Letters to a Young Muslim

Instagram introduced me to this book. I had never actually heard of it before then and still don’t hear much buzz about it. But I think it has received quite the hype out in the Middle East.

Letters to a Young Muslim, By Omar Said Ghobash is a collection of personally written letters to his older son, Saif. Ghobash, who himself was the UAE ambassador to Russia. He writings are compiled to teach or advise his young teenage son on how to live as Muslim in the world. He discusses ways to tackle various modern day issues that the Muslim world is facing today. He touches on issues that up until recently most Muslims have been afraid to discuss. His letters encourage his son, Saif to think outside the box, to learn and understand his position and duties to all of humanity, most of all to open his mind. He encourages his son (and us, the readers) to deal with topics the muslim world is facing, not with violence but with knowledge and words. To learn and understand cultures, literatures and philosophies of the world outside of the Muslims. To be brave and question about that which might have been taboo in the past but due to progressive globalization, should very much be talked about openly and peacefully.

Ghobash asks his son (and us) to stop following traditions aimlessly, ignorantly, but instead question them, think about them, understand them first. To acquire knowledge and then open a conversations among ourselves and those outside ourselves. With humanity. He points out that not everything is black and white as old time clerics might try to enforce but that there are several grey answers. He encourages his son (and us) to step outside of the Muslim world and learn to understand other worlds as well as their questions about our world. The advice is strong but not forceful. Topics such as violence, equality of women, and importance of their education, homosexuality among other topics are all addressed in a way that leaves you pondering. Ghobash patiently and gracefully points out the interesting realities of the Muslim/Arab world. For instance, how the Arab/muslim world has millions and millions and of illiterate and hypocritical people who are against the expansion of Western cultures into their world yet they are constantly on their iPhones and iPads, Facebook and Twitter. He encourages self growth as a Muslim individual first and foremost which can than lead to the betterment of the muslim world. He looks inside the mentality of muslims and islam. What needs to change.

This wasn’t one of those easy reads where the words and sentences just flow, in fact I found it a bit dry and somewhat abstract or philosophical. At times I found myself confused as to what point the writer was trying to get across. Other times I just felt lost and unable to full engross myself in the book. Maybe thats why it took me almost 4 months to read it! I think one the main reasons I felt this was because the focus and audience this book might have been targeting are those young Muslims living in the Arab world. Those who are struggling to hold onto Islam while adapting to a more and more westernized culture. The challenges and questions raised by Ghobash, might for me being a Muslim living in the west already, seem a little “been there, asked that.”

Although there are parts of this book that are hard to follow and understand, Ghobash’s writing is thought provoking, forcing you pause, think, question and reflect. There are parts that may seem slow paced and repetitive but the main theme that resonates throughout the book is; that we, as Muslims (young or old) need to wake up and question what our responsibility is living in the world as it is today. Attain knowledge, use words, question things. Don’t be afraid to question and sweep things under the rug just because “old-school” clergyman have marked them as taboo.

Ghobash makes some good points throughout these letters. For example some clerics present an insane idea to youngsters that if they sacrifice their life in the form of suicide they are promised heaven. The clerics convince them that this the most difficult sacrifice a person can make. But Ghobash points out that the more difficult and valuable sacrifice a person can make is to “face the complexity of the modern life and life life to the fullest, morally, spiritually and socially.”

I felt that Ghobash spent most of the letters asking Saif to wake up. He spent most of the letters laying out thoughts and questions that would drive Saif to further question and perhaps seek knowledge. But Ghobash kind of just leaves at that. He might have awoken a curiosity or created desire in the reader but he doesn’t give you much direction after that. We know that first and foremost, we as Muslims should live by the Quran. Our knowledge starts there. Ghobash might have gently mentioned that the Quran is to be learned and studied, but his focus isn’t that. I felt that the way to go about attaining knowledge is left up to the reader. I found that to be a bit odd I guess. For example, when a parent teaches his/her child to fry an egg for the very first time. The parent does not just say: Fry the egg. The wise parent would say: Get an egg out of the fridge, turn on the frying pan, wipe a little butter on the pan, wait a few minutes and then crack the egg open on to the frying pan. These are the steps to fry an egg. All or even a few of these steps help you understand the process of how to fry an egg. (I know that’s not the best analogy but I hope you get my point). Yes its great that Ghobash is stirring these emotions and questions in the minds of young Muslims, but like any good parent, a strong suggestion should also be supplemented.

Overall its a decent read, worth picking up. And after going through the quotes I highlighted, I might even consider reading it again.

Nice quotes:

“It may be true that the greatest sacrifice that a person can make is to give his life for a cause. But it is not the most difficult sacrifice a person can make. The most difficult and perhaps more valuable sacrifice a person can make is to face the complexity of modern life and live life to its fullest- morally, spiritually, and socially

“Islam has within it the resources for you to be a complete and balanced person”

“Violence is the tool of the frustrated and the angry. It achieves nothing for us as Muslims”

“The real challenge as a Muslim was not to run away from the West an seek comfort at the heart of Islam. The real challenge was to figure out the structure that would allow me to exist out there as a Muslim.”

“I mean the state where we pretend that ignoring the questions, ad the issues that led to these questions, we can somehow remove this knowledge from our minds.”

“Great knowledge consists offing familiar with the questions, the doubts, the possibility that things might be different.”

“It is perplexing to hear a fundamentalist criticizing the West but then observe him counting his money in dollars.”

“We are called upon, to bring out highest and best qualities to Islam as we practice it. If we do not, the deficiency is not within Islam, the deficiency is within us as people who have not thought deeply enough or tried hard enough to make sense of the disparate factors pulling on us.”

“In the search of knowledge, if we are honest with ourselves, we will find that knowledge is the common property of all of humanity.”

“We will and must seek knowledge that will allow us to reflect more deeply on ourselves as Muslims and as human beings.”

“ ..today almost 70 percent of your fellow muslims can neither read or write. This imposes an obligation on those of us who are able to read and write. The obligation is to learn as much as we can, and spread as much knowledge as we can.”

“…the certainty that each of us is a human being with smthg special to offer the world.”

“I want you to remember that education is more than just absorbing facts and passing exams.”