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‘Letters to a Young Muslim’ review: Omar Saif Ghobash offers reflections on Islam to his teen son

"Letters to a Young Muslim" by Omar Saif Ghobash. Credit: Picador

LETTERS TO A YOUNG MUSLIM, by Omar Saif Ghobash. Picador, 244 pp., $22.

Omar Saif Ghobash, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Russia, is cultured, inquisitive and resolutely moderate when it comes to his Muslim faith. He abhors radical Islam. And as a father of two potentially impressionable boys, Ghobash feels an added impetus to discredit the phenomenon. “Letters to a Young Muslim,” gentle in tone and filled with warmth, is addressed to his elder son, 16-year-old Saif. Ghobash wants to impress upon Saif the notion that Islam, for all the wisdom it offers, won’t provide him with ready-made answers about how to live a moral life or free him from having to make difficult choices.

That’s a noble undertaking, but the book proves deeply problematic, in large part because the author attempts to have things both ways. For example, Ghobash laments that the guardians of religio-cultural orthodoxy in Muslim countries — including the U.A.E. — render taboo a broad range of subjects, from the political to the sexual. With palpable indignation, he recalls the resulting self-censorship he engaged in as a young man. But then he changes tack and lauds his government’s long-standing “standards and expectations regarding what preachers could say in the mosques on Fridays.” One might find his stance understandable (when given free rein, more than a few imams preach hatred and even violence), but it remains contradictory.

It also fits a pattern. So as to complicate attempts by sanctimonious coreligionists to brand his and other liberal Muslims’ version of Islam as false, and to avoid facilely dismissing Islamic extremism as unrelated to the faith from which it originates, Ghobash insists that a one-and-only “True Islam” doesn’t exist. Yet just a few pages later, he slams extremists for their “distortion of Islam.”

In advocating individualism, personal responsibility, more rights for women, a reading of the Quran informed by science and reason, and ultimately an Islam that’s more a set of moral principles than a list of behavioral rules, Ghobash resembles “Muslim refusenik” and freethinker Irshad Manji, the lesbian author of “The Trouble with Islam Today” and “Allah, Liberty and Love.” The heterosexual Ghobash even urges a reconsideration of traditional Islamic attitudes toward homosexuality, in light of research suggesting that it is genetically or biologically determined.

Beyond its lack of consistency and overall timidity — no questioning of the Quran’s supposed inerrancy or the Prophet Muhammad’s more controversial actions — “Letters to a Young Muslim” often proves exasperatingly vague. Ghobash also has a tendency to generalize: “In the twenty-first century, it is still unusual for Arabs and Muslims to think of the very dynamic and mixed relationship we share with the West,” he writes.

The author does occasionally register a trenchant point. For example, despite his assertion that “the group around the Prophet . . . were all men with the best moral qualities,” he adopts a nuanced view of those oft-revered figures’ martial exploits. They were trying to “create a place for Islam in a chaotic and violent world,” he explains. Subsequently, Islamic civilization would become associated (in part) with scientific and cultural achievement. “If we could accept the role models of this [subsequent] period, we would have a larger number of characters to choose from,” the author muses. “This would include the builders, the thinkers, the philosophers, the medical pioneers, the mathematical geniuses, the comic poets, and the intellectual rebels.”

In Ghobash’s view, then, Islam is manifold. And it behooves every believer to ponder carefully which of its features to hold aloft and propagate, and which to categorize as superseded by time and circumstance. “This is the true challenge of a religiously inspired life,” Ghobash argues. With so many young Muslims — including converts — entranced by the religion’s politico-military dimension, it’s also an urgent necessity.


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