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'Unimagined: a Muslim boy meets the West'

By Irfan Yusuf - posted Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Unimagined is the story of a middle-class English boy who goes to a grammar school, completes university studies, falls in love with various girls and women along the way and ends up pursuing a career in the internal audit department of a major multinational, earning enough money to buy a house and the same Jaguar his hero James Bond drives.

So what on earth does all this have to do with Islam? How can we understand the processes of alienation, terrorism, violence, lack of integration and all that other nasty stuff we allegedly need to understand in order to understand Western Muslims? How does this book help us understand them when it provides us with only the picture of one with whom we can readily identify?

This memoir contains no violence (apart from some schoolyard bullying and references to news reports of overseas events), no honour killings and only the feeblest reference to a possible arranged marriage. In fact, what makes this work so abnormal among so many other Muslim memoirs published in Britain, such as Ed Husain's The Islamist and former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg's Enemy Combatant, is that the life it describes is just so normal.


Don't expect to find cultural warriors like Melanie Phillips (author of Londonistan) or Daniel Pipes (journalist and director of the Middle East Forum) referring to this book as an example of British or Western Islam in action (or should that be inaction?). Imran Ahmad has written an amusing and highly accessible book which deals with a range of theological and cross-cultural issues by telling the story of the Muslim he knows best.

One lesson we learn from this book is that for many Muslims, religion can only be understood within a cultural context, often with little relation to that within which a certain 7th-century Arabian Prophet presented his message. In practice, this means many South-Asian Muslim parents have almost identical expectations of their children as South-Asian Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Catholic or Jewish parents. It is of little consequence to such parents whether you can read the Koran in Arabic or the Guru Granth in Punjabi or even the Torah in Hebrew. So long as you study hard and become a doctor or engineer and marry a good South-Asian girl of your own social class and faith (with emphasis especially put on the former), not much else matters.

Perhaps what makes Imran's experience different from that of an English boy of Hindu or Sikh parents is that his own faith and scriptures share much in common with the biblical stories he learned in school. I can certainly relate to this as an important factor allowing me to ''fit in'' more easily.

For me, the discovery that the Koranic account of Joseph's life was virtually identical to that in the Bible (and that my own surname was merely an Arabic pronunciation of this famous person) was a seminal moment in the development of my own religious identity.

I did find it unusual that Ahmad's parents were happy for their son to attend religion classes limited to the Old Testament only. My own parents insisted I learn what Christians (at least those of the Anglican variety) believed.

Perhaps this lack of exposure to New Testament theology made it harder for Ahmad to face what little intellectual challenge could be posed by the "Rapture" theology of his fellow university students sucked in by American commercial evangelism.


Like so many other South-Asian migrants to Britain, Ahmad receives only the bare minimum religious education in childhood. He lasts only a short time at the Sunday school of his local mosque. Ahmad learns more about religion at school, and ends up knowing more about Old Testament prophets (also mentioned in the Koran) than about contemporaries and successors of the Prophet Muhammad.

In fact, like so many children of Muslim migrants, Ahmad must figure out the answers to a range of theological questions without assistance from parents or imams. Instead, most of his learning is at the University of Sterling in Scotland, where Ahmad has enrolled in a chemistry course in which he takes no interest, but which he believes might make him more employable and respectable in South-Asian circles.

Theological issues feature heavily in the book, with Ahmad constantly toiling with the whole idea of spending an eternity burning in hell because he made the wrong religious choice. Ahmad is also troubled by certain moral choices, and operates on the common South-Asian Muslim presumption that salvation is obtained by doing good deeds and avoiding naughty ones.

Ahmad spends hours in the library reading books about Sufism, and also borrows tapes of religious polemics from fellow students. He is put off by the narrow-mindedness of the chap who delivers sermons at Friday prayers, but is attracted to the intellectualism of study circles organised in a London mosque by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens).

Ahmad doesn't venture anywhere near political Islam. Perhaps this is because he had already entered the workforce by the time the Afghan jihad and its Islamist theology was being promoted by conservative governments and right-wing think tanks (not to mention mosque imams) across the West.

This book is a rather light read, making it accessible to a wide audience. Ahmad has no difficulty in poking fun at himself, whether describing his childish approach to theology as an infant or his almost equally childish and extremely shy approach to women as an adult. In its focus on everyday issues and its sheer ordinariness, Ahmad's memoir dispatches the myths of Muslim-phobic cultural warriors with almost as much ease as an in-form Nasser Hussein would have dispatched the deliveries of his opponents when he captained England's national cricket side.

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First published in The Canberra Times on March 22-23, 2008.

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About the Author

Irfan Yusuf is a New South Wales-based lawyer with a practice focusing on workplace relations and commercial dispute resolution. Irfan is also a regular media commentator on a variety of social, political, human rights, media and cultural issues. Irfan Yusuf's book, Once Were Radicals: My Years As A Teenage Islamo-Fascist, was published in May 2009 by Allen & Unwin.

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