When I close my eyes, I can still hear the sounds of the rattling dishes and trays. It was early morning, and we had gently been woken up first by the azan, and then, after sweet moments between sleep and wakening, by our hosts preparing the breakfast. When arriving the night before, the family had generously offered us their salon for our night’s stay. The salon was the only big room they seemed to own, a building in itself, surrounded by vast swathes of lush green grass and a kitchenette tucked away in a rickety stone shed with a tin roof. This was my first stay in Morocco, together with a small group of French and Moroccan university friends, and through someone’s contacts we had ended up in rural Morocco close to the city of Al Jadida. By European, and also Moroccan standards, our host family was not well off. And yet, I fondly remember the most delicious and generous Moroccan breakfast I have ever had, even after more than ten years of travelling back and forth between Morocco and Europe. Trays and bowls kept being brought to the salon where we had assembled around the table, laden with fragrant fruits, homemade jams and cheese, boiled eggs, olives, honey, freshly baked bread and meloui pancakes, mint tea, and harira, the traditional Moroccan Ramadan soup sometimes also served for breakfast in the countryside. Before dipping into the delicacies, I sneaked out of the salon, over to the kitchenette, where an elderly, majestically wrinkled lady prepared pancakes on a stove. I shyly asked whether I could take a picture of her. In this moment of writing, I am holding her picture in my hands. She looks straight into my eyes, smiling, graceful, full of force and wisdom. For years to follow I was at a loss for words that would describe the look in her eyes and the kindness of our hosts who seemed to give so good-heartedly and demand nothing in return. After what seemed like an endless search and longing for elucidation, I have finally found what I was looking for without knowing it existed, the Islamic concept of ihsan, meaning perfection, goodness and righteous deeds, the highest form of worship.
Fast forward to my early years in East London, and to a very different impression of Islam and Muslims. It was the time when the British Muslim teenage girl Shamima Begum made international headlines when she and two girlfriends were captured at Gatwick Airport on their way to join the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) in February 2015. The narratives and debates about Islam I then found among British Muslims, in British newspapers, universities, libraries, online media and wider society alike commonly centred upon headscarves, Muslim women’s supposed oppression, terrorism and ISIS, halal food and cosmetics, the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, and narrow legalistic Shariah debates about halal and haram, often backed up by selective ayats of the Qur’an and (at times questionable) ahadith. What a distance!
These memories of such contrasting experiences arose after I happened to find solace in two books that offer compassion, nuanced explorations of where and how we turned, and gleams of hope on the horizon: Azadeh Moaveni’s Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS and Muqtedar Khan’s Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan. The books’ topics, ISIS and ihsan, could not be further apart, and yet there is much to be gained from a joint analysis; an analysis that will also build on Omar Saif Ghobash’s beautiful book Letters to a Young Muslim.