Sometimes you have to pause for thought and take stock: to remind yourself where you have come from and where you are going. To recall promises you made along the way. To remind yourself that the process of reform is ongoing and continuous: that it doesn’t stop just because you stop. That a vow you made still stands, even if you have slipped or fallen; that the door remains open, that change is still possible, that you still have work to do.
From a very early age I somehow became a story teller, dreaming up fantastic tales within. Over a decade passed before it occurred to me to write them down and breathe life into them. From my mid-teens onwards I penned a few short stories and ludicrous plays. At the age of 18 I wrote my first novel, which I self-published and shared in minuscule numbers with friends and family. Acknowledging my atrocious writing and deficient narration, I rewrote it the following summer, publishing a single copy on my return to university. For a time I imagined that I might one day be a writer, earning a living from celebrated books.
The reality, then as now, was quite different: I was less a writer than a fantasist. For a time during my first year of university, I enjoyed projecting my fictional writing onto myself, or vice versa. When people concluded that my writing was autobiographical, I would not challenge them; I would revel in the nebulous intersection between fiction and reality. Though I was the most boring individual amongst friends, my tales might have sounded vaguely true, or might have been thought to at least contain particles of truth. If people were to conclude that what I had written was a representation of reality, I would not argue otherwise. I would grow my hair long like the character in my book; experiences would be projected back onto the rewrite. Nobody could tell where fiction stopped and reality began.
Here — in those untruths, in that deceit, in the misrepresentation of my reality, in the fabrication of my being — came the first seeds of reform. A tiny light was kindled within: the deception had to cease, I told myself, and I had to reform my soul. The inner up-swell of revulsion at myself would lead me back to church, even as an agnostic, and ultimately spark my search for truth. When later I came to believe in Islam, this clear division between truth and falsehood was utmost in my mind. There would be no more lies and my adventures in fiction would end: a commitment observed with varying levels of success over the years to come.
In reality I would waver backwards and forwards between two poles. I once made a commitment to remain always true, but never is there constancy: the inner battle is unending. Here is the interchange between fiction and fictitious realities.
When one writes a novel or a short story, at least one can make clear that it is a literary device based on fantasy. We share fables and parables in order to bring concepts and ideas to life. Fiction does not claim to be true; it is an alternative reality, imagined and constructed in a realm clearly separated from all that is real.
Not so fictitious realities: here the unreal is made to appear true, fabrications and inventions to be palpable and authentically real. Online, where fictitious realities mostly collide, we create and believe in strange unrealities and entangled fantasies, both unbelievably true and implausibly fanciful. The supposed anonymity of the web stands before us like that forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, its fruits too delicious looking and too tempting to resist.
In moments of weakness we can pretend to be anyone we want to be, to escape our dreary reality, or to become someone we could never really be due to the constraints of our flabby body, unfashionable face or monotone voice. Hiding behind our keyboards, we can become a great thinker or a scholar, a living saint or misguided sinner. We can write great reams of make-believe passed off as an account of reality; we can become Twitter supremo or Facebooker extraordinaire. Wandering in virtual realms, we can be ourselves or just who we want to be. We can be perpetually truthful and true, or we can descend into that trance-like stupor where anything goes and none of us shall ever be held to account.
If we are fortunate — if the Most Merciful wills — we may pull back and pause for thought. We might stop to recall an old promise; to remember commitments made in the past. If we are fortunate we might be reminded that the process of reform is ongoing and continuous: that it does not stop because we got distracted, or fell down a chasm of our own creation, or erroneously thought ourselves to have arrived. Sometimes you have to pause for thought and take stock: to remind yourself where you have come from and where you are going.
Our information intensive society has a problem with truth; technology enables the boundless dissemination of soundbites, images, videos and text at lightning speeds, without recourse to fact-checking or challenge. A like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter can cause a speck to become an avalanche within a matter of minutes. An individual may protest an untruth on a friend’s news feed, but has no hope of countering it once it has gone viral.
For Muslims the disregard for truthfulness is particularly problematic, for it is emphasised repeatedly by the Qur’an and traditions attributed to our Prophet, peace be upon him. Although we have been commanded to always speak the truth, and not mix truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth while we know it, in practice truthfulness is often made subservient to personal interest and political machinations. Often honouring people is mixed with telling the truth; indeed honour is often preferred over truth and — ironically — the latter is sometimes covered up altogether.
Many a naively trusting individual has been led astray by the proclamations of the untruthful. Because the Qur’an so emphasises the importance of telling the truth, it does not occur to the sincere that others Muslims may tell lies; when they receive a piece of information from them, they do not bother to verify it, because they unthinkingly trust the source. We have witnessed this in the distribution of material which promotes sectarian hatred and in the dissemination of pro-war propaganda, but it also occurs in the more mundane call to faith, where arguments are often made based on ideas taken out of context or misrepresented completely.
When reality dawns that fellow travelers mix truth with falsehood, or that they lie outright, the results can be catastrophic. We have witnessed good people driven from the deen by the realisation that lies are easily told: from scholars covering up uncomfortable truths, to business people stealing intellectual property, to fraudsters tricking their prey, to fantasists leading double lives. Others descend into a depressed morass and withdraw from the community. Yet others decide to become equally evasive, selling tales and deceit to all who might listen. Untruths can be like wine: intoxicating and addictive. A compulsive liar is like an alcoholic: he barely controls his lies, but they control him.
If we are to succeed as a community of believers, we must step back from the brink. We must challenge ourselves to be always truthful. When information comes to us, we should verify it before passing it on. When an individual is accused of uttering particular words, we should investigate the context in which they were said. When claims are made, we should probe and scrutinise them as far as is humanly possible. And we should remove from our minds the notion that a small lie or half truth does not really matter. “What a vast blaze can be set alight by the tiniest spark!”
Truthfulness and trustworthiness are fundamental to the propagation of righteousness. Deceitful means are guaranteed to end in tragedy; even if we convince ourselves that all if fair in love and war, our Lord insists otherwise. Verily, truth stands out clear from error! Some of us made a promise when we were granted the light of faith: to turn our backs on the worst aspects of ourselves, to strive to reform our souls and become witnesses to truth. In these days of reactionary madness it is necessary to remind ourselves of that promise. There is no benefit in telling a lie. There is no reward in sharing an untruth.
Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so — for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. — Qur’an 33:35
It is time to pause for thought and take stock: to remind ourselves where we have come from and where we are going. It is time to face the truth.