I once knew a fellow who explained that the reason he was not taking his shoes off to pray on the dusty carpet in the basement of his bookshop was that we should differentiate ourselves from the Jews and the Christians. I had heard other justifications for shoes-on-carpet before, but I thought he was confused. I pointed out that in this country certainly, Christians don’t tend to take off their shoes when they go to Church; at home too, they do not remove them at the door. Far from differentiating himself from the Jews and Christians, he was differentiating himself from those who differentiate themselves.
I am thinking about the question of differentiation because I have been pondering over recent days the legacy of my Christian upbringing. I think the initial response of the convert is often one of rejection. Certainly in my case I took various positions, led by a series of lectures I attended in those early days, which I now regret to some extent. The celebration of birthdays is a case in point. I was told that this is haram and so I built up yet another wall between myself and my family, refusing to accept well-wishes and gifts. I look back on that now with some derision, taking a more magnanimous stance, but the damage is done. We live in a society in which families spend less and less time together, but the birthday provides the perfect opportunity to reconnect, to get together and share a little love. Indeed it provides the opportunity to say that we care, to say thank you, even to acknowledge our place in the world. Conversely, what is the benefit of rejectionism? It does not serve any religious function; if anything it creates conflict with other imperatives (creating anger, conveying ingratitude).
In any case, there is a more pertinent question here: how much of this rejectionism is just skin deep? Much of who I am, how I act and what I think are a legacy of my Christian upbringing. I am not ashamed of this and do not think I should be. This upbringing taught me good manners and modesty after all, both of them perfectly admirable Islamic characteristics. And there is more; concerns about global justice and social responsibility come from this root, and I am thinking here of the Drop the Debt campaign and Fair Trade in particular. As a Muslim who believes that fairness and social responsibility is part of our religion, I buy Fair Trade products, but I still acknowledge the root of this concern. I buy my fish from an independent supplier and my milk direct from the producing farm via Abel & Cole. If I buy chocolate, I check that it’s from a source which pays cocoa farmers a fair wage. And I’m proud that my adopted town is known as a Fair Trade Town. All of this is a legacy of my upbringing.
Yet my upbringing has done more than affect how I act: it can be seen in my thinking. As a Christian I was raised on the parables and reported stories of Jesus’ life in the four gospels. The commentary provided by Paul’s epistles seemed less important in childhood as it becomes for the adult faithful. Jesus’ exhortations to the Pharisees to observe the spirit of the law not just its letter is no doubt reflected throughout everything I write. The gospel accounts do not call for the law to be abandoned — although Luke tells us of the infamous dream in which all foods were shown to be lawful in his contradictory Acts of the Apostles — rather there is a call to appreciate its purpose. Unconsciously I see this affecting the way I live. For example Muslims are taught to respect water and indeed there are rules about how water is used. In the spirit of this, I find the idea using heavy bleaches in the toilet abhorrent; I know it doesn’t make a difference in the big scheme of things, but my conscience drives me to choose biodegradable products. Likewise, Muslims are taught to be careful of the tongue, so in this spirit I consider it applicable to what I write.
I do not consider Islam a negation of my upbringing, but a continuation of it. Indeed, retaining that which is good, I consider it a perfection of it. I think it can be useful to acknowledge the legacy of our upbringing and to be truthful too; a lot of the rejectionism I see around me is surely just skin deep.