Imran Ahmad was born in Pakistan and grew up in London. He was lucky enough to attend Hampton Grammar School, but too lazy to get the grades he needed to get into medical school. Instead, he ended up at Stirling University in Scotland, studying Chemistry, learning about Islam and trying to impress women. He was quite successful in Chemistry and became quite knowledgeable about Islam as well, but he didn't impress any women - despite having an Alfa Romeo and a microwave oven (possibly the only privately-owned microwave on campus at that time). Imran's career began in Finance and later transitioned to Information Systems - a subject he finds quite baffling. Fortunately, no one has realized that he knows little about computers. He is also a qualified accountant, but he prefers not to mention this. In his book, Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West, Imran charts his course through school, university and into his first job, exploring with poignant humour and painful insight the dilemmas of a Muslim boy growing up in Britain. Unimagined has had some wonderful reviews and was selected by no less than three major newspapers in their 'books of the year' lists. In this post Imran writes about C.S. Lewis's Narnia books.
Imran Ahmad on the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
For a darkie like me, there was a depressing undercurrent in Britain in the 60s and early 70s - that I didn't belong and should 'go home'. In those days this imperative - eloquently articulated by various strangers I might come across in day-to-day life - did not have the general unacceptability it would today.
But from an early age I knew that Britain was a better place to live than Pakistan (my supposed 'home'), which had its own forms of endemic racism and tribalism, hideous social injustice, and total corruption. So I really wanted to 'belong' in Britain, as well as being unambiguously on the side of justice and good.
There were two series of books which were really poignant for me in this respect - each in its own time and age: Narnia and James Bond.
My incursion into Narnia began at the age of nine, when fortuitously I engaged in a deep conversation with Kim, a girl in my class, and she told me about a wonderful book she had read called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. On my next Saturday morning excursion to Putney High Street, I managed to persuade my mother to let me have a book from the exciting WH Smith (as I always did - in retrospect I don't think she presented much opposition) and when I looked through the glorious shelves of children's paperbacks, that book which Kim had told me about caught my eye.
'I'm choosing this one,' I told my mother enthusiastically. 'Someone in my class told me it's really good!' (Little did I suspect that 35 years later I would write about this.)
It was really good, it was un-put-down-able and I read it in its entirety that very day - finishing in time for Doctor Who (after the tedious football results).
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hit all of the right buttons in me; these were good children, like me, there was adventure which freed us from the tedium of our school lives and it was about justice and righteousness, which were very important to me. I so much wanted to belong and I imagined having these adventures with them, of being one of the Narnia children.
It was also a very moving book. The scenes of Aslan's betrayal, execution and subsequent resurrection brought a tear to my eye - not something a nine-year-old boy wants anyone to notice.
As I progressed through the books, other frontiers opened up - some exciting, some deeply troubling.
I think I felt the first stirrings of sexual desire when reading The Silver Chair. The idea of going on that long trek with the lovely Jill (she looked delightful in the illustrations), of carrying a sword, of sleeping by a campfire and having those amazing adventures - it was delicious in a forbidden way. (The textures of sex and danger were entwined at that age.) I imagined that it was me and not Eustace who was the hero of The Silver Chair. (Would I have succeeded in this quest as he did?)
But there was an aspect of Lewis's world which caused me great discomfort. The enemies of Narnia were from a country called Calormen, and we learned more about them as we progressed through the books - especially The Horse And His Boy. These people looked unmistakably like Saracens, medieval Muslims; the Narnians themselves looked like Crusaders. In wanting to identify with the characters, I was torn between a natural desire to be on the side of 'good', the white English children, and a feeling that I was condemned to be in the other camp, the Calormenes, the darkies from Calormen (coloured men?) with their curved swords and spicy food and unmistakable Islamic cultural symbolism. These thoughts caused me discomfort, but I still enjoyed the stories.
One specific example troubled me deeply. Whenever Muslims mention the Prophet Muhammad, they are supposed to proclaim 'Peace be upon him!' as a sign of respect. Whenever the Calormenes mentioned their leader, they always proclaimed 'May he live forever!' in exactly the same tone. It seemed to be a deliberate imitation of the Muslim custom.
It wasn't until my 11+ assessment for the local boys' grammar school that I suddenly realized the Christian religious parallels.
My interview with the Headmaster was a sorry array of lost opportunities to impress. I seemed to keep getting questions wrong. We moved on to a somewhat theological discussion, in which he asked me if I was a 'Mohammedan' (I didn't dare to correct him by explaining that this is a term Muslims do not accept, as it implies worship of Muhammad), but I also learned in this discussion that Christians consider Jesus to be, not just 'Son of God', but also 'God'. He was not preaching; we were discussing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its parallels to Christian theology. It suddenly hit me: Aslan was 'the son of the Great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea' and he came back to life after being killed by his enemies – he was supposed to be Jesus! I never saw this before; I just thought it was a great story.
As I grew older and had a series of intense discussions with some particularly abrasive evangelical Christians (who seemed to gravitate towards me), my discomfort with the Narnia stories increased. Whilst Muslims like to stress the commonality of Islam with Christianity - the same Judeo-Christian roots, the belief in one (and only one) God, the belief in all the Prophets – my Christian evangelizers always stressed the opposite, claiming in the worst cases that Islam was a false religion deliberately created by Satan to mislead people from the only true salvation of Jesus Christ. Whilst Muslims like to explain that Allah and God are actually the same, in different languages (and Arabic translations of the Bible use the term 'Allah'), the Christians were adamant that this was also Satanic deceit - that Allah and God were not the same.
They also quoted extensively from Revelations, the most disturbing Book of the Bible (and one totally inconsistent with Jesus's attitude), to foretell a chilling and turbulent vision of a global war between True Believers (i.e. Christians) and Unbelievers (mostly Muslims), led by the Antichrist (who reports to Satan).
All of these elements became apparent to me in the Narnia books, many years after I had first read them.
Lewis does seem to demonize Islam, making the Calormenes look so obviously like Muslims, yet their theology of worshipping and practising human sacrifice to a hideous idol-god called Tash could not have been more un-Islamic. (Islam is endemically opposed to anything even vaguely resembling idolatry.) The trouble is, most of Lewis's readers would not have had enough knowledge about Islam to see this inconsistency, but surely he must have known.
If the Calormenes had worshipped instead an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God whom they insisted was the One and only One, that would have created a more interesting and authentic situation, but one much harder to deal with in black-and-white, good-versus-evil terms.
The Last Battle is the darkest book of the series - entirely reminiscent of Revelations and its dark, apocalyptic vision of the end times - and a particular scenario is played out. Shift, the sly ape (representing the Antichrist of Revelations), persuades the simple donkey, Puzzle, to wear a lion-skin and pretend to be Aslan, deceiving many people in the process. Shift is always in the background, orchestrating the messages from Aslan, one of which has a particular resonance with my discussions with the Christian evangelists; Shift puts out the (obviously untrue) assertion that 'Aslan and Tash are the same'. In this I hear echoes of the old argument: Muslims propose that God and Allah are the same; evangelical Christians vehemently oppose this.
Decades later, I still find it hard to reconcile the fact that the Narnia books are immensely enjoyable and gripping children's stories with the theological undercurrents and conflicts which Lewis has woven into them. Which is why I think they are a great read when you are nine years old, before adults spoil them by pointing out the religious themes. The whole concept of peaceful, respectful coexistence crumbles when certain elements, on both sides, dehumanize the other and insist that they work for Satan, and warn that the end of the world is coming. These beliefs drive extreme behaviour. It's enough to turn anyone into a secular humanist.
And I don't think my problem of wanting to belong amongst the English children was ever resolved with respect to the Narnia stories. Would they have looked at me as a Calormene?
As the years passed, the landscape for my identity issues moved on, to the James Bond novels - but that is another discussion.