This is another post on the topic of religion and faith. On Wednesday, I had a little adventure! I went to Edinburgh to hear my friend the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela give a talk hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s Alwaleed Centre.
Her talk was very interesting to me, because it showed me how many cultural understandings I take for granted when reading, and further illustrated to me how ignorant I am about Islam. She explained, for example, that there have been novels by male Muslim writers that discuss a love story between a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman – but under Sharia law, a Muslim man is allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman. I hadn’t quite realised that the opposite is not true: under Sharia law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man. This is why in her first novel The Translator, the romance between the main character Sammar and the scholar Rae will be impossible unless he converts to Islam. (I won’t spoil the ending for you!).
She also gave the example of an early short story of hers, wherein a young girl transgresses Muslim law by eating a pork pie at school. Leila explained that she doesn’t confess what she’s done to her mother, because there is no culture of confession in Islam, and furthermore children are not considered to be capable of sinning as they are too young.
She talked about growing up reading Little House on the Prairie and Little Women, and realising that The Bible had quite a different meaning to the characters in these books than the Qur’an did to her. For example, the characters highly prized the actual physical book of the Bible, and sometimes had a “family Bible” but they didn’t memorise it, or have lessons in its textual analysis.
The most fascinating part of her talk, for me, was when she described the shock of arriving in a secular country (Britain), having grown up in the Sudan. She said that in a Muslim country, the assumption of the existence of God is completely woven into everyday life. When, for example, someone says, “See you Tuesday,” they always add “God willing”. But when she came to Britain she encountered many people who didn’t take a belief in God as a given. She explained the experience by using an analogy: “Imagine that you are on a train to Aberdeen. You begin speaking with your neighbour, and you discover that your neighbour doesn’t believe you’re going to Aberdeen at all. In fact, they don’t believe the train is going anywhere! You show them your ticket, but they say it’s invalid. You can sit there and talk with your neighbour – about how bad the food is, about the scenery, about the other passengers. But the whole time you’re wondering, is this person going to a different destination than me? Or are we going anywhere at all?”
I thought that perfectly described many situations, not just one where a person of faith encounters a person who doesn’t believe. There are times in life when I have been left open-mouthed when confronted with another person’s very different way of looking at the world – even though we are inhabiting “the same world”. As Leila says, it forces you to rethink what you believe.
My own train journey from Glasgow was uneventful, and a very delightful chance for me to knit! I only had time to dash from Waverley station to the talk and back, but I enjoyed the sight of the city already in its Christmas finery:
I was very touched that Leila quoted a question that I asked her (in an interview I did on this blog in December 2010) on the topic of “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”. That’s a question that won’t be solved in an evening, but I really enjoyed leaving my usual routine and having a bit of an intellectual challenge.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in America, and I am very conscious of all I have to be grateful for. We are going to be celebrating here on Saturday. Tomorrow: pie-baking!
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!