Study Guide

The Kite Runner Religion

By Khaled Hosseini

Religion

Chapter 2

The following week, after class, I showed the book to my teacher and pointed to the chapter on the Hazaras. He skimmed through a couple of pages, snickered, handed the book back. "That's the one thing Shi'a people do well," he said, picking up his papers, "passing themselves as martyrs." He wrinkled his nose when he said the word Shi'a, like it was some kind of disease. (2.24)

Amir receives wildly different educations on ethnicity and religion right at the start of the book. (Background Note: Hazara people are typically Shi'a Muslims and the Pashtun people are typically Sunni Muslim.) Amir's mother, whom we later discover was a kind and enlightened university professor, owned a book which included Shi'a Muslims in the official history of Afghanistan. That seems very important since Amir strikes Hassan, a Shi'a, from his personal history. Then there's Baba who loves and respects Ali (also a Shi'a Muslim), but who doesn't refer to Ali as his friend. And at the other extreme: Amir's teacher, the soldiers, and Sunni society in general which consistently discriminates against Shi'a Muslims. Amir has to navigate these different degrees of racial tolerance. Where does Amir end up in this spectrum? How does Amir treat Hassan? Is Amir guilty of religious discrimination against Hassan?

Chapter 3
Baba

When I was in fifth grade, we had a mullah who taught us about Islam. His name was Mullah Fatiullah Khan, a short, stubby man with a face full of acne scars and a gruff voice. He lectured us about the virtues of zakat and the duty of hadj; he taught us the intricacies of performing the five daily namaz prayers, and made us memorize verses from the Koran – and though he never translated the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear us better. He told us one day that Islam considered drinking a terrible sin; those who drank would answer for their sin on the day of Qiyamat, Judgment Day. [...]

"I see you've confused what you're learning in school with actual education," he [Baba] said in his thick voice.

[Amir:] "But if what he said is true then does it make you a sinner, Baba?"

"Hmm." Baba crushed an ice cube between his teeth. "Do you want to know what your father thinks about sin?"

[Amir:] "Yes."

"Then I'll tell you," Baba said, "but first understand this and understand it now, Amir: You'll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots."

[Amir:] "You mean Mullah Fatiullah Khan?" [...]

"They do nothing but thumb their prayer beads and recite a book written in a tongue they don't even understand." He [Baba] took a sip. "God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands." (3.13-25)

Hosseini depicts a liberal, Westernized Afghanistan through the character of Baba. Most of us probably think of Afghanistan as a traditional Islamic country – and some of that's true. But that thinking ignores the people like Baba, of an earlier era, who lived in larger cities like Kabul. Baba also has Westernized tastes: action movies, American cars, scotch. We can place Baba against the more extreme Taliban-ruled era – he's a throwback to the urban, secular Afghanistan of Amir's childhood.

Chapter 12

I took the form and turned it in. That night, I waited until Baba fell asleep, and then folded a blanket. I used it as a prayer rug. Bowing my head to the ground, I recited half-forgotten verses from the Koran – verses the mullah had made us commit to memory in Kabul – and asked for kindness from a God I wasn't sure existed. I envied the mullah now, envied his faith and certainty. (12.108)

It's easy to forget about Amir's own religious convictions. Though he's not particularly religious as a boy, and seems under the sway of his father's secularism, Amir does develop a Muslim faith in the book. This plot plays a more or less minor role, but it's present nonetheless. In this passage, Amir turns to Islam for the first time for comfort and reassurance after a suspicious spot shows up on Baba's CAT scan. Later, he will pray devotedly to Allah when Sohrab tries to commit suicide. By the end of the book, we learn that Amir knows his daily prayers by heart. So what kind of Islam does Amir practice? Is it the same as Assef's or is it something different altogether?

Chapter 13

Earlier, at the gravesite in the small Muslim section of the cemetery, I had watched them lower Baba into the hole. The mullah and another man got into an argument over which was the correct ayat of the Koran to recite at the gravesite. It might have turned ugly had General Taheri not intervened. The mullah chose an ayat and recited it, casting the other fellow nasty glances. I watched them toss the first shovelful of dirt into the grave. Then I left. Walked to the other side of the cemetery. Sat in the shade of a red maple. (13.60)

On an emotional level, this event must pain Amir quite a bit. Here he is trying to mourn his father – to say goodbye to his father – and the mullah and some dude are arguing about the prayer. We at Shmoop want to say to the mullah and this other guy: "Forget about the prayers – you two are the improper ones!" In the larger context of religion in the novel, though, Hosseini comments on the occasional divisiveness of religion. In the cemetery scene, both the mullah and the man miss their more important religious obligation, which is not the correct prayer, but compassion for Amir and respect for his deceased father.

Chapter 21

When the prayer was done, the cleric cleared his throat. "Brothers and sisters!" he called, speaking in Farsi, his voice booming through the stadium. "We are here today to carry out Shari'a. We are here today to carry out justice. We are here today because the will of Allah and the word of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, are alive and well here in Afghanistan, our beloved homeland. We listen to what God says and we obey because we are nothing but humble, powerless creatures before God's greatness. And what does God say? I ask you! WHAT DOES GOD SAY? God says that every sinner must be punished in a manner befitting his sin. Those are not my words, nor the words of my brothers. Those are the words of GOD!" He pointed with his free hand to the sky. My head was pounding and the sun felt much too hot.

"Every sinner must be punished in a manner befitting his sin!" the cleric repeated into the mike, lowering his voice, enunciating each word slowly, dramatically. "And what manner of punishment, brothers and sisters, befits the adulterer? How shall we punish those who dishonor the sanctity of marriage? How shall we deal with those who spit in the face of God? How shall we answer those who throw stones at the windows of God's house? WE SHALL THROW THE STONES BACK!" He shut off the microphone. A low-pitched murmur spread through the crowd.

Next to me, Farid was shaking his head. "And they call themselves Muslims," he whispered. (21.79-81)

We probably don't need to remind you the cleric here is actually none other than Assef. Farid comments that Assef isn't a real Muslim – and it is difficult to square the theatricality of the punishment here with Islam. This event seems to have more in common with totalitarian regimes than with Islam in particular. Also, it's worth thinking ahead to Assef's own punishment: partial blindness by Sohrab's hand. In what ways is this an ironic punishment for Assef? Is it a punishment "befitting his sin"? However, we at Shmoop think you shouldn't consider justice in The Kite Runner too long – because it seems like there's such a short supply of it.

Chapter 22

They dragged me out and he started kicking me. He had knee-high boots with steel toes that he wore every night for his little kicking game, and he used them on me. I was screaming and screaming and he kept kicking me and then, suddenly, he kicked me on the left kidney and the stone passed. Just like that! Oh, the relief!" Assef laughed. "And I yelled 'Allah-u akbar' and he kicked me even harder and I started laughing. He got mad and hit me harder, and the harder he kicked me, the harder I laughed. They threw me back in the cell laughing. I kept laughing and laughing because suddenly I knew that had been a message from God: He was on my side. He wanted me to live for a reason. (22.81)

This guy's religion is weird. In the passage, Assef recounts how communist soldiers arrested him and beat him. But during his beating, Assef comes to a bizarre realization: God wants him to purge Afghanistan of Hazaras (see 22.83 to 22.89). Because the soldier actually helps Assef pass a kidney stone, Assef laughs during what should be a painful ordeal. Certainly Assef must have seemed insane to the torturer. As he beats Assef, Assef also shouts out a phrase which means "God is great." How do pain and religious insight mix in unsavory ways here? Does this episode explain Assef's cruelty (or was he cruel long before)?

Chapter 24

That night, we were lying on our beds, watching a talk show on TV. Two clerics with pepper gray long beards and white turbans were taking calls from the faithful all over the world. One caller from Finland, a guy named Ayub, asked if his teenaged son could go to hell for wearing his baggy pants so low the seam of his underwear showed. [...]

On the TV screen, the two mullahs were consulting each other. [...]

The mullahs decided that Ayub's son would go to hell after all for wearing his pants the way he did. They claimed it was in the Haddith. (24.120-137)

On the surface, it seems like Hosseini is again commenting on how religion can get focused on the wrong things (see 13.60 above). During this television program, though, Amir is sitting next to Sohrab in their hotel room. Amir recently told Sohrab that he and Hassan were half-brothers. This confession must have brought up all sorts of guilt: his betrayal of Hassan and the fact he never really told his father what happened to Hassan and how he abandoned Hassan. Sohrab's rescue, in a way, is Amir's attempt to be good again, his penance for leaving Hassan in the alley and sending Ali and Hassan away. Does Sohrab's rescue redeem Amir? Does Amir believe in the same hell as the cleric on the TV program?

[Raymond Andrews:] "Of course," he said. Cleared his throat. "Are you Muslim?"

[Amir:] "Yes."

[Raymond Andrews:] "Practicing?"

"Yes." In truth, I didn't remember the last time I had laid my forehead to the ground in prayer. Then I did remember: the day Dr. Amani gave Baba his prognosis. I had kneeled on the prayer rug, remembering only fragments of verses I had learned in school. (24.207-210)

Raymond Andrews questions Amir about his faith in the context of adoption: it's easier for Amir to adopt Sohrab if he's a practicing Muslim. But Andrews' question also illuminates Amir's faith and spiritual practice. Amir answers "Yes" to Andrews' question even though he can't remember the last time he prayed. And even then the prayers came to him in fragments. If we can wade past the surface discussion of adoption here, and Amir's practical motivations (adopting Sohrab), what does his answer say about his faith? Perhaps that he has carried it with him almost unconsciously since childhood. His affirmation springs forth from an unconscious the way his faith aids him in times of need: his father's diagnosis, Sohrab's suicide attempt, and Sohrab's later silence.

Chapter 25

It had been sunny for days, but Sunday morning, as I swung my legs out of bed, I heard raindrops pelting the window. [...]. I prayed morning namaz while Soraya slept – I didn't have to consult the prayer pamphlet I had obtained from the mosque anymore; the verses came naturally now, effortlessly. (25.113)

Amir has finally learned the namaz (formal prayer of Islam) by heart. Of course, this is an important development in Amir's faith. And the book documents Amir's eventual embrace of Islam. How does Amir's embrace of his faith coincide with other reconciliations in the novel? Is Amir able to practice Islam because he comes to terms with his betrayal of Hassan?

I throw my makeshift jai-namaz, my prayer rug, on the floor and I get on my knees, lower my forehead to the ground, my tears soaking through the sheet. I bow to the west. Then I remember I haven't prayed for over fifteen years. I have long forgotten the words. But it doesn't matter [...]. [...]. I see now that Baba was wrong, there is a God, there always had been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him, not the white masjid with its bright diamond lights and towering minarets. There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need [...]. (25.5)

In this passage, Amir prays in the hospital. Sohrab has just tried to commit suicide. Amir feels guilt not only for Sohrab's despair (he went back on his promise not to send Sohrab to an orphanage) but for his betrayal of Hassan. And perhaps his guilt forces Amir to reject his father's lack of faith. In a way, Amir needs to believe in God. Amir needs an agent to provide forgiveness.