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Secret Muslims

Comment is free | Monday 10 December 2012 10.31 GMT
Muslim women face an uphill battle against prejudice to find work
Many Muslim women feel pressured to change their appearance to get a job. Employers must question their own assumptions
Myriam Francois-Cerrah

I’m sure it is true. In my naivety as a new Muslim, I ruined many a perfectly good interview by asking in the follow-up questions whether there would be anywhere to perform salat. Jolly faces turned sour, the atmosphere turned frosty. I quickly learned not to be so daft.

Conversely, I always felt compelled to shave off my whiskers before an interview, fearing it would count against me. In the end, after a long spell out of work, I concluded that my Lord probably wasn’t impressed by this, so threw caution to the wind and attended with that strange growth on the end of my chin. Perhaps some employers just like an eccentric. Over the years that followed my colleagues would call me d’Artagnan, Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare in that hilarious mocking manner of theirs. To beard or not to beard, that is the question.

I have every sympathy for Muslim women entering a work environment like this. It’s easy for a white male like me. I learned long ago not to publicize my religion in the workplace and it is easy to hide it. Not so for those that wear hijab. People just consider me mildly eccentric and an irritating scrooge at Christmas.

A colleague did once let slip that I’m a Muslim in a team meeting. Shortly thereafter my post was miraculously dissolved. But it was good for me. I moved on to better things. But I remain a secret Muslim. It’s a bit of a cop-out, a bit weak… but I have a family to support. I’m sure I’m not alone.

What happened?

Do Muslims really exist? I often find myself pondering this question. Do they exist in the workplace? Where are they? Whenever a new member of staff with a Muslim-sounding name joins the team, there is a momentary, fleeting sense of gladness: company at last. But, alas, such glee is always quickly spirited away when they head to the pub each Friday lunchtime instead of to the mosque, and when they dive into the birthday cakes half-way through Ramadan. So do Muslims really exist, except online, where they teem in great numbers, safe in the knowledge that the keyboard is mightier than the sword? Alhamdulilah, I just spent the day with real, breathing Muslims; I know my question, in reality, is really rather foolish.

But something has happened. I wonder what became of all those zealous companions of mine, who championed the hijab and ilm and the ummah when we were students 15 years ago. Where are they now? What became of those bold realities? Why did we disappear? Yes, something has happened. Five years ago, the interwebs teemed with ardent voices, upholding the toughest of stances on this, that and the other. They were critical of those they deemed to have fallen short: orthodoxy was the order of the day. But now? While we were away there was a great exodus. Old homes have been left abandoned. Words scattered like dust. The hot embers have been cast aside.

Who is left who will walk with us? Where now are our companions? Will we grow old and grey and wise together, or will we each cast out on our own path, to wander on alone, chasing after whichever new cause takes our fancy? Will the generation that replaces us fare any better, or are we set to degenerate, to promulgate a faith that blooms momentarily, only to wither away and become dirt under foot? Is there any hope in longevity for our faith? Or will we forever repeat the cycle of zealotry and mockery, turning back on the early days of faith in favour of this ugly cynicism that we have now adopted. Now we are the enlightened: those that come after us are the fools we once were! Really? Or is it just that once we were sincere and passionate and true, and now we are just jaded, compromised and fake?

These are troubled times. A beautiful elixir tastes mostly bitter. The world calls out to us, and we call out for it. We go whichever way the crowd goes. We have learned to laugh much, and to make comedy of our beliefs. We have replaced our heart with virtual spaces, where we speak all, sell all. We have replaced the inward gaze with the outward performance. Where is all that polish we once sought? Where that mission to refine and reform and to be reformed? Where has that desire to be better people gone? What is left of us? What happened?

Reflections on Qurbani

I have become rather passive of late. The practice of my deen has been confined pretty much to the performance of the five prayers; I don’t think I am in a very good place spiritually and my relationship with my Lord is strained by the sins I willfully pile upon others. All those passions that once burned in the pursuit of the truth just smoulder now. I hold fast to my prayers for they are the refuge of the believer, but that feverish sprint of old has been replaced by half-hearted resignation, suffocation under the weight of my sins.

The days of the Hajj crept up on me therefore. In the battle between my emboldened nafs it seemed the ten days might just pass me by as I succumbed to yet another fruitless conspiracy from within. I managed to fast one day, but had aspired momentarily for more, until the usual petitions from within made them but intentions. I had planned to fast on the day of Arafat, for I longed to eradicate my sins of the past year and the year to come, but lost track of the lunar calendar as I prepared to travel to Turkey once more. I believe it was Saturday, when I flew from Istanbul to neighbouring Georgia. I wish I had made more effort, but I was preoccupied by my journey and failed to rise for sahoor in the morning. Alas it was another fast ignored.

And all of a sudden it was Eid — or Bayram as they call it here. I was reunited with my family for the first time in three months, which itself was a great blessing. The children had grown a lot in the intervening weeks, but they had not forgotten me. The Eid prayer is always a strange affair, whether here or at home. Back home it is a cross between an Urdu cultural event and an Annual General Meeting, with the mosque finances described in intricate detail — commendable transparency, but hardly the source of spiritual uplift. Here — well clearly I am a visitor, a stranger looking in on a Turkish version of the same event. The small village mosque is packed full, the more religious types downstairs listening keenly to the imam, the embarrassed Muslims and atheists upstairs, talking and sniggering to one another throughout. It used to bother me that confirmed atheists attend the Eid prayer — perhaps because I had been on the receiving end of their wrath on many a preceding evening — but now I find myself playing the part of the humble stranger who knows his place: this is their tradition, their culture. Let this religious puritan desist in these arrogant thoughts. So now I sit upstairs too because I arrive too late to find room downstairs and try to tune in to the correct voice.

After the prayer there are the Eid greetings with the old men who knew my late father-in-law, projecting onto me his piety as they commend my return. The youthful Muslim from England is a novelty that never seems to grow stale, although my familiarity with my true state causes pangs of regret. We exchange salams, ‘Bayrum mubarek olsun,’ and then I return to the house. The morning is then spent receiving drop-in guests, who stop by to exchange Eid greetings, drink tea, eat cake and move on. It is a joyous occasion; back home, our Eids are generally modest affairs, spent alone or in the company of friends.

In truth, this Eid is a mundane affair back home. I have always given money to one charity or another to have my Qurbani dispensed on my behalf for poor people somewhere, elsewhere, over there. While I would justify this to myself by recalling that there are many in the world who rarely have access to meat, I suspect that my intentions are mixed. Many of us — though happy to consume meat — are squeamish when it comes to making a connection between grazing animals and the food on our plates. And the spectre of a day of slaughter — though such slaughter occurs daily in abattoirs worldwide — brings that connection too clearly to the fore.

A number of years ago I went with a Turkish friend in the UK to an abattoir, where he intended to perform his Qurbani. What I saw there was so far removed from my idea of what halal means that it pretty much put me off eating meat altogether. All those ideas of not letting an animal see another animal being killed, of slaughtering with care, of calming the animal down, were wholly ignored on the mechanised production line operated there. Sheep were unloaded from a lorry outside, pushed onto a conveyor belt to be turned into carcases in quick succession, all in view of other living creatures clearly desperate to escape their fate. If people see this and think halal, no wonder they protest — even as they munch on their Big Mac.

I have not thought about animals at Eid in the UK since. My money goes somewhere thousands of miles away, to buy an animal I will never see — like the animals that feed me throughout the year — which will then be slaughtered, its meat distributed to feed the poor. It provides a comfortable narrative that requires minimal personal engagement. Little thought is given either to the animal or the poor. This year would be different.

We hoped that by the time I returned to Turkey, our little house on the hill would be complete, ready for us to live in for a little while before our ultimate return home. Alas I may have arrived a few weeks too early and so we would have to find accommodation elsewhere. We had already resolved, however, to offer a Qurbani at the house and continued to plan to do so. I had in mind feelings of worry and sadness — given my past encounters, this was my great sacrifice — but as I have already mentioned, I have been rather passive of late. I was not wildly animated by the thought of what was to come, no sickly feeling of dread arose in my stomach — and all the time I was reminding myself of my remorseful hypocrisy, for I will gladly eat meat all year around. The only difference now was that I was required to make a real connection between food and its source.

That connection was a living creature in the barn at the back of the house — a sheep with a short fleece, perhaps advanced in years. It is not exactly grazing country around here — most of the land is given over to tea cultivation — so my wife and I had to walk up the village to beg a bag of hay from a family that keeps cows for milk. They kindly obliged and we returned some time later to feed the animal in the barn. It was clearly a creature of the herd and unused to one-to-one interactions with humans, but with some persuasion it took to taking some hay from my hands. What a strange feeling: to show an animal kind benevolence, knowing that tomorrow you will take away its life.

On the second day of Eid, we travelled up to our land with the sheep in the back of the pickup. The children laughed whenever it spoke and even stroked it and talked to it when we arrived — before I sent them off to collect fruit with their aunt so they wouldn’t witness the event. What amazed me — and what was so far removed from what I witnessed at the abattoir — was how calm the animal was as it lay down on the ground; it was not in a panic like those other animals I had seen. When it was finally slaughtered, it was as if the moment before its death and the moment afterwards were the same. Perhaps having watched too many gruesome films in my life, I didn’t expect it to die as quickly as that and with so little resistance.

As I helped the slaughter man prepare the carcass afterwards, first removing the sheepskin, many thoughts went through my mind. The major thread centred on the way we — the urban consumer — disassociate ourselves from the difficult matters of our existence. Food, and especially meat production, is the great plank of it — we delegate the messy business of the slaughter of cows, sheep, chickens and all sorts to unseen men and women in unseen factory units out of town. Ideally, our meat should come prepacked in a nice hygienic plastic tray with a plastic film cover, labeled in colourful ink with cooking instructions included. But we delegate a lot of other messy stuff too. Our wars are fought by young professional soldiers brought up on propaganda we intelligent folk would never fall for. We outsource all kinds of killing because we’re far too squeamish to deal with the realities of our existence — our over-reliance on oil, water, natural gas and coltan. Perhaps if we were more actively engaged in the activities that feed our way of life we might begin to change it a little.

Other thoughts came later, after the meat had been prepared. The donation of money for an overseas Qurbani always centres on the poor, yet I’m not sure how much I have really thought about the recipients. The generic poor have a generic life story, which laments their poverty and hardship, while consigning them to a different category of humanity. To meet a real individual with a real family with particularly needs, wants, desires, pain and suffering tells a different story about the value of Qurbani. To witness their happiness at receiving their first taste of meat in perhaps months or a year. To listen to their duas, to see their tears. To realise how fortunate you are and how blessed you were.

All in all, the non-passive Qurbani provided many lessons for me, some of which I am still pondering. We ate our share of the meat yesterday afternoon, barbecued over the glowing logs in the wood burning stove. It was tasty — but even as I ate it, I remembered the animal in our barn that we had fed borrowed hay the day before. What strange connections we must negotiate throughout the years of our lives.

Of a mountain

The reality of this road is that it is difficult. It may be straight, but it is steep and at times rough, and often vulnerable to the molestations of bandits. As anyone who journeys to the highlands of any nation will know, the easiest route to the top of a mountain is via the winding road that hugs the contours of every hill and valley; the expedition takes an age as the road traverses mile upon mile, winding back upon itself repeatedly as it climbs higher and higher. The straight road appears the easier path at first, until the traveller encounters his first obstacle. As he ascends the great mountain, each time he thinks he is nearing its summit, another fold of hill appears above the crest he had set his hopes on. The path is straight, but it is patently hard.

My heart aches; I feel alienated. The simplistic Islam of unlearned teenagers—we do not eat pork and should not drink alcohol—is long forgotten. There can be no casual meander along this path, as I had once thought when I was weighing up whether to embrace what I believed to be true. It is a path of action, requiring us to move and reform, to stretch ourselves, to be much more than we are.  Each time we almost reassure ourselves that God will accept our undemanding nomadic faith—and forgive us our multitudinous shortcomings—new realities insist that this is not so. We wanted to believe that we had been granted paradise because we had been kind to a cat; we did not notice being cast into hell for the evil of another deed.

I don’t know if I will be able to shake these sins for which I am promised an unfortunate end and which distance me from my Lord. I have tried before, repeatedly, and failed. Once I learned that it was probably haram, years after I thought I knew all that was permissible and forbidden. But probably opened up a door for its return. Years ago, in those early days of my Islam, when a friend—himself learning of this path anew—took to running through what was allowed and what was not, I had learned that it was probably disliked. But disliked did not strike fear into this unfortunate believer as it does for his pious brethren. For months he would avoid it, striving on his path of reform, but disliked would eventually open the door to tolerated, and from there it would become halal.

But today a revelation: it is not just probably haram, but almost certainly haram. Almost being an atom’s weight of chance to the weight of the world that it is not. An unpalatable revelation that I have been sinning almost constantly for years on end, oblivious to words that clearly spell out the consequence in store for one who does not repent and turn away from it. As we self-righteously poured scorn on those who eat any old food, believing it to be permissible as the meat of the Jews and the Christians, and demanded that they desist, we forgot to take ourselves to account. By God, what a fool! With this revelation, undoubtedly they are better than I a thousand fold. How it had seemed I was walking in His Shade, dependent on His Mercy: suddenly a shocking revelation, that I was in fact walking in His Wrath.

Can I now desist? Will He grant me His mercy and enable me to overcome this hideous malady? Will He grant me an escape from this curse? To leave some of what was haram was made easy for me, alhamdulilah. Leaving intoxicants was painless, for I had only ever drunk alcohol for six months of my life, although unfortunately to excess for half of that period. Leaving it was simple because I had never liked it and I hated what I and my friends became in that state. God gave me the sense to leave it almost a year to the day before I came to believe in Islam. To abstain from consuming food and drink in the month of Ramadan too was made easy. As my skeletal frame revealed, I was not a slave to my stomach back then. I missed meals frequently and ate little. To fast was no great burden. I am grateful that God made leaving much of what is impermissible easy for me. What if I had been of those who must savour all kind of whiskies and wines, and learn to pronounce the names of European vineyards, who must accompany every meal with a cocktail of gin beforehand, beer for starters and red wine with red meat? To desist then would surely have been a burden likely to steer me away from the straight path.

But it seems, after all, that I had my trials too. Of course I have always been conscious of it; I have always known it to be wrong. But if I had known that it was not just wrong, but categorically forbidden from the outset, would I be where I am now? Wouldn’t I have abandoned it long ago, like riba, khamr and pork? Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it was too pervasive, too deeply ingrained. Perhaps it had become too much of a habit, too much a part of me. Perhaps it was my wine.

I fear now returning to it. Oh, I have said that a thousand times before and I have returned to it. No, what I really fear is never being able to free myself from it and from sins like it. People have often advised me that we are not held account for our thoughts. But which thoughts? For there are those thoughts that flutter into our mind from nowhere, over which we have little control: surely it is these for which we shall remain unaccountable. But those thoughts over which we have full control, which are of the same instrument as our talking tongues and typing fingers, are surely to be questioned. As long as you do not act on them you will be safe, say some, but what is action? To think and dwell on the bad in them is surely action, for they enter the heart and stain it dark until it can retain no light. The heart dies from thoughts such as these. I know because I think them.

I have committed now to desisting from these sins, but I have been unable to throw myself down on my face before my Lord in proper repentance, for they are still here within. They are calling me back, trying to convince me that this realisation is misguided. And yet it is not that usual realisation—the result of reflection and guilt, of irritation in the heart, of a sense of the innate wrongness that descends moments later. This is not a realisation in that sense—not just the chattering of the soul. It is a realisation founded on knowledge: it is an acknowledgement of the prohibitions of our deen.

My schizophrenic soul is wrought in two. One half of me wants to pursue the path of righteousness; the other half wants to cast adrift, to hold fast to the dreams of another world. I know that when the Hour arrives I will look back and wish that I had listened to my better part. On that day of fifty-thousand years, when our life will have seemed but a blink of the eye, I will wonder why I could not have just been patient and held fast to that weak voice within. I will wonder why I turned my back on the promise of everlasting release for the sake of momentary, fleeting ease. I know what I shall think then. But just now, fifty-thousand years is unfathomable. These days, weeks, months and years seem too long to persist in righteousness.

I know I must repent now and return. The cost of repenting is great, but the price of not repenting is infinitely greater and infinitely worse. I know I must strive now, with a striving greater than previous strivings, for my distance from my Lord is now greater than ever. The voice that calls to righteousness is weak and feeble, like the parabolic mustard seed, and hardly calls me to truth any more. If I am to repent now, it will be against myself. It is like a warring cry, a declaration of war. Somewhere within, deep down, there is a feeble David, slingshot in hand. But it is Goliath that looks back wearily and with contempt. I fear the battle ahead.

There stands before me a great mountain. I stand on its foothills, unable even to see the crest of the first hill, let alone its peak. I know that my first step onwards must be repentance and a resolution never to return to my monotonous sins. Yes, of course I know, but will I? Can I make it to the mountain top?

Be vigilant

One lesson that experience teaches me is that sincere repentance must always be followed by vigilance.

In Ramadan we have the gift of being able to distinguish between two types of sins: those that come from within, from the nafs, and those that come from outside. When, in the midst of that blessed month, we find our tongues dry of words, it becomes quite apparent that our misuse of speech throughout the remainder of the year derives largely from the inspiration of the whispering one. But as for those other sins that accompany us even through the month of fasting, it is usually self-evident that they come from deep within.

I have tried and tried to conquer the sins of the nafs, failing constantly but nevertheless returning to repentance in due course, falling down upon my face with a commitment to strive against them. It is hard work, for I have fed them since childhood and thoughts of them now pervade my mind and memory. On occasion it has been possible to abstain from thoughts of them for weeks and months, but usually progress is less effective: sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes just days, sometimes only part of a day or an hour. It is a painful battle, wherein even the body reacts with hunger, persuading the mind to drop its guard and return to those transgressions that will be its downfall.

Nevertheless there is repentance and the possibility of redemption. It is possible to return to that ultimate realisation that the only way forward is to slay and conquer the sins of the nafs, to burn them out, even if the heaviness of desires causes that aching pain within to become unbearable. And so, slowly in time, even as we stumble along the way, we make ourselves a covenant with God, committing to strive steadfastly on this path, closing down every avenue that could lead to its return.

But experience has taught me that this is not enough. For without vigilance, it is all too easy to replace one sort of sin with another. My epiphany of reform came early on Sunday morning, driving me to fall down in prayer, to beg for forgiveness, help and guidance. Yet on Monday morning, heading into town to take care of some business, I would find myself tallying up a new set of marks in my record. Encountering a friend there, innocent greetings and an exchange of news would soon dissolve into one of those heedless conversations that carries us perilously close to danger. We both believed that we were speaking out of concern for our friends, petitioning one another to action, intent on them rectifying their affairs.

It was not until the midnight hours as I lay in bed that it occurred to me that the source of my sudden concern for a friend was not what I had thought it was. Instead of responding with measured advice and leaving it there, or even saying I don’t know, we had listened to the provocations of the whispering one and threw ourselves into sin, all the while convincing ourselves that we were acting with integrity, speaking up only out of love and mercy.

All of a sudden, quite horrifically, it occurred to me that just as last time when I had promised never to feed those sins of the nafs again, I had hurriedly dashed into another trap without even looking where I was going. And I know not what harm I have caused.

The avenues to our destruction are many — some wide, some narrow, some appealing, some repulsive — and so we must permanently remain on guard. If we are making an effort to overcome one sin that constantly plays on our mind, we must remind ourselves of others of which we are unconscious. The whispering one only requires us to be unmindful for an instant for us to throw all of our good deeds to the wind. So be vigilant both in times of strength and weakness, of joy and sadness, of contentment and of rage. Without it, our progress may forever remain a mere illusion.

From Whispers

I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief saunter in the back garden, a name whispered its way into my mind. I did not need to respond to the surprising murmur, but all of a sudden I was back at the computer, googling an old acquaintance of a bygone era.

I had been away from the Muslim quarter of the internet for some time, absorbed instead in the new-found art of the nappy change, and had missed the return of a perennial obsession. Others too, it seemed, had failed to recite audu billahi minal shaitani rajim when that name fluttered into the space between their ears for no apparent reason. Perhaps they too had considered it inspiration, as I foolishly had at first, ignoring the recollections of last time.

Four months earlier, almost to the day, there had arisen an impulsive urge to venerate a departed companion, lamenting upon life without them. Just as a week ago, that name had abruptly fleeted across my brow, lodging itself firmly in my mind. In that instant I felt the need to speak up for a friend. And so I wrote an ode to glad tidings. Yet within days bad tidings had arrived in their place, for our companion’s secret had been revealed before the world.

Reflecting on them now, I notice that these affairs had something in common: both had followed a certain resolve to return to God and to place my affairs solely in His care. Instead, responding to a whisper within, I replaced one set of sins with another and tried my own faith in a different manner.

My journey towards God, since those awkward days of atheism and agnosticism fifteen years ago, has always been characterised by my willingness to jeopardise everything for the sake of certainty. As I came to believe in Islam a bipolar disposition began to become apparent within: there was a desire to believe in this path, but also a desire to turn away from it.

Long before I was Muslim, I began praying and fasting in private, as best I could with only an English translation of the Qur’an as a guide: in those moments I wished to believe. Yet I turned too to the polemical work of Ibn Warraq which sat amidst the serious works on Islam in the university’s extensive library. At one stage, his work was capable of eradicating my nascent belief in God that my readings on Islam had rekindled.

Later, when I had forgotten the pseudonymous author and had rebuilt my fragile faith in God, I was to be found turning my back on the teachings of Islam and approaching a Christian friend instead, to ask if I could attend her church. Although it was the Qur’an that had convinced me that God did exist, I decided to turn to the combative evangelical website, Answering Islam, for guidance on where to go from there, and the answer was clear: not towards Islam.

I had reason not to take this website very seriously. For one, I had encountered two of its contributors the previous summer at All Souls, Langham Place, while having lunch after the service with my brother and grandmother. They had, they were pleased to announce, hit upon the ultimate knock-out blow for the Muslims, and they were on their way to Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner to deliver it. For another, a senior (non-Muslim) lecturer in Islamic studies at my university had described another key contributor — who had been his student — in particularly unflattering terms. Nevertheless, I continued to mine the website in an effort to be as objective as I possibly could be.

Yet it was not just in that wavering phase before my testimony of faith that I consulted Islam’s opponents for guidance. In the months that followed, much to the apprehension of my new Muslim friends, I would return back to those arguments against Islam and dwell upon them, sometimes shaking the faith I was beginning to hold dear.

The advice of my friends was to replace my reading at the flickering screens in the university’s computer rooms with study of the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But I may have moved on for other reasons. The trouble with that website was that it could say nothing good about Islam at all: my religion was absolutely despicable and so completely wrong. There was no mention of the charity enjoined upon Muslims, of the exhortation to care for widows and orphans, of our duties towards our neighbours whether Muslim or not — true virtues in Christian eyes, surely — or even that Muslims were worthy of respect.

In time I did indeed move on for a variety of reasons, from my bizarre authorship of numerous emails in Olde Inglishe to the pursuit of the final year of my degree. But it would not be my last brush with polemics against Islam.

My upbringing, as well being staunchly Christian, had a feminist flavour. My mother was amongst the first groups of female priests to enter the Church of England after several years of contentious debate amongst Anglican congregations in England — which coloured my views on the role and rights of women in society enormously. Inevitably a time would come when those assumptions would collide with the polemics concerning the status of women in Islam.

I was studying for my postgraduate degree in Scotland when I chanced upon an article of this kind whilst browsing the internet one evening. Following one hyperlink to another led me into a maze of confusion and shock. Soon, with those painful vibrations in my stomach that come with anger, I was hammering out a lengthy email to my friends back in London, demanding to know why no one had told me that this was how our religion treated the fairer sex.

I don’t recall their response to that email at all. I only recall how, by strange happenstance, a young Muslim woman of Yemeni origin from my old university emailed me out of the blue the following day with some sort of news. With her words, my rage suddenly lifted, for here was a real, non-theoretical Muslim woman, talking about her faith and life with perfect contentment. Her emailed advice and guidance for me over the months that followed was invaluable as I stumbled onwards along this path.

Over the years that followed there would be more days like that, as the internet grew and more and more people took up the crusade against Islam. Sometimes the attacks appeared to have more substance than those of old, as Muslims began to publish volumes of hadith online for all to survey as they pleased. Now anyone could mine the knowledge of centuries for a paragraph or sentence to prove a point, ignoring other material that explained, qualified, contextualised or contradicted it. What those academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam — like H Motzki, U Rubin, FE Peters, H Berg and GR Hawtin — must think of this cut and paste revolution, I do not know.

And so to the present. Some years after I abandoned my efforts to keep up with a former-Muslim’s blog entitled Towelianism, I was led to the website of an old friend who, though once an ardent defendant and advocate of Islam, now writes about it with dedicated hostility. I first came across the website in June, when I read it in full in reverse order, from the earliest post to the latest. The early posts had been written while they still maintained their Muslim blog, and so I decided to read the two in tandem: the live site and the archived site. This way I felt I could better make sense of what had come to pass. This was true to a degree, but these matters are always more complicated than that.

As I progressed through the blog it appeared to become less and less personal, and much more the case against Islam. But I knew the reason for that: after all these years reading websites dedicated to undermining and attacking Islam I recognised that what I was reading was nothing new. I had read all of those articles before, lightly repackaged though they were in the author’s own style and distilled through the prism of their own understanding. Although I felt sad and disappointed, I found that what I was reading could not elicit any stronger emotions. They may as well have just copied out that old Ibn Warraq work word for word.

I left that website then as I busied myself with the preparations for the arrival of two strangers in our lives. It has been a summer like no other, when our Lord decreed for us such incredible bounties, blessing us with the company of two delightful children in the last ten days of Ramadan. After difficulty comes ease, promises God, and He is indeed the most truthful.

Even so, alas, I maintain my bonds with my lowest desires at moments of particular weakness. I can absorb myself in strange pursuits for days on end if I so choose, until my conscience eventually drives me home. And so it was. I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief stroll outside, the picture of an old friend pranced before my mind.

Soon I was reading through their website once more, this time in the published order, from the newest backwards. As I read, I pondered. Their experience was distinct from mine, and mine from theirs, but I could not dismiss it all. Their anger at the treatment of numerous women by various Muslim communities mirrored my own anger; I only lamented that those who need to hear the message will never listen to such a voice. But the author has read some hadith which they believe show that Islam sanctions this kind of behaviour towards women. I, on the other hand, have read other hadith and scholarship which I believe show that Islam prohibits it.

It is here that I found where I stand. Twelve years ago I found myself carrying an incredible urgency to find faith and believe in God. It was something I had to do without delay, even if it meant messing up my studies. If there was a God and there was something after death, it was important to pursue it at once, I convinced myself, and for that reason I demanded answers.

But to go the other way? To exchange belief for disbelief, or theism for atheism? I can see no urgency in that. If our intellect is merely a hyper-evolved collection of chemical reactions that shall cease forever on our death and return to the earth as our bodies decay, if our life has no purpose, no direction or meaning, if we live a life and then disappear, what then is the urgency in believing in the new atheistic orthodoxy?

If I were to hold to that paradigm, who shall hold me to account for believing in God and thus condemn me? If I should die whilst in pursuit of the answers to my questions — such as what kind of behaviour does Islam sanction in respect to women, children, neighbours and non-Muslims — what difference would it make if the new orthodoxy were correct? If nothingness were to lie on either side of us, before us and after us, would there be any urgency to disbelieve? Or to do anything at all in fact?

For a second I had been perturbed as to why my old friend’s words had not affected me as others had in earlier times, although the ideas were the same. I wondered if I had become the intolerable caricature that the author now raged about: blind and deaf and dumb, promulgating unspeakable evil throughout the earth. No, that was not it. It was that I have no need to believe in the pointlessness of being, and there was certainly no need to try to believe in that. I am content, I realised, to continue to explore and experience this faith of mine. Questions that cause discomfort — and there have always been those — still demand answers, but the urgency I once felt has left me. A hundred proverbs about patience now spring to mind in its place.

Hold fast to the rope of Allah

Hold fast to the rope of Allah and never take your faith for granted. These are not empty words.

I have passed through those phases of great despair — despair at my own propensity to overwhelm myself with the same sins over and over — when a voice from within whispers, “There is no hope for you.”

God is Most Merciful insists optimism in one ear. But my sins are too many, too consistent, too repetitive, too foolish, too inexcusable… too much to bear. The pessimistic soul feels them weighing on him too heavily. It is not long before he is contemplating abandoning his soul to destruction, not because he disbelieves in God, but because he disbelieves in himself.

This blog has documented many such troughs in my own life, but I am not alone. A friend’s words were once littered with sentiments such as these, though few noticed at the time, attributing them to modesty or humility instead. “Be who I am not,” they once said, telling us how far we had misjudged them: “From these depths, I see what goodness is, and this is why I want you to aspire to it.

These were not the words of one who had lost their faith in God, but of one who had lost faith in their own capacity to rise above whatever dragged them down. They saw what faith could do for you, but they had already given up on their own self. Such is the nature of despair.

But who despairs of God’s mercy except one who has gone astray? This verse reverberates in my mind each time I descend into that heavy gloom under the weight of my sins. There remains an intense fear that we take His forgiveness for granted, and that He might withdraw it from us. The fear remains that those sins will come back to haunt us, but hope must prevail for it is the antidote to despair. The ultimate outcome of despair is simply giving up: my sins are too many, too vast, too great, so why bother?

The answer, I have found over recent months, is to make gradual steps towards rectifying one’s condition. For a decade I was unable to read the Qur’an in Arabic, for I told myself that the task of learning it was beyond me, but these past few months I have begun to make progress. For five years my Qur’an teacher instructed us to make a regular habit of reading the Qur’an, but only in the past few months have we begun starting the day with a portion of Ya-Sin and ending it with Surat al-Mulk.

My shortcomings outweigh my progress for sure — and I am not immune to continuing to fail — but it is necessary to put in place an antidote to despair. It is necessary to take small steps now, in order to make greater strides in the future, if the Most Merciful wills. “Certainly,” says our Lord in a Hadith Qudsi reported by al-Tabarani, “I run the affairs of My servants by My knowledge of what is in their hearts.”

In these past few months when our little universe has changed immensely, when great blessings have descended upon us unexpectedly, I have come to appreciate the rope of Allah all the more. In God is the remedy to all of our affairs.

Fitna

Two or three years ago in one very insignificant corner of the internet, a huge argument broke out between proponents of vaguely different interpretations of Islam, between brothers if you will. To the casual observer, such as myself peering in, it seemed like a skirmish on the border. But its effect on others was catastrophic.

Some of our fellow Muslims, many of them converts to the deen, had already lived through the Salafi inquisitions of the late 1990s that had demanded that the enthusiastic new faithful declare exactly which type of Salafi they were. Some Muslims, distraught by the collapse of the structures that had sustained their nascent faith, found their iman shattered and left the fold soon thereafter. Others held on, trusting in the guidance of Allah, recalling that they became Muslim for the sake of God, not for the sake of people, insisting that the schism would not shake them.

For some, salvation came in the form of what would later be called Traditional Islam. Early websites introduced them to material that had largely been unavailable in the English language until then and a new way forward emerged. Their old enthusiasm for their faith returned as they grasped hold of isnads and ijazahs connecting them back to the Prophet, peace be upon him. The sunnah sprang back to life in their lives, revealed in their conduct and words, and in their appeal to the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, whenever they perceived shortcomings in themselves and those around them.

For a while it seemed that they had found themselves in the midst of a different kind of community, one that would not succumb to the very human failings they had witnessed previously. This community was, it was thought, less self-righteous, gentler, more grounded in the humility that faith promotes.

All of sudden, however, that illusion was blasted to pieces. In the tempest of an argument that came from nowhere, the very voices that had called people to faith now raged with a sectarian intolerance that stunned those who had benefitted from them in the past. It was apparent to me as an outside observer—still just a Muslim lacking investment in any particular group—that many of the participants were oblivious to the impact of their involvement in the new schism. They certainly did not see how their standing fell in the eyes of people who had once respected them immensely, and what that loss of guidance meant for them.

Some, distraught by the apparent disintegration of a firm foundation beneath them, found their iman teetering on the brink and left the fold soon thereafter. Others held on, trusting in the guidance of Allah, recalling that they became Muslim for the sake of God, not for the sake of people, insisting that the schism would not shake them. But just as this was not the first, it would also not be the last, and the aftershocks and convulsions went on, buffeting believers to and fro over the weeks and months that followed.

For some who had invested heavily in their faith, it was a calamity amongst calamities that severely tested them. Alas, for some it was the catalyst for a certainty that none of us would wish for now: that certainty in nothingness, that those of us who have been atheist have had the misfortune to experience in full. It was, if you like, The End.

Yet all of us are tested by degrees. Some of us by the call of our own nafs or childlessness. Some by divorce and in bringing up severely disabled children alone. Some by the destruction of their homeland and being forced to live as a refugee until the end. Some by a great flood, or by the pollution of their livelihood. Some by the death of a loved-one to cancer. Some by their own terminal illness. Some by slaughter and oppression. Some by wealth, and ease, and love and light and happiness. And some by the fitnas that return time after time.

My Qur’an teacher taught his class one day that the word fitna is of the Arabic root alfatn. In days of old there were people who would mix lesser metals with gold for personal gain, but their deception could be detected by tossing coins into the flames of a fire. The process of separating true gold from false in this way is know as alfatn. It is the law of God, our teacher taught us, to put people through tribulation to separate those made from gold from the rest:

2. Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried?

3. But We have certainly tried those before them, and God will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.

4. Or do those who do evil deeds think they can outrun Us? Evil is what they judge.

5. Whoever should hope for the meeting with God—indeed, the term decreed by God is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing.

6. And whoever strives only strives for the benefit of himself. Indeed, God is Free from need of the worlds.

7. And those who believe and do righteous deeds—We will surely remove from them their misdeeds and will surely reward them according to the best of what they used to do.

8. And We have enjoined upon man goodness to parents. But if they endeavour to make you associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them. To Me is your return, and I will inform you about what you used to do.

9. And those who believe and do righteous deeds—We will surely admit them into Paradise among the righteous. {Surah al-Ankabut}

Nothing that happens in our lives occurs without the will of God. And it has been said that those most loved by God are often tested to ever greater degrees, raising their standing before their Lord beyond our wildest dreams. At times, when the darkest and most difficult moments descend, we may stumble and err, for of course we are but human. But our Lord is known as the Most Merciful, the Compassionate, and He leaves the door to repentance open for us repeatedly.

They said: “We give thee glad tidings in truth: be not then in despair!” He said: “And who despairs of the mercy of his Lord, but such as go astray?”  {Qur’an 15.55}

The door is open for as long as he prolongs our lives.

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. {Hadith Qudsi}

Here I am reminded of that old parable of the lost sheep from my childhood. Indeed of the parable of the prodigal son. May God keep us all on the straight path and raise us in a good state on the Day of Judgement. And may He guide those who have lost faith back to His Way, raising them stronger than before.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, was once asked, ‘What actions are most excellent?’ He replied, ‘To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and to remove the sufferings of the injured.’

He, peace be upon him, also said, ‘Give glad tidings and do not repel the people. Make things easy for the people and do not make it difficult for them and make them calm with glad tidings and do not repulse them.’

Are any more words required?

As the rot sets in

If you let the rot set in, it will, and it will gradually eat away at all that you have. This is the lesson that keeps on coming back to me. Last night I met a chap whose character shone beauty, as Allah wills. His manners were so appealing that at Isha the only du’a that sprung to mind was, ‘O Allah, give me a character like that.’

For as he sat there — what he did not say ever more telling than what he did — I found myself regretting each cascade of words from my own lips. As he departed, I wondered at my perennial role as court jester. Why could I not just sit in silence, as I once would, and absorb the presence of others? Why now the need to speak so much, and indeed to speak ill, wishing that the vague anonymity might justify such words? The rot has set in, and it is eating away, eating away at my meagre faith.

The more I feed my base desires, I was found reflecting the other day, the more they grow. But this weed doesn’t seem to blossom into its own space, occupying a cavity apart from the rest of one’s life. Instead it seems to thrive like a rampant vine upon one’s core, killing all that falls in its way. And the rot sets in.

Suddenly this ugly vanity. This self-righteousness, despite so much self-wrongness. Suddenly the fault finding. Suddenly the belief that my irksome sins can be ignored. Suddenly this great ignorance, this vast chasm of stupidity. This forgetfulness. This heedlessness.

It takes a character that shines goodness to stir me. All of a sudden I realise how small I am. And how far, far from the nobility I aspired to not all that long ago. A fool sits at his computer, typing.

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.

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