Stuck in the moment of his own despair, he carelessly says to another no longer stuck in their own moment of despair, “You have absolutely no idea what we’re going through”, absolutely oblivious to the fact that they know exactly what they are going through. The one who complains that others judge unfairly judges unfairly and refuses to acknowledge that he is not alone in the world, nor is his situation unique, and that his own words and assumptions hurt just as much as those he complains about. Empathy is a two-way street.
So the tables have turned. As I approach my fifth decade — the hallowed middle age — I find myself in the role of those unwilling advisers I castigated in my youth for their answers to questions of belief and doubt. From my mid-teens to early twenties I would demand guidance from my elders, be it a youth worker, a teacher or priest, insisting that they assuage my doubts and prove to me that God was real and that our faith was true. I would take myself off to church and later an evangelical cult in an effort to be persuaded. I would harangue my parents with questions that I had already decided would never satisfy me. I wanted others to persuade me — on my terms — that I could believe as they did. Continue reading The challenge of our times
Time and again I am reminded that I have to 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.
True repentance is undoubtedly liberating, but that does not make it easy. Sometimes it means letting go of all that you have become attached to, to reject a part of yourself, or to turn away from what you treasure, or desire, or wish for beyond the worlds. But in the end you know that you have no other choice: you let go of everything that holds you back, no matter how much it means to you, because you want to regain the favour of your Lord. In your heart there is a pain; a feeling of alienation. You are distant from faith and all that was once so dear to you. It is clear what is wrong and where the problem lies: you know it is a step you have to take. But it is the most difficult step. To say sorry and to tear down the wall that separates you from your Lord. To replace one set of investments with another better than it. To be patient and sincere and to take that final step, to make everything right. Yes repentance is truly liberating, but it exacts a heavy price from the soul.
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
— Luke 20:45-47, New International Version
Why do we make our lives so difficult for ourselves and others? It happens all the time: we adopt the most hardline positions in matters of religion, which we enforce on others as the only true way, impossible though they are to live up to.
How many times must we see it play out before us? Repeatedly we have witnessed those who once focussed zealously on the minutiae of fiqh later turn their back on religion altogether. In their eyes the rest of us were like faithless heathens, who could be lambasted for apparently doing our wudu incorrectly or for taking a photograph or for falling short in some other way. Every time we encountered one another, something new would be wrong with our practice, or our beliefs, or the way we dressed.
But where are these righteous ones now? In the end they decided they could no longer believe in the uncompromising path they had invented for themselves and, instead of looking back on all of those other ways they had so fiercely rejected, they threw out the whole, turning on it with derision and mockery.
Never did they ask themselves, “Is my understanding at fault?” Never did they wonder if those they had been taught to reject as faithless innovators had something they were missing. Never did they think to question what constituted orthodoxy, or to probe the force of politics and violence on their understanding of religion. Never did they allow themselves to question the assumptions that formed their worldview. Instead, both in faith and faithlessness, only absolutes would do: the absolutes of the past would be replaced by the new absolutes of the present. Never is there doubt, neither in belief nor disbelief.
Who dares look outside the self-imposed boundaries which confine us? Who dares ask those unsettling questions which bubble away deep within? Who will allow themselves to open that box which nobody dares open, to prise off the lid and look inside? Who will acknowledge the minuscule proportions of their knowledge with humility and reject the absolutism of the arrogant self?
Though individual truths and signs may abound, absolute truth is not found on YouTube or in the forums of the proselytes and rejectors. The one who rejects might lead toward a truer reality than the one who appears to believe. You might reject an absolute which has no basis and find yourself the true believer; you might insist on an absolute which has no basis and find yourself a disbeliever unbeknownst.
Why rush to judgement, replacing one set of absolutes with another? Why not hold back in shy humility and simply confess, “I do not know” or “I am not sure”? Why jump from dissatisfaction with your inherited worldview to rejection of every tradition you dared not contemplate or consider? Why, when you have rejected all, must you still insist that only the orthodoxy you rejected could possibly represent the whole, that only its scholars may be representative of its reality, that those ideas alone are significant? Why be like those ravaging absolutists intent on destroying the great libraries of Timbuktu, who would incinerate every inkling of a different reading of faith?
Pause for a moment, take stock. Let your questions be your guide. This road is long and wide. Take it slowly. Interrogate yourself and tradition. Be prepared to travel far; to walk that lonely road in search of answers. The crowded avenues of the online forum may briefly appear comforting and true to the traveller in search of certainty, but at best they offer but partial respite — but fragments of possibility. Why insist on such a narrow reading of history and religion, whether as a believer or disbeliever? Why narrow your horizons and restrict your view? Why make things so difficult on yourself, when everything else has always been made so easy?
Do not rush into anything. It is still very early days and there is still much to learn and discover. If you find yourself veering towards atheism or agnosticism, you’ll be aware that there is no urgency to believe in either position. Nothingness does not require a testimony of faith, or commitment to a way of living. If you feel a hypocrite while uttering words you do not believe in, you might write it off as the reverberations of your soul. Or you might sense that something deeper is at play.
Slow down and take your time. Recall how the Prophet, when dissatisfied with the answers of his people to the questions of life, ascended Mount Hira to sit alone in meditation to ponder and reflect. Islam is truly not how it is portrayed by those doing dawah on YouTube: it is a path you have to struggle to find. Use this time of inner flux to ponder and reflect on life, the universe and everything, free of the pressures of dogmatism and so-called orthodoxy.
Don’t worry what other people might think. We are individually accountable for our actions and beliefs. The community always has labels for people who arrive at different conclusions. Many people who reject some of the orthodox inheritance and try to retrace true prophetic Islam are labelled as modernists or deviants or heretics. The challenge is to be true to ourselves, to be open-minded and not be bullied by others, however hard that undoubtedly is.
Look at yourself — do not worry what others think. Hold back, take your time, have sabr. You have all the time in the world.
We are only required to pray the five prayers and fast one month of the year; anything more is optional. Prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves, but necessary vehicles to higher goals.
On the contrary we are asked to sit and reflect for a long time: “Those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You!’”
God does not compel a soul beyond what it is able to do. We will not be judged for what we do not know; God will judge us by our level, not someone else’s. Perhaps the key to more certainty is to spend more time reflecting and pondering on the beauty of creation: to go for walks in the hills, through dense woodland or by beautiful winding rivers.
Some of what is stated as Islam is clear cut and factual. For example, there are five things that make up belief: from the Quran it is clear that the universe has a creator called Allah; that there are unseen creatures called angels; that there were Prophets and Messengers; that Books were revealed to those Messengers; and that there will be a Day of Judgement.
Other certainties are that the core mission of all Prophets was for people to uphold justice, not to convert everyone; that prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves but are necessary vehicles to higher goals; that individual responsibility rests within their ability.
Some of what is stated as Islam is probable. For example, from the Quran it is not clear if there are other creatures on other planets, though when reading you get the feeling that this is the case. Similarly, it is probable that before Adam there were no other human-like creatures.
However some of what is stated as Islam is not true or is at least disputed. Examples are that a woman can be pregnant for more than a year, that the Prophet — peace be upon him — waged war against people who did not wage war against him or that everyone in Arabia became Muslim in his time.
When we separate out what is clear cut and factual from what is not true or disputed, many of the contentious obstacles to belief disappear. The biggest obstacle people face when it comes to belief is not the Quran, but other sources which have been allowed to contradict and undermine it. Saying that something is true because it is found in our books or is old is a problematic approach. It could be true, but it might not be: we have to evaluate things and challenge suspect ideas.
The idea that a person who has tried hard to believe is punished is not from the Quran. Rather the Quran talks about being held accountable according to your level or ability, although of course that doesn’t mean it is easy, for the Quran asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tested?”
We have to take one thing at a time. Nobody can be certain about absolutely everything. We have to experience things for what they are. When we see things with our heart, we will become certain; if we only see with ours eye, we will never have certainty.