I found the book Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash warm and thought provoking. Setting out a much-needed conversation on what it means to be a Muslim and the responsibility of young Muslims to shape Islamic culture.
To get the best value out of these letters, I read them as if they were addressed to me by my father. Initially, I thought I would jot down my ideas in the form of a review. However, I eventually decided that replying to these letters as the young Muslim addressed (specifically the author’s son Saif) would give me a greater license for creativity and a wider scope for imagination. For what better way to review these letters, than to immerse myself in the mind of their intended.
These views won’t necessarily reflect my own and they will almost certainly not reflect those of Saif’s. However, the personality I’m hoping would develop from this exercise, is the one best able to highlight issues of reception by those who would benefit the most from the book, and then proceed to open-mindedly appreciate and challenge the contents of these letters.
I had read and re-read the letters you’ve written for me, on many occasions over the years. That first copy you had given me is so well-thumbed, it has been reduced to a decrepit stack of papers barely bound by their cover. I had taken your advice and scattered scratches of ink all over them. Can’t promise all the scribbles have been relevant (Or even tactful… sorry!). However, most of these were pertaining to the thoughts I’m about to disclose.
I must admit, I was initially resistant to reading them. Part of me knew – just by listening to how people spoke of them – that I would either not quite grasp their contents and disappoint you, or it would fundamentally change my world view placing me at odds with those around me. Our unique circumstances had already spawned a fire creating a thick screen of smoke separating myself from others, that the thought of fanning those flames terrified me. As it turned out, both of the consequences I feared would come to materialise in succession.
Even when I had tentatively started to read them, I hid that fact from you. Layers of disinterest and indifference had coated the soaring walls I surrounded myself with. I didn’t quite comprehend the points you were trying to make, and was ashamed of this fact. They ran contrary to my perspective at that point. Islam surely existed to guide me, not I it. I had thought.
It was much easier for me to dismiss the whole affair as just a few more of your meandering lectures in written form. However, as I grew a bit older I would slowly come around to their meaning – or at least I thought I did.
I apologise if I had taken meaning from them you had not intended me to take. As with any written work, it was difficult not to absorb it within me and see it in my likeness.
I was influenced as much by what you had written, as by what you had not. As if I could see beneath the folds of paper invisible words betwixt line and line, that were only meant for me.
As I grew, these words would transform and shift in colour and in substance with the passing of years, as leaves would flourish and crumple with the passing of seasons.
For example, in your letters, you dismiss some concepts such as violence, as projections by some Muslims not intrinsic to Islam itself. Were you trying to perhaps steer me to the conclusion that concepts such as tolerance and peace are? I used to think this was the case, but I don’t believe so anymore.
I now think you believe that there are no concepts truly intrinsic to Islam except those that define it as the belief that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. You believe that it is my responsibility to find alternatives to destructive interpretations of Islam. Not because those alternatives are more valid, but despite that fact.
You encourage me to be curious, ask the deeper philosophical questions relating to faith and never take anything for granted.
However, to truly achieve this, I now feel that I must not constrain myself to the framework imposed by Islam, however generous and forgiving this framework might be.
The more I search and interrogate our heritage, the more I am certain this is the case. I must at least be open to the idea that Islam might not be the answer – or at least not my answer – for this to be a meaningful quest.
I know now, freedom of religion does not detract from Islam, but is in fact the only way to truly guarantee it.
Therefore, we must both concede of the possibility that somewhere along the path that you had encouraged me to pursue, that I might cease to be a young Muslim, and instead be perhaps a slightly older Buddhist, Atheist or Agnostic… I couldn’t help but feel this idea was skimmed over in the letters (perhaps intentionally?).
What if I feel that the notions of kindness and tolerance that you and mom have instilled in me are better projected on an altogether different framework. A perhaps more malleable and humanist one that does not demand an endless search in ancient heritage for precedent.
If this should come to pass – far from being just an outsider – I would find myself in a situation where I am demonised by society and the people I’ve grown to love. A criminal in the very country that I call home. Attributed with a sin that – at least theoretically – can be punished by death.
You wrote of harmony with other religions, however this is not quite as relevant to the act of apostasy, which is widely regarded as the most venomous spit in face of Islam that anyone could possibly muster.
You wrote about freedom of choice being essential, but this was not in the context of exercising that freedom to relinquish my religion, rather than just challenging certain interpretations of it.
Your silence on this issue almost feels as if you are taking the fact that I would always be Muslim for granted. That you are saying “Question everything! But only within the framework I set out for you to still qualify as a Muslim”. This can’t be what you had intended, can it? This is incongruent with the open-minded spirit that you had instructed me to pursue, or at the very least renders some of your letters obsolete in these sets of circumstances.
I felt that there is a blind spot in an otherwise quite a rounded outlook of the issues I need to consider as a young Muslim: The choice of continuing to be one.
I realise of course, this might just be just the sort of the self-censorship – perfected through years of diplomacy – necessary to get all the players on the table, and your message across.
I could imagine my reaction upon first reading your letters all those years ago; if they had explicitly prophesised that the type of critical thinking you had prescribed for me would sow doubt on the very idea of being a Muslim, I would have thought that you had lost your mind! I would have almost certainly completely shut down, been distressed and maybe even been ashamed of you.
I am eternally grateful to you for taking the time to write these letters for me. This is more than any child can ask of their parent. Just as you had conjured thoughts of grandfather to steer your life using the scraps remaining from his. With these letters, I would do the same, except I would be infinitely better equipped to do so.
They do not have all the answers, as you couldn’t possibly foresee all the challenges my generation must endure. However, they possess some of the important questions I and others need to ask ourselves. And this – I realise now – is more valuable.