One of the main advantages of literature lies in its ability to communicate various cultural experiences and provide greater knowledge and deeper understanding of foreign traditions for the reader. In the Western civilization, Eastern religious traditions and cultures informed by them are perceived with interest, fascination and even fear; while lack of understanding can often impair successful interaction and communication.
In addressing the issue of religious values, the authors of two books, Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West and Children of Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man, provide a closer insight into two respective religious mindsets and illustrate impacts of these religions on lives of believers. Particularly, the book written by Ali Eteraz presents experience of a Muslim in Eastern and Western cultures (especially in America’s high school and college environments) in the form of memoir; whereas the book by T. R. Reid summarizes first-hand experience of the author and his family taken from life in Tokyo. Though the two books assume different perspectives of religion, both authors show how Confucianism and Islam shape societies and how these two mindsets differ in their teachings and impacts.
Why are these books similar?
Religion in society as the main theme
Reading both Reid’s and Eteraz’ books, anyone would notice immediately that both focus on the same subject, which is, of course, religion. However, neither of them addresses religion in isolation from society: both books seek to represent how the chosen religious mindset affects society and what actually motivates people to adhere to teachings of Islam and Confucianism. For instance, relying on his own experience, Ali Eteraz creates a narrative of his childhood in Pakistan as the background shaping his religious identity and his faith. Even more, the narrator’s religious identity was predefined by the name given to him by his parents, Abir ul Islam, which means fragrance of Islam.
Raised by extremely pious parents, the author was expected to grow up “a leader and servant of Islam” (Eteraz, 2009, p. 5), and his name reflects the parents’ hopes that he would spread Islam as a “beautiful fragrance” (Eteraz, 2009, p. 6). Describing his childhood in Pakistan, the author reveals how family and social factors fostered his own desire to be a pious Muslim.
Similarly, the second book traces roots of people’s exceptional adherence to the ideals of Confucianism and environmental factors that foster a desire to adhere to these ideals. It is even more interesting, however, that Japanese people absorb values of Confucianism even despite prevalence of other religions and religious syncretism. Although the nature of Confucianism is radically different from that of Islam, Reid emphasizes the role of social environment in development of this religious mindset, too. Japanese people are affected by their communities and values shared by their families.
In addition, Reid provides a broader perspective of the family and community’s role in internalization of moral and ethical values. While Eteraz shows how these values are transferred by Islamic families and communities, Reid follows the same trajectory and just expands the scale to the entire society viewed from the outside. Also, Confucius Lives Next Door illustrates how Confucian values are instilled through the long history of generations raising their children in the culture of collectivism, respect, mutual help and other Confucian virtues. Describing the way Japanese people do business, manage education and interact with each other, Reid shows that Confucian ethical principles have been enrooted so deeply in minds of Japanese people that they persist in the background of Japanese society even in modern days.
Contrasting Eastern religious mindsets with Western philosophy
Another important similarity between the discussed books emerges in the manner Islam and Confucianism are presented: both Eteraz and Reid discuss various elements of two religious frameworks drawing parallels to the mindset dominating over Western societies. Reid is a man from Colorado who moved to Tokyo and deepened his understanding of Eastern culture and the role played by Confucianism in cohesion and harmony of the local society.
Ali Eteraz, in turn, was born to pious Muslim parents to internalize Islamic mindset and travel to the United States. As the author moves from his native country to American stronghold of Christianity, i.e., the Bible Belt, and then to Manhattan, he reconsiders his own religious experience as contrasted with Western culture. Eteraz vision of society dominated by his Muslim identity is shown as very different from that of Western people whose society has been secularized to a considerable extent.
In Reid’s account of Japanese society living by Confucian values, Confucianism does not hold a tight grip on people’s minds as Islam does in Eteraz’ book, but its teachings and ideals are entrenched as deeply in Japanese society as Islamic values are entrenched in Muslim societies. Unlike in Western societies, the life of Ali Eteraz was connected with Islam in his early childhood: his parents rubbed his chest against the wall of the sacred Kaaba, promised him to Allah and raised him in the best Muslim traditions. Thus, having plunged into American society, the author is surprised by the West’s greater interest in secularism.
In turn, Reid uses many examples from Japanese society to contrast two philosophical systems dominating in Western and Eastern societies respectively. As an American exploring the way Japanese society, i.e. society of the richest Asian country (Reid, 2000), lives, Reid shows advantages brought about by Confucian philosophy promoting community benefits as contrasted to Western individualism.
Wearing “his American individualism on his sleeve” (Reid, 2000, p. 75), the author notices that collectivist tendencies of Confucianism turn out to be the key strength of Japanese society. For instance, Reid mentions that there is virtually no such phenomenon as uneven distribution of wealth between different parts of the city: when asked to show the riches neighborhood, Reid simply could not find any outside the Imperial Palace. Confucianism is described as a mindset dominating over people’s minds and encouraging them to be virtuous and put community interests over their individualistic aspirations, which is quite different from the approach of Western cultures.
Contrasting Reid and Eteraz’ books
Probably, one of the most significant differences between the two books lies in the nature and character of Confucianism and Islam. In Eteraz’ narrative, two distinctive dimensions of Islam become evident: a rather liberal approach and fundamentalism. The latter is portrayed as the mindset fostering strict adherence to Islamic teachings and hostility towards non-Muslims.
Ali Eteraz describes his own journey of faith including alienation of his parents’ growing fundamentalism, his discovery of his own origins and his struggle against two destructive extremes, secularism and extremism. The book is remarkable in the sense that it reveals and condemns aggressive Islamic fundamentalism and extremism rather justly, while the author struggles to find the golden mean of true faith somewhere between secularism and radical religious mindset.
In contrast to Islam as described in Eteraz’ book, Reid’s account of Confucianism portrays this philosophy as very friendly and focused on public good and harmony. His experience illustrates a far more peaceful and soft way used by the Japanese to spread Confucian philosophy.
Confucianism does not stand out as restrictive and authoritarian religion, it is rather practiced and promoted as a lifestyle, way of social interaction and peaceful attitude towards other religions. Such values as family, community, peace and non-violence are promoted in this society.
Reid shows that, unlike in many instances of Islamic societies, traditional moral values and principles serve rather as a source of society’s wellbeing and harmony: “Any society, as Confucius insisted, can benefit from the rituals and ceremonies that remind people that they live in a community with a shared moral and cultural tradition” (Reid, 2000, p. 159). Therefore, Reid’s book turns out to represent Confucianism as a doctrine of harmony and prosperity, while Eteraz provides a rather honest portrayal of Islam as a religion with a rather thin line between true faith and destructive radicalism.
In addition, Islam and Confucianism as portrayed by the two authors differ in the way they approach communities of believers. As illustrated by Eteraz, Islamic communities are mainly communities comprised by followers of Allah and obliged to follow his teachings to uphold his grace.
There is an emerging pattern of relationships with God where humans are rather servants, with humans being afraid of the god’s anger and punishment. For instance, fear of Allah is illustrated through the author’s experience in the Pakistani madrassa where corporal punishment waited for boys who exhibited poor Quran reciting skills. Moreover, virtually unbelievable fantastic stories told to plant fear and awe in children’s mind and prevent them from breaking the rules are described in the part of Eteraz’ book describing his childhood in Pakistan.
On the other hand, followers of Confucius embrace a more active position on producing public good and promoting prosperity of their communities. For instance, Reid writes about numerous public signs encouraging people to be good and virtuous in many aspects – an initiative consuming much money and time.
As Reid puts it, Japanese communities assume “a fairly confident view of mankind” (Reid, 2000) in contrast to a humbling effect Islam produces on its followers filling them with awe and desire to follow its teachings.
Having compared Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West and Children of Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man, I would give preference to the book by Ali Eteraz, though the religion and experience discussed in it are far more controversial than Confucianism.
Firstly, Eteraz’ book is particularly appealing as it describes the first-hand experience of a person who actually lives by the principles and teachings of Islam rather than just plays a role of an observer immersed in a foreign culture (like in Reid’s book). The author – as a Pakistani immigrant to the United States – undertakes a rather challenging task of revealing the sense of Islam through his personal experience and constructing an unbiased evaluation of the religion’s advantages and ‘dark’ sides.
In the recent decades, Islam has been perceived as an aggressive and dangerous religion posing threat for the West, and this fact is taken into account by Ali Eteraz: he does not try to defend Islam and show its superiority over other religions and secularism of the West. Instead, he manages to offer a just critique of Islamic radicalism and extremism, which are often justified by the Quran.
Interestingly, the author expresses his personal disapproval of this approach and seeks to show how Islam has affected his own life and worldview in a positive way. In the modern discourse of islamophobia and growing hostility between Muslim ad Western cultures, this book is a brilliant contribution to better understanding of the religion that has been demonized, while representation of Islam through the prism of an ordinary man’s personal experience helps turn Muslims back from demons to humans in the eyes of the Western people.
Eteraz, A. (2009). Children of dust: A portrait of a Muslim as a young man. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Reid, T. R. (2000). Confucius lives next door: What living in the East teaches us about living in the West. New York, NY: Vintage Books.