The Parable of a True Muslim

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Through candid and spirited letters to his sons, a father addresses the issues that haunt Islam today

Letters To a Young Muslim | Omar Saif Ghobash | Picador | 245 Pages | Rs 499

MUCH HAS BEEN written about the radicalisation of Muslim youth, from former radical- turned-writers and social scientists to policy makers and security experts, explaining how to and how not to deal with the growing radicalism amongst Muslim youth across the world, especially in the Arab countries. In his debut book, Omar Saif Ghobash, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Russia since 2009, adds his own bit. And, unlike most of the authors who have done so by addressing the world, he, of Arab-Russian descent, does it instead through over two dozen personal yet politically nuanced letters, which address the very constituency that is affected by the problem. This is because the book is not a result of his professional engagements or diplomatic duties. Rather, it has a very personal connect as the stakes are personal.

Ghobash, father of two sons, noticed that his elder son, Saif, was getting radicalised by what was being taught and the way it was taught at school. Hence, in order to deal with it, he decided to write a series of letters to his son, explaining facets about Islam to them, bit by bit, its diversity, the Arabs, their history, the West, and how it should be viewed, and so on and so forth. Though primarily addressed to his son, Ghobash’s audience is all young Muslim men and women. The book has autobiographical elements in it, too. He uses his own life experience, family history and making of the modern Arab world, especially the UAE, to illustrate his point of view. And the letters are spirited, candid and thought provoking.

What is remarkable, which makes this book stand out, is that despite being written from the standpoint of power and privilege, it is neither preachy nor patronising in its tone and tenor. The author is empathetic in his approach and treats his readers as equals. Moreover, instead of providing readymade answers, he encourages his readers to search for their own answers. He writes towards the end of his first letter, ‘There is much more grey in between the black and white that the Ulema and other scholars present us. And the grey is where you develop intellectually and morally. The grey area of uncertainty and doubt as to what is right and what is wrong is where you discover your own right to think for yourself and to practice.’

Later, in another letter, he adds, ‘Today, I realize that certainties are not a privilege and a blessing but an obligation and a burden. Certainty should be gentle and cautious, not aggressive and angry.’ Discussing the subject of the role model, he writes: ‘The idea of warrior is powerful. Perhaps your generation can rethink its power in a positive and productive way. Perhaps the modern Muslim warrior is one who embraces life in its complexity and fights for social and economic justice with his or her mind, rather than for a stretch of desert territory with his or her body.’

In one of the letters, addressing the oft-repeated question of ‘What is True Islam’, Ghobash discusses different approaches of viewing Islam and detects, ‘The presentations and claims around True Islam are part of the problem that we face today as Muslims.’ He declares, ‘Islam is not the property of the Arab world. Islam belongs to us all.’ In his last letter, the author makes thoughtful observations: ‘If you begin to accept the individual diversity of your fellow Muslims, you are likely to do the same for those of other faiths as well.’ He is of the view, and rightly so, that ‘as long as we don’t recognize the individuals within our societies, we will not be able to live with humanity outside our faith.’