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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

My Isl@m

How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind---and Doubt Freed My Soul

Amir Ahmad Nasr

St. Martin's Press



The Chessboard

I had clicked that button more than a thousand times, but this time I was hesitating. This was not just another blog post. I paused for a few seconds, but I knew I had to do it.
"Is there anything else I can get you?" asked the beautiful young Norwegian waitress, in perfectly accented American English. "Thanks, I'm good," I replied, without taking my eyes off the screen of my MacBook Pro, where the familiar administrator panel of my WordPress blog now contained a threshold, exhilarating but a little frightening, over which I was about to step.
I was visiting Norway to share the stage with Nobel Peace Laureates and former presidents at the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum to speak on a panel entitled "Dawn of a New Arab World." It had already been nearly four months since the "#Jan25" Egyptian uprising, and a week since the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The world I lived in felt like it had changed immensely, and here I was, about to change my world forever, too.
Taking a deep breath, I clicked the button, and with that, updated my blog and stepped out from behind the curtain of anonymity that I felt had protected me for so long. There I was, in black and white, for all the world to see: "My name is Ahmad. Amir Ahmad, known to you for the last five years as Drima. I am the blogger behind ‘The Sudanese Thinker'.…"
Instantly, I felt relief. The anonymity that had once given me so much freedom—the freedom to question the religious dogma of my upbringing, to become infatuated with atheism, to converse with Jews in Israel and an American soldier in Baghdad, and even to infiltrate online jihadist forums—had in recent years become suffocating. I felt newly liberated, despite the occasional nagging concerns at the back of my mind that I tried to ignore. "What kind of e-mails will I receive now from the haters among my blog readers? Will I get another death threat? Will the Sudanese government start troubling me?" I wondered with a smile as I walked through Oslo's breezy streets back to the 130-year-old Grand Hotel. But these concerns had little hold over me. The fear I had grown up with, like millions of other Arab youths, had lost its potency, and now, with the uprisings that were sweeping the Arab world, I knew something fundamental had shifted. We had finally found our voice, and the means through which we were going to express it passionately, ferociously, and with utter conviction.
This wave of change was what brought me to Norway. The panel on which I was speaking was going to be opened by Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who helped energize the youth-led revolution in his nation after an emotional televised interview. I was also going to be joined on stage by three other activists and bloggers: Ghazi Gheblawi, a Libyan, Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian, and Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini girl whom I ran into that night in the hotel lobby.
"Salam. Maryam, right?" I greeted her, recognizing her face from a CNN interview. I was not sure if she was going to shake my extended hand, but she did. Knowing her harrowing story, I tried to offer my consolation. "I'm really sorry about what your family is going through in Bahrain. I hope your father gets released from prison soon." She did not seem in need of sympathy, however. Maryam was strong in her resolve and had a great sense of humor. "He got beaten up severely and badly tortured, but his spirits are high," she told me. "My mom finally got to see him. Anyways, we're kind of used to it by now. It's not the first time they've arrested him. He's always been a brave and stubborn human rights activist," she said with a chuckle.
As I listened to Maryam detailing her father's ordeal, my thoughts drifted back to my latest blog post, and my nagging concerns re-emerged. What if someone were to come after me or to intimidate my family? Would I be able to handle the beatings and torture? Would I break under pressure? I didn't know. But all I knew was that there was no going back now, and I was glad. It seemed like my whole life had been leading to this moment, when I could finally be myself.
* * *
I took my first breath in August of 1986 in the dusty city of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, my homeland, a North African Arab nation still suffering to this day from its Afro-Arab identity crisis. Khartoum is located at the convergence of the White and Blue Niles, which join together, cut through Northern Sudan, then Egypt, and finally pour into the Mediterranean Sea.
Soon after I was born, I left my homeland and moved with my family to the small nearby oil-rich Arab Gulf nation of Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula. By 1992, I had started school there. Things were already a lot calmer in the Arab world compared to a year earlier, when Saddam Hussein had invaded nearby Kuwait, and annexed it into Iraq. Qatar was under threat, but luckily the Americans and allied forces arrived just in time and bombed Hussein's army into retreat before it could reach us. If his army had reached us, we would very likely have been forced to flee back to Sudan, and my academic career would have started there instead. But Qatar was destined to be the backdrop for my early formative years.
Our early years were normal by Qatar's comfortable standards. I remember my father returning home from work each day, dressed in one of his many suits and ties, with the day's Qatari newspapers pinned under his arm and his black metal briefcase clenched in his fist. He had a secure job as a research consultant that paid well, and provided us with the large villa we would live in for a decade.
"So, tell me, tell me. How was school today? What did they teach you?" my father would inquire after hugging and kissing me.
"We learned a lot of things! Adding numbers, drawing and coloring, how to pray—many things, Baba!" I replied enthusiastically.
At the office, people called Baba "Doctor Ahmad." This wasn't because he treated patients. It was because he held a Ph.D. in oral-traditions folklore, which he had received over a decade before from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1977, where he had also taught Arabic.
"I studied hard when I was young, son, and because of that, I graduated from the University of Khartoum as a top student. That's how I got my scholarship to complete my postgraduate studies in America," he told me, more times than I could count. "And that's why you need to study hard and do well in school, too. If you want to succeed in life, you have to read many books and become well educated. Islam commands us to seek knowledge, think, and grow."
"Listen to what your father says," my mom would chime in, sensing my mild annoyance at feeling like I was being preached at. Both would then proceed to tell stories of how wonderful Wisconsin was and how they were still in touch with a few of their American friends whom they got to know there. It was an all-too-familiar scene.
Moments later, all five of us gathered around the kitchen table for our usual late lunch, while my baby sister, born a year earlier, slept in a nearby room. I was hungry and immediately began digging into my meal. "Did you say bismillah before starting, Amir?" asked Baba. I was silent. "Remember to say it next time, so that your food will be blessed. You need to be thankful and grateful to God for what you have. Learn to appreciate it," he advised gently. Then one of my older brothers chimed in, commenting on my eating habits. "Didn't they teach you Islamic hygiene at school? Always try to eat with your right hand only. The left hand is for dirty tasks, and when you eat with it, Satan will eat along with you, too. He joins you during your meal," he warned.
I tried picturing the possibility. What did the Devil look like? Was he a big red creature with horns like I had seen in cartoons? Given what I had heard, Satan sure did seem powerful. So then, why would he need to eat? I mean, hello, he's not human. He's made of fire. Heck, would he even enjoy Mama's cooking? Could he even taste it?
After lunch, I followed Daddy upstairs to the master bedroom and flipped though the day's newspaper next to him in bed. I performed this ritual on an almost daily basis for the next few years. It helped kill my boredom.
Printed in the newspaper were pictures of bad things happening to people all over the world. I read, struggling to understand as much as I could, and whenever something didn't make sense, I asked Baba about it. Sometimes I tended to get on his nerves with my many questions, especially if he was really sleepy and wanted to take his habitual post-lunch nap sooner than usual.
One day, as he yawned, I asked him, "Who makes this newspaper, Baba?"
"This? You mean who publishes it? Ah, it's all controlled, son. It's all just nonsense, empty talk!"
"‘Nonsense'? What do you mean, Baba? You read it every day!" I remarked, confused and utterly baffled.
"Well, what else is there to read? I still need to at least have an idea of what's going on in the world," he replied, his voice heavy with frustration.
"But what do you mean by ‘nonsense'?" I asked again.
"Khalas, enough, Amir. Later. I want to sleep now. I'm tired. Go do your homework."
* * *
My homework usually consisted of rote learning tasks that only increased my boredom. Either I had to memorize things, or copy entire portions from my Arabic textbook into my exercise book. Often the Arabic textbooks I studied contained stories that glorified the Islamic Golden Age, which supposedly began in the eighth century, and bitterly lamented its collapse five centuries later. They blamed the collapse on Muslim moral decadence and the enemies of Islam and the Arabs. I hated the homework, but as students, we weren't encouraged to question our teachers' wisdom or instructions. It was considered very rude and disrespectful.
In the evening, before sunset, my dad would wake up from his nap and head to the nearby neighborhood mosque to perform the sunset prayer. After the prayers, Baba sipped the chai tea that Mama prepared for him, and watched the evening news that aired on Qatar's national Arabic channel. He preferred it over the other Qatari channel, which aired programs in English. We didn't have any more channels available in our household, and when the opportunity to get more through cable arose a few years later, Baba never seized it. I overheard him once discussing the matter with Mama. My ears only caught snippets. "Naked women … Kissing scenes … He lets his kids see Baywatch.… Dirty songs … Them watching things like this … Shameful."
By evening, I would already be bored of my action figures and had no more Majid magazines left to read and reread, and so I often watched the news with my parents, struggling to understand what I saw. Many daily stories disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Others, however, were the center of attention for weeks, if not months.
I'll never forget the images of death and destruction that were always aired during the first Palestinian Intifada.
"The Zionist enemy has killed seventeen innocent civilians, and wounded twenty-three."
"These filthy cursed people! Look! Look at how they're killing innocents. Look at how they're destroying homes!"
Nothing in the news seemed to make my parents angrier than what Israel did to the Palestinians. It was horrible. Little children my age died under Israeli bombs and bullets. Worse, the stories hardly changed over time. It seemed as if Israel was simply hell-bent on killing as many Palestinians as possible.
"Baba, what happened? Why is she crying?" I asked, trying to understand the scene on our television screen. "Wait! I'm watching, Amir!" my father replied. Disappointed, I turned to my mom and pulled on her arm, hoping she'd pay attention. "They killed her son. Okay? Now let us watch, Amir, please, just wait one minute."
There were days when I really hated the news because it made Mama and Baba moody and unhappy. "Times have changed my son, there's no more mercy in this world," my mom usually declared after a heavy dose of terrible headlines. Then she'd go to chat on the phone with a friend or prepare dinner. My dad would leave to perform the last of the five daily prayers.
* * *
One late evening, my father sat me and my big brother down for what was obviously going to be a serious talk. I was about eight years old.
"Listen, boys, you're all grown up now, and soon you're going to be men with mustaches and beards. You're not children anymore. Do you agree?" he asked us. We nodded, somewhat hesitantly. We sensed there was a catch.
"Fine then, I shall talk to you as adults. Listen to what I'm about to tell you carefully, my sons. When God created us…"
"Wonderful," I thought to myself, "a lecture."
"… He asked us to do certain things. One of them is that we must perform the daily five prayers. In fact, this is why He created us. He created us so we can worship Him. Now, while this isn't obligatory for children, it is for grown-ups."
"But why do we have to worship, Baba? What if we don't?" I asked. While I had learned about the steps involved in performing prayer at school, I still wondered about the reasons behind it.
"You worship and praise God because that's how you show that you're grateful for what He's given you. If you don't pray, God will ask you on Judgment Day why you didn't. What are you going to say? That you were too lazy? That's not a good excuse. Are you going to say you forgot? That's not a good excuse, either.
"God doesn't like liars, and He will also question you about your actions and deeds. All of your good actions are recorded by an angel on your right, and all of your bad ones are recorded by another on your left. They're always there, keeping track of everything you do. Everything. And when your turn comes during the Day of Judgment, the angels will measure your deeds on a weighing scale."
Daddy paused for a breath, and looked from one silent face to the other.
"The good deeds will be weighed on the right side, and the bad deeds, on the left one. If the right side is heavier, you will end up in Heaven and be rewarded for all the good you've done in your life. If the left side of the scale outweighs the right one, you're in trouble. God will put the sinful ones in Hell as punishment for the bad they've done. My sons, as of today, you must begin paying attention to all that you do. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not treat others with ill manners. Do not be lazy. Avoid jealousy. Listen to what your parents tell you. Do not skip your five prayers." Baba looked stern. "Now that you're not children anymore, you're going to be held accountable for all your actions. Understood?"
My brother was the first to speak. "What happens if someone steps up to be judged, and both sides of the scale weigh exactly the same?"
"Allah forgives him, and he goes to Heaven," my father reassured him.
While my brother seemed to be looking for loopholes, I was starting to get worried. "How can I be sure that on Judgment Day my right side will weigh heavier, Baba?"
"Just follow what God tells you and be a good person."
"But what if my left side is still heavier? What if my good actions still aren't enough? How can I ever be sure? What will happen to me then? Will I go to Hell together with all the bad people?"
Sensing my anxiety, Baba explained that I shouldn't really think about Hell. But how could I not? Wouldn't that be risky?
My father put his hand on my shoulder. "I'm trying to simplify the things I'm explaining to you as much as possible," he said, "but when it comes to prayer, there is something else I didn't mention. It's called al-nafs al-mutma'innah, the tranquil self. Your goal in life should be to purify your heart and achieve this state of being through the practice of dedicated prayer. You do it by not giving in to the voice of al-nafs al-ammaarah bissu', the carnal self. That's the voice that tempts you to do bad things; it's the whispers of Satan. You must resist it. If you give in to it, the voice that then scolds you is al-nafs al-lawwama, the admonishing self. These two selves are always in conflict with each other within all of us. This is the jihad of the self, the greatest form of jihad. Prayer helps you in this jihad. It brings you peace of mind, and if you maintain it sincerely throughout your life, you will eventually reach the level of the tranquil self. If you achieve this and die, your spirit will be reunited peacefully with God in Heaven for all eternity."
I felt a lot better, and in a matter of minutes, I scurried away to pray.
* * *
Thinking about the fires of Hell made me a little scared. I envied my older brother's ability to remain laid-back in the face of Baba's cautioning. Truth is, my own fear of punishment was one of the reasons I prayed as often as possible. However, ultimately, the main reason I developed and maintained the habit of praying was simply because I liked it. I found prayer to be a calming and soothing form of meditation. I discovered it was not just a set of "up and down" movements, and no, it didn't require a ton of effort.
In fact, when I practiced prayer sincerely, with love and devotion, it was absolute bliss.
After some time, I also chose to accept my dad's invitations and accompany him once in a while to the nearby neighborhood mosque.
The mosque was blessed with a reverberating interior and a young charismatic Indian Imam possessing a mesmerizing voice. His call to prayer, echoing five times a day through the minaret's speakers, was haunting, melodic, and had the ability to generously raise my spirits like how Aladdin's magic carpet raised Jasmine all the way up to the heavens. The Imam could recite and "sing" the Qur'an so beautifully, my mind got swept away to a peaceful realm where my worries were released. I wanted to move people just like he did.
As the months passed, every now and then, my dad would check with me: "Hey, did you pray today?"
"All four of them so far?"
His response was always encouraging. "Okay. Well, don't worry about the ones you missed. You'll get used to it, step by step. Soon, insha'allah, you'll perform all five. Anyway, I'm heading out to the mosque now. Would you like to come with me?"
"No, not today, Baba, I want to play with my LEGOs now," I replied, still focused on my toys.
"Okay, no problem. As you wish."
As I look back, I am and always will be grateful to have been raised by parents who did not forcefully shove religion down my throat. They nudged. They recommended. They sometimes used guilt to prompt me to action, but they never forced. Other folks were not so gentle, however, and apparently even had the sacred textual support to back up their beliefs and their methods.
At school, for example, one teacher once told us about a saying of the Prophet Muhammad that supposedly encouraged the beating of boys if they still refused to pray after reaching the age of eight. Not only that, but she as well as other teachers routinely caned and beat us into submission, sometimes severely, if we were rowdy or inattentive.
My parents, on the other hand, implied a different opinion that suggested I won't get spanked for not praying. More importantly, they lived by their principles. This was the start of my subtle confusion.
Who was right? Who was wrong? My teachers, or my parents? I didn't know, and so the annoying confusion persisted, along with the inevitable boredom of childhood. Eventually, at least the boredom was cured thanks to a new and exciting source of entertainment.
* * *
Given that Baba refused to install cable or satellite television at home, one of my brothers came up with an innovative solution so we could watch our favorite singers' MTV music videos. He got his fortunate cable-owning MTV-obsessed friends to record the videos on blank VCR tapes, and then we secretly played them at home. No wonder Mama and Baba didn't like the idea of cable television. Scantily dressed girls dancing. Hips shaking to Sir Mix-A-Lot's "I like big butts, and I cannot lie." Bodies swaying. It was awesome, but still, for me, there was nothing that beat video games.
By then, the Atari was history. So was the Nintendo Family. SEGA was the new big hit. Every kid in town wanted it, and I owned one. Before the day Baba took us out to buy it, I stayed up the entire night dreaming of hugging it in my arms. After we bought it, hours of gaming soon ensued, until Baba decided we were only allowed to play SEGA on Fridays. Sometimes, though, he made exceptions.
In Qatar, Friday was the off-work, off-school day. It was also the day of Friday prayers, and the preceding long sermons, which tended to end with the usual, sometimes indignant, proclamations and appeals to God. "Allahumma, forgive the faithful, those who are alive and those who are dead … Allahumma, forgive the faithful, and destroy your enemies, the enemies of the faith … Allahumma, destroy the Jews, and orphan their children … Allahumma, destroy them! Destroy them! Destroy them, and bring victory to the Muslims in Palestine!"
"Amen!" we hummed collectively, and then we'd rise up to pray.
Thursdays were different from Fridays. When we lived in Qatar, virtually every Thursday, the last day of the workweek, we either visited other Sudanese in Doha, or they came to visit us. Regardless of where we congregated, it usually meant tea-fueled political discussions in the men's seating area, and tea-fueled gossip in the women's seating area.
If there were kids my age, I played with them. If there weren't, I hung around the grown-ups and listened in on their conversations.
I can still hear the echoes of their voices and remember their faded faces.
"Ah, these Americans, always saying they want peace. What a bunch of cursed people. If they really did want peace, they'd stop those filthy Jews from killing the Palestinians, instead of supporting them," someone sitting in the men's area would comment.
"The problem isn't the Americans. They're not bad people. It's their stinking corrupt government!" another would angrily respond.
"By the way, Omar, speaking of America, how's your oldest son doing? Are you still sending him to study for his university there? Insha'allah, God willing, it will go well for you. We wish you success," a third voice would add, changing the topic of a heated conversation into something more relaxed.
Meanwhile, over where the women gathered, the talk was about other women. Sometimes they discussed the wedding celebrations they planned on attending once they returned to Sudan for the holidays.
"Awadiyya's daugther is getting married soon, insha'allah. The boy she's getting married to is Fatma's nephew's brother-in-law. I believe he's related to you through Abdallah, right? Anyway, we'll be attending their wedding ceremony next month during our holiday in Sudan. We're very, very excited! Come, attend it with us!"
* * *
Mosquitoes. Flies. Scorching heat. Frequent electric power outages. Innumerable aunts and uncles having grown-up conversations in the afternoons. Visiting Sudan for annual holidays was one of my least favorite childhood pastimes. But for reasons I couldn't grasp at the time, my parents performed the ritual every year as if it was the sixth pillar of Islam.
"Listen, boy, Sudan is your country, and one day we may very well probably return forever!" my mother lectured me after I once again begged her to cut our visit short. "Never," I shot back. "I'm never going back for good!"
The jet plane takeoffs were the highlight of those trips. As we pierced through the clouds, and I watched the buildings below shrink into blue nothingness, I felt the presence and greatness of God. Indeed, He lifted up the skies without pillars so we may see them.
I was always in awe of being so high up in the sky, but I wanted more. "Mama, if the plane went up a bit higher, will we be able to exit into space?" I asked. "No, Amir, the plane can't fly any higher than this," she replied. Dismayed, I glued my face even harder onto my small window, and looked up in hopes of seeing other galaxies like those I saw in my favorite Arabic-dubbed Japanese sci-fi cartoons. But there was nothing.
At the airport in Khartoum, we were usually greeted by uncles and cousins from my mother's side of the family. In my younger days, Grandpa accompanied them, but as he got older, he waited for us at our home in al-Amaraat with my aunts and Grandma.
"Amir! Look at you! You've changed! You've grown taller and gotten bigger, masha'allah, as God has willed," exclaimed my aunts as soon as they saw me, to which I usually replied, "Every year you repeat the same thing. Seriously, how lame are you, don't you have anything else to say?"
The rude retorts were my attempt at keeping at bay the suffocating hugs and slimy kisses. But to no avail. "Ha! Well, it looks like your tongue is still long and sharp, that's for sure," an aunt would reply. Then they would all attack and squeeze every last breath out of me with their big bosoms and strong chubby arms.
At night, since it didn't rain much and there were frequent power outages, most of us usually slept outdoors on beds lined up along our large balcony. Whenever I laid in mine, I stared up at Allah's star-studded canopy and tried counting the bright stars. Was God out there somewhere behind the stars? Did he know how deeply I desired to be a good Muslim? Was he pleased with me and my behavior? I didn't want to upset my Lord.
At dawn, I sometimes woke up momentarily, thanks to the loud call to prayer blasting through the minaret speakers of the nearby mosque at Souq 41. It was annoying as hell. The Imam could have really used some vocal training from his colleague at our neighborhood mosque in Qatar.
An uncle or two would rise up, and off they'd go to the mosque, returning about forty minutes later. A few aunts would head downstairs to pray. On the other hand, most of us, including me, never heeded to the Imam's message that "prayer is better than sleep." We simply snored away like Caterpillar trucks, but when the sun rose, and the buzzing flies emerged, we had no choice but to get out of bed.
I tried to be either one of the first or the very last to go downstairs. Brushing teeth and showering required that people wait in line or reserve a sink. Getting up early meant beating the traffic, and getting up late meant the traffic was over. Such was the condition of our home in al-Amaraat when it was full of vacationing cousins, aunts, and uncles returning for the big annual reunion. My mother had nine siblings.
Luckily, I had a hobby to pass the time during those long holiday visits: chess. I spent a great many afternoons learning and playing chess with my maternal grandfather, Jiddo, who was an avid player and former champion in his younger days. My paternal grandfather had already passed away by then, so I didn't know him, but Jiddo, who was still alive and well, introduced me to the game after I came to him with a chess set that I discovered in his room when I was bored one day.
"My son, life is like a chess game," he explained as we played one afternoon. He seemed stressed. "In life, just like in chess, you always need to understand what goes on around you. Before you make your moves, you must assess your opponent and the positions of all his pieces. Don't be distracted by a single move or two. Observe his moves, but always see the pattern. Never miss the pattern or how it forms."
"I don't understand, Jiddo. What do you mean by ‘pattern'?"
"Later, when you become a grown-up, you'll need to know where you're going in life. To know, you need to see where you're standing, because if you don't know where you're standing, the circumstances you're in, and how you got there, if you don't understand all the factors involved, well, you won't know how to progress. The pattern is in the relationships. It's in how the dots connect. Do you understand me?"
I didn't fully get what Jiddo meant, but as I played more with each passing holiday, I got better at chess—a lot better. Little did I know, as Grandpa and I planned our moves and played them out against each other, that bigger moves were being played out over our heads by the government throughout Sudan.

Copyright © 2013 by Amir Ahmad Nasr