"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Imam’s Daughter: My Desperate Flight to Freedom by Hannah Shah, Part 2

It’s been a few months since I wrote Part 1 on The Imam's Daughter, a coming of age memoir by Hannah Shah.  She was raised in an Islamic family who were Pakistani immigrants to England; she was abused by her father, who was the local Imam, and she  broke free when she found her family was arranging a marriage to someone she did not know or want.  I mentioned it was an intense story, a story I consumed in a handful of days.  I want to finish my thoughts on this non-fiction work because I found it disturbing and because I connected with poor Hannah on a visceral level.

I had just brought the reader up to where the father repeatedly raped his daughter, ostensibly because he wanted to punish her for what to him was sinful rebellion toward him and the family structure, and, though one can’t attribute raping one’s daughter to Islam, the father’s logic justified his actions through his religion.  Hannah compares the rapes to the lies her father used to get social benefits.

My dad’s decision to lie to the English government wasn’t dishonorable in our community, although being caught would have been. Honor wasn’t about what you did as much as what you were seen doing. If Dad had been caught, even then he might well have argued that taking what he could from the immoral land of goray was justified. And who in the community would have gone against him? Dad was unassailably honorable.
Indeed, in my father’s mind, there may have been nothing wrong with locking his young daughter in the cellar and beating and raping her. As long as no one outside the family knew about it, it would not dishonor the family, the community, or the mosque.

Slowly the child, struggling with the abuse, began to formulate a conception of God, and where else could she turn but to an image of her father.

When I read the Qur’an, I prayed for my life to get better, but it never did. So I began praying for my father to die. I knew it was sinful, but that didn’t stop me. Everything painful in my life flowed from him. If he was dead, life was bound to get better.
So I prayed to Allah to take Dad’s life. I didn’t really think it would happen, but it helped me deal with my anger. In any case, my prayers were never answered. I began to think that God—my father’s God—wasn’t listening. I began to think that my father’s God, Allah, was cruel and avenging, his heart devoid of love or happiness. Increasingly, I saw Allah in the image of my father. Allah threw people into the fires of hell and hung them up by their hair—at least according to my father. I lived in fear of Allah and his earthly agents: my mother and my father. I was aware, from the stories I had been told by the vicar in junior school, that Christians believed in a God who was loving and caring, and I thought the Christian God must be different from Allah. I was confused about the character of God, which was the beginning of my search for understanding and my questions about Islam.
This led Hannah on a lifelong search for an understanding of God.

I began searching for answers to my questions about Islam—questions that I wouldn’t have answered until years after. In the school library I saw an English translation of the Qur’an but knew Dad wouldn’t allow me to read it. Dad insisted the Qur’an, as rendered in Arabic, was the exact recording of Allah’s words. Translation was corruption, and the Qur’an lacked spiritual truth in other languages. The fact that none of us—Dad included—understood Arabic didn’t seem to concern him. Dad had learned all of what he assumed to be in the Qur’an at the madrassa in Pakistan when he was growing up. He had learned this without questioning his imam and from the way people in his village had practiced Islam.
The result was that I—like everyone on my street—had little idea what the scriptures actually said. All we knew were the teachings of Dad and a handful of other religious leaders. None of us questioned this teaching at the time.

And that is an interesting point she makes.  Most Muslims—actually most people irrespective of religion—don’t know firsthand account of their religion’s scriptures.  Most people gather their religious orientation from oral transmission, not from careful learning.  Not only did Hannah try to learn about Islam, but she tried to learn about a broad range of religions.

I found myself interested in what these other religions had to say about the relationship believers had with God. In my upbringing, Islam was about submission—blind, painful submission—yet many of these other faiths seemed to be truly enlightening. Adherents sought a personal, uplifting relationship with God, one based upon understanding God’s holy message. I was full of confusion. Why did we Muslims pray five times a day in Arabic when we didn’t understand a word of those prayers? My entire spiritual life felt like a memorized prayer: mumbled and incomprehensible.

Did this lead to confusion?  I would imagine so, even if she weren’t a child.  There is this notion that all religions are essentially alike, only mythos overlaid onto that supposed essence.  That is fundamentally wrong.  All religions are not alike.  I think it was G. K. Chesterton who pointed out that religions are superficially similar but inherently different.  The understanding of the nature of Allah is very different than the nature of the Christian God, and man’s relationship to Allah is very different than man’s relationship to the Judeo-Christian God.  This understanding is what formulates Hannah intellectual development.  Once Hannah escaped her family because of the forced marriage, one of her teachers, Felicity Jones, took her in and exposed her to their Christian faith.

Here was this person letting me stay in her house, in spite of the potential risks. I wanted to know more about her and her family—including their belief system. The idea of my parents inviting a fugitive stranger of another race and faith into their home was a total impossibility. Was Mrs. Jones’s religion one difference that helped explain such incredible generosity of spirit?
It had been drilled into me that I was a useless, godless child destined for hell, and I believed it. I knew I would never be good enough for my parents’ God. When Felicity had told me her God loved me, all those months ago at college, I had scoffed. How could there be a loving God? I was intrigued by Felicity’s idea of God, even while I didn’t believe it could be true.
The church was built of aged, gray stones.  It was Methodist, Felicity said, a term that meant nothing to me. Entering by the front steps, I saw row after row of wooden pews already packed tightly with churchgoers.

And the pastor at the church was as different from an Imam as possible.

The pastor was simply referred to as Bob. He was in his mid-fifties, and I was immediately struck by how human and intimate his sermon seemed. He started off by telling a story about something quite ridiculous that had happened to him over the weekend. I glanced around furtively, amazed as everyone laughed at Bob’s mishaps. No one would dare to laugh at a Muslim holy man like my father—and he would never deign to tell such a self-deprecating, human story.

And then she started comparing her experiences between the two religions.

I left feeling happy and intrigued. I was fascinated to know how the pastor could be so relaxed, even to the extent of mocking himself in a public house of God. Bob seemed excited by his faith, and by the life of Jesus in particular. I had been told by my father never to mention Jesus’ name in our house—what about him was so compelling to Bob and others?
The following Saturday I asked Felicity if I could go again. That Sunday there was a whole new sermon from Bob, “Amazing Grace” to finish again, and more funny stories in between. There was more excited talk about Jesus, too. For the first time in my life, I found myself enjoying being at a place of worship.
Since the sermons and readings were in English, I could understand everything. The prayers, especially, made sense to me. People prayed for those who were ill, and even for people from other countries and religions who were poor or unfortunate. They prayed for whatever misfortune had happened that week—an earthquake in South America or flooding in Bangladesh. There seemed to be a concern for the wider world, regardless of whether the people in question were Christian or otherwise. Our prayers at the mosque were always set verses from the Qur’an that never seemed to vary.

And then at a Christmas Eve service, she had a moment of intense spirituality.

On Christmas Eve we went to church for midnight service. As people arrived, there was a sense of expectancy in the air, of love being shared, and of Bob telling the Christmas story. I had seen the nativity plays at primary school, but this was the first time I really understood. Bob repeated the phrase “God became man”—which echoed inside my heart. I was amazed that God could become something as humble as a normal man, simply so he could be in relationship with human beings. I had expected God to rant and rave about how bad we humans were, not emphasize the love Bob kept talking about. God’s love made him come to earth as a man to communicate with us and care for us. Bob stressed the word over and over: Love. Love. God’s love. I felt my heart racing as Bob spoke, and I wanted to know Jesus. I wanted to be a Christian.

That night she had a full conversion.

I returned to the Jones house and went to bed, hoping to dream about the piles of presents under the tree. But I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about Bob’s words and what Julie said to me. So I prayed and, for the first time in my life, I prayed to a Christian God: “God, if you are real, if you exist and you are a loving God, then I want to know you, and I want you to come into my heart.” I never knew it was possible to have a relationship with God before the moment I prayed this prayer, and it really felt like a two-way communication. I sensed God say, “Yes, I am here. I do exist, and I love you.”
In that quiet moment I converted from Islam to Christianity!
The impossible had been made possible. I didn’t really think about it like that at the time. I didn’t think about the past—the last sixteen years of being a Muslim. I didn’t think about the faith of my birth. I was just lost in the emotion of the moment. I didn’t even consider what my changing faith might mean. I was ecstatic that there was a God who loved me and wanted a relationship with me. Me! I wanted to shout it to everyone, but I decided to keep it to myself for now and secretly enjoy the start of my new reason for living: my relationship with God.

I think that is the intellectual climax of her story, and I’ll stop there.  The events do continue.  Her family finds her and they attempt to kill her but she escapes, and she falls in love with a Christian, who asks her to marry and, in contrast to the arranged marriage her family was forcing her into, she accepts out of her free will.  It makes for great reading.  

Hannah's story is a window into a different world. Certainly not all Islamic families are this way, but there is no question that Islam played a part in the situation and how the events unfolded. Certainly not all Islamic fathers are abusive, controlling, and rapists, but Islam was certainly used to justify his behavior and, more importantly, allow the family and community to excuse it. Certainly not all Islamic families will attempt to kill their daughters over rebellion to a forced marriage, over family "honor," and apostasy, but one hears way too many that do, and many are not as lucky as Hannah. While the events of Hannah's story are at the extreme, the author lets us see the underlying logic and foundations of her community.

I grew to love Hannah. No child should ever be subject to such abuse, starting at the age of six. No woman should be subject to such control and what amounts to enslavement. It's a tribute to Hannah's shrewdness, desire for freedom, and survival instincts that she broke free of her repression. It's a credit to her that she now works to help other women in such circumstances. It's a credit to her that she has forgiven all, including her father, and come to a better understanding of Islam, which she finds in the ideal to be not as constraining as how her community practices it, though I wasn't exactly convinced. It was such a relief to find that in the end she found love, happiness, and a religion that believes in a loving God.


  1. Okay, now I want to read this book! And I also feel brokenhearted for Hannah and all children abused.

  2. Read it in one night. Heartbreaking, enlightening, infuriating, but there is at least relief for her in the end. One is left feeling unsettled to say the least, for all those who are not able to escape.

    1. Great. I was hooked too and read it nearly as fast. I'm glad you liked it.