When considering the Middle East, which is increasingly torn apart by wars and upheavals, one can be forgiven for putting literature on the back burner. This would, however, be a mistake. Arabic literature has a crucially important role to play in a landscape complicated by politics and social upheaval.

In these times of great uncertainty, literature can provide insights into popular feelings and attitudes toward public figures, political and social groups, and local, national, and global events. In some, though not all cases, literature can present a more nuanced understanding of topics that may otherwise appear black and white.

Islamism is one of those areas where literature can act as a welcome foil to political debates and media representations. For a number of years now, Islamism has been a popular subject both in the West and the Middle East. It has also been a major topic in works of contemporary Arab fiction, many of which remain untranslated.

One such work is “Judgment Day” – “Yom ad-Din” – by Rasha el Ameer, which was first published in Lebanon in 2002. Written in a flowery and, at times, quite complex style, “Judgment Day” has recently been printed in a beautiful translation, both in French and English. The book tells the tale of the disastrous consequences that come with mingling politics and religion, and, sadly, remains strikingly relevant today.

A Political-Religious-Love Story

The novel is narrated by a middle-aged imam, who meets and falls in love with a young woman from a secular background. Despite coming from different, if not totally opposed worlds, a great love story unfolds between the two protagonists, amid a violent political context and surrounded by various and diverse supporting characters.

Because no character and few places are named in the book, the reader is invited to view the story as taking place anywhere in the Arab world and reflecting the general state of contemporary life in the region.

In the novel, the central figure of the imam represents the traditional religious world. While his father is a farmer, or so it appears from the imam’s description of his early life, he himself chooses to pursue a religious education at a madrasa. His choice is guided by his yearning for knowledge, as much as by the concerns of his family, who consider him unfit for heavy manual labor because of his frail build.

During his studies, the imam gradually develops a love for the Arabic language that soon overshadows his interest in religious matters. His religious commitment is, however, rekindled when he meets the young woman who will become his lover.

The woman represents the young, educated, and secular part of Arab society. The novel depicts this elite group as having no connection to classical Arabic culture. Reflecting this disconnect, the young woman approaches the imam to ask for help in reading and studying a collection of poems or diwan by al-Mutanabbî, one of the most famous Arab poets of all time. The woman is interested in writing an encyclopedia devoted to the life and work of al-Mutanabbî.

The irony of the situation is not lost on the reader. Although the woman is well-travelled and speaks several languages, she needs the help of an imam in order to decipher and appreciate classical poetry, which is part of her own heritage.

Parallel to this unfolding relationship, the imam describes his daily activities at the mosque in the poor neighborhood where he lives and how extremist religious ideology is impinging on the community. Prompted by the talks he has with his lover, the imam decides to take a stance against this growing problem.

The imam’s anti-extremist preaching is soon noticed by authorities. They give him his own television show to counter the country’s mounting religious extremism. The program is an instant hit and the imam becomes a household name, popular for his liberal views and simple style, as well as his willingness to adapt to the “modern world.” Thanks to his popularity, more and more people come to hear his Friday sermons and seek his personal advice about everything and anything.

The imam’s liberal position also makes him many enemies. Soon, he becomes the subject of a fatwa from an extremist group, which condemns him to death. The imam obtains a security detail for his protection, but, after his bodyguards fail him, he is placed under military protection. Cut off from his regular life, in a place far removed from the city, the imam feels as if he is waiting for death.

In the end, the imam decides the only way to avoid a literal death at the hands of his enemies is to die a symbolic one. He flees the country, with the help of his lover. In his new home, he abandons his religious work and becomes a teacher of Arabic.

A Sad Yet Predictable Outcome

The imam’s “symbolic death” is upsetting, though unsurprising. His “moderate” Islam, the traditional, peaceful religion that is practiced by the Middle East’s “silent majority,” finds itself condemned to death by a combination of unstable politics and religious extremism. Its only path to redemption seems to be transformation, if not sublimation; to turn Islam – the soft-spoken imam – from a religious practice to a cultural one, with the help of the educated and secularized world – the young woman.

The author’s meticulous attention to the Arabic rules of elocution (balāgha) presents the reader with a further interesting paradox. Notwithstanding his classical style, the imam appears to fit more naturally with the modern and secular world, whereas his enemies, all claiming to uphold traditional religion and culture, are depicted as incapable of writing simple sentences in Arabic without making mistakes.

Generally speaking, the novel presents extremism as a form of pure evil that simply appears in society, and does not deeply analyze its causes. The imam does, however, try to provide some explanation for what extremists do. Rather than struggling for a religious cause, he sees extremism as rooted in socio-political conflict and economic crisis. As a religious scholar, he recognizes the extremists’ interpretative shortcomings, as well as the weakness in their theological knowledge and arguments. Seeing through their rhetoric, he sees them for what they are: angry young people in a country that offers no jobs and no opportunities.

Emphasizing the imam’s classical training, the novel is full of complex words and syntax, which the author uses to imitate the classical style one would expect of an imam. To the Arabophone reader this might spark a comparison between the modern imam-martyr and other intellectuals from centuries past, who were themselves victims of political-religious tensions, such as Ibn Rushd, Al Hallaj, and Ibn Hanbal. Their demise, like that of the imam, was due not so much to their religious positions, as it was to the explosive political situations in which they found themselves.

A Novel Worth Reading

“Judgment Day” contains some fairly graphic sex scenes. For those who are unfamiliar with Arabic literature, this may seem provocative. In fact, however, “Judgment Day” is rather modest for the contemporary Arabic literary scene, where issues of sex, politics, and religion are anything but taboo.

What is striking about the story is that the imam’s enemies remain in the background. The reader does not know who they are, where they come from, or why they do what they do. Until recently, this was a fairly common practice, as many popular Arabic novels would not depict “Islamists” as anything more than evil villains.

“Judgment Day” could, however, have benefitted from a fleshing out of the story of at least one of its villain extremists. A “bad guy” with a complicated and difficult background motivated by various interests and desires would have been a welcome foil to the depth and thoughtfulness of the book’s main characters.

In using very classical words and phrases and neglecting particular characters (the extremists) in favor of others (the young woman), the novel also risks giving off an air of elitism and embracing a Western discourse that stresses a secularism and classical culture removed from the daily concerns of average people in the Arab world.

Despite these shortcomings, however, readers are sure to enjoy “Judgment Day’s” compelling love story, which is full of interesting philosophical and spirituals musings set in an environment dominated by political and religious tensions. The novel provides an insider’s view on a society where most people are simply trying to live their lives, attempting to steer a course between traditional values and the demands of modern life, between the religious and the political.

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