The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

Jihangir’s Beacon

At the end of the summer last year, we spent our days between visits to a clinic in Jihangir, Istanbul. While its views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn beyond were stunning, I was not too keen on those streets. In this secular quarter and haunt of expats, wine shops outnumbered grocery stores. In the rising heat there was often an unpleasant smell, for the area’s pet owners would not clean up after them. These streets had a continental European feeling to them and indeed conversations in French, German and English were often within earshot. Pehaps Jihangir’s most famous resident is the writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose apartment I always passed on my way to the mosque. My heart in Istanbul lies in a place inland called Gunesli – it is not beautiful, it does not have grand views and its residents are far from rich – but in its huge mosque in its centre into which pour local shop keepers for every prayer, there is a sense of iman. Jihangir is a place without spirit, a pale imitation of a Parisian street, losing itself in Efes Pilsner.

But on Fridays, a beacon lights on that hillside overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The adhan calling me from Jihangir’s eroding minarets, I would wander down the road to join my jamat. Nobody ever looked at me and stared, for in this land of different hues, nothing indicated that I was an Englishman. Sitting on the carpet, the sun streaming through the open windows, the voices of foghorns down on the water below would greet us. Seeing young men entering in droves through the antique doors was a true delight, having recently returned from Artvin Province where the toothless, grey-haired ones dominated the mosques, though even they were small in number. These youthful faces were not locals, but came here for employment: my visits for Asr and Maghrib met with an elderly jamat numbering no more than five.

With every period of darkness, when my life seems so distant from the Prophetic ideal, I recall that beacon on the hillside. In the midst of despair there can still be light. And where did that beacon lead me? Warmed by dhikr after jummah, refreshed and renewed, we packed up and moved on to Gunesli, where salams are exchanged on its streets.

My Heart

On Friday evening I came across an article which really resonated with me. I wanted to contact the author, but I decided to sleep on it first, to mull over my thoughts. This was an article in which the author wrote about what traditional Islam meant to him. Part of that description included this sentiment: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…”

It resonated with me because for weeks now I have been thinking of a faraway place I passed through last summer. It also touched me because there is a part of me which does not sit well with the modern age. Throughout my teenage years I was something of an eccentric. While my friends were interested in mountain bikes, football, Nintendo and Baywatch, I was a dreamer. I yearned after a romantic past, of a wood-framed house surrounded by the cottage garden, of self-sufficiency, spring-fed waters, of the homestead farm. I would sketch out my rough architectural diagrams of my self-build Tudor house. My favourite book as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy: I imagined I was Almanzo and I dreamed of living my life as he had all those years ago. Later – this probably led to my eventual arrival as a student of development studies – my attention turned to sub-Saharan Africa. An article about life in Burkina Faso inspired me in a way you could not imagine.

With the wisdom of age, of course I now realise that all those dreams were indeed for a romantic past. The reality of life is that it is hard: inoculated from birth against mumps and rubella, and against tetanus, living in an age protected from TB, and able to access an education from the age of five to twenty-one, we forget the realities of existence in different times and different places. Still, that was my dream and an element of it remains with me even today. Something has been bothering my heart of late and that article I read on Friday gave me an inkling of what it was: a kind of discomfort with the age we are living in.

Last summer I spent a couple of weeks up in the highlands of eastern Turkey with my mother-in-law, up above the clouds. My wife’s family originate in Hopa on the Black Sea, close to the border with Georgia in Artvin province. Every year, to escape the summer heat, my mother-in-law packs up her possessions like the nomads of old and ascends the mountains for the refuge of that usually cooler air. Life up there is quite primitive: the houses are simple stone-walled structures without cement, covered with the tarpaulin these travellers bring with them. The evening meal is prepared on wood burning stoves, which in turn warms the shelter as the cold evening draws in.

So last August my wife and I began the journey in the early morning one Friday, looking forward to our reunion with her mother after such a long time. There is a vast dam building project underway in the valley between our village just inland from Hopa and Artvin, so we had to leave at first light so we could travel while the road along the bottom of the valley was still open. We travelled inland rising steadily higher and higher into the mountains. At around 11am we stopped in Ardanuc to get some vegetables and have a rest, but not for too long. Soon we were winding up a dirt track through this beautiful landscape which reminded me of my holidays in Switzerland as a child. It was a steep landscape of meadows, streams and log chalets. Alas, we forgot our camera so there are no photographs I could share with you, but take my word for it: this was a landscape which almost made me cry tears of joy. We were heading for a Yayla about two hours short of Ardahan, but I could have stopped just there, so magnificent was that scenery.

But we continued onwards, until we came to a camping ground on the side of a valley where we stopped for lunch. There was a shack on the edge in which a group of men were preparing to barbeque cubes of lamb meat. I sat down on a bench with the lady-folk close to an ice-cold spring, for we had just discovered that the men were chilling bottles of Turkish spirits beneath the bubbling surface. After lunch, leaving my male travelling companions to their Reki and the ladies to their conversation, I caught a lift with an old Muslim man back to the mosque for Jummah prayer. I speak very little Turkish, but that ride was an immense blessing: we exchanged salams and I watched as those I had left behind appeared as dots across the valley.

It was this trip to the mosque that has been in my thoughts for these past many weeks, which made that article strike such a chord with me on Friday. I should think that mosque has never seen an English Muslim enter its doors before in all its ancient history. We parked our car just off the road, because the mosque could only be reached on foot. Together, communicating with one another only by hand gestures and that brotherly fondness in our hearts, we walked up the hill through that village that seemed to be caught in a time warp. There was a water-trough fed by a stream out in front of the mosque – what a beautiful sight. But what touched my heart was the sight in the small garden in front of that place of prayer. All of the men were gathered in a circle, awaiting the call of the adhan, expressing such affection for one another, conversing with kind words. We exchanged salams, but I did not join them, entering the mosque instead with my old companion. That building seemed centuries old inside. It was dark, and yet it seemed light. The walls were stone, not decorated like those fine mosques of Istanbul. There were some pieces of calligraphy, and old worn out rugs on the floor. There was a spirit in that mosque which warmed my soul. That place has been in my thoughts.

The tale of the remainder of my journey up into the mountains is for another time. This post is about that place in my heart. It is not a geographical place, but an emotional place. That place that the author described: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…” Yes, this is the yearning of my heart. That place of true brotherhood outside the mosque, that place of a simplicity that does not care for our modern-day obsessions with labels and debates. That place where Allah is remembered, where life stops for the prayer, where brothers respect one another and welcome the stranger passing through. That place of beauty.

Allah knows best my heart. This weekend I have made a resolve. Allah knows best my heart. I cannot articulate yet what this is: not to you the reader. But its origin lies in that experience that has been on my mind all these weeks. Inshallah, with time I will explain. In time I will explain.

Good Counsel

One of the beauties of brotherhood as we experience it within the fold of Islam is sincerity amongst friends. In my days before Islam, friends were people who told me exactly what I wanted to hear. My true friends today are those who speak the truth and grant me wise counsel even when this is not what I want to hear.

I have a dear friend to whom I am still indebted because of his wise counsel. I was studying in Scotland and passing through a difficult period of my life. This friend of mine travelled 420 miles north from London to tell me that Allah had done His part in guiding me to Islam: now it was my turn to repay Him. I had been dwelling in self-pity and, witnessing this, my friend travelled all this way to give me his sound advice. He did not go the extra mile to help me: he went the extra four-hundred and twenty miles.

Giving and receiving good counsel is key part of brotherhood, as An-Nawawi illustrated in his Riyad as-Salihin (The Meadows of the Righteous):

22. Chapter: On Good Counsel

Allah says, “The believers are brothers,” (49:10), and the Almighty said, reporting about Nuh, “I am giving you good counsel,” (7:62) and about Hud, “I am a faithful counsellor to you.” (7:68)

181. Abu Ruqayya Tamim ibn Aws ad-Dari reported the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “The deen is good counsel.” We said, “For whom?” He said, “For Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the Imams of the Muslims and their common people.”

182. Jarir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I gave allegiance to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, on the basis of performing the prayer, paying the zakat and giving good counsel to every Muslim.”

183. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “None of you can truly be said to believe until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.”

I pray that my friends will continue to grant me their wise counsel. It is one of the greatest blessings of Islam, that a friend can come round for dinner and speak the truth to his brother.

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.

Continue reading Faith and Family

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.

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