Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 14:44 UK

East meets West on island paradise


Life on the Edge - Edge of Islam

Globalisation has left some people facing dilemmas for which history is no guide. Steve Bradshaw travels to the island of Lamu off Kenya for the BBC World News series Life on the Edge, to find out what the influx of Western wealth means to one devout Muslim.

Lamu Abdulkarim
Abdulkarim says working for tourists could compromise his faith
Imagine that you might have to compromise your faith to fulfil your dreams. That's the dilemma faced by Abdulkarim, here on this achingly beautiful island.

Abdulkarim needs money to pay off his school fees. And on this wild ocean coast, the quick way to make cash is to work for Western tourists. The problem is, Abdulkarim doesn't want to work for the glamorous newcomers, convinced it would offend his Islamic convictions.

But if he doesn't, he could yet face a future hawking tomatoes, instead of fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor.

It's a tough choice, especially for an 18-year-old who has just had the best exam results of the year.


Today Abdulkarim's playing football on Lamu's sand pitch with his old school friends Abubakar and Arafat. They're all devout Muslims, and they all face the same dilemma - they just can't agree how to resolve it.

Lamu locator map

The three are hundreds of dollars in arrears with their school fees. If they don't raise the money, their headmaster won't unlock his filing cabinet, and hand over their exam certificates (hardly a surprise, given the school's parlous finances). Without the precious certificates, they can't prove they have had the education they need to pursue a decent career.

Watching them on the football pitch, you would think that Abdulkarim and his friends share common values and aspirations - and not just to be an African David Beckham.

But, while sympathizing with Abdulkarim's tourist boycott, Abubakar has joined up rather more hesitantly. He just hopes he can still find a way of training to be a language teacher.

In the meantime, the laid-back Arafat reckons both his friends are in danger of closing down options too fast. He sympathizes, but doesn't think there is anything wrong with working for Westerners. Not only does he sail dhows for the tourists, Arafat jokes that he would like to have a European girlfriend, just like some of his friends have done.


Small alley on the island
Tourists are attracted by the Island's beauty and slow pace of life
The Indian Ocean washes Lamu's eastern shores, and the island has traded with Arabia for centuries. It is largely Islamic - the muezzin's call drifts down film set alleys, across stalls with nameless fish and down the lovely pink sands.

At first glance, it appears untouched by the 21st century - the only vehicle is an ambulance, with donkeys and dhows competing for the island's transport franchise. But there is one trend Lamu isn't immune from, and it's called globalisation.

Lamu's a Marrakesh in the making - its languorous beauty has attracted models, Britart heroines, European princesses (along with African old-timers). Those white-walled houses the tourists are buying up probably cost more than a Moroccan riad.

They are the kind of folk celebrated by their needs. If you are looking for a way to pay your school fees, they might be just the sort of people you want around. You can show them round the island, concierge their homes, fix their drinks...

While there is no wild hedonism - at least in public - many of the stricter Muslims like Abdulkarim are convinced the incomers include some drug-taking, promiscuous types. And that's why he's been manning a tomato stall, his dream of becoming a doctor stalled.

Edge of Islam

But all is not lost, if he can't be a medic, Abdulkarim wants to be an Imam. And even an outsider can see he is bright, sensitive and strong-willed enough to be a fine mentor.

We want from Westerners their knowledge, but not their culture
Mahmoud Ahmed Abdull Kadir, Imam
But his friends are worried he is interpreting Islam too strictly, and may ruin his career of choice for no good reason.

For our three students, finding the edge of Islam - where the borders are - remains a life-changing issue.

As we left the island, Abdulkarim was standing by his decision not to work with tourists, Abubakar was still just about taking his side, while Arafat was happy to carry on sailing dhows for the friendly, moneyed strangers who are generally welcomed here.

Arafat could see the point of view of his friends, but kindly wondered if Abdulkarim's rigour may not have more to do with character than religion.

And there is a wider dilemma.

The three students' Imam puts it this way: "We want from Westerners their knowledge, but not their culture."

The island's school
The school has certificates dating back 20 to 30 years
By culture, Mahmoud Ahmed Abdull Kadir, who is also a local baker, means more than drugs, discos and diamonds. He is thinking of the whole bundle of freethinking, permissive values most Western visitors take for granted.

It is a friendly, low-key rebuke made while selling freshly baked loaves. But he does look hurt when he says Islam's currently on the losing side. It's a reminder that this debate reaches down the centuries, and far beyond the north-east Kenyan coast.

And so we leave our friends with choices still to make.

But, it's worth remembering that in the days before globalisation, many other students never had such an opportunity. In the headmaster's cupboard are certificates going back 20, even 30 years.

The students who earned them could never afford to claim them. We can only speculate what difference that made to their lives.

Life on the Edge begins on BBC World News on Tuesday 5 August at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.


I agree totally with Abdulkarim and the choices that he is making. There is no need to compromise on his religion, for the sake of worldly gain. Yes, in an ideal world all of us Muslims would like to be able to do jobs that are 'halal' and in turn be able to train in other professions and or help with our education, but our purpose in this life is Worship of God, and that comes first or should come first for real Muslims. That does not mean we can't make success of our worldly lives, no. Verily, the Prophet (pbuh) was a very successful businessman, but he did not do that by bending the rules of the Religion. Instead he used his wisdom and knowledge to make and run businesses and we can emulate that. I ask Allah to assist Abdulkarim in his goal, for surely Allah helps those that are sincere, and He is the best of Helpers. Ameen.
Akhi, London, UK

The problem is not the West's wealth or culture, the problem is religion's critical need to extinguish all conflicting ideas.
benito gonzales, las cruces, nm,usa

Since Knowledge is power the students should opt for knowledge versus religion. There are millions of people stuck in religious schools unable to make a decent living, this turns them against others who are prospering. As long as one wants knowledge via education, the person can still serve his/her Islamic duties by being a good citizen and then a good doctor. Many rules of the law were prescribed based on what was happening in those days, it may not be applicable today, the methods of application have also changed, we have courts that dispense justice, instead of the mob of uncouth, working as a gang under the banner of religion. Knowledge opens the hearts, mind and ability to see things in different perpectives.
Chandru Narayan, USA

As I sit here in the U.S., I do respect the boys' desire to be true to their faith. I exhort them to continue to find the balance between being true to themselves and taking advantage of the financial opportunities available to them. As the Iman said of the Westerners, "We want from Westeners their knowledge, but not their culture". That's fine, if you agree that in this situation that "the end justifies the means". The education you have received is valuable - get that paper that proves it, even if it means working with Westerners. Abdulkarim, you may find you do not have to compromise your personal standards at all, but the end result may be one of increased inknowledge, money rightfully earned, proof of education, and ultimately, the ability to follow your dreams. My best wishes to all.
Kimberly, Bronx, N.Y., U.S.A.

I agree with the youngsters views and I am very inspired by him.
naza, london

Abdul karim should trust in his Islamic teachings and principles, no one can change how he is indside and no matter how hard they try. He has to trust himself as well. The test for him is to meld both keeping one mighty (Islam) and the other as a requirement to need.
Imran Yakub, London, England

My knowledge of Islam is limited, but from my knowledge of the Bible, Jesus ate alongside tax collectors and prostitutes, people who had a very bad reputation at that time. You will win no converts if you isolate yourself from non-believers. Someone who cuts himself off from non-believers because he believes he is better than them is about as useful to the work of God as a chocolate teapot.
Graeme Phillips, London, UK

Pity about all the 'western values' stuff. I've been working in Muslim countries for a decade. You see all sorts, just like anywhere else. In Saudi Arabia, the Saudi's won't work. They want all the material things though. In North Africa, they treat each other poorly. Islam is not meant to have a heirarchy, but you soon find it does. Then there is the old Shia versus Sunni thing. It also sounds like an uneducated boy will end up being an Imam, and carry all his preconceptions with him. I'm sorry, but to understand Islam, you have to think in terms of the Christian world in the 1400's, which is where that religion takes it's believers now.
Ray, North Africa

Aren't the pursuit of knowledge (ilm), compassion, generosity, and charity also Islamic values? While I can understand the schoolmaster's dilemma, it seems these young men should turn a critical eye not just toward the West's consumption and tourist's behavior, but also toward their own society. A system and outlook which blocks bright young people from becoming highly skilled contributors to their community simply because they can't come up with the (large sum) of cash necessary to have their certificate discharged to them doesn't seem to jive with much of what I've learned about Islamic morals and ethics. Surely, doctors who heal the sick and comfort the dying are seen as worth having in communities of Muslims just as they are in the West?
Andy, Washington, DC, USA

Every case can only be judged on its own merit. Reading your article I understand that the young man is saying he cannot work for Western tourists period. That is not the case in Islam, if your work is deemed to be within the laws and regulation of Islam it is still allowed. Every individual is responsible for their own actions. If a tourist takes part in drug taking and Abdulkarim has not taken part in it which includes encouraging, he is not responsible or liable in the laws of Islam, a simple task of sailing a boat for tourist, concierge rooms or taking them around the island is permissable. Knowingly going inside places were it allows alochol and drugs are places is not allowed. Places like bars and night clubs are such expamples.
Tafazzul Miah, London, England

It is ironic that while the Saudi and other Gulf rolalty could both be 'defenders of the faith' and the best friends and patrons of Western institutions from NYC banks to Los Vegas casinos, the poor kids of Africa should choose between faith and values. This dilemma haunted the West a century ago and the Asians a few decades ago.Hopefully, tribal-feudal values would give way to values based on humanism and "reverence for life". Spiritualism may yet survive, even as theology and institutionalized religious authority fade.
Thiruvengadam Ramakrishnan, Richmond, TX, U.S.A.

Note this sentence when the Imam is speaking about Western culture: "He is thinking of the whole bundle of freethinking, permissive values most Western visitors take for granted. " In other words, we don't want people to have personal freedom to even THINK that Islam might be wrong or that it's value system could be reinterpreted or just plain ridiculous. Muslims are jealous of the success enjoyed by non-Muslims are over the world and feel entitled to the wealth and success enjoyed by the West. What they don't understand is that both come from free and open societies where people have the ability to think for themselves.
Andrew Stangl, Lawrence,KS,USA

History sure does provide a guide. Centuries ago, foreign Arab traders came bringing new knowledge, culture and religion to indigenous peoples all around the Indian Ocean and SE Asia. These people saw advantages to the new ways and melded them into their existing culture. So, now will the people of Lamu. It may take time, but history has a way of moving us along its path.
Karl Ruser, Center City, MN USA

The world needs more doctors. No matter how much one prays it won't make anyone better if they are seriously ill. Abdulkarim could help a lot of people if he helps himself. I hope that Abdulkarim sees sense and realises that contray to some peoples beliefs, the Worship of God is not what one's life is about.
Patrick Stevens, Malmo, Sweden.

If Abdulkarim becomes a physician, he will be serving more than a few people who are violating his religious laws. If he is unable to deal with this, maybe he is better off working in a tomato stall. And his world will remain a primitive backwater, what a waste!
Dr. Dan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

I have been to this part of the world and the beauty is striking, unforgettable. The issue, while particularly important to these young men, resonates with Westerners them/ourselves. I have many friends who have to balance out the question: How do I live a life according to the values I hold dear and be financially successful. For those of us who dreamed of being teachers or painters or singers - many of us (thought not all!) have had to give up these dreams, or compromised them in some way, in order to pay bills, loans or have an apartment/house that isn't crawling with vermin and the walls aren't peeling.

Fortunately, in the "Western" world, we are not looked down upon for making those compromises. Also, fortunately, many people stick to those uncompromised dreams - with perhaps a few compromises. But the temptation to "sell out" (note the negative connotation, even in English) is always there. It's hard.

And in the end, you just make the choice that you can live with. I wish/hope all of us stick to our dreams and values - and give ourselves permission to be flexible. But that is my value system. I can't expect everyone to think like me.
Zoe, Belgium (via NYC)

Muslims cannot tolerate Western culture whatsoever, I mean, there is nothing wrong with working for tourists, as long as this young man is not stupid enough to start doing drugs or drinking himself.
Michael McLeod, South Lake Tahoe, California, United States

How sensitively we treat the racism and discrimination of the west at the hands of Islam. While this is a matter for this young man's conscience we shouldn’t be too sympathetic to his parochial ways. Would a story about a young man in London refusing to work for or with Muslims be treated with such an understanding tone?
Ruairidh, London, UK

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