A religion of reform

GOD SAYS in the Qur’an: ‘Surely does God hold the heavens and the earth, lest they cease. And if they should cease, none can hold them after Him.’ (Fatir, 35:41) And: ‘And if God were to impose blame upon the people for what they have earned, He would not leave upon it any creature. But He defers them until an appointed term.’ (Fatir, 35:45)

Everything in creation has a beginning. God says in the Qur’an that in the beginning the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, and then He unstitched them. That is the beginning of the universe in which we live. But the beginning I am really talking about is that within ourselves: an awakening. When we realise that within ourselves, all is not well.

People often ask me why I became Muslim, or how, or what brought me this way. And there are many answers I give. Through reading, through listening, through watching. And yet, when I really think about it, it was something more. The final impetus was something deeper. It was an awakening that within myself, all was not well. The lies I would tell to get myself out of an awkward situation. The thoughts I was having. The nature of my intention. Inside, my life was a mess, I had no guidance and I was lost.

A few months before I became Muslim, I remember that there was this morning when I had gone to do something or other, but had been unable to do it. So I started out on this aimless walk through the streets of London. After a while, I reached Regent’s Park and I was walking through there when something troubled me. I was disturbed by something within myself. In fact it was more than that. I was disgusted at myself. I had been aware of the evil of an action which I couldn’t seem to control, for a long time, but only now did I really despair. Enough was enough, I told myself. So walking through that park in the bright sunlight, I began to speak to God. I made myself a covenant with God, saying, I think, that I would stop, and if I should start again, He could desert me. For a while, I was good, I did reform myself and I felt better, but then I slipped again. I broke my promise, but, all praises to God, He did not desert me.

There were other things which kicked me. My insincere intention – looking to impress people by any means possible. My self-pity. Over a few months, there was an awakening within myself that all was not well. The final change came quite suddenly. It was almost just over a long weekend, when I did a lot of reading, little sleeping, and I became convinced that Islam was the True religion of God.

So what is the purpose of me telling you this? The answer is that it illustrates the beginning which is possible within ourselves. Perhaps I didn’t really understand this at first. I became distressed after a few months. ‘How can it be that God guided me,’ I asked, ‘when I was such an evil person, while my family are good people, devoted to their religion?’ I didn’t recognise the point at that time, that Islam refreshes, brings life anew, and grants us a new beginning. I didn’t fully understand that the point was to reform my own character from my old ways.

The beginning is a great mercy from our Lord. It is time that holds the highest potential for us as individuals. We may have an awakening after a period of stagnation. It is not just turning from disbelief to belief, it also turning from sin to repentance, from various forms of hypocrisy to sincerity, from neglect to responsibility, or from self-satisfaction to higher aspiration.

Every new beginning nullifies all that preceded it, be it disbelief, sin, or mere failure to make the best use of our time and resources. It is reported to us in the collections of the traditions of the Prophet from Muslim and Ahmad, that Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Islam destroys what was before it, and repentance destroys what was before it.’

Can anyone imagine a greater generosity than that of God, how perfect He is, who, after mentioning the eternal humiliation and punishment of those who commit the gravest sins, adds:

‘…except for those who repent, believe and do good deeds. For them does God convert their evil deeds into good. And God is eternally forgiving and merciful.’ (al-Furqan, 25:70)

Our lifetime is a short journey through one aspect of creation. However long or short a life span might be, its quality, by the grace of God, is determined from that point when one asserts his or her human faculties of thought and reason, and awakens to the purpose of his or her creation, undertaking to fulfil his or her responsibilities on earth in obedience to his or her Creator. From this beginning, true life emerges, which is a life of a higher quality which only the believer can achieve. God asks us in the Qur’an:

‘And is one who was dead [and] then We gave him life and made for him light by which to walk among the people like one who remains in darkness, never to emerge therefrom?’ (al-An‘am, 6:122)

And I suppose I am the likeness of one who was dead, until God gave me life and light to guide me onwards. I often wish that I had had Islam when I was going through the sixth form and then the first couple years of university. How could I have made the mistakes I did, if I had had this guidance I have now? Perhaps that’s simplistic. I make mistakes now, I fall into error and sin. But the point is, Islam is a guide and it is a light.

I became Muslim in London, but over the summer I returned home to my family and something struck me at that time. I was going into our local mosque, but I wasn’t welcomed, made to feel part of a community. I felt like an outsider, though I testified that there is no god but God alone, just like the brother beside me. It struck me just then: ‘How would I ever have discovered Islam if I had stayed in that town?’ Where was the call to Islam? Where were the people calling to this beautiful light? All I heard was criticism of the disbelievers, but no mention that we should tell them of the light.

We need to call to Islam, because people do awaken to the state of themselves. The initial awakening for us, where we choose Islam over other ways of life, is a transition from unawareness to comprehension, from denial to acceptance, from doubt to belief, or from shirk (associating partners with God) to tawheed (affirming the unity of God).

For us, as Muslims, however, there are awakenings too. When I was finishing my degree in London last year, I started to feel overcome. I began to neglect my prayers, delaying them without excuse. I would not perform optional prayers, because I didn’t think I was good enough. I got myself into a trap. So I said to myself, ‘When I go home, I’ll practice properly.’ But how could that be? I was amongst Muslims, but going home I would be amongst people who hate Islam. And when I went home, I didn’t practice properly, I just got worse.

But there were moments throughout those months when I had beginnings. I was fully aware of my sinfulness, but I was lazy and I would say things like, ‘tomorrow will do.’ But there were moments of new beginnings. I had applied to come to Stirling, but I hadn’t received an offer yet. So, for the first time in my life, I prayed Al-Istikhaarah (the supplication for seeking guidance in forming a decision or choosing the proper way). I prayed to God, saying, if my going to Stirling to study publishing is good for me in relation to my religion, my life, and end, then decree and facilitate it for me, and if be ill for me, remove it from me and remove me from it. The very next day in the post, I received an offer. So for that time, my faith was strong and I was devoted in my prayers.

But it didn’t last. I soon returned to my former self. Then there was a time a few weeks on when I had an argument with my sister. She said things to offend me in relation to my religion and I said things to offend her. While I was working outside, I could see her telling my mother about our argument. That could destroy me, because I knew that nobody would ever ask me for my side of the story. So when they went out, I went inside and I prayed. Again, I was devoted to God for a while, but also again, it did not last.

Throughout the summer, there were beginnings like that. One day I just began correcting my ways, and my prayers were more substantial for two weeks, before I began to slip again. All of this, is part of an awakening. It is the awakening that leads us from sin to repentance, from hypocrisy to sincerity, or from neglect to responsibility. It comes, not always, but often gradually as an uneasy feeling, a discomfort of the soul. Gradually the uneasiness develops into apprehension and finally into the awareness that we are not prepared for death.

I know that if I was to walk out of this room at the end and then I was suddenly to drop down dead, I would not be ready. That is a very frightening thought. I could fall down the stairs. Anything could happen to me in the next quarter of an hour. And I am not prepared for death. I am delivering this sermon, but I am not saying that I have prepared myself for death. No, I want time. Like this sermon, I didn’t want to do it just now, I wanted it to be something that perhaps I might do in the distant future when I have more knowledge. But two days ago, I realised that I had no one to do it, so it became something of immediate relevance. And that could be death. It wakes me up. Am I ready? No I’m not.

So for the believer there is an undeniable truth which faces us. We realise that no excuse will suffice on the Day of Judgement. Through neglect and worldly distractions, we have placed our souls in danger. But perhaps we might remember that verse from the Qur’an. God mentions the eternal humiliation and punishment of those who commit the gravest sins, and then says:

‘…except for those who repent, believe and do good deeds. For them does God convert their evil deeds into good. And God is eternally forgiving and merciful.’ (al-Furqan, 25:70)

So we should be moved to long and strive for that special mercy reserved for those who have earned the acceptance of their Creator in the greater life to come. In my present state, would I be accepted? I can conceal the diseases of my heart from you, even from my closest brothers, but on the Day of Judgement, there is no cover for them, unless I cure them. If I am wise, therefore, I will hurry to grasp the opportunity to do that in what remains of my life, whether that be years or hours. God says in the Qur’an:

‘Has the time come for those who have believed that their hearts should become humbly submissive at the remembrance of God and what has been revealed of the truth? And [let them] not be like those who were given the Scripture before – then a long period passed over them, and their hearts hardened. And many of them are transgressors.’

About this verse, from the chapter al-Hadeed (57:16) Ibn Mas‘ud said: ‘There was from the time of our accepting Islam until God admonished us in this verse only four years.’ Such is the concern of God, perfect is He, for the Muslim community that He warned even the pious companions of the Prophet against deviation and neglect.

Therefore, it should be our responsibility to help each other, to offer each other advice. I certainly need to benefit from others. Yes, we are individually responsible for the state of our own souls, but Islam is not a religion of isolated individuals. This why we have a brotherhood or a sisterhood, a family and an Ummah (Islamic community). We have a responsibility to each other, to ourselves and above all, to God, to whom all praise is due.

While containing my own reflections, this text is based quite heavily on a chapter from the book, ‘Realities of Faith’ by Umm Muhammad.

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