The following is the raw and unedited draft of the prologue from my upcoming book, Islam: A Love Story – How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind, Broke My Heart, and Blogging Freed My Mystic Soul.
He smacked her across the face—a violent thundering slap. The television seemed to reverberate with the impact. It was the climax of the show, and I had just entered the living room uninvited.
“Why did he hit her?” I asked my mom. “Shush, not now,” she replied, her eyes still fixed on the screen.
I hated being ignored. “What happened? What did she do?” I continued, insisting that I get an answer. “I said, not now,” replied mama, now obviously annoyed.
The woman collapsed on the floor and broke down in tears. The man who had hit her, clearly still enraged, stood tall above her, and then shouted in her face, “You’re divorced. Divorced. Divorced!”
The words marched out of his mouth, decisively and with absolute vengeance. I didn’t want to risk getting a similar response from my mom, but I couldn’t resist. “Why did he say that three times? What happened, mama?” “How many times do I have to tell you, not now,” mama shot back, still not fully acknowledging my presence. “Will you tell me later then?” I asked, desperate to know if I would ever get to find out what the mystery was all about. “Khalas, fine, yes,” she assured me.
My mom was busy watching an Egyptian series, and I was bored out of my six year old mind. I did my best to amuse myself, but neither my brother’s Michael Jackson tape, or my Ninja Turtle action figures, or my well-worn superhero fantasies did the trick. After what seemed like forever, I sensed movement outside my room. My mom was done with her TV show, so I rushed out to demand my answer. “Will you tell me what happened now, mama? Why did he hit her? And what was that thing he said three times?” “He got angry at his wife and divorced her,”, she responded at last.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. “Why did he get angry? What did she do,” I continued. “Later, Amir, later,” mama replied.
Later—years later—I’d finally come to better understand part of what happened in that memorable scene.
In Islam, a man can divorce his wife up to three times, after which it becomes extremely difficult—even virtually impossible—to remarry her. If a marriage is in trouble, but there is a chance of reconciliation, a husband will make the divorce proclamation, “you’re divorced,” just once to his wife. This leaves the door open for a change of heart. Even if, enraged or disillusioned, he makes the proclamation twice, hope is not lost. Only deeply troubled, irreconcilable marriages end in a “three proclamations divorce” and a mushroom cloud of heartbreak and anger.
That’s exactly what happened in the Egyptian TV series.
Over the years, I often found myself recalling that scene, and wondering about the remaining questions. What did the wife ever do to deserve getting divorced with three fierce proclamations? Did her husband love her, and if he did, what changed? And why the hell did he have to hit her violently?
One day, however, I understood. I experienced that kind of rage, the agonizing pain of feeling betrayed by one that I had loved unconditionally. I too, longed to end it with that fierce finality. But my love was not a woman. It was my faith.
Growing up, I loved my cartoons. I loved my toys. I loved my LEGO. I loved what I loved especially when it lit up my creative imagination freely and in all its magical glory. But above all, I loved Islam.
Therein lay all the heartbreak.
For while there was a beautiful, spiritually liberating, mystical Islam that I loved as a child, later, entwined with it, came another Islam, that dictated that I should hold on to certain beliefs or risk burning in hell for all eternity. It erected tall suffocating barriers between me and the magical curiosity and imaginative free thought I loved as a child.
I didn’t like that Islam. It was mean. It made me uneasy, but it was so thoroughly fused to the other one I revered and loved that I could no longer tell the difference.
And so I believed without questioning. Like a young man wedded to a stranger in an arranged marriage that he accepted for fear of betraying his family, I devoted myself to my faith. I practiced, worshiped, and swept doubt under the rug whenever it surfaced.
I memorized long passages of the Quran, joined national recitation competitions, won, and got featured in the newspaper.
I listened to my bearded teachers, trusted them, and followed their instructions. I became wary of non-Muslims. I hated Jews, hated secularism, and doubted democracy.
I had a love-hate relationship towards the West and its leader, the Big Satan, the United States of America.
Finally, at the height of my deeply held jihadist euphoria, I wished I could die and martyr myself for Islam and occupied Palestine.
I was eleven years old.
What followed will not only surprise you, but it is my hope that it will inspire you to see religion in a fresh and more nuanced light. It may even make you break out in laughter.
It includes tales about haunting melodic echoing calls to prayer, a French girl named Doubt, five pillars and a teddy bear, a soulful beauty called Trinity, American bombs raining on a pharmaceuticals factory, and an accidental blog that turned my life upside down.
This book is my story. It’s a story about my relationship with Islam and its guardians. It’s about my journey from arranged marriage to infidelity to the brink of irreconcilability… and back.
It’s about blogging and the internet, and how they’ve forever altered yesterday’s dictatorial politics of ignorance and ushered in a new politics of knowledge. It’s about the search for identity, meaning, and ultimately, Truth.
If you’re someone who’s had a difficult relationship with religion, or you have a deep interest in it, what I write is for you.
If having your beliefs challenged boils your blood, this book is probably not for you.
Lastly, if you passionately believe that God shouldn’t be merely reduced to ink on paper, but should instead be mainly experienced, then this book is certainly for you, and it begins with a quote from a wise Sufi mystic you may have heard of before.
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below
and let me know what you think of the prologue.