Born on a Tuesday, the recently published debut novel from the Nigerian lawyer, writer, and Twitter personality Elnathan John, is an engagement with one of the most vexing questions of this or any other time: Why is religion a source of moral guidance and understanding for billions of people, and also the impetus for ISIS-type acts of violence that would seem to have no justification under any sane moral system? John hasn’t found an explanation for how or why violence can become the end-point of religious belief. But his story of a young Muslim man witnessing the rise of jihadism in northern Nigeria is an honest reckoning with the problem, and one with implications beyond its particular setting and religious context. For a non-Muslim and in this case Jewish reader, John’s novel suggests that religious violence springs from individual and external factors from which no one is totally immune.
We meet the narrator, Dantala, in his mid-teens, when he’s just graduated from a Qaranic academy. Unemployed and far from a family and a hometown that he hasn’t visited in years, Dantala becomes a street thug on behalf of a local political party in a peripheral town, but flees to Sokoto, the northwestern Nigerian city and one of the historic centers of Islam in West Africa, after he’s involved in burning down the headquarters of a rival party following a stolen election. In Sokoto, Dantala—whose name is Hausa for “born on Tuesday” and who begins going by the Arabic name Ahmed as his religious observance deepens—is taken in by Sheikh Jamal, a conservative Islamic preacher with vague ties to the region’s political establishment, and someone with a tolerant if slightly judgmental view towards the area’s growing Shi’ite population. An extremist former protege of the Sheikh founds a militant jihadist movement that declares war against the Nigerian state, as well as against any and all Muslims who are more liberal and tolerant than them. From Sheikh Jamal’s mosque, which abuts a truck stop in the middle of Sokoto, Ahmed watches events spin out of control, and struggles to arrive at some imperfect understanding of his place within them.
Throughout the book, we get only suggestions of the turmoil taking place just outside of Ahmed’s view, along with hints that the Sheikh and his followers aren’t quite paragons of moderation. The Sheikh supports sex-segregated education and advocates the gradual transformation of Nigeria into an Islamic state; in one of the book’s turning points, he quietly shames Ahmed into removing a picture of a popular imam from his room, after asking him to recite “the one sin that Allah … will not forgive:” namely, “to set up partners with Allah…a sin most heinous indeed.” An alert reader will understand the Egyptian-trained and Saudi-funded Sheikh to be on the more liberal end of Salafism. The Sheikh also presides over a flock that he doesn’t fully understand or control: In one scene, one of his followers calls one of Ahmed’s best friends an “infidel,” for the crime of “saying Osama shouldn’t have attacked America.” It turns out that one of Ahmed’s closest co-workers at the mosque was a plant from the Mujahideen’s death squad.
And in the larger sense, not even the austere Salafism of Sheikh Jamal is intense enough to capture the minds and souls of the Muslim youth of Sokoto, the most dangerous and disaffected of whom gravitate towards militant Shi’ism, or to the growing band of jihadists gathering in a training camp outside of town. “I am not sure if it is the hope of money that lures them, or the fact that the Mujahideen movement is something new,” Ahmed muses as he sees young men switch sides. “Everyone likes something new. Eventually people get tired and some other new thing takes over. It isn’t grounded.”
Ahmed isn’t oblivious, and his seeming distance from the growing crisis isn’t owing to any failure to fully comprehend the gravity of what’s going on around him. Rather, Ahmed is searching for an altogether different type of religious experience than the other poor, angry, and alienated young men surrounding him. He describes reciting the call to prayer in terms that any religious believer can recognize: “It transports me to a deep place away from everything around me. The feeling is one of being lost inside myself, a dark, peaceful place.” Ahmed witnesses how religion can turn a dusty motor park into sacred ground, and sees how the mosque can provide him with family, belonging, and purpose in life. But it’s clear by the end of the book that Ahmed has settled for living in a world in which Islam is capable of explaining everything, yet incapable of explaining everything all at once. “Allah knows the intentions of my heart,” he thinks to himself during moments of uncertainty. “That is all that counts.”
Ahmed’s faith is relatively quietistic—in one scene, he all but rolls his eyes at colleagues who fantasize about murdering Israeli soldiers in Gaza. But the book gives its readers a glimpse of why that isn’t possible for everyone around him. John’s novel hints at hidden Iranian and Saudi hands stoking the wildfire, but extremism is mostly portrayed as a local affair: The Nigerian state is depicted as indifferent at best and cravenly violent at worst. Politics and thuggery are synonymous. Ahmed is estranged from virtually his entire family, and doesn’t find out about the existence of his twin sisters, or the flood that killed them, until he finally visits his dying mother in his home town. When the state is an enemy and politics are next to meaningless—and in an environment where survival is tenuous and people appear and vanish seemingly without coherency or explanation—it’s natural to look towards the remaining pillars of individual discipline and meaning, regardless of whatever virulent form they end up taking.
I’m not sure if Elnathan John intended this, but his title recalls Falstaff’s speech on the facile nature of honor from Act V of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I: “Who hath [honor]?,” the knight wonders aloud. “He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead.” Does the final and “insensible” nature of death condemn all higher belief to meaninglessness? Ahmed does not reach Falstaff’s exact conclusion. But hopefully it doesn’t give away too much to say that end-point he reaches isn’t altogether different: Ahmed emerges from the novel’s traumas with his faith intact, but without a jihadist’s view of what that faith requires in the real world. This isn’t a fully encouraging conclusion, however, because John’s main takeaway is that the rejection of religious violence, like its embrace, results from an alchemy of human factors that lie beyond mere politics or reason.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.