Easter weekend

It is Easter weekend and I am staying in the Rectory with my parents. As both of them are vicars responsible for different churches, they are in and out all weekend. The station of the cross on Good Friday after the night vigil on Thursday. My mother has already returned from her service this evening, but my father is still out doing his in the darkness. At dawn tomorrow my mother will be lead her congregation in another vigil, and then the main service later in the morning. It is Easter weekend, marking the key events upon which their entire theology hangs.

The crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. Christians believe that the crucifixion represents the ultimate example of God’s love, the only means by which we are forgiven for our sins. Thus this weekend is a time of emotion for them, a time for reflection and giving thanks. It is a time of contemplation, and yet logically I find it a somewhat peculiar theology. The walls in my mother’s office are lined with books, mostly on different aspects of Christian theology. It is not that they have not reflected on it; in fact they believe in it with passion, considering it an altogether coherent philosophy. They live and breeth this theology. It is everything to them.

Still, I find it peculiar. For me, the ultimate example of God’s compassion cannot be seen in a ransom. Instead it is that beautiful and humbling moment when we turn to Him alone, regardless of what we have done, repenting sincerely. He does not require a sacrifice or an atoning saviour. He merely asks us to turn to Him in repentance and He will forgive us. The simplicity of the act is its blessing.

Let the Christians dwell on the cross and the empty tomb, but I will continue to dwell on the words of the Qur’an, on the supplications we are taught to say when we er and on that famous Hadith Qudsi:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.

That indicates an infinetly more generous Lord. My sins could be like mountains, but God promises forgiveness so long as I turn to Him. No cross, no tomb, no crown of thorns. Just simple words from a sincere heart.


When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. This was in the days before ‘Blogging’ existed as it does today and when the Internet was a medium only just being colonised with Muslim thought. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. Its title was ‘Safeguarding Knowledge: A Concept of Review and Accreditation for Popular Islamic Educational Publishing in the United Kingdom’. A bit of a mouthful, I grant you.

Following some discussions which took place during the day, this topic returned to my mind this evening. I suppose it is my oft returned-to question about writing in general and writing a weblog in particular. Quite separately, but still intimately linked, a question about typing Arabic text in Adobe Photoshop led me to think about my own experience of typesetting, which in turn made me pick one of those books up. The work in question is wholly concerned with the question of authentication, in this case in the preservation of the Qur’an. The memory of typesetting was linked to the former by the fact that an unknown character provided me with a useful commentary on the question of innovation in religion. What I was most taken aback by was the fact that he/she posted these comments anonymously. The book I was blessed with the opportunity to typeset, however, contains the following:

“…scholars face stringent limitation on which books they coulduse in the form of a ‘licence’ or reading certificate. In promulgating hadith books a regular attendance record was always kept, written either by the teacher or one of the famous scholars present, supplying details of attendance such as who had listened to the entire book, who joined in partially and which portions they missed, the women and children (and even the maids and servants) who participated, and the dates and sites of these readings. … A signature at the book’s conclusion terminated this reading certificate, indicating that no further entries could be made therein. To the muhaddithin this certificate was tibaq, an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.”

By contrast, today the internet is awash with ‘Islamic knowledge’ about which we do not have even an inkling of its authenticity. This recognition makes me shudder and it leads me on to wonder if even my own meanderings – this journey of a self-centred soul – should cease, even as I make no claim that it is anything other than opinion. I do not know if ‘Anonymous’, who provided the commentary, is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where he/she obtained this knowledge and whether he/she has a reading certificate. I simply do not know.

So the whole question is playing on my mind now and I find myself thinking about that question which I asked six years ago once more. What are we all doing publishing this and that willy-nilly? It is a question for me as much as anybody else, for this weblog is in the public domain and is read by people I do not know and who do not know me. Even if I tell you that I am Timothy Bowes ibn Peter ibn William, it does not help you for still I am just anybody. You do not know about my learning or my truthfulness. On the one hand we could argue that since I am not attempting to disseminate knowledge we should not really be concerned, but I am not so sure. I now have grave concerns.

My dissertation focused on the segment of the Muslim publishing sector which I defined as popular publishing concerned with basic Islamic education. In other words, not academic book production, but that aimed at the general Muslim readership. My concern was the editorial element, rather than improved production which has become the focus for many publishers over recent years. While producing beautiful books happens to be a passion of mine, the question of typography and cover design is really a fairly insignificant aside. In the course of this project, I undertook a study of Islamic education, examining the concept at some length. I went on to analyse the current state of Islamic education in Britain based on textual sources. This was followed by a review of the Muslim publishing sector in the United Kingdom.

In light of the Islamic heritage concerning the authentication of knowledge I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also the structures set up in the scientific publishing sector. After examining information management as it occurred in traditional Islamic settings, I studied peer review as it exists in scholarly publishing as a model for a review body. Before concluding, however, I considered whether the establishment of such a body would amount to a form of censorship and so I examined the notion of freedom of expression in contemporary thought along with the Islamic concept that a word is an act, which I have touched upon many times whilst writing on this weblog.

The case presented for a means of safeguarding Islamic knowledge from corruption inevitably collides with a culture which views knowledge in a different way. As I wrote in a recent post, so-called post-modern society argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths. The result is that the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection may be considered an affront to the freedom of speech – to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa or religious verdicts. Traditionally, scholars have always been entrusted with the community’s knowledge. Writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval, Rosenthal states that there was “little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas” into what constitutes Islamic knowledge. Meanwhile, Eickelman and Anderson note in ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities in the Muslim world,

“…set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.”

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech may welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind the slaughter of pilgrims on the Hajj and wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless.

During the course of this study, I quizzed readers about their views on books concerning Islamic knowledge. One respondent was suspicious if sources were not given, to the extent that she would begin to doubt its authenticity. A respondent who reads in English preferred it if the references were made, but pointed out that he was unable to check original texts in Arabic. If the book was from a respected publishing house, however, he did not mind if sources were not listed. An academic, meanwhile, said that he was very concerned if the book was in English, but much less so if it was a standard Arabic book whose author was well known. One respondent said that she would check the source if the content was totally unknown or at odds with her prior knowledge, but she would usually trust the author. Six other respondents were either concerned or very concerned if sources were not listed. One pointed out that even when they were listed, sources may be of dubious or inappropriate value. He also believed that literature even from established figures could still be a cause for concern because of the problems today’s Muslims face in interpreting Islam. Another respondent stated that all seekers of Islamic knowledge should be concerned about the authenticity of information provided, that everything is questioned at all times and that he would critique every view. Another was so concerned that when choosing a book that he would only select works from trustworthy authors or publishing houses, and that he would look for the general source of their views.

The emphasis on authenticity lies, without a doubt, in the development of the science of hadith (Ulum al-Hadith). With the swift growth of the Muslim community beyond Arabia in the decades after the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the need for the preservation and transmission of his teachings became a matter of crucial importance. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar write:

“Looking at the elaborate methodology that evolved through Ulum al-Hadith, including rules for transmission, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri, and similar criteria for validation, Ulum al-Hadith offers a unique example of information management. It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information. It offered a methodological balance by not invoking wholesale rejection of transmitted matrial but designating it in a graded fashion depending on the external and internal validation. Judged from this criterion, Ulum al-Hadith presents a pioneering example in critical historiography.”

By studying this topic in some detail I locked these ideas in my mind, hence their frequent return. Scholars are considered the protectors of knowledge in Islamic tradition and the existence of the science of hadith indicates that guaranteeing authenticity is a vital part of its dissemination. It was on the basis of these two elements that I proposed the establishment of a review body for popular Islamic educational publishing in the United Kingdom.

In the world of scholarly publishing, both of books and journals, reviewing or refereeing is an important part of the editorial process, as Page, Campbell, and Meadows explain in Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice. This is used to establish which works are suitable for publication and which are not, in terms of contribution to scholarship, accuracy and quality. Hans Zell argues in A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice that the term “peer review” is something of a misnomer in this respect, as the ideal referee should be a top authority on the subject under consideration, rather than simply a peer. Zell describes such reviewers as the “gatekeepers” who “ensure high editorial standards, rigorous scholarship, and … protect a journal’s credibility and standing in the academic community.”

The first stage of the peer review process is an initial reading of a manuscript to determine whether it has any potential. A manuscript which does not meet the standards of quality required by the imprint or journal will be rejected at this point. The second stage sees the editor selecting a reviewer with relevant knowledge, or preferably expertise, in the subject undertaken by the author. In some circumstances, more than one reviewer may be selected. The reviewer’s role is to assess the quality of the manuscript and to decide whether it should be published or rejected, before making recommendations to the editor. The reviewer may also suggest revisions. On the basis of the reviewer’s recommendations, which may be a long time in the making, the editor then takes the ultimate decision as whether to publish or not.

This process is most common amongst reputable scientific and academic imprints and journals, and less common amongst literary or cultural publishers. It is estimated that three quarters of the major science, social science and humanities journals use the process of peer review, says Leslie in ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ . In An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Derricourt argues that because there are some imprints which “publish almost anything and everything in their field, without much evaluation,” professional, scholarly and scientific journals must distance themselves from them by “demonstrating a commitment to selectivity and quality.”

The editors of specialist academic publishers usually wish to obtain reviews from at least two referees. If two reviewers do not agree as to whether a manuscript should be published or not, the editor may seek the opinion of a third or fourth reviewer. Some journals, such as the British Medical Journal, have records of reviewers stored on computer so that editors are able to choose from a wide range of referees. This system also ensures that reviewers are not overburdened and that previously unhelpful reviewers are not re-selected, as records and cross-references may be generated quickly. A cautious editor will probably use the peer review process only as a mechanism to aid a decision, rather than to make the decision out right.

In the peer review process the reviewers’ report is usually provided in confidence, ensuring that the reviewer is unknown to the author. Derricourt believes that anonymous peer review “permits an honest assessment of the unpublished manuscript which will be seen initially only by the publisher.” In some cases the reviewer may work with the author and Zell notes that “many authors will be grateful for the help they receive from referees in helping them to reshape their paper or improve on points of clarity, conciseness of writing, documentation of text, etc.”

An alternative view of this process, however, is that it amounts to censorship and can be detrimental to academic authorship. Writing in ProfScam Sykes argued that the process is distorted, corrupt and, most importantly, used as a mechanism to suppress unpopular ideas. In his paper, ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ , meanwhile, Banner wrote that the American Council of Learned Societies found that many scholars were unhappy with the practice – though not the principle – of peer review as undertaken by learned journals. He writes:

“The peer review process – the process by which the strength and value of knowledge is asserted and its publication justified – has long been taken to be epicentral to scientific research and humanistic scholarship and a given of scholarly publishing. Yet peer review is today beset with many problems – of attitude, administration, and effectiveness­ – that erode its authority and threaten its legitimacy.”

In Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing, De George and Woodward find that peer review generates friction between the author and the publisher, as it is this that determines what is, at the end of the day, published. They go on to ask whether the rules governing manuscript reviewing are fair for all parties involved. While no author has an automatic right to see his or her work published, they argue that authors do have the right to expect fair treatment. At the heart of the ethics of peer review are honesty and sincerity. Reviewers have a duty to be as objective as possible and to read the manuscripts they agree to review carefully. Peer review is, it has to be remembered, “a difficult, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated task, for which little credit is typically given. De George and Woodward note that it is not unheard of that reviewers have written a negative report of a manuscript without reading all of it or it at all.

As a result of the problems associated with peer review, a number of suggestions for improvements have been forwarded. Sattelmeyer produced Seven steps to a better review process, believing that publishers must design a review process that ensures fairness and objectivity, whilst also accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the manuscript. Reviews may provide the evidence upon which decisions are made, he argues, but they should not provide the final decision. Banner also provides a number of guidelines: reviewers are asked to provide an evaluation of the manuscript and to recommend directly whether it should be published or rejected. They are asked to take into account how well the author achieves his or her aim, the quality of their analysis of the problem, the clarity of its presentation, and the degree to which it presents information not available elsewhere. Reviewers are also encouraged to suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved. Once reviews have been collected, a publication committee meets to decide upon one of three alternatives. The manuscript may be accepted, accepted with conditions for revision, or rejected. The benefit of utilising a process of peer review is summed up well by Derricourt, who states:

“If there are things wrong with the overall project, or improvements that can and should be made, or if there are errors of fact or detail or interpretation, it is better to have these before publication. Otherwise, the first published review will draw them to attention of thousands of one’s peers, and it will be too late to correct them.”

I felt at the time that this point was very relevant to the topic at hand. In the case of Muslim publishing the problem does not relate to the author’s reputation so much as to the idea of conveying accurate information which has its roots in the science of hadith. Going further than the standard peer review model, however, I proposed the establishment of an accredited review body, independent from the publishing houses, providing a unified service to all authors and publishers nationwide. Affiliation to its review process would be entirely optional, but would be promoted to publishers on the assumption that they are concerned about the accuracy of their work.

Although the review body would not actually have any power to prevent an author or publisher from publishing a manuscript which it rejected, I felt that it could establish itself as giving accreditation to works deemed sound. This would aid the consumer in his or her search for reliable sources of Islamic education. The feasibility and likelihood of such a body ever being established, of course, is quite another matter. At best it was a long term solution for the problems facing Islamic education through the medium of publishing: the establishment of an open review body, acting as a guide and assistant to authors and publishers. From the perspective of orthodoxy, I felt that the establishment of such a body would be extremely beneficial to all those in the Muslim community in Britain concerned with Islamic education, aiding the future production of books which covey the teachings of Islam correctly.

But here we are just six years later; the landscape has changed massively. The weblog has democratised the internet and suddenly all of us are publishers. The case for a review body is clearly a lost cause. Perhaps – and I say this with some sadness – this is the argument for self-censorship. Better to withdraw than to be held accountable for all the information floating around masquerading as knowledge. Some of it is knowledge, but with our laxity regarding proving it, it is impossible to tell. So much confusion. These are the thoughts on my mind tonight.


  • Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)
    Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)
  • Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
  • Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
  • Page, G., Campbell, R. and Meadows, J. (1987) Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice (London: Butterworths)
  • Zell, H.M (1998) A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice in Journal Publishing (London: International African Institute, Oxford: African Books Collective)
  • Leslie, L.Z. (1992) ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 23/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
  • Sykes, C.J. (1988) ProfScam (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway)
  • McGiffert, M. (1988) ‘Is justice blind? An inquiry into peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/1
  • Banner, J.M. (1988) ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 19/2
  • De George, R.T. and Woodward, F, (1994) ‘Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 25/3
  • Sattelmeyer, R. (1989) ‘Seven steps to a better review process’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)

In the interest of the people

Long before the Make Poverty History campaign caught the public imagination—its huge momentum so famously derailed by four bombs on the London transport system last July—another global movement was calling for the cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries. At the turn of the millennium Africa was said to be paying $200 million every week just to service its debts. ‘The debts are unjust, unpayable and are killing too many people,’ lamented Jubilee 2000, ‘The cards are stacked against the poor. We’ve got to change the system, to put an end to this injustice.’ Thus, in over 120 countries, trade unions, charities, religious groups and community organisations came together with a unified retort; a call that the debt be dropped.

There is no doubt that this is a noble cause. It is claimed that Benin used over 50% of the money saved through debt relief to fund health care, while Tanzania was able to abolish primary school fees which led to an increase in attendance of over 60%. Our noble Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Your smile for your brother is charity. Your removal of stones, thorns or bones from the paths of people is charity. Your guidance of a person who is lost is charity.’ Thus the work of Jubilee 2000 was indeed commendable. But for those of us familiar with religious law it does seem that we are missing something. While calling for the cancellation of existing debts, there is a much larger injustice about which we have fallen silent.

Low income countries pay around $2.30 to service their debts for every $1 they receive in grant aid. In her well known book, A Fate Worse Than Debt, Susan George called interest rates the ‘bane of Third World debtors’ existence.’ Interest lies at the heart of the matter. The first loans to Africa, Asia and South America came from the World Bank and foreign governments, targeted at development projects and the expansion of capital goods imports. Such loans were tied to relatively low interest rates. It is ironic that the newly oil-rich Muslim countries of the Middle East should be responsible, even if indirectly, for much of today’s crisis.

In the 1970s, commercial banks inexperienced in dealing with poor countries found themselves holding excess capital from OPEC’s oil price partnership and thus provided variable-rate loans based on market rates. Interest rates followed market fluctuations and, largely as a result of the U.S. Federal Reserve tightening monetary policy against inflation in the 1980s, they quickly rose from negative to positive levels. Consequently, as debt repayments suffered, the commercial banks withdrew from further lending to protect their own interests. The result of continued high interest rates, combined with a decline in commercial bank lending, was the paradox that the recipient countries were paying out more finance servicing payments than they received as borrowing.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign as it is now known is demanding an end to the injustice of what has been termed the Third World Debt Crisis. Admirable, indeed, but is it not time that we addressed the issue at the heart of this crisis? The movement’s name derives from the Hebrew Bible, for the jubilee was a time when debts would be forgiven. In The Times in 1998, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Hume, wrote, ‘the prospect of reducing the burden of debt has profound theological resonance.’ A step further could have equally heartfelt significance, for in this crisis there is an inkling of an issue that was always treated with due concern through the ages by Church theologians.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam have much in common. One example is a prohibition on the consumption or charge of interest. Traditionally in all three faiths to make a transaction involving interest was considered a major sin. The law in the Pentateuch states that an Israelite may not exact interest from his poor brother on a loan given to him (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36). In the Psalms it is written that one who does not put his money out to usury will remain unshaken (15:5). In Ezekiel, a righteous man is one who ‘never lends either at discount or at interest, but shuns injustice and deals fairly between one person and another’ (18:8); a loan in interest, meanwhile, is considered amongst a list of abominations (18:13).

Similarly, Christians made reference to the Gospel of Luke which advises believers to lend without expecting a return (6:35). The Encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV of 1745 states, ‘The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract.’ He goes on, ‘One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully…’

As for us Muslims, the Qur’an states, ‘Those who devour usury will not stand except as stand one whom the devil by his touch has driven to madness. That is because they say: Trade is like usury, but God has permitted trade and forbidden usury …’ (2:275). Our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, confirmed this when he said, ‘A dirham which a man knowingly receives in usury is more serious a sin than thirty-six acts of adultery.’

It should not then be difficult to appreciate how a disassociation from interest would have the greatest theological resonance. Yet in reality we find quite the contrary, for most people are ignorant of this tradition. Although a distinction between usury and interest was rejected by both Luther and Melancthon, Calvin’s separation of the two gradually gained acceptance amongst both Protestants and Catholics. Thus today, in a global economy based on interest, few would even give the matter a second thought. Indeed this is surely the time that our beloved Prophet Muhammad spoke of when he said, ‘A time is certainly coming to mankind when only the receiver of usury will remain and if he does not receive it, some of its smoke will reach him.’

It is time that we stopped skirting around the issue. It is not just the debts which are unjust, unpayable and which are killing too many people, as the Drop the Debt campaign argued. All of us would do well to support this admirable and worthwhile campaign, but we should recognise that it is only part of the solution. If we—believers of the Abrahamic faiths—really want to change the system we may have to concede that it is time to stick Calvin’s separation back together again and that maybe, just maybe, the ancients had it right after all.

Note: This is a copy of an article I wrote for The Muslim Weekly, 14.03.2005.

Verily mankind is ungrateful

There is something wrong with me at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but my emotions are heightened, I am on edge, easily upset and completely inconsistent. I have been like this for two months now, swinging between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery reveals itself in the tears that well up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which rises rapidly and then dies.

I seem to be dissatisfied with myself. My heart aches, feeling heavy in my chest. On my return from Turkey I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by returning to the Smythian keyboard and reignite my “Copious Footnotes”. This lasted barely two weeks. It was followed by a yearning to start a cottage-industry publishing house called “The Othello Press”. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere. Then there was the “Blogistan” project, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the site because of the melancholy which overcomes me. It is all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals.

At work I want to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and now, just as I’m offered an interview for the latter, I’m resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a better day; maybe it will be good for me down the line. Perhaps it is not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then that I ever have since. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The Chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied despite a great wage for the simplest of graphic design work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started up my own business offering publishing services. This was a situation where I was in the position to do what I most love: creating beautiful books. Alas I was dissatisfied once more, even though I was given the opportunity to typeset challenging works such as “The History of the Qur’anic Text”. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onto new ground. I ended up as Office Manager in a busy training department. I was responsible for a team of administrators, got to produce newsletters and a directory of courses, develop the intranet and do many interesting things. Yet again I became dissatisfied and so the cycle started again.

What is it that drives me over the edge again and again? Why is it that I am never satisfied with what I have? Is my situation not better than the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every evening in Istanbul to sell ice cold, bright yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, is my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the days spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to three hundred customers over lunchtime off Berkley Square?

Perhaps it is pride. “I have an Masters Degree, you know?” Pride, which makes me think that the job I am doing is never good enough. “I don’t need a Degree to do this job, do I?” Pride which gets in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and you worthless as a result. I think it is. I think I am stumbling away from a path I once knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 was “The Purification of the Soul”. I think it is time that I returned to this work and others like it, recognising what it is that is creating this unease. My soul has been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscure the reality of faith.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart. Amin.

Do I want some wine?

‘What have you gained from being Muslim?’ asks another mocking voice. ‘Why make your life so difficult?’ It is true that living life as a Muslim has not always been easy. Indeed, on the first day that I acknowledged my belief in Islam I lost most of the people whom I had considered friends. My journey towards faith had been a private affair, but outside, my private affair had already become public knowledge. So many nominal friendships were now dead, and I hadn’t even moved from my place of prayer. I had, it seemed, really blown it this time.

According to an evangelist I encountered some time ago, I should be full of regret that I can no longer drink wine and should have felt at a loss because I did not join the dating game. ‘Do you want some wine?’ she asked me, scanning me with her eyes, ‘Do you want some wine?’ I simply said no and walked away. ‘So,’ she started later, when I returned to the kitchen to do my washing up, ‘what is the criteria you are looking for in a wife?’ I spoke about the past, about what reality is like. I asked her what was wrong with seeking commitment right from the start, when invariably so many people, this woman included, experience the pain of falling in love with one who has no reciprocal desire where marriage is concerned. ‘But hasn’t that situation changed for you now?’ she asked me. ‘So what if it has?’ I thought. I had heard her speaking with my host earlier about how depressing it was in her mid thirties that she couldn’t find a partner who was committed to a relationship, let alone interested in marriage. She wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith. But I didn’t feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam liberated me from falling into line with those ways which had never served me and had only caused me pain.

I went to university after a year out of study. I had worked a while, written for some time and gone to stay with missionary relatives in east Africa for about a month. There had been a year to escape from the mistakes I had made at Sixth Form College. There had been time for me to mature and move on, but there had also been time for me to forget what student life was like. I moved into university accommodation on a Sunday, a week before term began. Meeting others who had arrived already, it was off to the pub almost straight away. I didn’t drink alcohol at the time, though not for any particular reason. Fortunately, I had some company. A neighbour of mine was a Rastafarian who considered drinking alcohol a heresy, although smoking marijuana was a vital component of his belief. So I had coke, he had orange juice, and the rest – the normal characters – helped themselves to beer or spirits.

Those first few hours were crucial steps towards a happy life in the months that followed. Naïvely, I failed to grasp that the purpose of that undeclared session was one of self-promotion. While my companions talked about their hugely interesting lives, about their expertise in blending coffee, about the research they had been carrying out over the summer, about their youth growing up in one African state or another, or in a village in Nepal, all I could say was that I was from Hull. When, by accident, I complimented one of them I was suddenly judged insecure – and therefore unworthy of their company.

Over the next few evenings at the watering hole, my eyes cast back on myself. Here was I, stuck on the periphery of all that surrounded me. There was no salvation for this bore amongst them, for while the micro-racists could patronisingly promote even the dreariest African to kingly heights, their vision could not extend beyond their cliché-bound world. Yet I rejected them too, in my own way. Despite my almost devout agnosticism, I continued to adhere basically to the Christian morals which my upbringing had firmly imparted. Amongst the post-moderns around me, thriving on the morality of immediacy, I drew an unconscious distinction between my way and theirs. Theirs was a dream of later on tonight, a taste of delight with someone no longer a stranger. In truth, I walked away from them, not the other way round. One evening, abandoning my quest for friendship with my ever witty cohorts, I encountered a man I had met on the day of my interview sitting a few tables away with his flatmate and his flatmate’s girlfriend. He, a Welsh man ten years older than me, welcomed me and from that moment on we were friends.

Some weeks passed without as much as a sip from a glass of alcohol. Was it my Methodist genes, passed on from my Grandfather which caused my abstention? I could not justify my refusal to drink to my friends for I had not rationalised anything in my mind. My family drinks alcohol; this could not be another of my pre-atheist urges, yet I was pious in my rejection of the bottle, even as my new friends constantly petitioned me to drink what they were drinking. In due course, however, I conceded and was introduced to a luminous liquid which tasted like Lemsip as a bridge to a new habit – and an unpleasant period in my life began.

A decade older than me and a seasoned drinker, my colleague could drink thirteen pints of beer and it would not appear to make the slightest difference to his behaviour. By contrast, I was a novice and a couple of bottles were enough to make me intoxicated; yet in his company a couple of bottles would never be sufficient. So sure enough, the inevitable happened and a night of heavy drinking took its toll on me.

I had not eaten all day when my Japanese flatmate suggested we went to the pub across the road. To avoid mockery I bought another alcopop while he tried some whisky. After a while my flatmate suddenly remembered that it was his birthday and so we decided to celebrate by having a glass of whisky from a bottle in his room. Maybe an hour later, I met my usual companion and we set off for the pub with an old friend of his. I drank several more bottles of the green liquid, by which time I was intoxicated well enough to ignore the taste of what was to come. Quite late, my friend decided we should go to the Bluenote, a popular nightclub of the time. So we went down the road to get a bus, until, bored of waiting, we changed our minds and decided to settle for two bottles of red wine. We drank those on the way back up the road and then went back to the pub where I had begun that fateful night.

There was a lock-in, because it was after legal opening hours, and at last they had got me drinking beer. Though I did not like the taste, I was so intoxicated that there was no taste; indeed by then I was barely aware of what I was doing. We went on to a party in someone’s flat, time shifting strangely now. How long was I there? What did I do? Who was I with? A mystery. What happened to prompt another friend to decide that it was time for me to leave, and help me down the stairs to my room? I have no memory of moving from the pub to the party, nor of the party, nor of what happened next – just moments of consciousness amidst a walking comatose. Back in my room I fell unconscious, awakening for moments and then slipping away again. Finally an ambulance was called and I spent the remainder of night in Casualty.

A rite of passage, say the cynical, blinded by their love of drink. True, I was not on the verge of death, simply very sick and unwell like many an Englishman in towns and cities around the country that night. Thus does our culture mock those who look beyond this veil, justifying actions which ordinarily would be condemned. Many an upstanding citizen would condemn my Rastafarian friend for his religious inhalation of an illegal herb, but would never dream of reproaching the frequent drinkers in the pub; and yet medical researchers have put alcohol in the same category as opiates in terms of the harm it can cause. For my part, regaining consciousness in an uncomfortable hospital waiting room in Euston, I felt guilty. I was angry with my usual companion, angry with myself and deeply embarrassed. With the breaking dawn I swore that I would not drink again; a promise I failed to keep.

Drinking alcohol was never about appreciating unusual and varied flavours, but simply about getting drunk. Indeed conversation while drinking alcohol was invariably about alcohol. A person set on drinking thirteen pints of water, orange juice or lemonade during a single evening would be considered something of the village idiot, but in the warped culture which envelopes us, to do anything less with alcohol is somehow considered a sign of individual weakness. Not weakness as I would comprehend it. I had no interest in this way of life, but I was weak in that I gave into the pressure of friends. Before I realised it, I had found myself forced by circumstance to engage in a life I despised. It did not take long to make me dependent on a vodka and coke as a means of escaping unhappiness.

There was conflict at that time between me and another student, which was entirely my fault due to my ignorance of her culture; she was Muslim and I knew nothing about Islam. I only knew that Muslims do not drink alcohol, do not eat pork and only eat halal meat. I was not conscious of Islamic terrorism, fundamentalism or fanaticism and I was not aware of the common preconception that Islam oppresses women – all basics of pop-thought. So I certainly did not know that having a close friendship with a Muslim girl was unacceptable. Having made friends with her over a cup of coffee after a tutorial, time created a bad impression as I became excessively possessive of friends, seeking to be a part of other people’s lives instead of continuously being on the periphery. As a result numerous difficult situations arose.

We never became close friends. I think out of politeness she was always kind to me afterwards. But during a time of tension when we would avoid each other at all costs, I engaged in a life which was a lie. Sometimes I would sit at the bar in the pub, drinking spirits I couldn’t stand, pretending that I was happy now. Then, during the year, my Welsh companion began to have problems of his own, and I found myself helping him as others had helped me during my night of excess. Still he would drink his thirteen pints of beer and he would not appear to get drunk in the slightest; but when he reached the bottom of that thirteenth glass he would suddenly snap. His intoxication exhibited itself in violence.

I never saw him being violent towards other people, but if you were a door, a wall, a table or a chair, you would have to look out for you would not emerge unscathed. On numerous occasions it fell to me to control him, for because we were friends, people thought that that was my duty. He would spend days doing nothing but getting drunk, wasting away his money, and then I would cook a meal for him in the evening. One day he stormed into the common room, picked up the pool table from one end and then slammed it to the ground, before snapping a pool-cue in half, not at its natural joint. Everyone was shocked – perhaps scared – and looked at me, telling me to deal with my aggressive friend. I took him to his flat, sat down with him, listened to his problem and then I went to see the person who had caused his rage. There was nothing I could do. I became a mediator for two people whose morals I abhorred and a support for a character whose behaviour made me sick. Circumstance had forced me to engage in a life I hated.

Stronger people might have escaped earlier and realised that all was not well. But I was a weak person who felt that he needed these friends. They offered pathetic advice, such as how I should not feel sorry about what had happened between me and the Muslim girl before. But I acted upon it anyway and wrote her a letter, after we had sorted everything out, telling her how I wasn’t sorry, how it was all her fault and how I didn’t care at all. And then I smashed up my own face because I wanted everyone to feel pity for me. And then I would go to the bar alone and drink vodka because who needs friends when you can just get drunk?

In May of the same year following one more night of excess, when my entire body ached as never before, I gave up drinking alcohol for good. This, as it happened, was exactly one a year before I came to believe in Islam, but it is still an answer to the evangelist’s question: ‘Do you want some wine?’

No I don’t want any wine. I gave up the drink long before I embraced this faith, but that’s not the point. Some people wish to convince me that Islam is a burden on my life. In fact, the burden was lifted from my life when I said, ‘None has the right to be worshipped except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’ So while my life may seem unbearably restricted to the evangelist passing through, who wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith, I actually do not feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam did indeed liberate me from a time when I was a fool, and I was at a loss, and I was full of regret.

Blank Canvas

A brother sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I have often reflected on our response to non-Muslims’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I have no doubt that we do often encounter hostility, but I wish to say that we must not let ourselves ‘expect’ it.

I recall the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. My shahada came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, and yet when I had made the decision to utter those words, I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered it a personal affair, but within only hours the news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who, by nightfall, would now refuse to speak to me. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and I put their strange behaviour down to exam stress. Only, when the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed, when I said hello, if they didn’t just turn their back on me and walk away.

Relating to other people became very difficult: it was paranoia time. I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected sisters to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things which I ‘knew’ about Islam: Muslims don’t eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ , and Muslims only eat halal food. I didn’t have an opinion of Muslims – I didn’t even think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed women. But one thing I found when I went to university was that there were Muslim women there who wore the head scarf. I cannot tell you why I reacted as I did, because I do not know; I just thought that I should; but whenever I saw such a person, my eyes would hit the floor. I would not look at her face. I think I thought that because she wore the scarf, she wanted privacy and, therefore, I was not allowed to look at her. I remember there was a day when I was sitting with an ‘ordinary’ Muslim girl from my course in the university’s common room, and she pointed to this sister wearing hijab and said, ‘Can you guess where she’s from?’ I thought this was incredibly odd, because I thought I was not meant to look.

I encountered the paranoia tendency twice because of the way I behaved. The first time it was in my first year, the second time in my second year; both times those involved were new to wearing the head scarf. Both times my refusal to even look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted as I thought was expected of me.

Now that I have been there, almost in their shoes, I know just what is like. Visually, little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances who have never been very close, but you considered them friends, drop you in an instant. They blank you when you say hello or look at them, and you come to know that they hate Muslims or that, at least, they have a problem with something that you believe. Later, other friends, even your closest friends, drift away. They don’t have a problem with you, they say, but then they cut off all our ties. And when you experience this, you start to think that everyone thinks this way.

But they don’t.

I remember finding people on my course when I was in the third year periodically ignoring me. I would think, ‘Oh, well this is because I’m a Muslim.’ But often it wasn’t. People get stressed, consumed in their own worries. Study gets on top of them. Then there are the people who don’t know exactly how to react around you; they just want to show respect. So there was me, once upon a time, feeling that I should show respect, my intentions being misinterpreted, and then me later on doing the misinterpreting when others respond to me in exactly the same way.

In the two and a half years that I have been a Muslim, I have encountered all sorts of different reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as being boycotted, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for the truth. I have known people who don’t even have an opinion on Islam; who aren’t even confident that they can pronounce the word ‘Muslim.’

So what I’m really trying to say here is, please treat every potential Muslim you meet as a blank canvas. Don’t assume things about that person. It is so hard, I know from experience, to decipher what people are thinking, but we must try our best to be optimistic. Should we start on a negative like, ‘I’m not a terrorist, you know?’ or begin with a positive like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Islam is a blessing, so don’t forget to share it. We really have been liberated!

T.Bowes 18/02/2001

Seeking asylum from the past

Silence settled; I held hushed fear. Fear of sins returning to haunt. You changed, rearranged, but like heaven and hell, your mark remains in that gruesome book. No forgiveness or recognition, because they never saw your deconstruction and the reconstruction that followed.

I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by; exploitative, consumptive bodies, self-constructed images dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes. Dancing in the sweat of created images, consumed. Gasping for air, I died, drowning in the reality of the foul lies I puddled around me.

My silence and fear. Hidden behind masks, disguised as a character unknown, I grasp at anonymity, watching ­–admiring– guests and relatives new. Fear of those whispers; telegram awaiting; please read out the African tongue. ‘Anyone but me, please.’ I changed, never pleaded forgiveness, though sorry I was, for I turned my back and denied that past. And yet you never understood; my deconstruction and reconstruction. Here you remind me of what I preferred be forgotten, like God on judgement day reminding me of every sin I made, though I regretted it long ago. To you the speech of that African tongue was not a single thing; but to me like awaiting God’s final call. Unrepented sins returning to the mind, your sorrow, your regret, ignored. Just like that, you changed, turned away from your blinded past, but no one can see now. All the same stereotypes; the same offensive view.

A generous brother’s wedding reception, the speeches halfway through. In Afro-Caribbean company, sister-in-law and all, the message from the African state gets pushed across the room. To you, only a happy sign, a message of goodwill, but to me, shaped like a nightmare, ready to curse me for my greed. Read the African tongue; I whisper, ‘What’s the need?’ You hear the message, but I only reflect on the image of my soul. Like softest soul; those stereotypes; purity, goodness, gold. The ist in me, not with hate, but in stereotyping empathy. I wished it lost, and perhaps it is, but in me I felt those who know, see. Old me, same construction, no de or re.

I read the words, pronounced the sounds, but all I held was anger. Memories of other times; sell myself, prove a point, display my selfish greed. Reggae played unnaturally loud in Caribbean company; right on displayed, but actually tastelessly off. Suggesting messages of freedom and equality in ear shot of the passing Nigerian. Telling the South African associate, quite indirectly, that not all your friends are white. ‘Ethnic’ names dropped into conversations, always passively of course. And look around, what do you know? A poster of Martin Luther King stuck upon the wall.

Past times I hoped to bury, immaturity I hoped to burn. Skin used to fight me with words aimed, but I would just deny. ‘That’s not me.’ My fight with Skunk Anansie, but sadly it was me. No guilt of hate, of name calling, or bullying, but guilt of stereotyping empathy. Pages filled with poetry, arguing, justifying; satisfying myself of my very existence; all denial that she had mouthed the truth.

Yet consciousness of colour was not ingrained naturally in me. The saddest irony of all; my ism became from a workshop on the problem of those ists. Through the South African who suggested that white people were generally racist, an innocence of unconsciousness quickly drained away. Now I had something to prove. From an unconscious wanderer, a constructed ist became. But as an ist, I never realised, until I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by. An exploitative, consumptive body, a self-constructed image dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes, I immersed myself to drown. Emerged to be myself, changed and re-invented, but my face was still the same, so you thought I was still the same and, ignorant of my dishonest past, the way it troubled me so, you watched me stand reluctantly and I spoke your words at last.

The Polished Floor

Have you ever read the polished floor?
I read it every day
When I see you.
Is admiration wrong?
Because I admire,
But it is nothing more.
There are words on the polished floor,
Invisible to your eye,
But I read them.
Beyond a hidden world,
There’s something there.
And I wish I could share it,
But the words on the floor say, ‘No.’
I say, ‘It’s not fair.’
The floor says, ‘Life’s not fair.’
I say, ‘Well I don’t care.’
The floor says, ‘You’re reading me,
Of course you care.’
Is the longing for friendship wrong?
Because I long,
Though I know it’s an empty want.
Words on the polished floor:
‘Your isolation is your due,
Beyond this space, less of you,
Care and admire even more,
But the polished floor, never ignore.’

The E-Mail, the phonecall and the hydroelectric dam

When the thunder clattered and the rain lashed the ground, the power went off and SOAS library’s computer network ceased to function. There was no rain in Tanzania, the power went off, but it was more than the computers that suffered.

Michael Franti of Spearhead fame, the hiphopster on a mission of musical literation, would like this one. Africa Online and Food for the Masses. If this makes no sense, then here’s the summary: Franti’s latest album was the Chocolate Supa Highway and he questioned what the leaps of technology meant to the African continent. Was the internet relevant? His scepticism of our hi-tech, material, civilised world. And now the connection: E-Mail messages from Tanzania until they turned the power off in the middle of October.

Kiswahili conversations between a father and his daughter; the father somewhere in England, the daughter in Dodoma, Tanzania’s administrative capital city. On Thursday 9 October, his mailbox revealed that Dodoma was facing the beginning of a famine. The rains had not come and now there was a shortage of water. Food prices were rising and there was little information beyond their region to say that that was happening. At the time, according to the E-Mail, there were only eighteen inches of water in the dam above the turbines. Those were the turbines that were supposed to generate the majority of Tanzania’s electricity. And if there was no rain in November, the E-Mail said, the country would slowly begin to shut down.

By Saturday, the electricity was off. The father received an early morning telephone call from his daughter in Dodoma. Time winding handles, hoping for a connection, Vodaphone may be whispering from Sri Lanka, but not here; the electricity is dead. Saturday 11 October, the electricity had now been turned off because there was not enough water in the hydroelectric dam. The effects would be felt all over the country and in the major towns, including that far coastal city of Dar Es Salaam. Now the fading voice on the telephone said there will be delays in the distribution of food and relief. No electricity, no power to the mills that ground the maize. Tanzania off-line, need food for the masses.