According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the meaning of life is 42. By some people’s definition, I could take that as my faith and I wouldn’t be any worse for ware. Choose another stance, and nothing will ever seem quite right again: “God? Why bring ‘that’ up?” I suppose if you want people to respect you, you don’t. “It’s something private” at the very least. But mid-term I did what nobody expected; it shocked some, offended a few and upset one or two. “I’ve got something to tell you,” I said to my partner in crime of the first year, as I stood on the steps outside, warm in the summer heat. “I became a Muslim.”
You probably wouldn’t believe it either if you really knew me, as he did. But nobody knows anyone ‘really’. You take what you like (or dislike) of a person, and put aside the rest. You ignore their mutterings about religion; their enquiry into meaning. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you?” I asked. Well, yes, and no. Actually he thought I had been pressured into it by a friend, just as he had pressured me into drinking binges, while I still drank, more than a year before. After all, I was he who always sat on the fence. And so it’s true what Elbert Hubbard, whoever he was, said: “To escape criticism – do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” I had been everything for everyone: submissive if it suited, understanding, liberal or vain. I had friends on the left, the right, the pink and the green. I thought, naively (both of them and my deen), that that would stay the same.
When you’re caught face to face, it’s awkward, for you can’t slip away like the recipient of a rumour. You’re there when the announcement comes. You’re shocked and lost for words. “You became Muslim?” Grasping for an explanation, it strikes you as futile. In the end, as he starts to respond, you realise that you don’t really want to know. “Well,” finally, “whatever makes you happy.”
Apparently, if I wanted to have faith in a plastic bag, that would be okay. Spiritually, if it made you feel good; if it sustained you; that would be fine. I used to think something similar, but then I think I lost the plot. I thought that the perfect incarnation of life would be a rock, because rocks don’t think, they just ‘are’, and thinking was getting me down. But then, it seems, thinking gets many people down, and it wasn’t just me. When I accepted Islam, I wasn’t considering whether it would make me happy, or more importantly, as I would have to make great sacrifices, whether it would make me miserable. I was considering only one thing: I believe it is the Truth. Now, admittedly, to every atheist, which is hardly a minority group at SOAS, this will undoubtedly sound absurd. I believe in God, and I believe in Heaven and Hell, and I believe in angels, and in prophets and in revelation. These are hardly things which jump upon you as you’re going about your study.
But, yet, I believe that it is true. It would certainly be easier to have faith in my friend’s plastic bag. There are people here in SOAS, after all, who have spent their lives studying Islam, yet they’re not Muslim. They’ve had articles published in Time Magazine. They’ve been interviewed on CNN. There are students studying an Introduction to Islam. Studying Islamic History, Islamic Thought, Islamic Economy. I’m the mad man, it seems to them, and they’re all perfectly sane.
“Whatever makes you happy,” doesn’t even figure. True, since I accepted belief, I have felt a dignity that I have never known before, but you don’t say, “I believe” and think that you won’t be tested. Wiser, trusting, more humble people believe for better reasons. I believe because I couldn’t understand how a person could know the future. I believe because I couldn’t account for the appearance of certain descriptions in a fourteen hundred year old book. I believe through female bees, through the tips of my fingers, through the greatest third millenium archive ever unearthed, whose clay tablets record “Iram, an obscure city referred to in Sura 89 of the Qur’an.”1
“But don’t you think that’s a bit shallow?” a Christian asked of me. “I don’t see why,” I replied, “I was always told that Jesus came with miracles.” Had I hitchhiked across the Galaxy and discovered a mad professor, not of dub fame, but a traveller with a time machine and a map to sixth century earth, I might perhaps have agreed with him. “Yes, it’s a bit shallow,” I might say, “to believe that a man living in the desert, fourteen centuries ago was a prophet because he spoke of things to come.” I might say that; I might agree. Whatever makes you happy.
1 K. La Fay (1978) National Geographic, Vol. 154, No.6, pp.731-759