This weekend's novel is called The Seeker of Truth by Mohammed Abd Al-Halim Abdullah, an historical novel about Salman Al-Farisi, a Zoroastrian Persian who converted to Islam and became one of the Prophet's companions. The book is a little slow but it focuses on Al-Farisi's literal and figurative journey towards Islam. I have just read the chapter where Al-Farisi meets a pagan Arab on a boat en route to Greater Syria. Upon first meeting each other, Al-Farisi asks the Arab of his religion. The undertone of their ensuing relationship revolves in large part around their differences of religion (Al-Farisi at this point has converted to Christianity) but in the end become good friends. I suspect they meet again later on in the story.
So far, I have empathized with Al-Farisi's yearning to be close to God, and have noticed that despite the plot of the book, religion in those times seemed to play a different role in people's lives. In the United States, and possibly in the Western world as a whole, people to me seem less defined by their religion as they are by their citizenships, their jobs, or their personalities. Back then, it seems, one's nation and one's religion were all that mattered. Al-Farisi, at this point in the story, is defined solely as a Persian and as a Christian.
Maybe in Western society, and I realize I am making generalizations here, we do not usually define ourselves this way because it is 2008 and we have Ipods and mortgages and all that other globalized, consumption, modernity, "one world" jazz. There is nothing wrong with this, and to me it is just the way it is and people are free to make their own choices about whom they want to be.
In Egypt, however, and I would venture to say other places in the Middle East and quite possibly around the world, though I don't have the experience to say so, nationality and religion are still defining aspects of one's identity. I have spoken before about how common it is for Egyptians to ask a person if they are Muslim upon first meeting them. I do not mean to insult here by saying that Egypt or the Middle East today is lost in a 7th century mentality. However, there is something to be said of that, and although this mentality can have obvious negative consequences which I won't touch on now, it has positive ones as well.
Personally, I feel something calming about the simplicity of this way of forming one's identity and it often makes me stop and think about who and what I really am.