Soul mates

Marriages are complex. In the relationship not just between husband and wife, but also with parents, in-laws, siblings and children, are manifold dynamics. When things go wrong, it is hard enough for those intimately involved to apportion blame, let alone those on the outside looking in.

Few of us have the integrity to engage in the issues we encounter objectively—be it a report on the evening news, a request for support or a demand for action—we are swayed by our beliefs, experiences, upbringing and feelings, and react accordingly. If this is self-evident anywhere, it is when a marriage runs into trouble. Enter that minefield at your peril.

If we always take the side of the woman, or the man, or our friend, we will not be just. Who of us would admit that we were to blame for an argument? If we cannot be dispassionate in our own affairs, in which we are intimately involved, how could we act as arbiter in the matters of another? Sadly, rarely are any of us really just: we will take sides according to our personal biases, prejudices and taboos, or out of love, empathy or compassion.

So witness many a gathering, purportedly convened to purify the soul, strengthen iman and improve the self, where bitter, heartbroken men exchange tales of all that is wrong with Muslim women today, reinforcing each other’s sense of themselves. Witness many a schism in the community, where close friends, best friends and friends of friends rally around their honoured companion, accepting her version of events without question. In the heat of the moment when emotions are heightened few worry about bearing false witness. To be at our companion’s side in their hour of need is the only consideration in that instant.

Marriages are enterprises that have to be nurtured and built with care. They must be founded on mutual respect, recognising that we are all individuals with our own thoughts, opinions and path to tread. Different periods of life pose different challenges to any marriage: the arrival of children can place immense strain on relationships; financial instability can generate stress and worries; a bereavement in the family can cause unimaginable upset; illness can cause panic and fear. Marriages must be cultivated by both parties working in tandem towards a common goal; by Allah’s help it will flourish.

Commonly, however, we encounter the belief that good marriages just happen, as in fairy tales. All you need is the right princess to kiss the right frog, or the right foot for the right slipper. Frequently we encounter the infantile expectation that the responsibility for a successful marriage lies with one partner. A wife laments, “If only my husband was religious,” or, “If only he had a good salary.” If only he was a mini-scholar, life would be rosy. But we have all seen how this undertaking ends: that kind young man whose fasting and five prayers were deemed unworthy becomes an arrogant zealot, unloved.

We have come to see marriages as an instrument by which we are served, rather as a means to serve each other and God. Often I hear people say, “I wish I had a pious wife.” But, after listening to their complaints for a minute or two, what I think they really mean is, “I wish I had a slave.” They want a companion who is obediently subservient to them, who has no opinions of her own, who dares not assert her rights to say what she thinks, feels or believes. In the end, it is as if she must be invisible.

Some women believe this is the way they should live their lives too; they believe their husband can only become a true man if they surrender to his will. These seekers of righteousness do not see the strong marriages forged by strong women working hand in hand with strong men. They have their vision of what a woman and a man should be, and so that miserable reality comes into being. The spouse disrespected gives no respect in return. Indignity breeds indignity, just as indifference breeds the same.

If piety was to treat others as you wish to be treated, that pious spouse may have been revealed, for piety begets piety. “Verily, gentleness is not found in anything except that it beautifies it, and it is not removed from anything except that it disgraces it.”1 Humbleness is manliness, arrogance is not. Patience, endurance and forbearance are characteristics of manliness, for manliness is what a man should reflect in light of our deen, not necessarily as it has come to us via local customs. The truly pious do not see themselves above others.

It seems that when people insist they wish they had a pious spouse, what they usually mean is, “I don’t want to change.” People will willingly travel thousands of miles to unfamiliar lands to sit in the company of learned guides, certain in the belief that the scholar will enable them to reform their souls, but will flee from the tariqa of the home. Marriage is about spiritual migration: it demands a level of commitment unmatched; it necessitates compromise and understanding; it is constructed on humility and self-effacement. It requires two people—once unknown to each other—to come together to create something bigger than themselves.

Who are the servants of the Most Merciful? Are they those who walk arrogantly on the earth? Who are those who possess taqwa? They are those who are generous in spending their wealth on others and mild in judging others. They are serenely self-possessed and calm. They are inclined to be lenient and merciful. They feel regret and sorrow for their sins, and for wronging others.

“And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous. Who spend during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people—and Allah loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves, remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins—and who can forgive sins except Allah—and who do not persist in what they have done while they know. Those—their reward is forgiveness from their Lord and gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide eternally; and excellent is the reward of the workers.”2

Marriages are complicated transactions. When two people come together there is no guarantee it will work. Sometimes marriages just fail: perhaps there is no hope for them. Remaining in a violent or abusive marriage is unlikely to help anyone in the long-run.

But often marriages stutter or stumble like the changing weather; storms come and go; spring follows winter. Relationships can be repaired: with kind words, humility, apologies, love. With a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers, a thoughtful meal, a beautiful gift, a holiday away. Relationships can be made stronger with appreciation and thought, with gratitude and forgiveness, with inquisitiveness and compassion, with laughter and smiles. A dusty mirror can be polished. Rusty cogs can be brought back to life. Dead earth can bloom anew.

Marriage is the best tariqa. It is training for the soul unmatched. Some great individuals of the past had very hard spouses, but the way they behaved with them propelled them to amazing heights. Often we ignore the blessing placed directly before us, believing it necessary to travel a thousand miles to find our soul. Perhaps our spiritual ascent is right there for us to grasp, if only we could see it. “Perhaps you dislike a thing and Allah makes therein much good.”3

  1. Hadith, Sahih Muslim
  2. Quran 3:133-136
  3. From Qur’an 4:19

The condemned

There will be no sympathy amongst Muslims on social media today for three British teenage girls allegedly running for their lives from those they once thought they were obliged to support. No, instead they must be mocked and showered with scorn. This is how we deal with our children today.

But it is our community and its leaders who have failed teenagers like these. Twenty years ago, youngsters like this were being harangued with the notion that it is an individual obligation to work for the re-establishment of the caliphate.

Today’s youth, unfortunately, are being harangued to accept that the caliphate has been established and that it is an obligation to join it. If you know little of your religion, those arguments can sound convincing: they are couched in pseudo-legal terms and seem to appeal to indisputable sources.

Many of us probably remember being bullied into agreeing to these aims when we were younger. But back then we did not have the amplified voice of social media resonating every waking minute of the day. Strangers were not grooming us on Twitter. We did not have access to video-on-demand, searing us with propaganda.

Some of us are still waiting for our celebrated advocacy groups to speak out. To jettison their all-consuming PR agenda and actually reach out to these youngsters with a word of advice and warning. But listen: did you hear it? That deafening silence.

Collectively we have failed teenagers like these. And that is all the more evident on social media today: we do not see them as adolescents who could have gone on to study A-Levels and perhaps enter Higher Education, taking the time to grow into confident young adults. We have turned them into instant adults, to be married off or condemned.

But it’s we who stand condemned.

The plank in our eyes

Somehow we need to lose this fixation with “Wahabis” and recognise that the “Traditionalist” movement is not immune to those characteristics frequently decried: abusive marriages, extreme arrogance, obscuring teachings, enforcing hard-line opinions, pushing the Qur’an to the side, making takfir on other Muslims, promoting ugly sectarianism…

Da’ish is justifiably the target of our wrath today, but mainstream Sunni-Ashari-Sufi Muslims (like others) were quite capable of slaughtering their opponents in large numbers in the past—it’s just that today they neither have the financing or access to political power they once enjoyed.

It’s about time we recognised that the fanaticism sometimes present in these movements is derived from human traits which transcend the sectarian divides. If we are to succeed, we must take ourselves to account, measuring ourselves against the truth, not loyalty to our team.

I was raised on the Gospels of the Christian New Testament, its parables ever-present. Some of those words never leave you: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, but pay no attention to the plank in your own eye…” 1

If we are to start to create a better world for ourselves and others, we must begin to put our own houses in order. There is a lot of rot in our communities; too much rejoicing in what we think we’ve got and not enough introspection. If we continue to eulogize our team, regardless of its shortcomings, we will almost certainly fail. The time has come to take ourselves to account.

  1. Gospel of Matthew 7:3-5

When we are asked

Much of what passes for religiosity or piety in our communities could more accurately be described as abuse. We have created a tragic parody of the vision we were supposed to implement.

One day we will all face our reckoning. Those who drove men, women and children from the path will be asked about what they did. The victims will ask for their rights. The pretense of piety will collapse.

The self-appointed spokesmen of the divine, the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, the wardens of morality: yes, even they will be asked about the rights they trampled, the lives they tore apart, the hearts they crushed, the light of faith their demands extinguished.

All of us will be asked. How will we prepare?

Against the tide

In 2008, I briefly published a book entitled, To Honour God. If I were to republish it now with the beliefs and ideas I have today, many of my friends would disown me, while the gatekeepers of orthodoxy would line up to accuse me of heresy. In some countries that could be a death sentence. But if we are to honour God, and live lives in servitude to Him, we may just have to swim against the tide. ‘Between my soul and God, stand my heart and my deeds,’ went that constant refrain of mine, ‘Nothing else stands between us.’ A reminder for these times.

Our team

If we were able to look at our own team with introspection equal to our criticism of the other side, we would recoil in humility.

Most of us are only willing to go so far: to ask questions of others, but not of ourselves; to delve into the histories of others, but not our own; to interrogate the impact of politics on another’s path, but not its impact on ours.

Most of us can recount in intimate detail the faults of our enemies. But to look back at the wrongs of our side: no, we will turn away. We won’t open that box. Loyalty to the community, the tribe, the school, the sect, the scholar, the nation, the family: all of these take precedent over truth and justice.

In place of introspection, we subscribe to tradition: to what has been passed down to us. We will not ask if that tradition has been embellished along the way; if bitter conflict took anything away from it; if in the forging of empires and dynasties, folk legends took hold; if in the face of military onslaught, great narratives of identity replaced individual piety.

To ask questions about the past can be a painful process. Most of us would decide against it, opting not to expose ourselves to such discomfort. We’re happy with our comfortable narrative: of our rightness, and of the wrongness of others.

And so on we go… incessantly repeating all that is wrong with the other—with our enemies and opposition. No introspection. A wise parable unrecalled. It’s difficult to see the faults in your own team, when you’re its biggest fan.

This austere mindset

UNICEF claimed child poverty is soaring in the UK due to the Government’s austerity measures. Charities lament 1 million people relying on food banks. The electorate responds: “We don’t care: long gone is our social ethic — our concern for the poor and vulnerable amongst us. The money in our pockets trumps all.”

“I’m alright Jack, sod the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.” Self interest reigns.

Bring back Christian socialism. Bring to the fore the Quakers. Come again the Barney Hughes, George Cadburys, Joseph Rowntrees, Edward Rustons and William Alisons. A society which says “sod the poor” is no society at all.

Somehow we need to overcome this austere mindset we’ve developed: to reawaken the concern for others in our hearts; to create a movement which promotes the generosity of spirit; to live lives in the service of others. Not as slaves to the holy Pound.


Eyes closed

Daily we witness the convulsive forces of politics acting on the world around us—and yet somehow we maintain this quaint, romantic pretense that our world was immune to these same forces in the past, naive and patently false though it is.

The politics of identity

From our children we are learning the politics of identity as we hear what they have learned from their white and brown friends, who regurgitate the opinions of their parents.

In modern times, Muslim does not mean follower of the Islamic faith, but is shorthand for non-white. These little kids have been brought up to view all white people as Christian and all non-white people as Muslim.

Our children come home from school confused, adamant in face of all contrary evidence that what their friends say is true.

One day their teachers are going to have to address this nonsense, but it will be hard work in the face of the politics of identity at home. Our own counter-arguments, though momentarily convincing, are soon forgotten back in the playground.

And so I guess our children will keep on coming home repeating the preposterous notions they have learnt from their friends.

There is only them and us: the world neatly divided into two vast camps. Muslim and Christian. There are no Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics. No Catholics, Protestants, Methodists. There are the Muslim kids and the Christian kids.

It’s terribly sad.