Review: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Letters to a Young Muslim

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar | The New York Times | January 11, 2017

Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim follows the literary tradition of a family elder passing down insights to a younger generation, specifically in this case, his two teenage sons, as well as other young Muslim women and men. Ta-Nehisi Coates used the same approach in his magnificent 2015 book Between the World and Me, which explores the multifaceted experience of being black in America. Coates’s work in turn took inspiration from “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” an essay by James Baldwin in his The Fire Next Time. A child who grows up a member of a disparaged group, one despised with fierce intensity, will eventually ask, “Why do they hate us so?” The literary device of answering that question directly both adds a dimension of heartfelt sincerity to the writing and shames those who have caused the question to be asked in the first place.

Ghobash is especially qualified to take on this task. Educated at Oxford University and the University of London, he is the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Russia. He also has a passion for the cultural power of literature, as demonstrated by his involvement with several literary awards, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize. That intelligence and focus illuminate his words. The compassion and humility his faith gives him is an inspiration to readers whether they are young followers of Islam looking for answers or curious non-Muslim readers looking to better understand the religion.

Ghobash is not an apologist for Islam because there is no need. He argues that reason and religion can coexist because we are meant to use our intelligence to reject manipulative and myopic interpretations of the scriptures. In essence, he is suggesting a compromise between blind faith and nibbling on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There are certain heavenly ordained teachings, but followers must be ever-vigilant that these not be perverted by people with personal or political ambitions. He writes: “I want my sons’ generation of Muslims to realize that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith. It is their burden to bear whatever decision they make.”

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Emily Goodrich