Ah, I see we are beating the drums of war again. What a way to commemorate those who died in terrorist attacks in London a decade ago. What a way to mourn the dead! Will these vicious cycles of violence never end? Have we learned nothing from our last misadventure in Libya? From the anarchy which filled the vacuum left behind; from the unleashing of the jihadist, takfiri armies; from the endless stream of refugees embarking across the Mediterranean from Tripoli? Two Gulf Wars are ancient history, let alone Operation Boot or the Suez Crisis. The world is set ablaze. Somebody tell our leaders that you can’t dampen the flames by smothering them with petrol. Somebody call the peace makers. Or must we just resign to more killing, more war? Must we just resign to death and destruction and this war without end? Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…
For about five years from my mid-teens, I considered myself an agnostic. Towards the end of my first year at university, dissatisfied with the state of my soul, I began the search for God and faith. On Sundays I began taking myself to church, withdrawing from the company I had kept until then.
I approached the Bible on which I had been raised with highlighter ink and pencil underlinings. Then came the study of another book: The Koran in paperback by the Jewish translator, N. J. Dawood, as published by Penguin Classics. In due course it would be replaced by The Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, with tiny text and copious footnotes.
Over the months that followed I became something of a bore for my few friends as my life centred on that search for truth. There was sincerity mixed with other emotions: at twenty, life is complicated. How you are perceived by others matters too much for true sincerity to govern every decision and action. Still, there was some kind of contemplative urge driving me forward.
I was an agnostic wavering between belief in God and disbelief, and between the idea of revelation and its absence. I wanted to believe, for at times I sensed His presence intimately and intensely. At other times it struck me as mere folly, my mind’s eye cast towards distant galaxies and the incomprehensible vastness of space and time. Sometimes, lying on my side in bed I would have conversations with my Creator. Sometimes after an evil thought, repulsed by myself, I would utter private words of remorse, or resign to my fate as a loser in the hereafter. Here in my disbelief an intuitive belief made itself known.
After months and weeks of reflection, passages of the Qur’an rendered into English convinced me that God existed and that revelation — the act of God communicating with mankind — was not just possible, but a reality. But my reaction to that epiphany was not as you might imagine. Instead of turning to the religion of the Muslims, I returned to the Bible with renewed vigour, allowing myself to believe in it, to believe in God and prophets and divine revelation. Soon I started going to church again, seeking answers from my ancestral tradition once more. Several weeks passed before it dawned on me that the reason I believed in God with an assured certainty now was because of passages I had read from the Qur’an.
What is the reason for this voyage into the past? Why the reflections on moments long forgotten? Because those moments are not long forgotten, perhaps. Because those same symptoms never left me, perhaps. Recently it occurred to me that many of us, throughout our lives, behave like that young version of myself. We let the Qur’an guide us to a reality, and then we turn our backs on it.
In recent times I have been reflecting on my relationship with the Qur’an. It is as if I have neglected it all these years in an effort to conform with custom and community. The Qur’an brought me to this path, and then I abandoned it, adopting all of the accumulated baggage of centuries of institutional lore and practice instead. Sadly I am not alone. How many people come to faith through the light of its guidance, only to quickly turn away within moments of their shahada, in pursuit of all kinds of isms?
It occurs to me that as a community, we have largely done the same. We have put the Qur’an to one side, making it subservient to our own agendas and desires. We have shunned the guidance it brought us in favour of the inheritance of tradition. We have abandoned its call to reform us; instead we reform it by abrogating its verses in theory and practice. We recite it, but it does not reach our hearts. Its verses set in beautiful calligraphy decorate our walls, but they do not penetrate our souls. We have turned away from guidance, thinking that truth was an effortless prize already won: it never occurred to us that we would have to work and toil, to disappoint ourselves and others, and struggle hard to acquire even the faintest scent of it.
It occurs to me now that the laborious, arduous endeavour is yet to begin, even after all these years. I thought I had arrived at my destination. Now I realise that the journey has only just begun. It is as if I have been walking blind for years and years. Now it’s time to walk in the light: to embrace that light of guidance, and step forward on the path illuminated by it. It is time to return to my Qur’an.
Remaining steadfast after repentance: what is the trick? The repentance that came from nowhere on the 15th of Muharram was so sincere and sweet and true. It was like a new beginning. A night in prayer. Tears. Forehead to the floor. There came that resolve never, never to return. To pull back. To start anew. There were evident signs in the air. A week of goodness followed. And then what? What changed? A door opened a crack? A passing thought made real? Wonderment? Doubt? Addiction? The assault of the eternal what if? And though I repent again, it does not feel real like last time; how can it be accepted now, after the fall, the return. Here the month of Mercy. Could it be expiation for my sins? Could it purify me and rectify for me my affairs? Will I let it? Can I remain steadfast and true? Or shall I forever remain like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind? What is the secret of the steadfast?
I’m pro-madhab and adhere to one as much as I am able. Even so, I’m tired of the trouncing absolutism of Traditionalists who attack anyone who questions a ruling that a scholar of the past arrived at, however questionable or absurd.
Clearly I am an ignoramus, a nobody and a fool, so lambast away. But many of those written off as mischievous reformers are in fact learned travellers of the path, schooled in fiqh and the Qur’an, with ijazahs in the transmission of hadith. They have a right to speak and be heard.
Surely literalist Traditionalists have a problem when it comes to some of the events of the day. How often do we hear individuals blaming Wahhabis for one extreme or another, quite oblivious to the fact that supporting rulings exist in the school of fiqh they so rigidly claim to adhere to?
Perhaps ignorance is a legitimate defence, but in that case don’t castigate those who do know for deriving a different conclusion from their deep and considered study of the Qur’an.
It is one thing to criticize a fool like me, troubled by the notion held by scholars that a clear Qur’anic ruling was abrogated by a forgotten ayah with suspect wording lost from the mushaf when it was eaten by a goat.
It is quite another to criticize those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of sacred knowledge, who have mastered the qirat of the Qur’an, who have travelled the world to sit with scholars, who have ijazahs most of us could only dream of. Some humility might be in order.
But of course the attacks will continue. My friends will now denounce me for writing this. We will continue to put the Qur’an on the side and make it subservient to tradition, politics and the honour of great men. The learned will defend their own absolutism and speak of Progressives, Modernists and Liberals, while the unlearned will continue to blame the Wahhabis for every ill that befalls us.
For it is easier to call people names than to consider what they are saying and engage their heartfelt, thoughtful arguments.
There I was enjoying my quiet backwater of the web—my website usually receives between 5 and 20 visits a day, most of them probably from myself—when all of a sudden, 250 clicks turn up at once. I blame a stray reader with a massive Twitter following. My five minutes of fame. Back to normal tomorrow I hope.
Ramadan Mubarak everyone. May Allah purify us, forgive us and make us better people. Remember us in your prayers.
Another day and another tale of a family in disarray as sisters, wives, daughters, sons make the journey to their new utopia in the heart of Syria, apparently oblivious to the millions of refugees who have fled the country with their lives.
Back home, meanwhile, the local community expresses shock and surprise. Imams insist: not our fault, these people are being radicalised online. This is called having your head stuck in sand.
If our mosques provided services for women and young people, delivered relevant sermons in a common language, put aside ridiculous sectarian and tribal squabbles, I am pretty sure many of these people would not seek out alternative guidance online.
It is a tragedy, of course, but the online world is simply filling a gap. You don’t get to choose how people fill the void you leave wide open.
When we are young, we seek instant gratification and easy answers. Once upon a time, a four-page pamphlet may have requited us. An article published on a website, clothed in pseudo-intellectual phraseology may have been particularly convincing. A naive belief in the truthfulness of friends and the deceit of foes may have suppressed those inner interrogations. And when there were no answers to our questions, we were likely to throw a wobbly, demanding a precipitous riposte from our companions. Continue reading The pathway of faith
You probably don’t remember me, but you took me under your wing in the late evening of the day I uttered my testimony of faith. You wanted me to embrace what you now rebuff as Islamism; I wasn’t interested (few of us were, but we were polite enough not to deeply trouble you). I had just embraced the oneness of God. Indeed, I had just acknowledged the existence of God. I had just set out on the road of faith; to you it was all about ideology and neo-imperialism. We were singing from different hymn books, so to speak. Continue reading Dear Celebrity Reformer
It was not long ago that I held a smug sense of satisfaction that our tradition had not been burdened by the intellectual acrobatics that characterised the first three hundred years of Christian history in the run up to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. But the more I learn about the intellectual endeavours of the scholars of our own tradition — some brilliant beyond comprehension, some patently absurd to the unlearned mind — the more I realise how terribly naïve I was. Continue reading The burden of history
Nobody in their right mind should ever hope to become a person of influence — to be famous, celebrated, important — for in occupying that position, they lose the ability to hold their own opinions. That is the end of freedom of conscience. To be unknown and obscure has to be the best way to be. To believe as the heart commands, not as the crowd or mob demands.