‘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.