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?

The addictive grip of idleness

I have been reflecting quite a lot recently on what Christians refer to as ‘the addictive power of sin’, for I am one of those unfortunate souls that makes mistakes and repents only to repeat them again over and over. Faced with this phenomenon, I believe it is easy to appreciate how many Christians come to conclude that there is no escape from sin except through a dramatic external intervention—even if we believe they are wrong. While we would say that their solution is an illogical extreme, given that we only recognise sin in the light of what God has defined as good and bad, there is no escaping that sense of despair when we constantly replicate the same mistake throughout the years of our lives. Muslims are, of course, reminded of the words of God, that had He created a community that would not sin and err and return in repentance, He would have removed it and replaced it with one that would, for He loves to forgive. Indeed we are reminded of the famous Hadith Qudsi in which we are promised forgiveness, no matter what we have done, so long as we return in repentance:

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.

We are aware of so many words which give us hope, and yet the sense of despair is real, for recurring repentance for oft-repeated errors begins to feel hollow, shallow and half-hearted. It is true that I am not the worst of people, but my criteria for judging myself is not the standard set by the behaviour of others; my errors may well seem insignificant in a world of widespread bloodshed, but the Middle Way is not defined as the path between the shifting extremes of the day. We judge ourselves against a fixed standard. The earliest Christians would have been aware that all was not lost in the face of sin—even the parables recorded in the contemporary Gospel cannon make this clear—but today’s discourse incessantly emphasises the need for a redeeming saviour. When I look at my own response, I see ignorance at its heart. Ignorance feeds despair, for addiction is persuasive. If we convince ourselves that our addiction is incurable—as is the Christian’s theological position, even though we find that many Christians are in fact people of high moral calibre who are clearly not subsumed in sin—a sense of hopelessness is really only a natural response. In my case ignorance affects me in many ways, which at first seem quite distinct, but which are in fact all interrelated. An ignorant response to mistakes is tied to the ignorance which leads to them in the first place.

All of this carries me back towards my thoughts during my recent stay in the Black Sea, which I have wanted to write about since my return, but have been unable to articulate (I still can’t as I would like to). People in that forested valley not far from the border with Georgia generally lead happy, contented lives and are self-sufficient in many ways, but I was still struck by the hardship of many of their lives. We met widows on the sides of those valleys, and children who had lost their fathers, mothers who lost their sons. I watched as old men busied themselves chopping logs for the stove and women collected hay for their cows, each preparing for the cold winter that will draw down on them in the next few months. I witnessed much more than this, and I reflected on it in light of my own life and the way I live it. My life has always been characterised by remarkable ease—I have never experienced real hardship—and yet what can be said of the way I live it? I am lazy and often feeble, capable of telling myself that I am doing okay when I achieve nothing in weeks and weeks. What my experience in the Black Sea taught me—and this thought kept recurring in my mind throughout our stay—was that our Lord has far higher expectations of us than I have ever acknowledged, that He requires a higher standard. The great hardship I witnessed convinced me that my laziness and feebleness in the face of so much ease could not possibly be acceptable to our Creator.

So here I stand taking stock of my life, and truthfulness—not humility—confesses that there is not a lot to be proud of. I may well deny that need for a redeeming saviour, but I remain tarnished by the legacy of that tradition, for instead of striving against my laziness, my weakness, my emotional addictions, I have allowed myself to succumb to them. Jesus was sent to sinners not saints, Christians often remind us, but we recognise that this was one of the roles of our noble Prophet too: the point is that they were sent to sinners so that they might reform themselves and become the best of people. I reflected on those matters during my stay in a simpler setting in Ramadan, but what have I achieved since my return? Nothing to be proud of once more. ‘To good and evil equal bent, both a devil and a saint.’

I recognise that laziness is one of my greatest diseases, but as I said to my friend last night, most of the time I’m too lazy to do anything about it. In a world of AA for alcoholics and smoking cessation counselling for Smokers, isn’t ‘the addictive power of sin’ a rather lame excuse for idleness?

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

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)
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Verily mankind is ungrateful

There is something wrong with me at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but my emotions are heightened, I am on edge, easily upset and completely inconsistent. I have been like this for two months now, swinging between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery reveals itself in the tears that well up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which rises rapidly and then dies.

I seem to be dissatisfied with myself. My heart aches, feeling heavy in my chest. On my return from Turkey I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by returning to the Smythian keyboard and reignite my “Copious Footnotes”. This lasted barely two weeks. It was followed by a yearning to start a cottage-industry publishing house called “The Othello Press”. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere. Then there was the “Blogistan” project, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the site because of the melancholy which overcomes me. It is all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals.

At work I want to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and now, just as I’m offered an interview for the latter, I’m resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a better day; maybe it will be good for me down the line. Perhaps it is not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then that I ever have since. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The Chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied despite a great wage for the simplest of graphic design work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started up my own business offering publishing services. This was a situation where I was in the position to do what I most love: creating beautiful books. Alas I was dissatisfied once more, even though I was given the opportunity to typeset challenging works such as “The History of the Qur’anic Text”. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onto new ground. I ended up as Office Manager in a busy training department. I was responsible for a team of administrators, got to produce newsletters and a directory of courses, develop the intranet and do many interesting things. Yet again I became dissatisfied and so the cycle started again.

What is it that drives me over the edge again and again? Why is it that I am never satisfied with what I have? Is my situation not better than the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every evening in Istanbul to sell ice cold, bright yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, is my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the days spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to three hundred customers over lunchtime off Berkley Square?

Perhaps it is pride. “I have an Masters Degree, you know?” Pride, which makes me think that the job I am doing is never good enough. “I don’t need a Degree to do this job, do I?” Pride which gets in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and you worthless as a result. I think it is. I think I am stumbling away from a path I once knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 was “The Purification of the Soul”. I think it is time that I returned to this work and others like it, recognising what it is that is creating this unease. My soul has been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscure the reality of faith.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart. Amin.

Do I want some wine?

‘What have you gained from being Muslim?’ asks another mocking voice. ‘Why make your life so difficult?’ It is true that living life as a Muslim has not always been easy. Indeed, on the first day that I acknowledged my belief in Islam I lost most of the people whom I had considered friends. My journey towards faith had been a private affair, but outside, my private affair had already become public knowledge. So many nominal friendships were now dead, and I hadn’t even moved from my place of prayer. I had, it seemed, really blown it this time.

According to an evangelist I encountered some time ago, I should be full of regret that I can no longer drink wine and should have felt at a loss because I did not join the dating game. ‘Do you want some wine?’ she asked me, scanning me with her eyes, ‘Do you want some wine?’ I simply said no and walked away. ‘So,’ she started later, when I returned to the kitchen to do my washing up, ‘what is the criteria you are looking for in a wife?’ I spoke about the past, about what reality is like. I asked her what was wrong with seeking commitment right from the start, when invariably so many people, this woman included, experience the pain of falling in love with one who has no reciprocal desire where marriage is concerned. ‘But hasn’t that situation changed for you now?’ she asked me. ‘So what if it has?’ I thought. I had heard her speaking with my host earlier about how depressing it was in her mid thirties that she couldn’t find a partner who was committed to a relationship, let alone interested in marriage. She wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith. But I didn’t feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam liberated me from falling into line with those ways which had never served me and had only caused me pain.

I went to university after a year out of study. I had worked a while, written for some time and gone to stay with missionary relatives in east Africa for about a month. There had been a year to escape from the mistakes I had made at Sixth Form College. There had been time for me to mature and move on, but there had also been time for me to forget what student life was like. I moved into university accommodation on a Sunday, a week before term began. Meeting others who had arrived already, it was off to the pub almost straight away. I didn’t drink alcohol at the time, though not for any particular reason. Fortunately, I had some company. A neighbour of mine was a Rastafarian who considered drinking alcohol a heresy, although smoking marijuana was a vital component of his belief. So I had coke, he had orange juice, and the rest – the normal characters – helped themselves to beer or spirits.

Those first few hours were crucial steps towards a happy life in the months that followed. Naïvely, I failed to grasp that the purpose of that undeclared session was one of self-promotion. While my companions talked about their hugely interesting lives, about their expertise in blending coffee, about the research they had been carrying out over the summer, about their youth growing up in one African state or another, or in a village in Nepal, all I could say was that I was from Hull. When, by accident, I complimented one of them I was suddenly judged insecure – and therefore unworthy of their company.

Over the next few evenings at the watering hole, my eyes cast back on myself. Here was I, stuck on the periphery of all that surrounded me. There was no salvation for this bore amongst them, for while the micro-racists could patronisingly promote even the dreariest African to kingly heights, their vision could not extend beyond their cliché-bound world. Yet I rejected them too, in my own way. Despite my almost devout agnosticism, I continued to adhere basically to the Christian morals which my upbringing had firmly imparted. Amongst the post-moderns around me, thriving on the morality of immediacy, I drew an unconscious distinction between my way and theirs. Theirs was a dream of later on tonight, a taste of delight with someone no longer a stranger. In truth, I walked away from them, not the other way round. One evening, abandoning my quest for friendship with my ever witty cohorts, I encountered a man I had met on the day of my interview sitting a few tables away with his flatmate and his flatmate’s girlfriend. He, a Welsh man ten years older than me, welcomed me and from that moment on we were friends.

Some weeks passed without as much as a sip from a glass of alcohol. Was it my Methodist genes, passed on from my Grandfather which caused my abstention? I could not justify my refusal to drink to my friends for I had not rationalised anything in my mind. My family drinks alcohol; this could not be another of my pre-atheist urges, yet I was pious in my rejection of the bottle, even as my new friends constantly petitioned me to drink what they were drinking. In due course, however, I conceded and was introduced to a luminous liquid which tasted like Lemsip as a bridge to a new habit – and an unpleasant period in my life began.

A decade older than me and a seasoned drinker, my colleague could drink thirteen pints of beer and it would not appear to make the slightest difference to his behaviour. By contrast, I was a novice and a couple of bottles were enough to make me intoxicated; yet in his company a couple of bottles would never be sufficient. So sure enough, the inevitable happened and a night of heavy drinking took its toll on me.

I had not eaten all day when my Japanese flatmate suggested we went to the pub across the road. To avoid mockery I bought another alcopop while he tried some whisky. After a while my flatmate suddenly remembered that it was his birthday and so we decided to celebrate by having a glass of whisky from a bottle in his room. Maybe an hour later, I met my usual companion and we set off for the pub with an old friend of his. I drank several more bottles of the green liquid, by which time I was intoxicated well enough to ignore the taste of what was to come. Quite late, my friend decided we should go to the Bluenote, a popular nightclub of the time. So we went down the road to get a bus, until, bored of waiting, we changed our minds and decided to settle for two bottles of red wine. We drank those on the way back up the road and then went back to the pub where I had begun that fateful night.

There was a lock-in, because it was after legal opening hours, and at last they had got me drinking beer. Though I did not like the taste, I was so intoxicated that there was no taste; indeed by then I was barely aware of what I was doing. We went on to a party in someone’s flat, time shifting strangely now. How long was I there? What did I do? Who was I with? A mystery. What happened to prompt another friend to decide that it was time for me to leave, and help me down the stairs to my room? I have no memory of moving from the pub to the party, nor of the party, nor of what happened next – just moments of consciousness amidst a walking comatose. Back in my room I fell unconscious, awakening for moments and then slipping away again. Finally an ambulance was called and I spent the remainder of night in Casualty.

A rite of passage, say the cynical, blinded by their love of drink. True, I was not on the verge of death, simply very sick and unwell like many an Englishman in towns and cities around the country that night. Thus does our culture mock those who look beyond this veil, justifying actions which ordinarily would be condemned. Many an upstanding citizen would condemn my Rastafarian friend for his religious inhalation of an illegal herb, but would never dream of reproaching the frequent drinkers in the pub; and yet medical researchers have put alcohol in the same category as opiates in terms of the harm it can cause. For my part, regaining consciousness in an uncomfortable hospital waiting room in Euston, I felt guilty. I was angry with my usual companion, angry with myself and deeply embarrassed. With the breaking dawn I swore that I would not drink again; a promise I failed to keep.

Drinking alcohol was never about appreciating unusual and varied flavours, but simply about getting drunk. Indeed conversation while drinking alcohol was invariably about alcohol. A person set on drinking thirteen pints of water, orange juice or lemonade during a single evening would be considered something of the village idiot, but in the warped culture which envelopes us, to do anything less with alcohol is somehow considered a sign of individual weakness. Not weakness as I would comprehend it. I had no interest in this way of life, but I was weak in that I gave into the pressure of friends. Before I realised it, I had found myself forced by circumstance to engage in a life I despised. It did not take long to make me dependent on a vodka and coke as a means of escaping unhappiness.

There was conflict at that time between me and another student, which was entirely my fault due to my ignorance of her culture; she was Muslim and I knew nothing about Islam. I only knew that Muslims do not drink alcohol, do not eat pork and only eat halal meat. I was not conscious of Islamic terrorism, fundamentalism or fanaticism and I was not aware of the common preconception that Islam oppresses women – all basics of pop-thought. So I certainly did not know that having a close friendship with a Muslim girl was unacceptable. Having made friends with her over a cup of coffee after a tutorial, time created a bad impression as I became excessively possessive of friends, seeking to be a part of other people’s lives instead of continuously being on the periphery. As a result numerous difficult situations arose.

We never became close friends. I think out of politeness she was always kind to me afterwards. But during a time of tension when we would avoid each other at all costs, I engaged in a life which was a lie. Sometimes I would sit at the bar in the pub, drinking spirits I couldn’t stand, pretending that I was happy now. Then, during the year, my Welsh companion began to have problems of his own, and I found myself helping him as others had helped me during my night of excess. Still he would drink his thirteen pints of beer and he would not appear to get drunk in the slightest; but when he reached the bottom of that thirteenth glass he would suddenly snap. His intoxication exhibited itself in violence.

I never saw him being violent towards other people, but if you were a door, a wall, a table or a chair, you would have to look out for you would not emerge unscathed. On numerous occasions it fell to me to control him, for because we were friends, people thought that that was my duty. He would spend days doing nothing but getting drunk, wasting away his money, and then I would cook a meal for him in the evening. One day he stormed into the common room, picked up the pool table from one end and then slammed it to the ground, before snapping a pool-cue in half, not at its natural joint. Everyone was shocked – perhaps scared – and looked at me, telling me to deal with my aggressive friend. I took him to his flat, sat down with him, listened to his problem and then I went to see the person who had caused his rage. There was nothing I could do. I became a mediator for two people whose morals I abhorred and a support for a character whose behaviour made me sick. Circumstance had forced me to engage in a life I hated.

Stronger people might have escaped earlier and realised that all was not well. But I was a weak person who felt that he needed these friends. They offered pathetic advice, such as how I should not feel sorry about what had happened between me and the Muslim girl before. But I acted upon it anyway and wrote her a letter, after we had sorted everything out, telling her how I wasn’t sorry, how it was all her fault and how I didn’t care at all. And then I smashed up my own face because I wanted everyone to feel pity for me. And then I would go to the bar alone and drink vodka because who needs friends when you can just get drunk?

In May of the same year following one more night of excess, when my entire body ached as never before, I gave up drinking alcohol for good. This, as it happened, was exactly one a year before I came to believe in Islam, but it is still an answer to the evangelist’s question: ‘Do you want some wine?’

No I don’t want any wine. I gave up the drink long before I embraced this faith, but that’s not the point. Some people wish to convince me that Islam is a burden on my life. In fact, the burden was lifted from my life when I said, ‘None has the right to be worshipped except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’ So while my life may seem unbearably restricted to the evangelist passing through, who wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith, I actually do not feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam did indeed liberate me from a time when I was a fool, and I was at a loss, and I was full of regret.

Blank Canvas

A brother sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I have often reflected on our response to non-Muslims’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I have no doubt that we do often encounter hostility, but I wish to say that we must not let ourselves ‘expect’ it.

I recall the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. My shahada came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, and yet when I had made the decision to utter those words, I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered it a personal affair, but within only hours the news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who, by nightfall, would now refuse to speak to me. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and I put their strange behaviour down to exam stress. Only, when the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed, when I said hello, if they didn’t just turn their back on me and walk away.

Relating to other people became very difficult: it was paranoia time. I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected sisters to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things which I ‘knew’ about Islam: Muslims don’t eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ , and Muslims only eat halal food. I didn’t have an opinion of Muslims – I didn’t even think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed women. But one thing I found when I went to university was that there were Muslim women there who wore the head scarf. I cannot tell you why I reacted as I did, because I do not know; I just thought that I should; but whenever I saw such a person, my eyes would hit the floor. I would not look at her face. I think I thought that because she wore the scarf, she wanted privacy and, therefore, I was not allowed to look at her. I remember there was a day when I was sitting with an ‘ordinary’ Muslim girl from my course in the university’s common room, and she pointed to this sister wearing hijab and said, ‘Can you guess where she’s from?’ I thought this was incredibly odd, because I thought I was not meant to look.

I encountered the paranoia tendency twice because of the way I behaved. The first time it was in my first year, the second time in my second year; both times those involved were new to wearing the head scarf. Both times my refusal to even look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted as I thought was expected of me.

Now that I have been there, almost in their shoes, I know just what is like. Visually, little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances who have never been very close, but you considered them friends, drop you in an instant. They blank you when you say hello or look at them, and you come to know that they hate Muslims or that, at least, they have a problem with something that you believe. Later, other friends, even your closest friends, drift away. They don’t have a problem with you, they say, but then they cut off all our ties. And when you experience this, you start to think that everyone thinks this way.

But they don’t.

I remember finding people on my course when I was in the third year periodically ignoring me. I would think, ‘Oh, well this is because I’m a Muslim.’ But often it wasn’t. People get stressed, consumed in their own worries. Study gets on top of them. Then there are the people who don’t know exactly how to react around you; they just want to show respect. So there was me, once upon a time, feeling that I should show respect, my intentions being misinterpreted, and then me later on doing the misinterpreting when others respond to me in exactly the same way.

In the two and a half years that I have been a Muslim, I have encountered all sorts of different reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as being boycotted, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for the truth. I have known people who don’t even have an opinion on Islam; who aren’t even confident that they can pronounce the word ‘Muslim.’

So what I’m really trying to say here is, please treat every potential Muslim you meet as a blank canvas. Don’t assume things about that person. It is so hard, I know from experience, to decipher what people are thinking, but we must try our best to be optimistic. Should we start on a negative like, ‘I’m not a terrorist, you know?’ or begin with a positive like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Islam is a blessing, so don’t forget to share it. We really have been liberated!

T.Bowes 18/02/2001