Into the garden

We have this plant in our front garden. It has flowers somewhat like those of the Fusia, but glossy leaves and woody stems like a gooseberry bush. Does anyone know what it is?


At the bottom of our back garden we have another unusual plant. It seems to have two sets of flowers. First come the bunches of tiny bell-like white flowers, but they are followed by large red flourishes. What is this plant?

In the front garden around the pond we have some really lush vegetation. This is a good old English cowslip:

And finally, the Camelia bush in full flower at the top of the path in front of our house.


The beauty of Allah’s grand creation never ceases to delight me.

Vile

I have just read news on the BBC that three Indonesian Christian girls were beheaded as they walked to school – news buried under the frenzy surrounding David Blunket’s business dealings. What an utterly sick age we live in. Even as we anticipate it in our Prophet’s words, the depravity never fails to appall.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Just before the Hour, there will be days in which knowledge will disappear and ignorance will appear, and there will be much killing.”

May we all be protected from such evil people, who will slaughter innocents in this way. Vile. Vile. Vile.

Verily mankind is ungrateful

There is something wrong with me at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but my emotions are heightened, I am on edge, easily upset and completely inconsistent. I have been like this for two months now, swinging between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery reveals itself in the tears that well up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which rises rapidly and then dies.

I seem to be dissatisfied with myself. My heart aches, feeling heavy in my chest. On my return from Turkey I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by returning to the Smythian keyboard and reignite my “Copious Footnotes”. This lasted barely two weeks. It was followed by a yearning to start a cottage-industry publishing house called “The Othello Press”. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere. Then there was the “Blogistan” project, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the site because of the melancholy which overcomes me. It is all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals.

At work I want to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and now, just as I’m offered an interview for the latter, I’m resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a better day; maybe it will be good for me down the line. Perhaps it is not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then that I ever have since. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The Chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied despite a great wage for the simplest of graphic design work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started up my own business offering publishing services. This was a situation where I was in the position to do what I most love: creating beautiful books. Alas I was dissatisfied once more, even though I was given the opportunity to typeset challenging works such as “The History of the Qur’anic Text”. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onto new ground. I ended up as Office Manager in a busy training department. I was responsible for a team of administrators, got to produce newsletters and a directory of courses, develop the intranet and do many interesting things. Yet again I became dissatisfied and so the cycle started again.

What is it that drives me over the edge again and again? Why is it that I am never satisfied with what I have? Is my situation not better than the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every evening in Istanbul to sell ice cold, bright yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, is my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the days spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to three hundred customers over lunchtime off Berkley Square?

Perhaps it is pride. “I have an Masters Degree, you know?” Pride, which makes me think that the job I am doing is never good enough. “I don’t need a Degree to do this job, do I?” Pride which gets in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and you worthless as a result. I think it is. I think I am stumbling away from a path I once knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 was “The Purification of the Soul”. I think it is time that I returned to this work and others like it, recognising what it is that is creating this unease. My soul has been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscure the reality of faith.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart. Amin.

Calling Malcolm X

Last night, at the age of 92, Rosa Parks died peacefully in her sleep. Refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955, she unwittingly initiated the US civil rights movement. Following her arrest for this ‘crime’, Baptist minister Martin Luther King organised a mass black boycott of buses lasting over a year that prompted a change to the laws of segregation.

What would either of them think of the state of race relations in some parts of Britain today? The Independent reported yesterday that the conflict in Birmingham this weekend was sparked by rumours that a gang of Asians had gang raped a 14 year old Jamaican girl; those accused believe the claim was made to damage the business of an Asian shopkeeper selling Afro-Carribean beauty products, a pirate radio station already calling for a boycott of Asian businesses. “This is racial harmony in Britain today,” complained one shop keeper, “where a rumour of a crime leads to a mob who trash your business and want to smash your face in because of your colour.”

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in the same newspaper yesterday that racism is getting worse. She believes that it is no longer possible to talk of racism, because racists have now been emboldened to claim victimisation whenever the accusation of racism is filed against them. It was only a matter of time — publishers have been using ‘ethnic’ authors for years to publish what would ordinarily be considered racist were it authored by a white person. Alibhai-Brown reports how Joan Rivers told Darcus Howe that she was bored with his obsession with blackness on last Wednesday’s Midweek on Radio 4, while he sugessted that she was racially prejudiced. This was a small encapsulation of a wider problem in society today, argued Alibhai-Brown.

Meanwhile Joan Smith is foaming about the religious hatred Bill in The Independent today. With this Bill we are at risk of creating a climate of ever-greater intolerance. “So dreadful is this proposed piece of legislation that people who rarely agree on anything are united in opposition to a law that will curb free speech,” she writes. She believes that if made law it will only embolden religious extremists to launch assaults on members of other faiths and secularists. Perhaps, for once, Alibhai-Brown was onto something:

“We talk incessantly about multiculturalism, faith battles, Islamophobia, integration, assimilation, segregation, immigration, terrorism, the British identity, inner-city problems and ethnic tensions, but not race — even though it colours every one of the above.”

The complexities of censorship

Following my recent post ‘To blog or not to blog?’ some additional complexities surrounding the question of censorship occurred to me. Namely the question of censorship in the contemporary Muslim world and, secondly, how freedom of speech plays against the Islamic emphasis on the preservation of knowledge (think of the science of isnad verification, for example). In accepting that Islamic Scholars are the guardians of our religion, we implicitly reject those who speak without authority in matters relating to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In reality, today such censorship hardly exists, hence the confusion we encounter. Nevertheless, I would like to explore these two issues more.

Continue reading “The complexities of censorship”

To blog or not to blog?

Our blessed Prophet said, “He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.” For those of us who love to write, the implications of this are clear. To “Blog” brings with it responsibilities. Although I don’t consider myself a “Blogger” – simply a writer who finds the dynamic publishing mechanism of blogging software a really useful tool, a step on from FTP I used four years ago and DTP before that* – this question exercises me constantly. I have a back catalogue spanning nine years on my own site, yet it contains barely one hundred items; were I a real blogger I would have at least three thousand. The command to “speak good” must equally apply to all forms of communication.

Continue reading “To blog or not to blog?”

A very poor show

In general I enjoy listening to programmes on BBC Radio 4. I don’t own a TV and only buy a newspaper about twice a month (usually The Independent, for my sins), so the radio is my main source when keeping abreast of current affairs. A pretty good job it does too: not least Start the Week for literature and the arts, but also the nature, politics, ethics and technology programmes.

Every so often, however, you hear a programme that makes you wonder what has happened to British “quality” journalism. I heard one such programme on Saturday night (15/10/05) entitled A War Against Prejudice, repeating an edition broadcast earlier in the week. The focus of this programme was a Jewish organisation known as the Community Security Trust and its alleged role in exaggerating claims of anti-Semitism in British society. I must confess that I know very little about either subject, but it seemed quite clear to me as an outsider – an English Muslim of Anglican stock — that the programme had been made with preconceived ideas. Listening to this documentary it was impossible to ignore that feeling inside, that the programme maker had begun with a conclusion and had proceeded to build his case around it.

When Gerry Northam interviewed members of the Jewish community – and Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain – who would lend support to his thesis, he used blatantly leading questions. By contrast, when he interviewed Melanie Philips – whose frequent anti-Muslim views turned me away from listening to The Moral Maze – he probed her fear of anti-Semitism without the impartiality one would expect of a journalist. When Philips recounted her experience of a woman telling her that she “hated the Jews, because of the way they treated the Palestinians”, the journalist embarrassingly offered his own explanations for this. Why?

This is not to argue that the premise of the programme was incorrect; two rabbis and a Jewish sociologist lent some support to his case, if not entirely voluntarily (although the programme did make the Community Security Trust sound like a secretive organisation akin to the BNP, but with links to the Metropolitan Police a better likeness would probably be the Muslim Council of Britain, albeit a more advanced version). Instead, my complaint centres entirely on what looked liked a most imbalanced form of journalism.

What concerns me is that we are likely to turn a blind eye to this sort of journalism – for 1) it does not affect our community and 2) it does affect someone we don’t like very much. Yet as a community that is commanded to speak the truth even if it is against our self, is this the right attitude? I wonder if we would find more success in our campaigns against distorted media presentation of Muslim issues if our own vision were not so closed. If our mission is to fulfil the role of being a mercy for mankind, is it not time that we put aside the dreadful claim to be the chosen people that has crept into our communities and instead stand up as witnesses to the truth?

It was back to business as usual on BBC Radio 4 yesterday afternoon, with Libby Purves chairing an excellent discussion in the last fifteen minutes of The Learning Curve on the effect the proposed Anti-Terror Legislation may have on Universities. Well worth a listen.
Quite separately, does “PM”, the title of their rush-hour news-hour, stand for “Permanent Moan”?
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 07:23 AM

Just found your excellent site. Whilst being an unbeliever I have immense respect for sincerely devout believers of all religions. You are reflecting the side of Islam that is sorely missed in our media. Most of my Moslem freinds and colleagues share the “moderate” (for want of a better word) interpretations of Islam you are promoting – more power to your elbow! However on the specific issue of Anti-Semitism in Moslem communities, I am often disturbed by the willingness of some Moslem friends to use offensice language about Jews. I have also noticed also a tendency to believe in “conspiracy theories” about “Jewish Control of America”. The evils committed against Palastinians are obviously at the root of this as is the American incabability to criticise israel. But this does not justify some of the Anti-semitism that I hear (generally from Pashto speaking Moslems- so maybe this is a cultural thing), who confuse Jewishness with Right Wing Zionism. We need to see a wideranging and open debate on this.
Posted by:
chris October 19, 2005 09:52 AM

“I don’t own a TV and only buy a newspaper about twice a month (usually The Independent, for my sins), so the radio is my main source when keeping abreast of current affairs.” You what? How the hell can you be a blogger and be so cut off from all that information?!? I assume you must read some online news right?
Posted by:
leon October 19, 2005 01:44 PM

Leon, you’re right of course. Do I have to do the backtrack thing (someone will have to explain it to me if I do)? Yes, I browse BBC online when I get to work at 8am every day and (I forgot about this) I watch a wide range of news programmes on Broadband via the wwiTV portal (http://mediahopper.com/portal.htm). A slight oversight, but you have to make allowances – it’s Ramadan, we’re fasting, low blood sugar. In any case, you get the drift – I listen to Radio 4 an awful lot. Why is it the afternoon play is always really good when I’m late coming back from my lunch break? I could sit in the car park all day.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 05:22 PM

Hi Chris, thanks for your feedback, tho I certainly wouldn’t categorise myself as a devout believer. Personally I dislike the term “Anti-Semitism” as “Racism” would do, although (note the contradiction) I always thought Muslims (as followers of a Semitic religion) would have been better cottoning onto this phrase than coining “Islamophobia” — but there we are. In any case, I wouldn’t deny that the tendency you mention exists in the Muslim community. I asked a Spanish Muslim about this when I was a new Muslim about seven years ago; his view was that it is a recent phenomenon which has its roots in colonialism and the Israel-Palestine problem, and is not historical.
But there is another thing to consider. The Islamic narrative insists that the Children of Israel were Muslims, thus much is said about them in the Qur’an which recounts tales of those who went before us in order that we might reflect and not repeat past errors (alas we fail to understand). It is often said that such passages are “Anti-Semitic” — I think contemporary Muslims often miss the point when they lament “Islamophobia” — we now fulfil the role that the Children of Israel fulfilled before us. We wouldn’t call the Qur’an “Islamophobic” of course – sadly, we just ignore it instead.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 06:03 PM

I regret that it is not true that Anti-Semitism is caused mostly by the Palestinian-Israeli situation. When working in the Gulf some years ago someone asked a Syrian colleague (a friend of ours) why he did not trust the Israelis. He gave an answer which I did not expect-“because the Jews of Medina did not keep their covenant with the Prophet.” I have heard this many times since. There is something more deep-seated than the easy Palestine explanation here. The publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the Arab World-the making and broadcasting widely of “Horseman Without A Horse” based on this forgery, plus all the conspiracy theories about how the Jews run everything show quite clealy that there is a deep seated problem about accepting an Israeli Jewish state in the middle of the Muslim World. Posted by: Frank October 19, 2005 09:46 PM

On a related topic does anyone else feel uneasy about the nature of the “anti-semitism discourse”? It seems to be presented more as a genetic defect than a prejudice. For example calling it “the oldest hatred” seems to imply something primordial about it. Most significantly of course is the fact that it’s given a seperate title whereas hated towards all other races is just classed as racism. Another worrying aspect is that the target of the “anti-semitism discourse” in the west is mainly muslims and people on the Left in countries like France, Britain and Germany. In Russia and Ukraine you’ve got members of the governments there making openly anti-jewish remarks yet places like that come far down on the list of the most anti-semitic places.
Posted by: Shamilaskov
October 19, 2005 10:17 PM

My grandmother – who is Anglican – when reconciling herself to the fact that I am Muslim recalled that she had been told as a child not trust Jews and Roman Catholics; but, she said, when she finally met both a Jew and a Roman Catholic they were the nicest people she had ever met. She told me, despite all the things people say about Muslims my Muslim friends were absolutely lovely. Prejudice comes in all forms and sometimes it’s because people isolate themselves that it persists.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 20, 2005 05:16 PM

Stating the obvious

I have always considered understatement a very English characteristic. If something seems bloody obvious we would not then go to the trouble of articulating it. Recently, however, I have been reflecting on this and have come to realise what trouble it has caused me. It has begun to dawn on me that perhaps it is not a national trait at all — perhaps it is just me.

To me it goes without saying that, when I talk about living my life by a religious law, I appreciate that those who do not share my beliefs have a different viewpoint. Apparently not. No, instead I must clearly state, “I know you don’t share my beliefs and your view of the Law is different, but I insist on not going to the pub with you.”

Back in 2001, I thought it went without saying that the terrorist attacks on America were unquestionably horrific, so I did not articulate this when I expressed my opposition to the war. I should have said, “These barbaric acts made me physically vomit, but I oppose the invasion of Afghanistan.” Instead I had to put up with my colleague sending me an email detailing the harrowing account of someone who had survived the collapse of the World Trade Centre, telling me, “Perhaps this will help you understand.”

As a Muslim it seems you have to constantly be on guard as to how your words may be interpretted by others. You cannot make a point without qualifying it with a statement so obvious that it makes you cry. Except, that is, when your qualifier proves that you are an uncaring and insincere oaf who says he cares, but clearly doesn’t: “but” in the wrong-way-round sentance is the killer.

But then, all of this is a statement of the obvious, isn’t it?

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Encountering Christian-Muslim dialogue for the first time eight years ago was naturally a culture shock. Every young and enthusiastic activist owned a grainy, yellowy video with poor quality sound of a great debate between Ahmed Deedat and Jimmy Swaggart. As pamphlets detailing 101 contradictions in the Bible were pressed into my hands I wondered what these well-intentioned souls would make of the Christianity I knew. But for a brief sojourn with a group calling itself The International Church of Christ, prior to my agnosticism I had only ever known the Anglican Communion of The Church of England. Swaggart and his fundamentalist counterparts represented a creed almost as alien to me as the faith I was to adopt, yet everyday Muslim engagement with Christians remained focused on these Deep South stereotypes.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue is, in many ways, the perfect introduction to that other Christianity. Based on the proceedings of a two-day seminar hosted by Dr George Carey – then Archbishop of Caterbury – in January 2002, it stresses how far our simplistic caricatures of Christians are off the mark. While the seminar aimed to address how Christians and Muslims might overcome the obstacles standing in the way of mutual understanding, the book in fact paints a picture of a faith unsure of itself. Far from witnessing dialogue, we see that character whom every infuriated agnostic meets on his search; that bumbling self-conscious believer, so utterly apologetic about his faith and too shy to articulate his beliefs.

Perhaps surprised to find Christians and Muslims talking to one another, Dr Carey describes the not particularly unusual gathering as one of the most remarkable of his career as Archbishop. Writing in his introduction to the book, he acknowledges that Muslim-Christian dialogue is by no means a new phenomenon, but he believes the events of 11 September 2001 have made it ever more urgent. He stumbles at the first hurdle, for rather than overcoming obstacles in Christian-Muslim relations, he casts Muslims into the problem role. The Muslim, associated with these horrific acts, is placed into a defensive position to be interviewed rather than to engage in dialogue.

In a second introduction, Prince El Hassan eloquently rehearses that favourite Muslim topic of critique, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Unfortunately this has been so over-emphasized in recent years that the whole argument now feels stale, let alone irrelevant to the topic at hand. It is not all cliché, however: for dialogue to be fruitful, he suggests, we should put aside differences in theology and rite. This is true to a point – if the aim of dialogue is to discover how Muslims and Christians can work and live together then it is only natural that differences should be highlighted less. But what if the purpose was to convince the other of the truth of Christianity/Islam? Surely such differences are of fundamental importance.

It is understandable that Tony Blair, writing the third introduction as Prime Minister of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, should choose to do so inclusively; yet in the process of dialogue should we not expect the Christian to speak as a Christian and the Muslim as a Muslim? Straddling the two faiths in order to project one’s own views onto both parties cannot be exemplary of dialogue, but this is what Mr. Blair achieves. It is true that principles of tolerance and respect are vital, but should we allow him to set the agenda where issues of justice or liberty might otherwise figure as key issues as well?

The Road Ahead is split into five chapters, each containing papers by both Muslim and Christian participants. The first chapter discusses Christian-Muslim interface, the second looking at the lessons history can teach us in regard to interaction. After focusing on communities of faith in the third chapter, the discussion moves on to examine faith in the context of change, before finally evaluating the way forward for dialogue between the two faith groups. It is a positive step that the first contributor should be a European Muslim. It could be said that we have come a long way in ten years, when one considers the European response towards its native Balkan Muslim population at its hour of need. In a thought provoking paper, excellently located as the starting place for dialogue, Mustafa Ceri? considers the question of assimilation or of isolation in terms of faith, a point relevant not just for Muslims in the West, but also for Christians in the East, or indeed for Christians in increasingly secular societies. Like the Jews of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, Muslims in Europe today are forced to grapple with questions of integration or isolation and tradition or reform.

Later, Mustafa Ceri? pulls out the right threads once more as he goes on to discuss monotheism. ‘The doctrine of monotheism is shared by Islam and Christianity,’ he writes, ‘but the perception of it seems unsettling, not because of an apodictic argument but because of a dispute conducted in an ad hominem manner…’ We cannot conduct dialogue if we insist on skirting around the fundamental issues and who we worship is naturally the most crucial of all. Sadly, some participants seem not to agree, for disturbingly there is very little mention of God within The Road Ahead, nor indeed of Jesus of Muhammad (peace be upon them) – it is as if these main players are not players at all.

Mustafa Ceri?’s discussion of cooperation makes good sense and his historical overview of the issue is helpful, but it would also be useful if he pointed out that such cooperation continues today. Furthermore, in speaking about Europe as a continent of many faiths he could have been more careful about not identifying Christianity solely with Europe at the same time as trying to disassociate Europe from the idea of it being a solely Christian realm; despite the missionary zeal of some Protestant churches aiming to ‘convert’ other Christian communities to their interpretation of the faith, there remain sizeable non-Western Christian communities outside Europe. This too is underplayed throughout the book.

Responding the Mustafa Ceri?, Michael Fitzgerald argues that Christians and Muslims should seek to understand their differences in a spirit of mutual acceptance. It should be implicit in the idea of honest dialogue that Christians and Muslims retain their beliefs with conviction. He goes on to explain the difference between overcoming and understanding, which seems to be a statement of the obvious. However he confuses matters: ‘Such an attitude in turn implies that truth is not to be seen as an object in the possession of one particular group…’ Does it? Why must a believer deny his beliefs in order to engage in dialogue with others? He goes on: ‘…indeed, for Christians truth is best understood as a Person by whom they are themselves possessed.’ This is confused double-speak. Tripping over themselves to be accommodating to those who do not share their beliefs, this mode of thought actually nullifies effective dialogue; what is there left to discuss?

Nevertheless his advice on discussing the similarities and differences between the faiths is practical, although it seems to ignore the wealth of literature already in the public domain: John Bowker’s excellent study of suffering in the World Religions or Hans Küng’s Christianity and the World Religions to name but two. It would be illogical for any inter-faith dialogue to begin without a discussion of the key theological and ethical concepts held by each faith. Always reasonable and accommodating towards his Abrahamic cousins, Michael Fitzgerald offers another olive branch: Muslims, he argues, have suffered from being misrepresented as a monolithic block. In reality, both faith communities experience this as a result of projection from within as well as from without. As Muslims we often talk of ourselves as a unified whole, ignoring the internal conflicts, as do Christians in their engagement with the outside world. The Road Ahead is often illustrative of this, taking the image of Christianity for granted, forgetting that there is an Ethiopian, Armenian, Roman Catholic and Adventist Christianity beyond their projections of self. Michael Fitzgerald is absolutely right, therefore, when he states: ‘Diversity and genuine pluralism within both Christian and Muslim traditions needs to be recognized equally by co-religionists and by members of the other faith.’

The third paper published in The Road Ahead sits uncomfortably amidst its counterparts, a peculiar contribution aimed at a different level of dialogue. Undoubtedly well versed in conversation between the two faiths having spent forty-five years in the Middle East and the author of at least thirty books, Kenneth Cragg seems to assume too much of the seminar and as result fails to make any real impact. The theme of his paper is his oft-repeated argument around Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) post-Hijra mission and Islam’s recruitment of political power to achieve its ends, as already developed in his previous works. The point of this often-incomprehensible paper is what Christians mean by Magnificat and Muslims by Allahu akbar; in what way, he asks, is God great? ‘Islamic confidence in the rightness of political power in the defence and propagation of religion has persisted ever since [the Hijra] and it remains a large issue in our inter-religious dialogue,’ he writes. Kenneth Cragg implies that the slogan Allahu akbar is denied by Muslims when they refuse to allow God to be ‘greater’ than an omnipotent Lord who creates, guides and forgives. The God of Christian faith is above this kind of greatness, he argues, as His grace and suffering are viewed as averting the punishment warned of by the Prophets. For Christianity, ‘it was a greatness utterly generous in its creative magnanimity and even more so it stooping to “our low estate” in the self-imaging so greatly given in the incarnate and redemptive Messiah Jesus…’

By contrast, he writes, ‘Islam “makes him greatly great” in the benediction of our human guiding into rightness by the textuality of sacred tanzil [revelation] and the summons into obedience by the discipline and the nurture ordained for us in the Qur’an and the Sharia.’ Yet this is simply a case of the author moulding his discussion about Islam into his own framework for the sake of convenience, for Islam actually makes God greatly great by its numerous reflections on the magnificence of the universe He has created. Pondering everything in it from the honeybee to planetary nebulae Allahu Akbar is the natural refrain. In reality Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim could just as easily be the beginning of our theology and if Kenneth Cragg’s paper were put in these terms (in what way is God compassionate and merciful?) the outcome could be quite different. Pushing Islam through his own filter of beliefs, we are left with a confused message, and one that is quite abstract and distant from the reality of life at that. Fortunately his paper is not without rebuttal and Sohail Nakhooda provides a coherent and – thankfully – erudite response.

The second chapter goes on to look at the lessons of history, beginning with an objective paper by David Kerr. Intelligently he chooses to speak as a Christian is his approach without stepping into the Muslim’s shoes to speak on the other’s behalf. He argues that we should see the relationship between Muslims and Christians as a single circle rather than a convergence of two. Mona Siddiqi responds fairly, calling for dialogue to take place in the spirit of genuine honesty on the part of all involved. Presenting the third paper in this chapter, Tarif Khalidi examines the figure of Jesus in Islam with an interesting – if brief – minor history of Muslim views of Christianity. In his view, the figure of Jesus in the Qur’an is very problematic, but he does not develop this, where a review of relevant verses would be useful. Yvonne Haddad’s response is intelligent and useful, with a discussion of dhimma, which seems fair and balanced.

Nasim Hasan Shah begins the third chapter on Communities of Faith with an analysis of Muslim society in Pakistan. Activists are always keen to point out that there are no true Islamic societies today, an argument which misses the point; it is important that we come to terms with the fact that we must deal with contemporary realities not historical ideals. In his response, Henri Teissier asks whether there is clarity in the Qur’anic position on the People of the Book because ‘some Muslims would apparently claim that the positive early verses were later abrogated by more negative verses’ (Qur’an 5:82, 9:29). Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in early Muslim history and Umar ibn al-Khattab’s charter with the Christians of Jerusalem. Evident occasionally in dialogue is an absence of appreciation of the sources of Islamic knowledge, the Christian often referring solely to the Qur’an. Later, Henri Teissier asks, ‘Should not people of faith recognize that religion is not the only factor leading to the moral improvement of humanity.’ The traditional viewpoint of both faiths has been that God defines morality; this question seems to advocate a Christianity that has had Christ washed out of it.

In his paper, Michael Banner considers toleration in the context of Western Christianity and can be commended for making the point that ‘existing under the conditions which obtain in the liberal democracies, Christianity is not called upon to make an active choice for or against toleration of other faiths.’ No Muslim engaged in dialogue could escape the self-satisfaction sometimes expressed by the contemporary Christian when discussing issues of tolerance, particularly in relation to Islam. However, he seems to overemphasise philosophical alternatives in his ‘Toleration: the Augustine alternative’. Why do contributors continuously fail to quote from Holy Scriptures, which, in their daily discourse, are the source of their faith? The absence of any mention of Jesus and what he taught in Michael Banner’s paper is unimpressive, but in any case, given his opening paragraph, what is the relevance of the Augustine alternative?

Writing the final paper in this chapter, Mohamed El-Awa raises a few points worth noting. He is right to say that the time for solving religious differences is the Day of Judgement when the final word will be with God. Secondly, he usefully clarifies the issue of making alliances with enemies. Lastly, he mentions that Christians in particular have always enjoyed a special status, based on the Qur’anic description of them as nearest to the Muslims in affection or love. He gives the example of the Christians of Najran who stayed in the Prophet’s mosque when they visited Madinah. Above all, it is refreshing that this participant refers to Scripture and the teachings of his religion in support if his arguments.

Regrettably the fourth chapter opens with reference to the events of 11 September 2001. David Ford quotes Jonathan Sacks as seeing the terrorist attacks as the greatest challenge to the religions of the world since the wars of religion in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wrong; a genocide which targeted six million Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s was a far greater challenge to the world religions than the attack on the United States, no matter how terrible this surely was, not to mention the conflict in Northern Ireland over the past several decades or in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, David Ford’s paper is not unreasonable and his paper proceeds to cover fair ground. Is he the only Christian participant here who mentions Jesus Christ? This comes through in his ‘Christian faith and change: ten theses.’ Tariq Ramadan, already well informed in matters pertaining to faith and change provides a fair response. Seyed Amir Akrami follows this by arguing that Muslim debate is hindered by its alleged opposition to change. Following this, Christian Troll’s paper offers a critique of Islam, but does not forward views as to how bridges could be built. Once again, the Christian tells us what Islam should be, but fails to tell us about Christianity and what Christians believe.

If throughout this review there seems to be an imbalance, it is finally addressed in the final chapter, Setting the agenda. Rabiatu Ammah begins by arguing very strongly that self-criticism is severely lacking in the contemporary Muslim world. It is about time that there was more analysis of the issues we encounter in a truly honest manner without resorting to the tired refrain that the West is to blame. Christians might benefit from taking this approach as well. One does not have to put aside one’s convictions in order to recognise that communities of the faithful as well as individuals can fall short of their ideals, making mistakes and performing wrong actions. In his response Tarek Mitri expresses a very true sense that ‘Muslims are invited, sometimes in an unfriendly manner, to prove their innocence and that of their religion from the crimes committed by a minority of their co-religionists.’ Fair and objective in nature, this paper could be taken as a summary of the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, likewise, provides us with an impartial summary.

The final paper ties together the different strands of the dialogue quite nicely. In fact, Gillian Stamp hits one aspect on the head: ‘There seemed to be an imbalance in questions,’ she says, reviewing the proceedings, ‘– “the questions are all about Islam, the face of Christianity is covered”.’ She is right. If this is genuine dialogue questions need to be asked equally of the two faiths and it is hard not to be irritated when reading The Road Ahead by the role of a Christian speaking on behalf of Islam. This is not to say that Muslims and Christians should not play their part in analysing and questioning the other’s faith; this would be an exchange of ideas, the very aim of dialogue. She concludes with three possible next stages of the journey, the most important being the challenge of secularism, for this creed is the greatest threat to both religions, than either is to the other.

The Road Ahead concludes with a postscript written by Michael Ipgave, especially relevant in its last few points. God must be remembered, for presumably that is the aim of this dialogue; theological dialogue must be undertaken; and Christians and Muslim should not conceal their convictions. Nobody could argue with his last point: ‘When those who have faith in God meet with an open acknowledgement of their faith, the quality of their meeting is transformed, and together they can change the world.’ It is a pity then that a number of participants did not grasp this. Is this book about dialogue? It is hard to say. Reading The Road Ahead, which lacks any biographical information, I cannot help recalling the Playwright David Hare’s observations in When Shall We Live upon meeting a group of Priests in inner London who barely mentioned their faith whilst undertaking great social works, fearing that ‘stuffing Christ down people’s throats’ would put them off. On his meeting with one South London vicar he wrote:

‘The experience of meeting these good souls left me confused, because although I liked them so much personally – liked them, I suspect, far more than I would ever like their fundamentalist brethren – it did seem to me, as an outsider, that they were perhaps overlooking some essential point about the Christian religion. If Christ did rise from the dead, then call me a fanatic, but I think you probably do have to tell people about it.’

While this book is intended to be all about dialogue, it serves better as an introduction to that modest Christianity which treads the ground so carefully, always conscious of your feelings, but which never addresses the question at hand. Every activist who thinks Swaggart is the typical Christian should read it. TJB

There is no strength except with Allah

It is now two years and a month since I was told that I could never have children. The news was broken by a Locum Doctor while my GP was on her summer holidays – he didn’t know much about the disorder, had to look it up in his medical encyclopaedia, then advised me to read up on it online. What a stupid idea that was; I Googled it, read disturbing descriptions about it and then became exceedingly paranoid. Was all that silence through the years due to this? Was I a bit slow because of this? Was my poor performance at school due to Learning Difficulties? Well no, for the past ten years I have always been honest about this; I was simply very lazy. Nevertheless, the paranoia remains; but it is nothing compared with the emotional pain.

We cancelled our travels that August because of its effect on us. Between us we shed tears; we would sit and read the Qur’an, making the supplications of Zachariah, who cried to his Lord for a child until He answered that prayer. As time went by, however, I began to come to terms with this news and accept it as the absolute truth; while my wife prayed daily, mine became occasional, for the doctors had convinced me of the futility, despite my knowledge that He who created me only needs to say “Be” for new life to come from nothing. Every time my old friends from university announced that they were now a father, my mind told me that I should be happy, but instead I felt sad. With every visit from my niece I had to hold back tears. It is pain like mourning; like losing someone. It is a loss, but others do not understand; life goes on as normal… “How’s the job search going?” “How’s work?” Perhaps these things are not important to me at the moment, perhaps I need some sympathy, some time out to mourn this loss of mine.

It is the pain of knowing that you have reached the end of the line, that you will be an ancestor for no one, that you will never have grandchildren who will ask you about your youth. Surely my family worried that I would raise my children in accordance with my faith, not theirs; but it was a dream of mine that they could trace their Muslim ancestry, that the English Muslim would not forever be viewed as the queer aberration that comes and goes with every conversion and death. Instead there is this pain.

Not long before we received this news I had a dream one night which troubled me. My wife often has what I would call spiritual dreams, but mine are non-descript meanderings of the mind. But this particular dream stood out and bothered me. A huge flood was overcoming me, its waves menacing and fierce, my resting place submerged. Somehow it prepared me for some devastating news and a difficult test. Without a doubt, these two years have been hard, but I have come to terms with it nevertheless.

Things change. From where does one find the strength when he learns that perhaps things are not as clear cut as he was told? In England we were told that the only way to have ‘our own’ children was through donor insemination, a course of action we would never take. But in Turkey where donor insemination is not practiced at all, research has advanced apace to help people in our situation have children of their own – and a good number of men with exactly my condition are now fathers, some to twins and triplets. The strain returns; now there is a possibility that we could have a child, but also the possibility that we will again be disappointed. The treatment running beyond our agreed leave, the strain grows again, the two of us fearing what will happen to our jobs. The financial and emotional burden grows and we wonder from where strength will come.

There have been so many times that I have read the phrase, “There is no strength except with Allah,” but sometimes we have to put advice into practice before we see the truth of something. To rely solely on your Creator is one of the most beautiful aspects of faith. Sleepless for four nights, wandering silently through the streets of Turkey, anxious about all of this, I did not know from where I would find the strength. Like so many times before I lamented that I am not strong enough for this. But instead, finding myself in beautiful mosques, I prayed. Suddenly the situation has altered, relief has come. Our employers were sympathetic, our financial situation okay, the high emotions lessened. It is true: there is no strength except with Allah, the Creator of us all.

The self-centred soul

The past has been exercising me over the last few days and I have been thinking about old friends and acquaintances I have left behind along the way. Perhaps it is because we have been visiting my wife’s extended family while in Turkey and catching up with a few of her old friends. I tried Googling a few names to see what came back, but was surprised to see so little. I did the same for my family a couple of months ago and found all sorts – the title of my sister’s PhD, her published papers, interviews with my father, my brother’s (incorrect) diplomatic posting. Yet I did make contact with a couple of people I had once known, and it was a revelation. A decade ago I must have had low esteem to such an extreme that it never struck me that those people I had always considered “cool” were actually great bores. How the self-centred soul so obscures reality.

Stimulation for the soul

Following tradition I am ill once again during my stay in Turkey. This time at least it’s not a stomach bug; I just seem to have caught a bad cold (in this heat!). Still, this hasn’t prevented me from experiencing the better things of life. I am back in Istanbul again and attended a nice Jummah prayer in an ancient mosque over looking the Bosphorus, followed by Maghrib in Taksim. Both times the Qur’an was beautiful; both times I looked around to see young people in the congregation. It is nice to be back in civilised company.

Yesterday we spent the day in the company of a Professor of International Relations and his family. He is a specialist in Turkey-EU relations, Democratisation and Human Rights – and proved interesting company. Then we spent the evening in a luxurious neighbourhood with my wife’s best friend and her family – who happened to include a Chief Advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister. All of these people were Muslims, but more than this, they were intelligent – people you could hold a sustained conversation with. No generalisations and cliches. It was a pleasing change.

The assault on the senses wrought by hours of football on Turkish TV every night and dull broken-record conversations covering the same ground again and again and again start to take their toll on you after a while. A change of environment is most welcome.

Behold the believers

Coming to Turkey for the past four years I have largely been in the company of loud and often rude atheist secularists who chain-smoke perpetually and frequently declare their dislike for Muslims. Apart from the elderly who still attend the mosque five times a day, even those Turks who would assign the label “Muslim” to themselves freely drink alcohol and mock their brethren with their atheist friends. One such person who was adamant that I sit next to him in the mosque on Eid two years ago, less that twelve hours after he made fun of me for not drinking alcohol, now exclaims “Al-Fatihah” (i.e. the name of the opening chapter of the Qur’an) as a substitute for a swear word whilst watching football. Sure enough, I have met decent Muslims here, but not many whose teeth still grace their mouths or whose hair has not yet whitened. Instead most of the people I meet my age, younger and into their middle-age follow the Cult of Ataturk which has become a new religion in its own right. Saddened, my depression came to a head last Tuesday whilst staying in a mountain settlement up above the clouds. Sitting in the white walled mosque I scribbled my thoughts down in minute characters on a scrap of paper:

I feel frustrated in this once great Muslim land. It seems like the Turks I come into contact with have lost respect for their heritage, their land and themselves. There is no-one under the age of fifty in the mosque – all the faces are aged and wrinkled, mostly ancient as if soon to pass from this world. Instead the middle-aged men spend their days drinking and gambling, mocking the religion of their forefathers. They do not believe in God or the Prophethood of Muhammad, they say; they believe in Ataturk. In respect for this cult they furiously attack the Muslims, ridiculing them to the best of their abilities. They refuse to say “Salam” because it is Arabca (Arabic) and insist instead on “Merhaba”, oblivious to its Arabic origin. They do not respect the culture which brought them beautiful mosques, gardens, homes and art – their culture is concrete apartments, satellite football and Raki.

Like their disrespect for their heritage they show how they do not care for their land. All around, the ground is little with cans of Efes Pilsner. The streams sourced by natural springs are filled with detritus, plastic bags and cigarette packets. Beneath a sign which reads, “Water gives life, do not pollute it,” the earth is hidden beneath more cans of beer. It is true that the earth will cleanse itself – when the snow comes in a month’s time the streams and land will be washed clean again by the melt that follows it – the huge boulders strewn across this landscape witness to the power of these waters when they come. But how will the people cleanse themselves when they have lost respect for their heritage and their land?

Yesterday, however, I caught a glimpse of another Turkey; one that has been shielded from me since I first set foot in this country. A young generation of Muslims exists after all and I detect an inkling that there is a living Islam out there. The stagnation and opposition I have seen thus far is only one face of this once great Muslim land. A cause for optimism at last.

Question of Fiqh

I am a little confused after attending the midday prayer at the mosque today. I arrived early and waited inside for the call to prayer. As it was read a fairly large congregation of elderly men arrived and we did the four sunnah prayers before the actual midday prayer. I haven’t developed the ability to pray at the speed of light like my Turkish brethren, so I finished later than them. I looked around me and noticed that everyone was doing more prayers; I thought at first that they were doing more sunnahs, for I know the Turks are keen on them. Then it dawned on me – everyone was praying his own midday prayer because the imam had not turned up. This seemed strange to me because I am used to someone else being appointed to lead the prayer in congregation in the absence of the imam, say at home or at a gathering.

Afterwards a man approached me to speak to me. I decided to ask him in my very basic, broken Turkish why they did not pray in congregation, to which he responded that there was no imam to lead them. He then asked me a question which I could not understand about Turkish, English and the words of the prayer. I went home perplexed.

Not long afterwards I took my wife to see the gentleman so that she could translate his question for me. It turned out that he was asking in what language I pray – whether English or Turkish. My wife explained that as Muslims we all pray in Arabic – which means that I can walk into any mosque in the world and still take part in the proceedings. My wife then asked explained that I had been asking him why they did not pray in congregation. He explained that no one felt he knew what to do exactly and that everyone was worried about incurring a sin from doing something wrong during the prayer; therefore everybody did his own individual prayer. I suggested that they should ask the imam what they should do in such circumstances the next time they saw him, to which he responded that the imam did not know anything. Finally the man advised me that on prostrating in prayer, my hands should be placed beneath my cheeks with my thumbs either side of my nostrils and not as I have been praying for the past seven years. The reason for this, he said, being that I could block my nostrils if I suddenly got a nosebleed during the prayer.

Does any of this have a basis in Hanafi Fiqh? RSVP

A life for a life

Apparently the loss of British life is only a tragedy if it is a means of scoring points against Islam. If ever we are unfortunate enough to mention our faith or to walk to the mosque for prayer, our socialist companions remind us that Muslims blew up three tube trains and a bus in London on 7 July. I point out that the leftist PKK blew up British citizens only a few days later; apparently this won’t be condemned with the same ferocity – instead they are silent. Much is being made of the bombings in the Turkish press for it suits their agendas like it does our companions’ – they suffer from selective sympathy and the inability to harbour equal sorrow for all victims of violence. In making their cheap political jibes they forget that Britons have experienced thirty years of terrorism at the hands of the IRA and that Londoners were the target of a white supremacist who planted nail bombs in the hope of sparking a race war much more recently. Were the lives of the victims of these attacks worth less because the perpetrators happened not to be Muslim? They also ignore the fact that July marked the sixtieth anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the tenth anniversary of the slaughter of 10,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. Are Muslims peculiar amongst humanity as perpetrators of extreme violence? The answer is no of course; the last century and the beginning of the present one have been marked by extreme violence – wars on massive scales, the development of the most terrifying weapons ever conceived, the extermination of whole peoples, torture and terrorism. If the lives of all innocents killed in this chaotic madness are not considered to be of equal worth regardless of who they are or who killed them, we ourselves begin to slide into complicity. Our horror, sorrow and anger no longer stem from our reaction to the inhumanity of others, but from on whose side we are on. Let the Turkish chauvinists reflect.

In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

If only we dwelled on this. Would there then be any of this chaos? In the Name of God, not in my name or your’s. If we reflected, would men of religion cut down innocents with explosives, thinking their deeds are good?

Dignity

While we stood in the car park at midday, we saw the real display of dignity. A Muslim taxi driver had stopped his car just as he exited the round about, got out and was standing with his head bowed next to the door in the middle of the road. There he remained for the next two minutes as cars worked around him. An island amidst the chaos.

In defiance or indifference?

We observed the two minutes’ silence today collectively as an organization, standing in the blazing sun in the car park. I feel sad and distant from my colleagues at the moment. They talk about these event momentarily, but the happy, jolly mood prevails, as if nothing has happened of significance. I hated some of these people as they stood out in the car park, laughing and joking merrily until the clock struck twelve. Two minutes without words, though all the cars but one continued their journeys onwards. No sooner were the two minutes up, however, and a bunch of fools burst into laughter, the usual suspects with their self-centred nonsense. I returned inside in silence, lamenting the hideous hypocrisy. For the past week I have been wandering around, fearing that our time is up in this country. That we have reached the end of the road. The Reichstag has been torched, thus the pogroms begin. But looking around me, I doubt this now. These people are indifferent in extremis. Like my journey in East London two days after the bombings, the people did not look sad; quite the contrary, it was business as usual, smiles on a thousand faces. Journalists are calling it defiance; I would call it something else.

I arrive at work just after 8am

Today the news about the suspects has reached the world and the conversation in the office when I arrive is all about Muslims. They did it because it is part of their faith. Sinking in my seat I keep my head down. Now is not the time “to come out”.

Grammar

My wife is stranded in London, so she’s gone to wait with a friend. She has an appointment in the morning so she can’t stay overnight. I leave home at 8.30, clear roads all the way, from this hilly valley to those towers of concrete. Indoors we’re all glued to our TVs. Few cars pass me all the way. I arrive at 9.20 just in time for Maghrib, gliding through the ghost town. I tell my friend I’m disgusted by all this – I say I know our thoughts should be with the victims, but I can’t help praying that the perpetrators are anarchists or something. My friend says they are – but he is using it as an adjective. I want it to be the noun.

Distraction

Work goes on. I’m asked to attend a meeting in the afternoon. We’re discussing the implementation of Choose and Book in our GP Practices. I’m with them at first, but my mind begins to wander. I am sitting at the back of that now mangled bus. I’m on my way to work, minding my own business, lost in my own world. There’s a bag left underneath my seat. I look to my left and right, I assume it belongs to one of my fellow passengers, but I don’t ask them. Perhaps they’re wondering the same thing. But we all mind our own business; we always do. I’m not in my meeting now. They’re speaking but I don’t hear them. I’m in that bus and it suddenly explodes and what is the end for me? I feel sick. I can see those poor souls as their bodies are torn to shreds by a bomb beneath the seat. Their last moment gone before they could even see it coming. The shock jolts me back to my meeting. I was supposed to be taking notes, I’ve missed the conversation, it has passed me by. Did the people who did this never visualize that moment as I did in my meeting? Did they never imagine that when they planted their bombs? Could they have done this if they had? I feel like I’m going to be sick, but I block it from my mind. Back to Choose and Book. When we leave the room we are told that we have been officially stood down. Crisis over. But I still feel sick.

Sincerity

Islam teaches that actions are only by intentions and everyone has only that which he intended: ‘Whoever’s emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry then his emigration is for that which he emigrated.’ Therefore sincerity to God is the key to faith in Islam. Believers are asked to ensure that all acts of worship are done exclusively for God’s pleasure. When actions are only by intentions, it means that deeds are only acceptable and rewarded if the intent behind them is sincere, although sincerity does not change the nature of forbidden actions.

Where a person’s intention is to show off, their acts of worship may be nullified. The greatest action, such as feeding multitudes of the poor, could be reduced to nothing because one’s intention was to earn a good reputation. Yet, at the same time, even the smallest action can be made great by the intention behind it. Good intentions are not spoken for they are matters of the heart of which God is well aware.

Inter-faith Dialogue

If dialogue is to be of any benefit we should set aside philosophical debates on our approach to different faiths and come as we are with a view to first understanding what we each – as faith communities – believe. I have encountered time and again Christians writing about Islam with no real knowledge of its basic teachings; and, yes, Muslims writing on Christianity in a similar manner. The question of forgiveness is a key example, many writers convinced by the notion that Christianity exclusively amongst the world religions has addressed the issue. The opinion of the prominent evangelist associated with the Alpha Course is just one example amongst many.

Perhaps understandably, authors often view the beliefs of others through the prism of their own theology. As a result Christians are concerned about salvation to such an extent that they view its absence in other faiths as a great oversight. Salvation by good works, for example, is a Catholic concept, for Muslims do not believe that humans are by nature fallen and thus do not seek salvation. Instead, good works are undertaken for the pleasure of God, who loves goodness and beauty. We also believe that we are not judged by the deeds themselves, but by the intentions behind them. Thus one could feed the poor seeking people’s good opinion and it would not be of benefit at all. Yet sin is addressed by Islam, with a huge emphasis placed on forgiveness; it just happens to be a practical step, rather than a metaphysical one: ‘as long as you call on Me and hope in Me, I will forgive you whatever comes from you and I do not care.’