From Whispers

I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief saunter in the back garden, a name whispered its way into my mind. I did not need to respond to the surprising murmur, but all of a sudden I was back at the computer, googling an old acquaintance of a bygone era.

I had been away from the Muslim quarter of the internet for some time, absorbed instead in the new-found art of the nappy change, and had missed the return of a perennial obsession. Others too, it seemed, had failed to recite audu billahi minal shaitani rajim when that name fluttered into the space between their ears for no apparent reason. Perhaps they too had considered it inspiration, as I foolishly had at first, ignoring the recollections of last time.

Four months earlier, almost to the day, there had arisen an impulsive urge to venerate a departed companion, lamenting upon life without them. Just as a week ago, that name had abruptly fleeted across my brow, lodging itself firmly in my mind. In that instant I felt the need to speak up for a friend. And so I wrote an ode to glad tidings. Yet within days bad tidings had arrived in their place, for our companion’s secret had been revealed before the world.

Reflecting on them now, I notice that these affairs had something in common: both had followed a certain resolve to return to God and to place my affairs solely in His care. Instead, responding to a whisper within, I replaced one set of sins with another and tried my own faith in a different manner.

My journey towards God, since those awkward days of atheism and agnosticism fifteen years ago, has always been characterised by my willingness to jeopardise everything for the sake of certainty. As I came to believe in Islam a bipolar disposition began to become apparent within: there was a desire to believe in this path, but also a desire to turn away from it.

Long before I was Muslim, I began praying and fasting in private, as best I could with only an English translation of the Qur’an as a guide: in those moments I wished to believe. Yet I turned too to the polemical work of Ibn Warraq which sat amidst the serious works on Islam in the university’s extensive library. At one stage, his work was capable of eradicating my nascent belief in God that my readings on Islam had rekindled.

Later, when I had forgotten the pseudonymous author and had rebuilt my fragile faith in God, I was to be found turning my back on the teachings of Islam and approaching a Christian friend instead, to ask if I could attend her church. Although it was the Qur’an that had convinced me that God did exist, I decided to turn to the combative evangelical website, Answering Islam, for guidance on where to go from there, and the answer was clear: not towards Islam.

I had reason not to take this website very seriously. For one, I had encountered two of its contributors the previous summer at All Souls, Langham Place, while having lunch after the service with my brother and grandmother. They had, they were pleased to announce, hit upon the ultimate knock-out blow for the Muslims, and they were on their way to Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner to deliver it. For another, a senior (non-Muslim) lecturer in Islamic studies at my university had described another key contributor — who had been his student — in particularly unflattering terms. Nevertheless, I continued to mine the website in an effort to be as objective as I possibly could be.

Yet it was not just in that wavering phase before my testimony of faith that I consulted Islam’s opponents for guidance. In the months that followed, much to the apprehension of my new Muslim friends, I would return back to those arguments against Islam and dwell upon them, sometimes shaking the faith I was beginning to hold dear.

The advice of my friends was to replace my reading at the flickering screens in the university’s computer rooms with study of the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But I may have moved on for other reasons. The trouble with that website was that it could say nothing good about Islam at all: my religion was absolutely despicable and so completely wrong. There was no mention of the charity enjoined upon Muslims, of the exhortation to care for widows and orphans, of our duties towards our neighbours whether Muslim or not — true virtues in Christian eyes, surely — or even that Muslims were worthy of respect.

In time I did indeed move on for a variety of reasons, from my bizarre authorship of numerous emails in Olde Inglishe to the pursuit of the final year of my degree. But it would not be my last brush with polemics against Islam.

My upbringing, as well being staunchly Christian, had a feminist flavour. My mother was amongst the first groups of female priests to enter the Church of England after several years of contentious debate amongst Anglican congregations in England — which coloured my views on the role and rights of women in society enormously. Inevitably a time would come when those assumptions would collide with the polemics concerning the status of women in Islam.

I was studying for my postgraduate degree in Scotland when I chanced upon an article of this kind whilst browsing the internet one evening. Following one hyperlink to another led me into a maze of confusion and shock. Soon, with those painful vibrations in my stomach that come with anger, I was hammering out a lengthy email to my friends back in London, demanding to know why no one had told me that this was how our religion treated the fairer sex.

I don’t recall their response to that email at all. I only recall how, by strange happenstance, a young Muslim woman of Yemeni origin from my old university emailed me out of the blue the following day with some sort of news. With her words, my rage suddenly lifted, for here was a real, non-theoretical Muslim woman, talking about her faith and life with perfect contentment. Her emailed advice and guidance for me over the months that followed was invaluable as I stumbled onwards along this path.

Over the years that followed there would be more days like that, as the internet grew and more and more people took up the crusade against Islam. Sometimes the attacks appeared to have more substance than those of old, as Muslims began to publish volumes of hadith online for all to survey as they pleased. Now anyone could mine the knowledge of centuries for a paragraph or sentence to prove a point, ignoring other material that explained, qualified, contextualised or contradicted it. What those academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam — like H Motzki, U Rubin, FE Peters, H Berg and GR Hawtin — must think of this cut and paste revolution, I do not know.

And so to the present. Some years after I abandoned my efforts to keep up with a former-Muslim’s blog entitled Towelianism, I was led to the website of an old friend who, though once an ardent defendant and advocate of Islam, now writes about it with dedicated hostility. I first came across the website in June, when I read it in full in reverse order, from the earliest post to the latest. The early posts had been written while they still maintained their Muslim blog, and so I decided to read the two in tandem: the live site and the archived site. This way I felt I could better make sense of what had come to pass. This was true to a degree, but these matters are always more complicated than that.

As I progressed through the blog it appeared to become less and less personal, and much more the case against Islam. But I knew the reason for that: after all these years reading websites dedicated to undermining and attacking Islam I recognised that what I was reading was nothing new. I had read all of those articles before, lightly repackaged though they were in the author’s own style and distilled through the prism of their own understanding. Although I felt sad and disappointed, I found that what I was reading could not elicit any stronger emotions. They may as well have just copied out that old Ibn Warraq work word for word.

I left that website then as I busied myself with the preparations for the arrival of two strangers in our lives. It has been a summer like no other, when our Lord decreed for us such incredible bounties, blessing us with the company of two delightful children in the last ten days of Ramadan. After difficulty comes ease, promises God, and He is indeed the most truthful.

Even so, alas, I maintain my bonds with my lowest desires at moments of particular weakness. I can absorb myself in strange pursuits for days on end if I so choose, until my conscience eventually drives me home. And so it was. I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief stroll outside, the picture of an old friend pranced before my mind.

Soon I was reading through their website once more, this time in the published order, from the newest backwards. As I read, I pondered. Their experience was distinct from mine, and mine from theirs, but I could not dismiss it all. Their anger at the treatment of numerous women by various Muslim communities mirrored my own anger; I only lamented that those who need to hear the message will never listen to such a voice. But the author has read some hadith which they believe show that Islam sanctions this kind of behaviour towards women. I, on the other hand, have read other hadith and scholarship which I believe show that Islam prohibits it.

It is here that I found where I stand. Twelve years ago I found myself carrying an incredible urgency to find faith and believe in God. It was something I had to do without delay, even if it meant messing up my studies. If there was a God and there was something after death, it was important to pursue it at once, I convinced myself, and for that reason I demanded answers.

But to go the other way? To exchange belief for disbelief, or theism for atheism? I can see no urgency in that. If our intellect is merely a hyper-evolved collection of chemical reactions that shall cease forever on our death and return to the earth as our bodies decay, if our life has no purpose, no direction or meaning, if we live a life and then disappear, what then is the urgency in believing in the new atheistic orthodoxy?

If I were to hold to that paradigm, who shall hold me to account for believing in God and thus condemn me? If I should die whilst in pursuit of the answers to my questions — such as what kind of behaviour does Islam sanction in respect to women, children, neighbours and non-Muslims — what difference would it make if the new orthodoxy were correct? If nothingness were to lie on either side of us, before us and after us, would there be any urgency to disbelieve? Or to do anything at all in fact?

For a second I had been perturbed as to why my old friend’s words had not affected me as others had in earlier times, although the ideas were the same. I wondered if I had become the intolerable caricature that the author now raged about: blind and deaf and dumb, promulgating unspeakable evil throughout the earth. No, that was not it. It was that I have no need to believe in the pointlessness of being, and there was certainly no need to try to believe in that. I am content, I realised, to continue to explore and experience this faith of mine. Questions that cause discomfort — and there have always been those — still demand answers, but the urgency I once felt has left me. A hundred proverbs about patience now spring to mind in its place.

6 thoughts on “From Whispers”

  1. This was beautiful and apt. I could totally relate to this honest recollection of a time when zeal blinded all else. Alhamdulillah those days are over, and may they remain in the past.

    May Allah guide us to what is best always.

  2. Assalmu Alaikum

    Dear Tim

    You mention FE Peters in this article. I have just finished reading his two books on the history of Mecca and the Hajj. Can I ask what you think of his works, since you allude to him in your piece?

    1. Salam alaikum,

      My point in mentioning those academics was that in order to be considered an authority on Islam, it was once necessary to undertake years of study working towards a lectureship in the field. I didn’t intended to endorse their work and I am certainly no advocate of revisionist theories concerning the origins of Islam.

  3. Salama alaikum.

    A wonderful post. I suppose the answer the other side would give is a mirror of the urgency you earlier felt — they feel that belief is causing evil and pain in the world and so not abandoning it and not calling others away is to be complicit.

    Having been a student in Peters’ department while he was still there but a new generation of (much more specialized) scholars had taken the limelight, I would like to point out that the methodology of Peters’ generation was the direct ancestor of today’s cut-and-paste debate.

    The fundamental building material of much of that era’s scholarship — especially the revisionist theories you mention — was cherry-picked quotes, opinions, and anecdotes from throughout Islamic history. The fact that it took years to acquire rather than milliseconds did not make it any more responsible, though the relative expense of disseminating such thought made it less poisonous.

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