The Future of Secularism (Novel)

The Future of Secularism
[and other interesting, if far-fetched, myths]

by Haroon Moghul

In an effort to encourage the development of fiction writing among Muslims, we at Sound Vision will be presenting the novel The Future of Secularism by Haroon Moghul, president of the Islamic Center of New York University. Amusing, analytical and intelligent, this novel presents the internal struggles of Hayy, a young Muslim college student living in a society where the pull of Islam and the pull of secularism put him at a crossroads in his life. There is much that young Muslims living and growing up in the West can relate to here.

[We hope this never-before-published novel is one that will give you a taste for modern Muslim fiction. Insha Allah, we would like to publish works from other authors in future as well. Sound Vision]

The Future of Secularism: Introduction

Bismihi Ta'ala, al-Rahman, al-Rahim
In the name of the one and only God,
I beg Him for His help, and pray for his Mercy, Love and Forgiveness
-- For this life as well as the next. 
I must first mention Adnan Zulfiqar, who gave me the idea for this book in the first place. In August of 2000, Adnan asked me to write something for an anthology of young Muslim writers he had been working on. Unsure what to do, and not in the mood to write anything academic, I produced a short satire, which (with his encouragement), was gradually expanded into this novella.

I received help from many people throughout the months I spent typing away.

I would like to thank, above all, Ameer Shaikh. He has been my closest friend, always ready to lend an ear and always ready to help no matter what the problem was. His advice helped me with this story (and with so many other things in my life). Our interest in philosophy blossomed together. Ameer and I often stayed awake till the earliest hours of the morning, debating Western and Muslim philosophy... and a path towards the creation of a new Muslim philosophy able to stand up to the challenges our world faces. I see in Ameer a spirit of change, a spirit of resistance. I believe this is the call to the Muslims of our generation: the creation of a new, moderate Islamic discourse.

Thanks also to Daanish Masood Alevi and Ali Hashmi, the “dynamic duo” – both listened patiently to my ideas, asked for clarification, and then laughed at the whole enterprise. Thanks to Faiz Vahidy and Zeeshan Memon, both of whom read over some drafts and gave me helpful comments and criticisms.


Salman Rushdie got the death sentence for blaspheming Islam and the last, and greatest, of the Prophets (peace be upon them all).

We won’t go into that1. But Salman is a pathetic human being, who will never have any respect in the eyes of any decent person, because he knew what he was doing when he wrote that book. He deliberately set out to attack (from a secular perspective) the beliefs of a people and their most sacred ideals; (or, from an Islamic perspective) he set out to attack God and God’s faith.

(And for those of us who wonder, his book isn’t so great2). In fact, I had no time to be offended by it... I was asleep well before the blasphemy even began. God bless Khomeini, for having had the strength to read through that thing).

I bring up Mr. Rushdie; however, to draw attention to how easily Muslims are offended. In Rushdie’s case, Muslim rage was justified: Our faith is our homeland, our Prophet (peace be upon him) is our founding father, the shahada is our declaration of independence and the Qur’an3 is our constitution4.

But we as Muslims cannot be so easily let off the hook. We often dismiss people, and ideas, without even considering them with a fair and open mind (Did I dismiss Salman by falling asleep while reading his book? That’s another debate…). But we have become, as a nation, hard and intolerant – it is both a symptom and a cause of our current malaise. It is important for us, as Muslims, to think carefully about why certain things are said, before we jump the gun (and, in our case, load it and then fire it. Many times). Let us take the advice of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib5, Allah be pleased with him, who once said: “Judge what is said, not him who speaks.”

Before you read, you should know something about the one who has written.

I am a Muslim who believes in the separation of secularism and state. You might label me an ‘Islamist,’ though I hate the term – it implies a division in Islam that has no basis in the shari’ah6. (In the world of those who have created these terms, a ‘Muslim’ can be secular, just like a Christian can. An Islamist, by this definition, makes his Islam ‘different’. Since when has Islam permitted secularism, I wonder? So wonders the Muslim who is labeled an Islamist for following his faith as God wishes it to be followed).

I have written because we must learn how to Islamize modernity. The pathetic quest for the “modernization of Islam” is the domain of people who remain thunderstruck by the colonization of the Muslim world decades and decades ago. I thank these people for their time and effort, and urge them to leave my religion the hell alone. In revolutionary ages, boundaries have to be more clearly drawn. Revival cannot be half-hearted or hypocritical. These “modernizers of Islam” – who possess neither any clear idea of modernity nor Islam – will be sidelined by our era’s war of ideas.  So, let us commence with the sidelining.

I write to bother you, to make you stop, to make you reflect – perhaps also to make you angry. I do not write to say ‘this behavior is okay’ or ‘that behavior isn’t so bad’; whatever I write, I wrote because I believe it is time we had the courage to face up to reality. Revival is not easy. Revival is not quick.

My idea is to say: “This is the world we live in. This is our challenge, our enemy, our partner, and our reflection. This is what we struggle with. We must see it. We must understand it. But, brothers and sisters” – and now you should picture me standing in front of millions, with green banners waving defiantly in the wind, fists pumped into the air, and voices screaming furiously in Arabic – “We must not yield to it!”

 - Cairo, August 2001
(In what is also the calendar of our colonizers)


1. Well actually we will.

2 I?m not a good writer, either, but nobody goes around saying I am.

3 The Islamic faith is based on five pillars, which constitute the most central elements of the Islamic way of life. The shahada is the first of these and has a profound influence on the Muslim?s worldview. It states, in Arabic, ?la ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah? (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God). The Qur?an, meanwhile, is the Muslim Holy Book. It is the direct, unaltered word of God, as transmitted to Muhammad (peace be upon him) via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years. It consists of 114 chapters, or surahs, which are of unequal length. The Qur?an?s scope is all of existence. It covers matters sacred and mundane (mundane, at least, from a secular perspective).

4. Is that possible, you ask? Well don?t ask too many questions. That?s what led a certain people before us astray.

5. The cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who married the Prophet?s daughter Fatimah (May Allah be pleased with her) and ruled as fourth, and last, of the ?Righteous Caliphs?. His rule was from 656-661 in the Christian calendar. Ali was one of the first converts to Islam, and the youngest of them, as he was raised by Muhammad, peace be upon him, in his household and hence had a profound perspective on Islam and life. He is considered by Shi?a Muslims to be the designated successor to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the fact that power was transferred to Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) after Muhammad?s death has long been a source of contention, though Abu Bakr?s Caliphate was supported by the majority of the Community (which later came to be called the Sunni, or ?Ahl-e Sunnah? [People of the Path]). Despite the dispute over ?Ali between Shi?a and Sunni Muslims, he is respected, admired and honored by all Muslims, regardless of their view on history.

6. An Arabic term that literally means ?path to the watering hole.? The term also refers to the entire corpus of Islamic Law, the code that governs the behavior of the Muslim from an individual, social, economic and political perspective. The shari?ah is flexible and contains within it a mechanism for the acceptance and celebration of differences of opinion. The shari?ah is Law proper; it is based on several sources, foremost among them the Qur?an and then the life (SUNNAH) and sayings ([A]HADITH) of the Prophet Muhammad. Those who are allowed to interpet the Law are the ?ulama, the learned ones, who have a combination of extensive knowledge and piety. The ?ulama are often also referred to as mullahs, imams, mawlanas, ayatollahs, muftis and so forth. However, this class does not represent a formal class as in other religions, and has no special religious function akin to a priesthood. Rather, these scholars form an informal body of educated men and women who do not occupy any special status (other than receiving the respect of pious Muslims) and are not given any special privileges (the Catholic idea of a bifurcation between the laity, and the priesthood, is wholly rejected. ?Before God,? Muhammad [peace be upon him] said, ?All men and women are as equal as the teeth of a comb.?)

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 1


This is the story of how my parents abandoned me.

For the second time.

I don’t know much about the first time I was left behind.

Maybe they didn’t abandon me on that island. Maybe I was just born there. Was it because the weather was so perfect, that I came to be from inside a ray of the sun’s merciful light?

I grew up alone, off the coast of India. It was more boring than it sounds, but on the upside, the weather was amazing, and there was more than enough food to get by on. I spent a lot of time thinking about things, since I didn’t really have much else to do. But, my thoughts never led me anywhere.

I was rescued when I must have been fourteen years old. Another young man, who looked about my age, brought a life raft to the island and took me back to his country. His name was Absal.

Once we were able to understand each other, he told me of home and of my parents. He told me I didn’t belong on that island and that I should go back with him. He didn’t tell me, however, how he found me or how he knew where I came from. Assuming he would once we returned to society, I followed him back.

After I returned, I fell in love ...with the people. The places. The sights. The sounds. But I never fell in love with my parents. I loved all those I chose to be with, never those I was forced by fate to be with. My parents accepted me and took care of me. They wanted me (for the most part), but many times, I didn’t want them.

I called them ata and ama because that’s what we’re supposed to call our parents. Because it’s easier to imagine you’ve come to be just like everyone else, easier to suppress that gnawing agony deep down inside: that all of us are alone, and that we hurt because we really are alone.

But this is not the story of how I cured my loneliness. At the end of this story, I am still alone. If that’s a bad thing, it’s for you to answer for yourself.

Rather, this is the story of how I embraced society, but then recoiled from it --because it could not accept me, a stranger, in its midst. I thought I might give in to society so long as society gave itself to me, but it seemed like society would not (could not?) give back in equal measure.

This is the story of how I started walking, in fits and starts, to The Alone. But this is not a story about how to forget the past -- because when you forget, you forgive.

People forget that decades before I was born, the Russians retreated from our land and gave us up (we who were not theirs to begin with). Did people forgive Communism? I think they did -- because they forgot. After the Communists, puppets were installed. Many of them still rule the Muslim world. But do we care? Instead, we worry about whether Islam conforms to the West, and not if we conform to God’s Revelations.

We worship those who conquer us.

This is the nature of power, that force that we worship, that force that we all so madly desire but cannot explain why. We are drawn to power, even when it slaps us in the face... we just keep coming back... just as you keep reading whatever I write, because I too express power.

I write because we cannot forget. I write because I saw those who did not forget, and did not forgive, and I realized the power of their message was greater than any other.

So that I am never forgotten, and never forgiven, I give you my story.

1. Bid'a is a contentious topic in Islamic Law. It literally means innovation, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, warned Muslims strongly against 'innovating' in matters of faith. However, it must be recognized that while Islam legislates for the sacred and the secular aspects of life, it does not, unlike Marxism, attempt to reduce the sacred to the profane or elevate all of the mundane to the level of sacred. Hence, Islamic Law views innovation in matters related strictly to worship of God as unnecessary. Innovations in areas of art, literature, the sciences, life, technology and so forth, are not rejected and instead embraced as part of the creative pattern of life. Islam views the human being as an active agent on Earth (God created man and woman as His khulafa [Caliphs], or vicegerents, on Earth).

The term bid'a has unfortunately become a term that does little more than condemn competing Muslim groups. Often times, it is viewed as the special concern of Wahhabi and Salafi movements, which focus intensely on simplifying the faith and removing from it its many accretions, which have unnecessarily been added to Islam over time, diluting the intensity of the original message. In this sense, fighting bid'a is a positive thing, and hence I ask the reader to consider bid'a an unnecessary and dangerous innovation - at least, from the perspective of the Islamic weltschauntung.  

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 2


Salman, Absal and I were hanging out in the Academy’s Library one afternoon. Absal, who had been my best friend since (and because) he took me off the island, asked me: “Hayy, do you think we live in the best of all possible worlds?”

I wasn’t sure. I thought over it quickly, but deeply(1).

My girlfriend broke up with me a few weeks ago. I had some money, but never enough. It seemed like no one else had enough money, either. My country was falling apart. There had been no progress for my people in centuries. My co-religionists were oppressed everywhere. I just read news of a bombing in Libya off the internet. There was a civil war in the countries neighboring us. I nearly died on an island, forever alone... My parents abandoned me.... but hey, I made it out, didn’t I? – thanks to Absal. My parents turned out to be pretty wealthy, once they took me back in, that is. So why worry about the past if the present isn’t too bad? “Yeah,” I replied, more sure of myself. “I think we do live in the best of all possible worlds.”

Just then, Abdullah walked by: “Salam (2) guys, have you heard? We have to take a class on Islamic Law starting today. That’s why we have to meet in the auditorium later.”

Absal laughed. “Just great. The best possible class we could take, too.”  I wanted to ask him if he was making veiled references to Leibniz, but I decided I was sick of philosophy.

We did indeed, it turns out, have to start a class on Islamic Law (which would focus on its development and what it was like a thousand years ago, as opposed to what was being done in countries like Iran during the present-day).

About a week later, we were forced to gather in the Library (it felt like a plenum in there because every student was present [and pissed]) (3), but this time we were gathered for another reason: we had to do research for our Islamic law class.


“This is sad,” Salman sighed. “Who cares about Islamic Law?”

“Islamists?” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Salman replied, sad that his attempt at being dismissive had failed. “But Islamic government will get us what? A bunch of stupid fundo-freaks... with control over everything; and the whole world will shun us. Is that the best of all possible worlds?”

Absal and I concurred. “Those damn Islamists keep making the government give in to all these concessions. I don’t understand why they don’t just accept the democratic system.”

Nobody, of course, was going to point out that our country was not at all a democracy. There was an illusion of elections, but the government was not accountable to anyone, positions were not fairly distributed (or achieved, or anything)... ours was your classic, corrupt third-world nation. But during a school conversation, for the sake of our discussion, we imagined our country to be on the cutting edge of Western European political thought.

“You know what sucks the most?” I asked.

They asked what so of course I replied: “Even though we’re at a secular school, there’s already a couple of Islamists here. I hear a couple of them are from the Party. Those are the dangerous ones: the smart ones. At least they sound like they make sense.”

“Shut up man -- we shouldn’t even be talking about this.” Professor Murat, a stocky, bearded fellow, came by our table. We returned his salam and groaned as he asked, “Are you boys ready to pray in jama’at?”(4)

Here was another upside to taking the class: We’d have to pray with the professor. Who prays at the Academy? It’s a secular college; rich parents send their kids here to escape reality. People like Professor Murat represented reality. Praying with him was not a good way to escape reality.

I figured if I was going to pray, I might as well do my wudu first. After all I only prayed twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays (since that’s when class met). Plus I had tickets to the huge soccer match tonight (it was Wednesday night, the start of the weekend and all), so I thought I may as well give nominal recognition to Allah.

“No Professor Murat first I gotta do wudu.”

Absal and Salman gave me stares, but their glares didn’t stop me from walking to the bathroom. The Prof smiled and walked himself to the prayer area. Salman mumbled: “The bastard just wants an A.”


1. Is that possible, you ask? Well don't ask too many questions. That's what led a certain people before us astray.

2. Salam (or Salam 'alaykum) - peace (be upon you). This is the proper greeting by which one Muslim addresses another, regardless of whether or not s/he is Arab. The appropriate response is Ve Salam, or Ve Salamu 'Alaykum. There are slight differences in pronunciation as a result of regional variations.

3. Often times, it seems like the Muslim world, with its phenomenal population growth rate and high population density, is a plenum.

4. Muslims pray five times a day, at specific times of the day. Fajr is before sunrise, Zuhr is at about noon, 'Asr is mid-afternoon, Maghreb is sunset, and 'Isha is at night. The prayer can be done individually, or in congregation (jama'at) -generally, congregational prayer is preferable. Friday is the Muslim day of congregation, the Juma' day, when Muslims gather for a sermon at a mosque followed by a shortened prayer. The sermon is called a khutba, and the one who delivers it is called the khateeb. The prayer, in Arabic, is known as Salat, though in the Turkish, Persian and Indian languages, it is also called namaz. Before prayers, Muslims perform a ritual ablution, known as wudu. This washing of the hands, face, hair and feet represents Islam's balance of outer and inner cleanliness, rejecting attempts to make only one of the two important. Many people who are familiar with the Muslim world have also heard the adhan, which is the call to prayer, a powerful Arabic call that erupts from loudspeakers, minarets and mosques throughout the world to mark the beginning of congregational prayer.

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 3


Turns out I really had to use the bathroom, so I sat down in one of the stalls and, well, you know...

What caught my eye was some graffiti. Written in Arabic (which I could rarely understand -- except when the words were the same as our language, which in this case they were) and also in our language, the graffiti read: “Thawra Islamiya. Hizb Fazilat!” and the rest was illegible.(1)

From time to time I’d hear of the fearsome Party... the Party of Virtue: Hizb Fazilat (‘One God, one Party,’ they’d say)... arrested members, fatwas(2) issued against government policies and underground militias. The graffiti, however, caught my eye because it meant that even at the Academy, there were people who sympathized... well not sympathized, it must’ve been strongly supported... the policies of those anti-secularists. Some people in this very school, this bastion of the elite – most of whom, I had to admit, had massive inferiority complexes – were on their side. We were not safe from the tide of political Islam. But, maybe it was just a janitor.

I followed this line of thought and it satisfied me: I was happy that the fundamentalists must be lower-class workers or something... happy, at least, until I looked up and realized my mistake.

There was a security camera in the bathroom and it was focused on me.

Some paranoid guards had seen me stare at Islamist propaganda for at least a good minute. I was in deep trouble now. I swore, loudly: “Oh shit.”

Suddenly I heard a voice from the stall next to me.

“You don’t have a lota, akhi?”(3)

There was silence for a second. My anonymous brother in the stall next to me had just uttered the dreaded, revealing catch-phrase used by all Wahhabis(4) throughout the world. If those security guards didn’t know he was an Islamist, they knew now.

He swore too.

“Oh shit."

Without waiting a second, he was up and out of the bathroom.


1.Thawra Islamiya -'Islamic Revolution!' (in Arabic). In Turkish, it is called "Inklap" and in Persian and Urdu it is "Inqilaab."

2. A non-binding decree on a legal matter of concern to Muslims, issued by a scholar of Islamic law. Fatwas can cover any topic, whether music, sexuality, economics or politics. The most famous of these is the generally misunderstood fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

3. I guess this is only funny if you know what a 'lota' is. It's what non-Muslims use to water plants with, and what Muslims use to wash themselves after using the bathroom. (By 'themselves,' I am not referring to the hands, by the way. Muslims wash directly, as Islam places high emphasis on cleanliness, and toilet paper just isn't the same).

4. A group of Muslims that follow the teachings of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, a reformer in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century who called to purify Islam from the heavy, and deadening, effects of errant Sufi teachings, decadence and hidden idolatries which had crept into Islamic doctrine. 'Abd al-Wahhab was very successful, and his followers became the supports for the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is ideologically Wahhabi. Wahhabis thus have massive oil dollars behind them, and exert a profound influence on Islamic movements throughout the world through the liberal use of their petrodollars. On the negative side, Wahhabi Islam is generally very inflexible and not very open-minded. It has trouble coping with the reality of a globalizing, modern world, and tend to negates much of the creative, beautiful and life-affirming aspect of Islam.

However, many of its ideas will be present in the Islam of the future, since it presents a powerful basis for a global Islamic 'High Culture.' Wahhabi Islam places strong emphasis on the individual, and on the simplification of Islam (in a positive sense). The Wahhabi mindset can be adapted to provide an Islamic perspective perfect for the challenges we currently face.

As a side note, the term 'Salafi' is often used interchangeably with Wahhabi. Salafis are those Muslims who greatly emphasize the 'salaf' - the predecessors - and focus Islam on their actions. By predecessors they are of course referring to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his Family, his Companions and all those who follow them in righteousness. However, a Wahhabi is not necessarily a Salafi. Their common goals and overlapping focus often cause them to be confused with one another.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 4


I’ll never forget the bathroom incident, but it stretched back a little further. I think it was earlier by about a month, when all the students at our Academy were called for an assembly in the Auditorium. Absal, Salman and I sat near the center. I didn’t really talk to Salman. But Absal liked him and I was friends with Absal. Still, I didn’t trust Salman. He never seemed genuine to me. 

We laughed at the way people were sitting.

For the most part, guys were on one side, and girls on another. Some guys and girls sat together, but most sat apart. Maybe they were Islamists, we wondered. Maybe, I suggested, they were afraid of being considered liberals by the revolutionaries and feared being made into targets. "Or," Absal said, "Maybe they’re gay and like sitting with members of the same sex."

Salman ignored this and touched my shoulder: "See her over there? She’s really pretty."

Absal smiled: "Plus her parents are Hanafi. Aren’t your parents like mildly concerned with mazhab concerns?"(1)

"They don’t care. God I hope not. I mean, how stupid would that be?"

"Yeah," Absal agreed, "But lots of parents don’t care about religion but then make it a marriage factor. Don’t worry, we’ll get over that. Later it’ll be like ‘You can only marry her if her family is fiscally liberal but politically conservative’."

"That doesn’t make any sense Absal. Besides, if Hayy is attracted to her, that’s all that matters."

"I don’t want a girl."

I was sick of them speaking on my behalf. "I broke up with one a month ago and that was hard enough. Stop bringing it up, dammit."

"Hayy’s just mad," Absal suggested. Hayy was a strange name, I admit. Some of the Islamists — the smart ones — laughed when I was called that, and asked me what seven-year stage I was at, but I never figured them out.

Absal continued, "He’s mad because he still likes his old girl. And he’s attracted to this other girl. But you know with that concession passed last year, polygamy is legal again. You can get your ex back, and marry that other girl over there. Except if you do do that, the government will charge you extra in taxes and tag you. It was one of those pseudo-concessions."

"Leave him alone," Salman interrupted, taking my side for once.

"Maybe Hayy’s just gay," Absal wondered aloud. I was happy he pronounced my name without the hard Arabic ‘h’. Soon, however, I began to reflect over his comment and became angry again. 

The principal moved to the front of the stage. He motioned for everyone to be quiet. After introducing himself -- as if we didn’t know who he was -- he began to speak. This was a very important occasion, he told us. As if none of us realized we were all gathered here and made a great target. I could just see it now. One of the extreme radical lower-class Islamic groups, with a scary name, would blow up the privileged children of the uppermost class of the country and remove most of the literate population in one blast of dynamite and faith.

But back to the assembly. 

Apparently, our country had a new flag.

Um. Okay.

The principal dimmed the lights, and we watched a large banner fall, with one spotlight shining on it. There were some gasps. For the most part, deathly silence. I’m sure a lot of students smiled in the darkness. My friend Abdullah, who was a moderate cultural Muslim (they were very common, but not as common at the Academy) whispered: finally... Our flag was the same, except on the middle white stripe, the seal of the (deposed -- in the name of nationalism) Royal Family had been replaced by a stylized calligraphic icon that read, simply: Allah. (In Arabic, not our language.) But everybody knew what it said. And what it meant.

Absal leaned towards me. "Looks like another pseudo-concession."

"Now," the principal said, obviously trying to sound convinced of the wisdom of this decision, "We declare our identity as a Muslim nation. Now our flag bears the colors of our land, and the name of God, by whose blessing our great leader [great because he hasn’t lost an election in twenty years] rules and bestows justice and goodness. Our Republic is a Muslim Republic, as well as a Revolutionary one."

Of course by "revolutionary," he wasn’t referring to bold, fresh or promising. Rather, he referred to the stale ‘nationalist’ revolution that occurred in the name of removing Communism (basically, we watched the Communists become nationalists, and nothing changed. Not even the flag — until now. Maybe this was just a really slow revolution).

I hated the government inside. Enough of the Islamists. They were the only ones who thought. Plus, they were so common, as a force in society, that we had become accustomed to living alongside people who posited a universal vision completely at odds with our own. While being secular, we felt the anti-secularists to be part and parcel of the fabric of our nation. It was due to stagnation in the people. The rich, the secular and the democratic, they were slaves of the West. They had no pride in their culture, their architecture or their language.

We had no present, and no visible future.

Those who hated our past offered no vision for the future. Those who loved our past couldn’t deal with the uncertainty of the future. And the rest of the population? Well, I imagined most people were traditionally Muslim, meaning the Islamists had greater appeal to them — something that really pissed me off.

"This is crap," I vented. The anger in my voice rose. "We’re Muslims, we know that, so enough is enough."

I dared not say anything about the government in power (not that my heart held much love for it), but maybe being at the Academy isolated me. Was the Islamist movement really so powerful, or was the government trying to beat them at their own game, by saturating the environment with Islamic symbols? It was probably other revolutions, like Iran’s, or Turkey’s, that got the government jittery.  

A few weeks later we had one of our special classes, on politics -- in other words, on what politics is right (the Nationalist Revolution’s) and what politics is wrong (all other forms of politics. To know more about these wrong forms of politics, see also: ‘Forms of political organization that have succeeded’).

Though everyone was hesitant to speak at first, the atmosphere had provoked enough concern to bring people up to the task of airing some of their grievances. Not a practicing Muslim myself (having read about the Murji’i (2) movement, I decided to side with them), I too had been shaken by the flag ceremony.  

The teacher was programmed (....aren’t they all?).

"Class this is our flag. Show allegiance to it. It is the great symbol of our great3 people. This seal now complements the colors of the people, for which we had our great Revolution. Our great leader affirms his commitment to God."

Or to power, I thought — and nearly said aloud — but I caught myself. Pleased with my quick thinking, I broke into a smile. In response, a student across from me smiled back and whispered salam. I gave him a puzzled look, and he apparently took that to mean ‘what’s your name?’. From his bag he removed a piece of paper, scribbled on it (while the teacher droned on and on about the color of the leader’s uniform last week) and quickly held it up so I could see.

Khattab. His name was Khattab.

It sounded Salafi. He was a big guy, bigger than anyone in the class. Maybe he was overweight, but he looked like a gigantic soldier. His face was rough, as if he was permanently facing the effects of walking through a sandstorm. He looked at me as if he liked me. If Absal were paying attention, he’d say that was because he was gay and turned to Salafism to mask his insecurities. But it felt more like Khattab simply wanted to be friends with me. Oddly enough, I felt the same connection.

Within a minute, we were passing notes to each other and it looked damn suspicious. But I have to admit, something in me enjoyed the idea of being the rebel. I almost wanted to see the principal come in and call Khattab and I to his office. Maybe then the girls would be impressed. Everyone would think: Hayy? Of all people!

I realized that all this thinking had distracted me from the teacher, so I faced back in her direction, as she finished up her pre-prepared propaganda speech. (Hey, I just unintentionally used alliteration in prose!). 

"Now," the teacher said, "We are a country committed to God, with the people’s concerns being the primary goal of the Republic."

Yeah, I thought, that’ll get the Islamists to shut up. Was she an idiot?

Khattab raised his hand and wondered: "Are you an idiot?" 

Sometimes, I love Salafis.

I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing. Abdullah wanted to laugh. Absal was burying his face in his hands. The class sat shocked, in silence. The teacher wasn’t accustomed to being addressed this way and simply didn’t know what to say. There was no motion for a minute or two. Khattab kept glaring at her. Was he an idiot, too?  

"This is nonsense," some girl announced from the back. By her Calvin Klein jacket, I was guessing she bought Calvin Klein clothing (say that three times fast). In addition, she was fine as hell. I didn’t lower my gaze.

She was very angry: "Dammit, Allah belongs in masjids, like imams."

One wonders how a concept that is infinite can confine itself to a mosque.

"Why don’t you worry about getting yourself to a masjid and forget about the imams?" Khattab asked.

If we could point to the exact time and place when the fundamentalist came out of the Islamist closet, that comment would definitely be Khattab’s moment. This was no time for political discussion however. I was mesmerized by this Calvin Klein girl. Her hair was a dark brown, but it shone in the light. Her skin was soft, but a bit too pale... I guessed she was from the south. As I stared, she looked over and caught me — it earned me a smile, so I counted myself lucky. But back to the matter at hand.

"Now... [the teacher searched for his name] Khattab..." the programmed teacher said, "Everyone has a right to their opinion."

"That’s true. Hers is wrong and mine is right." 

Sometimes I don’t love Salafis.  

Salman smiled: "I agree. After all, opinions are bid’a. Obviously his is right, and mine isn’t. We learned that in our Islamic Law class."

Khattab looked shocked. "What does bid’a have to do with anything?"

Good cover, Khattab -- now nobody suspects you of Islamism. But he kept going: "I was just trying to say, the whole flag idea is stupid. No Islamist is gonna be like ‘oh okay, we got our flag, that’s quite enough of our movement’. We need to take real, concrete steps to contain the threat."

Some students shook their heads in agreement. Others wondered why the teacher hadn’t punished Khattab for his words. A few wondered what bid’a was. One or two were asleep.

Suddenly inspired, I interrupted the discussion. "He’s right, you know... I mean, what is a flag going to do? We need to think about making political Islam un-attractive. Everybody knows secularism is the way to go, but not like this. This is defeatist."

"Now," the teacher warned, realizing we were getting close to the line, "Enough is enough. The decision has been made. Our leader does what is best for us."

I wouldn’t mind if the leader lost his wudu. We shut up and went on with the lesson of the day. Everyone seethed with anger, angry that we wanted to keep talking, learning and arguing, but of course, our society had no time for such improvement. If anything, the teacher’s entire speech and Khattab’s bitter remarks had done nothing to damage the Islamists. If anything, they seemed all the wiser. The government was interested only in making us listen; when we had something to add, it always fell on deaf ears.

Growing dissatisfaction with the political system had been channeled into a desperate attempt to culturally Westernize (among some). For others, it had sparked violence. For a large amount of the population, however, it meant anger -- anger looking for an outlet. We saw, through satellite television and the internet, what had happened in countries so close to us. We all saw the respect Iran got in the world arena, and the progress of Turkey economically, and all of this after their revolutions. Why didn’t our country ever use its brain?

Some students complained that the flag idea should have been brought up before it was suddenly forced on people. Most students complained, however, because they did not want so much Islamic identification -- especially the minority of non-Muslims. But no Muslims, secular or not, ever addressed their concerns. They could go find some other country, we figured, if they were really that afraid.  

The teacher tried to satisfy us with some harmless conversation on the same topic. Seeing as we were all wealthy and supportive of the government, she knew we wouldn’t be calling for revolution. In the middle of this, some very awkward student began to speak, sputtering sentence fragments and his breakfast in front of him.

"The problem’s not with Allah, it’s with Allahu Akbar."

"Problems are bid’a man," Absal said, winking at Khattab. "Just give us an Islamic Republic, so we can discuss innovation in an un-innovative environment."

I glared at Absal, feeling a weakness in my stomach. He was speaking as if he was by himself in the desert somewhere... but he was in the middle of the Academy! His tone, however, as well as his clothes (he looked like he dropped out of a European club) and his lifestyle confirmed that he clearly was not an Islamist. Still, I didn’t like the casual way he ridiculed Islamists or brought up their ideas. It was dangerous. It could get him in a lot of trouble. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was my best friend, I would’ve said something to him. Plus he was my ride home.  


1. Part of the beautiful flexibility of Islamic Law is that it contains several different 'schools of Law', or mazhab (mazahib is plural). These schools are based on the teachings of the four major Imams, the four biggest jurists of Islamic history, and are distributed each in certain areas of the Muslim world, though there is great overlap.

2. The Murji'i sect was a heretical sect that preached a separation between faith and good works. They held the view that one might believe strongly in Islam, yet not perform good actions. This, however, is contradicted by the Qur'an, which on numerous occasions refer to those people who "believe and do good deeds," thereby connecting the two. Islam says people can believe without acting on their beliefs, but this is a very weak and pathetic form of belief. Islam, like Judaism, is an orthopractic religion. It focuses more on conformity to a code of behavior than it does on strict theological and ideological formulations.

3. Apparently, the adjective 'great' describes a nation's ability to remain a depressed, backwards, third-rate, third-world non-entity, which is consistently ignored and insulted in the world arena.

The Future Of Secularlism: Chapter 5


After school, we dropped by one of the Western-style shopping plazas.

Khattab asked if he could tag along, and though the three of us were hesitant to bring him along at first, he turned out to be a fun-loving, easy-going guy. He certainly didn’t seem like a Salafi. He just spoke his mind, and at times the bluntness made us confuse him for a simpleton (read: fundamentalist). But he didn’t think in shallow terms, just direct terms. Direction was something I lacked. I keep telling myself that in hopes that eventually I will find it. But alas! All my life I have stared at the sea and wondered, "Am I strong enough to overwhelm me?" 

The mall was packed. Khattab looked conspicuous with his beard. Some security guards, brandishing the arms of our collapsing secular state, stood on guard, watching us curiously. Absal had the makings of a beard, that kind of ... ‘I think I’m a European, intellectualized Muslim from the new age Islamic renaissance beard’. He was possibly more dangerous than Khattab.

"Hey Khattab," Absal smiled, wickedly. "That sister over there is really cute. Why don’t you go share your narrow mind with her?"

"Shut up you heretic."

"Hey!" Absal yelled, "I’m Muslim too. I’m not a heretic. Maybe I’ll join [he started whispering] the Party and become one of those Philosopher-soldiers."

Again, I was glaring at Absal. For Allah’s sake, SHUT UP... Was he an idiot? They kept debating, but thank Allah they did so quietly.

"Heretic," Khattab repeated.


 "Heretic! Heretic!"

Absal stammered back: "Philosopher, dammit."

"Heretic," Khattab insisted.

"Your mother," Absal retorted, suddenly in Khattab’s face.

"Which one?" Khattab calmly asked.

I almost burst out laughing. Since they passed the polygamy relegalization, my mind hadn’t stopped thinking of the possibilities. We ran into some friends: Muhammad, Ahmad, Muhammad and Ahmad. I told them all to call me. Eventually.  

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 6


We had a project due on the history of the great and glorious Revolution our country experienced a few generations back. I was sick of this obsession with the past, and the leader’s father’s father, who apparently, other than walking around in a military uniform, actually accomplished things (One amazing accomplishment: Because of him, his son and grandson were also able to walk around in military uniforms, though our track record in warfare clearly does not justify the appearance of our leaders in military uniforms).

I sucked it up, and made it sound as if I loved the leader’s father’s father. I wrote my report on his commitment to the ideals of the people. It was vaguely Marxist, perhaps because we were not too long ago a conquered region of the evil Communist empire.  

Nevertheless, part of me sympathized with Marxism (just not our government, nor its history since the Revolution). Outside of the Greco-Roman, Western, imperialistic Christian-secular tradition (how’s that for a more specific way of referring to the Western European world?), Marxism represented a breath of fresh air. Plus Marxists were the few people left in the world, outside of committed Muslims, who protested injustices on a global scale or any sort of alternatives for the world.  

Khattab was writing in a notebook. I looked over and he hesitated. Immediately my mind thought it was something Islamist he was writing; Khattab just about gave it off in bundles of energy (Could I refer to quanta while talking about a Salafi?). First, I wondered if there was a camera gazing at us, in which case I’d be screwed again. But then I caught myself: No looking for cameras. There was no need to do that. It’d just make me look guilty.

"As-salamu ‘alaykum," Khattab said, breaking the awkward silence.

So far, harmless. Lots of people still used the greeting. Thank Allah he didn’t ask Allah for Allah’s blessings and Love on me, or I would have been seriously worried.

"Salam," I replied, getting up to go sit down next to him. "What’re you writing?"

"It’s poetry."

I was taken aback. I loved poetry. It was still popular in our culture, held in high esteem with other art -- it was up there with qirat of the Qur’an and good music. Khattab ripped the page out of his notebook and handed it to me (Without folding it, I realized, because folding would be suspicious). He mumbled: "Read it later."

"I’m shocked," I said, laughing, "You of all people writing poetry!"

"Hey, there’s nothing wrong with art. You know we have a proud history of poetry and literature. We’re a civilization of the pen."

I wanted to ask what he meant by we. Did he mean his ethnic group? Our country in general? Or, did he mean, as I suspected, the Islamic world? I admired his careful wording. If he was an Islamist, I thought, he must be one of the very dangerous ones. Any minute now, a grenade would be lobbed, and destroy me the bystander, Khattab the target and said target’s poetry. I shouldn’t associate with an Islamist, especially one that sits around writing poetry and attends an academy as good as the Academy. What was wrong with me? But something attracted me to him.

He was pretty good-looking, but damn I didn’t mean like that. Plus, my mind was on the verge of exploding, just with the thought of that girl wearing the Calvin Klein jacket.  

"You know what’s ridiculous is that the Islamists would censor all this kind of stuff, you know? That’s what I’m so afraid of. I mean, I can understand an attachment to religion. I guess I can even justify to myself why some people have to wear a turban. But damn, giving them political power? Art, poetry, literature... those things which make us, you know, thrive -- that make life worth living -- where would we be without them?"

"Not here," Khattab answered, in a very matter-of-fact way. He stood and walked out of the library. Did he mean not in the library, or was he being political?

I saw him exit to the gardens, and I decided to run after him. I figured I’d rather be blown up in the garden than blown up the next time I’d see him, which knowing my luck would be in the bathroom or some other embarrassing location.

It was windy, and Khattab knew it. His words wouldn’t be heard from far.

"So," I wondered, "Do you agree?"

All he did was look at me as if nothing mattered in the world. "What do you want Hayy?"

"Well, she’s sitting over there."

"Yeah, she’s not bad."

"Khattab," I remarked, raising a mischievous eyebrow, "A comment like that wasn’t expected."

Well good job, Hayy. I’d just revealed to him my suspicions.

"A man is a man," Khattab laughed. "And she’s definitely a woman. You should go for her."

Had he shrugged it off?

Even if he were an Islamist, it wouldn’t make a difference to me. I sincerely believed that, despite all my ideas and dreams, I was some blend leader and some blend desperate and pathetic follower. He was one who didn’t follow. Some people have that. My Calvin Klein potential-girl got up and walked in the other direction. I caught her beautiful eye and followed her out.

"Yeah," Khattab interrupted, now smiling broadly, "You need a woman."

"Not that badly," I defended myself. "I have other concerns."

"Yeah and your eyes just followed them into the building. Chill man, I understand."

I was developing an odd fascination with Khattab. Who the hell was he? What the hell was he? Apparently, my confusion was apparent.

"You’re perplexed, Hayy. It shows on your face. Five minutes ago you rambled on and on about how we need to preserve art, promote literature and all that crap. But honest to God, do you believe that? If you believed it, I wouldn’t see what I see on your face right now. All you want is for me to make sense. You have no idea what your life’s for... maybe, you think, if you knew what mine was for, you’d have a model to compare yourself against."

That was coming on a bit strong considering I barely knew the kid. I wasn’t able to mumble a response fast enough, so he kept at it: "So, now, who’s Khattab? That’s Hayy’s big question. That’s the reason he’s around me, trying to figure me out. Do you even know what you want?"

I smiled, trying to lighten the mood: "You mean other than a girl?"

Inside me, there was anger -- but only at myself. Anger at being too weak to stand up to him and bite back as he’d just bit before.

Khattab must have noticed the contradiction. "I know what you want, and it’s not the girl. That might be part of it, but hey, I want a girl too... what you want is to be noticed. You want us to be noticed."


He hit on something profound, and that pissed me off even more. Despite all these things that pissed me off, it’s important for you to know that I’m generally a happy go-lucky kinda guy.

I asked him to clarify: "You mean I want us to be noticed? Like me and you?"

He looked the other way and waved to a friend. I decided I better not get blown up before he finished psychoanalyzing me.

"You just..." he began, and then he stopped himself, picking his words carefully. His slow pace was bothering me. Answers, answers I wanted... I was low on patience.  Mercifully, Khattab continued quickly: "The problem, as I see it, is that we all need to be noticed. You partake in the same tragedy. But it has hit you harder than most. That’s what you want. You want so badly that a girl will notice you. Part of it is immature, without a doubt. But not all of it. I’m trying to say, Hayy, [he became quiet, as if he was clearing his throat] that you’re a rebel without a cause."

By now it was obvious he was definitely some sort of Islamist. But a smart one, which bothered me. If there were smart ones, all hope was lost. Then again, with leaders as great as ours, hope was stillborn.

"You’re like the majority of us. Don’t think it’s foreign or alien, ideologically, but rather, it’s inherent in all of us (1). It’s part of being a human being. We’re egos, just little beings with big impressions of ourselves. That girl you pointed out is very pretty. I would say so myself. I argued with her in class but I have nothing against her. What I’m trying to say is this: you don’t want her... you want her to notice you. You don’t care who she is. The fact that she’s attractive and that she’s got a body only adds to your excitement, because now a pretty, well-endowed girl will pay attention to you, and heaven help us if Hayy isn’t noticed. People like you make me sick, you know that?"

Whoa, someone had some issues.

(Well I did too, but I didn’t take them out on Khattab).

"Chill, man. Is she like your sister or something?"

He burst out laughing. "I realize you think I’m coming off harsh, but this is something you need to hear, because people in our society are starting to do this all the time. We’ve caught this disease that’s already decimating the rest of the world... this plague, this insatiable desire: to be noticed, to be seen, to be heard. But dammit, don’t go after her like you’re going after an ego-massage. Relationships don’t work like that."

He made it sound, as best as he could, as if he were giving me advice on a girl.

"Everywhere, everything, it’s just one thing: Attention. You’re like that guy, and you know who I’m talking about, and he didn’t do what he was asked to because he thought he was better than that. He thought he didn’t have to lower himself. You run after me because you want to be like me and, more importantly, you want to be liked by me. You can’t for the life of you figure out who I am or what I represent. But I get noticed by you, so you want to be like me, so weak people like you will notice the new and improved you. Then you’ll be noticed. Go write a book or something."

Ouch. I bit back -- but by the time I did, I had waited too long. Only bitter anger erupted from my mouth.

"What, so some jerk can censor it?" 

Khattab stopped. He realized I was angry, but he realized that I was not trying to gain anything from him. "You’re a smart guy, Hayy. Don’t make me angry."

"Well I think you brought that one on yourself. I don’t appreciate this crap."

"I don’t either," Khattab said. "I’ll be your friend. I won’t be your experiment. Don’t try to figure me out with your little I’m modern and good and better, and he’s different, and why is poor 7th-century him so different and why is he so proud of it?"

He basically spelled Islamist in the oil-rich sand of our backwards country. I was quiet because he was right. Sensing the change in my demeanor, his tone softened. "I’m not trying to bash you into the ground. You’re bright and energetic, and you could do a lot with your life. You don’t go for everything people say."

By ‘people,’ I knew he meant the Great Leader, TM, and his Great Policies, TM, with their forever unrealizable goals (is copying America a goal or a cop-out?). So Khattab was one of them. I knew, in that instant, that he was a Party member. He was no fool. He had found a way to get me to listen to him, so he was sociable. And he wrote poetry. He thought girls were attractive. If I were a little more open-minded, I would have ventured the guess that not only was he a committed Muslim, he was also a human being. 

Khattab sat down.

He stared ahead.

I was still confused.

He looked at the parking lot and I realized what he wanted. He wanted to be somewhere more private. His car? Well I suppose it was probably wired to blow up when a good, faithful secularist like me stepped inside, so that I would unwittingly become a martyr for a cause I didn’t believe in. I could just imagine the imams giving their Friday khutbahs, extolling me as one who was sacrificed by the godless government and its barbaric security apparatus.  

We drove to an ice cream store.

He smiled and with his eyes, motioned towards the counter. There, at this restaurant in the heavily policed Western quarter of our capital city, was my Calvin Klein girl.

"Go ahead, brother," he urged. "Get noticed."

I put my foot down. Since I was sitting, my foot was already down, making my action go unnoticed. This also made me feel worthless, because I had gone unnoticed with my action. Hmm. I am not separable from my actions, I thought.

"I don’t want to man. Forget her."

"Wow," Khattab exclaimed, genuinely surprised. "Either you’re gay, you don’t believe in yourself or you have potential."

He started the car up again and we went for a pointless drive. Khattab turned on the stereo. It was pseudo-traditional bubblegum pop charged to the speed of Khattab’s car. I didn’t say anything; he had to start this conversation.

"You think this is all about censorship? Like we just sit down and scheme about how to control the world and bring our armies to crush our enemies and have Arabic flags flying in the air?(2) How brainwashed can you be?"

"Actually," I said, "If it didn’t mean being religious, that sounds cool."

Khattab tilted his head towards me and laughed, "Actually, yeah it does. Kind of like some weird Ottoman-Roman Islamic empire with turbans and swords. Sounds exciting."

"Yeah, but that’s not what the future is all about," I said, "If it goes the way it has in other countries [notice how beautiful my allusions were], then we have a fate to revolt ourselves back into the failures of the past."

"Who wants the past?" Khattab asked, suddenly very loud. "Don’t spew this secularist propaganda. You’re smarter than that."

There goes that wall again, falling on me again, and right when I was closer to knowing what he was really like. His last comment hurt and the sting didn’t fade away quickly like it did the other times. He was accusing me of something I was not guilty of. I wasn’t an Islamist, but that didn’t mean I was brainwashed. Many secularists accepted secularism because they had inferiority complexes, but not me. I thought on my own, and I wanted so desperately that my country would think for itself. Khattab too was an independent type, but sadly he used his potential to serve the religion of those Arab conquerors that brought our nation into their religion’s fold.

He commented: "You want us to be noticed, too."

It was almost a question. Did he know what I was thinking?

I answered: "Yeah, I guess so. Our country has potential."

"But," Khattab said, and he had no reason to add more. He changed his tone and moved on. "It’s not censorship we’re after. Remember all the riots in Iran after the Revolution? About twenty years after, I believe... The uprisings nearly destroyed the Revolution, but the Islamic Republic there emerged stronger, more flexible, and more tolerant. The problem was that the ‘ulama didn’t allow criticism of their government. They had a monopoly on interpretation of the faith. So they turned on each other. When they didn’t have a monopoly, but rather others were allowed to criticize them, the Iranians were able to have different factions competing to make society more Islamic."

"But," I interrupted to counter his argument, "Maybe they only changed because they were afraid of the student groups. Iran is much more open, but they still censor things. Like the movies are so clean, you know? They don’t allow anything. The government gets blasted regularly, but in terms of social and cultural issues, there remain a lot of restrictions."

"I know that," Khattab said, "But let’s think about it from an Islamic perspective instead of a secular one. Islam is an orthopractic religion. Islamic law doesn’t care, on the political level, whether you pray. You have to create an environment that is economically equitable, and conducive to spiritual improvement. On the inside, the law deals with personal piety, but that’s not the government’s business. This is why we believe in de-centralization and ask that the government be open to criticism, while ruling only by God’s Law."

"How does that prevent the monopoly?" I asked.

"Simple," Khattab said, sounding dangerously like a Hizb al-Tahrir3 pamphlet. "The government rules by Islamic law. An Islamic court must monitor the Parliament and the government’s laws to make sure they conform to Islam. But the government can be criticized. If they think that others can’t question their actions just because they know more, then they’re being haughty. And scholars don’t have to be in government. They can be writers, architects... anything. We can have scholars outside government, making sure that the government keeps within the boundaries of law. It can’t be arbitrary, ideally, in this way. But the law is, above that, about creating a moral environment to encourage worship of God. It’s not forcing morality. That is personal and individual and another level of the Law."

"You kinda sound like you’re talking about secularism," I suggested.

He shook his head in agreement. "In a way. Except both spheres are equally Islamic. In the Law, there’s a distinction between the spiritual and the regular, day-to-day... So this distinction means there is an Islamic legal code that deals properly with the worldly sphere; we just have to re-apply it in a way that’s appropriate for today. Piety is internal, the law will encourage the Islamic existential ethic... not force it down people’s throats. That’s not the point."

"So what is? Censoring things? Following people around?"

"Look," Khattab muttered, a little bit annoyed by my questions -- I’m sure he had heard them many times before -- "Stop taking things none of us support and pretending like we support them. I don’t want people to follow me around. Why would I want someone else to be followed around? You have to look at this from an Islamic point of view. The religion is obsessed with orthopraxy. When the Revolution occurred in Iran, there was just the first phase, before Khatami and the Muslim populists tried to change things. At first, the ayatollahs began to loosen social restrictions. That would be some freedom, but that would deflect attention away from their monopolization of power."

"And," I added, concluding his train of thought: "You mean then that those ayatollahs were being un-Islamic?"

Khattab smiled. His student had learned something!

"Exactly. Khatami pointed this out. An Islamic government can’t allow all that Westoxicating garbage, nor permit immoral behavior. To allow it in order to make people focus on something else, and thereby pass over their hoarding of power, is un-Islamic. You don’t create a more sinful atmosphere to keep yourself in power."

"Westoxicating?" I asked, still stuck at the beginning of his comments.

"There was an author named Jalal Al-e Ahmed from Iran, in the last century. He wrote about a disease our cultures suffer from... gharbzadagi. Westoxication. Westruckness. Occidentosis. He believed it was part of the failure of our societies."

I nodded, making a mental note to find out more about this guy, who didn’t sound as much religious as he did sociological. He intrigued me. But I wanted Khattab to continue with his analysis.  

"Okay, so I was saying... Islamic law has to concern itself with behavior and morality, but there are limits. An Islamic government cannot step on people, dismiss other scholars or prevent criticism. The government had, honest to God, become corrupt. Because it was all about holding to power. An Islamic government has to be pluralistic, within Muslim boundaries. Social concerns aside, because that’s the domain of orthopraxy... but orthodoxy? That’s a theocratic concept, and theocracy is a Western invention. We are going to tell people to obey a social code, yes, and encourage the study of Islam, and..."

He stopped himself, a bit hesitant at where he was going with this. I was fascinated by the discussion. Seeing as our civilization was on the verge of a tectonic shift, I wished we discussed these things more. There was so much, I realized, that I didn’t know. And Khattab was refreshingly reasonable. If he could appeal to someone as picky as me, I was in awe at the true capacity of the Movement.  

In the 1990s, in Iran, the government was killing reformists. Many were religious, a few were secular, but at the worst, they were just sinning Muslims. Could they be killed? Even if they were that dangerous to society, they couldn’t be randomly killed, or put on trial without guarantee of a fair trial.

We talked about Khomeini, and I brought up the infamous fatwa against Rushdie.

"Khomeini," I said, "Couldn’t just demand the death of an author just because he dismissed our religion. I mean, okay, treat everyone with respect. I know the West blew it out of bounds with this whole freedom of speech thing because Rushdie was being offensive and I know also the West has a bad image of our Prophet."

I was disturbed by how quickly I said ‘our Prophet’. It was ingrained in me, despite my urge to lessen the influences of the Arab conquest -- which had happened, after all, well over a millennium ago -- I was still calling Islam our religion.

Khattab turned onto a side road. By now it was late at night, and he was driving quickly. The road was shrouded by the night and the bubblegum pop was giving me a headache. Khattab shut it off, and mercifully, it was just me and him and our thoughts, floating through the darkness.

"When Khomeini made that fatwa," Khattab said, his voice suddenly fiery, "he made it to say ‘look, even if nobody loves Muhammad, peace be upon him, I do. I still love him. I will defend his character, no matter what the rest of the world says.’

"And you know," Khattab continued, by now having wrapped me into his words, "That Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a great man. He means a lot to all of us and he still shapes our culture, even though we’re not Arabs and we don’t have to be. Islam is inside us. It’s like a drug, and our ancestors tried it, and it can’t go away (4). Muhammad, God bless him, is the man who symbolizes our values, dreams and hopes, even if we don’t admit that. We are not nationalists. What’s Kuwait? What’s Jordan? Fake colonial creations."

I laughed. "Yeah, Jordan looks pretty stupid. I mean if you look at a map, it looks so out of place. It’s like a wack geometric shape."

Khattab laughed but didn’t allow the mood to lighten any: "We have, as a people, always identified with our faith. And when our faith is attacked, it is we who are being attacked. So when Khomeini said death be to Rushdie and the world’s opinion be damned, he was saying that he loved himself, his country, his faith and his Prophet."

"Yeah, well, he also asked for a person to be killed. That’s Islamic?"

Khattab slowed down a bit. "Forget the death sentence."

"How can I?"

Khattab sped up, and lowered the windows. It was balmy outside. The warm wind felt good. It added to the magic of the night as it howled into the backseats.

"Thousands of Muslims went mad with anger about that bastard’s book," Khattab remarked. "But you know, when they got angry, it was such a reassurance. We were still alive. Rushdie had to die to show we were still alive. And watch when your parents hear the name Khomeini. Like him or not, they respect him. Because all the world was afraid of him... him, a Muslim! How long has it been, that we’ve been kicked around, pushed around, and shot in the streets of Palestine like animals? We get massacred in the Balkans, and no one speaks. We get oppressed in China, and the only answer is silence. Except Khomeini. Khomeini never flinched and we were obsessed with him because he didn’t back down. He died with dignity — that dignity we had and wish we had again."

When Khattab stopped, the silence seemed as oppressive as our government. I demanded he go on: "So why did Khomeini have this dignity? Why wasn’t he afraid?"

He paused for a second. Then he looked directly at me, while driving.

"Nobody," Khattab answered, "ashamed of their past has a future. Khomeini stood up and saw the future connected to him. Not other people he wanted to be like. Just like you want so badly for us to think for ourselves, for our people to move on ahead, for us to be ourselves again -- whatever the hell that means I don’t know -- well, Khomeini stood on his own two feet, with his faith and Iran behind him. And you know what?"


"He was noticed." 

Khattab dropped me home.

I didn’t sleep that night.


1. You're wondering... Do people actually talk like that? Well they do (and will) in this story.

2. Well actually, that's what it is half the time. So of course here's my chance to refute much of that -- the refutation being the message of the whole book. Though still, by the very end, despite the maturity, there's still the Arabic flags waving in the air. So perhaps we just read our immaturity in a new direction. Here on the frontier, childishness is part of the glory and beauty of life.

3. Hizb Al-Tahrir is the Party of Liberation, a militant Islamist movement which calls for the creation of a global Islamic Caliphate. The Party of Liberation, however, is guilty of completely un-balancing Islam. They have adopted, in some ways, a Hegelian view of history and a nationalized conception of Islam. They have made Islam into little more than a political vehicle for power, whereas Islam is ideally a spiritual and ethical system which urges its followers to create a just, moral and equitable society. However, keep in mind the purpose of humanity's existence is to worship God. This is, according to God Himself in the Qur'an, the reason why we were created. The goal is not political power, though Hizb al-Tahrir's publications often dangerously blur the line. It may be remarked that the greatest achievement of such militants is bothering other Muslims and over-emphasizing issues of conflict. However, such narrow-minded ideologies will perish of their own accord, and we can already see throughout the world the formation of a more intelligent Islamic discourse.

4. Well if that's not blasphemy, then I don't know what is.

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 7


The next morning was a Tuesday morning.

So I told you all about the flag incident, and meeting Khattab. Now we can move back to the incident with Professor Murat (see the first chapter if you have a bad memory), which was the next day, before the great soccer match and the event that changed my life. (I could point out that in a way, all events ‘change’ our life. Then I could get really philosophical and point out that our life can’t really change, because any so-called change we make was destined and laid out for us [nor is this a religious view only; see a metaphysical discussion of time travel] and so we really didn’t do anything different from what had to happen. Just some food for thought).  

I was still perturbed by what Khattab did, so I didn’t go to school. I couldn’t face him. I was too confused. Was I that out of things, that I didn’t realize the strength of the Party... What about the other Islamic groups, who sometimes seemed to join forces with them? And the small, sidelined people’s liberation groups, socialist, secularist and communist organizations? What part did they play? I didn’t know much about the Party. People said there were hundreds of thousands of members, all under-cover, and it was well organized through the mosques.

I wondered if Khattab was the only one at the Academy.

I wondered, maybe he was a spy for the government, deciding to take me for a ride -- kind of like O’Brien (and it really pissed me off because I could never figure out if that resistance was real.) Maybe the Party was a front, an excuse for the constant curfews and the like. Maybe I was thinking too hard.  

I had Khattab’s poem in my pocket. I copied it down, because it meant a lot to me. Khattab’s poem made me write one of my own. Both of these poems would also mean that, were I found with them on me, that grenade that would one day kill Khattab and I would have been aimed at me just as much as it would be at him. 

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 8


I ran down the driveway to my mailbox,

I listened to Khomeini try Rushdie,

But, he pleaded, it’s only blasphemy because it means so much [to thee]. 

Water hangs in the air, silence floats below the clouds.

I put down my throat and speak through my glass,

Water drowns my voice and indifference supports my choice.

A cloud I have become: grounded. 

No words can I find for this blasphemy, coming as it does against no enemy,

No ways to describe this defeat, coming as it did without fighting.

So I hid in the sun, as bright as it was,

Summer has come, without even waiting for spring,

I have become torn within me, and not for nothing. 

I echo against belief,

I yearn for relief, but not inside the mihrab, bouncing the sound inside of me!

I listen to all the voices,

As Khattab whispered, don’t be a slave to freedom,

As Rushdie pleads: I meant no insult, I simply meant to make you aware...

Oh be proud Ruhollah, your anger should soothe thee,

Seeing as I am the enemy, be happy you can even find me!

Salman I ought to kill thee, screams Khomeini,

But Satan smiles and reminds him... were there no one to love,

There would be none to make you hate. 

So tell me my Lord, what haven’t I done to deserve this,

What is she, that she may preserve me?

What is it with me, that I must notice me?

And who am I, that I don’t even know who I am? 

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 9


The next day was Wednesday, and of course I went in for school. I had my Islamic Law class, and though I didn’t tell anyone, I wanted to sit and really pay attention. After talking pointlessly with Absal and Salman and of course the chance meeting with Khattab, we all prayed with Professor Murat. I thought the prayer would do something, would answer some questions, but nothing. I expected a change in spirit and all I got were some good bending exercises and dashed hopes.

I didn’t see Khattab in the afternoon. He was avoiding me without me noticing it (initially), so it wouldn’t look like we were friends. Or was he? This was so confusing. If I turned into an Islamist, I’d be killed quickly because I was so stupid.  

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 10


The game was that night.

Thousands upon thousands converged for the game. I went with Absal and Salman. After all that had happened with Khattab, I hadn’t realized how nervous I had become. For once, I had the chance to relax. We wore red and white shirts, and Salman brought the national flag -- without the Allah seal -- and we stared across the stadium, where thousands of our Iranian brothers and sisters had gathered.

Absal was bothered by the flag Salman brought. I was bothered (fascinated, intrigued, confused) that he was so concerned.

But still, Absal demanded: "Why didn’t you bring the new flag?"

Salman said it was because "I didn’t think we should. It was just a concession man, and I’m not going to give into it. It’s not like anyone’s going to mark me for holding this flag — as if I’m a terrorist or one of those people."

This greatly irritated Absal, though it didn’t seem to affect me at the time. Rather, I was confused more that anyone would care so much. Absal was speaking with a raised voice: "That’s not our flag anymore. Man, when we play the Iranians, we should show them who we really are. We should show them that we have one flag. Not two. They’ll laugh at us and think, ‘these stupid Turks, they don’t even know who they are.’ I don’t want us to be laughed at. We are Turks and we are one people in this country, right? Don’t show division on satellite TV."

Salman was annoyed by Absal’s tirade. "Look, Absal. I mean nobody’s going to react that way. Damn, chill out kid. If I didn’t know you any better, I’d just wonder. But maybe this was the only flag I had. They are kinda expensive, you know. Maybe I didn’t have the cash to go buy another flag right when we decide to change ours."

We were cut off by a deafening roar that erupted from the Iranian crowd. Their team filed into the stadium and Persian flags filled the air.

Both our flag and their flag — at least the official ones hanging in the front of the stadium — had the prominent ‘Allah’ seal on them. It made me think about all of us, Persians and Turks and so forth, who were at the stadium. What made us different from the well-off in Europe, America and the rest of the world? What gave us a meaning, a purpose, an identity? The royal seal was now gone from our flag. But it never stood for anything anyone cared about. The ‘Allah’ seal, on the other hand, meant a lot more.

So was Islam the only glue that kept us from vanishing into the nowhere we were so dangerously close to? Were our cultures now so dead that without faith, without even that ‘Allah’ seal on our flags, we would be nothing but so much human flotsam floating in an endless, purposeless and pointless stream?  

To stem the Islamist tide, governments such as ours cooperated with other Muslim governments to promote sports matches and cultural exchanges. It was a good idea, because everyone looked forward to it and the opposition was temporarily neutralized by it. Secularists, Islamists — we all got together to share in the fun. It was one of the most anticipated soccer matches of the year, coming on our victory over Pakistan in a particularly suspenseful match.

As the players gathered on the field, thousands of Iranians screamed for victory in Persian. We screamed back in Turkish.

Except, of course, both sides were saying the same thing. Our chants and their cheers were just like different dialects of Arabic.

I felt like laughing, and so I did — loudly. Nobody cared why. Salman and Absal got up half-way through the game... they said they wanted to get some food. After they left, I stopped smiling. The fact that the Persians and us Turks had screamed the same thing bothered me. (Not that I have anything against Persians; they write good poetry, they make good movies, they scare the hell out of the West and their women are gorgeous).

I knew the people across from us were the upper class Persians, the ones who could afford the plane flight (or train ride) to our nearby country, but they were reasonably into Islam. After all, it had been decades since their Revolution, and the new system had set up a reasonably prosperous country. And they said what we said. In Arabic. (Well sort of). So we weren’t that different. What kept us apart from them? Was our Turkic heritage sufficient enough for us to draw a boundary to say, ‘this is for us and beyond it, for you?’

I didn’t know the answer to that question, either.

I shook my head and tried to get the thoughts out. Stupid Arabs. One day we’d have to invade their lands, in the name of their religion, just to give it back: "Here you go," we’d say, "Thanks for the last millennium and a half but Islam just doesn’t do it for us anymore."

But we couldn’t just give it back, cuz’ it was ours now. It was offered to us. We took it. Now we didn’t want it, or at least a lot of us didn’t. But nobody was there to take it away.

I guess you can’t hate anyone like you hate your conqueror. Nor can you love anyone quite like you love your conqueror. Maybe that’s why us Turks and Persians had so much trouble finding a way to relate to the Arabs. 

I was absorbed in this thought when I felt someone sit down right next to me. Surprised, I turned sideways quickly and nearly pulled a muscle.

"Hey, salam..."

Her voice was a little nervous. It was her -- my Calvin Klein girl. I forgot about Persia and stared at her.

"Salam. What’s up?" I asked. I tried to sound casual, but I felt nervous inside. I hoped it didn’t show. I was gonna say ‘I didn’t know you were here,’ but that was probably the dumbest thing I could have said, so I decided not to say it. We got to talking. She had spotted me while coming back from the bathroom.

Her name was Sophia. I don’t think she cared much about Islam, but she was -- in some ways -- a product of a Muslim society. Even though she was wearing tight clothes, she had a wholesome innocence to her. I found it to be the most attractive thing in the world. I don’t think she’d ever had a boyfriend, which I appreciated. Girls like that (and they were rare even among the upper-class) just seemed cheap. I had my experiences with girls before, but, well, I never liked it much. It always felt so artificial, so faked. Of course, all this philosophizing and reflecting didn’t have a point, because she was attracting me. We clicked instantly.

She was studying anthropology at the Academy. So she was smart, too. I had to make sure not to say something stupid, which I generally did anyway, so I decided to just act like myself, and let her know I was stupid right off the bat. If Khattab were here, he would’ve told me that was because I wanted to be noticed.

But why in God’s name did I have to think of Khattab? As I tried to focus back on her, in the distance, a gigantic Iranian flag caught my eye. It looked magnificent waving in the wind, but what I noticed was the large ‘Allah’ seal in the center. 

I looked up to heaven briefly and thanked God. Before me was a beautiful girl, and what was going through my head? Suddenly Islam was everywhere. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone broke out with the adhan just then.

She turned to me, "Is something wrong?"

"Nah, it’s..." I thought: be honest Hayy... so I was honest... "I was just looking at the Iranian flag. I like the colors."

"Think they’ll win?"

"Yeah, probably. We suck out there."

"I love Iran," she whispered. I don’t know why she did but I found that so incredibly cute (at this moment everything, including the bag of chips she had in her hand, was incredibly cute.) I could have just grabbed her. Instead I asked her a question.

"Why’s that?"

"I just love their culture. It’s so like ours, you know? I just want to travel and see Iran... I think their language is beautiful. And I love their movies."

So we talked about Persian movies. They were tolerated here; they didn’t really bring in too much in the way of political messages, but they weren’t all that great to have. After all, why would we have anything to do with Iran? They were an Islamic Republic.

Sophia and I kept talking. She knew some Persian. All I knew were our language’s Arabic loan-words, which I tried to pronounce with that Persian accent, thereby barely convincing her of my ability to pass in that language. All I wanted to do, though, was kiss her. Weren’t there rules for this kind of thing? Like, say she’s giving certain signals, then you can kiss her. Otherwise no and stay away. She talked about Persian calligraphy, and how she had a Qur’an written in Persian script. Her mention of the Qur’an drove me wild for some reason.

We kept talking, about the kinds of things people talk about. Of course, being a good Turkish girl, she talked about her family in the best of terms. She wanted to show me a picture of her baby niece, since she thought she was "soooo cute" (her words, not mine), but she dropped it as she pulled it out of her pocket. She bent forward to pick it up, and suddenly I wasn’t looking at the Iranian flag anymore.

While she was down there, she happened to turn around and caught me staring at her... You know... I tried to look away but this was pretty obvious. For once, I wished Khattab were around. Maybe a grenade would’ve been lobbed at me, saving me from having to answer what I knew she was going to ask.

She had this strange smile on her face. Part angry, part teasing, she didn’t know if she should be flattered, mad, flustered, amused or disappointed.

She demanded: "What the hell were you looking at, Hayy?"

I thought in desperation, but all I could think of was Iran.

So naturally I answered: "Nisf-e jahan." 

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 11


Come to think of it, that was really smooth. I mean sure, okay, once I read a travel brochure for Isfahan, and I don’t remember why, but I do remember it saying ‘Come See Isfahan -- Nisf-e Jahan(1). She, of course, being a wanna-be Persian (isn’t everyone?), found that to be the most beautiful thing in the world. 

Needless to say, within five minutes, we had left the stadium part of the world and I found myself in another part of the world: her black BMW. Well she was obviously spoiled. She told me her father was in the government. (I wanted to ask if he ever fairly lost an election, but I held my tongue).

Now thank God, I wouldn’t see any signs of Islam or any icons of any Islamic Republics in the BMW, but I still felt weird. She was so innocent. She held back a bit, the way she was talking: she was fidgety. I could tell she’d never been with a guy, and despite the front she put on -- about being all Westernized -- she was just a good girl that happened to be hot. So I felt bad for being alone with her. This was ridiculous! Every time I thought, God would enter my head, in some way, shape or form.

I had to stop thinking! If I stopped thinking, I’d have no thoughts of God. Or anything else. Hmm. Maybe this is why the scholars always told us to not be alone with girls. I never felt guilt with other girls, so maybe it wasn’t God. Maybe I felt guilty because she was so sweet.

"So," she asked, "What do you want to do?"

...maybe she wasn’t that sweet. God I could’ve had fun with that one. I stopped myself short, "Like after the Academy, right?" 

She smiled. I don’t think she realized what she had said, and how I took it. Well that was good. There was only one pervert in this relationship. I liked it better that way.

"Yeah, like, where do you see yourself in ten years?"

Insh Allah still in the BMW?

"In some university, somewhere."


Maybe she thought I meant that I was stupid, and would never get out of the Academy, so I quickly qualified it: "Yeah, I want to teach philosophy."

"Wow," she said. "That’d be so cool. You’d be a good teacher I think, everyone in class laughs when you talk."

Okay I could have taken that as an insult. "That’s nice, I guess..."

"No," she said, laughing, "Not like that silly. That’s when that other guy talks, we laugh at him. But you connect well with people. Do you do it on purpose? You could be a politician."

I was too confused about myself to ever answer that. All I could think about was how nervous I felt in her car. Was someone watching us? I hoped to God it wasn’t God. Why did the Arabs bring us this religion, that somehow managed to sneak into my mind at the oddest of times? If Khattab were here, he’d have said that that was because God wanted me to become religious. 

"I want to be a wife."

Well then.

"You know what you need to be a wife, right?"

I can’t believe I asked that.

"Yeah," she mumbled. Her smile was shy. She avoided my eyes. "A new BMW?"

I didn’t laugh because I was confused. Was she serious? Wouldn’t a girl just want a ring? But then again, the BMW made more sense. Plus it was far more expensive.

I didn’t know what to say, so I stopped thinking, leaned over and kissed her.

She drew backwards. She didn’t know what to do. But she didn’t step out of the car, or scream, or lob a grenade, or say a prayer, so I was safe (at least, until the Day of Judgment).

"Um, Hayy..." she fumbled for words. Her face was flushed. "I’ve never kissed a guy before."

"Don’t worry," I gently answered, pausing for dramatic effect. "I have."(2)

She erupted into laughter. "Really?"

"Yeah. Last Eid (3). Actually, he kissed me, I think. But I prefer girls." 

And so I demonstrated my preference. For quite some time, I might add.


1. Nisf-e Jahan means 'half the world' in Persian; it's how the Persians describe the beautiful city of Isfahan.

2. Ha! I'm not that predictable. You thought I was gonna say, "Don't worry, I haven't either" - but in this case I, as well as many other Muslims, have often kissed members of the same sex. Along with a Divine message, and a whole philosophy of life, Islam also spread the Arab custom of kissing on both cheeks

3. Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha are the two main Muslim holidays. The first celebrates the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The second, Eid ul Adha, commemorates Abraham's (peace be upon him) willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (peace be upon him). It is also the day of the end of the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, the Hajj, which every able Muslim must perform at least once in his or her lifetime. On the Eid days, Muslims gather in the morning for a special prayer, and then a short sermon. It is a time for happiness and rejoicing, and each Muslim culture has its own special ways of celebrating it.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 12


She dropped me home.

I didn’t know what to say. She’d never kissed a guy before, and I had just made out with her. I couldn’t resist the temptation of considering her, almost, well, conquered. I knew it was wrong to think that. But part of me was proud of me. And I did really like her, I enjoyed her company and her presence (and her body and her movements, etc., ad infinitum). When she stared at me through the window, I motioned for her to lower it.

She shrugged (that was cute too, but maybe not as cute as the bag of potato chips). I shrugged back, "Nothing, I just wanted to say Salam again."

She smiled as if that was it, as if I had to give in, as if I was the one conquered. In my zeal to conquer her, and assume I could, it was me who got conquered. I smiled at this realization, because I loved it, and then I said, "Allah hafez te."

And the thing was, I really meant it. As her BMW pulled out of the driveway, I prayed -- for the first time in years, maybe. Maybe I had never really prayed before. Not without wanting anything, at least. But this time I prayed to Him. No namaz, no bowing, nothing. I just stopped and asked Him to protect her.

After all, I didn’t want to see anything happen to my conqueror.  

I stepped in the door well past 2 a.m. My mom was actually sitting at the kitchen table, staring at a book. It didn’t seem like she was reading it. I was surprised she was up. It was Wednesday night, but still...

"Well how was the game? We watched on television. It looked great, can you believe how we came back?"

Last I remembered, we were losing badly. I hesitated. Right then, my father stepped into the room. He grinned and wondered, "Rather - how was your ride?"

My mother smirked and neither spoke a word. I lowered my head, embarrassed. My father gazed at me: "Something wrong?"

I had a sudden urge to tell him everything. About Khattab. About her. About Sophia’s dad, the politician, and how I wanted to teach philosophy. About how all I ever cared about was being noticed. About my first prayer. But then I reversed my thoughts, and returned to item number five. All I cared about was being noticed. So what did I expect my parents to do? Listen to me and act impressed? Wow, son, they’d say, your life is so interesting and damn we just wish we could have something like it. No, I didn’t want that.

They wouldn’t understand how I wanted to be different, about how all I cared about was to be noticed, about how I fell in love with this girl and how I don’t even remember her last name, about how I took a ride with an Islamist, about how I prayed to God and I really wanted Him to take care of her, and about how for the first time I didn’t want to be noticed.

My dad looked worried. "Who’s this girl?"

"She’s in one of my classes. We’re just friends."

"She seems like a nice friend, Hayy. You spent five minutes staring at her outside the car."

"Nah, I was just thinking, Ata."

"Yeah in her direction."

I smiled, awkwardly, as if I didn’t believe what he was accusing me of, and so he smiled. But then I loathed him. I think only kids can do that to people that close to them, and I felt really bad for it. I was angry. I knew it was immature, but a part of me wanted to go do something stupid, just to attract attention. I went for a cup of water because I didn’t want them to realize what I was thinking about. But it hit me hard. Stupid Khattab and his psychoanalysis -- it was driving me mad.

Why did I resent my parents? 

 They didn’t know me. Maybe no one ever cared about me, like really showed me love. I wanted to tell them I was going to pray, to get them upset, to get them to think: ‘where the hell did we go wrong?’ I just wanted them to notice me, so they could figure out all their imperfections without me ever having to talk about them.

My dad asked, "Where’s she from?"

"I don’t know," I replied, coldly. "She’s a nice girl."

I had never been so reserved about my interests in girls. I think my parents sensed it. At least my mom did. My dad didn’t understand sexuality, I think, and he only wanted me to have a Western life. If that meant promiscuity and sexuality, then so be it. But I knew it made him uncomfortable. He came of modest origins and conservative parents. So I was mad at him for being so weak.

He wanted to be noticed as a rich man. Our country wanted to be noticed by the West. If I knew anything about Berkeley (which I really didn’t), I would’ve said that at this moment I became a Berkeleyan. Or however the hell you spell it. All people wanted was to be perceived. We took this whole esse is percipi crap to a whole new level.

That night I slept late and dreamt about her. Yeah, one of those dreams. The kind I felt bad about after because had I cared about my Wudu, I wouldn’t have had it, and I would’ve had to do Ghusl, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t care for Fajr prayer anyway. So I let it slide. But I felt bad because it was her, and by dreaming about her like that, it was as if I had violated her. 

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 13


I spent all Thursday sitting in my room like an idiot. From far away, I made out the Azan for Maghrib. Thank God there were no mosques in my neighborhood, or I might have been tempted to pray. I stared at my wall. The radio was playing a song that had suddenly lost all its appeal. In a fit of decisiveness, I shut it off and ran to the phone. I looked up the school directory and found her name.

What would she say? Why was I so insecure? I wished Khattab were here.

I dialed the number and waited. The line got disconnected (thanks to the government’s great infrastructure improvements), and I couldn’t get through for five minutes. Finally, it started to ring. I took a sip of water, I prayed again, and my stomach rumbled in fear. I felt like fainting.


It was her.

"Hi... [my voice was so weak at this point]... it’s me, Hayy."

She was silent for a few seconds. God. Why was she like this? She swallowed -- I could hear it, miraculously -- and she wondered, "Why’d you call?"

"I wanted to talk, that’s all."

"I don’t know if you should call me Hayy."

I didn’t know what to say.

"Why?" I asked, barely able to articulate it.

She was silent again. This was like torture. "Cuz’ I don’t feel right. After what happened."

I was confused. Last I remembered, she only smiled. Why did girls act one way, and then act another way, and assume nobody realized their insecurities? I asked somewhat more coldly: "Are you mad at me for what happened?"

"No," she said, "It’s not that but I don’t know."

She hesitated and then she hung up. Girls were great like that. If they did make sense, it was about something that had no relevance. When they had to talk about anything that I was concerned about, I couldn’t figure out a damn thing of what they wanted to say. I went back to my stereo, threw in Beethoven and listened to Eroica. I wondered if Napoleon understood girls. I wondered why Beethoven had changed the name of the symphony. Maybe Napoleon got a girl and he didn’t.

I couldn’t get a girl either. I felt very close to Beethoven. I’d find them. I’d become obsessed with them. I’d make them like me.

And then I’d run away from them because I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

Her tone changed my mood. I thought that Sophia was not the one. She made me smile, but she could not be the one I’d be happy with over the long-term. She was too insecure about herself. A sudden chill came over me, as I realized I had choked my feelings for her just like that. My prayer to God vanished with my interest in her, and suddenly, I was very alone. 

My mom walked in and looked perplexed. "Your... uh... friend is at the door."

I gazed at her quizzically. I wanted to ask: "I have friends?"

I didn’t want to see Absal or Salman. Nor Muhammad, or Ahmad, or Muhammad, and especially not Ahmad. And God help me if it was Ali. I wanted to cry all night about how there was no such thing as love, how good girls didn’t exist, and how I fell for just beauty and a sweet smile. Sitting here, something like a mullah, I’d say ‘Qala Nietzsche: Ich bin die Einsamkeit als Mensche… I am solitude become man…’ 

But I had to follow my mom because I didn’t want to explain to her that I didn’t want to be seen by anyone. Now embarrassed, alone and angry with myself, I had no urge to be noticed. But I didn’t want this to be noticed. Like the double negative it seems it was, I would then be noticed by acting normally.

I walked behind her and came to the front door, and there in his (admittedly very nice) car was Khattab. He smiled and said, "Hey I’m going out tonight, wanna come?"

I realized he was by himself. I wanted to laugh at him. Who was he going out with? But then I remembered that I had just lost a girl after 15 hours, so it was not my place to laugh at anyone’s evening plans. I smiled and asked Khattab how he was.

My mom asked, "Where are you going?"

Why was she so concerned? She didn’t know Khattab, and she probably realized I had been acting so strange over the past week. She could put two and two together. God, I hope she didn’t think I was bisexual because that was way too secular for anyone in this country.

"Hayy?" my mom asked, annoyed that I had ignored her question.

Remembering that I was in the Dünya, not my mind, I mumbled: "I don’t know."

I looked at Khattab. He shrugged, "Nowhere Be’um. Maybe a movie, maybe just out to eat."

He was very courteous and so my mother smiled. He couldn’t be an Islamist, she must have thought. He was too friendly and polite. Didn’t they always come off rude, arrogant and cold? Not this one, I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t.

"Shoot, I’m sorry," Khattab apologized, "I came here to your house and I didn’t tell you who I was. My name’s Khattab, me and Hayy are in a few classes together. We met at a poetry reading because we read each other’s stuff."

"Yeah last week," I repeated, as if the police were examining us. But Khattab was damn close to militant Islam (and an arrest), so I figured: May as well practice.

My mom laughed, as if all her fears were ridiculous. Around me, Khattab had been dominating and direct. Now he was endearing and a bit goofy. I was impressed.  

He had some American music playing in the car. At that, I was surprised.

"I don’t feel like music," I told him. He shut it off.

Why did he show up? It was nice of him. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to be with my parents. I wanted to let it all out to someone.

"So," he said, "how is she?"

He said ‘she’ in a weird way. I didn’t know what he was trying to get at. Absal and Salman hadn’t called me... I had abandoned them at the game... why didn’t they care to say anything? Maybe they saw me with Sophia and thought they’d leave me alone with my crush. Who knew?

"I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of her."

"Want to go anywhere, or should we just drive?"

I shrugged and he didn’t ask me to elaborate.

"Well," he continued, "It’s like this. At first you meet the girl... and you know, you are instantly confused. Sometimes it’s attraction, straight on. It’s almost magical. You might even hate yourself for it."

"Yeah." How did he know? He must be some primitive super-conservative Islamist, married off when he was 12 and completely familiarized by now with how girls work. So I let him talk.

"I think that’s what happened with you," he explained, "You saw her and you were just intrigued. You had to have her. But then you stopped, didn’t you? You were afraid. Because it was nice to stare, to admire, to talk even, but when it came down to doing it... I don’t mean sex but getting with her, you probably got all insecure."

"Well," I said, suddenly very open to criticism. "Yeah, I am so afraid. If she rejects me, I’d be crushed. I barely know her. But I don’t know if we fit together."

"That girl is for you, man."

And how the hell did he know?

So he answered my question, hanging un-asked in the air. "Because I see the way you talk about her. Because you’re more concerned. You talk about her with gravity, like you never did before."

"How do you know how I acted with girls before?"


Suddenly there was silence. I thought for a few seconds. Then I burst out laughing, and poor Khattab, he didn’t know why. I felt a sudden surge of superiority, and was beaming with my victory. Then I felt bad for him, and cursed myself for letting myself feel that. I looked down. "I’m talking about Sophia."

He had been talking, all along, about Islam. But what bothered me most was that - till that last question of mine - he had been on the money. Both with her and Islam.

"Yeah," Khattab sheepishly admitted, "Her. I thought you meant... you know... the other girl."

"Yeah her," I said. "But you know I’d prefer to talk about Sophia. You know what I mean. It’s just interesting because you were right. You know you explained it all to me and that’s kinda weird. Like how do you know?"

So we were going to talk about religion.

How did I tell him I found prayer boring, but I prayed for Sophia?

"Girls are weird man," Khattab said, and then he laughed. "And people change. Just like families change, right? But you’re never gonna be like ‘I don’t need a girl.’"

"Well," I said, rather pissed I was limited to his conversation. "Don’t you think someday you are like... like when I am more mature, Insha Allah soon, I’m gonna be talking about being myself and just having a woman complementing me. But we’d respect each other. And that’s that. I’m not going to give myself up to her completely."

I couldn’t say that this was a bad example, because normally he never spoke this guarded, so he must have some reason to be cautious. I hated when discourse was within annoyingly narrow limits. Anyway, his response:

"Hayy if you’re 85 years old, you will be like ‘I don’t want a girl.’ Well maybe not you, but most eighty-five year olds. [He laughed a bit, but not in a condescending way. So I laughed too]. So if you don’t want a girl, and I mean a person like in a general way, then it’s because you’re dying. Or impotent."

"Or just gay."

We laughed hard, because we had no idea what that meant in terms of religion.

"Look man," I tried to explain, "I saw Sophia and I’m like damn she has a nice body. She’s cute. But it’s such an artificial attraction, you know... in that sense. Sometimes I force myself to forget about her. Because I just don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know how to make it real."

"Some people," Khattab thought aloud, "Fall in love at first sight. I for one don’t believe it. But it can happen. Well maybe... maybe I do believe it, in a way. It’s not love, it’s like jezbe. You can’t explain it. Maybe that’s how you fell for Sophia. But everyone has second thoughts. People hear things, think things, they realize the ramifications of the path they’re on, and it’s scary. Because you know at the end of the day, this means marriage."

I didn’t know if we were talking about her or faith, or politics, or some combination of the three.

I stared out the window. It was another beautiful night. "I’m afraid of telling this girl I like her, because I don’t know what that would lead to."


"Yeah, hopefully. But there are times in between sex. There’s like the rest of life. All of life isn’t sex."

He didn’t answer. I started laughing. "Okay right now it might seem like it, but that’s because we’re like hyper-sexualized. That’s not even a word."

"Just say horny," he urged me. "Don’t try to make yourself sound better than you really are."

Okay, so we weren’t talking about Islam anymore. And me talking sex mania and lust with a pseudo-Salafi possible Party philosopher was not only not dangerous, but laughable and rather ridiculous. Just like the sentence I just typed.

"So," Khattab said, "You have to give it time."

"What if she’s the one?"

"There’s only one," Khattab clarified.

"That sounded stupid man."

"Yeah, but you sound stupider. What if she’s not the one? What if I die a virgin? What if I never find a girl? What if me and her have nothing in common?"

I didn’t say anything. I resented him. I tended to do that to people a lot, because I felt too weak to say anything to his face. But I tried.

"The thing is, I have all these thoughts rolling around in my head, I’m just crazy. There’s so much I want to do with my life. You know what she wants? She wants to be a wife."

"So?" he shrugged. Then he added: "That’s so sweet. She can raise your kids as good, moral and responsible kids. You can be off finding satisfaction in whatever it is that gives you satisfaction."

"It’s probably Haram."(1)


"All my satisfaction."

He looked in my direction briefly, "You know at this moment I have no idea where this conversation is headed."

It sucks when someone misses your joke. So I dropped it and got back to more serious conversation: "If she likes me, and if I like her... Then what? Marriage? I mean it is what’s facing me I guess, if I look at this... more responsibly... Should I marry her, Khattab?"(2)

He was quiet for a second, as he thought deeply.

"Don’t think about it like sex. Because that’s what your mind wants to think of, because of your other head. Think about it ... like family. Because in the end it has to be something between both your families. Your parents are still conservative, in some ways, aren’t they? I remember you saying that once, briefly."

They were. They expected a good family match. I think they wanted her to be a virgin too, though I doubt they cared if I was one or not. This was making me so mad, I stopped talking about it. I hated Sophia.  

But I knew the next time I saw her, I’d melt and say all these things which made it seem like I liked her. 

"Want to eat Arab?" Khattab asked.

"We’re not talking about her, are we?"

"Um, I’m not even gonna go there. Unless you meant it in the other way. I don’t know what the hell is going on right now."

In Iran, they banned pop music for quite some time after the Revolution, except for ‘Sufi’ and traditional music. To get around it, and still talk about girls they were obsessed with, singers wrote of God, and love, and faith. I wondered if anyone in the government of Iran honestly thought those guys were really singing about God...

We stopped at a falafel restaurant. Arabic music blared through in the restaurant.

As we got out of the car, Khattab said: "Don’t sell yourself short. Marriage isn’t about sex, or romance, or the girl.. It’s about all of that and then some. You have to keep that in the picture. Someone sweet may be someone to lean on. That’s all you need to know. Don’t take the shallow way out and think about sex."

He slammed his car door shut and we walked in.

"After all, you wouldn’t want to be like Nietzsche’s Last Man."

He winked. I hadn’t properly started a study of 19th century philosophy, so I just stared at him. He looked at me, shocked that I didn’t know what he was referring to, so I looked away - embarrassed - and blinked. 


PHilosophical fUNDamntalist reflECTIONS

Everyone is so afraid of death/ Yet the real Sufis laugh:/

nothing tyrannizes their hearts./ What strikes the oyster shell

doesn’t damage the pearl [qala rumi]

hizb fazilat. Ha! Made you think. 


1. Something that is Haram is something forbidden by God and His Law. Hence, for the Muslim, gambling, murder, and premarital sex all qualify as acts that are Haram. I gave three distinct examples so the unfamiliar reader would get a better idea of where Islam stands on these issues.

2. I'm sure my Western readers are greatly amused. Perhaps my secular Muslim friends ("mentally-colonized" - for the purposes of Frontier Islam, let's call them "sedentary") are surprised but, any real Muslim understands... they understand that when a Muslim guy meets a Muslim girl, marriage is a seriously considered possibility within 10 to 12 seconds of initial contact. For the really religious, it's something that happens in five to six seconds, and for the Firdaws-bound, all it takes is eye contact. I too share this quality of rapid-marriage consideration (and you wonder how our birthrate rockets ahead of the West?). Then, there are those of you wondering what "Firdaws" is. Firdaws is the highest level of Paradise, though the word itself comes from the Persian word for Paradise, which found its way into Arabic to designate a certain type of Paradise - the highest level. Which I said before.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 14


The problem with our country is just what Khattab said.

Islam is a drug. It just won’t die. Sometimes, I wished we could use it something like a prop for resistance and revolution and then discard it. But it’s not just a language of resistance because even some of the richest people in society are part of the movement. So what’s up? I sat Friday morning thinking about it. 

In Christian countries, the Protestant movement sparked a Revolution towards secularism. Was it deliberate? I was afraid. I was afraid because I didn’t know. Did a reformation in religion lead to secularism? Perhaps the Protestant reformation was too flawed. Or maybe, I thought, it had so damaged the unity of the Church that it was like a poison in the guise of a cure. Those events centuries ago in Europe were always on my mind, because it seemed like the Muslim world was facing a similar crossroads.

But clearly Islam and secularism were concepts alien to each other. I was bothered by the idea of trying to have to reconcile the two, but I realized that at the end of the day, our society would have to balance - perhaps have an active Islamic identity, as cultural (not too religious) as possible - but then this didn’t work in Egypt, or Iran or Turkey. Perhaps because Islam and secularism were at loggerheads, and in the end, one of the two had to win out.

Ever since the collapse of the United Nations (those blue helmets must’ve been great for target practice), political Islam was strong in many key nation-states in the Muslim world, and was fighting a war it would win, I feared. I thought that it might just be because there’s no other language for resistance. At the end of the day it will become a prop for a more democratic, humane and ethical society, and then slowly slide away, and produce a unique, culturally Muslim, secular and democratic system.

Maybe it was arrogance, nationalism or pride, but we couldn’t just Westernize. We weren’t them. Nor did I want to be them. We had better values in some places, but they had better values in others. We had to combine then. Maybe Islam would be part of the combination.

It scared me because I couldn’t find an answer. I hated being the insecure one, caught between two totally different systems. This just meant I’d get killed in the cross-fire. I was desperate for compromise. I couldn’t understand why the Islamists wouldn’t just let go. Wouldn’t they flourish more under a somewhat secular system, since they would be always the voice of opposition?

They had something to give but no more theocratic states. The ones set up so far were international pariahs, facing economic sanctions and a host of other problems. All this and for what? To say: "I have power." "I rule."

To be noticed. 

My mom walked into my room and sat down next to me. By the look on her face I suddenly feared her. She asked, "What’s wrong?"

She was worried. I looked at her, trying to be objective. "Nothing is wrong."

"Your friend," my mom said to me, as if trying to justify this to herself as well as me, "He just seemed weird. Not weird really, but very reserved. He’s not..."

"Not what?"

I knew what she wanted to ask, but she came in my room to ask, so she’d have to spit it out, and I’d let the moment stay awkward.

"Mom he likes girls, if that’s what you mean."

She smiled but she didn’t appreciate the humor. I looked at her: "He’s a new friend of mine, if you’re worried that he came out of nowhere. Nice kid. I think of partly Arab descent because his name is very rare, you know."

I smiled but she didn’t seem satisfied.

"Hayy, you’ve been acting differently."

So I had.

"Maybe it’s this girl. You’re kind of old now and maybe you’re thinking about her seriously, but have fun. You can wait till you finish the Academy. Go out to the clubs, have some fun, you’re still young. The rest of your life is waiting for you."

I wanted to bite back: Let life wait. Instead: "Look she’s a nice girl that I like a lot, that’s all. Nobody said marriage."

"Well there’s a party tomorrow night, at Amadez. All the families from your father’s club are going. You should go. You’ll meet some nice girls."

Didn’t I just say I was thinking about a certain special girl? Well okay I didn’t, but she should’ve known.

"I don’t want to go to a stupid party." 


I said one of the stupidest things I could have: "Someone’ll probably bomb it."

She glared at me. She wanted to scream but didn’t because she was my mother. I looked at her and tried to explain, "I’m worried with all the violence in the South. What if it comes up here?" 

The threat was there, but nothing had ever happened in our neighborhoods, so why bring it up? My mom sensed something amiss about Khattab, and probably realized I had deeper feelings for Sophia. Or maybe she thought I was going to be confused and perplexed over her till it destroyed me, which at the moment seemed a possibility.

"Hayy don’t talk nonsense. You have nothing to fear from some backwards villagers who get rowdy. The violence is in their villages because they’re poor and un-educated, and they don’t understand how to be modern and civilized. Trust me, nothing will happen. The Islamists are living in a dream world, so stop talking about it and stop worrying about it. Before you know it they’ll be wiped out."

"You really think so?" I asked, as if I was really afraid, as if I wanted so desperately to be saved by the government’s ignorance and corruption.

"Yes, Hayy. Is this what gets you worried? You’ve always been a free thinker. You know the Islamists are close-minded and simple. They’re from the village and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They think we’re still in the 1500s and the world is flat. So forget them. Our country will become modern and progressive."

She said her last sentence like she was a machine, and I revolted. Dammit, did everyone want to be Western? What was this obsession, this disease, this darkness? Why did everyone imagine the West to be the only model for progress? My own mother was ashamed of her past! She feared it! She loathed herself. And so, I loathed her.

I got up and walked to my closet.

"I have to change my clothes," I announced in a rush. I was floating, as the rebel inside me lifted me up off the ground. Fire burned inside of me. I wanted no part of her machine, her blasphemy, her un-thinking, stupid acceptance of all those words nobody even understood. She was a secular parrot, caged, and she had nowhere to fly to. I, on the other hand, was going to free myself.

"Where are you going?" she asked, unnerved by the tone of my voice.

I said nothing, so she asked, "Hayy, are you going to see her?" She put a smile into her voice, as if Sophia was going to make the whole world right.  

 "No," I said, turning around for a pair of nicer jeans. I stared at her for a second and then looked away, savoring the sourness that I knew would spread over her face.

"It’s Friday, I’m going to the Mosque(1) by Azadeh Street." 


1. Government-approved, of course.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 15


As I stared directly into the closet wall, I heard nothing in response. Of course I wasn’t going to hear anything. What would prepare dear mother for her educated, clean-cut, upper class son expressing a desire to go to the mosque on his day off? I imagined her drowning inside her mind. I imagined the waves of my words had crushed the pitiful foundations that propped up her world. I realized that I didn’t know if she could swim.

I didn’t want to go to the mosque.

I just wanted to get the hell out of the house. I left my stupefied mother in shock. I just walked out, with a cold satisfaction that to this day I am ashamed of. I walked into the bathroom, where I splashed some water on my face and sprayed on a bit of cologne (Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad if I bumped into Sophia). 

I grabbed the keys from the counter, said Allah Hafez Te to my father, and ran into the car. He didn’t know where I was off to, though I imagine the last place he’d think of was the mosque. I didn’t know if I should go, but I sat in the car and figured the Government Mosque would be just fine. Who would care? Government Mosques doled out harmless Khutbas. But then I wondered about the disparate elements of the resistance. Of course there was Hizb Fazilat and its philosopher-preachers, and intellectuals, all hidden underground... there were also the Sufis, the Salafis, the neo-Wahhabis, the street-preachers and the Islamic socialists. I imagined those groups gave much more interesting Khutbas. But I didn’t want to hear them, nor did I want to risk it.

Perhaps the risk of it prevented me, and nothing else. 

The Khateeb talked about oral hygiene. The crowd was mostly traditional Muslim types, wearing ethnic clothes - those who came from the countryside, those who still clung to traditional values and couldn’t handle the secularized life of the city. The mosque was, however, very full (which worried, surprised and delighted me. I could yell at the Christians [were I to ever see any]: ‘See, our religion is growing’!) and afterwards the Khateeb announced a donations drive for the construction of a new mosque and children’s Arabic program/school to be included. I was impressed. It must have meant there remained a large audience.

Why couldn’t we retain this kind of Islam? It didn’t hurt anyone. 

And then it struck me.

It was Islam on anesthesia. Harmless Islam. Defeated, tamed Islam. Who wanted it, but the harmless? The weak? The defeated? Islamists were people who took on the world. People like that could never be content to sit back and accept this nonsense. Traditional Islam... Kind of like those Tabligh (1) movements, which after fifty years are still teaching the same people the same things. Their dull sermons, their innocent lack of ambition -- it was Islam on sedatives. This kind of separation of church and state (2) produced an inept, weak and pointless religion.

Were church and state to be separated, the church would be co-opted by the state. Sure, the government could throw Allah’s name on flags and currency, invoke His blessings here and there, and build lots of mosques, but this would be an impotent, starved, decorative religion. Were I an Islamist, I would not wish my ideology an ornament (Were Islam to have Christmas trees, this analogy would’ve worked a lot better). The vitality, fervor and power of it would be gone. All the people at the government mosque were useless for the movement. They were not ones to change the world.

I liked being a rebel. I think most young people did. So I could sympathize with Islamists. They were being robbed of their chance to effect change. They were being asked to sit back and watch Islam become a mostly pointless pillar in the construction of a national identity.

But at the same time, I was perplexed. Democracy was then the way to go. We needed intelligent ethnic and ideological political parties - but not Islamic parties, because they were out to change government to a purely Islamic one. My sympathies with the Islamists were cut short then and there… after all, we all wanted voices, but why should one voice be superior to all others? Why couldn’t the Islamists accept being part of the game? They might get elected, and then voted out of office, replaced by a secularist party. This was far more fair and reasonable.

Thinking about this was a lot more interesting than actually listening to the Khutba.  

Suddenly, the Khateeb’s voice shot up in volume. "We must structure our lives as God has asked us to."

This caught my attention. My mind raced. I felt short of breath as I was dazzled by the consequences of that statement.

If God had asked for such a thing to be done - for us to structure our lives completely according to Islam - and I believed this wholeheartedly, well then I wouldn’t care so much for "democracy." Because I wouldn’t believe it was necessary. The pious Muslims believed Islam held sway over all aspects of life. Islam was, for them, life itself. Why then would they accept democracy, if democracy asked them to change their beliefs from true ones to false ones? After all, the Islamists were asking us to change our beliefs to work within the framework they held to be right. That was no different than what I, as a supporter of democracy, was asking the pious Muslims to do.

I felt my support for tolerance and democracy waver, but only for a second. Perhaps it was a fatal second. Perhaps it was here, with this Shaykh speaking, that I saw my fate. After all, tolerance and democracy. These are nice concepts. Very apathetic concepts. But what does apathetic democracy (the kind the West believed in, preached and fought for) mean if you believe you’ve found the truth? If I believed Islam was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then so help the fool who dared suggest a political compromise. It was a waste of time, wasn’t it? The fundamentalists weren’t so illogical after all. I admired that they could stand for something and believe it with such ferocity. I admired that they were not afraid of the world. And I admired them all the more, because the world was afraid of them.

I also understood the wisdom of the Government’s decision to run its own mosques, but a heavy wave of cynicism burst inside of me. The prayer ended quickly and I didn’t stay to offer any extra prayers.  

As I walked back to the shoe racks, an elderly gentleman accosted me. 

"You should wear Sunnat."(3)

I was wearing a nice full-sleeve shirt, dark blue jeans and nothing flashy. I had a watch on, but I didn’t imagine that would bother my new acquaintance here. Perhaps the lack of a kufi on my head was bothering him. He, on the other hand, was wearing pants and a long qamiz over them, which had me rather amused. He was dressed in the dress of our country (what our people wore before they became Muslim; and I knew Western people had also become Muslim so... um...).

I didn’t know Sunnat all that well - my memory was clouded by daydreams interrupting past religious lessons - but I knew the Prophet Muhammad was Arab.

"This is fine, isn’t it?" I struggled to remember from mandatory religion classes. "My clothes aren’t tight and... I’m covered all over.... They’re clean, too," I added, hoping cleanliness was one of the requirements. I imagined it was. It did fit into the scheme of things rather well.

"No, my clothes are Sunnat, you are not wearing it properly, you are dressed like a Westerner."

I got very angry. I wasn’t in a good mood. I hadn’t touched a girl in days and on top of that my parents had driven me off the wall. I didn’t care for his stupid excuse for philosophizing.

"Look," I said, "My clothes meet the requirement. Leave me alone."

I forced myself past him and he stayed there, stunned. He turned and said, "Sunnat is what the Prophet, alayhi salam, wore. We must live like he lived, and his life is our example, our sunnat."

I stared him down. "Are you thick?"

He didn’t understand, so I gladly added, "Muhammad was Arab, not like us! He wore Arab clothes. Try to translate more of the meaning of his actions and not just the outward appearance. I mean, damn, do you even speak Arabic?"

I didn’t speak Arabic either; after all, referring to speaking Arabic presupposes speaking Arabic. I hoped he didn’t know Arabic.

"Not much, but I read Qur’an."

"Why don’t you read some more?" I suggested sarcastically.

He looked very hurt. Suddenly a wave of regret came over me (I’m just drowning in waves over here), and I was gripped by that same sense of insecurity. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault I got mad, it was his stupidity that made me so upset and finally that I didn’t really mean to distress him. The poor man’s mind was narrower than the road to Makkah, and he could’ve never understood what I was trying to say.

"Look," I said, "Use your brain when you think about these things. As hard as that might be, stop adopting the post-Enlightenment model for Christian piety. If we wear special clothes in the mosque, and different clothes at home, that wouldn’t make much sense, would it? We should wear nice clothes in the mosque and outside it. The mosque is part of the world, not separated from it." 

I was saddened by this practice of wearing old-style clothes in the mosque and modern clothes outside, as if the two worlds were so different. This was the reason nobody cared about the Government Mosque, and why there were so many of them. The people in there were secularized Muslims -- they would just never know it.  


1. Jamat-e Tabligh is a movement founded in India sometime ago. It was created to revive Muslim practices among the local population, and quickly spread across the Muslim world. However, the group has completely failed to progress in any meaningful intellectual manner. They have remained at the same level of ideology they held during the movement's founding. They preach a return to basics, and a quietist practice of Islam which tends to completely ignore Islam's demands on its followers to change the world. Hence, the group has often been at loggerheads with other, more active Muslim groups. They have, in fact, reduced Islam to a form of post-Enlightenment Christianity, with its associated views on internalized piety.

2. Looking back, I know, I know... the analogy just doesn't hold. After all, how could it? Islam has no 'church', and hence there is no structure the State can legitimately co-opt. Furthermore, there should be no State (in the modern sense) without a firm Islamic basis. So Islam is at once the legitimization of the government, and also the opposition which keeps a check on it, because the State is not (nor cannot be) a god of any sorts. Islam must prevent the consolidation of power into the hands of the few (Islam stands against extreme centralization and totalization). These dangerous ideologies are created by a very un-Islamic hunger for arrogant power, which Islam, as the concurrent voice of opposition, must resist.

3. If we did a survey, I imagine the following conversation has happened to about 75 percent of all Muslims. The other 25 percent "wear Sunnat". Honestly, is the Sunnah so simplistic that we must reduce it to narrow-minded, literalist interpretations? I think the Rasul, peace and blessings be upon him, would be disappointed with that. Islam is a religion of action, confirmed by the right intention. Hence, when we look at an action, we must look at what is inside and what is outside and make sure both are correct.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 16


I slowed down the car as I realized what had slipped my tongue. In my zeal to insult that elderly gentleman’s ways, I had tried to present myself as more modern. And more Muslim. Ever try to get the best of both worlds? Well, I had just tried. God knew if I succeeded.
My ego had driven me to defend myself in a way I had never defended myself before. And all I had done was shove myself, perhaps unwittingly, closer to God. If Islam asked for a hold over society, and this society was Westernized, why would it matter if the Islam was Westernized?  

 I figured someone in the Party had probably thought through all this before.

I turned on the radio and drove home faster. I had to get home. Home was safer than these roads. They were, after all, just like Western highways. But I didn’t think that made a difference anymore.  


PHilosophical fUNDamntalist reflECTIONS

The idol of your self is the mother of all idols.

The material idol is only a snake;

while this inner idol is a dragon.

It is easy to break an idol,

but to regard the self as easy to subdue is a mistake.

[qala rumi]

hizb fazilat. unsettling secularists everywhere. 

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 17


The next day was Saturday, the first day of the week, and that meant back to classes again. The thing I figured out about having the same dress inside and outside of the mosque really got me excited. I wished it was Monday, not because it was closer to the weekend, but because we’d have Islamic Law class. Then again, what the hell would Prof Murat teach us? His Islamic Law class, I knew, was not the real potential of it.

I started paying attention to little things. I noticed what Khattab wore. He was always dressed nicely, and always wearing Western clothing. Here and there, on holidays, he’d wear some pseudo-traditional cultural dress, but he was just at home in jeans and shirts. The girls I would see in shopping areas wore hijab (1) assertively, without clothing themselves in seas of black. Sometimes they clothed themselves in a sea of tight blue denim and a hijab on top, an interesting, intriguing mix. I guess I didn’t mind.

This made me decide to change my dress. That is, my reflections on the whole — not seeing girls in hijab wear really tight jeans.

I think, at bottom, it was a desire not to get lost. After all, human beings need to feel unique, loved, special — we hate the idea of being swallowed among the faceless masses (2). I had become closer to Islam, in some ways, but also closer to my culture. I began to love all things Turkish. I began to obsess about our language and our food. I wanted to spend time with Turks and only Turks. I think many people in our world, cut loose as they are by globalization and modernization, end up seeking refuge in ethnic identity. 

New clothing stores sold stylish, ethnic dress, which some of the upper class occasionally wore. I bought several outfits like that, so I looked sufficiently modern and nationalist. It reflected where I was, emotionally and intellectually. I blurred the line towards Islamism, but at the same time, I could’ve been mistaken for a nationalist.

Nationalists and Islamists tended to have an uncomfortable relationship. The die-hard nationalists didn’t want Islamization: they wanted muslimization. It was kind of like our version of Zionism. I wondered if the nationalists would steal other people’s land and then oppress them, just like good Zionists did. 

Khattab completely rejected nationalism... from his clothes, at least. His traditional clothes were kept to a minimum. He noted I wore the new style of clothes, and he sounded worried. I enjoyed the fact that he disliked my slow descent into ethnic pride.

My parents, too, were unsure. Nationalist groups were also looked at with suspicion by the government, but they were certainly safer than Islamist groups. 

I ate at ethnic restaurants. I talked to Sophia and we read classical poetry. She felt it was a bit odd that I was so into it, but I think she enjoyed it also.

But now, you’re wondering: ‘He said she didn’t wanna talk to him, didn’t he?’ Well, she did. My story doesn’t make sense at this point. But I’ll blame the inconsistency on her, and say it was her weird moods that swung her back my way. Plus, it’s my story, so I can do whatever the hell I wanna do with it 


1. Hijab refers to the veil a Muslim woman draws over her head. Though there has been debate on what exactly this means, it is mandatory for Muslim women to cover their hair and to expose nothing of their bodies excepting the face, the hands and the feet. Furthermore, hijab requires loose, non-transparent clothing. Between cultures and eras, there has been a great degree of variation, representative of the flexibility of Islamic Law and its eagerness to adapt to local circumstances. Islamic Law demands such physical dress codes because Islam does not separate the internal and the external. However, what must be kept in mind is that the Muslim must also act with modesty. The purpose of modest dress is to protect the family and the structure of sexual relations it supports, preventing chaos, immorality and damage to the society and the individual as well. This is pointless, however, if it stops only at dress. Muslims must also act with modesty (I try, oh how do I try, in this book!). I would also like to say that there is a dress code for men. I am sickened that in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, women are made to wear only a certain style of clothes (which again is choice, not demanded by Islamic Law - Islamic Law demands certain requirements be met and that is all), whereas in these same Muslim countries, nobody bothers to notice how men dress. Islamically, men also must dress and act modestly. Just because they don't have to cover as much does not mean they can wear shorts or extremely tight clothing. It is mandatory that we, as Muslims, end this over-emphasis on women's dress while completely ignoring how men dress and present themselves.

2. Paradoxically, the evil Western advertising/consumer culture urges us to buy and buy to be "distinct". Liberation, by this logic, comes through slavery to desires (which are in reality insatiable). All we do by buying ourselves into a frenzy is sell our souls. We are made to think that possession of goods is independence, whereas independence from these goods is true independence. This makes me think of the Rage Against the Machine song, "No Shelter," where lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha points out: "They got you think that buying is rebelling/ What you need is what they're selling."

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 18


I think I felt comfortable hearing my language in music and poetry. I liked the feel of the clothes. I liked being able to stand out, without having to commit to any moral constraints. This way, I would be noticed as different from the pure secularists, without ever having to challenge myself.

My Islam didn’t really suffer from this new trend (then again, it wasn’t like it had ever been breathing, either). I just wasn’t sure what my relationship was to Islam, or God. I didn’t know where I should belong. However, I remained a regular at the Government Mosque on Azadeh Street. 

But I couldn’t get over the fact that despite this great wave of populist, national culture, the root of the matter was that everyone was a slave to the West or themselves — not God. It was beginning to bother me that I was worshipping a transient power and not the real one.

I could listen to the music, wear the clothes, watch our movies and read our histories (and damn were they good), but at the end of the day, the vast majority of the people I knew, who were nationalists like me, could not disconnect this cultural interest from complete and utter intellectual slavery to the secular West.

The Islamists, I had to admit, were the only ones positing any real alternatives.

The road to modernity was one we had to make, if only for the simple reason of survival, of feeding our people, of solving our environmental and social problems, of keeping people educated and the like. But the nationalists... I saw that their road to modernity was a secular one, albeit decorated with motifs that tried too hard to be un-Western.

This was similar to the Turks from Turkey proper used to talk with pride about "their" culture. It was just the grafting of some elements of their past onto a Western shell, but oh with what idiotic pride their eyes gleamed when they spoke of it.  

The idea of giving up on those things I said and did and drank and looked at, even if only from time to time, scared the hell out of me. I hid inside cultural religion, instead of religious culture.  

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 19


By the fourth Friday, I think my parents resigned themselves to my routine: I would go to the mosque for Friday Prayers. I never talked to anyone after prayers, maybe a Salam ‘alaykum here and there at most. I didn’t like the khutbahs; they were very boring. On occasion, they crossed the line and became only mildly boring. Many times I found myself yawning heavily, so much so that my eyes would water and I would have to struggle -- we’re talking all out greater and lesser jihad -- just to keep them open.

Many people were intrigued by me. Nobody knew what to make of my necklaces, my bracelets or my nice car. The more upper class had their own mosque, which was far more opulent (and even more boring -- I yawned with just the thought of it). I could just imagine the khutbahs. "Why Your Money is yours and why God doesn’t want you to spend too much of it," and other similarly comforting topics.  

And the really active Muslims never went to these mosques regularly. They had their own underground services. In the villages and towns secret sermons were the norm. Outside the capital and the other few big cities, there was a lot of underground Islam. I had no idea how I’d ever get in touch with that. I thought: Khattab would know.

He didn’t talk to me as much. I missed his company (I get attached easily), but at the same time I think he was worried about my new interests, and kept away. Or perhaps he was like a parent, watching me stumble intellectually and trip emotionally into my new Islamic life.

I stared at people in the mosque — well, actually, they stared at me first, but I started to stare back. I imagined my great intellect and furious creative abilities streamed out of my eyes, and I stared nearly everyone down (or they’d walk into a namazi, and create an embarrassing situation for all of us).

There were a few people at the Mosque who I knew were not just worshippers. They were government agents. I noticed them early on, sitting in key positions: In the corners, against the walls, where they could sit without attracting much attention but still get a good view. I knew because I sat there too; nobody could see me too well, and I could ignore the sermon when it got too boring. I could also check out the hot sisters.

Maybe the government agents thought I was some horny Muslim guy who just went to the Mosque to see a girl he liked. My ethno-Euro dress safely hid me from suspicions of Islamism, so maybe they thought I was doing this to satisfy some need for religious services. As for everyone else... well... the whole congregation hated me. I think they thought I was a government agent. I hated them for looking down on me. (Of course, what I should add is: I also looked down on them, but I looked down on them for the opposite reason they looked down on me, so their dislike of me was justified. All we had to do was figure out who started looking down on who first, and then reach a compromise). 

The Shaykh of the Mosque was named Erfan. He was a medium-sized man, with a thick wad of black hair on top of his head and a full beard. He wore traditional robes over a suit (no tie though; he looked Persian).

One day he told us: "Starting next Thursday are Qur’an classes for adults."

I’m an adult, right? (Most Muslims define adulthood as not-virginity; but I appealed to Western notions of majority in a vain attempt at unqualified ijtihad (1)).

Erfan continued: "Classes began at twelve noon, and will go till Zuhr prayer time. I will teach them."

I considered it. I figured that it might show on my face, so I started to pick my nose. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the nearest government agent look away in disgust.

After I came home, I picked up the phone and dialed Absal. I told him: "I really need to talk to you." He pulled up to our driveway while I was waiting outside, this time only two rings on my finger and one necklace around my neck. Since it was a nice day out, we decided to stop by a coffeehouse and have a light meal.


1. Ijtihad refers to a very debated concept in Islamic law: That of exerting one?s self to independently find the answer to questions concerning the Muslim, when there is no text directly addressing the issue in either the Qur?an or Hadith (sayings of Muhammad, peace be upon him). After checking these sources, the Muslim scholar often turns to the consensus of other scholars or making an analogy (qiyas). Ijtihad has been a controversial doctrine, because scholars can turn to the exercise of their reason in the absence of other, direct evidence for the answer to a pressing question. Islamic scholars and intellectuals have argued hard over this issue, but I myself believe that ijtihad is permissible, but only in case the mujtahid (one who performs ijtihad) is a pious Muslim, well-versed in Arabic, the Qur?an and the relevant other sciences (in other words, a well-educated scholar). Furthermore, I believe in our age, Muslim philosophers, academics and scientists must cooperate with scholars on issues of ijtihad, since nowadays we confront many issues and our societies face inevitable specialization. It has become nearly impossible to find anyone who is well-versed (and I mean very well versed) in more than two or three areas, just because there is so much information out there. To ensure that Muslims make better decisions, we should pool our resources and not ignore the inputs of the non-scholars (like me, you could say?). And God Knows better, of course.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 20


As the waiter brought us menus, Absal asked me: "You don’t hang out with me as much as you used to man; what’s up?"

I mumbled an awkward response. "It’s been a tough time. Exams and all."

He raised an eyebrow. His eyes were off somewhere else, like they always were. "Yeah. All those tests, they must be taking a toll on you."

I realized we weren’t anywhere near exams week.

"Look," I mumbled, "I’m sorry but you can understand. Times have been tough."

"Have you had sex yet?" he wondered, casually. It didn’t sound like a big deal to him. That was Absal for you. He laughed: "I’ll be damned if I lost my best friend and he’s still a virgin."

I smiled but it was forced. 

We ordered sandwiches and soda. He checked out girls but not as much as he used to (though he never did as much as me). He was waiting for me to say something; friends always knew when you had to say something, and Absal knew better than others.

I casually let drop that I was attending Friday Prayers.

"Hayy," he said, "Everybody knows you like Sophia. Everybody you know knows you go to Azadeh Mosque. I guess it’s cool, I mean Friday Prayers are no big deal I guess, but this whole thing with you and Khattab. You are picking some odd company. What happened to us hanging out?"

I took a sip from my Pepsi and said, "I promise, wallah, we’ll hang out soon. Maybe next week even."

He leaned back, pleased. "Good! Finally, we can do something. I’ll get Salman too and we’ll all go out somewhere fun. Do you want to bring Sophia?"

I played with my straw. "I don’t know man, I don’t get her. She’s so cute though."

Absal looked at me in confusion: "That made no sense, Hayy. Can you imagine if conversations in books were written like you speak?"

"At least they’d be honest. Unlike her."

He leaned forward and thought for a moment or two. "You think she’s lying to you?"

"No," I said, shaking my head, "I’m saying she pisses me off with her moods, but I can’t get over how pretty she is."

"Yeah," Absal said, nodding, "She is very pretty."

I frowned. He started to play with his food; I laughed at his reaction. "I know what you mean. It’s just, Absal, she’s just really flighty. This isn’t the first time this happened to me. Remember the last girl, the light-haired one? She was great, but she suddenly dropped me."

Absal nodded, "You were always crazy about girls. That was your weakness."

He knew me well; that I forgot that was disturbing.  

I missed Absal, I cared about him a lot, and I was sad to see that I had allowed myself to stray away from him. He ran his left hand through his long hair.

"I think," he told me, like a best friend who always gave advice and rarely needed it, "That if you give yourself another year, you’ll stop these fluctuations. You’re on your way to figuring out who you are. I know when I told you that before, you’d laugh at me or act as if my comments didn’t matter, but you can see it yourself. You’re becoming who you are going to be for most of your life. This is around the time in your life when you realize you are not going to be a Saladin but, at most, a wealthy businessman."

I laughed. He leaned in closer: "So, what do you want, akh?"

He was mocking someone in a nice way.

"How do you know I want something?"

"Hayy, you couldn’t lie to a wall."

Often I practiced my lies against walls and inanimate objects. My dismal failures transferring those lies to people should have suggested that I needed a new strategy. Plus, Absal was the kinda guy who would know if I was planning on telling a lie.

"Okay, next Thursday I’m going to Azadeh for lessons. Cover?"

He laughed. He almost looked pleased. Almost! "Lessons?"

I nodded and looked away. That was stupid, Hayy, very stupid… There had to be undercover agents nearby, and they were probably keeping a close eye on me. So, doing what came naturally, I picked out a nice car driving by and followed it down the street. When my gaze returned to the table, Absal was waiting with a question.

"What happened to you, Hayy?"

I couldn’t find enough saliva in my mouth to explain. Suddenly Absal looked down. He was worried, confused, depressed even. I asked, gently, "What’s wrong, man?"

A smile lit up my face, in a bid to light up his. It was almost infectious. Almost.

"Everyone’s going this way. Or, at least, sometimes it just feels like everyone is. When I found you, I knew you’d do something special. I knew that this movement was around for a long time, but I never knew how to react to it. Maybe I should have done more, but I didn’t, for whatever reason…. And now you’re on your way. Maybe it was arrogance of me, and for that I’m sorry, I just never imagined you would forge a path on your own. But I always knew you would. Does that make any sense?" 

 I nodded. "It makes perfect sense, Absal. But look man, these are just lessons."

"Be careful," he told me, "Because you know what you don’t think could happen might just happen. I’ll always be here to help, inshallah, but just watch yourself."

The fact that he made mention to God with such seriousness perplexed me. Was he scared for me? Or did he want to sound religious in front of me, as sometimes happens when one person talks of God and the other wants to make it seem like he cares? I laughed. "I told you, Absal. Lessons. Nothing big. I’m not going away."

Absal stopped smiling. "You went away a long time ago, Hayy. A long time ago and you started drifting away. But that’s what was supposed to happen."

"Supposed to happen?" I was suddenly excited that he might tell me more about when he found me, more about the island, but he didn’t. He stopped himself, as he always did, and I was angry with him.

He raised his voice, till he was his over-confident self again. As if he had let slip his inner emotions for only a few moments, and now had to hide them again. "I’ll help you, cuz’ you’re my friend. But I can’t follow you. Not this time. Little Hayy is a big boy now [and he laughed, because he was always ready to laugh]… now he’s going for lessons." 

As Absal dropped me off, I gave him a long hug. Absal was the best of friends, and now I was using him so I could find a little more of myself. Perhaps this day was the last time we’d ever really hang out. He knew it and I saw it in his eyes. There was a sadness in his soul which possessed me. It melted into happiness though, when he said that he was happy to see the way I was going (and I knew he was being genuine when he said that).

But times and people change, and even friends go their separate ways. I appreciated what he did for me; he did it for no other reason than the kindness of his heart and for those days, long ago, when we used to share everything with each other. I felt, out of nowhere, a desire to go back to high school and stop there.

Absal released me and walked back to his car.

"See you around, akh," Absal announced. The engine started without waiting for me. It was the same sound it always made, but nothing else was the same. I hated the sound of it just for that.

I walked inside, hoping not to bump into anyone. My mom saw me and said she was happy to see me with Absal. Little did she know... I ignored her as I often do and I ran into the bathroom, where I ripped off my clothes and jumped into the shower. I must have been in there for fifteen minutes.

At least, that’s how long it took for the tears to stop. 

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 21


On Thursday, the start of the weekend no less, I called up Absal. His voice was the same — I expected it to be different. He mocked me; little did he know how much that hurt.

"So finally you call me?"

I tried to smile, but I couldn’t.

"Want to go do something today?"

"Sure," he said, "Come over."

"Yeah," I said, as if everyone was listening in my house and in case they didn’t hear Absal, I said, "I’ll come over and we’ll go out. We’ll figure out where later."

We said salam and that was it.

My mom walked into the room and saw me getting dressed. She smiled, "Are we going out today?" She knew it wasn’t Friday; she was happy because of that. She could tell I was struggling with something, but like a mother, she knew I didn’t want to talk about it. But still she tried, and I loved her for it because right now I was alone. I felt like the only friend I had was Khattab and he certainly wasn’t going to help me out here.

"Who are you going with?"


She was quiet. She looked down and nodded; if my vision was right, I thought I saw her bite her lip a bit.

"You haven’t been spending much time with him, but I see now you are again. That’s good. I should call his parents, they haven’t come over for dinner in a while."

I wanted my mother to be happy. I was sad that I disrespected her. She loved me. Did I love anyone? I looked at her and said, "That would be nice. I haven’t seen his parents in a while."

She nodded her head as if it was a good plan, and everything would go back to normal, and we’d have families in our living rooms again and all would be well. But it wouldn’t. Everything had gone wrong and nothing was going to fix it. Except maybe shaykh Erfan.  

I jumped into my car and drove down to the Mosque. I saw the same agents and they saw me. They looked at each other -- suddenly I had showed up at their Mosque on a new day. Clearly something was up.

I walked towards Erfan. "Salam ‘alaykum, shaykh. May I join in?"

He looked me over carefully. He saw the necklaces and the bracelet, the earring and the European clothes. He knew I was out of place, but perhaps only with my clothes — not with my heart. I saw anger in Erfan’s eyes. I knew he hated the Government Mosque. I knew he wished he wasn’t there.

Erfan stood up and shook my hand firmly. I turned my head away to stop myself from bursting into tears. I felt trapped on this path towards God, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be on it. It was like being dragged, kicking and screaming, into slavery to Him and away from slavery to all else. I guess I had never realized how hard this path would be. I was so scared, at that moment, that Erfan’s warmth went more to me than he could have ever known.

Maybe he knew that I needed someone.

Erfan moved to the side, and said — surprisingly — "come sit next to me, Hayy" and so I did. He produced a Qur’an and handed it to me.

"This," he told the adults in the circle, "is a good friend of my family’s."

Had Shaykh Erfan had a family, I wouldn’t have known. I didn’t even know where he lived.

I said, "Salam ‘alaykum. My name is Hayy."

They all said salam and introduced themselves to me. The hatred and distance between us began to melt a bit; just with Shaykh Erfan’s words. We read Qur’an for an hour. I think deliberately he only read short verses; he knew my Arabic sucked. So to compensate, he kept it to the level of tafsir (1). The whole time I was hiding tears.

When we were done, I kept the Qur’an. Yeah, I stole it. I think Erfan knew, but he didn’t mind. As I shook his hand, he stared deeply into my eyes and asked me how my family was. I said that all was well, and then he asked me how my studies were going. I told him they were tough, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I basically told him life was bad, for me and (implicitly) all our people.

He remarked, "Hundreds of thousands of Muslims pray for unity in the ummah. Yet do you see much of a change? Either God isn’t listening... or something’s wrong with the prayers."

He hugged me and walked away without any other words between us. I stood in the center of the Prayer Space -- it was now empty... it was just me, the Qur’an, and a government agent who took a keen interest in me. I didn’t like the way he was looking at me. It quickly dawned on me how precarious my position was.

I got up and walked out to my car, and casually put the Qur’an on my seat. It sat next to a dance CD, and inside me something burst. I wanted to run as fast as I could, without looking back, into the arms of the secularism I had left behind. But then I wanted to defect and find myself a small mosque, hold a Qur’an, and finally be satisfied with God.

I could not be satisfied with what I had been, but I was not happy with where I was. Something had to give, but I wouldn’t decide. Not yet, at least. A war had been declared in my soul.  

Wherever I sought to belong, I would always find something wrong with that place. I rejected contentment, and then complained about how I could never find it. Erfan was right. Reform started within.


1. Commentary on the Quran.

The Future of Secularism: Chapter 22


The next day I attended Azadeh Mosque for Friday prayers and then I went shopping. I wanted new jeans. I had some money to blow. So I figured I could go to some Western-style boutique and pick up something nice. As I was walking into another store, a familiar face caught my eye. It was Sophia! She stopped and I turned, both of us facing each other though on opposite ends of the sidewalk.

"Hayy," she said, "I was at the gas station with my mother on Azadeh Street this afternoon."

Did I tell her I was proud of her? I waited. She grew impatient and addressed me curtly: "Were you at the mosque?"

"Did you see me walking out?"

"Yeah," she said, "I saw you get into your car and drive out."

"Okay then," I replied, "That means I was at the mosque."

She got mad at my sarcasm and turned around to walk away. I walked after her and called, "Sophia... wait." She slowed down but nothing else came out of my mouth, so she sped up again, at which point I blurted it out: "I like you."

That made her turn around.

It also made me want to turn around and run away, but I had nowhere to flee to. I looked down and she asked me: "You like me?"

"Yeah," I said, "I like you a lot but I don’t know what that means."

Well, Hayy, it means you like her a lot.

Generally these conversations are imagined, in our heads, as moments of ecstatic poetry born of love. When they get blurted out in reality, they’re awkward and stupid. When you are at that moment, ready to speak your mind to a girl, you become kind of deaf. The rest of the world goes silent.

"Well then," she started up once more, obviously now a bit uncomfortable or confused, "What do you want?"

Other than you, I want "a relationship."

"A relationship? Hayy you go to the masjid. You are wearing a necklace that has those symbols on it. My parents probably think you’re some kind of crazy one of those people."

Gems of verbal precision were being unearthed at every corner. Her very indirect statement was a precise way of saying ‘national-Islamist’. Like a Nazi but different.

"Well, your parents don’t have to know."

I sounded desperate because she was beautiful. I wanted for her to like me. I didn’t think I liked her enough to marry her, but that was what I was asking for. I just was tired of being alone, tired of not having a girl to touch or hold, and she could fill that gap. I knew in the long run it would be a mistake. She probably hesitated because of what she sensed coming from me.

"I’m not ready for that, Hayy," she told me, and a weight lifted off of my chest -- the weight of responsibility. But that didn’t make everything better. It couldn’t. She didn’t like me. I cursed inside because she had to like me. I wanted everyone to see me with this beautiful girl, whose body would be all mine, but did I really want this particular beautiful girl? I didn’t think so. I had known this conversation would come some time, but not this soon, and as it came; it relieved me more than anything.

She asked, "Can we be friends?"

Basically, ‘let’s end this on a good note and never speak to each other again.’ How girls imagine a guy can love them and want them sexually and then degrade himself to being friends with said girls, is beyond me.

I mumbled, "Yeah."

I sensed some pain in her eyes. Hurt for what she felt, or for what she thought I felt. I added, to make her feel better: "Don’t worry. I understand."

I smiled weakly and said salam; she lagged behind but let me go, as if her waiting and saying more things would help anything. The more you reject girls, and the more they reject you, the easier it becomes. The emotions die or, at the least, become weaker.

I went home after a while and proudly showed my mother my new jeans. She smiled.

"You’re so talkative; I’m so happy... I haven’t heard you like this in ages."

I laughed and said, "Yeah, I’ve had a lot on my mind."

My parents were satisfied. Their son had sold out again. I told them I was going up to my room, and as I was walking upstairs, I realized I left Erfan’s Qur’an sitting on the passenger seat of my car. I ran to the garage, grabbed it and stuffed it under my shirt, sneaking it upstairs into my room, where I hid it behind some other books.  

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 23


I was sitting in the Academy’s courtyard, by myself.

Absal had busied himself with a girl and I couldn’t help but feeling dissed. She had dark hair and eyes that were pulled back, just a little, at the edges. Her skin was soft, her face was a bit round. She looked like a really innocent girl. A really sweet girl. She wasn’t sweet enough to talk to me. She was so damn cute in her innocence, too. This wasn’t helping anything.

She wore a loose dark blue jean jacket, and flared pants that were a little too tight towards the top. At least Absal knew what he’d be getting into.

There was no one else to talk to (except myself. You, dear reader, will be privy to my ensuing, self-enclosed conversation). If people who talk to themselves are crazy, then I don’t mind being crazy — rather, I love it. Which means I love myself and I have a big ego, but you knew that.

(See how predictable that comment was? In fact, the whole line of argumentation could have been called out in advance [like the foreign policy of our countries]. You knew I was going to make a reference to ‘people who talk to themselves’ being ‘crazy,’ yet perhaps I included such a predictable comment only to prove that I am normal and, hence, boring and predictable. If I were crazy, I wouldn’t be so predictable. I’d include some random tangent about something else, and then you’d sit back and wonder what the hell goes through my head. And since Islam sees no separation between thought and action, where do you imagine me writing this? In some closed room, with dim light, slaving away at a computer? I will let you imagine. But act on your imagination, or else you wouldn’t be acting very Islamically [because you wouldn’t be acting at all]. I think I am one of the few people who can turn any tangent into an infinite regress. Eventually, we’d get back to God, because God is the source of all regression — and progression (1)). 

There was a lot of noise in the courtyard. Many students were walking back and forth, absorbed in their happy lives, glancing about to other happy faces. I was delighted and disappointed that most Turkish girls were so attractive.

My eyes felt tired, like I had driven a drive of a thousand miles, with only my final ounce of energy strong enough to keep my eyes open. Open to her (I could not shut her off). Sophia wore a dark gray skirt, and a pink sweater; neither was too loose (2). I knew what I would have gotten into, were I able to get myself into anything.

This was maddening. This was not Islamic. This was cowardly (let yourself mentally associate these two as polar opposites. I see the formation of a revivalist discourse that will produce thickheaded, stubborn, aggressive Muslims. … But, on second thought, perhaps this isn’t a revival. Maybe it’s just a clarification of what already is).

My sinful eyes stared at her sinless figure.

I looked back down at my soda before she looked back up again. A couple bubbles tore open at the surface, but then quickly vanished, like I will in only a few decades’ time. While my mind was a storm (do I look casual and act like I’m over her, do I act like I’m mad?), all my storm was predicated on her reaction. But she just kept walking and talking, laughing and smashing me into pieces, and I don’t think she gave a damn about what happened to me.  

After enough failures, I’d be a stronger man.

All this Islam seeping into me at every opportunity it had and I knew the purpose of life wasn’t happiness. But happiness would’ve been a nice bonus. I associated happiness, however, with finding someone to spend the rest of my life with. So that if I ever took a train to Teheran, I wouldn’t sit by myself, but I could have someone fall asleep on my shoulder.  

Does this make you feel sad for me? It makes me feel sad (for me). I am being noticed! I am being noticed!

I wanted to be noticed by others, because I cared more for them than I did for myself. Or for Him. I was their slave — not His. I was not surrendered yet; if I was, it was fake. I didn’t yet have the strength to say what I wanted, or to stand up for what I believed in. If I was to be a khalifa of God, then I should have realized that vicegerency presupposed some resolve.(3)

I was like the Muslim world. I needed to do something drastic, so others would notice me, and spare me the trouble of conquering myself. Spare me the trouble of realizing we are all, in the end, just human beings, and to stand apart from the crowd requires not arrogance, not violence, but resolve. 

* * *






this educational series is produced by Hizb Fazilat to raise

awareness of Islam and to promote the majesty of the Serhat against

the hollow capitalist culture that suffocates us. This story

presented by Alef Pa*a. Think, reflect, discuss. Repeat as necessary.




This would be a great time to slam Nietzsche. Art cannot be separated from the artist. There is no art for art’s sake… such a proposition is as ludicrous as the ‘art’ that results from its acceptance.

You can see a man’s height, weight and speed in his footprints. You can feel an author’s dreams, hopes and expectations in his words. You can touch the tears of a poet in his verse. And you can see a reflection of the soul in the artist’s art. Thus, the artist who makes art is releasing a part of himself. How one can ever dare say, then, that religion and art can and should stand apart is beyond me (and thus logic (4)).

We release what we see into what we make. Art expresses the soul. Secular art expresses the lack of one.  

Life came from water, God tells us. Man is a part of the seas and the oceans and the rain. A man who is not a man has dried up, has become stunted, cold, broken — divided. The works of secular artists do not qualify as true art, because they do not reflect the true person. They reflect, rather, the broken person. If we see bits and pieces of beauty in these works, it is only because even a shattered mirror reflects Light. But the more polished the mirror, the more astounding the reflection.

Which is why Islamic art — even Christian art (minus the idolatry they still can’t admit to after two thousand years) — has so much more beauty than modern "art"... because that same secular art is art separated from the meaning of life. This is a separation we, as Muslims, cannot allow. This is a separation that must be ended. Islam and art are connected; they were once and they must be again. If we dare separate them, we smash our soul, which is a mirror God has given to us, which we might polish and angle correctly, and thereby find His Light and make ourselves true vicegerents — true reflections of His Light to the world around us.

Secular existence has been separated from life. Life is separate from a purpose, church is separate from state, and man is separated from God. And in the end, we are all the more alone because our loneliness gives us no anchor.

This is your sin, I say to the modern world.

This is why I write.

This is why I cannot be separated from my writings. 

hizb fazilat. rarely, if ever, understood. 

* * * 


1. Notice that I am one of the few people who uses brackets within parentheses, because my thought is overly structured. And structure is yet another sign of God. If I were really daring, I'd make a comparison to structuralism. This comment is based on my writing, after all, and the philosophy of structuralism arose from structural connections observed in linguistics. If you were really bored, you'd notice I have an end-note referring to structuralism at the end of this book. Which shows just how structured we can make things. How many other books have footnotes which make reference to end-notes? Not many, I'd guess.

2. Nor would you expect it to be. I did, after all, write this book. Did you imagine I'd write about her in a Persian chador?

3. A khalifa, or Caliph, is a vicegerent. Islam teaches us that humans, women and men, were created by God to worship Him. Hence, each human being is God's vicegerent on Earth. Since we have been given free will, we have the choice to obey God or not. We must struggle, each and every day of our lives, to overcome ourselves and find real freedom. Islam is about elevating the human being through submission of her will to God's. This is why the status of a person is so elevated in Islam. We are not here, on this earth, by accident. It is something far, far greater than that.

4. I have become logic.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 24


I looked up from my soda (which was getting boring and doing no more than inspiring ruminations on the state of aesthetics), and my gaze fell upon Sophia again, more beautiful than any art because she was much more directly from God.

I wished I could be Sophia’s eyes and see what she saw in my own.  

Maybe Sophia had someone else. Her laughter slid around the courtyard; it made it seem like nothing else mattered. That kind of confidence only came with someone who found someone to love.

Maybe she had a boyfriend, a guy who’d put me to shame. Not a man who writes about revolutions, but a man who makes them1. But they’re not real; I’d imagine myself telling her. Can’t you see -- this is what I’d tell her - can’t you see I could be the someone you found? I could devote the world to you, and yet not break my back? I could start revolutions, too.

Revolutionaries want the world to be like them so they go out and do it. Writers sit back and wish the same, but they cannot do the same. So they write, so that others might change what they cannot (could not) change themselves. I hated feeling like Gandhi.

She had to know I was a real Muslim. If only, if only, I would have had the chance to sit her down and pour my heart out to her, she’d know how deep I really was. She’d drown within me, as I wanted to drown in her. I knew what was behind her eyes even when I wasn’t looking at them. I could feel her soul inside me2. Would this scare her? Writers are normal people, too, except we hurt so bad that we never let it go. So we tell the world. But alas, at most, people read what we have to say -- people don’t listen.

After all, what sounds do letters make?

Writers don’t bring symbols to life. That’s the job of the mouth.

I missed feeling her lips against mine.


1..Some men do both.

2. This has to be the wrong side of spirituality.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 25


I remember reading a text by a famous mullah. I don’t quite remember his name, but he was talking about a new perspective on the world. I was beginning to internalize the kind of worldview that scares secularists and that defies the dualistic view of the world that I so despise. I saw God’s Hand in everything. I saw disasters as benefits. I saw failures as lessons to learn from - even if I didn’t want to learn from them, I knew what they were there for. Maybe God kept me miserably longing for a girl because He (1) knew it would continue to spark my creativity. Maybe my sadness in this respect would be the only thing that would make me keep writing.

Some people, when they’re blessed, only ignore God. And if God loves you, and doesn’t want you to ignore Him, he won’t give you anything you want -- if the lack of it is what keeps you coming back to Him.  


1. The Arabic pronoun huwa is used to describe God. Huwa is generally translated as 'he' - however, it does not have to refer to necessarily masculine properties. Islam rejects the idea that God has a color, a body, or a gender. God is the Ultimate Reality, the Highest Being, Absolutely One and Omnipotent and Omniscient in all respects. The idea that God can even be casually referred to as 'Father' is considered biased and degrading by a Muslim. God is above gender, and, hence, men and women are equal (though different) sides of the same human race. Muslims furthermore reject the Trinity, not just because it violates our standard of total monotheism, but also because it refers to God in terms that imply God is male. God is not male or female. God has qualities "traditionally" associated with males (power, domination) and females (mercy, love, compassion) and refers to Himself with both qualities. Thus, whenever I use 'He' to describe God, I beg of you, the reader, to not think of this as a gender-descriptive term.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 26


Friday afternoon. 4.30.

It was another nice day outside, a bit chilly, but a coat would do just fine. I stared out my window, my hair still wet from the shower I just took. She told me she wasn’t ready, she didn’t want it, she wasn’t sure, or that she never wanted anything... but that was a lie because she did. Her feelings changed, even if she would never admit that to me (or, more importantly, to herself). Because the things she said sometimes, the things she did and the way she acted, they all betrayed interest. Maybe her family or her friends talked her out of it. Maybe she talked herself out of it.

She called me again, just to see how everything was. She was, I believe, either desperate for attention - or she was seeking to be very nice after she had decided she would kill a dream of mine (albeit one I didn’t very much mind waking up from). But I didn’t want her to call. I wanted to avoid her face. I wanted breathing room. I wanted to vanish from the world for two weeks so that I would never know of her until my heart had hardened over all the spots made soft by the thought of her. I didn’t want her to be sensitive. What the hell was I, dry skin? 

I called Khattab on the phone, after making sure my mother wasn’t on the phone - she wasn’t, she was out, she had gone shopping. He asked me what was up and I said, "She said no."

There was silence. I think he was relieved.

"I can spew nonsense about how we all have to keep moving, but I don’t know what to do, Khattab. I don’t know where to go. Nor is this entirely metaphysical, because really, I have nowhere to go."

"How do you feel right now?"

"Well," I thought deeply - and this time even more quickly, "I guess Allah has things planned out for us, and we just gotta move on, right?"

"Yeah man… we have to struggle against whatever situation we find ourselves in, but we must realize, at a certain point, that things are out of our hands. You have to believe in it. It’s the only way to stop nihilism, the kind that comes when we realize we’re not Saladin."

I laughed; he asked why, but I only begged him to continue. So he did... "I’ll show you a book by a man named Izetbegovic and he has the best explanation of destiny. But you will learn to love it, because you will be able to slide through life and it will make things easier."

"It hurts Khattab."

And it did. 

"Nobody said it wouldn’t hurt."

Nobody did. 

I feared that eventually all the memories of her would drop like bombs and blow me apart. I was placed inside my own anguished emotional firestorm, till my happiness left me and I became like Dresden - deserted.

"She told me," I told Khattab, "that she wanted to be friends. But I don’t know if I ever really wanted her. I think more than anything it was infatuation. Or maybe it was love but it died when I realized how she was."

That wasn’t the end of it, though, because here on the frontier there are no last things. Only moments, hesitations and things taken from us till we perish. We’re always ready for death and so maybe never really ready for it.

"Not even philosophy can save you," Khattab told me. "But feel blessed. She liked you, or so you thought, and you spent a lot of time together. I remember that... it was the time you ignored me" and he began to laugh, but lightly so as not to offend me... "But things changed, and you told me how confused you were about her. A lot of time has passed, several weeks really. Maybe she’ll come running back. Girls do that a lot, but don’t let this one do it to you. You have to be stronger than that." 

"It feels," I said, "like God chose this day on purpose."

"You mean Friday?"

"Well," I said, "Suddenly I went to a class... for Qur’an. The first time and it hit me hard. Harder than anything she said had hit me, and so I wonder about it."

"God has blessed you, dostum." He sounded as if he were nodding. "He wants you to do something better."

 "I feel so purified that I feel empty. I don’t even know who to talk to... uh, except you. I talked to Absal yesterday and I feel like there is this gulf between me and him."

He interrupted my next thought: "There’s a new cafe over by Avenue Enver Pasha. They play very nice traditional music. We’ll go get dinner."

He hung up. I looked over at the phone again, and thought of calling Absal, but I knew there would be no point. I grabbed the keys to my car (now safely Qur’an-less), grabbed a good CD and I left a note for my mother: Going out to eat with friends. I left the pluralization: it was a lie but it would be well worth it.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 27


The music was nice. The dinner was better - mostly cuz’ Khattab was paying. We ate and drank slowly. There was a lot to talk about and I didn’t want to go home and spend my time alone.

"She said no," I said, as if I hadn’t said that to him before. "She said she just wanted to be friends and I just gave up. I ran, Khattab."

He swallowed what he was chewing and said, "You opened your heart to her, you told me you did. You said a lot of things to her. You don’t owe her anything, Hayy."

I was still depressed. "Did I give up? Did I run?"

Alone on the island, not giving a damn for the beautiful jungle around me, I fled at the first chance I had. Society, I begged - and so to society Absal took me. Absal was like a wave, he created a stir wherever he went, but he was smooth and at the bottom of it, he could vanish in a second and you wouldn’t even see him leave. He carried me back home in his wake.

My parents took me in because they said it was safe for me once more. Not that I ever knew what they meant by that, nor did I ever really believe they were my parents. Sometimes I just felt like I lived alone, all alone, till Absal came. I struggled to remember back, way back, but I could not.  

"Are you afraid of her?" That’s what he asked me.

"I think I’m afraid of settling down. Because I don’t know who I am. And if I don’t know who I am, how can I be with someone else? But what the hell! I’m a guy. I want a girl. I have no time to sit back and think about how I’m ready or how I’m not, cuz’ if I want a girl I want a girl. Though now, I admit, the more I think about God and the more I pray, the less I can bring myself to act."

Was that a sign of God guiding me? Of Islam taking root in my soul? It was a slow, tortuous path.

"Maybe God is saving you for something better?"

Better than sex? I made the look with my eyes and Khattab laughed.

"Or maybe I don’t want a girl," I proposed, "I can’t fathom myself with one. I find fault with every single one. It could be internally I’ve given up, or my mind has said, ‘put it off till you’re much more mature.’"

Khattab nodded, like an extra in a Persian movie, when the main actor spills his guts and the stranger stares quietly... because that’s our culture and because we have to care. If I oozed manhood like Khattab, would I get girls? I wanted to ooze manhood because it just sounded like a cool thing to ooze. (Ooze is also a very funny word).

It felt like I gave up trying on Sophia.

"Because?" he wondered.

"Because she gave up. Because I didn’t really want her, maybe just because I didn’t try. Maybe she just wasn’t the one... but there is that one right person, right? Or a select few whom we would be happiest with. Right?"

"Careful," he warned me. "Too much Valentine’s Day-style romantic crap and you’ll end up miserable the next seven years, searching out that one perfect girl."

So what did I do? Go back to the island and start all over? Did the great warrior nomads who revived Islam’s fortunes cry in their minds about how that girl just couldn’t be found, and at the same time, lead brilliant charges into the madness?  

"So," he asked, sipping a Cherry Coke, "Where did it start?"

About twelve years before the hijrah (1), in 610. All the world unaware that in the black of a mountain hole, a tectonic shift in history was quaking underneath all the other currents of the world. A long Perso-Roman war, the complete corruption of Jesus’ message - these were the preparations, the markers, the signals for the final flash of Truth.

The only Prophet (peace be upon him) who was ever accepted, in total, by his people during his lifetime… he was sitting in the darkness. Afraid! He who would shake the world with the flaming words of God brought to him by an angel, was refusing acceptance. He, the best of men, was scared. That was how it began. Alone, on his own, with only an uncertain future and only trust in God.  

"Arrogance, Khattab... That’s what it is. I can’t surrender to God. How can I give myself up, even part of myself, to a girl? On the one hand, I’m worried about if people will pay attention to me, but that’s the same excuse I give with girls. I need a girl who is so beautiful, so perfect, so amazing, that I will never feel out of the spotlight. Then I’d know, people really do notice me. It’s insecurity sized up to the great size of my ego."

"Well a girl, Hayy," Khattab told me, "surely isn’t as tough to surrender to as God. Because God demands discipline, and girls are a helluva lot more immediately attractive. But there’s no one girl who is you. Who will give you all the attention you need, because you too need to give attention. You need to cut your ego down to size, where it doesn’t matter how highly people think of you due to the beauty of your girl. Who cares?"

I did. "I dream too loftily."

Khattab: "How so?"

And so an answer had to be found. "Nothing satisfies me. I’ve never been with a girl that I could say I was happy with. Maybe it’s just, maybe it’s just that I can’t get over my first girlfriend."

She had golden hair, like a ray from the noon sun, when the sun stops halfway across the sky. The kind of sun that slaps your skin, insults you and shines a light so bright that it makes everything too clear. Her beauty mocked me, but still - and may God forgive me for this - I touched her. She burned me, and I refused to nurse the wound. Allah healed me because my soul refused to let go. Over time, I accepted it was over.

"Did you?" Khattab had an annoying way of asking the right question at the right time.

"You know," and thus I began my words as I usually always do... "The day after we broke up, I walked out to the parking lot with my friend. And she was arguing with his sister. Of course, I had nothing to say to her. But Khattab [he looked into my eyes to see if he could know what I would say, before I would say it]... that day she was the most beautiful girl who ever lived. Her eyes were blue, like the summer sky, but they didn’t belong to me anymore. Her hair was sacred. Her smile had launched me into sin. I don’t think I ever really liked her. I don’t think I ever really wanted to be with her."

"You don’t sound convinced of that."

"No, I guess I don’t," I admitted. Till this very day, I would sit and think: If only I had tried a little harder, she would have been mine, and never would life strike me down. But maybe it wasn’t because I was a coward. Maybe she was the trophy I didn’t deserve. Maybe some things just aren’t meant to be.

"So, when did it end?" Khattab asked me.

In 732, somewhere outside Paris (2). If only we had pushed once more, one more time and captured that city. Then the Germans, the French, all would have subordinated themselves to our might and our fury. Italy would have bowed, the Pope would have fled, and none of our lands would have later turned red. The Mongols would have run, like cowards, from the size and glory of our great lands. So close to Paris, but yet, not close enough. But maybe we weren’t failures. Maybe Paris was a trophy we didn’t deserve.

She must have been a beautiful city, despite her darkness and ignorance. Her wintry weather, a sign of the cooling of our fire. Her dark streets and desperate poverty, an ominous sign of where we might find ourselves. Our fire was weakening. Never again would we - would it - be so stoked. Never again would we fear Him so. Never again would we love Him so.  

"Did you ever feel you were out of place?" I asked Khattab, rather than answer his question.

Seeing that he sought an answer, I offered it: "When you see these mosques and minarets, these ruins and remember our memories and our conquests, do you think: we can never go back? The first time’s the charm, and that’s it? Sometimes, I’m afraid, it’s over. It was a beautiful one thousand years but it won’t come back."

When we first stormed out of Arabia, there had never been such perfection. The sand had never been so fine. The sun had never been so bright. No civilization has had a birth so beautiful, so tremendous, so awe-inspiring. How could anyone forget such a sunrise? The Muslim will never forget her emergence into the world. All the past had been broken and buried. All the future was a liquid sky, dripping with the promise of paradise.

Khattab nodded, "The magic of the first girl is that you won’t think it’ll end. You don’t know it’ll end."

I smiled. "I used to sit with her, and sometimes, I’d just think, ‘how did this even begin?’ It’s such a beautiful innocence. I couldn’t imagine an end, because I didn’t even believe it began. It was… I guess you could say it was perfect."

"And then," Khattab added, "When it’s over, you get wisdom in return. We lost some naïveté, but we also lost some courage. We’re smarter, but we’re more tired. That’s why you have to understand the past. You can’t have her again. But it’s not that you can’t have any girl again, you just can’t have that one. That was a dream. Isn’t it about time you woke up from it?"

Was the One State a dream too? A hope, from when Paris was beautiful and we were mad with lust for Vienna?

"The problem," Khattab told me quieter now, "Is that we haven’t learned how to let go. There’s only so much we can bring with us, through our lives. We have to wake up from the dream. Those empires are gone, Hayy. There is still beauty, but a different kind of beauty. That girl is gone. Miss her, dream her -- you kissed her before but now, you can’t ever kiss her."

No, I couldn’t. Nor did I miss her so much. I missed the idea of her. The idea that I was strong, that I got the hot girl. To accept failure takes a strong faith - a faith I don’t have. So we sing of Saladin and imagine that nothing has changed.

Jerusalem was never so beautiful as she was after we lost her. When we walked into the parking lot and could no longer walk up to her and just smile, because a Jewish man had her and held her, and ran his fingers through her hair... and then suddenly, not ours, Jerusalem became the most beautiful place in the world. Her eyes, her domes, her sunset...

So I asked about the future. "How do I find the right girl? How do I know?"

Unless you accept the past honestly, and your faults honestly, you will not have a future. Don’t turn to cynicism and imagine all women are enemies that exist but to be conquered. That is not the meaning of being a man, not at all. And don’t grow weak and throw yourself at women’s feet. They will use you and throw you away. Wake up from the dream. Then perhaps you will know how to dream again. 

* * *






this educational series is produced by Hizb Fazilat to increase

awareness of Islam and to promote the beauty of the Serhat against

the emptiness of the materialistic culture we suffer under. This story

presented by Shaykh Aragon. Discussion is encouraged.




He was quite a big man, large of proportions but he wasn’t wide enough for his height. He stroked his long beard, cleared his throat and boomed: "Iqra!"

The little boy, now quite frightened, began to read very quickly, and mixed his baa’s and taa’s till everybody in the congregation had witnessed some form of shirk. Alarmed at the consequences, the mullah waved his hand in desperation -- enough! This was enough for the day. There would be nothing beyond Qur’an lessons because the Invasion and Domination Forces (IDF) under which we spent our curfewed days would not grant us much more. After all, to contextualize the wahy in his (peace be upon him) life would be too much.

I came in to pick up my son, Mu’awiya, from the study circle and mullah Husayn wished a few words with me.

"He does not want to read."

Mu’awiya was a special boy. Why should he read Qur’an if he doesn’t want to? I assumed this thought was revealed to the mullah who sat before me, so I stifled it in fear he might read it from my mind. Did the Imperial Dark Forces (IDF) also have this power? 

Mu’awiya was reprimanded, but he would only laugh.

I grabbed his collar -- this son of mine was turning out more like me than I wished -- and dragged him back to my car. The violence had ebbed; I could walk around and no snipers kicked up dust around me with their hate-coated bullets of poison. I recalled that mullah Husayn gave a very inspired khutbah the week before, talking about our need to spread Islam amongst each other and to share our lives and wealth, sacrificing for each other in these times of hardship. I would have stayed to ask questions, but the Invincible Dastardly Forces (IDF) had decided to impose another daytime curfew. I raced to the market to find milk.

Merchants sold fast fast fast, like we praise Allah three times at least. Food was in short supply; the rest of the Ummah didn’t really care that we were starving. As I walked, I blinked and off in the distance, coming towards me on a majestic carpet of light, I saw that angel again. He smiled from afar, "Aftab, my brother, you look better."

My heart is clean, I swore to him, and he believed me. "Your life has been changed."

And so it had, for "I was struck by a ray of light."

Mu’awiya’s arm was tugged severely by mine. This boy was always about to run off. He would have ran and ran, till they would have emptied their bullets into him and he would have fallen down dead. I would have cried; he would have laughed. My son, whom I loved, knew only how to love life by smiling at all that came his way. This was what I did. How I hurt my parents and how I saved the world. He was hurting me now. How could he be so foolish, so brave, so fun, so crazy, so alive? I was once that alive. I told him to stay close. There was little time and soon they would begin firing.

"They kill the Muslims," I told the angel. "They kill our people like we’re animals in the street."

"Yes they do," and he gazed down, sad at this state of affairs. "But you have showed change in your heart. Soon, perhaps, the darkness will be crushed. If more change." [Oh God, let this change come fast fast fast].

My Islam had grown. Then I bumped into Shaykh Husayn at the market; he began to recite ahadith for me and gave me more light for my soul. Too little light and it was dark; too much (all these words) and I was being blinded. But I listened nonetheless. He warned us that unless we improved ourselves, we would be destroyed, and he pleaded for us to change. When it came to the occupation, he was silent, and only shrugged. The soldiers were all around and this was no time to spit water in the face of fire.

Better shut up, and "quiet boy" he told Mu’awiya, yet Mu’awiya stared at him and smiled, "All you do is talk, Mullah saab. I talk too."

And so Mu’awiya laughed.

Now very embarrassed, I said my salam and turned the corner, desperate to find some milk -- this curfew might last as long as a week. What would my son get me into next? What would we have to drink at home? In the madness of my thoughts, the angel whispered into my ear, "Laugh, he does, because life flies about him and he flies with it."

The angel seemed to carry little respect for Husayn. Husayn who preached Islam and prayed. 

I lost track of Mu’awiya.

He was now in a corner, where the teen-agers had congregated. I spied some young men, none of whom I wanted around Mu’awiya. Poor boy would learn from them and not from the mullah. I told him "Come here this minute!"

He stared, staring at Hasan, the troublemaker. Hasan who chain-smoked like there was no Day of Judgment, Hasan who chased girls like four just wasn’t enough, Hasan who ignored the elders like respecting them wasn’t sunnah and oh Hasan threw stones, Hasan who was angry at what life was and never stopped throwing his stones. Hasan had a fresh scar; a bullet had struck his arm. But Hasan was alive and maybe he smoked, maybe he drank -- Allah knew -- but he loved his people and I feared he, like so many other men once alive, would die the real death. I wished I hadn’t died before the chance to die like them. I didn’t want this lesson for Mu’awiya. What if he learned to die, before he learned to give in and live?

Mu’awiya didn’t heed my call so I began to walk quickly towards him, in anger.

Suddenly an arm grabbed me. "Aftab!" It was the angel, stopping me. I demanded: "What’s the matter? I have to get my son!"

He looked me deep in the eyes, beyond me to that which He gave me and no one else knew, and then he gestured to Mu’awiya. Hasan was talking to him and being very animated. Of course, he had a cigarette in one hand. But his other hand pointed to God and the sky. The sun was coming down, but Hasan’s fingers wouldn’t cease moving.

"Mu’awiya isn’t laughing," the angel told me — I looked and so it was.  


hizb fazilat. banned for nearly fifteen years.


1. The hijrah was the central moment of Islamic history, the axis upon which the faith turned, from when Islam went from only a religion to a society and a way of life. The Muslims had been hounded and persecuted ever since Muhammad, peace be upon him, received his first revelation (of the Quran) in 610. A handful of devoted followers joined him, but the people of Makkah - pagans, mostly - tirelessly attacked, insulted and even tortured and killed the Muslims. Finally, in the year 622, less than one hundred Muslims fled to Madina in a harrowing journey. There, in Madina, Islam established a base, and grew with phenomenal rapidity. By 630, after the Makkans violated a truce with the Muslims, the Muslims were able to raise 10,000 men who marched into and conquered the city (granting general amnesty to all and not harming a soul). Thus, the Muslims have in fact dated the Islamic calendar from this migration. The Christian year of 622 is the Muslim Year 1.

2. The Muslim army, having stormed through Spain in the early 8th century, pushed into France around 730. In 732, a raiding party was turned back by Charles Martel. They were not too far from Paris. That was the exhaustion of the initial Muslim conquests to the West; it is a date we Muslims often look back on with a certain amount of pathetic nostalgia. If Paris had fallen, would all Europe turn Muslim? Ah, how we blame the reverses of the past for the reverses of today. Let us let go, and let us worry about what happens in the future.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 28


I went to see a movie. I picked up Muhammad and Ahmad, promising to drop them home after we ate a meal and caught the eleven o’clock show (at night, of course).

The movie was about an ancient curse that was resurrected (accidentally) by a well-meaning historian, his wife, and their sweet child. The effects were fantastic - thank God we Muslims got a handle on those computer graphics - and overall it was a good time we spent out, just watching a fight versus good and evil. Such films easily amused me. I didn’t go in expecting more than something mildly entertaining.

The actress had golden hair.

The color of her hair, my first, from a long time ago... thoughts of Sophia faded beside her. I left the movie in a good mood, but after dropping my friends home, happiness melted into melancholy. What did she think of me? I didn’t even talk to her anymore. She was ages and ages ago (only a few years ago). The magic that never ended had ended. I was afraid she had forgotten about me.

I couldn’t get over the fact that my innocence was lost (I could be innocent again, couldn’t I?). I couldn’t get over the fact that she was the first girl I kissed; yet she wouldn’t be mine again. 

I dream too much and dreaming can be a sin, too. I am not weak, I am just a visionary, but like all us Muslims, I can’t remember which way we’re supposed to be dreaming. Am I seeking an old future, or a young past?

When I came home, I quickly went to the bathroom and did my ablution (wudu). In the darkness of my room, I prayed to God, and sat on the prayer rug afterwards, just thinking. I turned my stereo on, to a reasonable volume (so my parents wouldn’t hear), and listened to Qur’an. Was going out with girls wrong, I wondered?

I knew being alone with them and touching them wasn’t right. But arranged marriages just didn’t work anymore. We needed a new, though still Islamic, way of dealing with this. In our age, we couldn’t hope for the past.

Yet we feared the future. I did, because approving this to myself - what did it mean? What kind of future was I leaving for my children? Or would they long for the past I abandoned, as well?  

I was feeling thirsty so I went (quietly) downstairs to the kitchen, and made myself chocolate milk. I gazed over at the counter, and saw a note written by my father. He had left me some money for the movie, which I missed on my way out.

I didn’t touch it. I just stared at it, lit by the dim overhead light. I wanted to cry my heart out to my father, but he was asleep. There was love, then, still... even if it was hidden and despised. I wished I could show my parents how much I cared for them, but there was a wall - I don’t know who built it. But it wouldn’t come down, because we feared it coming down. Was it different in the past? Were my parents innocent once, too, and did they forever regret that one moment that made them adults (and robbed them forever of that beauty that children have)?

We were children once... until, at least, ‘Uthman (r) died (1). Poor ‘Uthman. Did he know that when the sword came out, it would not be replaced? And oh, Karbala! Husain stood, for a dream, for an innocence. But Husain’s life was not all that was lost that day.

I left the money on the counter. I figured my father would have something that he wanted, that he could spend it on. I shut off the lights, banged my knee into the corner of a cabinet, and went back upstairs, where I read an article on Ancient Egypt (2) till I fell asleep.


1. Uthman, may Allah be pleased with him, was one of the most prominent Muslims during the Prophet?s lifetime, peace be upon him. He was married to two of the Propohet's daughters, and after the death of the great Umar (ruled, 634-644), Uthman became the third of the Righteous Caliphs. During his rule, the Muslim nation experienced its first truly tumultuous split. There was a combination of forces which were perhaps irresistible. The great wave of expansion during Umar's time had released untold wealth. Society was changing radically. People were experiencing great fluctuations in their lives. Anger mounted against Uthman, who was accused of nepotism. Eventually, a mob stormed the capital city of Madina, and killed the Caliph. Interestingly enough, Ali and Hasan and Husayn all stood by Uthman?s side, and the latter two even fought against the mob to protect Uthman. This is included to show Muslims who over-emphasize the Shi'a-Sunni divide that while there was a great divide and a lot of in-fighting, these Muslims still loved and respected each other (which I wish we would learn from). Uthman's death marked the first time a Muslim leader had been killed by Muslims, and hence was a sad turning point in the history of the young Islamic nation. Karbala, meanwhile, refers to a battle in 680, in which Husayn (Ali's son and the Prophet Muhammad (sa)'s grandson) perished at the hands of an oppressive Muslim army. The second Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazid, was not exactly the best of all Muslims. Husayn raised the banner of revolt, urging the Muslims to rise to stop the descent of the Ummah into decadence. Sadly, only a handful took his side, and this great Muslim and great hero was martyred on the 10th of Ashura, on the plain of Karbala. The date holds great significance for all Muslims. In Shi'a culture, Husayn holds a greatly elevated status, because he was considered one of the chosen Imams (selected to lead the entire Muslim world), and because he stood up to fight injustice and disbelief and corruption. This culture of martyrdom, so to speak, was one of the driving forces behind Iran's Islamic victory in 1979.

2. You're wondering why there's an article on Ancient Egypt in my room. Or perhaps you're wondering why I read it, or what it has to do with my story, such that it's mentioned. Well, looking back over this, I'm wondering just like you.

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 29


Quiet the devil away, dastardly deeds were done here,

I’m sitting in the middle of nowhere, 

Staring at the blonde beauty more beautiful in my mind.

She runs mud-soaked in the rain and God, you haven’t felt pain

Till you see her body soaked.

You haven’t felt water till you feel her flee,

And we all get washed away.  

Come sin this life till death, come hold your breath till death;

And after you faint give me a breath, breathe for once,

Like it’ll make a difference!

Perhaps those three questions can be answered with a gasp,

Or perhaps just a frightened rasp. 

She swears it’ll take the Serb out of us,

Our two wrongs made their might and so she must sit seductively.

I wonder how red my face must seem to be,

I wonder what they’ll say in Pristina when her pose they see.

If I could paint her picture I’d use all my life,

Had I more time, perhaps a blackbird could fly over the blood

And tell me how many of us died today.

Took her to a mountaintop in Turkestan this summer, I told her,

"I imagine I’m safe here. I am never gonna be down here." 

If you want something to trust in well trust in me,

Do you wonder what your brother’s doing,

Wonder how long he’s been gone?

I imagine as we holds hand having sinned before dawn,

We slept together but remember, I made us then pray together!

He’ll smile apprehensively and think such sins could at least keep you safe,

For then you’ll see -- when he sees you and me. 

The coward I am! The battles I never fought!

But come rage cannons like blasted bits of heaven till heaven sends him here, 

Fatalistic can’t you call me an optimist?

Optometrist I see you but I do not believe you.

When you vomit in those refugee camps,

Spit out the genocide on the safer side of the border, so when the planes land,

The other side can tell you how I never came to kiss you goodnight. 

A loss is a loss, pain is pain, but to me and the rest of us,

She’s only beautiful enough for my head,

If I loved her with my heart,

I couldn’t stand being so long so far apart. 

And thus we silence Satan, man I’d quiet him if I could bring you home,

We could listen to him whisper while we dance in the shower.

As long as we’re close enough to feel our hearts die together,

As long as I can hold you and as long as you don’t hurt.

But that’s tomorrow and today we hear Satan’s screams.  

They plague our dreams. 

Once the world was shocked and by our armies, rocked,

But Satan came to manage the minaret, we knew him by name,

He called comfort and we foolishly followed, such sounds we swallowed,

I’d tell you a fairytale, listen love, imagine when we had Vienna in sight!

And when again comes that Empire of Light,

Then we can do a few things that aren’t right...

Let my hands go unlimited, a little fuel for the two of us fools,

And we’ll put Satan back in his thobe again,

Standing silently he’ll whisper and again we’ll listen. 

I see her beautiful smile and one of these days,

you’ll smile again.

When you see us coming. (We’re never gonna come.)

When you see us running you can come running and slap us straight in the face,

And ask us why we left your beautiful body to this place,

And left you to face them alone,

And you can tell us what took the Serb out of them. 

I know when you’re dead you’re alone and it seems all of us are alone,

They come for us one by one, and by the billions, we don’t do a thing,

We must all be dead. We must all be alone. 

I tell her gorgeous hair it’ll wash in super shampoo,

I’ll run dry the pains from those strains as your body is washed by water

Most sacred, naked then like when you came from the womb,

But such dreams are reserved for the tomb...

Where we might just breathe again,

If only to answer some questions, if only to face the interrogation. 

I say to her beautiful hair, it can sleep on Macedonian ground at night, 

For one day I’ll come to wash it clean. 

One day we’ll wash it clean.

One day we’ll come for you. 

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 30


Needless to say, Wednesday night sucked. I went early in the afternoon Thursday to a new bookstore, American-style, with many seating areas and a cafe. I picked up a few newspapers and brought them with me to my table; all by myself.

Khattab walked over, out of nowhere (did I need to add that?). I was pissed he was there but he sat down anyway.

"What’s up?" I asked.

He didn’t bother to sarcastically return a salam, so at least he was being nice. I shrugged when he asked me the same, and motioned to some newspapers. He wanted to ask why I didn’t spend Thursday going to Azadeh Mosque for the Qur’an lessons, and it made me think that Shaykh Erfan would be very disappointed, especially after all the kindness he showed me. 

Reading the newspaper articles gave me my first glimpse onto the Pan-Turkic political movement. Now, the articles and editorials were definitely censored, but there was something there. I could glean bits and pieces. The Turkic movement was aggressively Muslim but open-minded: it combined my love for our culture with an international sophistication and modernity; it kept Islam as a proud part of its heritage but also as a part of its modern identity. There were several movements hinted at, though all equally condemned for being ‘corrupt’ or ‘anti-modern’ or ‘secretly reactionary’ -- reactionary being the word used to describe the Islamists.

The Turkish Council, the New Turks... The movements sprang up and were squashed every week, only to have new movements take their place. They were all centered on an underground group I had previously heard of, the All Alliances Turan Congress. It was a movement for the unification of our country with the large republics of Turkestan, the Turkish areas of the Caucusus (our Azeri brothers, for example), Xinjiang (East Turkestan) and the modern Republic of Turkey, which was creatively called ‘Anadolu and the Far European Frontier’.

These would all form the mythical homeland ‘Turan’. Not only did it rhyme with Iran, it also offered radicals a third way, out of leftist (overly theoretical) ideas and the often overly rigid and inflexible Islamists.

All I really wanted, I imagined, was a Muslim version of the West, where while on the outside things were different (such as dress or music), it would only really be a transplanted suburbia where mosques dotted the landscape, everyone was Muslim, and everyone was proud of that. Guys would walk down modern streets with stores with Muslim names, on their arms would be hijabis. On the surface, we’d be different. Could we be different inside? I didn’t want to be. Needless to say, as Khattab and I discussed things, he didn’t like my viewpoint much.  

Then suddenly Khattab asked, "What about Sophia? Do you still think about her?"

Well no, jerk, but now that you mention her, I will resume worrying and crying over her.

"From time to time, okay, I do worry about her... I mean I want her, I think about going and doing something with her. But I know that’s not going to happen, so what’s the point?"

He just didn’t want to talk about Turan. I understood, he was definitely a purist, whereas I couldn’t be bothered with overly Islamic ideas and visions.

When I came home later in the afternoon, I sat down with my mother to drink some chai. She asked me how my day was and I told her it was "boring, because I spent the afternoon in the bookstore reading papers and the like."

"Yes," she replied, "Because I happened to find an article on all those nationalists on your desk. Where did you get that garbage?"


Well then.

My mother had just declared war on Turan and I would be the first casualty. We talked for a bit and she calmed down. I thanked Allah we had quickly reached a cease-fire. She was a little happier about this, I imagine, though still worried. She was content that I was at least looking towards a more ‘modern’ ideology. Modern, of course, being a by-word for anything that was Western… some Islamists were just as modern as the most cutting-edge secularists... they just based their philosophy on the Oneness of God instead of belief in man-as-god.

Once this topic was safely put away, my mother had no choice but to turn the topic to her.

"How is Sophia doing?"

Well, she basically rejected me, leaving me empty and broken on the side of a sidewalk, and then walked away content that we were friends.

"She’s fine, I guess." I lied.

"Fine, hmm? You don’t sound too sure of that."

"It’s just," I added quickly trying to defuse the tension and suspicion, "I do like her, but you were right in a way. As much as I hate to say it." I smiled a bit, to throw her off. I was quite the politician (The reader is supposed to be proud of me and sympathize with me. But once I tell you to sympathize with me, you change your feelings and by now, you’re just confused, if not thoroughly sick of me).

"What do you mean?" she wondered aloud, and I explained: "Well I did like her a lot, but I realized I didn’t want to be with her in the long run. Basically she came out and said we should back-off, but when she said that, I realized my feelings for her were very ephemeral and weak."

"Are you sure," she said, "That you’re not just saying that to make yourself feel better?"

"Well if I was rejected, which I was, that’d be the natural thing to do. Maybe to some extent that’s it. But not all of it. Because, like, my feelings for her just vanished the minute she told me this wasn’t going to work the way we were going about it. She said no, and it was more of a relief to her that than it was disappointment."

She nodded. "Are you okay?"

I smiled.


Guess who didn’t smile back? 

The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 31


Khattab said little about what happened between us in the days that followed. He snuck me books, in a powerful effort to wean me from the vision of Turan. It worked because he started to appeal to my idea of pan-Islamism. Plus he showed me pictures of hot Arab girls and that helped, too. What kind of state wouldn’t have them as potential spouses? Not a very Islamic one, I decided. 

I have to admit; the more I thought about it, the less nationalism appealed to me. How could we, in this age, draw boundaries based on ethnicity or culture? Countries that succeeded were based on universal ideologies that accepted others and did not draw rigid boundaries. Each great civilization had an overriding ethic. Whether Islamic or Western or Roman — there haven’t been many truly dominant civilizations.

I wished to think of a moderate Islam, which celebrated our culture, but not a culture that celebrated Islam within its own boundaries. I imagined instead a great Islamic state, with a moderate government and de-centralized form, each region celebrating its culture while taking part in the universal Islamic civilization.

Maybe we’d all learn Arabic, and each region could promote its healthy characteristics, and such diversity would make us strong. From one, many (I liked the fact that it flipped the American motto around). To help me along in these thoughts, Khattab dropped off books in my car as I occasionally gave him rides to school. I swallowed everything from Foucault to Edward Said to Izetbegovic. I drowned in the Qur’an. I meditated over Maududi. I cried with Qutb. Iqbal inspired me.  

On an evening soon after, Khattab and I met in a downtown park, the kind that is intensely green and full of businessmen and workers. I had no idea why we met there, but perhaps because it was crowded and we wouldn’t look so suspicious.

It was close to Maghrib time. I looked at Khattab closely. He had shaved his beard off, and there was a cigarette in his hand. Khattab smoked? That didn’t seem very Islamic. He offered me one, but I couldn’t do it. I knew why he did… I knew it would be smarter if I did, but still, something held me back. 

Khattab introduced me to a man named Serhat. His voice, it seemed to me, held something altogether more than his sound. Just when he spoke, passers-by would stop to listen, if only to wonder: "Why is this man’s voice so fascinating?"

We went for a walk by the lake, trying to escape the bigger crowds without finding ourselves too alone. Serhat, Khattab and I discussed many things. We crossed from topic to topic, from Orientalism to despotism, and finally settling on the situation in Iran, the first truly Islamic Republic (Pakistan was an attempt, but it hadn’t gotten off the ground till well after Iran’s Islamic revolution).

Khomeini’s system was modified, and in the name of preserving the Islamic Republic, a shari’a democracy emerged in its place. The absolute authority of the Ayatollahs was crushed from within. They supervised government and some held offices of power, but not without criticism. Not with the safety provided by terror and secret police, assassinations and the like.

"It was a corrupt country," Serhat remarked, "Though ideologically, it was on the right track. Islam, yes. But velayat-e faqih as Khomeini wished it? (1) Never. The Ayatollahs horded the power and became corrupt..."

"What is it with us?" Khattab asked. "Oriental despotism always seems to take over, even in the name of populism."

"I suppose," I said, thinking I could add to the debate -- and damn was I wrong -- "that the Ayatollahs initially feared that the reform was really a movement for secularization. We know now that it wasn’t. It sought to preserve religion by opening up politics. But they didn’t know if it was really a movement to just Westernize."

"Khomeini fought hard against secularism, that is true," Serhat interrupted, "But he was the greatest Westerner of them all."


Serhat had been noticed. 

"Excuse me?"

I looked at Khattab, who looked as if he’d been burnt by this fire before.

Serhat held the cigarette close to his mouth. He was going to take a puff, but then stopped himself.

"That’s why they were so afraid of him. Islamic Revolution? Turbans? The fiery Ayatollah? Not any of that. They feared him because he was them."

I imagined I was about to hear some sort of ridiculous conspiracy theory, the type only a Muslim could think up of. Serhat continued without giving time to my imagination.

"The fact of the matter is this: over a long period of time, our cultures died. Our ways and manners died. Our very ways of thinking and dreaming -- these have all perished in the light of the West."

We thought differently? Then I thought of Sophia and I missed her. Her and her beautiful (censor here) looked just fine in Western clothes. But I quickly shook the thought from my head and returned to the less important matter of saving the world.

"What of Iran’s vast movement to inspire pride in Persian and Islamic culture? The government... they wear turbans and robes there... the flag, the language, the new movies and the revitalization of the culture. It’s all under an Islamic consciousness, an Islamic spirit. And it’s Persian."

"Oh," Serhat said, "I do not doubt it’s Islamic, or even Persian. But the Persia that was is not the Persia that is. Today, Hayy, the West has won. We are all Westerners, whether we are Christian, Jew, secular or Muslim. You think clothes make you an Easterner, or the script you write in? Those are stupid ideas that only small men, like Ataturk, or some fundamentalists stuck in the 14th century, would accept."

Serhat paused, "Islam is a perspective, a moral and ethical worldview. The Qur’an and our Prophet, peace be upon him, are guideposts along the way. To be emulated — but not blindly. Wearing a turban does not necessarily make one Islamic. What does is acting within and according to a certain framework. In many ways, the West is the same. The West is not a language, or even a culture. It is universal, like Islam. It went from Europe to America and then to Japan. All are Western. Not all are European. Do you see what I’m saying?"

Wow, I thought: every major Islamic and Muslim political movement had been insulted before me. Were I to write this down, it would probably only be published in a country like America.  

"What of the Muslims who claim to be Islamic but kill Muslims and non-Muslims with no legitimate defense? Surely they are not Westerners."

Serhat laughed. "Sheikh so-and-so calls for a jihad on a microphone. Which is Western. He derides the West for stealing the Middle East from the Muslims. Middle East? East of what? Free Palestine they cry, as if Muslims drew the boundaries of Mandatory Palestine. We know ourselves only in relation to the West. And now that we know ourselves, we seek to define ourselves. But in those centuries between becoming aware of ourselves vis-a-vis the West, and then seeking to define ourselves independently of it, we became bastard children of the West. Political Islam? Islamic government? I have not seen such since the days of the True Khulafat... and then, after ‘Ali died, the Easterners stole Islam from the Muslim and installed despotism and ignorance. The east stole Islam, Hayy, just as the West nearly destroyed it."

"We had great periods of creativity and learning."

"But the West," Serhat chided me, "Found us in darkness. We saw everything in the light provided by them. We called them the darkness, the Great Satan, when indeed they are our saviors. Islamist? The word itself. Listen to it. Was Ibn Taimiyya an Islamist?"

Khattab and I were silent. I was profoundly disturbed. "So you are saying that Islamization is Westernization?"

"I am saying that nationalism is an illusion, a crime, a lie, against us. We have died and perished, and come back to life in Western bodies."

"We’re not them, dammit!" I said, loudly.

Serhat didn’t flinch, "Oh but we are, and we have been for quite some time. Just as the French and the Americans are Westerners, so are the Pakistanis and the Turks."

"Islam is a way of life."

"Islam did not invent life, did it?" Serhat asked. I did not follow so he laughed, "Islam is and was but clarification. What was Christianity? Islam ruined. And why did the Christians fear us so much?"

"They still fear us!"

"And I will tell you why."

He was silent, as if waiting for me to ask. Impatient, I demanded: "Well?"

"The Christians ruined what they were given, and they were given Islam. That’s why the Christians so fear us. Because they knew we were not really different from them. We were only them as they should have been. Islam has never been original. The pagan Arabs... they became Muslim and retained Arabic culture. Then Islam took Persian culture, Indian culture, and Turkish culture. We were given two things. The Qur’an and the Sunnat. Both of these either directly from God, or inspired by God. We imposed these two on the East. Now, the time has come for them to be imposed on the West."

"So what does this have to do with Khomeini?"

"Islam is a civilization, which fuses its strength with different cultures, till you cannot separate it from the culture. It is a parasite that feeds on society till it becomes one with society, and one has trouble imagining that the culture could change while the religion stays, for the most part, solidly in place. That is why Easterners believe their return to Islam is a return to their roots. But their roots have been dug up and burnt to ashes by the coming of the West. All that remains of the East is Islam -- Islam hid and ran for cover, and Islam reappeared after the ages of imperialism and colonization. Everything else we had was robbed from us. Even our underwear is theirs. Our candy-bars. Our snack foods. Our toothpaste. Look yourself at the Iran Khomeini created. The very concept of a nation-state, of a revolution, of politics as we know it -- these are all Western concepts."

"We are still not them. We have been Westernized to some degree -- but our cultures haven’t died."

"They haven’t?"

"We can revive our cultures!" I protested.

"Grow up, Hayy," Serhat lectured. "Revive your culture? What purpose would that serve? It’s over for our cultures, as we knew them. A new culture is being born. The East is gone. And Islam needs a new host. We are the West now... a new West… whether the old West wants us or not is another matter."

"So what do you think this means for us as Muslims?" I asked, very agitated.

He shrugged. His cigarette glowed red against the darkening sky. "Is the West a place?"

"Islam came from the East," I replied quickly. "We have always been from the East. Not a place, no... but a mentality."

"I don’t doubt it," Serhat told me, smiling a bit. "After all, Islam did come to a culture and shaped itself more for that culture than any other. Yet what is this culture? A warrior culture, a noble culture, a deep, spiritual, honorable culture! The Turks were the second great wave of Islam’s followers. They too were nomads. They were from the East. Now, we as Muslims return to Islam, and Islamize our Westernized identity. Ever wonder why Islam is so strong in the cities? Why it’s gaining among the educated? The modern Western city is closer to the nomad Arabs and Turks of the past. When we enter cities, we become Bedouins again."

"Islam is a religion of the East," I said, as if saying it again might change his mind... don’t laugh, because everyone (unnecessarily) repeats the same line during arguments. As if when our ears get tired, our minds would accept.

If I were secular, I’d have made an allusion to the adhan.

"Christianity also came from the East. From Jerusalem. It was the religion of the Byzantines also, and only after the 1300s and 1400s did it really become synonymous with the West -- as the idea of Europe emerged," Serhat told us.

"So, you’re saying we must become Western?" Khattab asked.

Serhat laughed, but without arrogance. "I am saying we are Western. We cannot return to the East because there is no East. Besides the ranting and raving of some idiots, the East is dead. Even those idiots are Westerners, they are just blind to mirrors. We must understand this, accept this and move from there, with nothing but a smile on our faces."

"The West," I said, suddenly inspired by a new line of argument, "Destroyed the faith it adopted. Christianity has faded from the Europe it once defined."

Serhat nodded, "That is true."

"So," I asked, wondering why Serhat had not picked up on my point, "Will the West also destroy Islam?"

"On the contrary," Serhat answered. "The West will save Islam. The conquered will conquer the conqueror. The West was never comfortable with Christianity. It was, after all, only during the darkest times of the West that the Christian religion was powerful. When West realized this, she decided to slay her mother. She hunted Christianity as if she were an angry child and Christianity a bad and abusive and neglectful mother. Almost nobody wept when those European bullets filled her body. The West fed off the remains of its former faith and became stronger through this cannibalism. Yet is the West strong enough to hunt Islam? They have tried and still they try. Yet they have not dealt us the mortal blow. That which does not kill us, Hayy, can only make us stronger."

Then Serhat laughed, after a pause: "You are, after all, what you eat."

I didn’t say anything in response. What could I say? 

"One day," Serhat said, "Western cultures will be accepted by Islam till they have become like the now perished Eastern cultures. It will be a distinctive Islam, with a Western tinge -- but Islam nonetheless. A new way of believing the same truths. A new way of dreaming the same dreams."

Khattab looked at Serhat, "So we can’t save culture?"

"We can change culture to be more Islamic. But the whole idea of cultural revival -- that’s in light of Western hegemony. So accept it. It’s reality. Don’t waste your energy on things of no long-term consequence. Move beyond all this and keep what is important in mind."

Serhat stared at the few skyscrapers in the distance. He smiled. I looked at him, and he recognized me... without once even making the slightest move in my direction... "Be like your father, Hayy... and be awake. Look around you. Everything is the West. Say bismillah (2) and embrace it."

I figured I would’ve been happier had someone told me I could be Western -- a way of looking at things that I loved secretly -- and Islamic, something I knew I had to be. Still, something sat uneasy in me.  

Serhat pondered the stars that were making themselves obvious in the sky above. I could trace a pensive look on his face, in the artificial light emanating from the streetlights near us.

"Hayy, the sun does not rise anymore. Even she has abandoned the East. Every day the sun sets. And that is all."

"Then," realizing what he meant, I added, "There is no balance. The two paths have been crushed, and only one remains. Can anyone walk the middle road any longer?"

"This," Serhat said, frowning, "Is what God promised. Only one way is left in the world. And only one religion remains that could ever tackle this challenge. There is only the West, and then the West becomes Islamic."

Khattab, I think, did not understand. He looked at Serhat with questions in his eyes. The stars above seemed to be louder than him.

"There is very little time left. Think of it as a sunset. Think of yourselves as strangers. One final struggle, for the heart and soul of the world. You will win, because God has promised you this much. But then, after victory, what comes but decline? Once we reach the top, we have nowhere to go but down. The final rise will be beautiful, but the final fall will be the most tragic. For there will be no world left against which we might dare compare ourselves to. We will have no external enemy. We will becomes slaves to our desires, our dreams, our greed, and nothing will save us from our darkness."

"Because," I continued, "There will be no West which could come and conquer us again, and let us know we had failed in our task."

Serhat nodded.

"We are the West. There is no East. There is no god but Allah." 

Serhat dropped his cigarette and drove it into the grass with his foot. It hurt to watch its feeble light go out. I shuddered when I realized then that I hadn’t seen Serhat light his cigarette.

"The sun has set," Serhat said, "Look in the West and you will see. It is time to pray."

As Serhat walked away, my mind grasped for something to hold onto. I gazed at Khattab. The smoke that rose from his lips searched for something to say. We sat down, hoping that Serhat would return and pick up the pieces of ourselves.

I looked at Khattab. "So..."

He tried to smile, but his muscles refused his mind. The weak effort faded from his lips, and his eyelids descended like a setting sun, searching the ground for something greater than a burnt-out cigarette butt -- as if Serhat would leave footprints. Of those, there were none. He had walked through our minds and over-turned everything, closed the door and shut off the light.


1. Khomeini believed the faqih, or jurist, must rule (have 'velayat'). This system has many benefits, and is a step forward in Islamic political thought (actually, a huge leap ahead, but whatever?) The problem is, however, that the ideology puts the faqih into a position of infallibility. It disturbs the Islamic structure of decentralization and concentrates far too much power in one man?s hands. Part of the modification must begin with creating more openness, accountability and decentralization. The solution is not at all a rejection of the premise behind Khomeini's system, nor the idea of an Islamic, populist and democratic state. Rather we must revise and reflect more greatly on how to improve this existing system.

2. Every chapter of the Qur'an, excepting one, begins with Bismillahi Al-Rahman Al-Rahim; in the name of God, most Gracious, most Merciful. Bismillah thus means 'in the name of God.' Many Muslims begin a variety of actions throughout this day with this statement.