Credit where it’s due

The old Pakistani uncle at the mosque is due his seventy excuses too.1 People like me are often found muttering taciturn complaints about the unfriendliness we perceive in our fellow travellers when we come together for prayer. In weeks and weeks it could be as if we are not even there, as if ghosts standing in line.

But to give your brother seventy excuses was the lesson I learned when I returned to the mosque after some months’ absence. There was a time—when I was doing better—that saw me hurry there for every prayer, until laziness got the better of me. My Lord would note my disappearance, I told myself, but no one else would miss me.

I was wrong. As I wandered into the mosque that afternoon, an old, white-haired man with weak English got up from his place and headed straight for me. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked me, ‘We thought you’d fallen dead.’

A minute later another approached to ask after me. Had I been away? Had I been ill? Um, no, I muttered, I’ve just… ‘Well as long as you’re alive and well,’ he interjected, sensing my inability to account for the months that had passed.

It is difficult to prise many words from these old folk. Salam alaikum is usually all they will spare, or the occasional, ‘How are you brother?’ We don’t have conversations, but that afternoon encounter taught me much. Perhaps they’re shy. Perhaps English isn’t their strong point. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to strike up the discussion. Perhaps their mind is on the prayer. Perhaps they have problems at home on their mind. And for the literalist, this is only seven percent of the excuses due to them.

Nowadays I attend the midday prayer each working day in another town. The folk there don’t seem all that friendly either, but here I have learnt to give them their seventy excuses too. We may not sit and chat when we come together for prayer, but still we are brothers to one another, witnessed in random acts of kindness.

My office lies a fifteen minute walk from the mosque—a hurried march there beside main roads set apart from my leisurely saunter back along the cobbled streets of the old town. It is in this daily journey that I learned my lesson, for I have lost count of the number of times someone has stopped to give me a lift. Often I don’t even recognise them as they come to a halt beside me, tooting their horn, but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Salam alaikum,’ they say as I peer in at them, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Or, ‘You’re going to miss the jamat. Jump in.’

Most of the time we don’t strike up conversation. We exchange salams and I reiterate my gratitude, but that’s it. But it does not matter. These random acts of kindness serve to remind me that things are not always as they seem. When someone is silent it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you; they may just have nothing to say.

Sometimes I am too hard on people, jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about them. And sometimes I fail to give credit where it’s due. Bumping into a couple of friends from Arab lands after Friday prayer one week, conversation soon turned on our favourite bugbear: the incomprehensible Urdu speech followed by the hastily sung generic Arabic sermon. It’s a problem, I had to agree, but then another thought occurred to me. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘were it not for these people, we wouldn’t have a place to pray at all.’

Beside me, my friend stopped and smiled. ‘That’s very true,’ he said, and soon we were considering our own shortcomings. And there were many.

  1. “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” — Hamdun al-Qassar, narrated by Imam Bayhaqi in his Shu`ab al-Iman 7.522.

Killing

Why all the killing? I really cannot comprehend it at all. A bomb planted in a Peshawar marketplace extinguishes the lives of 91 in an instant as it rips through everything in its path; 200 more are left injured. Just a matter of hours earlier 150 are slaughtered in Baghdad.

Islam holds that indiscriminate violence is makruh (offensive) on the battlefield and haram (forbidden) in a place where there are civilians. This slaughter follows not the sunnah of our Prophet, upon whom be peace, but that of the twentieth century, during which 250 million people were needlessly killed. Fifteen million during the First World War, 9 million during the Russian Civil War, 20 million under Stalin’s regime, 55 million during the Second World War, 2.5 million during the Chinese Civil War, and on, and on.

Who gave Muslims permission to adopt the sunnah of the Luftwaffe and RAF, who once championed terror bombing for utilitarian ends? And who gave them permission to abandon the sunnah of the Messenger, peace be upon him, which forbade attacks on non-combattants?

Who now will stand up to the killers and defend our deen and the common man? If a man in the midst of this anarchy must now blunt his sword and resign himself to a fate like that of the better of the two sons of Adam, does the burden then pass to those of us living in safety and security?

For years Muslims have lamented that though we condemn terrorism repeatedly, nobody hears us. But today we realise that all this time we have been addressing the wrong ears. Those who needed to hear us were not our angry neighbours, but those men wielding high explosives and an alien utilitarian way.

Amidst the carnage of a bombed-out marketplace, who now will make themselves heard?

The curse of addiction

There is a disease that I have harboured for the best part of my life. It accompanied me as a child, an adolescent and an adult; as a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic and a Muslim; and in times of both health and sickness. I would define it as a disease of the soul — a spiritual malady — that stifles realisation of any lofty goals. As familiar symptoms return as the years pass by, it becomes ever more apparent that it is an addiction. I turn to treat it frequently and promise to abstain, but in time the cravings become too intense, sometimes manifesting themselves in physical form, and once more I succumb.

In my mind’s eye, I can map out every resolution of reform, for I have long recognised the nature of this disease, striving to conquer it whenever the moment of clarity descends. There was that cold night on Christmas Eve — perhaps 1990 — sitting alone in my bedroom, my parents at church for the midnight service, the window obscured by condensation; I sat on my bed with my bible between my palms, conversing inwardly on the sudden urge to seek out righteousness in place of this affliction. I resolved to displace the ailment with faith and determined to focus on the bible now, reading it from cover to cover, penning my own copy in the process. What happened thereafter, I do not recall, but it is most likely that I forgot my pledge as the sun rose on Christmas morning and the celebrations carried us away.

Another resolution came in my second year of university. The virus was becoming epidemic, infecting every private moment, calling me towards ever lower depths and pulling me closer and closer to despair. My conversation with this agnostic’s God became hopeless, giving in to a grim fate after a death that somehow felt so close. Then one morning I arose and took to the streets of London in a crisp, cool sunlight, the sky an enlivening blue. My steps were aimless, but I ended up in the Regent’s Park, cutting through its beautiful gardens with my mind a million miles away from there, until all of a sudden I was very much there and abruptly conscious of myself. In that instant came a prayer: a resolution of instant reform and dedication to my Lord. In the days that followed I made contact with evangelists and took up their invitations of months before.

Such resolutions — and my revulsion for myself — became key drivers of my search for God and faith. It felt over those first days and weeks after my testimony of faith, months after that Saturday sojourn, as if a great burden had lifted. With belief in God and His messenger came a desire to be good now. The weather was hot and dusty in the city that summer, yet it was in my mind that I felt my sins burning up and blowing away in the wind like parched dust. I had broken the chains, I naively thought, as I adjusted myself to my new-found faith.

This disease, however, is pervasive and deeply ingrained. I frequently blame the television of childhood and the gaze of my infant eyes for planting the seed that has grown and grown, until it has become more rampant than the Russian Vine in my garden, or like the Bamboo the previous owners foolishly thought fit to plant. The kernel of this ill may have been miniscule, but the years have fed and nurtured it, creating a monster whose shoots push up from a new fragment of root whenever another is cut off and cured.

Another marker on the map comes to mind as if it were only yesterday. It had not taken a year for this soul to relapse into the ways of old — in fact it may have only taken a matter of weeks — and soon the self would justify its conduct, normalising it and dismissing the significance of such minor matters. But in time this would dissatisfy me, for I could not promise that the minor would not become major and undermine whatever I had achieved. It was a realisation that struck me one late spring day in 1999.

I had finished my studies for the day and was heading back to my flat beside Waterloo Bridge on the southern bank of the Thames. My saunter, as always, had carried me along the western edge of Russell Square, along Montague Street, half-way up Great Russell Street and down Museum Street. Now I was meandering up Drury Lane. Half way along my portion of the street I sidestepped Jay Kay from Jamiroquai as he got out of his Lamborghini1, but inner thoughts prevented me from glancing back or lusting for his Italian marque. I was mulling over reform: the time had come, I was telling myself, to finally conquer that disease. A voice was asking questions: will you really abandon all of that, when your life is so long and you so weak? But my mind was suddenly conscious of the Hour and mindful of punishment if nothing changed, and convinced that death could come at any minute. As I cut onto Bow Street I arrived at a reluctant retort. Yes, I would abandon my addiction and dedicate myself to God and His way.

Why I remember that conversation as if it were yesterday, I do not know, except that it was a pledge that I failed to keep. Weeks would pass — perhaps even months —when I would persevere patiently, ignoring the call of the ogre within, but eventually I would succumb to it. How many times I have resolved to reform and overcome this great infection, I cannot say or count. Another conversation came one hot afternoon on my return from Friday Prayer on an early summer’s day in Ealing. Another came on a painfully frosty night in mid-winter as I awaited a train to carry me home.

I oscillate continuously between a call to righteousness and the call of a pervasive addiction that never seems to leave me, regardless of good intentions or the sincerest resolve to leave it behind. It is what evangelists refer to as ‘the addictive grip of sin’ and what Muslims call ‘the domineering nafs’. I call it my great test, and it is a test I would not wish on anyone.

The past two or three years, I fear, have been worse than those earlier years. My memory fails me, of course, for in the continuum of life it is the same old-same old. But worse because I now know better: because a teacher has taken time to explain the stages of the nafs and provided the tools to overcome such burdens, because I have awoken to the necessities of faith, because I am supposed to be older and wiser now. My faith provides the resources to climb to a great height, but there is no instant panacea for any ill; we are required to exert effort, to persevere and be strong — as in any field of life — or else we fail.

Earlier this year I believed that I had cured my addiction. Months passed when its symptoms ceased, when I preoccupied myself with other tasks in order to dull its calls, when I shut down each avenue that would lead to this giant’s reawakening. Imagine if I had succeeded! In my mind it is like a golden ticket — if only I could grasp it, I tell myself, I could then progress. What a blessing to be close to one’s Lord! What a blessing to earn His pleasure! What a blessing to rise in rank before Him! But alas!

I must have compromised somehow — opened the door a crack — for all my achievements of the early part of the year have now been lost and reduced to just a distant memory. Could I not just repent and start over? If I have achieved forty days once, can I not again? If I have achieved sixty, why not try to better it, and gradually — pole pole ndio mwendo2— build up some kind of immunity? I should aspire to that, at least, I know, but with each resolve to return to God my determination weakens. Mankind will never comprehend the mercy of God; when we despair of His mercy, it is really despair of ourselves, for though our Lord can forgive a world’s weight of sin and more, man is short on tolerance. Yet in truth it is not disbelief in God’s mercy at all, but rather surrender to addiction.

Two weeks ago came that resolve to turn to righteousness and abandon foolish ways. I knelt in prayer and tried my best to eradicate every trace of the poison that had welled up like a bitter sore. But soon the cynic within was once more whispering those familiar counter-arguments, chiselling open the crack, nudging the door back open. And so, so soon, the foolish ways returned, each period of reform narrowing against the last, until it is but a slither of time: the proverbial mustard seed, perhaps. Last night, again I resolved to change, to strive in His way. But by morning I could hear the virus calling.

And now? What now? My sorrow stems from my acute awareness of the affliction. Were I an ignorant fool succumbing amidst blindness to the realities around me, surely I would find respite. But instead I am a learned fool: one that knows of right and wrong, good and bad, of the diseases and cures of the heart. For such a fool, what hope could there possibly be, except the undeserved mercy of His Lord?

All of this, my dear friends, is the woeful curse of addiction, the oscillation of the wayward soul. So don’t be a fool like me, my friends. Shelter yourself and your children from the poisons of this world, and seek refuge in your Lord.

  1. Fame had clearly aborted the environmental message of his early lyrics.
  2. A Swahili proverb that roughly translates as, “Slowly, slowly fills up the bowl”.

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds)
  3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18
  4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31
  5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44
  6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34
  7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994
  8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14
  9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack

To beard or not to beard

I have long been one of those admirers of the Muslim woman, who says, ‘How I wish I had faith the strength of theirs.’ For to take upon a visual marker of identity outside the norms of society and to wear it whenever one wanders into the public eye takes great courage. Observing English women wrapping their heads in fabric soon after embracing the deen, I used to wonder at their faith. Had I been born on that side of the gender divide, I would ask myself, would I have had the daring to envelop myself in that unfamiliar garb?

The mirror, however, has been speaking to me these past few days and it has reminded me of the shortcomings of my biased admiration. The act of revealing one’s beliefs through the physical is not confined to Muslim women alone. For the Muslim man, the clearest marker is his beard. It is true, of course, that a beard does not automatically identify one as a Muslim, whereas the hijab, except amongst the unenlightened,1 almost always does.

I believe it takes great courage to wear a headscarf — not to mention persistence, tolerance and fortitude. I have often heard it said that some women find wearing the hijab saves time getting ready to go out, but I can’t think how this could possibly be true, for it takes me at least ten minutes and numerous pricks to my fingertips to close a safety-pin if I can’t see it — and you don’t have to iron your hair.2 Of course it may well be true in the case of the Afghan veil or Somali khimar, but I am hugely doubtful that sartorial convenience is utmost in the minds of those who choose to cover.

You must have a certain determination and spiritual height, I am often found reflecting, to move amongst people who are commonly contemptuous of your faith, announcing by your appearance that you are a Muslim. Although only Allah knows what our hearts contain, to me it signifies a level of iman worthy of respect.

Yet the mirror speaks: at least the act of putting on a headscarf is within the woman’s control. So long as a woman has enough money to buy a metre of fabric, she can consider herself a hijabi. Her male counterpart, however, is at the mercy of his biology. While she decides whether it will be a pashmina or a khimar, and black or blue, or floral, and cotton, wool or nylon, he stands there wondering if it will become a thick Afghan mane or a straggly Malaysian outcrop, or if it will forever remain a single whisker dangling on the end of his chin.

Adopting the hijab can be a slow process, involving a readjustment of one’s mindset — and that of one’s friends — sometimes stepping from bandanna to scarf and back again. Yet once a decision to wear a headscarf has been made, the transformation is immediate. A scarf does not grow in patches. By contrast, for some of us, the road towards achieving anything even resembling a beard can be a long one, complete with the accompanying chastisement and mockery favoured by those around us.

Pious Muslims — both men and women — like to remind the fresh-faced ones of their grave shortcomings. I decided to grow a beard when I became Muslim in 1998, believing it to be obligatory, but over the years that followed others would pick up on my lack of facial hair and find my faith wanting. Attending a series of lectures, three months after I became Muslim, somebody twice asked the speaker if growing a beard was fard. Each time the respected teacher answered the question with the affirmative, he looked directly at me. My three whiskers were inadequate there, but still I persevered. My family and friends did not need to sit staring at my chin as we conversed, for I knew that I looked peculiar, but for the next few years they always would, whenever we met, without fail. I would console myself, imagining an angel swinging beneath my chin as in a hadith I had once heard.

As the years passed by, my whiskers gradually multiplied, resembling a tray of salad cress as they grew longer. With them came more mockery. ‘What’s with his chin?’ a consultant would ask a colleague, who insisted on calling me d’Artagnan. ‘He’s a Muslim,’ she would reply with raised eyebrows, sniggering something about my three musketeers. Now they call me Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare at work. Cryptically they ask me how the novel’s coming along before guffawing, ‘Shakespeare!’ yet again — I don’t have the heart to tell them that he was a playwright, not a novelist. It amuses me, somehow.

The mirror has been reminding me of all this since the end of Ramadan. For the first time in my life, something resembling a beard has begun to populate my face, sparse though it remains to the casual observer. I am fortunate to discover that medicines sometimes have beneficial side effects. Though the pious ones still turn away, dismissing my corruption of the sunnah, for me it is a start. Some are unable to comprehend that it could take eleven years to grow a beard, or that one could fail to grow one at all.

Though I have long been an admirer of the Muslim woman’s faith, the mirror proposes that the Muslim man’s faith is no less meagre. The visual marker that he takes on may not provide that instant flash of identity recognition, setting him at odds with the people around him. But somewhere in the process — whisker to goatee to garibaldi — as a mass of evidence amounts that it is not worth the trouble, it becomes self-evident that we persevere for a reason. The Muslim woman does not wear her headscarf to avoid brushing her hair in the morning. The Muslim man does not grow a beard because it saves money on razors. We persevere, in the face of criticism and mockery, because we want to please our Lord. It is only one aspect of our faith — and it is our hearts and our deeds that concern our Lord — but it is still a start.

  1. My wife has been mistaken for a nun on several occasions — white skin, you see.
  2. Although I have glanced in the mirror half-way through a working day and realised that I still have punk tufts all over my scalp too many times to count.

Risk Assessment

Dear Editors,

Explain to me, would you, what this means: ‘Sebastian Faulks outburst risks anger of Muslims’? Or this: ‘Sebastian Faulks has risked sparking Muslim outrage…’

Does it mean that you have not yet found any angry Muslims and you’re stirring? Or is it just that you’ve taken your risk assessment training a tad too seriously?

‘The bestselling author Sebastian Faulks has courted controversy by saying the Koran has “no ethical dimension”.’

He has courted controversy, has he? And how is his courtship going? Are Muslims engaging, or as it seems to me, are they too preoccupied with a month of fasting and prayer to lap up this manufactured schism? The comment fields are filling up with condemnation of backward Muslims who have no respect for free speech, for sure, but the Muslim voice is strangely absent. Hence ‘risk’.

As for you, Mr Mair, what was with that package on PM last night? No, don’t get me wrong, it was quite fascinating and instructive. I was just wondering about the invitation of Fay Weldon. Well, when I say wondering, I mean I was thinking, ‘Good choice’. For it was Fay Weldon, was it not, whose contribution to the Satanic Verses affair was:

‘The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police — and the thought-police are easily set marching, and they frighten’ (Sacred Cows, 1989, p.6)

And when I say, ‘Good choice’, I really mean — well — on a discussion concerning the literary merits of the Qur’an versus the Old Testament, you could have invited a doctor of literature, an Old Testament scholar, one of the non-Muslim translators of the Qur’an. Rather than an author who is more associated with fictional tales of women trapped in oppressive scenarios. Though I admit, her contribution wasn’t lacking in that regard.

So a good choice if you’re stirring and you’d rather like to move beyond the ‘risk’ stage and onto to something more compelling. Effigies, bonfires, that kind of thing. Indeed, one blogger has already titled his post, ‘I smell a fatwa’ in anticipation. It would be a shame to disappoint.

But perhaps not the best choice if you seriously wanted to enlighten your listeners on the merits of one over the other. Never mind, we had Dr Mir. I can’t say I was awfully disappointed.

My dear editors — pardon me if I speak out of turn — but is it possible that you misjudged this one? Ever so slightly? I don’t even think Mr Faulks needs the publicity; his book seems to stand up on its own merits in the reviews I’ve read.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to risk assessments (for I really must give you the benefit of doubt on this). No, I think they’re a jolly good thing. Indeed, I often think to myself, ‘If only I had done a risk assessment’ when another DIY job has gone terribly wrong.

No, it’s just that while undertaking your risk assessments, in order to have quantified the probability of Muslim anger properly, as well as identifying the hazard (Mr Faulks’ opinion) you really should have quantified exposure to the hazard, taking into account all of the environmental factors relevant to the case. Factors, I might posit, such as the fact that Muslims are currently fasting the month of Ramadan, which has numerous implications.

For example, it could be argued that a person who rises at 3.00am in the morning to take breakfast and then abstains from eating anything until just after 8.00pm might possibly feel somewhat weary, thus exhibiting less interest in manufactured schisms than usual.

Similarly it could be argued that a person who is spending their free time reading the Qur’an and standing the night in prayer, both ingrained habits of this month, may fail to get full exposure to said manufactured schism. Indeed, since many Muslims abstain from TV and internet use during this month, we are at risk of seeing the risk severely diminished.

Furthermore, you might possibly find that conditions of the fast such as restraining oneself from getting angry and holding one’s tongue from ill-considered speech lessens the likelihood of the full blown riot required. I could list other factors, but you’re intelligent folk; you get the gist.

Therefore, dear editors, I suggest you sit on this story for the time-being and then pull it out just as Parliament is debating the Religious Hatred Bill or something. Obviously you will have to think of another piece of legislation, as you used said Bill in 2006 when the issue of the Danish cartoons miraculously reappeared all across the media three months after the actual incident.

Not quite sure how you’ll bring it up again post-Ramadan; with the cartoon issue you had the redundancies at Arla foods. Perhaps when Mr Faulks gets nominated for the Booker Prize and you run the story, you could add this line: ‘Faulks courted controversy in August when he said…’ Well, you know the script already.

Risk assessments are all well and good. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for not publishing the story when you have a non-story.  I know it’s us who look stupid when you run these stories, but the ultimate judge of stupidity lies elsewhere.

Kind regards,

etc. etc.

Technolust

It is unsettling that I have a daily routine almost as regular as my five prayers: to peruse the online press for the latest reviews of the latest Netbook computers to go on sale. I am amazed by these little machines: attracted by their looks and fascinated by their form.

But just as the full force of this addiction kicked in, carrying me to Comet and Dixons to see numerous examples for real, a subtle realisation dawned… Actually, I have no need for a Netbook. I have an aging, second-hand laptop, which though far from perfect, serves my needs satisfactorily, and a desktop computer too. The truth is I’m suffering from technolust.

Over the years I have made myself deeply unpopular with acquaintances by voicing my fears of technolust aloud. Though undoubtedly irritating, every plea is heartfelt at the time. In a discussion on the merits of the iPhone vs the Blackberry, I will be found remonstrating that last year’s phone will suffice. My acquaintances respond in anger, demanding to know why I must inject irrelevant ideas into their discussions. Why don’t I just bog off, is the gist, though it is expressed with far more elegance.

Yet in truth I seek not to be a thorn in their sides. It is just that such discussions remind me of my own technolust. Yes, I really, really want a Netbook… but actually I have no need for one at all. It would just be a bit of a toy. Sure, we can all talk about the need to post our Twitter updates, to check our email and to post to our Blog wherever we are in the world. But actually that isn’t a need at all. It is a want and it is technolust. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.

I have always had this fear of gadgetry, or more specifically the cost of gadgetry. In my youth I was found yearning partly after a romantic past of subsistence farming and partly after a clean future harnessing the power of river currents. At university I studied environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, seeking out low impact technologies to carry us forward.

And then I became a Muslim and learned that the best of our community lived lives that had minimal impact on the world around them. Some of the rulers of the early Muslim ummah shunned stallions to walk on the earth with humility. At night they slept like paupers. Their garments were unpretentious and their possessions few. Their lives mirrored the great sentiments of the gospels I had been raised upon.

And so what is the cost of our technolust? To the earth, the cost is great. To regional peace and stability, the cost is huge, fuelling mineral wars and civil strife all over. To our spiritual growth, only God surely knows. Our deen encourages restraint in terms of the food that passes our lips, the words that slip from our tongues, the gaze of our eyes and our craving for the delights of the world. For me, technolust is a modern extension of age-old trials. Yes, my injections into many a conversation are irritating, but they come from these thoughts. Ultimately the cause of my discomfort is my accountability before my Lord.

Nowadays such fears are quite inconvenient for I am paid to build websites and web applications, to keep abreast of the latest technologies and push boundaries. Websites — like this blog — depend on servers, and vast server farms exist to keep today’s internet running.

I believe I am a realist. Technology brings us great advantages, from CAT scanners and digital x-rays at the hospital to the washing machines and cookers in our homes, or from the video messaging allowing families scattered around the world to communicate face-to-face to the mobile phone enabling one to call for help in an emergency. Tis great and wondrous indeed.

But there is a line — I believe — somewhere here, but it is one that shifts constantly, blurring benefit, need and want. Many humans live comfortably without access to washing machines, but for those of us who have never known the world without them, such machines are considered a necessity. To speak with certainty about technolust is difficult in such shifting sands, but I believe we do retain a measure. It is our heart.

When the heart whispers that it is technolust, it probably is. When the heart whispers that we cannot justify spending all that money on yet another gadget, it is probably true. And when we look in our cupboards and see all of those other gadgets we thought we needed before, we can surely consider this a guide as well.

The cravings for the Netbook — or whatever the next gadget of the day would be — are certainly strong — but I am not going to fool myself with talk of some great need. I love shiny gadgets as much as the next man, but truth will always prevail. Though what I want is great, what I actually need is little; with the realisation that I suffer from technolust comes the recognition that somewhere in-between will suffice. Eat from the good things of the earth, yes, but do not go to extremes.

Deify not mere mortals

Deify not mere mortals, for it is liable to end in tears, nor set out seeking their approval. This is the lesson we learned when we admired the writer too much and praised them beyond their station, forgetting mashaAllah and subhanAllah, forgetting that everything is by the will of God. When we forgot our manners, we slaughtered our friend.

Is it not the case that when the Prophet — peace be upon him — heard a man praise another man with exaggeration, he said, ‘You have destroyed the man’s back’? And did he not tell his companions to throw dust into the faces of those who praised people in their presence?

It is the case, but we were oblivious, building the author up, not realising that we were cutting them down. Who knows if it was you or I that destroyed the writer, with our admiring glances and praising words? Who knows the harm we caused when we overstepped the line? Who knows, except Allah?

Deify not mere mortals, for only One deserves our praise. Seek not the approval of mere mortals, for it is by Allah alone that we are judged. Look within to purify your words and, from this day forth, seek only the favour of your Lord.

What purpose have I?

Remember when you ask yourself, “What purpose have I?” that you have a purpose. It is easy to delete your email address, to cut yourself off, to head for the hills and vanish—it is easy to hide yourself away, but you will forever remain in hearts of the people you touched. Remember as you head for self-destruction, throwing yourself to oblivion, abandoning all that went before: yes, you have a purpose. Not for nought was all of this created!

Beauty

It is said that Moses—peace be upon him—was walking with his disciples when they came across a donkey’s corpse.

One of them said it smells so bad. The other said it looks so ugly. Moses, however, looked and said: ‘Mashallah, its teeth are so white.’

  • The gratefulness of the ears is to hear goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the eyes is to see goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the tongue is to say goodness with it.

There is beauty around but it’s for the trained ear, eye and heart.