Review: ‘From Fire, By Water’ by Sohrab Ahmari

(March 2019)

The much-awaited spiritual memoir by the Iranian-American writer Sohrab Ahmari comes two and a half years after the author’s decision to convert to Catholicism accidentally became a topic of worldwide conversation.

It was July 26, 2016, and the world’s attention was firmly fixed on a church in northern France.

Two Islamic militants had invaded the church during Mass, before taking the tiny congregation hostage and decapitating the elderly abbé, Jacques Hamel.

Ahmari, already a well-known editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, was among those who reacted to the grim news on Twitter.

His response, however, marked him out as unique. He tweeted that this was “the right moment to announce that I’m converting to Catholicism.”

This resulted in a frenzy of retweets and news articles: the gist of which being that a Muslim journalist had been so appalled by this cruel act of jihadism that he had chosen to embrace Christianity instead.

This was not the case at all. Ahmari had never been a practicing Muslim, and was converting from atheism, not Islam. Social media, sadly, did not allow for much nuance, and this misunderstanding troubled Ahmari.

“The tweet had been a mistake,” he writes. “Conversion is foremost a matter of the individual conscience, and the Catholic Church’s cosmic mission is the salvation of souls; everything else flows from that. In my case, however, the political currents generated by the announcement risked overtaking this more crucial interior dimension.”

In the subsequent period, he has had time to reflect deeply on this interior dimension, and From Fire, By Water is the result.

This book is not about Islam. Nor is it an argument about the respective merits of Christianity vis-a-vis Islam.

Yet the author’s homeland of Iran looms large in his thoughts, as does the particularly virulent strain of Shia Islam which has been enforced by that country’s rulers from 1979 onwards.

Ahmari was born some years after the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and in recent times he has developed a reputation as one of the sharpest observers of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, writing about this for the WSJThe Boston GlobeThe New York Post and a range of other leading publications.

Exceptionally well-read and well-travelled, and blessed with the qualities of clarity and concision, he brings the same set of talents to bear when writing about his own life.

The opening chapters deal with Sohrab’s childhood in Tehran, and his description of his early life under the Ayatollah’s watchful eyes makes for fascinating reading.

Khomeini’s political Islam – mixed with the nationalist resentment which has intoxicated the Persian nation for so long – would quickly reveal itself to be a dramatic step backwards compared to the autocracy of the exiled Shah.

The Islamic Republic of Iran did not just place the country at odds with the United States; it also waged never-ending battles against ordinary Iranians.

Political dissent was banned along with alcohol, music, foreign movies and every other part of life that cosmopolitan Iranians had already grown used to enjoying.

Two key aspects of life in this environment were family and faith.

Far from being the product of a strict Islamic upbringing, Ahmari’s parents were in fact completely secular.

Although Iranian schools were heavily focused on religious education, no effort was made by his mother or father to instil any religious conviction in him, and what little exposure to religion he had came via his moderately religious grandparents.

His parents lived a remarkably bohemian and progressive lifestyle, going as far as to instruct their son to address them by their first names. They routinely flaunted the diktats of the religious authorities and imposed few if any of their own.

The elder Ahmari’s fecklessness and unreliability as a provider eventually caused this marriage to disintegrate. Like tens of millions of Americans, Sohrab is a child of divorce.

Unsurprisingly, the writer did not come to appreciate the degree of leniency he was shown as a child. To the contrary, he writes that the experience left him longing “for some cosmic and moral absolutes.”

In a different place and era, he could have found solace in religion. Iran in the 1990s was not fertile ground for a young man searching for a solid religious grounding without the trappings of totalitarianism.

Like other liberal-minded Iranians, Ahmari’s greatest problem with the Islamic religion was the restrictions on conscience and free will.

Refreshingly for a writer dealing with the problems within the Muslim world, he does not mince words when diagnosing the root cause of the authoritarianism all around him.

“[I]n broad swaths of the Islamic world, the religion of Muhammad is synonymous with law and political dominion without love or mercy,” he writes. “Islam is, as the French philosopher Pierre Manent has written, a ‘starkly objective’ faith. Where it spreads, a set of authoritative norms and a political community follow.”

In the Ayatollah’s Iran, those authoritative norms involved routine harassment by the religious police and constant fundamentalist indoctrination by all forms of authority outside the home.

When not whipped up into a revolutionary fury, many Iranians wistfully reminisced about the easier life they had enjoyed before the Shah had been replaced by the Ayatollah.

In Ahmari’s words, Iran provided two default moods: rage and nostalgia. Neither was in any way appealing.

Moreover, those tasked with upholding the Islamic faith were guilty of hypocrisy, and would often go to great lengths to ensure that they did not have to adhere to the high standards which they preached to the masses.

Before he managed to leave for America at the age of thirteen, Ahmari had already abandoned his faith in God. He never appears to have had any faith in Islam.

But this book is not about the religion or the revolutionary fire of his homeland; it is about the religion which he would eventually be baptised into after a long and circuitous journey.

Though the details of his difficult integration into American life are not quite as intriguing as the chapters dealing with Iran, his journey into adulthood and drift into revolutionary Marxism were more significant overall.

This period is also described with admirable clarity. Whereas the earlier part of the book deals primarily with external matters (his family and the political situation in Iran), from his arrival in America, a strong emphasis is placed on how his worldview gradually began to meander towards its final destination.

America had always been the ideal for him, but it proved difficult to embrace life in Mormon-dominated Utah. This led the moody teenager to become alienated from those around him.

For a young intellectual seeking purpose and a cause to believe in, a sharp turn to the Left was always on the cards.

Ahmari adopted Marxism with the zeal of a convert. Party and ideology became his lodestars, but the reader gets the sense that the dogmatism of his fellow leftists was always likely to drive him away eventually.

“My mind was now in thrall to a system that radically subordinated the self to the collective and the political party,” he writes. “Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere beyond the ramparts of monotheism?”

A philosopher by training and a voracious reader by habit, he continued to read and to ask questions of himself and of the world around him.

Throughout his journey in the philosophical wilderness, religion remains an ever-present in the background.

This is not the tale of a person struggling to find his way from one religion to another, and the author’s bad experiences within the most fervent branch of Shia Islam are of little consequence after his departure from Iran.

Instead, this spiritual memoir focuses on a theme which is more widely understood: the difficulties of accepting the existence of a personal God.

As with most things in the author’s life, the journey was neither short nor direct.

There was no miraculous event; and no spouse, family member or close friend who actively sought to persuade him to believe in any religious truth. No saintly cleric impressed him with their piety or convinced him that he needed to acquire their faith.

In spite of this, he persisted on his path towards greater understanding of life and its purpose.

After a childhood scarred by clerical tyrants of the worst kind, others would have switched off whatever religious antennae they had and given up.

While enjoying his comfortable life and blossoming career in America, Ahmari could have easily become one of the growing number of “nones” – those many Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all.

He did not.

First-hand experience plays a role in explaining the puzzle of his persistence, surely. While his philosophical journey occurs mainly in the realm of books, his voyage also involved significant interactions with those who exhibited what he came to believe was a higher standard of conduct.

These qualities, he believed, pointed to the existence of a universal standard of goodness, indicative of the objective morality, which in turn provided evidence of a personal God.

Coming to know this personal God, accepting the divinity of Christ and being received into the Church required another leap into the unknown, and for the remainder of the book, this process is also carefully laid out with commendable grace and honesty.

In truth, the topic of this book would not stand out were it not for the exotic background of its author.

Stories about conversions to Christianity are not new. The New Testament is filled with them: so are two thousand years worth of other Christian books.

What makes this book remarkable – apart from the author’s literary skill – is the compelling nature of the journey.

There are important lessons for other Christians along the way.

The starting point for Sohrab Ahmari with respect to religion is actually surprisingly similar to that of most of his Western contemporaries.

Religion was something distant – the belief system of earlier generations – and it was strongly connected to repressive elements in society.

True, Ahmari the philosopher is at pains to highlight how the Judeo-Christian roots of Western civilisation and how this helped him to grow closer to Christianity at a time when he was still a non-believer.

But most younger Americans and Europeans do not see things that way, and have not thought about such matters to that extent. 

Christian leaders and apologists need to get better at explaining how the Faith has helped to create and sustain the humane societies which we take for granted.

Triumphalism certainly needs to be warded off, but the apologetic, milquetoast tone of many modern Christian clerics is no better. They could learn a great deal from the frankness with which Ahmari writes about the problems within Islam, not to mention the emptiness of the secular worldview which he once clung to before rejecting entirely.

At the same time however, Christian readers would do well to reflect upon the situation in the Iran of his childhood, which exhibited features that are not alien to Christian communities either:

“My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rosewater. There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure. But when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia. I desired something more.”

Christian minorities within the post-Christian West will never stage a revolution, but a similar anger can certainly be detected among those struggling to come to terms with a society where the values of the majority differ sharply from their own. Anger with the world – and the corollary that the world is inherently bad – is the result.

Nostalgia is also a problem for those Christians in mourning for a more attractive yesteryear that never existed.

These twin feelings – rage and nostalgia – did not appeal to Sohrab Ahmari and they will not appeal to others of his generation. A church or community which offers them will be ignored, and deservedly so.

This book will appeal to those on their own quest for meaning, though.

And so too will the journey of an author whose talents could yet make him one of the most important Catholic writers of the twenty-first century.

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