Killing the message

I wish we could move beyond these pathetic polarised debates lacking all nuance. Every time an unpopular politician seizes upon an issue in pursuit of their own political agenda it kills all discussion of the real issues effecting us.

Watch the backlash against the government’s latest initiative. Watch how the politics of identity and belonging will silence all of those working on the ground at the grassroots level, who have been trying for years to make themselves heard.

Women’s groups that have been working tirelessly for years to address domestic violence, discrimination, poverty, forced marriages and a whole range of other social ills will now witness the full force of the counter-narrative, which seeks to pretend that none of these issues exist.

We seem to be incapable of rejecting an agenda which seeks to otherise the Muslim community, whilst simultaneously working to address very real issues that cut across all communities. In short, by engaging in combative bi-partisan politics, we fail those most in need of support and advocacy.

Censoring iSocs

Many university Islamic Societies unfortunately have a long history of stifling dissent, whether for sectarian or political reasons. Far from providing space to challenge ideas and explore a broad spectrum of ideas, many Islamic Societies only permit a narrow single narrative to be promulgated, coloured by the biases of the dominant group.

Just like any other entity, our advocacy groups need to be challenged, critiqued and scrutinised. That would be much healthier than the current state of play where they are given a free pass to say whatever they like and their word is taken as gospel. So free speech yes, but in an environment in which individuals are empowered to speak freely too

Don’t look back in anger

Why do we make our lives so difficult for ourselves and others? It happens all the time: we adopt the most hardline positions in matters of religion, which we enforce on others as the only true way, impossible though they are to live up to.

How many times must we see it play out before us? Repeatedly we have witnessed those who once focussed zealously on the minutiae of fiqh later turn their back on religion altogether. In their eyes the rest of us were like faithless heathens, who could be lambasted for apparently doing our wudu incorrectly or for taking a photograph or for falling short in some other way. Every time we encountered one another, something new would be wrong with our practice, or our beliefs, or the way we dressed.

But where are these righteous ones now? In the end they decided they could no longer believe in the uncompromising path they had invented for themselves and, instead of looking back on all of those other ways they had so fiercely rejected, they threw out the whole, turning on it with derision and mockery.

Never did they ask themselves, “Is my understanding at fault?” Never did they wonder if those they had been taught to reject as faithless innovators had something they were missing. Never did they think to question what constituted orthodoxy, or to probe the force of politics and violence on their understanding of religion. Never did they allow themselves to question the assumptions that formed their worldview. Instead, both in faith and faithlessness, only absolutes would do: the absolutes of the past would be replaced by the new absolutes of the present. Never is there doubt, neither in belief nor disbelief.

Who dares look outside the self-imposed boundaries which confine us? Who dares ask those unsettling questions which bubble away deep within? Who will allow themselves to open that box which nobody dares open, to prise off the lid and look inside? Who will acknowledge the minuscule proportions of their knowledge with humility and reject the absolutism of the arrogant self?

Though individual truths and signs may abound, absolute truth is not found on YouTube or in the forums of the proselytes and rejectors. The one who rejects might lead toward a truer reality than the one who appears to believe. You might reject an absolute which has no basis and find yourself the true believer; you might insist on an absolute which has no basis and find yourself a disbeliever unbeknownst.

Why rush to judgement, replacing one set of absolutes with another? Why not hold back in shy humility and simply confess, “I do not know” or “I am not sure”? Why jump from dissatisfaction with your inherited worldview to rejection of every tradition you dared not contemplate or consider? Why, when you have rejected all, must you still insist that only the orthodoxy you rejected could possibly represent the whole, that only its scholars may be representative of its reality, that those ideas alone are significant? Why be like those ravaging absolutists intent on destroying the great libraries of Timbuktu, who would incinerate every inkling of a different reading of faith?

Pause for a moment, take stock. Let your questions be your guide. This road is long and wide. Take it slowly. Interrogate yourself and tradition. Be prepared to travel far; to walk that lonely road in search of answers. The crowded avenues of the online forum may briefly appear comforting and true to the traveller in search of certainty, but at best they offer but partial respite — but fragments of possibility. Why insist on such a narrow reading of history and religion, whether as a believer or disbeliever? Why narrow your horizons and restrict your view? Why make things so difficult on yourself, when everything else has always been made so easy?

Cult of celebrity

Spare us the hysterical eulogies of the cult of celebrity. Men are capable of both greatness and unspeakable evil. An idol who touched the lives of millions has departed. Only the bravest dare speak of his crimes. The same establishment which pretended not to know about the last superstar unmasked still looks the other way. Nobody really cares about the insignificant ones abused by those with money, fame and power in the era of Free Love. To care would be to challenge the orthodoxy of the enlightenment elite. No, speak not of demons, unless they be foreign and dark and alien. The cult of celebrity demands that only a single narrative be told.

Permission to grieve

I hate that we fly into a rage only when we are told to do so… that the whirlwind of sympathy and condemnation only occurs when the critical mass of sentiment drives us to take a stance… until then we must look the other way, or pretend not to notice horrific evil and our own double standards.

So Saudi Arabia and its allies may kill thousands of civilians indiscriminately in Yemen, but it is none of our business: no need to take a stance. They may kill hundreds in a single night, or destroy a hospital, or a block of flats… but we will not seethe and ache, and post news item after news item to our social media pages, and demand reprieve for some of the poorest people on earth.

There will be no wall to wall coverage of these victims of this aggressor. At least not until we are instructed to sit up and take note: when that happens, then we will bang our drums and wail out loud: then we will become enraged. But until then, let’s pretend not to have noticed. Let’s look the other way.

We await the next political crisis, media storm or social media frenzy with baited breath.

Take your time

Do not rush into anything. It is still very early days and there is still much to learn and discover. If you find yourself veering towards atheism or agnosticism, you’ll be aware that there is no urgency to believe in either position. Nothingness does not require a testimony of faith, or commitment to a way of living. If you feel a hypocrite while uttering words you do not believe in, you might write it off as the reverberations of your soul. Or you might sense that something deeper is at play.

Slow down and take your time. Recall how the Prophet, when dissatisfied with the answers of his people to the questions of life, ascended Mount Hira to sit alone in meditation to ponder and reflect. Islam is truly not how it is portrayed by those doing dawah on YouTube: it is a path you have to struggle to find. Use this time of inner flux to ponder and reflect on life, the universe and everything, free of the pressures of dogmatism and so-called orthodoxy.

Don’t worry what other people might think. We are individually accountable for our actions and beliefs. The community always has labels for people who arrive at different conclusions. Many people who reject some of the orthodox inheritance and try to retrace true prophetic Islam are labelled as modernists or deviants or heretics. The challenge is to be true to ourselves, to be open-minded and not be bullied by others, however hard that undoubtedly is.

Look at yourself — do not worry what others think. Hold back, take your time, have sabr. You have all the time in the world.

An issue at a time

We are only required to pray the five prayers and fast one month of the year; anything more is optional. Prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves, but necessary vehicles to higher goals.

On the contrary we are asked to sit and reflect for a long time: “Those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You!’”

God does not compel a soul beyond what it is able to do. We will not be judged for what we do not know; God will judge us by our level, not someone else’s. Perhaps the key to more certainty is to spend more time reflecting and pondering on the beauty of creation: to go for walks in the hills, through dense woodland or by beautiful winding rivers.

Some of what is stated as Islam is clear cut and factual. For example, there are five things that make up belief: from the Quran it is clear that the universe has a creator called Allah; that there are unseen creatures called angels; that there were Prophets and Messengers; that Books were revealed to those Messengers; and that there will be a Day of Judgement.

Other certainties are that the core mission of all Prophets was for people to uphold justice, not to convert everyone; that prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves but are necessary vehicles to higher goals; that individual responsibility rests within their ability.

Some of what is stated as Islam is probable. For example, from the Quran it is not clear if there are other creatures on other planets, though when reading you get the feeling that this is the case. Similarly, it is probable that before Adam there were no other human-like creatures.

However some of what is stated as Islam is not true or is at least disputed. Examples are that a woman can be pregnant for more than a year, that the Prophet — peace be upon him — waged war against people who did not wage war against him or that everyone in Arabia became Muslim in his time.

When we separate out what is clear cut and factual from what is not true or disputed, many of the contentious obstacles to belief disappear. The biggest obstacle people face when it comes to belief is not the Quran, but other sources which have been allowed to contradict and undermine it. Saying that something is true because it is found in our books or is old is a problematic approach. It could be true, but it might not be: we have to evaluate things and challenge suspect ideas.

The idea that a person who has tried hard to believe is punished is not from the Quran. Rather the Quran talks about being held accountable according to your level or ability, although of course that doesn’t mean it is easy, for the Quran asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tested?”

We have to take one thing at a time. Nobody can be certain about absolutely everything. We have to experience things for what they are. When we see things with our heart, we will become certain; if we only see with ours eye, we will never have certainty.

To be certain

In my days as a wavering agnostic, when searching after the truth, I used to say to myself and others, “I must believe with absolute certainty.”

Later, in my early days as a Muslim when simplistic apologetics appeared persuasive, I would continue to talk of my faith being about conviction and certainty. To my youthful mind it was convincing, as I shunned philosophy and the musings of theologians, whom I arrogantly considered pompous fools. I was a fundamentalist and proudly so.

But the reality is that faith is at root about belief, trust and hope, for we are dealing with the unseen: we cannot see our Creator, nor can we physically experience events that occurred in the past or that will happen in the future.

Of course, the work of scientists and historians show that it is quite possible to develop a level of certainty in the unseen based on signs, experiences or historical evidences. We might point to James Clerk Maxwell’s theories on the existence of radio waves towards the end of the nineteenth century, which set the stage for Heinrich Hertz to actually demonstrate their existence experimentally. This is the root of the scientific endeavour.

The Quran invites us to come to belief on the basis of evidences on the horizons and within ourselves. I reflected on this the other day when attending a hospital appointment, where the surgeon sketched out the inner workings of the ear: we take our hearing for granted, but it is a phenomenal piece of engineering when you’re faced with the mechanics that translate sound waves into signals that our brains can understand. The same is true of our eyes or taste buds.

When I reflect on my ability to see, hear, smell, taste and perceive the world around me, my belief in God is unshakable. Or when I reflect on the numerous preconditions for life that came into being to enable me to sit here and write all of this, I am utterly awestruck: that the sun came into being, and that a planet capable of sustaining life orbited it, with a gravitational pull and atmosphere that would enable strings of amino acids to come together, let alone complex life forms. To me our very existence is mind-blowing; on the level of probabilities alone it breaks mathematics itself.

God does not unveil Himself before us, but asks us to explore and ponder deeply on the heavens and earth, on natural phenomenon, on our own existence and on signs within ourselves. It is worth reflecting on that fact the Quran uses the word ulama for those who study the human being and the world around us: it indicates the importance of these areas of study.

This is perhaps the verse that most touched me at the age of 21 and to this day:

“Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?”

Another concerned the resurrection on the Day of Judgement:

“Does man think that We will not reassemble his bones? Yes, We are even able proportion his fingertips.”

Small signs, perhaps, but they were capable of reigniting a tiny flame of faith in the existence of God and revelation that would lead me on for two decades to come. This is what it means to have faith: to believe and trust and hope in the promise of God.

To be convinced

Many years ago when still a searching agnostic, I wanted others to convince me to believe as they believed. I used to lament that neither Muslims nor Christians would reach out to me or answer my questions.

For a while I was going to Church, but I was dissatisfied with the simplistic answers to my enquiries. I would ask questions of religious people, but did not find their responses convincing. When I had questions about Islam, I would be referred to a Christian expert on the religion. When his answers did not persuade me, I would befriend Muslim students at university, intent on them responding to my queries. Rarely was anyone truly able to answer my questions and so I would often retreat dumbfounded.

Nowadays I take a more magnanimous view, for I recognise that most people are not concerned about this idea we call truth. Most people are satisfied with whatever they find themselves on and do not feel the need to confirm that it is correct and true. This is as much the case for Muslim communities as for anyone else. Whether we call ourselves Traditionalist, Salafi, Hanafi, Hanbali, Sunni, Shia… we each revel in what we think we have, and reject everything else, even if we don’t know why.

We have to accept that the journey we are on is somewhat personal. Formal studies have their place, but the personal pursuit of truth is driven forward by an inner impetus. The Quran repeatedly mentions using the intellect; sometimes you have to use your mind to reach truths that you cannot immediately find in the circles of knowledge. Alas, too often we are not told this: instead we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves altogether. Though the Quran is against this idea, scholars have been made like rabbis and priests, as an authority on everything: “They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah…”

This is not an argument against sitting at the feet of the learned, but about building and maintaining the right relationship with them. Scholars are often not treated as normal people who have specialised in a field of learning, but as legendary beings, giants and celebrities bigger than the dimensions which contain them. Years of pious folklore turn them into mythic creatures who can never err or suffer the human ailments which afflict the rest of us. Of course we should learn from those who know better — as in any other field of human endeavour — but it is important to put the references of Islam in the right order.

Arguments for or against Islam are all interpretations. Some are stronger than others. Some may appear to be true, but are based on unsound assumptions. Some may true based on the information available, but that information may be incomplete or incorrect. There are many factors to weigh in. However convincing another’s argument may be, or however awesome their faith seems to us, it is of no worth at all if we cannot convince ourselves.