Gold leaf

Years ago, when I had just become Muslim, I was invited by a friend to spend an evening smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco from a shisha pipe.

When I declined, suggesting that it was not a good way for a Muslim to spend his time, my companion responded that we would adopt my puritanical stance when the caliphate was restored.

The logic seemed to be that in the absence of a Muslim ruler, none of us had any hope of jettisoning our bad habits or addictions.

Fast forward to today, and it seems that little has changed. All around me, people are campaigning for the return of those great “Islamic” empires of the past.

But ask the question, “Are we establishing Islam in our homes?” at your peril. Apparently we need to establish Muslim rule, before we can possibly hope to establish prayer in our homes.

I wonder what glory has to do with the simple calls of faith. Quranic verses embossed in gold leaf on magnificent buildings will never be a substitute for verses inscribed on our hearts.

Witnesses

So once more our activists and scholars petition us, “Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?”

And yes, it is true, we feel like renegades, as if indifferent to the suffering of afflicted innocents everywhere.

But the communal amnesia they demand of us won’t stick. We have been browbeaten by tragedy before, and driven by emotion to join the bold choruses demanding war.

And now the millions dead and nations in anarchic turmoil stand witness against us.

This fire

They demand that you speak up, say something, make your voice heard, as if everything is clearcut and obvious and true, and as though your voice would make a difference to the wronged, caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Perhaps the silent fear opening the door to another giant invasion from outside, sold as a humanitarian intervention like Iraq and Libya.

Perhaps the silent still recall how those moderate Western-backed rebels morphed into the fearsome ISIS before our very eyes, providing new incentives to bomb the oil fields of Syria just a year after parliament declined to bomb them because of Assad.

Doors will open anyway, and those who want war will get it, whether we witness for the wronged or not. And those that demand we speak up now will demand that we stay silent in the face of wrongs perpetuated by our allies and friends. No, now is the time to call for more war, claim our respected leaders, not a time to petition for peace.

And on and on it goes. Yet more innocents will be wronged, innocent lives destroyed, as the fire spreads, rages out of control and ravages all in its path. And in time we will watch as our unprincipled leaders change their minds, adopting whichever new stance best suits the moment, confounding their students and followers with the fog of confusion that characterises these anarchic times.

But for now: “Speak up!” they chant. “O you hypocrites, turncoats, renegades, men of weak faith, backsliders, heretics, heathens, traitors, defectors, fugitives and snakes: petition all the forces of earth to rain cruise missiles down on the enemy. Demand that they deploy the standing armies from Saudi and Kuwait to vanquish the evil enemy. Speak up, speak up! Join our mighty chorus, beating the drums of war!”

Browbeaten, we might capitulate. Who wants to be an outlaw amongst friends? We will join in the sorrowful rejoinders and mournful laments, withheld from the mass of the victims of equally calamitous crimes; may our invocations sanctify the poor few amongst the thousands dead. Without a doubt it is their right.

But tomorrow, I can tell you, those hallowed ones will change their tune. Those that demand you speak up now, will tomorrow be writing of evil plots, of false-flag operations, of media-collusion, of takfiri extremists who don’t represent us. The fog will suddenly have lifted for them. But as for you: you are still the hypocrite, the heretic and heathen. You are still the ignorant one, to be turned whichever way the shepherd chooses, at that particular moment, on that particular day.

We are but partisan pawns on the great chessboard. We have forgotten that we are called to witness to the truth — if we are able to — not to champion for our team come what may. And if we do not know, or cannot verify the news we receive, to stay silent. Yes, even if everyone around us demands that we speak up, take a stance, make a choice.

But in any case, this fire will rage on and only spread, because nobody is willing to pour on cooling waters to extinguish the ravaging flames. The presumed wise ones demand an incendiary response: only fools would call for peace. So let us be fools.

In defence of losers

I used to be extremely timid in company. These days I find myself accidentally challenging people when they start making sweeping generalisations and outlandish claims. I don’t mean to be contrary. But really, someone needs to be the dissenting voice, offering an alternative perspective. Even if everyone thinks that the dissenting one is an idiot as a result.

Of course traditional wisdom states that you sit in silence when the enlightened are speaking, nod your head and keep your thoughts to yourself. That’s good manners. Maybe I should just do that, as I used to.

But it’s hard when people start dissing your people — the geeks, misfits and socially awkward. Nope, somebody has to give them a voice.

So disrespect the losers — the introverts, the shy, the socially awkward, the quiet ones — in my company at your peril. It’s a trigger. We who sit behind our keyboards, typing, typing, expressing ourselves in the written word, because it’s the only way we know how: yes, in real life we are the nobodies, the insignificant, the fabled losers of our time. Insecure, perhaps. Or perhaps merely misunderstood.

Introverts may shun public spaces. We may descend into a gibbering wreck when confronted with conversation. We may lack the social skills of the movers and shakers of the world. But perhaps in our writing we find our voice. In our words in print, or in pixels momentarily brought alive on bright screens by the wizardry of technology, we too contribute to the world around us.

The same nafs that meets and greets people out in the world, types upon keyboards set before us. The challenges are the same. The extremes need not define the whole. Terrorism does not define activism, nor do trolls define the web. The same nafs must be tamed, in each sphere we find ourselves in, be it social media or the board room. The true seeker is a man of his time. He does not rebuild that distant romantic past, resorting to a monkish apathy to his own age: he lives in these times, negotiating the modes and means of the present.

Perhaps the keyboard of these times can be a tool of liberation for some. Perhaps a social lubricant for others. Perhaps we are not all just losers, who could never survive out in the real world. Perhaps we have jobs that require us to sit in silence for long periods of time, to concentrate and code, or write, or edit, or draw, or paint, or think. Perhaps we have managers who value us for the quality of our output, despite our wonky teeth, slouching backs and annoying nasal voices.

A technology-enabled world is not for everyone. Some detest it, and would run for the hills when offered a keyboard, mouse, or tablet. So run! But technology has always enabled me to do my best work. To work in remote and far flung places, but still submit my projects on time. To converse across oceans. To collaborate with people across nations. Technology is a tool, not the be all and end all.

You have to get up and go out. To walk in the hills. Stretch those legs. And you have to exercise your mind and morals: to decide whether to be truthful, whether to verify information before passing it on, whether to talk to certain people or not. Yes, we need a fiqh and adab for the web.

But for giving the losers, the introverts, the numb, the socially awkward and the quiet ones a voice, I’m grateful for these technologies the enlightened now deride. Some are fighters. Some are writers. Here’s to the losers!

Investigate

It’s heartening that there are people in modern times who dedicate their time to checking facts. Tracing claims to their source, mapping the path of the information as it spread worldwide. Investigating the contents of the claims. They are the modern inheritors of the sciences of isnad and matn.

But it is disheartening that they are rarely Muslim, and that in complete reverse, it is often Muslims who spread the unverified junk without a moment’s pause, purely because such claims confirm to their worldview or what they wish to believe.

This Quranic maxim is the last thing we want to hear:

O you who have believed, if an ungodly man comes to you with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.

Our home

This week’s European court of justice ruling to allow the hijab to be banned in the workplace has drawn yet another line in the sand. It is time to move from Europe opine Muslim commentators everywhere; time to flee the coming catastrophe. Muslims should return to their Muslim lands, we are told, to remove themselves from harm’s way.

How ironic. A number of Muslim-majority countries themselves had workplace hijab-bans in place until recently, and Europe was often a refuge in those times. Europe is a continent of contradictions. It has its left and right. Those that welcome refugees and those that despise them. Liberalism and illiberalism.

Muslims are a small minority (less than 7%), often a convenient scapegoat in times of economic crisis, and yet many Muslims (and other minorities) cherish the freedom to believe and practice their faith as they please that Europe has generally granted them over the past few decades. Of course there are exceptions: French White Supremacy has always had a problem with the descendants of nations it brutally colonised, and there are worldwide trends of a push towards the right.

But in reality there is ease and difficulty intertwined for the Muslim citizens of Europe, just like anywhere. Filtered through the lens of social media and the Muslim imagination, the situation may look dire, but the same is true of the US, Turkey, Pakistan and beyond.

We all need a place to call home. Europe is our home. I’m not sure that exit strategies are helpful at this juncture.

Thoughtless advice

Come on dear celebrity community leader, think about your words! Yes, of course what really matters is our relationship with our Lord. Yes, of course we are not defined by qualifications and what we own.

But the generations of dropouts, layabouts and underachievers desperately need their spiritual guides to tell them that their GCSEs, A-Levels, Degrees, Post-Docs and — God Willing — secure employment at the end, can be acts of worship, if they enable the young man or woman to better serve others, whether friend or foe, family or stranger.

Our leaders should help us to aspire to the best in all realms, not just in the narrowly defined realm of spirituality. Perhaps that bright young graduate on obtaining a well paid job will give his wealth to the poor. Perhaps that successful surgeon will save lives. And perhaps the one who spends day and night in prayer, but cannot serve others, will gain nothing from his efforts but the benefits of aerobic exercise.

Our leaders need to do better than this. And they should be challenged when they offer thoughtless advice of this kind, however good their intentions.

3 March

On this day, every year without fail, in commemoration of the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate, a curious quotation misattributed to then Foreign Secretary George Curzon is regurgitated all over social media by people who should, by now, know better:

“The situation now is that the Islamic Caliphate in Turkey is dead and will never rise again, because we have destroyed its moral strength, the Caliphate and Islam. We must put an end to anything which brings about any Islamic unity between the sons of the Muslims. As we have already succeeded in finishing off the Caliphate, so we must ensure that there will never arise again unity for the Muslims, whether it be intellectual or cultural unity.”

Though it was established long ago that there is no evidence the Foreign Secretary ever uttered these words either in the House of Commons or elsewhere, it has passed into folklore and has become fact, and no amount of appeals to the sciences of verification can do anything about it. When words become a weapon in the armoury of keen activists, truth becomes irrelevant. They may be legends, but at least they are our legends. In politics, fact and fiction are inextricably mixed, and ends justify means. Truth has no place in these battles of ours.

In isolation

For years I have lamented and bemoaned being cut off by language from the life of the mosque. But now, as I learn of the sectarian polemics, tribalism and grotesque conflict which bubbles away under the surface, I am grateful to have been so cut off. What great mercies, despite appearances at the time!