Q / (1 + exp(a (t – year)))

At work I am involved in the local implementation of a complex government-driven national computer programme. In my particular region, every surgery and health centre has been kitted out with the latest technology, delivering over 300 new PCs, 50 printers and 20 servers. The aim of the national programme is to connect thirty-thousand doctors to three hundred hospitals for the benefit of patients. The goal is to create an efficient patient-centred health service, wherein high quality information is shared effectively between different teams and organisations.

Without a doubt, these are all very admirable aspirations, but there is a question which keeps on recurring in my mind… “What happens when the oil runs out?”

I’m not being funny — although whenever I ask this question at work, I find myself the immediate target of mockery. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?” a colleague asked me sarcastically, prompting those around us to snigger at my ridiculous statements. I am the irritating voice in the office who must always inject a historical or futuristic reference whenever some piece of technology is not working exactly as it should. I have the misfortune to sit beside the noisy, clunky photocopier and am thus the first recipient of the expletives when the paper jams again. “I hate this thing,” is a frequent refrain; “This Bloody Machine” another. As I sidle across to assist the huffing and puffing victims of copier fart, I cannot help asking — as I retrieve the crumpled rogue sheet from flap five — how we got by in the olden days, why everything is such a hurry. The last time I told a colleague who was lamenting how long it was taking for the machine to wake up from its power-saving slumber that at least waiting on a monk with a quill could have been worse, the “you’re an idiot” glare was useful confirmation that my “it’s not that bad” optimism is getting on everyone’s nerves. Still, whenever there is a problem with the computer network and patience begins to fray, I continue to ask what we are going to do when the oil runs out.

No, I’m not being funny. I’m serious. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?”

Well yes, in a way. The American Chemical Society (http://acswebcontent.acs.org) estimates that the construction of a single 32MB DRAM chip uses 1.5kg of fossil fuels in addition to 32kg of water, while the production of one gram of microchips consumes 630g of fossil fuels. Most of the keyboard, mouse, CPU case and monitor is made from plastic, which is a polymer derived from oil. It is estimated that the construction of the average desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels, while the US Environmental Literacy Council (http://www.enviroliteracy.org) states that the energy used in producing ten computers is enough to produce a car, largely due to the purity and sophistication of materials required to produce microchips. All electrical devices make use of silver, copper, and/or platinum, each of which is extracted, transported, and fashioned using oil-powered machinery. The production of one ton of copper requires the equivalent of 17.8 barrels of oil, while the energy cost component of aluminium is twenty times higher. In other words, the production of computers is an extremely energy-intensive operation throughout the cycle.

Take yourself off to the website of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (http://www.peakoil.net) and sober up. While I am sure that everybody is aware that oil is finite resource, what this means hasn’t really hit home yet. Every time we hear that production is peaking we learn that a new oil field has been discovered and so we relax; it seems the oil will just run and run. Last time I was in Turkey I met a BP engineer heading off to Trabzon. My wife laughed: there’s no oil down there. “Oh yes there is,” he replied with a smile, on route to his connecting flight. Out on a rig in the Black Sea, off the northern Turkish coast, they are drilling for more black gold. Why don’t the scaremongers just quieten down? Probably because they are right. We don’t know when the oil will run dry — in 1956, Marion King Hubbert incorrectly forecasted that world oil production would peak at some point between 1993 and 2000 — but we can be certain that it will. Hubbert was correct in his prediction that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s.

Some reports now suggest that the peak of oil production — which coincides with 50% depletion of our oil endowment — has been superseded and we will therefore begin to see production levels drop my 3% each year. Thus oil production in 2020 is likely to be equal to that in 1980, although demand for oil will significantly outpace production due to population growth and more widespread industrialisation. As CEO of Halliburton in 1999, Dick Cheney stated that, “there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.” Andrew Gould, CEO of the oil services firm Schlumberger noted: “An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption.”

Those who only consider the implications of a decline in the production of oil in light of our transportation and energy needs, must awake to the realisation that petrochemicals are actually key components in a vast array of applications, from the production of medicines to the distribution of water, and from the creation of plastics to the production of food. Indeed, in the case of the latter it is estimated that industrialised societies use 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten. In addition to the energy used in farming, transportation and packaging of the food we eat, oil is the building block of many related resources. Pesticides are made from oil, for example, while fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is derived from natural gas.

We are running, but where are we going? The growth in the popularity of consumer electronics in recent years has brought with it an acceptance of planned obsolescence and the perpetual upgrade, without any real appreciation of the implications. Last year’s status symbol was the Apple iPod, this year’s the Sony Walkman phone, next year’s the portable PlayStation? We move from hyper-threading chips to dual-core offerings within a matter of months. The traditional conservative approach towards electronic equipment (such as the Hi-Fi and TV) that anticipated longevity has largely been superseded by the idea that a product will need to be perpetually upgraded (mobile phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players). Computers are vulnerable to this idea on two fronts: aging hardware and new versions of software. Indeed, the two link together in a perfect marriage: as computers get more powerful, so does the software, the next generation requiring ever greater hardware specifications. The result, unfortunately, is the creation of huge volumes of waste and consumption of limited resources. We know that much of this is unnecessary, but we just accept it as a fact of life. It is said that most of the consumer-level problems with computer software are not inherent in the technology. Rather, they are the consequences of user-hostile business models, which see the perpetual upgrade as its primary source of revenue.

But where are we heading? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org), which was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, concluded that human activities threaten the Earth’s ability to sustain future generations. The way in which society obtains its resources is said to have caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth, and it is believed that this will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare. Its authors say the pressure for resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth; fisheries and fresh water, for example, are now well beyond levels that can sustain current demands. Thus the report suggests that society must alter its consumption patterns and promote better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.

We can communicate across continents in an instant for free, sharing files, sounds and video at ease. We can calculate financial forecasts faster than ever before using metre-wide spreadsheets with thousands of entries. We can share our thoughts with strangers in far-off lands. Our Doctors can view digital X-Rays on their computer as soon as a fracture has been photographed in a hospital twenty miles away. Software logarithms can now identify cancers within a CAT scan without human intervention. Technology is shrinking the world and allegedly speeding life up. Ears plugged into the iPod, eyes fixed on the computer screen, we are racing onwards as never before. But where are we going and what are we doing? My question is serious: what will we do when the oil runs out?

Those who are studying peak oil are not speaking about the last drop, only the downward slope of the bell curve. When demand outstrips supply, they say, the economy as we know it will probably collapse. And what will we do when that happens? How will we live?

Slow down. Learn how to live. Learn how to survive as those before us did. As another writer noted recently, some of us don’t know how determine when it is time to pray because we have become dependent on computer generated timetables. Some of us don’t know how to determine whether Ramadan has arrived because we are dependent on someone telling us on the phone. We have entered the on-demand age of e-Government, e-Banking, e-Commerce and e-Support, and we are apparently more connected than ever before. But do we know how to cook “real food”, or grow some vegetables, or conserve water and heat? Do we know how to conduct business? Do we know how to survive in the post-oil age?

It is possible that this apocalyptic vision is an exaggeration of our future reality – a dystrophic apparition more akin to that old film entitled Mad Max. I have read that scientist are developing new plastics based on polymers derived from corn and that theoretically circuit boards could be printed on sheets of lasagne pasta. Perhaps by the time oil is seriously on the decline, we will have developed efficient renewable sources of energy, or Mr Blair’s nuclear programme will be well under way. Perhaps today’s silicon based computer chips will have been replaced by organic processors. Perhaps the future will be rosy and my concern is misplaced. Perhaps.

But as we march onwards at an ever increasing pace, and I am invited to upgrade my computer and mobile telephone, to buy an MP3 player and download the latest version of Microsoft Windows, that question just returns. Our resources are finite: about this there can be no doubt. Isn’t it better that we slow down and question where we’re going? That we ask now, before it is too late? I think I can get by without an iPod. What about you?

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

Fond memories

I am, as they say, ker-nackered. I have spent the afternoon in the garden, trying to prepare my wife’s vegetable patch. We are on very heavy clay soil and the clumps are like rocks. After spending a couple of hours trying to break the chunks of mud into smaller pieces, I started digging in 300 litres of organic matter. The job is not yet done, but I cannot go on. I can feel the blood pulsating through my veins and I ache all over. I am not complaining however: it brought back happy memories.

When we lived in London, we used to share an allotment with dear neighbours of ours. They lived a good fifteen minutes’ walk from us, but we were always dropping in for green tea and conversation. Unfortunately (for me) they emigrated on to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates a couple of years ago. My friend was from Peshawar but had come to England maybe two decades before; his grandfather was an English convert to Islam from the days of the Raj and so he had some connections with old blighty already. He was married to a Polish convert to Islam – the lady who produced the Polish translation of “Jesus Prophet of Islam”, for which I designed the cover. So for two or three years we shared an allotment about five minutes walk from his flat.

This afternoon, tiring myself in my wife’s vegetable patch, I recalled those days fondly. I remembered the days when we first got the plot. It was a massive piece of land – around 30m by 8m – and it was covered in weeds when we took it over. I remember the day when we got the key – the only tools we had were a screwdriver and a hammer, and so he and I were seen on our hands and knees trying to work the roots of thistles out of the ground with our primitive implements. Later on, we created a knot-garden at the front of the plot – a round bed of roses in the centre, with four other segments on the other sides of the path. We had a rose and a buddleia climbing over an arch at the front. That first year we had a constant supply of giant marrows all summer long and fresh tomatoes too. We also had a great crop of potatoes, which we had not planted.

My fondest memory, however, is of the chain gang. We had all that land, the soil rock hard and covered in thistles. We wondered how we would ever make any progress. My friend told me to leave it with him; I remember the sight – and the look on the faces of all the other allotment holders – when I arrived one Saturday afternoon. My friend and what seemed like fifteen Afghani men – dressed in sandals and salwar kameeze – were standing in a row, digging a trench with pickaxes and spades. By the end of the afternoon they had overturned an area 8m by 8m of weed-filled soil. I remembered that sight today – it made me chuckle. We did make progress in the end. We had a field of corn beneath which grew cucumbers. We had potatoes, carrots, parsnips and strawberries. But most of all, we had great friendship down there.

I miss my friend, but he is always there whenever I am working in my new garden. The last I heard he was making one of his own in Sharjah: date palms in the sand.

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.

Knowledge

When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. This was in the days before ‘Blogging’ existed as it does today and when the Internet was a medium only just being colonised with Muslim thought. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. Its title was ‘Safeguarding Knowledge: A Concept of Review and Accreditation for Popular Islamic Educational Publishing in the United Kingdom’. A bit of a mouthful, I grant you.

Following some discussions which took place during the day, this topic returned to my mind this evening. I suppose it is my oft returned-to question about writing in general and writing a weblog in particular. Quite separately, but still intimately linked, a question about typing Arabic text in Adobe Photoshop led me to think about my own experience of typesetting, which in turn made me pick one of those books up. The work in question is wholly concerned with the question of authentication, in this case in the preservation of the Qur’an. The memory of typesetting was linked to the former by the fact that an unknown character provided me with a useful commentary on the question of innovation in religion. What I was most taken aback by was the fact that he/she posted these comments anonymously. The book I was blessed with the opportunity to typeset, however, contains the following:

“…scholars face stringent limitation on which books they coulduse in the form of a ‘licence’ or reading certificate. In promulgating hadith books a regular attendance record was always kept, written either by the teacher or one of the famous scholars present, supplying details of attendance such as who had listened to the entire book, who joined in partially and which portions they missed, the women and children (and even the maids and servants) who participated, and the dates and sites of these readings. … A signature at the book’s conclusion terminated this reading certificate, indicating that no further entries could be made therein. To the muhaddithin this certificate was tibaq, an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.”

By contrast, today the internet is awash with ‘Islamic knowledge’ about which we do not have even an inkling of its authenticity. This recognition makes me shudder and it leads me on to wonder if even my own meanderings – this journey of a self-centred soul – should cease, even as I make no claim that it is anything other than opinion. I do not know if ‘Anonymous’, who provided the commentary, is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where he/she obtained this knowledge and whether he/she has a reading certificate. I simply do not know.

So the whole question is playing on my mind now and I find myself thinking about that question which I asked six years ago once more. What are we all doing publishing this and that willy-nilly? It is a question for me as much as anybody else, for this weblog is in the public domain and is read by people I do not know and who do not know me. Even if I tell you that I am Timothy Bowes ibn Peter ibn William, it does not help you for still I am just anybody. You do not know about my learning or my truthfulness. On the one hand we could argue that since I am not attempting to disseminate knowledge we should not really be concerned, but I am not so sure. I now have grave concerns.

My dissertation focused on the segment of the Muslim publishing sector which I defined as popular publishing concerned with basic Islamic education. In other words, not academic book production, but that aimed at the general Muslim readership. My concern was the editorial element, rather than improved production which has become the focus for many publishers over recent years. While producing beautiful books happens to be a passion of mine, the question of typography and cover design is really a fairly insignificant aside. In the course of this project, I undertook a study of Islamic education, examining the concept at some length. I went on to analyse the current state of Islamic education in Britain based on textual sources. This was followed by a review of the Muslim publishing sector in the United Kingdom.

In light of the Islamic heritage concerning the authentication of knowledge I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also the structures set up in the scientific publishing sector. After examining information management as it occurred in traditional Islamic settings, I studied peer review as it exists in scholarly publishing as a model for a review body. Before concluding, however, I considered whether the establishment of such a body would amount to a form of censorship and so I examined the notion of freedom of expression in contemporary thought along with the Islamic concept that a word is an act, which I have touched upon many times whilst writing on this weblog.

The case presented for a means of safeguarding Islamic knowledge from corruption inevitably collides with a culture which views knowledge in a different way. As I wrote in a recent post, so-called post-modern society argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths. The result is that the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection may be considered an affront to the freedom of speech – to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa or religious verdicts. Traditionally, scholars have always been entrusted with the community’s knowledge. Writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval, Rosenthal states that there was “little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas” into what constitutes Islamic knowledge. Meanwhile, Eickelman and Anderson note in ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities in the Muslim world,

“…set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.”

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech may welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind the slaughter of pilgrims on the Hajj and wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless.

During the course of this study, I quizzed readers about their views on books concerning Islamic knowledge. One respondent was suspicious if sources were not given, to the extent that she would begin to doubt its authenticity. A respondent who reads in English preferred it if the references were made, but pointed out that he was unable to check original texts in Arabic. If the book was from a respected publishing house, however, he did not mind if sources were not listed. An academic, meanwhile, said that he was very concerned if the book was in English, but much less so if it was a standard Arabic book whose author was well known. One respondent said that she would check the source if the content was totally unknown or at odds with her prior knowledge, but she would usually trust the author. Six other respondents were either concerned or very concerned if sources were not listed. One pointed out that even when they were listed, sources may be of dubious or inappropriate value. He also believed that literature even from established figures could still be a cause for concern because of the problems today’s Muslims face in interpreting Islam. Another respondent stated that all seekers of Islamic knowledge should be concerned about the authenticity of information provided, that everything is questioned at all times and that he would critique every view. Another was so concerned that when choosing a book that he would only select works from trustworthy authors or publishing houses, and that he would look for the general source of their views.

The emphasis on authenticity lies, without a doubt, in the development of the science of hadith (Ulum al-Hadith). With the swift growth of the Muslim community beyond Arabia in the decades after the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the need for the preservation and transmission of his teachings became a matter of crucial importance. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar write:

“Looking at the elaborate methodology that evolved through Ulum al-Hadith, including rules for transmission, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri, and similar criteria for validation, Ulum al-Hadith offers a unique example of information management. It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information. It offered a methodological balance by not invoking wholesale rejection of transmitted matrial but designating it in a graded fashion depending on the external and internal validation. Judged from this criterion, Ulum al-Hadith presents a pioneering example in critical historiography.”

By studying this topic in some detail I locked these ideas in my mind, hence their frequent return. Scholars are considered the protectors of knowledge in Islamic tradition and the existence of the science of hadith indicates that guaranteeing authenticity is a vital part of its dissemination. It was on the basis of these two elements that I proposed the establishment of a review body for popular Islamic educational publishing in the United Kingdom.

In the world of scholarly publishing, both of books and journals, reviewing or refereeing is an important part of the editorial process, as Page, Campbell, and Meadows explain in Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice. This is used to establish which works are suitable for publication and which are not, in terms of contribution to scholarship, accuracy and quality. Hans Zell argues in A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice that the term “peer review” is something of a misnomer in this respect, as the ideal referee should be a top authority on the subject under consideration, rather than simply a peer. Zell describes such reviewers as the “gatekeepers” who “ensure high editorial standards, rigorous scholarship, and … protect a journal’s credibility and standing in the academic community.”

The first stage of the peer review process is an initial reading of a manuscript to determine whether it has any potential. A manuscript which does not meet the standards of quality required by the imprint or journal will be rejected at this point. The second stage sees the editor selecting a reviewer with relevant knowledge, or preferably expertise, in the subject undertaken by the author. In some circumstances, more than one reviewer may be selected. The reviewer’s role is to assess the quality of the manuscript and to decide whether it should be published or rejected, before making recommendations to the editor. The reviewer may also suggest revisions. On the basis of the reviewer’s recommendations, which may be a long time in the making, the editor then takes the ultimate decision as whether to publish or not.

This process is most common amongst reputable scientific and academic imprints and journals, and less common amongst literary or cultural publishers. It is estimated that three quarters of the major science, social science and humanities journals use the process of peer review, says Leslie in ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ . In An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Derricourt argues that because there are some imprints which “publish almost anything and everything in their field, without much evaluation,” professional, scholarly and scientific journals must distance themselves from them by “demonstrating a commitment to selectivity and quality.”

The editors of specialist academic publishers usually wish to obtain reviews from at least two referees. If two reviewers do not agree as to whether a manuscript should be published or not, the editor may seek the opinion of a third or fourth reviewer. Some journals, such as the British Medical Journal, have records of reviewers stored on computer so that editors are able to choose from a wide range of referees. This system also ensures that reviewers are not overburdened and that previously unhelpful reviewers are not re-selected, as records and cross-references may be generated quickly. A cautious editor will probably use the peer review process only as a mechanism to aid a decision, rather than to make the decision out right.

In the peer review process the reviewers’ report is usually provided in confidence, ensuring that the reviewer is unknown to the author. Derricourt believes that anonymous peer review “permits an honest assessment of the unpublished manuscript which will be seen initially only by the publisher.” In some cases the reviewer may work with the author and Zell notes that “many authors will be grateful for the help they receive from referees in helping them to reshape their paper or improve on points of clarity, conciseness of writing, documentation of text, etc.”

An alternative view of this process, however, is that it amounts to censorship and can be detrimental to academic authorship. Writing in ProfScam Sykes argued that the process is distorted, corrupt and, most importantly, used as a mechanism to suppress unpopular ideas. In his paper, ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ , meanwhile, Banner wrote that the American Council of Learned Societies found that many scholars were unhappy with the practice – though not the principle – of peer review as undertaken by learned journals. He writes:

“The peer review process – the process by which the strength and value of knowledge is asserted and its publication justified – has long been taken to be epicentral to scientific research and humanistic scholarship and a given of scholarly publishing. Yet peer review is today beset with many problems – of attitude, administration, and effectiveness­ – that erode its authority and threaten its legitimacy.”

In Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing, De George and Woodward find that peer review generates friction between the author and the publisher, as it is this that determines what is, at the end of the day, published. They go on to ask whether the rules governing manuscript reviewing are fair for all parties involved. While no author has an automatic right to see his or her work published, they argue that authors do have the right to expect fair treatment. At the heart of the ethics of peer review are honesty and sincerity. Reviewers have a duty to be as objective as possible and to read the manuscripts they agree to review carefully. Peer review is, it has to be remembered, “a difficult, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated task, for which little credit is typically given. De George and Woodward note that it is not unheard of that reviewers have written a negative report of a manuscript without reading all of it or it at all.

As a result of the problems associated with peer review, a number of suggestions for improvements have been forwarded. Sattelmeyer produced Seven steps to a better review process, believing that publishers must design a review process that ensures fairness and objectivity, whilst also accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the manuscript. Reviews may provide the evidence upon which decisions are made, he argues, but they should not provide the final decision. Banner also provides a number of guidelines: reviewers are asked to provide an evaluation of the manuscript and to recommend directly whether it should be published or rejected. They are asked to take into account how well the author achieves his or her aim, the quality of their analysis of the problem, the clarity of its presentation, and the degree to which it presents information not available elsewhere. Reviewers are also encouraged to suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved. Once reviews have been collected, a publication committee meets to decide upon one of three alternatives. The manuscript may be accepted, accepted with conditions for revision, or rejected. The benefit of utilising a process of peer review is summed up well by Derricourt, who states:

“If there are things wrong with the overall project, or improvements that can and should be made, or if there are errors of fact or detail or interpretation, it is better to have these before publication. Otherwise, the first published review will draw them to attention of thousands of one’s peers, and it will be too late to correct them.”

I felt at the time that this point was very relevant to the topic at hand. In the case of Muslim publishing the problem does not relate to the author’s reputation so much as to the idea of conveying accurate information which has its roots in the science of hadith. Going further than the standard peer review model, however, I proposed the establishment of an accredited review body, independent from the publishing houses, providing a unified service to all authors and publishers nationwide. Affiliation to its review process would be entirely optional, but would be promoted to publishers on the assumption that they are concerned about the accuracy of their work.

Although the review body would not actually have any power to prevent an author or publisher from publishing a manuscript which it rejected, I felt that it could establish itself as giving accreditation to works deemed sound. This would aid the consumer in his or her search for reliable sources of Islamic education. The feasibility and likelihood of such a body ever being established, of course, is quite another matter. At best it was a long term solution for the problems facing Islamic education through the medium of publishing: the establishment of an open review body, acting as a guide and assistant to authors and publishers. From the perspective of orthodoxy, I felt that the establishment of such a body would be extremely beneficial to all those in the Muslim community in Britain concerned with Islamic education, aiding the future production of books which covey the teachings of Islam correctly.

But here we are just six years later; the landscape has changed massively. The weblog has democratised the internet and suddenly all of us are publishers. The case for a review body is clearly a lost cause. Perhaps – and I say this with some sadness – this is the argument for self-censorship. Better to withdraw than to be held accountable for all the information floating around masquerading as knowledge. Some of it is knowledge, but with our laxity regarding proving it, it is impossible to tell. So much confusion. These are the thoughts on my mind tonight.

Sources

  • Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)
    Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)
  • Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
  • Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
  • Page, G., Campbell, R. and Meadows, J. (1987) Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice (London: Butterworths)
  • Zell, H.M (1998) A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice in Journal Publishing (London: International African Institute, Oxford: African Books Collective)
  • Leslie, L.Z. (1992) ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 23/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
  • Sykes, C.J. (1988) ProfScam (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway)
  • McGiffert, M. (1988) ‘Is justice blind? An inquiry into peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/1
  • Banner, J.M. (1988) ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 19/2
  • De George, R.T. and Woodward, F, (1994) ‘Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 25/3
  • Sattelmeyer, R. (1989) ‘Seven steps to a better review process’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/3
  • Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)