An article in the Church Times some time ago had David Banting saying, in relation to the General Synod discussion on Christian witness in a plural society, that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. While diversity of opinion is of course to be welcomed, the meandering, self-conscious spirit amongst many does not promote confidence in the process of dialogue. Representatives of the two faiths need to define clearly what it is that they believe, not wavering because they fear causing offence. Honesty must crown any efforts at dialogue and this means addressing issues even if they cause discomfort.
Where to begin? For me a return to the fundamentals of a religion and, therefore, to its earliest history should be the starting point of any dialogue between faiths. This definition of fundamentalism implies a study of history, which is something positive. To become ahistorical implies a denial of the most important aspects of one’s belief, i.e. its origins and primal teachings.
Repeatedly recently, newspapers have labelled as extremists people whom many Muslims consider to be voices of moderation. So who are the moderates? Week after week, just before the radio phone-in host denounces the alleged actions of another extremist amongst us, we hear the tired refrain, ‘The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people…’
‘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.
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. There was a realisation that inside all was not well: the lies I would tell to get myself out of an awkward situation, my thoughts, the nature of my intention. Inside, hidden from view, my life was a mess and I was lost.
A few months before I became Muslim, there was a Saturday morning when I had gone to the library to do some work on the computer, only to find that the network was down. So instead I started out on an 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 inside. 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 that I would stop this 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 He did not desert me.
There were other things which kicked me; my insincere intention – looking to impress people by any means possible – and my self-pity. Over a few months, there was a realisation that within me there were problems. The final change came quite suddenly, however, 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.
A new beginning is always possible, though I did not really understand this at first. I became distressed after a few months: ‘How can it be that God guided me,’ I asked repeatedly, ‘when I was such a foolish person, while my family are good people, devoted to their religion?’ It took time to recognise that Islam refreshes, brings life anew and grants us a new beginning. Muhammad, like Jesus before him, came for the sake of ‘sinners’, not the righteous, for the religion is one of reform. It is us old fools who need a religion of reform, not the already pious.
Since coming to believe in Islam, I must have performed a certain ritual over eleven thousand times and may have prostrated before my Lord around eighty thousand times. These irrelevant numbers only indicate that there are duties which Muslims are obliged to perform as part of their day to day lives.
Mainstream contemporary discourse represents a relativist worldview, wherein there is no truth, only ideas and arguments; all beliefs are generally valid, although some are more valid than others. Yet it is doubtful that this worldview is widely held within faith communities.
Who in their right mind, in this day of age would become a Muslim? This appears to be the often mocking sentiment of those who question the convert to Islam. Look at all the civil strife in the world, the acts of wanton terrorism, the way they treat their women. Show us a Muslim democracy; show us a peaceful Islamic State. What could possibly attract a person to that aggressive, uncivilised faith? The question presupposes that the believer is a consumer, acting exactly as they would when buying a car. Yet in reality the decision is made on the basis of what one considers to be true.
I begin as our close friend and neighbour flies off to a life in a new country. For them the growing hatred of Muslims expressed in our midst had reached its pinnacle and they decided that their future was not with Britain. We watched as they packed their bags and then we waved goodbye reluctantly. Not long ago, another friend – a history teacher by profession – announced his defeated observation amongst friends: ‘Now I know how the Jews felt in the nineteen-thirties,’ he said.