Looking for answers in the grey spaces of Islam

A whole generation is desperate to debate the rules on how to live, who to love and what to think. But is anyone listening, asks Faisal Al Yafai?

Omar Ghobash discusses his book 'Letters to a Young Muslim', with columnist Faisal Al Yafai (Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National)
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Saturday night and the offices of BrandMoxie in Abu Dhabi are packed with a mostly young crowd; men and women in their teens, twenties and thirties have gathered to listen to Omar Ghobash, author of Letters to a Young Muslim, a book about modern Islam that has become an overnight publishing sensation.

When he takes to the stage, Ghobash, a diplomat by day, disarms the audience; he laughs easily and the audience laughs with him. Even though he is discussing religion and politics, in a region where public discussions of those topics is cautious, he is unguarded. I am interviewing him on the stage, but after, watching the audience, I wonder why his candour is so enticing; why, after he has spoken, the crowd snakes around the room for a few moments with him.

To understand why writers such as Ghobash who talk about religion, are so popular among young people, we have to start somewhere else, in the shadows between the pillars of faith.

Islam is a religion of laws. The four schools of thought in Sunni Islam bring with them centuries of scholarship, legal opinions, court cases and religious rulings. In this way, Islam, more than any other major religion, lends itself as a basis for creating rules and laws in society.

Yet that leaves many grey areas, the spaces in between the laws where humans live most of their lives. It is because so few are writing about these spaces in between that authors such as Ghobash are popular; they are gusts of fresh air blowing through dusty libraries.

These grey areas are many and complex. How to live. Who to love. What to think. They fall mainly into the categories that defy rigid rules, into how one human being can interact with others.

In Muslim societies, even in the recent past, navigating these grey areas became codified over time. In Iraq, say, or Indonesia, over time, religion mixes with politics and society and a broad set of rules emerge. They often differ slightly from the precise religious ruling. But there are answers.

In the modern world, many of those answers are obsolete. Faith communities, everywhere, far beyond Muslim countries, struggle with the modern world: globalisation, mass media, immigration, the internet – all mean that the world intrudes. New ideas, new people, new possibilities appear and it can feel to people of faith that the old certainties are melting away.

Yet life continues and young people still need answers. People of faith, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jewish, wherever they are on the spectrum of faith, wrestle with the modern world and with their own faith. And no one offers them guidance.

This, by the way, is a structural problem with modern capitalist societies. Politics in such societies focuses on negative liberty, on creating an infrastructure of laws, rather than on pointing people in particular directions. But with so many directions, and no guidebook, life can seem confusing.

This, then, is the great failing of much of Islamic politics and, to a certain degree, of other societies too: there is more focus on building a state and less on how to live within one.

It is into this space that modern writers and speakers on faith have emerged. Ghobash is one, but there are many others: Nouman Ali Khan, Yasmin Mogahed, Amr Khaled. These names are not often known in political capitals – but they draw hundreds of thousands of followers, talking about the kind of issues that young men and women think about every day.

Doubt is a good example. Faith can sometimes seem as if it is all about certainty, but there is a long tradition of doubt in religion. In his book, Ghobash addresses it: “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 participate in the construction of our ethical world is practice.” For too many, having been told the world is ordered into rules by parents, politicians and religious figures, these words are revolutionary.

But for too many scholars, such questions are vapid, the tasteless decoration of life in a world besieged by hard questions. How to talk of doubt when there is a war on? How to speak of forgiveness when the world is on fire?

Such rigidity reduces the space for people to experience life and reconcile it with their faith. It denies some of the complicated questions that anyone can face.

That is why a whole new generation seeks out writers such as Ghobash and embraces them enthusiastically when they appear. They crave answers to the questions of faith, not those that speak of tomorrow, but those that are relevant today, in the messy, uncertain grey areas in which the most beautiful and hardest questions are faced.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai