Denial / Defamation

When I embraced Islam in 1998, one of the first pieces of advice I received from Muslim friends was to learn the names of three people, and then stay far away from them. They were Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri and Abdullah Faisal.

A few months after that, I received an angry email from my father, demanding to know whether I had passed his email address on to a group of Islamic extremists. He had received a mass email purportedly sponsored by a vast array of Muslim organisations which told him to convert to Islam or face the consequences. I most certainly had not passed his email address on to anybody and, glancing at the other email addresses – other public figures in the church – I surmised that his email address had simply been harvested along with others from Christian websites.

My father was a Canon at the time and in charge of all of the lay preachers in his diocese. Rather distressed by my father’s anger, I showed the email to a fellow student who had been involved with Hizb-ut-Tahir a few years earlier: he told me about Omar Bakri, the leader of al-Muhajirun, characterising him as a nutcase, and advised me that none of the organisations listed at the end of the email actually existed. The man, apparently, had a habit of making up names to make his little band of followers efforts seem more credible.

They plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. How little their trust in God: believing they had to send shocking emails to Churchmen, as if God could not guide members of their family without their intervention – like the arrogance of the Christian Right who rejoice in a Pentagon-led Armageddon, as if they can dictate their Creator’s timetable.

Over the next few years we heard a lot from the trio I was told to avoid. Around mid 2000, a close friend of mine found himself the focus of attention of an evangelical Christian colleague who spoke frequently of Islamic extremists in our midst; her husband worked for the Police force and apparently had much to say about Muslim radicals. Tired of her constant bombardment, my friend asked her to ask her husband why Abu Hamza was still free to preach despite frequent complaints from the Muslim community at large. That was a question that was never answered.

To be continuously told by the government, media and senior Police officers, therefore, that the British Muslim community is in denial about the existence of extremists amongst us is quite hard for me to grasp. The warnings I received were not from lapsed Muslims who were happy to compromise their beliefs for political gain, but from practising, active individuals. Prior to the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, I listened to many Muslims lamenting the authorities’ refusal to deal with people well known to be creating community tensions. Indeed, witnessing this laxity, some members of the community even began to entertain conspiracy theories about these free men. The Muslim community complained about their outrageous statements and the authorities appeared to do nothing.

No, I don’t believe the Muslim community is in denial about the threat of extremism. Taking issue with sensational investigations in the media in not indicative of a culture of repudiation. There are good reasons to oppose the trend of smearing individuals and community organisations – even if we may not like these people very much personally. Just because others say jump, it doesn’t mean we have to. Our criteria should always be truth and justice. Not accusation and innuendo.

Storm in a tea cup

Much ado about nothing, I say. Before we can draw our team brief to a close this morning at work we have to cover preparations for Christmas Dinner. It’s all going swimmingly until the organiser thinks she should inform us of a problem. Apparently a certain employee upstairs cannot attend because it has been booked in a pub and her beliefs stop her from going to pubs. She’s a Muslim. That causes a few raised eyebrows and laughter. Someone points out that if it was a restaurant, they’d still be serving alcohol.

I start sinking in my seat, burying my eyes in the table top. The organiser adds, actually the lady in question wasn’t bothered too much, that it was another member of staff who was worried about it on her behalf. Who’s attended Equality and Diversity training, asks our Director, what should we do? My Manager starts saying that we should have thought about this. Yes, they agree, but now what are we going to do about the lady upstairs? Will we have to cancel our booking and arrange something else? I could easily say something – suggest that I’m sure she’s not even bothered about it – but I’m staying out of this one.

Except I’m not going to be allowed to let this pass me by; I’m about to be outed. We should have thought about this from the start, says my Manager, she’s not the only person in the organisation who wouldn’t be able to attend for that reason. There are at least two people affected. Who, asks the organiser, you don’t mean X (the Indian woman upstairs)? My time has come. I think she means me, I say, and all eyes are on me, a look of horror on six of the faces. Tim’s a Muslim, my Manager tells them.

Faces are red. It probably wasn’t the best timing; after the words exchanged moments earlier. Never mind, my Manager’s brought me in. So yes, I tell them, it’s true, I am a Muslim. Personally, I tell them, I wouldn’t go to the pub either, which is why I excused myself from attending. I don’t expect them to change their plans on my behalf. I appeal to the memory of my Methodist grandfather who similarly excused himself from alcoholic gatherings. I explain that the lady upstairs probably isn’t worried about the matter at all and wouldn’t expect anything to be rearranged. I point out that last year’s storm about a council allegedly banning the word Christmas in case it offended Muslims had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but was the product of some well-meaning official. And I say, yes perhaps my faith has implications for them when it comes to organising social functions, but I am not guilty of keeping a secret any more than they are; none of them had told me they were atheist, Catholic or whatever.

After the meeting my Manager sends me a one line email:

Tim, I didn’t mean to embarrass you in the team meeting. Sorry if I did.

I tell her not to worry about it, but I send an email of my own to my immediate colleagues, my Director and the organiser of the Christmas Dinner.

Dear all,

A clarification on today’s revelation during team brief… It is indeed the case that I am a practising Muslim – as I have been for about a decade. This was a personal choice, following a period of searching prompted by the discomfort of being the only agnostic in a very religious family – both my parents are Anglican priests.

I really don’t have a problem with people knowing that I am Muslim, but I did make a conscious choice when I started this job not to publicise it widely given the prevailing political climate. I am sure it won’t have escaped your attention that my religion has been receiving a lot of negative attention over the past few years, particularly after the massacre on the London transport system in 2005. Having experienced colleagues making wild assumptions about me because of my beliefs in past roles, I felt that silence was the best option. Thus I disappear off at lunchtime to do my prayers and make excuses for not coming to the pub with you.

I do not expect you to make alternative arrangements on my behalf. Generally I do not sit where alcohol is being consumed – partly for reasons other than religion – which I guess is rather an anathema at Christmas time. But don’t worry about it. At the end of Ramadan, I had a lovely Eid celebration – I don’t feel I’m missing out. Others may feel differently, but that’s my personal take. If in doubt, talk to the people concerned – whether it is someone with health issues or specific cultural needs.

Apologies to anyone who thinks I should have been more open about my beliefs – but you know the English way; we tend not to broadcast our beliefs. Hence I never knew that David is a Jedi Knight.



Almost straight away, my director responds.

Tim, I apologise if you were put in an embarrassing position this morning. As a PCT I hope we are sensitive to everyone’s beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to think of everything so I was appreciative of your understanding. Please don’t hesitate to come and see me if there is anything you want to talk about.

The organiser of the Christmas Dinner writes to me to say she’s sorry I won’t be attending, but now she understands why. Meanwhile, my colleague writes:

Good clarification, thanks Tim. And there’s nothing wrong with being a Jedi Knight! It is an official religion on a number of planets I visit as an ET Technical Projects Manager, including:

As for the conversation which sparked gale force winds in our best china: a colleague of the lady in question casually mentioned it in passing that she would have liked her to be there for Christmas Dinner. The individual organising the dinner became very worried after this, even though the lady explained several times that she did not celebrate Christmas and did not feel left out at all. Having explained that she did not want any plans changed on her behalf, she left it at that. She tells me, “It’s all a storm in a tea cup.”

The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

My first Ramadan

January 1998: this was my first Ramadan, half a year before I came to believe in Islam. It was an experiment, an experiment that went badly wrong. Around November I had stopped eating pork, telling everyone who knew me that I didn’t like the taste. The first phase of my experiment. In the popular vocabulary of the non-practising Muslim it is said that eating pork makes you unclean. So my first hypothesis: if I stop eating sausages, bacon, ham, gammon and pork chops it will make me a better person. No luck there for the selfish idiot remained; but I sustained the boycott any way. I persevered, just as I did with the Bible when I hoped to discover my handed-down faith.

Christmas came and I returned home, eventually. All of those questions I had to ask, but which I didn’t have the courage to articulate. I sidled them away instead. I was too embarrassed to ask that most fundamental question, for it was the pillar of our faith. Perhaps things would make more sense, I thought, if I knew that crucial answer. “Who is Jesus meant to be?” “He’s the son of God.” “Yes, but what does that mean?” No one ever answers in definite certainty. My holidays over, no questions asked, no questions answered, I returned to London with a prayer. A prayer for guidance and a prayer for help.

But a prayer in private, though I had no religion, somehow felt like hypocrisy. Like mocking words, I thought I should prove my sincerity. So Monday morning, breakfast early, I prepared myself to fast. One day became two, and then two became more. Dawn until dusk, a secret fast, concentrating and focusing, fighting to honour God. Wednesday, words recited all day, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful…” All day and an animated prayer at midnight. No religion, but imagining I was getting there. Thursday feeling focussed, then discussions about my thoughts. Twice in the evening, finally a late night, all night talk; admissions and confessions, and advice given, “Just keep on reading.” Friday morning, two new books, perspectives by non-Muslims. Now a final, smashing blow, from a Christian perspective on Islam, everything I came to know crumbled to the ground. Little trust in the words, but the fragility of my faith seemed an indicator of my error. No more prayers, just anger, and the buds of faith diminished like cities to dust.

No sleep in the night, I felt foul, perhaps deluded. As though I had committed a crime, I was distracted. No thoughts of God, I just felt angry, hoping that the night would take me away. The following day, nowhere to turn, a confession had to come. A telephone call home, itching conversation, my semi-confession at last arose. How I had been studying the Bible, attending church, trying to understand. How I had been reading, but none of it made sense. Genuine questions, full truths, but only half the story. Please explain this and this to me, I don’t understand this and that. Surprising acceptance, but no answers, more mysteries and confusion. Got the problem off my chest, but wondered how on earth it would help.

Fasting because of habit now, no more prayers to say, even my unreligious belief in God was quickly dissolving away. Down to the bar, I may as well drink; didn’t, but I thought about it. Hiding away from my advising friend, telephone switched off, smoke-screen around me. Off-putting characters making me detest what I respected, though perhaps that was only an excuse to justify my failure. Searching for the truth, I only learnt to despise my open mind. Midday Friday, the second week, my fast ended with a Mars Bar eaten, hidden in the Brunei Gallery. But by that time, already, the fast meant nothing at all. All faith had been crushed and destroyed, and not even a thought of God could be found. Fallen further than before, my faith was lost and gone.

Q / (1 + exp(a (t – year)))

At work I am involved in the local implementation of a complex government-driven national computer programme. In my particular region, every surgery and health centre has been kitted out with the latest technology, delivering over 300 new PCs, 50 printers and 20 servers. The aim of the national programme is to connect thirty-thousand doctors to three hundred hospitals for the benefit of patients. The goal is to create an efficient patient-centred health service, wherein high quality information is shared effectively between different teams and organisations.

Without a doubt, these are all very admirable aspirations, but there is a question which keeps on recurring in my mind… “What happens when the oil runs out?”

I’m not being funny — although whenever I ask this question at work, I find myself the immediate target of mockery. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?” a colleague asked me sarcastically, prompting those around us to snigger at my ridiculous statements. I am the irritating voice in the office who must always inject a historical or futuristic reference whenever some piece of technology is not working exactly as it should. I have the misfortune to sit beside the noisy, clunky photocopier and am thus the first recipient of the expletives when the paper jams again. “I hate this thing,” is a frequent refrain; “This Bloody Machine” another. As I sidle across to assist the huffing and puffing victims of copier fart, I cannot help asking — as I retrieve the crumpled rogue sheet from flap five — how we got by in the olden days, why everything is such a hurry. The last time I told a colleague who was lamenting how long it was taking for the machine to wake up from its power-saving slumber that at least waiting on a monk with a quill could have been worse, the “you’re an idiot” glare was useful confirmation that my “it’s not that bad” optimism is getting on everyone’s nerves. Still, whenever there is a problem with the computer network and patience begins to fray, I continue to ask what we are going to do when the oil runs out.

No, I’m not being funny. I’m serious. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?”

Well yes, in a way. The American Chemical Society ( estimates that the construction of a single 32MB DRAM chip uses 1.5kg of fossil fuels in addition to 32kg of water, while the production of one gram of microchips consumes 630g of fossil fuels. Most of the keyboard, mouse, CPU case and monitor is made from plastic, which is a polymer derived from oil. It is estimated that the construction of the average desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels, while the US Environmental Literacy Council ( states that the energy used in producing ten computers is enough to produce a car, largely due to the purity and sophistication of materials required to produce microchips. All electrical devices make use of silver, copper, and/or platinum, each of which is extracted, transported, and fashioned using oil-powered machinery. The production of one ton of copper requires the equivalent of 17.8 barrels of oil, while the energy cost component of aluminium is twenty times higher. In other words, the production of computers is an extremely energy-intensive operation throughout the cycle.

Take yourself off to the website of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas ( and sober up. While I am sure that everybody is aware that oil is finite resource, what this means hasn’t really hit home yet. Every time we hear that production is peaking we learn that a new oil field has been discovered and so we relax; it seems the oil will just run and run. Last time I was in Turkey I met a BP engineer heading off to Trabzon. My wife laughed: there’s no oil down there. “Oh yes there is,” he replied with a smile, on route to his connecting flight. Out on a rig in the Black Sea, off the northern Turkish coast, they are drilling for more black gold. Why don’t the scaremongers just quieten down? Probably because they are right. We don’t know when the oil will run dry — in 1956, Marion King Hubbert incorrectly forecasted that world oil production would peak at some point between 1993 and 2000 — but we can be certain that it will. Hubbert was correct in his prediction that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s.

Some reports now suggest that the peak of oil production — which coincides with 50% depletion of our oil endowment — has been superseded and we will therefore begin to see production levels drop my 3% each year. Thus oil production in 2020 is likely to be equal to that in 1980, although demand for oil will significantly outpace production due to population growth and more widespread industrialisation. As CEO of Halliburton in 1999, Dick Cheney stated that, “there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.” Andrew Gould, CEO of the oil services firm Schlumberger noted: “An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption.”

Those who only consider the implications of a decline in the production of oil in light of our transportation and energy needs, must awake to the realisation that petrochemicals are actually key components in a vast array of applications, from the production of medicines to the distribution of water, and from the creation of plastics to the production of food. Indeed, in the case of the latter it is estimated that industrialised societies use 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten. In addition to the energy used in farming, transportation and packaging of the food we eat, oil is the building block of many related resources. Pesticides are made from oil, for example, while fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is derived from natural gas.

We are running, but where are we going? The growth in the popularity of consumer electronics in recent years has brought with it an acceptance of planned obsolescence and the perpetual upgrade, without any real appreciation of the implications. Last year’s status symbol was the Apple iPod, this year’s the Sony Walkman phone, next year’s the portable PlayStation? We move from hyper-threading chips to dual-core offerings within a matter of months. The traditional conservative approach towards electronic equipment (such as the Hi-Fi and TV) that anticipated longevity has largely been superseded by the idea that a product will need to be perpetually upgraded (mobile phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players). Computers are vulnerable to this idea on two fronts: aging hardware and new versions of software. Indeed, the two link together in a perfect marriage: as computers get more powerful, so does the software, the next generation requiring ever greater hardware specifications. The result, unfortunately, is the creation of huge volumes of waste and consumption of limited resources. We know that much of this is unnecessary, but we just accept it as a fact of life. It is said that most of the consumer-level problems with computer software are not inherent in the technology. Rather, they are the consequences of user-hostile business models, which see the perpetual upgrade as its primary source of revenue.

But where are we heading? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (, which was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, concluded that human activities threaten the Earth’s ability to sustain future generations. The way in which society obtains its resources is said to have caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth, and it is believed that this will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare. Its authors say the pressure for resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth; fisheries and fresh water, for example, are now well beyond levels that can sustain current demands. Thus the report suggests that society must alter its consumption patterns and promote better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.

We can communicate across continents in an instant for free, sharing files, sounds and video at ease. We can calculate financial forecasts faster than ever before using metre-wide spreadsheets with thousands of entries. We can share our thoughts with strangers in far-off lands. Our Doctors can view digital X-Rays on their computer as soon as a fracture has been photographed in a hospital twenty miles away. Software logarithms can now identify cancers within a CAT scan without human intervention. Technology is shrinking the world and allegedly speeding life up. Ears plugged into the iPod, eyes fixed on the computer screen, we are racing onwards as never before. But where are we going and what are we doing? My question is serious: what will we do when the oil runs out?

Those who are studying peak oil are not speaking about the last drop, only the downward slope of the bell curve. When demand outstrips supply, they say, the economy as we know it will probably collapse. And what will we do when that happens? How will we live?

Slow down. Learn how to live. Learn how to survive as those before us did. As another writer noted recently, some of us don’t know how determine when it is time to pray because we have become dependent on computer generated timetables. Some of us don’t know how to determine whether Ramadan has arrived because we are dependent on someone telling us on the phone. We have entered the on-demand age of e-Government, e-Banking, e-Commerce and e-Support, and we are apparently more connected than ever before. But do we know how to cook “real food”, or grow some vegetables, or conserve water and heat? Do we know how to conduct business? Do we know how to survive in the post-oil age?

It is possible that this apocalyptic vision is an exaggeration of our future reality – a dystrophic apparition more akin to that old film entitled Mad Max. I have read that scientist are developing new plastics based on polymers derived from corn and that theoretically circuit boards could be printed on sheets of lasagne pasta. Perhaps by the time oil is seriously on the decline, we will have developed efficient renewable sources of energy, or Mr Blair’s nuclear programme will be well under way. Perhaps today’s silicon based computer chips will have been replaced by organic processors. Perhaps the future will be rosy and my concern is misplaced. Perhaps.

But as we march onwards at an ever increasing pace, and I am invited to upgrade my computer and mobile telephone, to buy an MP3 player and download the latest version of Microsoft Windows, that question just returns. Our resources are finite: about this there can be no doubt. Isn’t it better that we slow down and question where we’re going? That we ask now, before it is too late? I think I can get by without an iPod. What about you?


The Friday prayer is meant to be a joyous event in the Muslim week, something which we are all obliged to attend as one of our religious duties. So why do I leave feeling so irritated, so unrefreshed? It is alienation. More precisely it is the use of language. Ours is a diverse community: while the majority of Muslims in our town hail from Pakistan, we have a population deriving from several continents. There are West African, Malay, North African, English, Bengali, Turkish and Arabic Muslim families living here. We are a diverse community, but all of us who do not speak classical Urdu (including a significant proportion of young people with Pakistani roots) are cut off from our faith week after week.

I believe that the Imam is a good man – I have listened to the sound of his oration and it is clearly lyrical, inspiring those who understand him – and I know the situation in our mosque is much better than so many other places throughout the country, but the language barrier really troubles me. Today I watched him as he smiled with amazement at the story he was telling about the Prophet, peace be upon him, his congregation repeating, ‘Subhanullah‘ over and over. Those who could understand him were clearly inspired, smiling too and nodding their heads – but there were many of us looking bewildered because we seem to be unworthy of benefiting from his sermon. It was just at that moment that my irritation peaked. Why do we have to put up with this week after week?

It is not that we have a large immigrant community that has only just arrived, for which excuses could easily be made. The first generation has been living in the town for over forty years – as one old man proudly told me when he mistook me for an East European upstart who had to be told his place. Personally I’m quite a patient individual, one who believes that change will come: it’s only a matter of time. I have moved to this community having experienced the ethnically-diverse, cosmopolitan mosques of London and have had the opportunity to witness the behaviour of Muslims from a wide variety of backgrounds: thus I’m hardly going to be attracted by extremisms and strange ideologies. But what of younger folk who haven’t been around all that much? Could we not say they are easy prey for eloquent speakers – no, not even eloquent speakers: just people who simply speak their language? I think we could.

I am not calling on people to abandon their rich lyrical heritage – a dear friend of mine often opined how English poetry paled beside Urdu verse – only to recognise that the common language of the land in which we live is English. We live in a multi-cultural society and this works both ways. The town council and local health service provide translations of publications and interpreting services, recognising that our population is linguistically diverse. It is time that the leaders within the Muslim community recognised this too. After racial tensions in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, many within the British establishment realised that something had to change, that accommodations had to be made. The result has largely been good, whatever the current retractors may claim. It would be nice if the leaders in our community learned something from this experience.

As an English speaking Englishman in England – not to mention an English Muslim who believes that the majority of Muslim values happen to be traditional English values – I fear I may be about to lose my patience. All I want is to be able to attend my local mosque on a Friday afternoon and be able to understand the sermon. Is that really too much to ask?

Changing Times

Weblogs have come under quite some fire recently in the newspaper I regularly buy. Janet Street-Porter‘s comment last week was followed a day later by an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. In both cases their generalisations are quite amazing. For me and many others this medium is a mere tool.

Continue reading “Changing Times”

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

Fatwa on Terrorism

Defending The Transgressed By Censuring The Reckless Against The Killing Of Civilians

“To put it plainly, there is simply no legal precedent in the history of Sunni Islam for the tactic of attacking civilians and overtly non-military targets.”



Today’s Guardian carries a story about the tendency amongst the ordinary man to believe in conspiracy theories, in this case focusing on the mass murders on the London transport system last July. Muslims are not alone in harbouring this tendency – the book Londonistan by a famous British commentator describes a vast conspiracy in which you and I are set on conquering this land against the back-drop of a liberal, anti-Semitic media agenda – but there is no denying it exists amongst us.

When in the afternoon of 11 September 2001 our production manager at work informed us that somebody had flown a plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, by initial foreboding thought was that Muslims were involved. I wasn’t aware of the scale at that stage: in my mind I had the picture of a tiny single-prop Cessna and the memory of the 1993 plot to explode a bomb underneath the towers. When I returned home that evening and saw the images on the TV news, that initial reaction changed. Overtaken by emotion, I was almost physically sick, the repeated images burning my eyes, and I could no longer accept that initial conclusion of mine. This wasn’t the action of a single nutter, incinerating himself as his plane disintegrated as it crashed through the windows; here was a calculated, co-ordinated act of extreme brutality in which two commercial jets had been flown with absolute precision to their destination, massacring a civilian population. As one who had looked into the concept of war in Islamic Law, which prohibits any action that would cause harm to non-combatants – even to the extent that Muslim soldiers may not interfere with fruit trees – I could not accept that Muslims were responsible.

So when an ordinarily sensible brother sent me a link to an article on a website entitled “What really happened?” I, like many other otherwise intelligent Muslims, found myself clinging to alternative theories and the many questions. It didn’t help that the media had been reporting ridiculous stories about the terrorist mastermind’s passport being found in the rubble of the World Trade Centre, not to mention the “Smoking Gun” video featuring the fat Bin Laden. For a couple of months I was scouring the web for “the truth”, looking for evidence that “we’d been set up”. Much of the speculation was clearly detritus originating with right-wing Christians, Milleniumist, Messianists, Supremacists and others united on pro-gun, anti-federal government, anti-UN and anti-Semitic politics, often with strong views about a move towards one-world-government and a new-world-order. Whackos in common parlance. Still, the doubts remained and all of us wanted to prove that Muslims had no part in that horrific act.

Along came the declassified document concerning Operation Northwoods which had been published on the National Security Archive‘s website in 1998 and featured in a CNN documentary on the Cold War in the same year. Contained within this 1962 document entitled Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba were various proposals or outline plans that could be used to garner public and international support for US military intervention in Cuba. The suggestions included staging sabotages and sinking an American ship at the US Military Base at Guantanamo Bay and blaming it on Cuban forces, hijacking civilian planes, sinking boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba and setting up terrorist attacks in Washington and Miami, blaming it on Communists. Unlike the wild speculation of the internet’s gathering of eccentrics, most of whom had their own quite unpleasant agendas, here was a genuine declassified document which could be viewed independently of the united anti-something extremists. However unlikely it was that the actions of 2001 were part of some grand conspiracy on the part of the US government, this document was evidence that a precedent of past intent existed. Somewhat naively I wrote to Jon Snow at Channel 4 News, pointing him towards the National Security Archive website.
He wrote back, telling me that he would look into it. A week later he went off to New York to see the devastating carnage first hand where he would have concluded – as I did later – that Northwoods was just a long forgotten historical document. Soon afterwards Channel 4 broadcast a documentary debunking 911 Conspiracy Theories.

Over the years since then I have received my fair share of emails exploring one alleged conspiracy or other… cruise missiles disguised as passenger planes, passenger planes fitted with the same technology that controls the SkyHawk drones used to assassinate suspected Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Yemen. But I’m an isnad junkie who likes to trace these kind of emails back to their source – those claims about computer viruses that not even the best brains of Symantec, Norton and Microsoft put together can fix have taken their toll on me – and so most of my friends have learnt not email cynical Tim. Occasionally I revert to thinking that things may not be as they seem, but I’m generally no longer interested. And in any case, we believe in the Day of Judgement when all truth will be told.

When the massacre occurred in London last July, I managed to avoid the conspiracy theories for a whole week. Most of us had been saying for ages that it was only a matter of time before one of the crazies in our community did something like this. Indeed, after the Madrid train bombings I found that even I was looking at my fellow passengers suspiciously on my way to work. So when the explosions occurred last July, I desperately hoped it was the action of extreme Anarchists timed to coincide with the G8 Summit, but I somehow knew it wasn’t. I work in the National Health Service and, although I had moved out of London a month earlier, our organisation was put on standby for an evacuation of injured people as London hospitals filled up. The initial estimates of number of dead were scary, far outnumbering the eventual death toll. All normal work ceased as we went into emergency response mode.

For the days that followed I was extremely angry with the perpetrators. Selfishly my initial thoughts were around how I would have felt had it been my wife who had been cut to pieces. Selfishly my thoughts were about how until a month earlier, that shattered Edgware Road train took me to work every day. And selfishly my thoughts were about this spelling the end to Muslim life in Britain. At work uncomfortable comments were being made about Muslims all around me. But then somebody sent me a link to an article about Peter Powers’ walk-through of a simulated terrorist act which had bombs going off simultaneously at the same stations that had been targeted. It was not long before I was listening to ListenAgain on the BBC website, catching his comments on Radio 5 Live. Soon I was saying to my friends, “things may not be as they seem”. But probably they were. Thank goodness we believe in the Day of Judgement.

Perhaps conspiracy theories are convenient for us, helping us to avoid taking ourselves to account. Seeing a plot were there is none – almost to the point wherein the plotters are considered omnipotent – is considered preferable to putting our house in order. But, to be fair, there are some quite valid reasons why many of us chase after alleged conspiracies from time to time. It is not always tired anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism as is often alleged. It may just be that we know the current state of our community too well. Al-Qaeda is seen as a ruthlessly efficient operation, but we know the state of our mosques whose members often cannot organise themselves well enough to clean the toilets properly. A key characteristic of Al-Qaeda operations is said to be the use of synchronised bombing, and yet we live in a community famed for its laxity around punctuality. So bad are we that lateness is the first non-sunnah a convert pick up when becoming Muslim. Sleeper cells are apparently able to launch operations on their own, and yet we have difficulties taking the initiative to clean the dishes left in the corner from iftar a year ago. I am being cynical, I know, but these are the kind of things that cross our minds every time we hear of these complex operations. But maybe this is just our ignorance.

There have been occasions when I would have been happy to believe in some of the conspiracy theories knocking around out there. The one-world-government new-world-order theory that makes much of George H. W. Bush’s speech on 11 September 1990 has its appeal: why get out of bed in the morning when you know that everything is being controlled by an all-powerful group of individuals. Unfortunately, although its origin lies in fundamentalist Christian eschatology, Muslims are buying into what is at root a nationalist ideology. With each act of barbarity that seems to be the work of Muslims, some sort of need to explain it away arises. Seeking out conspiracy theories is the easy response, but we are people of truth… and if we do not know where the truth lies, we rely on our Creator with who lays all truth. On that awesome day which will last fifty-thousand years, all truth will be made apparent. Thus in this age of confusion, we bide our time clinging to the Book of Allah and the way of Muhammad, peace be upon him. It is our only means of success.

Muttaqeen (4 Cs)

This comes from a friend of mine…

I read recently in the Quran where God describes the muttaqeen:

PICKTHAL: And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off (evil);

PICKTHAL: Those who spend (of that which Allah hath given them) in ease and in adversity, those who control their wrath and are forgiving toward mankind; Allah loveth the good;

PICKTHAL: And those who, when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins – Who forgiveth sins save Allah only? – and will not knowingly repeat (the wrong) they did.

PICKTHAL: The reward of such will be forgiveness from their Lord, and Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide for ever – a bountiful reward for workers!

But not having the memory I once had, due to frying my brain daily in front of a VDU, I thought of words to summarise the ayahs. Here they are, please have them tattooed on the inside of your eyelids:

  • Charitable
  • Composed
  • Clement
  • Contrite

I thought if I can try to act on these daily then maybe I can too be counted among those being referred to.

char•i•ta•ble adj.

  1. Generous in giving money or other help to the needy.
  2. Mild or tolerant in judging others; lenient.
  3. Of, for, or concerned with charity: a charitable organization.

com•posed adj.

  1. Serenely self-possessed; calm.

clem•ent adj.

  1. Inclined to be lenient or merciful.
  2. Mild: clement weather.

con•trite adj.

  1. Feeling regret and sorrow for one’s sins or offenses; penitent.
  2. Arising from or expressing contrition: contrite words.

Blessed are the Peace Makers

I am really quite tired of being bombarded with propaganda set on defining for me the realms of civilisation. We want “civil” in that word to refer to courtesy and politeness, but we know that it doesn’t. Instead, our dictionaries describe civilisation as an advanced stage or system of human social development. Of course, for us, politeness is a characteristic of advanced human social development, as is honesty, sincerity, kindness and generosity. Yet what it actually means in practice is something quite different. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, uses it to describe that same group of nations which make up the G8. Thus that constant bombardment of ideas.

But I am troubled. Why are the civilised nations spending so much on weapons? The United States of America’s Department of Defence alone – excluding research, maintenance and production – had a budget of $437.111 Billion in 2004. While it is true that US expenditure accounts for only 4% of Gross Domestic Product, as compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10% as the world’s ninth largest spender, its 2005 military budget was still greater than the combined total of the next 27. Interestingly, the United Kingdom – tiny beside the US, China and Russia – spends almost as much as Japan and only slightly less than Russia and China: something like $50 billion. The joint expenditure of these self-described civilised nations is 57 times greater than the combined total of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, and contributes to two thirds of the total expenditure of the entire planet. In the case of the US, these figures exclude their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan which are funded outside the Federal Budget.

Why are the civilised nations spending billions on killing machines, on developing the most hideous weapons ever conceived? Consider the BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan. This is a 15,000 pound bomb based on explosive sludge which is dropped from high altitude, producing a massive flash visible from long distances and intense boom on impact, destroying an area between 300 and 900 feet radius. Or consider Fuel-Air Explosives which disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by an embedded detonator to produce an explosion, causing high overpressure. And I am not even mentioning nuclear weapons. What kind of mind could conceive of such weapons, and what sort of nation would fund them?

Blessed are the peace makers, says the Bible, for they shall inherit the earth. A time comes when we must realise that the labels assigned by those around us are worthless. Spending $500 billion – even $50 billion – on a war machine is not indicative of advanced human social development. Far from it. Let the primitive nations rejoice. Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall inherit the earth.

Jihangir’s Beacon

At the end of the summer last year, we spent our days between visits to a clinic in Jihangir, Istanbul. While its views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn beyond were stunning, I was not too keen on those streets. In this secular quarter and haunt of expats, wine shops outnumbered grocery stores. In the rising heat there was often an unpleasant smell, for the area’s pet owners would not clean up after them. These streets had a continental European feeling to them and indeed conversations in French, German and English were often within earshot. Pehaps Jihangir’s most famous resident is the writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose apartment I always passed on my way to the mosque. My heart in Istanbul lies in a place inland called Gunesli – it is not beautiful, it does not have grand views and its residents are far from rich – but in its huge mosque in its centre into which pour local shop keepers for every prayer, there is a sense of iman. Jihangir is a place without spirit, a pale imitation of a Parisian street, losing itself in Efes Pilsner.

But on Fridays, a beacon lights on that hillside overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The adhan calling me from Jihangir’s eroding minarets, I would wander down the road to join my jamat. Nobody ever looked at me and stared, for in this land of different hues, nothing indicated that I was an Englishman. Sitting on the carpet, the sun streaming through the open windows, the voices of foghorns down on the water below would greet us. Seeing young men entering in droves through the antique doors was a true delight, having recently returned from Artvin Province where the toothless, grey-haired ones dominated the mosques, though even they were small in number. These youthful faces were not locals, but came here for employment: my visits for Asr and Maghrib met with an elderly jamat numbering no more than five.

With every period of darkness, when my life seems so distant from the Prophetic ideal, I recall that beacon on the hillside. In the midst of despair there can still be light. And where did that beacon lead me? Warmed by dhikr after jummah, refreshed and renewed, we packed up and moved on to Gunesli, where salams are exchanged on its streets.

My Chains

Here are some words from a great Muslim of the past that describe exactly what is happening with me. Last week I made a resolve and already I have slipped. And that argument with my nafs goes on, each day with another twist. That novel of mine is one of the chains. I know what I must do, but my attachment remains strong, even if for a while I think I am moving on.

“Still a prey to uncertainty, one day I decided to leave Baghdad and to give up everything; the next day I gave up my resolution. I advanced one step and immediately relapsed. In the morning I was sincerely resolved only to occupy myself with the future life; in the evening a crowd of carnal thoughts assailed and dispersed my resolutions. On the one side the world kept me bound to my post in the chains of covetousness, on the other side the voice of religion cried to me, “Up! Up! Thy life is nearing its end, and thou hast a long journey to make. All thy pretended knowledge is naught but falsehood and fantasy. If thou dost not think now of thy salvation, when wilt thou think of it? If thou dost not break thy chains today, when wilt thou break them?” Then my resolve was strengthened, I wished to give up all and fee; but the Tempter, returning to the attack, said, “You are suffering from a transitory feeling; don’t give way to it, for it will soon pass. If you obey it, if you give up this fine position, this honorable post exempt from trouble and rivalry, this seat of authority safe from attack, you will regret it later on without being able to recover it.”

Tanzania 1996 – part 2

On Tuesday 9 July 1996, we flew from Dodoma at about 7.30 in the morning to Musoma, with a stop at Arusha to pick two other passengers up. Taking off from Arusha the surrounding landscape was filled with lush vegetation, including Banana Palms. Houses were round with cone-shaped thatched roofs, grouped in twos and threes amongst fields. Soon, a wider, scarcely populated and dry looking plain came within view. From our height, vast folds and ridges were clearly visible down below. We passed over what I presumed were volcanic craters and then past a huge volcanic mountain. The Serenghetti was invisible to us as we passed through heavy clouds above it, but closer to Musoma we could see Lake Victoria. Its vastness was even greater than I had imagined, as we swung around over a small section of it, ready to land at the airport.

Another of my uncles met us at the airport and drove us to his home. Later in the day, he took us to the diocese headquarters, where he worked, and met the Bishop of Mara, whose home we then visited for coffee in the evening. The Bishop’s home was very close to the shores of Lake Victoria and his family kept a cow and chickens out back. He seemed like a very good man, well suited to his role.

On Wednesday we went on Lake Victoria in a motor propelled fishing boat. Out there we saw such a diverse range of wildlife on the islands we encountered. Up on a tree-top we saw a pair of Fish Eagles with white heads and black bodies. Later we watched a Monitor Lizard sunning itself on a large rock by the water for a short time, before it disappeared off into some undergrowth. We saw hundreds of birds that looked like cormorants and we even watched a couple of shy monkies drinking at the lake side where the forest ended abruptly. Some of these islands were nothing more than huge boulders rising out of the lake, while others had a scattering of plant life, ranging from several varieties of grasses through to tall palms. Some islands still were almost entirely forested. In some places, fishermen had set up camp under rocks; in others, people were doing their washing by the lakeside.

On our return we went to visit the building site of my Uncle Les and Aunt Lyn’s new home, overlooking the lake. That evening we walked down the road to a hotel a few miles away for supper. We set off at six thirty, arrived at seven, but did not eat for over an hour and returned home just before ten. The culture shock experienced as we went inside felt unreal. In the heart of this modest neighbourhood was a marble floored hotel, with tinted glass windows, stainless steel chairs, Victorian style curtains and decorative wood carvings. After a delicious meal, they arranged transport to take us home. It had seemed like a strange development at first, but perhaps I had got too used to beans and rice, and baki soup. Perhaps I had just got used to concrete floors and fly-screen windows.

On Friday we spent the morning at a nursing home for babies, almost next door to the house that was being built for Lyn and Les. At any one time the home was looking after 30 children who had lost their mothers. Often the father would bring the child when his/her mother died in childbirth. The visit left me feeling sad one level, but at least the children seemed to be in good hands now. The buildings were very new and had good facilities, but there was concern that interest from those who were financially supporting the home would fade in time, as had happened in other places.

In the afternoon there was a celebration for my cousin’s first birthday and he was clearly happy to have even more attention than usual, with a few of his siblings’ young Tanzanian friends joining them for the party. Jelly and ice-cream seemed to be a strange concept for Tanzanian children, although they had no difficulty in gulping down glassed of Coca Cola, the international drink.

After a week in Musoma, we left at half past eleven on Saturday morning in the little MAF plane. The flight was quite turbulent due to the rising head of the midday air. Passing across the clear sky, we looked down on the Serenghetti with its scattered human settlements and over Lake Eyasi. After an uncomfortable landing back at Dodoma, we had lunch with a MAF employee before travelling on to Kongwa. It was good to return once more and I was glad to see ‘my bed’ again. Sunday, however, was my last full day there. I needed to have a good talk with my aunt and uncle who had accommodated me all those weeks, for they had noticed by anger and I had to assure them that I was not angry with them. I was not a happy fellow in general in those days for I seemed to slip easily into depression, but this anger was different somehow. I had all of this anger directed at the world, both from my experience here and as a result of listening to the news. The IRA had bombed a shopping centre in Manchester during my stay, a Tamil Tiger had blown herself up in Sri Lanka, news arrived of continuing sectarian abuse in Bosnia and these people reminded of the massacres in Rwanda only a few years before. I was angry too about being here now as a tourist. It was true that all of us had experienced much more of Tanzania than the average tourist would have since we were travelling far from the tourist trails. This was not four days on Safari in a National Park and three days at the beach, and so it was not fair that my anger seemed to fall on my family. But that anger remained because I just could not balance the conflicting sides of life.

Yet, although my anger was undoubtedly unpleasant for those around me, I felt soon afterwards that these were important emotions to experience. It was a learning process for me. Phyll advised me that we have to find a way of living at a comfortable level, knowing that there will always be conflicts between the two worlds: we have to live in a way that ensures that we stay healthy, she said, and in a way that makes us believe that life is worth living. She told me that some mission partners came out and tried to live along side the people as far as possible, but then their children would become ill and they would never return. She believed that a balance could be found, wherein it was possible to live in a way that the individual felt comfortable with. Being able to contribute in a positive way towards the community was perhaps better than trying to live just like the community, she felt. For my part, I felt that I would not accept this cultural divide as part of life at that point, believing that I needed the anger to keep my concern alive.

When I finally rested my head on my pillow that night, I could hear people singing, clapping and whooping their voices in the village. It sounded like a happy night for some people and although I did not know the real reason I pretended that they were wishing me a happy last night in this place. I praise the my undefined Lord for giving them such beautiful voices.

On Monday morning we left Kongwa at just after ten, travelling east towards Morgoro. We stopped to eat our packed lunch at the memorial site of Primeminister Sokonie, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1984, on this same stretch of road. When his car crashed on that straight stretch of road he had been investigating corruption in the government, and so rumours were rife. As a member of the Masai tribe, Masai people have started settling in the area ever since his death. As we sat there munching on our sandwiches, a Masai man appeared and stood still watching us. Shortly afterwards, more young, very tall Masai men joined him, one of them holding a black plastic radio close to her ear. Dressed in traditional black robes, they asked the other man where we were from and he replied ‘Uingereza.’ It was an African Safari in reverse.

We continued on towards the Mikumi National Park through Morogoro. When we first entered the park we saw the charred forest on either side of the road where there had recently been a bush fire and there were still clouds of black smoke rising over a hill in the distance. As we drove onwards, we encountered wild animals close to the roadside: deer, elephants, warthogs, zebras, giraffes and a lone gnu. Taking a path away from the main road at half-past four, we watched hippos bathing in a water-hole, giraffes in the bush and some huge birds called Ground Hornbills. In the evening we stayed at the Mikumi Health Centre, its guest wing established to recover costs for the Health Project.

On Tuesday 16 July, we arose before dawn and went out in John’s Land Rover into the heart of the magnificent landscape. As the sun began to rise in the east from behind the hills, a low mists hugging the ground, we saw zebras, giraffes, elephants, tommies, gnus and buffalo in great numbers. It was a really special time. We remained out there for three hours and then returned again after breakfast to see baboons playing on the plain near a lone gnu and others in a group under a tree.

Driving in a more forested area, amongst long grasses, the most numerous animal population we encountered however was that of the Tetsi fly, as they swarmed on the car and annoyed us when they got inside. The forested valleys were impressive, although we did not see any animals as we passed through them. Still, for the remainder of the day we saw many strange birds including a breed of eagle, some type of pelican and a colourful little bird called a Lilac-breasted Roller.

Late in the afternoon we drove into Morogoro for an overnight stop, staying at the Masuka Village Hotel. I was glad of a shower that I did not have to prime with a hand pump or improvise with a plastic jug. I just turned on the tap and let the water flow over me: what a luxury. I went to sleep that night to a less than tuneful frog chorus. The following morning we left Morogoro early and started on our way to Darussalam. The coastal city was as busy as ever and just as hot.

Arriving at the White Sands Beach Hotel, located beside the ocean, I was feeling uneasy again. The immense luxury contrasted once more with my experience up until then. On the one hand I knew that I should have been encouraged that the hotel was Tanzanian owned and thus our stay fed into the economy, but on the other I had those images from the villages in my mind. I knew that tourism was a resource that could be exploited for the benefit of the country, but still I felt uncomfortable. My cynicism back then was probably misplaced, for Tanzania had a target to receive 50,000 tourists each year by 1998, earning the economy 500 million US dollars every year.

During our stay, the hotel was hosting practices for ‘Miss Tanzania 1996’ and a conference on eradicating poverty. The staff were all very friendly. I would say shikamoo and they would reply. I had to apologise that my Swahili was not very good of course when they tried to engage me in conversation. And so they would chat in English instead. Those were happy memories for me. When I greeted them in their language they seemed to treat me quite affectionately. The Indian Ocean was warm and the wind was far from cold.

My seven weeks in that beautiful land came to an end on 19 July 1996. The Zairean band Wenge Musica BCBG was staying at the hotel that day in preparation for their tour of Tanzania. These band members all looked very cool, very rich and had the characteristics of any Western R & B group, with their close shave hairstyles and designer sunglasses. The restaurant was filled with businessmen at lunchtime; I could not help noticing that almost without exception Tanzanian businessmen were well built, not at all like the slim men in Kongwa. On that last day, I was walking around as if the world was about to end. Tanzania had felt very homely, as I had grown used to life there. I knew I was going to miss the country, despite those angry moments. Shikamoo was a blessing for me: it served that role that salam alaikum fulfils today.

At the door I greeted the doorman and then said goodbye. We drove out to the airport and checked in for our flight. My time in that beautiful yet so struggling country was over.

Tanzania 1996 – part 1

My journey to Tanzania on 1 June 1996 was the first time I had travelled abroad alone and I was apprehensive about the journey. When my plane touched down in Darussalam on a very warm winter’s evening there was some sense of relief, although I suffered from nerves which made my passage through customs uncomfortable. Sweating in the unexpected heat, I was greeted affectionately in the airport lobby by my Uncle John and Aunt Phyll who were happy to see me at last. That night we slept in the Catholic Secretariat beneath mosquito nets, the song of insects outside cheering my arrival.

Darussalam was bustling on Sunday morning, a scene far removed from the sleepy Sabbath days of suburban England. Warm conversation greeted our arrival in town, a Tanzanian at the telephone kiosk asking if we were German until he realised that he could engage Phyll with Swahili chit-chat. After a phone call home, we were soon on the road again, heading out of the coastal town in John’s white Land Rover. All along the edge of the potholed tarmac road, salesmen could be seen selling every conceivable ware: bananas, bricks, Coca Cola, clothes. Into the countryside, their numbers lessened, the stalls replaced by fields, homes and forest. Out here the vegetation was lush and green, revealing banana palms, coconut palms and even rice on the low river fed fields.

We stopped for lunch in Morogoro, 2000 feet above sea level, at the New Green Restaurant. Though there was a short rain shower during our stopover, the vegetation was not as fresh here as it had been towards the coast. The journey onwards was long, for we were heading far into the interior where the land was dry, the earth dusty and the plants pale in colour, but the smooth road afforded us some comfort. To our left and right, graceful mountains rose out of the plain, each one veiled beneath a layer of trees. Forty kilometres from our destination, we finally cut off the good road and took to a dirt track across Kongwa Ranch, passing through Kongwa town and then the village between it and St Philip’s Theological College. After a full day travelling, we arrived at our destination at six in the evening.

The Iona community (in whose company I lost my faith years earlier) out in the Hebrides Sea thousands of miles from here was famous for its African choruses: I used to love those atmospheric gatherings in the Abbey. Yet those Celtic renderings of Swahili verse paled now, as the native voices rose into the heavens from the evening service in the white-walled chapel. Those songs were my welcome to this college in the heart of Tanzania. I loved John and Phyll’s flat at the head of the road: its views were spectacular, while its architectural style appealed to me. I slept well that first night on the campus.

The following day was a national holiday in honour of the five hundred people who died in the MV Bukoba ferry disaster on 20 May. So many young students had died that day when the boat sank on Lake Victoria as they travelled homewards following the public examinations. All around there was a sense of mourning. It was a sad day, but at the time I considered it a blessing in a way: it gave me pause to reflect on our own approach to death. This was before the death of the Princess of Wales and that very public outpouring of grief, real or imagined. It seemed to me that death was not a taboo as it often seemed to be within our own culture: a taboo which seemed to leave behind so much pain as the consequences of loss and sorrow were hidden away. I wondered whether the source of this was a greater appreciation of life and death. In the afternoon a service was held in memory of the mother of one of the college workers, who had just died after suffering from Tuberculosis. In England in our era, we do not know of TB, polio or pandemic flu and the survival rate of children is good: and so death is perceived differently I believed. As the departed soul was remembered in the chapel, beautiful African hymns were drifting through the air once more.

I was getting used to life in that at first unfamiliar landscape, although it was not a life I had ever experienced before. Following the red soil paths around the college, I came across giant Baobab trees and Philippine Leucaena for the first time in my life. Wandering further, there was the national grid transformer, but it was not yet connected, so the private diesel-generated electricity came on at half-past six in the evening and went off three hours later. It quickly struck me how much we take for granted in our resource-on-demand culture. By my third day in that foreign land I was already feeling humbled.

Despite my own shyness, everyone I met seemed to be extremely friendly and kind. A young man called Yohana brought me his school exercise book one evening in an effort to help me grasp his Swahili tongue. Everyone I met on a personal level was welcoming and yet that paranoid discomfort remained. Travelling up to the capital, I interpreted faces and eyes in my own way, worrying about those glances from strangers. Dodoma was hot and dusty, its climate distinct from coastal Darussalam, just like Ankara compared to Istanbul. John was visiting the bishops at the Cathedral and so I spent the day wandering around the town with Phyll. In that suffocating heat, a chilled bottle of ginger beer was most welcome, but it did not set my mind at ease. I was a self-conscious visitor to that magnificent country in 1996. I was anxious about the European Colonial past and about how I would be perceived in that now independent land. What was I to make of the glances of the people I passed by? These were amongst my thoughts throughout my stay as a white-faced guest in a proud African state.

Friday 7 June was the last day of the semester and it ended with a service of Communion in the chapel. Stuttering with broken Swahili I found myself standing before the happy congregation with words of introduction. ‘Habari,’ I asked, what news?

‘Nzuri,’ came the chorused reply – good.

I went on to tell them with rehearsed lines that my name was Timotheo, I was from England and the nephew of the Principal. My pronunciation was clearly hilarious for there was laughter all about me as I went on. Still, the chapel filled with applause when I ended. With the arrival of the holidays, the students were clearly overjoyed, for they left the chapel in enthusiastic song, their swaying close to dancing. Left behind, it was a kind of boost for me: my shy insecurity had given way to a moment’s confidence and I felt a sense of self-satisfaction. Two days later I would repeat my wee speech in front of another congregation in a half-complete church in the village.

The following day I studied Swahili without break and finally came across some advice in my textbook which I wished I had encountered earlier:

In Tanzanian culture there are conventions about who is the first to speak. It is usually the person of lower status who greets the other person. A stranger entering a village should greet the villagers who will then welcome him. These are conventions that should be noted, for the visitor will feel unwanted because nobody speaks and everyone looks unwelcoming, likewise the villagers may misinterpret it and feel offended because he is wandering around in their territory without even having the decency to make himself known to them. It is important in Swahili culture to greet people properly. A smile or a mumbled word is not sufficient and it is considered rude to ignore people.

I had a lot to learn. Indeed, when I was caught making biscuits in the kitchen in the middle of the week it provoked a number of questions. This was woman’s work I quickly learned and, while my eccentricities might be tolerated here, I was told that I would be chased out of town in Musoma, where a man who enters the kitchen is considered the lowest of the low. Still, my detractors enjoyed the ginger cookies anyway when they settled on the cooling rack.

It seemed like I would never get used to being a member of an ethnic minority. Saturday 15 June was no exception. Receiving visitors from England, John had agreed to take them up to Mpwapwa in the college Toyota, which although just over the hills behind us, could only be reached via miles of potholed dirt roads around the range of hills. The distance was shorter than that between Kongwa and Dodoma, but the journey took twice as long. Fatigued by that rough drive, I felt miserable again once we arrived. As a stranger pulled on Phyll’s bag, some men sitting nearby laughing at the sight, a crowd of men at one end of the central building called out as we walked past. A little while later, the man who had grabbed Phyll’s bag returned and began shouting at us. We wazungu (Europeans) seemed to be unwelcome there and I was happy to return to the suffocating enclosure of our car. The experience left me feeling depressed, demeaned, rejected and threatened, and possibly for the first time in my life I discovered what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism, if only for an hour or so. On our way into town, it had seemed so pleasant – people smiled and waved and so I waved back – but as we went further through Mpwapwa and up towards the new Cathedral that was being built, my mind was on our return. The Cathedral looked impressive, with spectacular views over the plain, but I did not appreciate it after our passage through the market. My mindless depression dominated the magnificent view.

Yet for every encounter with strangers and my perception of it, my meeting with individuals seemed to throw doubt on my previous conclusions. Tuesday 18 June was a day of conversation, which in those days came as quite a shock given my frequent reversion to silence. From next door came the Rwandan sisters, intent on bringing more Swahili through my lips. I suppose my lack of words was quite an aberration in this land. After lunch I ventured down the road to the student accommodation closer to the chapel, where I met three trainee priests: Amon, Suleman and Mote. Mote Mgombe had excellent English and thus acted as an interpreter between Suleman and myself: Suleman explained that they had been expecting me to visit and that not visiting would usually be interpreted as a sign of hostility. Taking his obvious upset to heart, I found myself visiting almost every day after that. Although we were talking together in a mixture of Swahili and English, it did not stop us delving into unfamiliar territory, with Amon leading us into realms I had always considered taboo.

Amon was pale and not in particularly high spirits since he had just been circumcised. Although circumcision was not the norm in his tribe – and his operation was motivated by the love of a woman – the other students were bemused by my culture’s attitude towards it. At the time I was equally bemused by theirs. They told me that the government had recently passed a law to prevent female circumcision, which various tribes had previously justified on the grounds of tradition, religion and superstition. Some people, they told me, even suggested that it was necessary to suppress desires that lead women into prostitution: given my own cultural background this concept did not sit well with me and I ended up asking questions about equality and gender dominance, which did not find an answer immediately.

When our neighbours arrived, Amon and Edita began speaking in a language that did not sound like Swahili and turned out to be one of the 126 tribal tongues of the country. Against this backdrop, Mote was very keen on explaining why the existence of a unifying national language was so important. Even within each of the 126 different tribes, the individual languages were subdivided into multiple dialects, making natural conversation between different groups awkward.

After some time, Mote and I left Amon with the girls, wandering off to his room to continue our conversation there. He struck me as a very open minded and well read individual. Now that we had one another’s full attention, he wanted to take me up on the questions I had been asking earlier. He had no problem with the question I had asked, he told me, but the way I had asked it posed a problem. Tanzanian tribes were not unique, he said, in having defined traditional roles for men and women, but my worldview prevented me from accepting this. While Mote was able to approach the question from different angles, I found myself locked upon the only path I knew, adamant that these values transcended all boundaries of nation, race and class. So Mote talked about how women rose at five in the morning and worked through until ten at night, just to keep the home under control, but he neither praised this nor dismissed it outright. By contrast, I was convinced that with roles so rigidly defined that a man must stay away from home-making chores, an oppressive environment was in the making. Thus I ranted about women not being consulted in their futures, about how men make war and then sit and argue at the peace table. My views were not going to shift.

The following day, Edita sought my help with her English studies. Without a strong foundation in English grammar myself, I found it difficult to explain the rules of my native language. Swahili, by contrast, had structure at least, and Edita was the more successful teacher when she turned to advising me on my new tongue. In the afternoon I met with the students again along with one of Mote’s relatives. When this fellow had to depart, we walked with him part way towards his home, as was the tradition there. Then, returning to Mote’s room, we sat discussing music, since this seemed to be integrated into their whole existence.

In my presence they demonstrated how their fine choruses emerged, flowing from deep within their hearts. The result was moving song that made my spine tingle. Together they explained that the rhythmic words arose spontaneously as an element of their Christian worship. These were hymns for the sake of worship, they claimed, not for the sake of tradition. They said that their tribal rhythms and collage of voices sometimes moved people so much that they turned to Christianity through listening alone. Although he was out of practice, Mote had a real talent on the guitar, his fingers achieving such diversity of rhythm. When I returned on Thursday, I arrived armed with a compact tape recorder with which I captured eleven of their songs. Most of them were songs of Christian worship, with the exception of my favourite, Tanzania ni nchi nzuri (Tanzania is a very beautiful country) and a love song, Nampenda Coletta (I love you Coletta). The high of my new found friendship was welcome, but perhaps it would not last so long.

Friday 21 June was one of those days of emotion. At quarter past nine in the evening, a very sick child was brought to Phyll as the doctor on the campus. In her mother’s arms, she was sick, her worried father looking on, and Phyll gave her some kind of injection. It struck me as a strong reminder of how fragile life is and how precious all people are. The previous night the father of one of the night watchmen died of illness, and now there was this sight of a hopelessly weak child. All I could do was pray. I did not know what the illness was, or how serious it was, but the concern that I saw in Phyll’s face after the family left told me that this was a delicate situation. I felt sad realising that this family was lucky in being able to see a doctor and I wondered how many other families would go without health care at a time like this.

So that night I prayed, seeking the aid of our Creator. As an agnostic at that time without the strong faith of my family, it was something that did not come from me easily: but the sight of that poor little girl prompted me to take the only action that was within my grasp. I did not have strong faith because I believed in sincerity: my life was full of doubt, actions and thoughts that would please no one, and so I thought that my prayers would be worthless to a generous God. Writing my journal the following day, I wrote about how it was sometimes easier to pretend that I was lazy and to stay in bed, than to explain my real reasons for not going to church. I did not think that anybody really understood or tolerated that, but to do otherwise left me feeling like hypocrite and extremely uncomfortable as a result. But still, after the family left us that night, I turned and prayed to God.

With genuine concern and real sincerity, I prayed in the darkness until I was too tired, begging for an answer well into the night, asking that the little girl would be blessed and return to health. Were my prayers answered or was it just the dowa (medicine), I asked the following day? I did not know, but hearing news of her recovery, I decided not to reject my initial reaction: that someone up there had listened to me. I had friends who would have laughed at me because of that, but this was not about my friends. This was about the fact that I was brought up with faith and yet had been struggling to find it for myself for the previous four years. I did not know if I should read unnatural reasons into what I encountered, but sometimes I believed so strongly that there was something guiding me. I found myself in the heart of Tanzania with a group of Theological students who despite myself had offered me great friendship. I found myself listening to their beautiful choruses and gripped by discussions about how the church should act in our world.

In my diary I wrote that I could not help my beliefs and fears. I could not help it if I seemed to keep what I believe very private. Some people have very strong faiths, I wrote, but I supposed that I was not one of them. I found it very difficult, but religion kept on confronting me and good Christians kept on reaching out to me, whether here in East Africa or on that remote island off the west coast of Scotland. Writing then, I thought that I might be searching all my life, but said that I would not give up. The previous day I had seen a vomiting, dehydrated child. Today she was looking so much better and was eating at last. I wanted to praise the Lord for that.

On Saturday, Phyll was required to put stitches into a little boy’s head, after the college’s head driver apparently hit him for poking a pig with a stick. The boy was the son of the head driver’s next door neighbour, who was also a college driver. Seeing the blood running down his face, the boy’s mother cried that if her son had killed the pig she would have paid for it, ‘but how would he pay for our son?’ When the man appeared to show no remorse, the boy’s parents decided to involve the Police, but the following day we learnt that the head driver had suddenly fallen very ill.

With the start of a new week, we climbed up the hill behind the college again, following the same route as the spring trail to begin with but then veering off in another direction. We eventually came to a halt on some open ground around three hundred feet above the campus, taking in a spectacular view of the plains in the distance and the hills beyond. After staying there for a little while, we followed another path further up the hill that was used by the charcoal burners. Almost at the top of the hill there was a stone lined pit which acted as a charcoal oven, the ground all around it littered with small fragments of the blackened wood. In all these villages, charcoal was sold as fuel for cooking and that tasty smell used to hang in the air all the time,

So close to Rwanda and Burundi, news from those two tiny countries was always relevant within Tanzania. On Tuesday 25 June the BBC World Service reported that a Burundi delegation was meeting in Arusha to discuss what neighbouring countries could do to prevent genocide like the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Here in Tanzania I had met refugees from that sad land. Our neighbour was already a refugee from the previous upheavals in Rwanda in the 1960s, but in 1994 she lost her mother and sister to the killings and now looks after her sister’s daughter. I was immensely touched by the great strength of these people. While I found myself with tears when I thought of all the pain and suffering that had has risen from that slaughter, these folk explained that their Christian beliefs allowed them – people of two fighting tribes – to come together in work and fellowship, and to avoid conflict. Never in all my life had I encountered such strength after such heartless pain.

With my parents and my sister due to arrive in Tanzania imminently, we left Kongwa at ten in the morning on Monday 1 July. The landscape seemed much drier and dustier than it had been when we drove across it a month ago. The view travelling east was stunning, much more so than when travelling west from Darussalam, with fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us. Away from Kongwa and towards Morogoro the land looked very fertile, the ground dark brown unlike the red sandy dust of Kongwa. The closer we got to the coast, the greener the land became. On our way we encountered a group of baboons running across the road. We bought bananas and sodas for lunch while we travelled, and a young boy sold us hard-boiled eggs when we stopped briefly later on.

Along the route there were skeletons of tankers and trailers every so often, with all of their valuable parts stripped away and taken for rebuilding. We arrived in Darussalam in the middle of the afternoon. The streets were busy and here I encountered my first African traffic jam. It was good to feel the heat in Darussalam for Kongwa has been getting chilly. Tucking into chicken and chips – a welcome change to red beans and rice – we had our evening meal at the very modern Jungle Café. We were staying in the Catholic Secretariat again because the hotels were too expensive for us, two poorly paid missionaries and a student. I found myself doing nothing but listening, for the city sounded busy: jet aircraft flying low over the roof top, police sirens wailing in the distance, trucks rumbling past outside and voices in Swahili. Seeing these people rising early and up until well past dark, I wondered if Tanzania ever rested.

Travelling though the city streets, I loved a lot of its architecture, even if much of it seemed to be decaying, with Arabic and Asian influences seen all around. I thought that I would like Zanzibar because I loved the Indian-Arabic style of architecture. Most people in Darussalam lived in modest houses, however, some in concrete five storey flats. The old, impressive buildings were mostly government offices.

We collected my folk from the airport late into the evening on Tuesday after a busy day in the city. We had spent the morning shopping and attending to business, passing some time in the library at the British Council where I wondered whether I had stepped into another world. It was a smart building with a neat garden and was very nearly silent. The streets outside were crowded with salesmen, and there I bought a couple of bootleg cassettes featuring Lucky Dube’s latest album for 1600 shillings (about £2). Later on we spent the afternoon at the Bahari beach hotel. Phyll told me that they used to feel as I did, arriving in that luxurious setting after a month of simple living, but they had overcome the feelings of guilt, recognising that everybody deserves a break and a treat sometimes.

Construction of big houses along the road out of town towards the hotels was underway, in the new expensive suburbs of Darussalam. Upon the verges along the roads there are men making cement building materials, such as building blocks, decorative cement fencing and castings. This was a city alive in trade and enterprise. At every set of traffic lights people would run up to the car to attempt to make a transaction. I liked Darussalam a lot, for it seemed to be a cosmopolitan place. While there would always be the turning of heads as we walked on by, this city was an open place not at all like Mpwapwa. Where the crowds were smaller and people looked my way as I approached, I would utter those words Swahili folk use to show their respect. Shikamoo, shikamoo, all day, to these people in their beautiful country.

Our return to Kongwa came on Wednesday, with a journey that seemed much longer than before. Just as we had done on my first trip, we stopped in Morogoro for lunch and to do some shopping. My mother ventured into the market with her sister and my sister to buy some food for the coming week, and returned with expressions of joy written upon their faces. They loved the atmosphere, their reaction just more confirmation that my own pessimism was rooted in paranoia.

During the week that followed, I felt that things were changing. With the arrival of my folk, the Swahili lessons ceased, while Mote was now occupied preparing for a relative’s wedding. Something had changed. By Sunday 7 July, something was bothering me. It may just have been the news on the World Service, which made me rather depressed as I imagined the picture rather than writing the stories off as mere statistics. I saw the image of a Tamil Tiger rebel in my mind as I heard about her on the radio; she had blown herself up as a human bomb. And then I read in the Weekly Guardian newspaper about the murder of a Muslim woman in Bosnia. I thought about it and I wondered how anybody could be so evil. The world depressed me because I knew that I was helpless to stop the selfish, ignorant hate.

That day I wondered how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the energy to continue their battles for justice and peace when bad news just struck me down. The massacres were not statistics: no, my mind was overflowing with hideous images of bodies and the faces of victims. I lamented that there was nothing that I could do and I wrote that my illness was seeing reality. Oh, the power of the media: perhaps my weeks without the newspaper were preferential.

Still, I introduced my parents and sister to the congregation in church that day, greeting the people first in their own tribal language and then continuing in Swahili for no more than two minutes. After lunch we walked through the village and along a dry river bed. Still insecure, I felt uncomfortable walking through the settlements uninvited, but continued onwards with my family nevertheless.

The next day we returned to the capital, Dodoma, in preparation for our flight to Musoma early on Tuesday morning. We went for a walk in the evening from the airport and MAF compound to the Post Office in Dodoma. Alas I still could not get used to the laugher accompanying the finger-pointing and cries of wazungu as we passed by, and I was left feeling angry. I began ranting about the wrongs of racism and the insincerity of those who could only see one kind of racism. Looking back on my journal entries I am amazed to read my thoughts from that time and how I joined dots that may not even have been there, to the point that I was launching into tirades again the gesturism of the anti-racism movement.

For some reason I suddenly had all this anger. I found myself unable to balance the struggle that I had encountered over the previous month with our new-found holiday intrigue. For a month or so I felt I had been living a life, but now we were marching around in our brand new boots, VCR in hand, snapping the sights with our automatic camera. I did not want to regurgitate my experiences on my return into a five minute sound bite about how this year I ‘did’ Africa and how splendid it was.

This was my first visit to a poor country in my life: prior to that I had travelled abroad in Europe and to New England in the United States of America. Nothing had prepared me for Tanzania and I found myself completely off balance. I knew that the purpose of holidays was to have fun, but I did not know if I had the right to have fun here when I saw people walking barefoot, carrying buckets of water on their heads. Did I have the right to have the time of my life, I asked myself, when life seemed to be a privilege for many people here? We were staying in one of the poorest nations in the world and we were viewing it on the liquid crystal display of our video camera.

I think I can still understand the discomfort I was feeling a decade ago, even as I deride the immaturity of the writing that journal of mine. I had had a very sheltered upbringing and I was suddenly in the midst of a whole new world.

The journey onwards… to be continued.

10 years ago

Ten years ago I spent forty-one days in Tanzania. Some memories…

Darussalam at sunset.

The road out of the college where I was staying in June 1996: Kongwa, Dodoma province.

Elephants on the plain at sunrise.

Kongwa at sun down.

Coarse words

There is a particularly coarse post out there in blogland by a convert to Islam about the alleged intrusion of those who ask, “Any passengers?” / “Are you expecting?” / “Don’t worry, I’ve known so many couples in your situation.” In my experience the people who ask these question are genuinely interested and / or possibly concerned, but well-meaning regardless. I certainly have never thought them to be nosy. For most people my response is a reaonable, “Insha Allah.” Occaisionally there are faint tears. But never would I harbour malice laiden grief against them. Really, the Muslim is one who should see blessing in these people’s words. A sadaqa for them or for you. These aren’t excuses to curse our friends and family. For us it is a reason to be patient, which is a sadaqa for ourselves. It is also a reason for us to be grateful to them for even asking, which is another sadaqa for ourselves. So alhamdulilah is the best response, not coarse words, not malice.

A journey

It may be that there is some naivety in my Islam, it may be that these are my Meccan years, it may be that I am just a literalist. Still, I take these words to heart:

Abu Musa said, “I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, whose Islam is best?’ He said, ‘The one from whose tongue and hands the Muslims are safe.’”

Many – more learned that I – mock this simple faith of mine. Conditions are placed upon those words: the tongue is loosened for those perceived to be heretics. Before the accusing finger is pointed towards the Salafis, let us be honest and recognise that this tendency exists in many a group. I have just read an article by a self-defined traditionalist whose words were remarkably similar to those of the commentator who did not think much of my call for unity. Each is convinced that they alone have grasped the true interpretation of Islam, and so all without may be classed as deviants, who then fall outside that realm where we are commanded fair speech and forbidden name-calling. Disappointment. That’s the word that comes to mind so frequently. People of knowledge from whose tongues we are not safe. Perhaps this is just the naivety of my Islam, perhaps I am a literalist.

No doubt this is part of the reason I made that resolve – mentioned in my last post – this weekend. I plan – if Allah wills – to learn Arabic now, so that one day I may kneel at the feet of the people of isnad and ijaza: clearly I cannot take this deen from anonymous essays and public web logs. Only then will I know whether I am truly naive or an idealist instead. But for the time being, until I get there, you will just have to bare with me as I hang on to the words of our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, as I read them in English translations available to me (fear not: the Muwatta, Riyad as-Salihin and Al-Adab al-Mufrad lie within my grasp). So this simple faith remains, with my literal readings of “speak good or remain silent”, “your mother, your mother, your mother”, “the one from whose tongue”, “this brotherhood of yours”…

A stranger wrote some words for me yesterday that struck a chord:

For myself, my journey began on these reflections.. though blessed with a family and community of Muslims, something was lacking.. the frequent quarrels, petty back talking, etc i witnessed between Muslims and even at the masajid made it obvious that something was missing… and soon i was on a search for something greater… and that was the “Prophetic Character”, as i realised that truly that was the foundation of Islam.

Yes indeed. This is what I seek too: the Prophetic Character. This stranger went on:

So my search began to find the scholars who called to Allah with the display of the Prophetic character, following the footsteps of the noble prophet (peace be upon him) building solid communities based on firm and pure hearts.. who went on to call the masses to the deen with the precious light that emitted from the very inner fibres of their beings…

For me the journey will be long for language is not my strong point: only Allah knows whether I will grasp that foreign tongue and unfamiliar alphabet. But it is a journey I realise I must undertake, for though my knowledge now is little, already I well know the gems of the Prophetic Character in those few words I have learned from their renderings into the English language. This is a journey I must undertake myself. It is my heart and my soul that seeks redemption after all. So I realise that I must go myself to seek knowledge. I have done the bare minimum for the past five years, but my soul tells me that this is not enough. I do not wish to become a scholar or a sheikh. I merely wish to redeem my soul, to put the confusion behind me, to live as our blessed Prophet taught us to. Nothing more than that.

I only want to live a good life and perhaps, if Allah wills, embody however faintly the light of Islam.

My Heart

On Friday evening I came across an article which really resonated with me. I wanted to contact the author, but I decided to sleep on it first, to mull over my thoughts. This was an article in which the author wrote about what traditional Islam meant to him. Part of that description included this sentiment: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…”

It resonated with me because for weeks now I have been thinking of a faraway place I passed through last summer. It also touched me because there is a part of me which does not sit well with the modern age. Throughout my teenage years I was something of an eccentric. While my friends were interested in mountain bikes, football, Nintendo and Baywatch, I was a dreamer. I yearned after a romantic past, of a wood-framed house surrounded by the cottage garden, of self-sufficiency, spring-fed waters, of the homestead farm. I would sketch out my rough architectural diagrams of my self-build Tudor house. My favourite book as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy: I imagined I was Almanzo and I dreamed of living my life as he had all those years ago. Later – this probably led to my eventual arrival as a student of development studies – my attention turned to sub-Saharan Africa. An article about life in Burkina Faso inspired me in a way you could not imagine.

With the wisdom of age, of course I now realise that all those dreams were indeed for a romantic past. The reality of life is that it is hard: inoculated from birth against mumps and rubella, and against tetanus, living in an age protected from TB, and able to access an education from the age of five to twenty-one, we forget the realities of existence in different times and different places. Still, that was my dream and an element of it remains with me even today. Something has been bothering my heart of late and that article I read on Friday gave me an inkling of what it was: a kind of discomfort with the age we are living in.

Last summer I spent a couple of weeks up in the highlands of eastern Turkey with my mother-in-law, up above the clouds. My wife’s family originate in Hopa on the Black Sea, close to the border with Georgia in Artvin province. Every year, to escape the summer heat, my mother-in-law packs up her possessions like the nomads of old and ascends the mountains for the refuge of that usually cooler air. Life up there is quite primitive: the houses are simple stone-walled structures without cement, covered with the tarpaulin these travellers bring with them. The evening meal is prepared on wood burning stoves, which in turn warms the shelter as the cold evening draws in.

So last August my wife and I began the journey in the early morning one Friday, looking forward to our reunion with her mother after such a long time. There is a vast dam building project underway in the valley between our village just inland from Hopa and Artvin, so we had to leave at first light so we could travel while the road along the bottom of the valley was still open. We travelled inland rising steadily higher and higher into the mountains. At around 11am we stopped in Ardanuc to get some vegetables and have a rest, but not for too long. Soon we were winding up a dirt track through this beautiful landscape which reminded me of my holidays in Switzerland as a child. It was a steep landscape of meadows, streams and log chalets. Alas, we forgot our camera so there are no photographs I could share with you, but take my word for it: this was a landscape which almost made me cry tears of joy. We were heading for a Yayla about two hours short of Ardahan, but I could have stopped just there, so magnificent was that scenery.

But we continued onwards, until we came to a camping ground on the side of a valley where we stopped for lunch. There was a shack on the edge in which a group of men were preparing to barbeque cubes of lamb meat. I sat down on a bench with the lady-folk close to an ice-cold spring, for we had just discovered that the men were chilling bottles of Turkish spirits beneath the bubbling surface. After lunch, leaving my male travelling companions to their Reki and the ladies to their conversation, I caught a lift with an old Muslim man back to the mosque for Jummah prayer. I speak very little Turkish, but that ride was an immense blessing: we exchanged salams and I watched as those I had left behind appeared as dots across the valley.

It was this trip to the mosque that has been in my thoughts for these past many weeks, which made that article strike such a chord with me on Friday. I should think that mosque has never seen an English Muslim enter its doors before in all its ancient history. We parked our car just off the road, because the mosque could only be reached on foot. Together, communicating with one another only by hand gestures and that brotherly fondness in our hearts, we walked up the hill through that village that seemed to be caught in a time warp. There was a water-trough fed by a stream out in front of the mosque – what a beautiful sight. But what touched my heart was the sight in the small garden in front of that place of prayer. All of the men were gathered in a circle, awaiting the call of the adhan, expressing such affection for one another, conversing with kind words. We exchanged salams, but I did not join them, entering the mosque instead with my old companion. That building seemed centuries old inside. It was dark, and yet it seemed light. The walls were stone, not decorated like those fine mosques of Istanbul. There were some pieces of calligraphy, and old worn out rugs on the floor. There was a spirit in that mosque which warmed my soul. That place has been in my thoughts.

The tale of the remainder of my journey up into the mountains is for another time. This post is about that place in my heart. It is not a geographical place, but an emotional place. That place that the author described: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…” Yes, this is the yearning of my heart. That place of true brotherhood outside the mosque, that place of a simplicity that does not care for our modern-day obsessions with labels and debates. That place where Allah is remembered, where life stops for the prayer, where brothers respect one another and welcome the stranger passing through. That place of beauty.

Allah knows best my heart. This weekend I have made a resolve. Allah knows best my heart. I cannot articulate yet what this is: not to you the reader. But its origin lies in that experience that has been on my mind all these weeks. Inshallah, with time I will explain. In time I will explain.

United Nation?

In 1996 when I went to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – a college of the University of London – I watched as a fellow student when through what he thought was a radical transition in his views. Given the nature of the college, many white students came in with quite similar views: they were generally anti-racist, empathetic for the under-dog, left-wing/liberal and greatly interested in the affairs of particular African or Asian nations. Although this kind of leaning does exist to quite a degree within wider British society, including sections of the media, I would say that a Eurocentric and white ethno-centric viewpoint still predominates ‘on the street’. Thus the views found amongst white students at SOAS could have been considered quite radical.

Young people, however, often have a tendency to rebel against the dominant environment in which they find themselves, as I witnessed in the case of this particular student. He was studying Geography and Development Studies like myself and had spent the previous year doing field research in Zimbabwe. When I first me him, he had hugely Afro-centric views and was very keen on deliberately making friends with ‘ethnic’ students. As time went by, I noticed that these views were starting to shift quite significantly. It started with him playing devils-advocate with his ‘ethnic’ friends, moved on to a passionate defence British colonial engagement in Africa and later derision of the alleged anti-white ethos in the college. He had become a true radical – except that these views were not radical at all. They were just radical within his context.

I often recall this fellow when I am in gatherings made up mainly of white converts to Islam. Many of us were able to make a reasonably easy journey towards Islam precisely because we had a more internationalist perspective on life. Like those students at SOAS, we too had a generally anti-racist mindset, empathy for the under-dog and left-wing/liberal views. But like that radical student at SOAS, there seems to be an increasing trend for gatherings of white Muslims to descend to the level of racist exchanges, particularly about Pakistani Muslims. There is contempt for their culture, derision of their ways and a level of general stereotyping about this group of people.

There is probably a good reason why I have experienced more of this since moving out of London a year ago. London is a hugely diverse city and the character of its mosques reflects this. In every part of the city we find mosques that are not the preserve of one particular ethnic group, but are cosmopolitan instead. They also tend to have good or decent provision for women. In many places outside the capital, however, this is not the case. Mosques are often split along community lines and Islamic identity is conflated with ethnic identity. In my own town, although there exists a fairly large number of European, Arab and African Muslim families, the Pakistani community clearly dominates. The result is a sense of exclusion at the mosque for anyone who does not speak Urdu, although change is slowly underway. No doubt it is this sense of exclusion which fuels the somewhat racist talk of some white Muslims – and particularly women who have been refused entry to the mosque – in these areas.

I have another theory about this attitude though. A prominent characteristic of dawah over the past decade has been the separation of Islam from ‘culture’. This has led to a sense of superiority developing amongst converts (not just white converts) and amongst young people born into Muslim families: that we follow true Islam, not the cultural interpretations of those before us. This sense of superiority is a real disease, which has seen old Bengali men who have prayed in the mosque five times a day without fail for fifty years castigated by young men as foolish ignorant folk. Given that many of these unsettling convert discussions revolve around the question of their (Pakistani) culture – as if we don’t come to Islam with our own – I would say that this Islam versus culture argument has a lot to do with it.

It is fair to acknowledge that the experience of many converts, particularly those residing outside cosmopolitan settings, has been the racism of existing Muslim communities. I once felt that this was more likely to affect black converts, but more and more I see that white converts perceive discrimination. I think it is more likely that white Muslims will be positively received in mosques with larger Arab attendance, but this cannot be said of Pakistani community mosques. The children of some English Muslim friends of ours have been put off Islam because when they were at school their Pakistani schoolmates told them that they could not be proper Muslims because they were white. My general response to this kind of racism – be it the refusal to return the salams of the convert or simply the reluctance to make friends – is to hypothesise that this community probably experienced white racism in its early years and has therefore become quite insular in its outlook. The views of an English Muslim in my town suggests that there may be something in this: he became Muslim back in the 1960s and reports that race relations were extremely poor at that time. Meanwhile, a Pakistani friend of ours suggests that some Pakistani racism is linked to Mirpuri self-image. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: the sense of exclusion felt by those outside that group.

This is all very unfortunate. Our community is at risk of splitting down quite rigid lines, whether that is ethnicity or ‘convert’ versus ‘immigrant’. When people talk about radicalisation in relation to the Muslim community, they are usually talking about a polarisation towards militancy. The radicalisation that I am witnessing more and more is the acceptance of racism, and it is a disease which needs tackling with equal urgency. If we are now all resigned to the fact that we will experience racism at some point from within the Muslim community, we need to act as individuals to counteract this. For my part that means continuing to attend the mosque and not giving in to prejudice. It means saying that the experience of my convert friends is far from the totality of my experience.

Beyond this though, it is recognising why we are Muslims. We need to get away from our obsession about ourselves and recall where our focus should lie. We should be God-centred, not self-centred. When I talk of the obsession with the self, I am not talking about that very real need of ours to correct ourselves: rather I am talking about the debates about identity, about who and what we are.

We are Muslims and our aim is to achieve the pleasure of Allah. Allah has made us into nations and tribes that we may get to know one another: enough said. After this we remember that this brotherhood of ours is one brotherhood. Yes, I know that the atmosphere in my local mosque is not what I was used to in the cosmopolitan big city. I know that I am not easily accepted as I was in the mosques of the capital. But I recall that, revolving around Tawhid, my prayer, worship, life and death are for God, Lord of the Worlds, who has no partner. In this we find our resting place, our home. When we recognise this, it becomes less important whether we are accepted by others: what matters is whether Allah accepts us and whether He accepts our deeds.

Good Counsel

One of the beauties of brotherhood as we experience it within the fold of Islam is sincerity amongst friends. In my days before Islam, friends were people who told me exactly what I wanted to hear. My true friends today are those who speak the truth and grant me wise counsel even when this is not what I want to hear.

I have a dear friend to whom I am still indebted because of his wise counsel. I was studying in Scotland and passing through a difficult period of my life. This friend of mine travelled 420 miles north from London to tell me that Allah had done His part in guiding me to Islam: now it was my turn to repay Him. I had been dwelling in self-pity and, witnessing this, my friend travelled all this way to give me his sound advice. He did not go the extra mile to help me: he went the extra four-hundred and twenty miles.

Giving and receiving good counsel is key part of brotherhood, as An-Nawawi illustrated in his Riyad as-Salihin (The Meadows of the Righteous):

22. Chapter: On Good Counsel

Allah says, “The believers are brothers,” (49:10), and the Almighty said, reporting about Nuh, “I am giving you good counsel,” (7:62) and about Hud, “I am a faithful counsellor to you.” (7:68)

181. Abu Ruqayya Tamim ibn Aws ad-Dari reported the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “The deen is good counsel.” We said, “For whom?” He said, “For Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the Imams of the Muslims and their common people.”

182. Jarir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I gave allegiance to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, on the basis of performing the prayer, paying the zakat and giving good counsel to every Muslim.”

183. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “None of you can truly be said to believe until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.”

I pray that my friends will continue to grant me their wise counsel. It is one of the greatest blessings of Islam, that a friend can come round for dinner and speak the truth to his brother.

13.7 billion years

According to contemporary scientists, it is thought that the universe came into being around 13.7 billion years ago. The basic characteristics of the very early universe have been described in the big bang theory, but scientists are still only able to make educated guesses about the details. High energy physics has been used to describe the evolution of the universe in the period that followed, explaining how the first protons, electrons and neutrons formed. They talk of the formation of the first nuclei, then the formation of atoms and of neutral hydrogen. A third period describes the formation of structure: matter coming together to form stars, quasars, galaxies, galaxy clusters and super clusters. I find this structural period fascinating.

Some of the most beautiful images I know are those showing deep space as generated by the Hubble Space Telescope. Those images always warm my soul, reminding me of the grandeur of our Creator, putting everything into perspective. One of the most exciting developments of recent times was the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, which was derived from data accumulated between September 2003 and January 2004. Although this has been described as covering a small region of space, it is estimated to contain ten thousand galaxies. As the deepest image of the universe ever taken using the visible spectrum, it takes us back in time more than 13 billion years, showing us how the universe looked in the early Stelliferous age.

While the images of deep space in themselves are always heartwarming, their significance is also profoundly felt when one considers the words of the Qur’an about Allah’s creation. Sura 41, ayat 11, fails to provide us with a wooly, open description that the post-enlightenment age has taught us to expect from scripture. Far from it: the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image could be used to illustrate this verse. The non-Muslim, Arthur J. Arberry, translated it as follows in 1964:

Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke, and said to it and to the earth, “Come willingly, or unwillingly!” They said, “We come willingly.” *

This need not comes as a surprise for the Muslim who believes that the Qur’an is the Word of God. Of course the Creator can describe His creation in truthful terms. From His Throne, He is witness to all things. For the disbeliever who considers the Qur’an to be the fourteen hundred year old work of man, however, it could be nothing but a miracle: it would even have been so had it originated in 1964, twenty-nine years before Hubble was operational. Allah is magnificent.

One of my favorite websites is For me it is a reminder of what we really mean when we say ‘Allahu Akbar’ – God is Great. In these days of conflict, it is wonderful to remind ourselves of these things. If we set our short lives beside the fourteen billion years of Allah’s creation, it helps put everything into perspective. It reminds us of our place. It reminds us of why we are here and our part in this great scheme of things. It is right that we reflect upon these things, because it is what Allah asked of those us who were not brought up as Muslims. This is how that same Arabist translated sura 21, ayat 30:

Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?

For my part, I have beheld and thus I am one who witnesses that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah alone without partner and that Muhammad is his Messenger. Allah is magnificent. Visit that site and reflect. It is well worth it. Notice how it strengthens your du’a.

* A. J. Arberry (1964), The Koran Interpreted, Oxford University Press, p.491

Words before the Hour

A good soul reminded me of these things this very evening. As God wills, the advice we receive is always timely. So what excuse now do we have? I have quoted the Qur’an and hadith (narrations) directly from that advice:

“And those who abuse believing men and woman, when they have not merited it, bear the weight of slander and clear wrongdoing.” (Qur’an, al Ahzab, 58)

“Be God-conscious and put things right between you. Obey God and His Messenger if you are believers.” (Qur’an, al Anfal, 1)

“Let not some men among you laugh at others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women laugh at others: It may be that the latter are better than the (former): Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, after he has believed: And those who do not desist are doing wrong.” (Qur’an, al Hujrat, 11)

“The believers are brothers, so make peace between your brothers.” (Qur’an, al Hujraat, 10)

“And when they (the righteous) hear vain talk they turn away therefrom and say: ‘To us our deeds and to you yours; peace be upon you. We seek not the ignorant.” (Qur’an, al Qasas, 55)

Abu Musa said, “I said, ‘Messenger of God, whose Islam is best?’ He said, ‘The one from whose tongue and hands the Muslims are safe.’” (Hadith)

The Messenger of God (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “From the excellence of a man’s Islam is leaving that which does not concern him.” (Hadith)

Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “It is enough of a lie for a man to talk about everything he hears.” (Hadith)

“Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak good or remain silent.” (Hadith)

Anas reported that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Do not hate one another nor envy one another nor act in a hostile way towards one another nor cut one another off. Be servants of God, brothers. It is not lawful for a Muslim to cut himself off from his brother for more than three days.” (Hadith)

The Messenger of God, peace be upon him said, “The gates of the Garden are opened on Mondays and Thursdays and every servant who does not associate anything with God is forgiven except the man between whom and his brother there is rancour. It is said, ‘Wait until these two make up! Wait until these two make up!’” (Hadith)

Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “No servant veils another servant in this world without God veiling him on the Day of Rising.” (Hadith)

If there is anyone amongst those of you who read this blog whom I have offended, whether in an article or responding to comments, I apologise. Please forgive me. If I have spoken out of turn, then remind me and I will apologise. Please, even if I have irritated you, find some compassion in your heart and make amends with me. If I die tonight or tomorrow it will be too late. If I have any debt with any of you or you with me, whether from words I wrote, a comment not replied, an appointment I missed or otherwise, let us settle it before it is too late. Let us remind ourselves of what binds us.

I turn my face to Him who created the heavens and earth, a pure monotheist, in submission, and am not of those who associate others with Him. My prayer, worship, life and death are for God, Lord of the Worlds, who has no partner. Thus I have been commanded and I am of those who submit.

And my final request is this: make du’a for me. Pray that I do not die other than as one who has earned His pleasure and that I return to Him only with a pure heart.

Thank you for reading my blog. Over and out.

These are the days

These are the days when we need to express love for one another. The nations are gathering around to devour our ummah just as people share a plate of food. First came the European states with their pens and rulers in the days of Empire, dividing up the Muslim world into bite-sized portions. These days it’s war on weapons of mass destruction, war for democracy, war on dictatorship and war on terrorism. In the name of human rights, human rights are abused. In the name of freedom, innocent men and women are incarcerated. In the name of civilisation, vacuum bombs, cluster bombs and cruise missiles are rained down on far-off lands. These are the days when we need to express love for one another. But we don’t.

For a month or so I was a member of a large group for Muslim writers, but I have left now primarily because I was irritated by the contempt with which some members approached others. There was the hard character who chastised those with whom he disagreed as feminists, sufis and worthless inter-faithers. There was the self-characterised liberal who wrote off the rest of us. There was the ‘traditionalist’ who condemned the ‘salafi’ and the ‘salafi’ who denounced the ‘sufis’. I am just a simple Muslim, neither ‘Salafi’ or ‘Sufi’, but I try to deal with people whatever their persuasion in as gentle and polite manner as possible. Unfortunately, whenever I do so I am then condemned as one or the other. Yes, I am a worthless inter-faither, not worthy of a salam.

These are the days when we need to express love for one another, but we don’t. Instead we are salafis, sufis, traditionalists, modernists, converts, Pakistanis, Arabs, Englishis; all trampling down our own unique path, critical of all who fall without. Meanwhile, just as our noble Prophet warned us that they would, the nations continue to summon each other upon us as we call guests to eat from a plate of food – may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. We cannot respond, because we are suspicious of one another. Having categorised ourselves, we categorise others and find ourselves easily able to write off the suffering of those outside. It is all wrong. This brotherhood of yours is one brotherhood.

These are the days when we need to express love for one another. These are the days.

The erosion of British identity

I found this article interesting:

Much is being made these days about British Identity – or the erosion of it. Predicatably the finger is being pointed at “Multi-culturalism”, but I don’t believe this is correct. Much more pervasive is the influence of advertising, marketing, publishing and broadcasting. The times, they are a changing.

Also interesting:

Spring is here

What beauty! It has been a long winter this year, but spring is finally here. My front garden is suddenly blooming; flushes of new green leaves and splashes of colour everywhere. There are pinkish red flowers on the camelia, purble tulips, bright yellow cowslips, orange on our exotic oak, yellows, pinks, blues of primulars everywhere. The scent is splendid. It is a sight that makes me mutter Alhamdulilah over and over again. Here is our front garden from upstairs this evening:

And another view from the front door:

And a final view out the back:

Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah.

Faith and Family

In 2003 my mother wrote an essay entitled “Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!” for the interfaith module of her Masters degree in Theology. After reading the copy she sent me, I wrote the following essay, and sent it back in May of the same year. It was a useful exercise for us both, I think.

Continue reading “Faith and Family”