To be nor not to be?

It is a question which I have written about many times before, but one which seems to recur almost in a cycle, returning every three weeks or so: to write or not to write? The latest turn—having only just reconciled myself—arose when I read a comment on this site about the role of the people of knowledge. As I have noted repeatedly, we are a people commanded to speak good or stay silent, thus I wrestle with myself regarding this passion of mine. I love to write, for it brings me joy and relief; indeed it is a tool of counsel, clarifying thoughts that were at first confused.

As I reconcile myself to this passion, I consider my writing a gift from Allah. Some are given the eloquence of the tongue, others the hand of the calligrapher. Some are given great strength and energy, others compassionate gentleness. Everyone is given their gift, to be used to glory of their Creator and His way. And yet, that question recurs. Is it a gift or is it a test? Is it a tool to be used to benefit my faith or is it a distraction that replaces God-centeredness with the ego? Constantly I ponder this question.

From where does this dilemma come? Is it the legacy of the culture which first nurtured me when I was new to my faith? Throughout the Muslim lands we find the most beautiful mosques, flowing calligraphy, stunning tiles, works of poetry and literature, but my new faith seemed to look on these with contempt. In my mind, it became an almost Protestant Islam, painting over a rich tapestry of history with rough whitewash. Presenting an acultural view of life and religion, all those achievements of the ages were presented as nought; indeed they were viewed as the going-astray of the believers. So the architecture of Alhambra was seen as decadence and the scientific endeavours of Bagdad were viewed with ambiguity. Thus when I visited a Muslim country for the first time—Turkey in this instance—I viewed the great mosques not with wonder but with a kind of dismissive derision instead.

I believe this is a question which continues to trouble me and it is no doubt the root of that other question of mine: to write or not to write? For I have an ambiguous relationship with the arts, with those nuances of the human condition. On the one hand my faith inspires me with beauty, whilst on the other better believers state that true knowledge is our only armoury. Thus I am caught between the desire to put my talents to the service of my faith and the fear that they may rather lead me astray. The result is that I do nothing.

But why so much thought and so many words? Since early childhood I constructed tales in my mind, though I was never inspired to put pen to paper. Throughout my youth I was the laziest of boys, never exerting myself in anything other than daydreams, but upon leaving school and moving on to sixth-form college I had a wonderful English tutor called Eleanor Marsden who encouraged me like no teacher had before. My writing was poor, but nevertheless she nurtured this nascent interest and I am in many ways indebted to her. Two years later I completed a lengthy novel, tapped out over about six months of constantly sleepless nights. It was an immature work with few stylistic qualities, but it laid the foundation for everything I have done since. It made me want to write. It was followed by a diary of two months spent in Tanzania. Then, at university, The Neurocentric began in the pages of the student magazine; rantings that somehow fed my search for God’s pleasure. Those angry protestations of a weary agnostic, damning the believers for the faith they refused to share. And there was the rewrite of that novel of mine over the summer holidays, shifting the plot along with my thought patterns away from race and onto religion. My style had developed significantly—though looking back on it now, I see it was still hugely wanting—and the plot was more mature. It was a piece of work I never completed for by the following summer I was a Muslim, shunning this creative life.

Why so much thought and so many words? I suppose it lies with a renaissance in that desire of mine to write. Four years ago I finally began thinking about that novel again, three years after pushing it all aside. I pondered it and, realising that the impetuous for that particular story had long since passed, I decided to start afresh. Three and a half years ago, the work got underway. Sadly that question—to write or not to write—has disrupted this work all the way through. I completed the first chapter in Turkey early on (but subsequently scrapped it) and the second chapter neared completion the following summer. Yet all the time I meander between the two states. I began the first chapter once again around November last year—but I only manage to write for about eight hours in a month—starting with a spurt and then giving up once more as the disillusionment strikes yet again. I have had two novels on the go since the new Gregorian year: one that is already complete in my head but which needs to go down on paper, the other still coming together in my mind. Both of them urgent, and yet nowhere near completion. And now there is a third one just beginning.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Muslims are beginning to recognise the power of the media and are thus starting to engage it. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, even satellite TV are now within the Muslim’s grasp. My sights are set lower perhaps, but I see a vacancy for a Muslim Dickens in this land of bookshops and literature read on the tube. The question is: will I ever reconcile myself to this passion?

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