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Narnia in the Eyes of A Young Muslim Reader

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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 strangers I might come across in the street -- 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 widespread corruption. So I really wanted to "belong" in Britain and be unambiguously on the side of right 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 beautiful honey-blonde girl in my class, who told me about a wonderful book she had read called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

It was really good, even unputdownable, and I read it in its entirety in one day. The book hit all of the right buttons: these were good children, like me; there were adventures which freed us from the tedium of school life and it was about justice and righteousness, which were very important to me. I so much wanted to belong, and I imagined sharing their adventures and being one of the Narnia children.

The scenes of Aslan's betrayal, execution and subsequent resurrection were very moving indeed.

As I progressed through the series, other frontiers opened up -- some exciting, some deeply troubling.

I think I felt the first stirrings of sexual desire whilst reading The Silver Chair. I imagined it was me, not Eustace, who was the hero going on that long trek with the lovely Jill (she looked delightful in the illustrations), carrying a sword, sleeping by a campfire and having those amazing adventures -- it was delicious in a forbidden way. (The emotional textures of sex and danger were entwined for me at that age.)

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" with the white English children and a feeling that I was condemned to be in the other camp, the Calormenes, the darkies from Calormen (colored men?) with their curved swords and spicy food and unmistakable Islamic cultural symbolism. I knew I wasn't a Calormene, but would my white English friends think of me as one?

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 exclaimed "May he live forever!" in exactly the same tone. It seemed to be a deliberate imitation of the Muslim custom.

At age eleven, I had an interview for the local boys' grammar school. My meeting with the Headmaster was a sorry array of missed 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). We discussed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and 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 had never seen the Christian religious parallels 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, my discomfort with the Narnia stories increased. While Muslims like to stress the commonality of Islam with Christianity -- the same Abrahamic 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. They also quoted extensively from Revelation, which they said foretold a chilling and catastrophic 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 his Calormenes appear so obviously like Muslims, yet their theology of worshipping and practicing 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.) He must surely have known this, but most of his readers would not have had enough knowledge about Islam to see this inconsistency.

If the Calormenes had instead worshipped an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God whom they insisted was the One and only One, that would have created a more 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 Revelation and its apocalyptic vision of the end times -- and a particular scenario is played out. Shift, the sly ape (representing the Antichrist of Revelation), persuades the simple donkey, Puzzle, to wear a lion-skin and pretend to be Aslan, deceiving many people in the process (clearly a 'false Christ'). 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 which Lewis has woven into them. Which is why I think they are a great read when you are nine years old, but more troubling later on.

As the years passed, the landscape for my own identity issues moved on, to the James Bond novels -- but that is another discussion.

Imran Ahmad is the author of 'The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West.' In April - June 2012 he is conducting a 50-city speaking tour of the mainland United States. Full details on: www.perfect-gent.com.