledge," have a vision of a world where Islam and the Muslims are the center. Where the Muslims set the agenda, deploy power, develop technologies, decide outcomes. The ulema online have a plan for how this is all going to happen.
You are told that it is inherent within our religion to be the dominant player. All the rules that we know about are written for an Islamic society that dominates others or at least confidently holds them at bay, at arm's length. We will give you peace if you are peaceful, otherwise, beware. Islam was dominant from the time the Prophet Mohammed converted the people of Mecca to Islam till an Islamic empire was established from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Central Asia. Why should this not be the case again? Of today's global population of 7 billion people, 1.7 billion are Muslim. Many studies tell us that Islam is a young religion and is growing and spreading faster than any other religion.
Certain dominant strains of Islam demand that it be placed at the center of world politics. And supposedly you are obliged to be its servant. Why? Well, because we have a series of well-funded and persuasive voices who tell us daily that Islam is under attack and that we need to be on the offensive. Is this really the case? I do not believe so. These are shrill voices that have a warped view of the world and have managed to acquire finances and credibility.
They tell you that the only way Islam is going to take this dominant and deciding position is when Muslims are proper Muslims. This idea is also very simple. You are told that you are not observant enough, and only when you are observant to the correct degree, as well as those who surround you, will Islam flourish and prosper. It is your fault that Islam is in this degraded and miserable state. You are shown YouTube videos of courageous Afghan mujahideen fighting the might of the Soviet army in the 1980s. You are shown clearer videos of the war in Bosnia of the 1990s. More recent and more shocking videos come from the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where you can watch suicide bombings with powerful anasheed (religious songs) as accompaniment. These Muslims are true Muslims you are told. They have sacrificed their lives for the honor of Islam and the Muslims. These young martyrs are ensconced in heaven today for having made the greatest sacrifice for Islam. They are the model to be emulated, for what could be more selfless, noble, and moral than to give up your life for the greater glory of Islam?
The latest monstrosity of the Middle East is presented in its full magnanimity: the destruction of the Syrian people at the hands of the atheist, Kaffir, Baathi regime of Bashar al-Assad. You were very young when the so-called Arab Spring started in 2011. You knew that something was happening. You would catch glimpses of the news of massive demonstrations taking place in the central squares of a number of Arab capitals. These were revolutions. Tunisia was the first country to fall to the demonstrations. Its president fled. Egypt also had a revolution and its aging president was arrested and imprisoned. The Libyan leader was hunted down and killed in a gruesome manner. Yemen had an initially less violent outcome. And then all eyes were on Syria. The Syrian people demonstrated and danced and demanded change.
Then Syrian children were arrested, tortured, and killed. Their bodies were returned to their families. More and more violence was committed against the Syrian demonstrators. You have grown up watching the daily reports of the deaths in Syria.
You also know that the destruction of Syria and the radical forces that are operating in the territory of northern Syria and Iraq have led to a great migration of refugees into Turkey and then across into Europe. Initially, the Europeans welcomed these refugees with open arms. Other refugees had already been established in enormous camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. This new wave of refugees came across into Europe hoping for a better life than anything possible in the Middle East or North Africa. As Muslims, we watch these refugees risk life and limb to get away from where they originated. In fact, they are trying to get away from what are Muslim countries and Muslim lands. The debates that are taking place in Europe have gone from theoretical openness to a practical anger and panic over the implications of the influx. As Muslims we are upset that our fellow Muslims are no longer so welcome in Europe. But as Muslims, we are also facing the question of why our Muslim societies are breaking down across the Middle East — from Afghanistan to Libya.
You know that some of my work is concerned with the problem of Syria. You ask me when is it going to end. You seem to think that the world has left Syrians to their fate. Here the videos of tortured and maimed Muslim children are countless. The outrage you feel is completely rational, and justified. The crimes committed against the innocent and the defenseless are condemned by all people everywhere. But no one seems to be doing anything about it. Who is going to put a stop to the carnage? Who is going to take revenge against the killers? Every day in the Arab world, in Europe, and in the United States, you are told that governments are helpless in the face of global economic forces, or climate change, or extremism. Governments are not going to do anything because they do not want to or because they cannot. So the only one left is you. So what do you do? You are the only one who has an ounce of morality left. Only you seem to know the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. There are others out there like you. They also feel the outrage. They feel the sense of impotence when they look at the way people seem to shrug at the news of the latest atrocity, and then get on with their mundane lives. Fast-food restaurants, TV shows, Facebook, and Instagram. You are all perplexed by the way people seem to be more interested in the petty politics of Congress and the European Union than they are by the greatest moral question of the twenty-first century. You, like human beings in general, have this constant urge to make sense of the world around you. It can be a painful process, but there is light at the end of this tunnel of worry, anxiety, and self-doubt. Could it be that the online ulema — or religious scholars of Islam — are correct? Could it be that they are the living embodiment of what Islam can and should and will become? The path is clear, the language is straightforward and simple. When all the clutter of modern life is removed, the path opens up before you toward meaning and purpose.
The more you look, the more you find what makes sense. You are all tapping into a great civilization. Or at least a civilization that was once great, and that must be great again.
You believe that your parents do not understand the issues you face. They live in a different world. They are content with the mind-numbing and backbreaking work they do. They are isolated and powerless in the face of technologies and economic forces. Can they even call themselves good Muslims? You are embarrassed to think it, but you cannot help it: your parents are cowards who do not want to face the world. They are not the good Muslims that you thought they were. Islam has demands and it has rights over us. We need to be good, and being good means living up to the demands of Islam. What are your parents doing? Nothing. They mutter things under their breath when the news comes on, they are always tired and irritable. They do not have any convincing answers to your questions. In fact, not only are they not living up to the clear and simple dictates of Islam, but they are also dinosaurs who have no role in this life. You love them, but they are peripheral in the great battle of Good against Evil.
There is a moment when you are faced with a key question. If you are serious about being a good Muslim, a proper Muslim, a true Muslim, then you need to live like one. What are the models for this? Actually, the model is there in front of you. It is the model of the Prophet Mohammed. You are told to emulate him. In every way. This is a noble and straightforward thing. The idea of following the example of a good and noble historical figure is not strange at all. In fact, you hear about the need for role models at school, at work, and in business. Many people are trumpeted as role models — scientists, actors, singers, and scientists. Of all the role models we Muslims have, the Prophet Mohammed is the finest.
Luckily, there is a long-standing tradition that outlines specific acts and sayings of the Prophet that allow you to fit yourself in smoothly. Some of the requirements, or at least what you are told are requirements, come across as quite strong, such as the need to distance yourself from non-Muslims entirely, and from Muslims who are not strictly observant. Soon, though, you join with others in expressing shock that such and such a person made what seemed to be an immoral joke, or that another Muslim was seen walking with a young lady who was not his relative. What could they be doing? you all wonder. And conclude that they must have been up to no good. Judgment of others comes quickly and easily. Why? Because you live a Muslim life of such high and demanding moral standards that everything around you seems ritualistically and morally incorrect. You find that you are living in a polluted world that needs radical cleansing.
Excerpted from Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash. Copyright © 2016 Omar Saif Ghobash. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsThe Questions You Face
The Grey Area
Landscapes of Islam
Wealth, Opportunity, and Repentance
Fragments of Memory
The Limits of What We Can Know
My First Dark Days
Who on Earth Told You That?
What Is True Islam?
“Islam Is a Religion of Peace”
Crisis of Authority
The Perspective of an Outsider
Path to Fundamentalism
The Challenge of Freedom
Our Complex Entanglement with the West
Revelation and Reason
Sermons and What to Expect in the Mosque on Fridays
Good Deeds and Bad Deeds
The Quran and the Search for Knowledge
How We Construct Ourselves and the Past
Men and Women
Free Speech and the Silence Within Ourselves
A Closer Look at a Moral Conundrum
The Muslim Individual