My Name Used to Be Muhammad – Islam, Modernity, and Liberalism

Donald Trump ran a fairly ideology-light presidential campaign. He made a handful of incredible promises with precious few details on how he’d actually accomplish any of them other then to just trust his ability to get deals done. On one point he was consistent, on his willingness to call out Islamic extremism for what it is. He promised to crush it, and the first step in his plan I guess was to name it. Second step is anyone’s guess.

Sam Harris and Shadi Hamid in their latest podcast, make a reasonably convincing case that there was some meat on this Trump bone. That radical Islam does have to be reckoned with as it does present a threat to Western liberalism, that the democratic party generally, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically have not adequately addressed this fact, and so far, they haven’t even been willing to talk about it honestly.

Shadi Hamid is a liberal Muslim thinker and a thoughtful critic of the religious tradition he belongs to. He makes two points that resonate: First, unlike other religious traditions, the Quran is written with God as the narrator, making the reading of the Quran a reasonably direct interaction with God. The book is also old, a product of a different time and place with cultural norms far different than the ones we take for granted today. Modern day believers of Islam have to wrestle with the tension of bringing God’s words from a place 1500 years ago and finding application for it today.

The Bible, by contrast, is a historical narrative of a people and their prophet and how they struggle to connect with God through their trials. This scriptural indirection allows a greater degree of freedom to find nuance as Christianity has been more successful in its shift into modernity.

Second, Islam was never just a political movement, but a religious one as well. Muhammad  and those that succeeded him, used the unifying power of Islam to unite the Arab world and extend its reach and influence into Europe, Africa and Asia and now, of course, worldwide.This history of a God-ordained political movement carried out by a prophet sanctified a set of behaviors that fit nicely within a first century world.

By comparison, Christianity was born from weakness, poverty and suppression. Rather than revolt, Christ taught peace, meakness, submission and then ultimately submitted himself completely, submitting himself to an unjust mob culminating with his crucifixion Christ came not as a ruler but as someone who was ruled and ultimately overcome. His victory and his kingdom was never part this world.

Given the out-sized importance Islam is currently playing in our world and politics and the threats many feel it imposes to western, liberal values and the recent trends to pre-world war European nationalism and tribalism, there seems to be something interesting going on here worth exploring.

With this as context, I finally got around to reading a recent birthday present given to me last summer, “My Name Used to Be Muhammad, a true story about a man born in Nigeria, raised to become a Muslim cleric, who eventually risked his life and lost his freedom converting to Mormonism while attending university in Egypt. The author of the book was born Muhammad Momen, but eventually changed his first name to Tito upon leaving the religion of his youth. The book describes a life of intolerance, brutal misogyny and horrifying abuse.

He was his father’s favorite son to his second wife. Although polygamy was common, his father didn’t practice, he had re-married after his first wife passed away. “It wasn’t unusual for women in northern Africa to die before middle age. Conditions were rough, and women were perpetually pregnant. Plural marriage was also common, so the loss of one wife didn’t work a hardship on the husband. His children were simply raised by his other wives.” But his father saw in him something special and felt like he was destined to be a powerful Islamic cleric and groomed him for it. Starting at age five, he was forced to begin to memorize the Quran, and although his education was broad, his focus was always Islam. And this straight path was enforced with violence, suffering beatings whenever he strayed, banned from anything that could be a distraction – soccer, art.

It’s a long story and I’m leaving plenty of details out, but he eventually makes his way to Egypt to attend college in Islamic studies. There he meets who in a different set of circumstances, would have become his wife. He describes what sounds like a beautiful, authentic romance. They were soon engaged. But his life, his training, his culture was deeply problematic. He was on a path he did not choose. Their love was strong and the relationship survived his neglect, his alcoholism, his infidelities, but was split in two when he converted to Mormonism.

His conversion happened by chance, a friend of his introduced him to it but only when pressed. He want to church, saw and felt some things missing from his own life experiences. And this may not have been enough but he had also discovered cracks within Islam that caused him to questions life-long assumptions.  Conversion to Christianity in a deeply Muslim world was a risky thing to do. Not only did he lose his fiance, he eventually lost his freedom, receiving a life sentence but eventually serving ten in prison.

The book did not fully address Tito Mommed’s current feelings of the religion of his birth. For him, it was obviously excruciating and tragic. But Islam has 1.6 billion adherents or 23 percent of the global population. It’s a religion that’s not going away, not now, likely not ever. And for good reason, there are plenty of healthy, strong, committed, good Muslims through out globe. Muslim communities thrive in many places. It’s a deep, thoughtful, beautiful religion.

How much of the real damage Tito Mommed both experienced and witnessed can be blamed on the religion? How much of it is cultural, historical or just deeply human. Tito’s father had a dream that his son would one day grow up to become an important cleric in the community. He drove him hard to achieve that goal. How different is that from say Andres Agassi’s father, who drove him to tennis excellent in ways that were similarly obsessive and abusive.

I was disappointed when his relationship severed after his conversion to Mormonism. I thought it was a tragic result. It would have been legitimately beautiful for the path he was walking to have completed successful. A beautiful marriage, a wonderful family, a committed spiritual journey as a respected leader in a major world religion. I understand why it couldn’t happen, it simply was not a path he wanted. Suffering life-long abuse to stay on a path, no matter how potentially good it may have been, is really no life at all.

At the end of the book, in what sounded like a real miracle and after Tito spent ten excruciating years in prison, he meets his dad on his dad’s deathbed. Here his dad apologizes and expresses regret for all the damage and pain he inflicted. It’s easy, I can imagine, it the last moments of one’s life, in a moment of reflection and regret, to free yourself of the real drag this world places on one’s soul and think higher, deeper, more compassionate, generous thoughts. It was tragic and sad this moment couldn’t have come sooner but it was a precious gift it came when it did.

I personally believe Islam can reform and make a significant and important  contribution for good in this world. In fact, it already is in many places and in many ways. What’s not needed are not national databases to track Muslims in this country, a war on Islam generally in foreign lands, or excessively restrict immigration restrictions on Muslims seeking to come here.