Last Sunday, I was joined by Amir Ahmad Nasr for a conversation we entitled “The Birth Pangs of an Integral Islam.” It was an extraordinary conversation in that it provided the unique opportunity to get an “inside” view of one man’s journey to an Integral Islam. I think you’ll be inspired to hear Amir’s sober but fierce optimism about the evolution of consciousness in the Muslim world.
Amir is the formerly anonymous Arab Spring activist behind the internationally acclaimed sociopolitical blog The Sudanese Thinker, which inspired the rise of the Sudanese digital activism scene. When he was 26, Amir’s first book was released, the memoir My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind – And Doubt Freed My Soul. It was subsequently banned in Sudan and Malaysia which forced him to seek political asylum in Canada.
Amir and I have been friends for five years and, it’s been uplifting to witness his emergence onto the public stage. He is not only passionate about helping to create the conditions conducive to evolution in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world — he understands, deeply and authentically, that it’s an “Integral affair.” He is committed to the application of Integral approaches to cultural evolution in the Muslim world. He is a vivid example of Integral-in-Action.
I loved hearing Amir tell the story of the first stirrings of religious feelings during his childhood as he was moved by the beauty of the call to prayer. He gave us a glimpse of the interior experience of Muslim believers when he described the time he spent in the mosque in Qatar, memorizing passages from the Koran, and tapping into a blissful yet intensely charged sense of oneness that he knew was real.
And his description of a kind of “mental child abuse” at the hands of a fundamentalist imam was searing. It gave me insight into the psychology of unhealthy fundamentalism, and how it is inculcated in young boys.
But as much as I wanted listeners to hear Amir tell the story of his own journey of spiritual awakening, I knew we needed to begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Islam, more and more, has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Is there something inherently violent about Islam? Amir pointed out that the Arabic word “Islam” means “surrender” or “peace.” That “surrender” can be interpreted in a healthy, transcendent way, as transcending one’s ego and “surrendering from the heart.” But Islam emerged in a politically charged “red” warrior culture. In such a world, the role of religion is to enable people to defer personal gratification and conform to harmonious social behaviors. So in the fundamentalist Islamic world, this teaching of “surrender” is often interpreted as blind “submission” to authority. Amir argued that we need to differentiate Muhammad in his role as a religious leader from his roles as a political and a military leader in a warrior culture. If he’s viewed in a way that fuses those spheres, there will always be problems.
Amir still sees a great deal of beauty in the esoteric spiritual essence of Islam, even though its exoteric religious structures often suppress human rights. Because it’s rooted in the transition from warrior (Red) culture to traditional (Blue or Amber) culture, Islam tends to have a contentious relationship with the modern world. But while the “cultural fault line” of Islam does tend to be illiberal, there are many degrees of this that differ widely across the Muslim world.
Amir suggested that Islam is evolving in people’s hearts, privately and internally, behind closed doors. He described two little-known positive developments that are signs of dramatic shifts in consciousness in the Arab and Muslim worlds:
The changing media landscape—starting with the introduction of the Internet and cable TV and the advent of social media activism. The availability of cheap smart phones in the Middle East and North Africa has had huge ramifications. The first wave was the Arab Spring, but that’s only the first wave.
A major demographic shift— the Arab world is experience a huge “youth bulge.” As many as 60% of Arab populations are young people. And Muslims in their late teens to early 20s are much less conservative and traditional in their thinking than their parents.
According to Amir, this is why we should be excited: statistically, the highest rate of consumption per capita of YouTube videos in the entire world is in Saudi Arabia. Who’s doing all that viewing? Young women watching educational videos.
Also, of the top 10 YouTube channels in Saudi Arabia, 7 are comedy shows that subtly, but daringly challenge religious and political doctrine. These shows are produced by young people from their homes and have grown into massive media platforms. And many of these youth point to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show as their inspiration!
Amir says that the things being discussed on Twitter in Saudi Arabia today were unthinkable five years ago. But political change has not happened yet. After all, the older generations are still in power, and don’t forget, flogging and imprisonment are still enforcing the status quo. But there is a true shift in consciousness happening across the Arab world, in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia.
(Amir recommends reading this article on cultural change and this book on the new entrepreneurs of the Middle East for anyone seeking more insight into the major cultural changes taking place. And Amir’s friend Ahmed Al-Omran describes the changes happening in Saudi Arabia in his Oslo Freedom Forum talk here. )
The most dynamic part of the dialogue, in my opinion, was Amir’s personal story. After being convinced, while still an impressionable youth, that his intelligent questions were really the voice of Satan, he spent most of his youth, struggling to suppress his curiosity. This was a kind of child abuse, leaving him terrified that his intellectual and spiritual vitality might condemn him to the horrors of hell. Amir painted a vivid picture of the pain he endured while living with that intense cognitive dissonance.
Even after his family moved to Malaysia and he started to attend a liberal, modern international British high school, and gained access to a bigger intellectual world, he continued to sweep his doubt under the rug in the hopes that it would disappear.
It was only once he attended university that his real transformation began. What opened the door was simple — the free exchange of information with people he could relate to. He stumbled upon an anonymous blogger called “The Big Pharaoh” who wrote about God, sex, and human rights—a kindred spirit, a free thinker. Amir “became obsessed.” Here was a place where all of the questions he’d been told to ignore were being discussed openly! He began to explore the liberal Arab blogosphere and follow other Arab bloggers. He encountered the saying “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it,” and it became his personal rallying cry. The Big Pharaoh encouraged Amir to blog about his personal experience and his questions about faith and he became the first significant blogger from Sudan with The Sudanese Thinker.
I invite you to listen in to this timely and eye-opening conversation. You’ll hear about Amir’s development from atheism, to agnosticism, to trans-rational spirituality; and how Ken Wilber’s Marriage of Sense and Soul enabled him to make sense of it all. Get a front row seat to the birth of a truly Integral Islam. You can listen in here.