Time and again I am reminded that I have no power to affect change in the world, except by the will of the Most Merciful. Plots and plans fail, grand designs founder. Hard work, dedication, patience, obsessive attention to details: none of these can bring about the result you desire on their own. Only the One can decree the end you desire. And if it is not His decree, it cannot possibly be. Take comfort, if you can, that He has a better plan for you, disappointed though you may be. I am trying to; I am trying.
Many years ago when still a searching agnostic, I wanted others to convince me to believe as they believed. I used to lament that neither Muslims nor Christians would reach out to me or answer my questions.
For a while I was going to Church, but I was dissatisfied with the simplistic answers to my enquiries. I would ask questions of religious people, but did not find their responses convincing. When I had questions about Islam, I would be referred to a Christian expert on the religion. When his answers did not persuade me, I would befriend Muslim students at university, intent on them responding to my queries. Rarely was anyone truly able to answer my questions and so I would often retreat dumbfounded.
Nowadays I take a more magnanimous view, for I recognise that most people are not concerned about this idea we call truth. Most people are satisfied with whatever they find themselves on and do not feel the need to confirm that it is correct and true. This is as much the case for Muslim communities as for anyone else. Whether we call ourselves Traditionalist, Salafi, Hanafi, Hanbali, Sunni, Shia… we each revel in what we think we have, and reject everything else, even if we don’t know why.
We have to accept that the journey we are on is somewhat personal. Formal studies have their place, but the personal pursuit of truth is driven forward by an inner impetus. The Quran repeatedly mentions using the intellect; sometimes you have to use your mind to reach truths that you cannot immediately find in the circles of knowledge. Alas, too often we are not told this: instead we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves altogether. Though the Quran is against this idea, scholars have been made like rabbis and priests, as an authority on everything: “They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah…”
This is not an argument against sitting at the feet of the learned, but about building and maintaining the right relationship with them. Scholars are often not treated as normal people who have specialised in a field of learning, but as legendary beings, giants and celebrities bigger than the dimensions which contain them. Years of pious folklore turn them into mythic creatures who can never err or suffer the human ailments which afflict the rest of us. Of course we should learn from those who know better — as in any other field of human endeavour — but it is important to put the references of Islam in the right order.
Arguments for or against Islam are all interpretations. Some are stronger than others. Some may appear to be true, but are based on unsound assumptions. Some may true based on the information available, but that information may be incomplete or incorrect. There are many factors to weigh in. However convincing another’s argument may be, or however awesome their faith seems to us, it is of no worth at all if we cannot convince ourselves.
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.
You have to nurture your faith to keep it alive. If you let it go, it will go. I have seen too many people leave the deen, steadfast and passionate though once they were. You have to feed your heart and keep good company and close your ears to the nonsense — from outside and within. We’re all taking too much for granted; rejoicing too much for what think we have. In a blink of an eye the light of faith could be removed from us and passed on to a more deserving people. Step back from the maddening clamour of the crowd. Remember to look inward, to renew and reform daily. Remember to keep your faith and heart alive.
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?
Politics prevent us from condemning atrocities universally. Politics make us blind to some victims and extraordinarily sympathetic to others. Politics demand that we adopt a partisan morality. Politics make us say that some lives matter and that some don’t matter at all. That some crimes are more important than others. That the crimes of our allies and friends, however heinous, are of no consequence. Politics prevent us from doing justice.
Fortunately, God is above politics and partisanship. God will not ask, “Whose side were you on?” but, “Were you just and true?”
Dear Younger Self,
I am writing to you from the future. In a couple of years I will be 40; you have just passed 20. The year is 2015 and while it only vaguely resembles to world of 1989’s Back to the Future II, it is shaping up to mirror the dystopian nightmares of other works of contemporary fiction: ours is an advanced technological society, supported by wars without end overseas.
The Internet, which you have recently discovered, has grown exponentially and has had a vast impact on our lives, both for good and bad. That brick of a mobile phone in your pocket has evolved into a handheld computer, vastly more powerful than that huge beige machine on your desk. Your 100MB Zip disks are long obsolete; today we can store 128GB of data on a slither of plastic smaller than your fingernails. As for your dreams: instead of working in International Development, you work in a new-fangled field called Web Development. I’m not sure how that happened, but I blame you! Continue reading Letter to myself
I think we can be fairly certain that the target was chosen carefully — not as an attack on Freedom of Expression – but as a means to divide communities. And it has worked.
Just as many commentators have presented the false dichotomy that to be against the atrocities is to unwaveringly support the right to offend at whatever cost, so another artifice has emerged: exasperated by the vulgarity of a publication without boundaries (except French law), we forget our own opposition to murderous extremism, stumbling — as we seek to liberate ourselves from the ravaging rampage of the semi-free press — towards a mistaken accommodation of an ideology which a day before the shooting we were confronting with ferocious antipathy.
Passions are running high and all of a sudden we find ourselves steered off course by the prevailing winds. The rift is widening; the polarisation increasing. It’s time to take stock, to pull back, to take corrective action. Don’t be like the waves of the sea, blown and tossed by the unceasing wind.1
- Words etched into my mind from the New Testament’s Letter of James. ↩
We claim the good amongst us and disown the bad.
Those before us claimed both and sought their redemption.