The Nomad

Sometimes I feel like the nomad. I came to Islam towards the end of the twentieth century of the Christian Era, over fourteen hundred years after the Prophet’s migration to Medina, peace be upon him. I came to Islam after the European colonial age which saw the slaughter of Muslim scholars and the “Great Powers” playing different groups of Muslims off against each other. I came to Islam after the seed of nationalism had grown into a vast but barren tree.

Those born into practicing Muslim families could at the very least grasp on to the tradition of their parents, seeking refuge in the remains of a living tradition. This was the discussion I had with my wife two nights ago that prompted me to hammer out that huge post on knowledge: as converts to Islam we are thrown into the deep sea of confusion, looking this way and that, listening to the competing claims of Muslims here and there. The Scholars are the inheritors of the Prophet, peace be upon him, we are told: but which Scholars? Perpetually we are warned of corrupt scholars, government scholars, wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretenders to the throne… the list goes on. We do not have Muslim heritage to look back on. We cannot ask our grandparents about their grandparents.

So I do find myself harking after the simple faith of the nomad. If you ask me what my aqida is, I will say I do not know. I don’t even know what aqida is. Just now I simply pray and fast and give charity, and try to be kind to those around me. This is about the entirety of my Islam. I am well aware that there are dangers in this, but it is all I can do in this time of confusion. I cling to the jamat wherever I find myself and focus on those actions about which there is no disagreement: the smile which is a charity, control of the tongue, the five prayers and their companions, a few coins to one in need, responding to the one who asks.

I cannot do more than this because my mind is too small to fathom the pathway to the past as it passed through the era of European Empire. My wife is Armenian and she tells me of the mischief of the British, as they encouraged the Armenian uprising whilst the Turks were defending their borders. The scene was replicated throughout the Muslim lands. Ethnic groups turning on one another, scholars slaughtered, the European Powers promoting one group of Muslims against another… The simple faith of the nomad seems safer somehow.

As an agnostic about ten years ago I wrote a somewhat irreverent piece about my search for the truth. While I have faith today, testifying that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is His messenger, there remains a mustard seed of truth in that piece. It is no longer a question of religion, but of who you can trust to follow. Just follow the Qur’an and Sunnah, say some, but we all know it is not so simple. Am I to interpret them myself, given my distance in time, space and language from the Prophet and his companions? Everyone agrees that the scholars are the inheritors of the religion, to explain these matters to us, but we do not agree on which scholars: which are the wolves and which the pretenders to the throne. I know that ijazzah can be traced to ijazzah, back through the generations, but where is this presented? So there remains a grain of truth in that piece of mine from a decade ago:

Question everything, but don’t tell anyone. When you’re on that journey of yours, never confess that you’re completely lost. Just smile, grin, and bear it. It’s going to infuriate you, but nobody will understand. In their control rooms, they have their timetables and maps. To them it’s obvious, so why can’t you see that?

… Recently, you were going to church every Sunday, hoping a sermon would cure your questioning mind. And one day, your lucky day, they invite the unsure, the faithless, the agnostic, to stay behind after the service, where they’ll explain it to you and make you see the truth. You sit there and wait: you pray they’ll make you see, but soon you discover that it’s not you who’s blind. The preacher arrogantly assumes that you’re just ignorant, that you don’t have faith because you’re ignorant. Because you didn’t read the Bible.

“Well, actually, I was reading the Bible, I just didn’t see the proof.”

And what is the preacher’s proof? He says it’s obvious. Well, no, it isn’t obvious, because you wouldn’t be sitting here listening to him if it was. He arrogantly assumes that those without faith simply have no faith because they never tried and never thought about it. He tells you that it’s obvious, so obvious that even a four year old could understand. But wait. You’re not four years old; the four year old didn’t read the Bible, she just sucked on her lolly and never wondered if the sugar would rot her teeth.

An editor recently left a message on my answer-phone asking me to write a balanced view of the birthday of the Prophet in light of my Christian upbringing. I very nearly did not write anything because I do not know anything about the topic. When I eventually got a few thoughts together the result was neither passionate nor critical. At best it was wishy-washy. I was asked to tie it in with how I viewed Christmas as a Christian and so I merely described my experience. It was not an argument in favour or against, but merely a description of my encounter. The truth is, I have never met anyone celebrating his birth, only those who commemorate it by focusing on his biography; so I said so. I concluded:

…as I ponder on those I witnessed expressing such love for the Prophet as they read his sirah and his sunnah, I can only conclude that whatever I write will be worthless, because I do not know the Messenger as I should.

This prompted somebody to respond with eight hundred words on the question of innovation. Talk about interpretation. I was talking about how love for the Prophet permeates the actions of those who sit and learn, of those who immerse themselves in learning. I was talking about how distant I am from that example. I was saying that their love inspires me to learn much more. You see, I have the faith of the nomad, but I want so much more.

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