'Dry rules in dusty books need to make sense in life': A father advises his young Muslim sons

Share story

'Letters to a Young Muslim' by Omar Saif Ghobash
'Letters to a Young Muslim' by Omar Saif Ghobash
Courtesy of Picador

Omar Saif Ghobash knows his sons have trying moments ahead of them.

To be young and Muslim in the current climate can bring accusations, questions of faith, moments of doubt — all the pains of growing up, complicated by belonging to a religion often tied in headlines to acts of violence.

In a new book, "Letters to a Young Muslim," Ghobash offers what advice he can, detailing his own journey and understanding of his faith. He urges his sons to question, to learn as much as possible and to build themselves up as individuals.

"If your friendly cleric tells you that everything has been answered in the texts of our forefathers, you can tell him that you believe that every generation of Muslims should reexamine their faith and their understanding in the terms that they understand," Ghobash writes.

Ghobash, who is the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to Russia, joined MPR News host Kerri Miller to discuss his book and the difficult questions many Muslims face.

His own family history is marked by violence: When Ghobash was only six, a 19-year-old Palestinian gunman shot and killed Ghobash's father on an airplane tarmac, mistaking him for Syria's foreign minister at the time.

"Nineteen," he writes in the book. "When I was twelve, I asked myself whether I would be able to kill a man when I turned nineteen. I waited for the day and then I asked myself the question. The answer was no. No way. Not in a million years could I lift a rifle and shoot another man."

Yet there are "extremely violent and aggressive forms" of Islam, Ghobash said, referring to ISIS and al-Qaeda. And the internet has made these forms more available to more people than ever before.

People who subscribe to these violent incarnations of Islam, including the young Minnesotans who have left the U.S. to fight abroad, "they're asking for a very simple solution," Ghobash said. "They're asking almost for an endgame situation. They are giving up on the questions of life ... That is one approach to faith and life. I think the more interesting and the more valuable approach, and one I think our creator would prefer, is to take life on with all its challenges and really explore the issues."

"What I try to do in the letters is not provide doctrinal advice," Ghobash said. "What I'm saying is: You really need to take a position on life before you come to the texts of Islam."

The world has changed dramatically since he was a boy, he admits to his sons, and their generation will play a role in shaping the religion for the future. He urges them to question even practices that others may say are foundational. For example, he writes, "In some of the more 'traditional' Muslim households, girls are seen differently from boys. Is this appropriate or necessary? Is it Islamic to keep our young Muslim girls out of schools, and deprive them of an education?"

"In answering this question, I cannot simply look to traditional texts and strict interpretations of Islam. I also need to look at my own personal experience and see what this tells me. Dry rules in dusty books need to make sense in life, and in the light of lived experience."

For the full interview with Omar Saif Ghobash on "Letters to a Young Muslim, use the audio player above.

Letters to a Young Muslim Letters to a Young Muslim

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.