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a cacophony of ramblings

Category: Interfaith

Context

I think we Muslims might be better off focusing our efforts on understanding the Qur’an and recentering our lives around it, rather than making a fool of ourselves by taking words of the Bible out of context — in this case “machamadim” in the Songs of Soloman — and claiming they mean something else.

I learnt long ago that you need to read things in context. The Songs of Soloman in the Hebrew Bible are canticles about passionate intimacy between two lovers. Projecting the name of our Prophet — peace be upon him — onto a word in the midst of an erotic poem is just plain odd.

Read things for yourself; don’t just repeat the claim because it sounds convincing out of context. Reflect on the overall meaning of the passage and then draw your conclusion. It should be our approach in all things: to the Qur’an, to history and to life in general.

Calling the caller

I regret that I cringed when I read about a “da’wah training session” held for students over the weekend. “Da’wah training to unleash your inner da’ee,” read the poster.

True, back when I was a student I decried the reluctance of religious folk — both Christian and Muslim — to share their faith with others. For the seeker it was like getting blood out of a stone.

The passing years have dampened my impatience. Youthful urgency soon feels like folly. The young are often idealists — witness many an impassioned revolution sparked by a student uprising — but that often makes them arrogant too, believing themselves to have a better understanding of reality than those twice their age or more. Truth, when you are young, is so obvious and clear: Atheists, Evangelicals, Muslims, Socialists, Anarchists… they all agree on this. The young wavering Agnostic — so very English in his refusal to confirm whether he believes or he doesn’t — soon settles for an absolute he can hold to: any one of the above; whichever seemed convincing at the time.

Preach, oh young one, if you wish to. Have your pseudo-poetic, hip-hop-hypnotic YouTube videos ready on your iPhone. Stuff your pockets with twelve-page pamphlets pointing out 101 contradictions in the Bible. Limber up your tongue, practice those ontological arguments of yours and prepare to bamboozle your opponents.

But, alas, I cringe. For lack of faith? Not at all. Because of faith and the state of the world around us. Instead of allowing their faith to reach their hearts and make their lives better, young men — often new to their religion –take it upon themselves to become perpetual guides to what they never grasp. Isn’t it foolishness to concern yourself with the fate of others and forget yourself?

We preach, but our words are like smoke, for we are ablaze. Young men call, but they don’t know what they are calling to. We steamroller over realities and present mythical representations of the past: ours is a religion without history, we exhort, unaffected by politics, culture and violence. We call others to an ideal we never make real.

Yes, so after all these years I cringe in the face of the student da’ee. If these youngsters were ever to ask my advice, it would be this: don’t concern yourselves with the fate of others, but work on yourself; before seeking to enlighten others, enlighten yourself; embody the message you wish to convey. Be a seeker: the real truth you are looking for may take years to find, so be humble, patient and kind.

“Do you exhort people to goodness and forget yourselves, and you recite the Book? Have you no understanding?”

You do not need training in how to do da’wah. You need training in how to be a human being. Isn’t that the purpose of our deen?

Taking a side

I have read Tony Blair’s Bloomberg speech in full, long winded though it was. It contains some truths, and some realities for Western interests.

I don’t know anybody who would deny that Muslim extremists are a threat to many communities around the globe; other Muslims are as much victims of their words and actions as non-Muslims. Yet history attests that these groups have always been there; it is just that modern communication media has amplified their reach.

Blair touches on certain truths, but he also glosses over other unfortunate inconvenient ones. The elephant in the room, of course, is his intervention in Iraq, which in no small part accelerated the religious sectarian anarchy he now laments.

Saddam Hussein’s loathed Arab Socialist Ba’ath regime was brutally effective in rooting out so-called ‘Islamist’ groups. Blair’s defence of the military recoup in Egypt today is no different from the Reagan administration’s relationship with Saddam Hussain in the 1980s: this is just realpolitik. Muammar Gaddafi was good for Libya, it now transpires, as Blair tells us that the democratic experiment has well and truly failed.

People are dismissive of Blair’s warnings and advice for sound reasons. It is not that he is a harbinger of ideas that nobody wants to hear. It is because he himself — personally — has played an active role in the region’s unrest.

Islam is indeed an important factor in the region, but so too are those unbelievably straight lines redrawn on the map by European powers at the end of each World War. Faith and visions of religious utopia play an important role in people’s lives, but so too do the malevolent excesses of Secret Police acting on behalf of undemocratic governments.

Who would blame anyone for seeking an ideal — suspect though it may seem to literate minds — when reality has proved so hideous? What serves Western interests is not necessarily good for the lived real lives of individuals and their families.

Blair tries to concede that other factors come into play early on in his speech, but he goes on to brush them out of the way in pursuit of his overarching agenda. An agenda that quietly mixes up facts. None of the countries he mentions by name have been actively funding and proselytising that narrow minded and dangerous ideology he refers to. But key British allies, conveniently overlooked? Can a thesis about the Middle East which does not once mention Saudi Arabia be taken seriously?

Particularly when his closing remarks refer to the atrocities of 11 September 2001, an act of terrorism said to have been perpetuated not by Afghans or Iraqis, but by a group of Saudi men.

I suppose this is what he means by “taking a side and sticking with it.”

Faith and Family

In 2003 my mother wrote an essay entitled “Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!” for the interfaith module of her Masters degree in Theology. After reading the copy she sent me, I wrote the following essay, and sent it back in May of the same year. It was a useful exercise for us both, I think.

Introduction

Part of the title of my mother’s essay on my conversion to Islam read, ‘Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!’ Ironically that lamentation is not very different from the one which led to my renewed interest in ‘finding’ God some five years ago. Back then writing was my main hobby and, for a while, one theme predominated in the words I wrote: ‘Help, I don’t share my family’s belief.’ I rediscovered some of these articles recently while clearing old files off my computer. Here’s an extract from one dated December 1997 (I can’t now believe the bad language and anger I expressed in the rest of the piece):

‘You don’t want to reject their faith, you don’t want to be different, you don’t want to be an outcast; you just don’t have their faith, but at least you’re trying to find it. But it’s so hard to admit that. They prefer to hear that you’re lazy, because that’s not such a disgrace. You’re filled with fear, so you don’t admit openly that you’re completely lost. You’re hoping that someone will pick up on your blatant hints.’ (neurolie.doc)

During my second year at university there was this intense drive in me to ‘find my way,’ to be like the rest of my family, but not at the expense of sincerity before God. Again, from the same piece:

‘Your sister corners you with awkward questions at the dinner table. “Why don’t you come to church?” Her tone is accusing, she’s trying to humiliate you, but she doesn’t understand a single thing. She thinks you’re just a lazy —-. Your family looks at you and you look back. Well, you’re not exactly going to tell the truth, are you? “Well, it’s like this. Sis. Mum, dad, bro. I can listen to the readings, the gospel and a psalm. I can listen to the sermon and learn. But how do you think I feel when we all stand for the Nicene Creed, and all I can say is ‘I believe in one God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’? You want me to say it all, but faith isn’t about you, it’s about God. Do you want me to be a hypocrite before God? Of course you don’t. I don’t go to church because I don’t have the strength or the knowledge to claim your faith and I refuse to lie in the Name of God.”’ (ibid. – Note: these harsh words reflect my feeling at the time and not my views today.)

On the occasion of my eldest brother’s wedding, I remember bemoaning within that I would never be able to get married, for to marry outside a church would be like publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. This of course is now another source of irony, for a year and a half ago I did marry outside a church, effectively publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. One thing had changed; back in 1997 I was lost, looking, unsure of faith, in 2001 believing in Islam; the certainty of believing, as opposed to the flux of disbelief, made the ‘I will never’ less easily done.

This year, as part of her Masters degree in Theology, my mother wrote an essay entitled, “Help, There’s A Muslim In My Family!”: A Personal And Theological Reflection On The Experience Of A Son’s Conversion To Islam. Although it was submitted as an academic assignment, it was a very personal insight into the effect my embrace of Islam has had on the family. In preparation for this essay, she sought my involvement by asking me to review a book on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Hoping to add some sort of Muslim perspective I, along with my wife, did this, finding it a fruitful endeavour. Some time after her conclusion of the essay, my mother sent a slightly edited version of it for us to read. Although it was at first uncomfortable reading, its title coming as a shock to say the least, I can only express appreciation to my mother for opening this discussion up. My hope is that this may lead us to establishing some kind of dialogue towards understanding, of the kind which is much talked about institutionally, but rarely carried down to the lay men and women on the ‘street’. This essay, then, is an attempt to carry the discussion forward, in part responding to my mother’s essay and in part covering new ground.

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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.

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