HE SMACKED HER ACROSS THE FACE–a violent thundering slap. The television seemed to reverberate with the impact. It was the climax of the show, and I had entered the living room uninvited.
“Why did he hit her?” I asked my mom. “Shush, not now,” she replied, her eyes still fixed on the screen.
I hated being ignored. “What happened? What did she do?” I continued, insisting that I get an answer. “I said, not now!” Mama snapped back, now obviously annoyed.
The woman collapsed on the floor and broke down in tears. The man who had hit her, clearly still enraged, stood tall above her, and then shouted in her face, “You’re divorced. Divorced. Divorced!”
The words marched out of his mouth, decisively and with absolute vengeance. I didn’t want to risk getting a similar response from my mom, but I couldn’t resist. “Why did he say that three times? What happened, Mama?” “How many times do I have to tell you, not now,” Mama shot back, still not fully acknowledging my presence. “Will you tell me later then?” I asked, desperate to know if I would ever get to find out what the mystery was all about. “Khalas, fine, yes,” she assured me.
My mom was busy watching an Egyptian series, and I was bored out of my six-year-old mind. I did my best to amuse myself, but neither my brother’s Michael Jackson tape, nor my Ninja Turtle action figures, nor my well-worn superhero fantasies did the trick. After what seemed like forever, I sensed movement outside my room. My mom was done with her television show, so I rushed out to demand my answer. “Will you tell me what happened now, Mama? Why did he hit her? And what was that thing he said three times?” “He got angry at his wife and divorced her,” she responded at last.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied. “Why did he get angry? What did she do?” I continued. “Later, Amir, later,” Mama replied.
Later—many years later—I’d finally come to better understand part of what happened in that memorable scene.
Generally speaking, in the Islamic tradition, a man can divorce his wife up to three times, after which it becomes extremely difficult—even virtually impossible—to remarry her. If a marriage is in trouble, but there is a chance of reconciliation, a husband will make the divorce proclamation, “You’re divorced,” just once to his wife. This leaves the door open for a change of heart. Even if, enraged or disillusioned, he makes the proclamation twice, hope is not lost.
Only deeply troubled, irreconcilable marriages end in a “three-proclamations divorce” and a mushroom cloud of heartbreak and anger like the one portrayed in that Egyptian television series.
Over the years, I often found myself recalling that scene, and wondering about the remaining questions. What did the wife ever do to deserve getting divorced with three fierce proclamations? Did her husband love her, and if he did, what changed? And why the hell did he have to hit her?
One day, however, I partly understood. I experienced that kind of rage, the agonizing pain of feeling betrayed by one that I had loved unconditionally. I, too, longed to end it with that fierce finality. But my love was not a woman. It was my faith.
Growing up, I loved my sci-fi cartoons. I loved my toys. I loved my LEGOs. I loved what I loved especially when it lit up my creative imagination freely and in all its magical glory. But above all, I loved Islam.
Therein lay all the heartbreak.
For a while, there was a beautiful, spiritually liberating, mystical Islam that I loved as a child; later, entwined with it, came another Islam, that dictated that I should hold on to certain beliefs or risk burning in hell for all eternity. It erected tall suffocating barriers between me and the magical curiosity and imaginative free thought I loved as a child.
I didn’t like that Islam. It was mean. It made me uneasy, but it was so thoroughly fused to the other one I revered and loved that I could no longer tell the difference.
And so I believed without questioning. Like a young man wedded to a stranger in a forced arranged marriage that he accepted for fear of betraying his family, I devoted myself to my faith. I practiced, worshipped, and swept doubt under the rug whenever it surfaced.
I memorized long passages of the Qur’an, joined national recitation competitions, won, and got featured in the newspaper. I listened to my bearded teachers, trusted them, and followed their instructions. I became wary of non-Muslims. I hated Jews, hated secularism, and doubted democracy. I had a love-hate relationship with the West and its leader, the “Big Satan,” the United States of America.
Finally, at the height of my deeply held jihadist euphoria, I wished I could die and martyr myself for Islam and occupied Palestine.
I was eleven years old.
What followed will not only surprise you, but it is my hope that it will inspire you to see various forms of religion in a fresh and more nuanced light. It includes tales about haunting melodic calls to prayer, a French girl named Doubt, anti-Muslim bigots, five pillars and a teddy bear, a sexy bellybutton ring, a soulful three-eyed beauty nicknamed Trinity, American bombs raining on a pharmaceuticals factory, and an accidental blog that turned my life upside down.
This book is my story. Part memoir, part manifesto for liberty, it’s about my relationship with Islam and its guardians. It’s about my journey from arranged marriage to infidelity to the brink of irreconcilability . . . and back.
It’s a meditation on blogging and the Internet, and how they’ve forever altered yesterday’s dictatorial politics of ignorance and ushered in a new politics of knowledge that helped trigger and facilitate the so-called Arab Spring. It’s about courageously following your heart’s cause, finding your tribe, and doing what you can to help change the world. It’s about the search for identity, meaning and, ultimately, Truth.
If you’re someone who’s had a difficult relationship with religion, or you have a deep interest in it; someone who’s got a burning desire to help advance freedom, human dignity, and justice on our increasingly shrinking planet; someone who’s passionate about personal and cultural transformation and self-empowerment, what I write is for you.
If having your beliefs challenged boils your blood, this book is probably not for you.
Lastly, if you value evidence, and if you passionately believe that God (or “God” if you wish) shouldn’t be reduced to ink on paper, but should instead be experienced, expressed, and honored freely in love and ecstasy, and without coercion, then this book is certainly for you.
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