In 2000, an unassuming little book called Letters To A Young Muslim was published in English – and turned out to be an unexpected hit, selling worldwide after having been translated into five languages (so far).
But the book has not been translated into the author’s mother tongue, Arabic.
Omar Saif Ghobash was inspired by his desire to prevent his teenage son from succumbing to the perils of radicalisation to write the book. In it, he advises his then 15-year-old son Saif, and other young adults, on how the new Muslim generation can straddle the gap between finding a moderate voice that is true to Islam while still actively and productively engaging in the modern world.
We spoke late last month to the author at the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) 2018 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Born to an Emirati father and a Russian mother, Ghobash, who is the UAE ambassador to France, said he was hesitant to translate Letters To A Young Muslim into Arabic as he was not ready to come under fire from the Arab world for the post-modern view of Islam he offers in the book.
“Up to this moment I don’t have a copy in Arabic. I’m hesitant to translate it because I don’t know what would be the reaction of Arab readers. In the book I try to clarify the vagueness faced by the young generation, who are evolving and growing into themselves.
“There are a lot of challenges to translate it, the biggest one is that some religious men will get annoyed. They won’t accept such ideas,” said the 47-year-old. Speaking from his own history of pain and trauma of losing his own father at the tender age of six in 1977, Ghobash attempts to guide his son through the philosophical currents, tough conversations, and the global context of terror, neo-imperialism and the crisis of authority in the Muslim world.
He remains apprehensive that translating the book into Arabic would put him at odds with Islamic authorities as it emphasises on full agency to make personal decisions, and insists that there is no contradiction between faith and rational enquiry or modernity and tradition.
In penning the letters to his son, Ghobash said he did not use texts from the Quran or the prophetic traditions but simply spoke from his own experiences.
“I have some fears about translating it. There are sensitive things in the book. I talked about putting on the veil, for example. The UAE Education Ministry wanted me to translate it into Arabic but I didn’t do it. Some people in the Arab world called me and thanked me for the book and welcomed it.
“But I don’t guarantee that I’m ready to face criticism. In Britain, Spain, China, and Germany, they don’t ask the same questions that I face in the Arab world.
“In the book I talked about knowledge and how hundreds of years ago Muslims used to sit together in sessions to learn and exchange ideas. Now, we can talk about philosophy or ideas but, ultimately, the religious men feel that they have the authority to decide for us,” said Ghobash.
He said there had been attempts to translate it into Arabic but felt that the finished manuscript was weak and gave the letters a strange meaning that was different from his original message in English.
Even before the book was published in January last year, Time magazine wrote a glowing article on how it was one of 2017’s most anticipated reads.
Following its publication, The New York Times and The Times of London reviewed it and Ghobash scored interviews with The Guardian newspaper, CNN, US National Public Radio, and appeared on famous talk shows such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and also Charlie Rose.
The book has since been translated into German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Turkish and widely read not just by the Muslim world, but also in countries such as China, Britain and Spain, among others.
“When the book got published, I received requests for interviews from Europe and Hong Kong, China. This showed that my book is not only oriented to Muslims but also resonates with those of other faiths too,” said Ghobash, who was formerly the UAE Ambassador to Russia for nine years.
The book is a deeply personal account written from Ghobash’s perspective on what it was like being a Muslim parent amid the ascending tenor of political unrest and all forms of extremism.
When his son brought home a book about Osama bin Laden and started to express respect for the founder of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, Ghobash said he knew that, as a father, he had to act and the book was born as part of his response.
When he himself was a young boy, Ghobash said he had a lot of questions, but found that the adults around him were unresponsive and tried to shut them down.
“When I was my sons’ age, I didn’t feel like people encouraged me to make decisions or that they answered the questions that I had. I remember being 12 and asking a lot of questions but the adults would tell me to keep silent. Now years later, I know that it is important to face children’s questions.
“Now my kids, Saif and Abdullah, are studying in Britain and I cannot be with them every day so I try to shape their characters by giving them advise but making sure that I leave them to make their own decisions in life,” concluded Ghobash.