BOOK CLUB

A Frank Debate about Identity and Islam

A Frank Debate about Identity and Islam

A new Sudanese generation is raising its voice. They are finally addressing an issue central to their existence, an issue that has long been held hostage by the ruling elites, the older generation, and a few academics, but which has never been simplified for public consumption or opened up to wider participation. Now, at last, we can finally get on with a debate that has, until now, been frozen in time — about the relationship between Islam and identity. 

There is no more fitting moment to open this debate than today. It is one of urgent relevance, both globally and locally. This is especially true in Sudan, where 24 years of rule by fundamental Islamists have led the country to the brink of imminent disintegration and state collapse. Sudan is a place where Islam and the national identity have been reconstructed through the narrow lens of Arabism and fundamental/political Islam. This has marginalized the majority in one of Africa’s most ethnically diverse countries. 

In his first book, entitled My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind-and Doubt Freed My Soul, the 26-year-old Sudanese blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr (otherwise known as "Drima" in the blogsphere), courageously, eloquently, and unapologetically asks the tough questions. In the course of his autobiographical yet deeply philosophical account, Amir charts a painful and often treacherous journey in the search of his own personal "truth." 

Born to Sudanese parents who left Sudan shortly after he was born in 1986, Amir’s first stop was Qatar. There he received a primary education that included an orthodox and dogmatic version of Islam with a heavy anti-Jewish/anti-Israeli accent. Although his parents are moderate Muslims, his school environment was far from tolerant and did not encourage his persistent questioning, which his teachers equated with "weak faith" and "the work of the devil." 

When his parents moved to Malaysia, Amir was placed in a Western international school where all his presumptions about his identity and the Islam he has been taught so far were put to the test. He refers to his relationship with Islam as "an arranged marriage" that took place without his consent. It’s a marriage that, like so many others, gradually moves toward divorce and ultimately culminates in reconciliation (at least of a sort). 

Amir’s quest for his "truth" is one that focuses on empiricism and sound reasoning. As Amir puts it, one of the first and toughest questions is: "How did Islamdom really lose its virtue?" In trying to find an answer, his quest takes him to the ninth century and the war of ideas between two schools of theological philosophy: One that advocated reason, free will, and an allegorical reading of sacred texts (al-Mu’tazila); and another that advocated tradition, predestination, and a more literal reading of the Quran (al-Ashariya). Eventually al-Ashariya’s school of thought prevailed because it was supported by the stronger political establishment of the time; and eventually it became the predominant mode of thinking about and interpreting Islam. 

According to Amir, "this would later prove to be politically useful in getting the masses to accept their rulers whether just or unjust," and to obey without questioning. This is the Islam we have inherited today.

But his crisis of faith was not the only crisis he experienced. He was also simultaneously obliged to straddle multiple cultures and assimilate the values of his parents to create what he calls, "a colorful culture of my own." The drastic shift in his schooling and cultural surroundings eventually made Amir feel "sandwiched between two worlds, between two planes of existence: the Afro-Arab Muslim ingrained within me versus the liberal ‘Westernized’ me." 

Feeling utterly lonely, Amir goes on a frantic search for answers in the place that is most natural for his generation to seek answers from: the Internet. Here he stumbles, by accident, on the diverse world of the blogosphere and comfortably finds a voice and a community. He blogs anonymously for six years; he goes "on a quest to learn and unlearn. To blog and to grow." 

It is in this virtual world that Amir starts to feel that he is not alone; he learns that "Arab dissidents and political ‘heretics’ of all stripes were discovering one another online and slowly forming a massive self-organized network." The Egyptian blogsphere, for example, had prominent voices of dissent which later became known to the rest of the world at the height of the Egyptian revolution, such as activist and blogger, Alaa Abdul Fatah and Mahmoud Salem. The American-Muslim blogosphere, or the "Islamosphere," was another virtual space that was diverse yet accommodated, for the most part, respectful and non-dogmatic debate. 

This book is a gift to the generation that grew under the darkness of Sudan’s murderous regime (whether inside or outside Sudan), the National Congress Party. It is a song to freedom of expression, freedom of thought and critical inquiry, and freedom from organized religion. It will shake the foundations of many Muslims who have never been exposed to Islamic or Western philosophy; it will create a stir in a closed society like Sudan where the debate on religion, the secular state, and identity has been stunted. Although My Isl@m is appearing first in English, there is already interest from readers in the Arab world for an Arabic translation. 

This book will also resonate regionally and globally. For the countries of the Arab Spring that voted in Islamist regimes who are now clamping down on freedom of expression, this book is a treasure trove that can equip normal citizens with an accessible counter-dialogue to Islamist rhetoric that the people in Muslim countries are rarely able to respond to, since the way Islam has been taught for centuries has all too often discouraged questioning and critical thinking. 

In My Isl@m, Amir is calling for a "revolt against the abusive dinosaur preachers of our times." He argues for a paradigm shift in the way Islam is taught and understood. More importantly, following the footsteps of the Sudanese scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, he explains in a very accessible manner how Islamic theology isn’t holy or sacred, but is in fact man-made and has developed over time in certain ways due to socio-political and other factors. 

For the West, whose relationship with Islam is often contentious, My Isl@m offers a possible reconciliation of East and West through an acceptance that the rich philosophical traditions of both worldviews can lead to an "integral Islam" that marries the empirical, the rational, and the spiritual.