To be true

Yes, it is all implausible. My life, I mean. The quiet son of a family of priests, preachers and missionaries becoming a Muslim. That shy lad from the north of England marrying a woman from the furthest reaches of the Black Sea. That daydreamer building a house for his family overseas. Those tales of farfetched experiences and conversations. All of those weird coincidences.

I agree: it all sounds so improbable. I wish I could say I was making it all up. But no, that would be a lie. All of it is true, as it has to be, for we are bound by the truth: those of us who claim to be believers.

O you who have believed, be mindful of God and stand with the truthful.

Quran 9:119

We have the saying that it’s a great treachery that you tell another something which they believe to be true when in fact you’re lying. Instead, we strive to tell the truth until we are recorded as being truthful.

God will say, “This is the Day when the truthful will benefit from their truthfulness.” For them are gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever, God being pleased with them, and they with Him. That is the great attainment.

Quran 5:119

I have spent much of my adult life writing fiction as a hobby in my ever-decreasing spare time. When writing a novel, I am clear that it is indeed fiction, the fruit of my overactive imagination alone. There is always a disclaimer before the contents page to that effect.

But this life of mine: no, there is no disclaimer. What you see is what you get. All of these implausible tales: yes, this is my life. I can’t help it if that perturbs. At times, I struggle to believe it myself, wondering if I’m even real. But as far as I can tell, I do indeed exist, as improbable as life itself.

Complete stack

In a normal organisation, I guess, we would have a team comprising project manager, analyst, back-end developer, front-end developer, configuration architect, graphic designer, quality tester, trainer and team lead.

In my organisation, all of those responsibilities are combined into one role, carried out by one person. I suppose that’s why colleagues have taken to pronouncing my name with an elongated i, as Teem. It’s not exactly what I’d call an ideal setup, but it is what it is. The organisation decided long ago that it couldn’t afford an actual team.

Whether they understand the value I provide is another matter. Only when I take a holiday, it seems, when all of a sudden it is a catastrophe that something cannot be resolved immediately.

Could or should I look elsewhere for new opportunities? Well, I could, but I guess I have grown too used to the comforts of zero commute — as has my family — and that thought: “Better the devil you know.”

Ethical choices

This morning, on the way to school, I got into an argument with our daughter about the choices we make. Well, a semi-argument. I was putting my points across calmly and rationally; only she was raging against my nonsense. My contention: that ethical choices apply as much in hard times as in good.

It began with her pleading me to put in an order from Amazon. I told her she could buy the identical item locally, so that’s what we would do. I said it was a waste of the delivery driver’s time coming all this way just to deliver an item we could get in nearby shops. She said that’s their job; if they didn’t like it, they’d work somewhere else. I said you don’t choose your job; your job chooses you.

Anyway, I said, it’s not about delivery. It’s about supporting local businesses in hard times. And about peeling them away from screens, be it the computer or the television, to actually get out and see the non-virtual world. Go to town, visit a real shop, have a look at the item in person, carry it over to the till and pay for it. And if you’re lucky, dad will buy you a hot chocolate with cream on top while we’re at it.

I had the same discussion with my wife recently, when she expressed reluctance to eat out as a family. “We shouldn’t be extravagant,” she said, “when people are really struggling out there.” I look at it differently. If those that have money stop visiting cafes and restaurants, and stop spending, then the situation’s only going to get worse. Then someone who had a job will be out of work, and will likely be more dependent on food banks and emergency support.

In the end, they will likely end up having to get a job at Amazon, driving a van for deliveries, or fulfilling orders in a warehouse, foot soldiers of the global conglomerate, that very modern version of the British East India Company. A wage, we’d say. Yes sure, but not exactly a life. These are the hard choices we have to make in hard times.

Believe me, I’ve been though hard times myself, in the early 2000s when I couldn’t get a settled wage. It’s tough and humiliating. Now’s the time for compassion and virtuous action, not dog-eat-dog. Best to look beyond government propaganda blaming the most vulnerable for the problems of the nation as a mask for their own stupendous corruption. Hard times demand hard ethical choices.

Dhikr

All of a sudden, they’re back with a vengeance: those heavy blues.

Is it the change in the weather? The short dark days? The sleepless nights? My distracted unproductivity? My wayward heart? A hyperactive imagination? Waning hormones?

Who knows? Probably just need some laughing therapy. Or better, still, a tongue which remembers to be grateful.

Verily, in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest.

Quran 13:28

Writer

One thing I will always regret: that instead of talking about my feelings, I took up writing. How I wish I had been able to articulate my feelings back then, or had had anyone to talk to, who might have listened, and offered wise counsel. Perhaps I might have made sense of everything then. Perhaps misunderstandings could have been uncovered, and clarified. Perhaps I would have worked everything out of my system, moving on, never to look back. But, alas, instead I became a writer.

Idiot

Can I turn back time? Apologise for my apologies? Return to oblivion? Wish I’d never wondered? Never listened to the whisperer that whispered into my heart? Unsee what has been seen? Undiscover what has been discovered? If I could, I think I would. But then, if I could, I’d travel a quarter of a century back, maybe more. If we had the power to, perhaps I’d change all things. I’m such an idiot, and always have been.

Ground zero

Never again — I hope — will I allow myself to wonder what happened to those I passed along the way. It began with me hypothesising that there was no way in the world our paths could ever again cross. It ended with the shocking realisation that just as those clamouring thoughts had been coming to a crescendo, causing untold agitation within, our paths were crossing, literally.

I’ve been taught a lesson, that’s for sure. About my complete and absolute ignorance. About how faulty my suppositions always are, how risible my conclusions, and how little my faith. Here, ancient wisdom made real: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” For sure, I know nothing at all.

Of course, I have been here before. On hajj in 2006, I sat down in a tent amidst a sea of tents housing three million pilgrims and turned to the smiling brothers at my side. They were friendly and we were soon engaged in conversation. I’d soon learn that the first of them lived in the village of my childhood, the second of them the village of my adolescence — just around the corner, as it happened. No big deal: a coincidence.

More stupefying: that they both knew my mother from her days as hospital chaplain. In fact, I remember that in the mid 1990s, my mother used to talk about a “lovely Muslim doctor” who would come to the chapel to pray daily. My mind was completely blown that day in that tent in Mina, but only for the second time. There had already been a sublime surprise awaiting me when our little band of pilgrims — all of us converts — arrived on foot from Mecca.

The moment I wandered through the entrance, there I saw one of my closest friends from university days. “Salam alaikum Tim,” he said, with a grin on his face, “fancy meeting you here!” This chap was, I should add, the son of the old gentleman who used to overload my plate with food at every gathering in his unending mission to put meat on my bones. Small world, we might say.

So I have been taught another clear lesson this year. One that has humbled me completely. Nearly everything I thought to be true turned out not to be true at all. Everything has been challenged. All of my supposed knowledge has turned to dust. With humility I must now confess:

Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth declares the glory of God; to Him belongs dominion, and to Him is due all praise, and He has power over all things.

Quran 64:1

Laa hawla

So everything that I have experienced this year can be summarised this way:

Laa hawla wa laa quwwata illa billah — there’s no power and strength other than through God. 

Whereas I’ve always had a generic understanding of this concept, this year it has been thrown into sharp focus, made absolute.

Restless

I couldn’t sleep last night, my mind hurtling into hyperdrive, bothered by my thoughts. Foremost amongst them: “Do I even exist?” A strange question, but one borne of a strange year, in which all previous suppositions have been thrown into disarray. Early morning, I tapped these sentiments into my phone:

Right now, I feel like the universe is pranking me, but it’s not funny anymore. I’m just freaked out.

On the last Sunday in November a year ago, I was found hammering a chapter outline for a new novel into my laptop. It was completely spontaneous, for until then I had been happily working on another novel altogether. All of sudden, this tale seemed urgent.

Set just as lockdown restrictions were being lifted in 2021, it tells the story of the son of the two main protagonists in an earlier novel embarking on a journey to understand their past. I subtitled it, “a tale of love and forgiveness”.

The following weekend — a year ago, as it happens — I’d be driving out to the south west to stay with my parents. My excuse: to flee the increasing agitation within. In the back of my mind: that desire to write in peace.

And so it came to pass. After a freezing saunter up along the canal to Bathampton and back with my parents, and a delicious evening meal, I settled down in the spare room of their basement apartment beneath the city’s grandest thoroughfare and spent the evening tapping out my first draft.

I have never drafted a novel as quickly as this one. For some reason, it seemed imperative, and just came flowing out of me. Perhaps it came from my subconscious, and letting it out was cathartic. By the time I drove back home to my family the following day — very late, thanks to the closure of the M4 near Swindon — I had a complete first draft.

For the next three months, this would become my primary free-time writing project. Everything else would have to wait, including the novel I had been working on throughout October and November. On weekend evenings, as my family sat down to watch their Turkish dramas, I’d plug headphones into my ears, blocking out all noise with orchestral Coldplay, settling down in a corner to write.

It was all going well until February: until the actions of those fictional characters had me reflecting on my own life. In the novel, the lead character sets out trying to track down a relative he didn’t know he had, and in doing so discovers a whole cast of of characters from his parents’ past. In turn, that leads on to contemplations of forgiveness.

It seems writing this fictional tale inspired me to contemplate the same: to apologise for my own mistakes long ago, and to seek forgiveness if I could. It started with me just splurging remorseful sentiments into my blog, thinking an angel might carry my words afar. It ended with me seeking out those old faces, much like the young man in my novel.

And — bham — there they were, only… their being there would blow my mind. Hence last night’s restlessness: that feeling that the universe is pranking me. Whereas months ago I sat up in amazement at all I discovered, now I just feel sick. But perhaps that’s just the verse that reverberated in my soul all night long, daily ringing ever truer.

We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. But is it not sufficient concerning your Lord that He is, over all things, a witness?

Quran 41:53

So yes, I get it. The universe isn’t pranking me: it’s shaking me to my core, and for sure I’ve been shaken. Last night it had me questioning my own existence, wondering if any of this is even real. But of course, it’s real alright. It’s just that real is far more surreal than even the most far-out fiction. For sure, it’s going to take a while to digest.

Trolls

It’s so refreshing that racism is back in fashion, and we no longer have to obscure our prejudices. For most of the past two decades, we had to pretend that our racism was all about ideology and had some intellectual basis.

“My only beef is with Muslamic extremism,” we’d say, certain that none could disagree. “I’m not racist,” we’d declare, while racially abusing brown people whatever their faith with anti-Muslim slurs.

At least we don’t have to keep up that pretence anymore. At last we can openly racially abuse charity workers, doctors and nurses without fear of repercussions, safe in the knowledge that our friends will cheer us on. What enlightened times to live in. Progress.

Trial of wealth

It’s best to maintain financial independence from your wider family. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t support your kin when they’re in need, or that you should build walls between you. But it’s best to separate your concerns, and live self-contained lives if you can.

The alternative is the scenario I have encountered repeatedly: younger siblings left destitute by the eldest brother, with spiralling debts, creditors chasing, bailiffs seizing assets. It’s not necessarily that they set out with bad intentions, greedily hoarding wealth. It’s more that when hard times hit, desperation and fear causes people to act irrationally.

Brothers who worked together in the good times, developing the business left to them by their father, quickly forget those genetic bonds when their way of life is threatened. In a recession or cost of living crisis, the pressures are multiplied.

It’s not just your business that is struggling, but all your customers and clients too. You are reliant on them paying their bills, but they are also reliant on theirs. Meanwhile, the other way up the chain, you have mounting bills to pay. It’s a snowball, out of your control.

Something’s going to break, and unfortunately most vulnerable are your relationships. Big brother, usually managing partner in the enterprise through the good times, now has to put himself, his wife and his children first. He has to protect the family home. He has standards to maintain.

Thus do pooled family assets become his property alone. Shared investments are cashed in to cover his debts. Side businesses are sold on. Assets are sold off. And soon enough there will be a court case, disputing shares of inheritance going back years. If he plays it right, the eldest brother will emerge financially independent.

But his siblings? Mostly they face financial ruin. Some fear prison. Some lose the family home. Others, with creditors still chasing, contemplate suicide as the only way out. It’s not that they owe a couple of hundred, which might easily be paid off by a charitable relative. Their debts are in the millions, and those they owe money to have debts of millions too.

The growing conflicts seeded by these strains affects the entire family. The stresses cause physical and mental illness amongst parents, spouses, children. Hypertension and heart conditions become commonplace. Depression and anxiety multiplies. Conflict grows and grows.

The widowed mother is forced to take sides in the dispute, and will feel pressured to stand with her eldest son fearing that she will be left alone in old age. But in doing so, she alienates her other children, distraught that she stood with the unjust party, and now she has an anguish that will probably never heal, her face just one big perpetual frown.

Here a conflict that will probably never cease or heal. Here, relationships throughly broken, beyond repair. There is no way out, except through humility and forgiveness. But that requires a faith and generosity of spirit which will have been severely tried by now. These the trials and tribulations of life.

Having witnessed such a scenario repeatedly, I’m so grateful that as a family we live independent lives, each of us responsible for our own affairs alone. Those who live in tight-knit extended families may consider this a selfish declaration, but it is a view borne of those multigenerational conflicts repeatedly witnessed all around me.

Better to be able to give willingly, in charity alone, being good to others with sound intentions, purely for the love of it. Wealth is a great trial. Certainly, man is in his love of wealth intense. “Every nation has its trial,” as the prophet is reported to have said, “and the trial of my nation is wealth.”

Improbable

This time last year, I was found ruminating that it was likely impossible that amidst a population of sixty-seven million citizens my path would ever again cross with those I had once known. Of course, within months, that hypothesis was thoroughly blown out of the water by reality.

But should I really be surprised? A few years ago, my wife expressed her amazement that a former colleague of hers had settled in our sleepy market town. That in itself was not particularly amazing, though, for ours is a commuter town, last stop on the Metropolitan line out west. Many employees with jobs in London settle here, in search of relatively affordable housing.

More amazing, perhaps, was that when my wife invited him and his wife over for tea, we realised that I had known the couple long before she had. Whereas my wife had worked with the chap in the early 2000s, our paths had crossed in the late nineties when I had briefly attended their church in central London.

It turns out that this is not particularly unusual or uncommon. In March I thought of a friend who lives in the Gulf one morning, and ended up having tea with him in London the very same evening. A few weeks ago, I anonymously wrote an ode to an old gentleman I once knew, and hours later his son commented on it. Oh yes, but that’s not the half of it.

Let’s face it: though we may not even know our neighbours ten doors down on the same street, let alone the residents of parallels streets, if the Lord of the universe wishes our paths to cross with another, even on the other side of the planet, it will happen. Even if we tell ourselves that it is impossible that we might bump into an old friend amidst the 8 billion souls that currently reside on planet earth, if we are meant to, we will.

Strange, but true. Much like life itself, which is far more improbable than these crossings of paths. Study the workings of the human cell if you don’t believe me, or the formation of a single amino acid. If your mind has been blown by paths crossed, wait until you’ve deeply pondered your own creation.

Reverb

OneDrive reminds me that on this day exactly a year ago, I was staying with my parents in Bath. The prompt comes from a photo of my cheeky nephew during Sunday brunch at my sister’s favourite hang out, shortly before my journey home.

On my arrival the previous afternoon, my parents and I had wandered along the canal together. It was a dark, cold and wet day, and I was freezing. Out of character, for some reasons I came without my trusty fleece. Despite the two and a half hour journey, I wasn’t very sociable, spending the evening in their spare room splurging a novel into my laptop.

My visit was hastily arranged after the meltdown which greeted the arrival of a huge pile of uncut logs, deposited in front of my garage door. I’m reminded that this time last year, I was in a complete state. Feeling fragile, I decided I needed a weekend away on my lonesome. Not sure what my parents thought of me coming all that way just to lock myself away, but I guess they’re used to me by now.

So time flies by. There goes another year. This weekend, my brother took my place on a flying visit back to the UK. Actually, I was meant to join them, but I decided it would be too much for my parents, particularly as my mother was singing in a concert. WhatsApp exhibits another photo of a cheeky nephew, at brunch again, same place, always Côte. Familiar patterns. Perhaps we’re all just caught in a loop on repeat. Reverberations, back and forth.

Take stock

Eating meat regularly and in large quantities is really a modern phenomenon. If I go to stay in my wife’s village back home, their ordinary diet mostly comprises corn, cabbage and beans. From time to time in winter, if there are guests, someone might bring home a bag of hamsi (anchovy), but meat is a rarity. That was also my experience in rural Tanzania twenty-five years ago, where our daily diet consisted of beans and rice alone.

Our modern predilection for consuming meat for every meal would be considered very strange by the generations that came before us. Traditionally, in many Muslim societies, the only time the common people would eat meat would be once a year around Eid al-Adha, when the wealthy slaughter an animal to distribute amongst the poor. For the poorest families, this remains true to this day.

In contemporary Muslim cultures, however, consuming meat has almost been turned into an obligation, as evidenced by the proliferation of Muslim-owned fried chicken shops and burger bars on every high street. This culture can be troubling for some of those attracted to the faith by its ethical dimensions.

One convert friend has commendably managed to maintain his vegetarianism amongst Muslims for over forty years, but most would struggle to maintain that stance. Certainly, my own insistence on eating less meat after visiting an abattoir only lasted a few months before we drifted back towards its consumption. Early on, we would address that discomfort by purchasing meat only from a smallholder, whom we knew to take animal welfare seriously. Theirs, meat that could truly be considered both halal and tayib.

Then eat of what God has provided for you which is lawful and good. And be grateful for the favour of God, if it is Him that you worship.

Quran 16:114

Unfortunately, through the years since then, we have reverted to form, falling under the intoxicating spell of its taste. I think this is forgetfulness more than anything. It is difficult to remain cognisant of the ethical dimensions of faith at all times, especially if you’re wandering amongst those who don’t consider ethics that important at all.

Perhaps, for that reason, it’s a good idea to spend time amongst the older generation, or spend time in rural backwaters, or simply move amidst vegetarians. Certainly, while socialising with colleagues or visiting family, we find ourselves more than capable of turning vegetarian to avoid consuming haram foods. In a way, I wish that in my early days as a Muslim I had simply told others that I had become vegetarian to avoid all the strife that my faith identity brought.

The consumption of meat has been made permissible for us. But as every learned Muslim knows, conditions apply. The prophetic sunna bears no resemblance to modern industrial meat production, devoid of moderation or compassion. The prophetic way entails dealing with each animal as an individual, treating it well during its lifetime and with kindness at life’s end. And as I write this, I am jolted back to reality once more, recalling how far short we fall of those ideals.

Surely the time has come to take stock of our habits, reminding ourselves once more of the ethical dimensions of our faith, which so easily slip from our minds. These the conversations we must have with each other, whenever we realise that our standards have slipped.

Observations

A surge in childhood diseases, resulting in premature death? Shocked? Not particularly. Some (wholly-unqualified) observations:

First: it’s difficult to get a GP appointment these days. Often, adult patients will first be offered a telephone consultation, some days away. If your symptoms are deemed worrying, you may then be invited to an in-person consultation. Timely access to medical care is vital.

Second: many GP practices have outsourced their telephone triage systems to a single nationwide service provider. This may have resulted in some kind of cost-saving, presumably cutting receptionist salaries on site. However, last week, that service was unavailable nationally due to a server fault, leaving patients unable to contact their local surgery.

Third: the established electronic patient record used by the NHS 111 service has been unavailable since August, after the platform provider was hit by a cyber attack. Contingencies have had to be put in place instead, some more effective than others. If call responders and on-call clinicians cannot easily access medical records, it is a problem for patient care.

Forth: though you wouldn’t know this listening to the government and media’s obsession with the so-called migrant crisis (the increase in numbers very obviously having more to do with refugee crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan, than channel crossings), the health service is in crisis. Many NHS trusts are facing acute staffing shortages. This impacts patient care.

Fifth: lockdowns during the pandemic may have impacted the development of children’s natural immunity, in as much as they were exposed to fewer bugs over a period of two years. But I suspect the jury is out on this one.

Grandpa’s wisdom

My grandmother used to tell me that for the whole of his career, my Methodist grandfather was derided by his colleagues for not drinking, smoking or gambling. His ethos was to live within his means and not squander the wealth he earned.

I am sure he would be shocked if he were alive today learning that the average UK household nowadays spends over £900 on alcohol annually. As a non-drinker for 25 years, for me that equates to a saving of over £20,000 to date.

Similarly, the average smoker spends nearly £5,000 on cigarettes per year, amounting to £125,000 over the same period. Then there’s the lottery, on which the average player spends over £400 annually, amounting to £10,000 over a quarter of a century.

There has certainly been barakah in my grandfather’s wisdom. Having followed a similar pattern in my own life, I strangely find myself in a comfortable situation, despite modest means. Although we are a single-income household, we have managed to live debt-free for some years now.

Quite deliberately, we do not possess credit cards, which might tempt us to buy what we cannot afford. We do not have financing deals to pay for a nice new car, choosing to buy a secondhand vehicle we could afford outright instead. We don’t have the latest smartphones either.

To me, it is shocking that the average personal debt in the UK currently stands at over £25,000. But then I suppose it is not so surprising if we consider what we chose to forgo to achieve a debt-free existence. For sure, I don’t enjoy a standard of living anything like my upbringing, but everything is relative.

I am not under any illusion as to how hard life is for so many, however. In the past, we made the mistake of agreeing to be guarantors for a friend’s tenancy, and ended up having to pay off significant rent arrears on their behalf. Likewise, we’ve had to write off many loans to others when it became apparent they could not repay them. We know life is tough when you have money worries.

For sure, we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we can at least tie our camel, so to speak. In other words, you do what you can to achieve stability in your life. I can say that though I made a mess of my foundations in my youth, repairs such as these helped me get back on track. With God’s help we have been able to live within our means ourselves. Alhamdulilah for that.

Advantages

Despite the challenges, suggested a friend the other day, there must be advantages of your chromosomal complement. I struggled to think of any.

Some identify increased empathy as a positive impact. But where does that come from? Isn’t that just a psychological effect of a youth spent being sidelined and derided for perceived difference?

Certainly, those experiences have given me a very strong rapport with the underdog, but I don’t know that they can be attributed directly to the condition.

What are some of it’s more direct effects? Shyness? A positive trait from a religious perspective, but one that has also paralysed me throughout my life.

A more sensitive personality, manifesting itself as kindness and helpfulness? Granted, a positive trait in some circumstances.

But beyond these characteristics, in what way could this condition possibly be considered advantageous? It does not cause x-ray vision or the ability to fly. It causes delays, difficulties and deficits. We are normal humans, with certain features disabled by default.

This chromosomal complement is an anomaly. Yes, from a faith perspective, it was bestowed by design. Some of its effects could be said to be positive. But advantage? I remain to be convinced. Perhaps somebody could enlighten me.

Detox

I no longer follow religious social media, except for a singular YouTube subscription. I occasionally catch the drift of what exercises my brethren via a WhatsApp group, but most of these folk are just as cynical as me, likewise given to watching from the sidelines. Occasionally this puts me at a disadvantage, slow to grasp the cause of the flurry of pointed posts, as friends become animated all of a sudden.

Still, I’m mostly satisfied with my voluntary withdrawal from this very modern phenomenon in which we are supposed to find ourselves perpetually on edge. I am content going for a wander once a week with a learned friend to ponder the profound instead. Overall, I think this is better for my sanity. A fast all should try from time to time.

Precision

We often feel legitimately aggrieved by the imprecision of language when others associate the whole with the actions of the few. When newspapers seem to associate all Muslims with the actions an extremist fringe, we rightly decry such inaccuracies, if not as plain deception. We would think then that we would be alert to that imprecision for others too. Ah, but not so.

How often do we hear the phrase “Hindu chauvinism” used across the press, unchallenged? Our own Spidey-Sense shoots into overdrive when serious commentators deploy a similar phrase referencing our religion while discussing the behaviour of ruling political movements, but for the unholy other we stay the course, unthinkingly regurgitating those mantras without pause.

So it is that we speak of Hindu extremism, nationalism and chauvinism without making any attempt to clarify that people identifying as Hindu are as diverse as any other group, crossing the full political spectrum, belonging to different ethnicities and social classes, and holding to different religious worldviews. If we are in fact referring to the actions of adherents to the political ideology, Hindutva, we should be precise.

Hindutva is a right-wing supremacist ideology, inspired by the European political-philosophy which underpinned twentieth-century fascism. It is as much associated with the heterodox traditions of Hinduism as Zionism is with Judaism or Hizb ut-Tahir with Islam. It represents neither majoritarianism nor communalism, only a divisive supremacism, which is at odds with the diverse systems of thought and belief which actually characterise the Indian subcontinent.

To speak of Hindu chauvinism would be the same as speaking of Christian or Muslim chauvinism: it is meaningless, for adherents to our different traditions are disparate. On the political spectrum, we reflect both left and right, libertarianism and authoritarianism. In our personal interactions, some are merciful and kind, while others are brutal and intolerant. In religious practice, some are puritanical literalists, while others embrace inclusive syncretism. Some embrace multiple identities and traditions, while others hold to a narrow fundamentalism.

For some, the term Hindu has no religious connotation whatsoever, but is instead a cultural or geographical marker alone. But that is as much true of others. Many Muslims, Christians and Jews might self-identify with these labels, despite neither believing in nor practising the associated faith. Some of the same would assert that converts are not and cannot truly be associated with that identity from a sociological perspective. In other words, these markers of identity are complex, defying the simplistic explanations beloved of commentators and activists everywhere.

For sure, I have more in common politically with my old friend from university, a third-generation Bharatanatyam artist, than with many of my brethren nominally associated with me by faith. In our uncompromising monotheism, I may be inseparable from another Muslim, but in my views on patriarchy and diversity it might be impossible to be further apart. Amongst the Muslims, we find some who would feel politically at home with Jeremy Corbyn, and yet others who would promote a Muslim equivalent of the BJP.

So precision please. Consider that Quranic maxim as guidance: “And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.” Or even: “Do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just.” The alternative may lead us to a very dark place. Don’t alienate your allies by failing to differentiate between friend and foe, nor let others play the game of divide and conquer once more. Be precise, and wise.

Travellers

Where am I from? I am from dust, and will return to dust. And then I will be raised alive when all are raised alive. In that epoch, we will at last know our final destination. Until then, we are all travellers on the road of life. If you are settled, you have missed the point.

People of the boats

Listen to the beautiful poetic music of the maghreb. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you will hear their humanity.

The people of the boats have dreams and aspirations too. They are humans, with hearts, who love and cry like you.

There are no illegal humans. All humans have the right to life and dignity. The earth has been made wide and spacious by the Lord of all creation.

Where are you from?

My wife and I were discussing this question, for it’s been in the news. As an outsider, from elsewhere, she felt such a question is just smalltalk, designed to break the ice, coming after the obligatory comments about the weather and, “Did you watch the match last night?”

But perhaps her response is based upon the different contexts in which we find ourselves: the difference between connecting and otherising. In Turkey, it would be considered perfectly normal for one person to ask another, “Are you Las, Georgian or Hamşen?” each being one of many local ethnicities that might be suggested by accent or dialect. As for me, if I replied that I am English, they would immediately guffaw, “David Beckham!”

I could confirm that such smalltalk is just as common here. At university, “Where are you from?” was a standard icebreaker whenever meeting someone new. In my case, I’d reply, “near York.” New York?! Wow, that’s amazing. “No, no, not New York, near York.” Oh, oh, right, that’s er, not nearly as interesting. At work, too, colleagues will ask exactly the same question because of my subtle northern twang.

But that’s obviously not the context in which this question was asked of the founder of the charity Sistah Space at Buckingham Palace, wherein the line of questions was interpreted more as an interrogation than as friendly conversation. Indeed, it reportedly ended with hostile words in a condescending tone, which made the guest feel very uncomfortable.

Many will relate to that, feeling this line of questioning is less about taking an interest in an individual’s lineage or heritage, and much more about making them feel like an outsider who does not belong. In some ways, I could relate to either position.

In my nearly twenty-five years wandering amongst Muslim communities, I have been asked this question repeatedly. Often those asking are elderly folk, whom I presume to be genuinely curious to work out where I am from, given that I look a little different to the majority of congregations.

If I am out of area, I will first name the town I live in. If they then respond, “No, originally?” I will say that I’m originally from Hull. If they then say, “No, no, originally, originally,” my response will depend on whether I like the person or not. If I feel they’re being an idiot, I’ll simply reply, “Water.” Otherwise, I’ll just describe myself as a restless native, a quarter Irish.

This will satisfy all but the most stubborn of folk. The latter are the type who will go on to persuade me that I’m actually Syrian or Bosnian. You can’t do much about these types. But as for the rest, I think I’d agree with my beloved: yes, it is just friendly small talk, designed to break the ice. For sure, I’d rather this question than some awkward discussion about football.

But I am a white male, whose belonging is never questioned, so this is easy for me to say. My wife, although her skin is more or less the same colour as mine, is occasionally reminded that she is from somewhere else, either as a result of her accent, because she was overheard speaking a different language, or due her dress. But others, more visibly distinct, find themselves reminded of their otherness constantly. For such folk, I can imagine these persistent questions really grate.

So if you must ask, do so carefully. If a person indicates that they think it none of your business, respect that. If, on the other hand, they’re proud of their long lineage, prepare to be bamboozled. Beware, especially, of those who were given a DNA testing kit for Christmas. You may need to grab a chair for the answer to that particular question.