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.
Part of the title of my mother’s essay on my conversion to Islam read, ‘Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!’ Ironically that lamentation is not very different from the one which led to my renewed interest in ‘finding’ God some five years ago. Back then writing was my main hobby and, for a while, one theme predominated in the words I wrote: ‘Help, I don’t share my family’s belief.’ I rediscovered some of these articles recently while clearing old files off my computer. Here’s an extract from one dated December 1997 (I can’t now believe the bad language and anger I expressed in the rest of the piece):
‘You don’t want to reject their faith, you don’t want to be different, you don’t want to be an outcast; you just don’t have their faith, but at least you’re trying to find it. But it’s so hard to admit that. They prefer to hear that you’re lazy, because that’s not such a disgrace. You’re filled with fear, so you don’t admit openly that you’re completely lost. You’re hoping that someone will pick up on your blatant hints.’ (neurolie.doc)
During my second year at university there was this intense drive in me to ‘find my way,’ to be like the rest of my family, but not at the expense of sincerity before God. Again, from the same piece:
‘Your sister corners you with awkward questions at the dinner table. “Why don’t you come to church?” Her tone is accusing, she’s trying to humiliate you, but she doesn’t understand a single thing. She thinks you’re just a lazy —-. Your family looks at you and you look back. Well, you’re not exactly going to tell the truth, are you? “Well, it’s like this. Sis. Mum, dad, bro. I can listen to the readings, the gospel and a psalm. I can listen to the sermon and learn. But how do you think I feel when we all stand for the Nicene Creed, and all I can say is ‘I believe in one God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’? You want me to say it all, but faith isn’t about you, it’s about God. Do you want me to be a hypocrite before God? Of course you don’t. I don’t go to church because I don’t have the strength or the knowledge to claim your faith and I refuse to lie in the Name of God.”’ (ibid. – Note: these harsh words reflect my feeling at the time and not my views today.)
On the occasion of my eldest brother’s wedding, I remember bemoaning within that I would never be able to get married, for to marry outside a church would be like publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. This of course is now another source of irony, for a year and a half ago I did marry outside a church, effectively publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. One thing had changed; back in 1997 I was lost, looking, unsure of faith, in 2001 believing in Islam; the certainty of believing, as opposed to the flux of disbelief, made the ‘I will never’ less easily done.
This year, as part of her Masters degree in Theology, my mother wrote an essay entitled, “Help, There’s A Muslim In My Family!”: A Personal And Theological Reflection On The Experience Of A Son’s Conversion To Islam. Although it was submitted as an academic assignment, it was a very personal insight into the effect my embrace of Islam has had on the family. In preparation for this essay, she sought my involvement by asking me to review a book on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Hoping to add some sort of Muslim perspective I, along with my wife, did this, finding it a fruitful endeavour. Some time after her conclusion of the essay, my mother sent a slightly edited version of it for us to read. Although it was at first uncomfortable reading, its title coming as a shock to say the least, I can only express appreciation to my mother for opening this discussion up. My hope is that this may lead us to establishing some kind of dialogue towards understanding, of the kind which is much talked about institutionally, but rarely carried down to the lay men and women on the ‘street’. This essay, then, is an attempt to carry the discussion forward, in part responding to my mother’s essay and in part covering new ground.
Believing in Christianity
It is hard to recall in any detail the teachings of a church you attended in childhood, when your mental processes are more concerned with toy cars. So I have vague recollections of ‘Stepping Stones’, the story of Daniel, coming into church after Sunday School and one case (which I oddly remember well) of my Sunday School teacher telling us that we shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, but of not much else (Larry the Mole naturally comes to mind also, but I don’t recall what this guitar accompanied soft-toy taught us in terms of religion). Regardless of such details, I believe this church did inculcate its members with ideas of ‘good living’. At Junior School, complaining to my mother that I was being picked on by a boy with a rotten egg in his pocket on the school bus, I was surprised when my mother asked why I didn’t stand up for myself. Up until then I had always taken a very literal view of the teaching to ‘turn the other cheek’. I didn’t think, as a Christian, we were allowed to do such things. Perhaps this was because, as my mother described in her essay, we had attended a very charismatic church originally.
My paternal grandmother once told me in a letter how relieved she had been when my parents had been guided to attend a traditional Anglican church, leaving the old evangelical place behind, whose leader she described as somewhat a fanatic. I don’t know what effect this may have had on me; whether my later hesitation in faith was a result of swapping dogmatism for something a little vague, or simply a part of growing up. Whatever the reason, my faith did waver in Secondary School. In earlier years I had no problem whatsoever declining to engage in certain things due to my Christianity, but later on there was a sense of discomfort about me in this regard. It must have been 1991 when I officially rejected belief in God (May He, Most High, have mercy on me).
Life without faith
Initially disbelief gave rise to questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. Later on I experienced the serious implications of disbelief, with the passing of a family member dear to us all. While everyone was obviously upset at the death of my grandfather, there was also a sense of optimism at his funeral for, as a deeply kind, practising Christian, he was taking his place in paradise. Disbelieving in God, and therefore in the Day of Judgement and the Hereafter, I couldn’t come to terms with that at all. I was overwhelmed with grief and could find no solace in the words of all those compassionate souls.
Fortunately, pure disbelief did not last. A general belief in God returned to me at some point, although even then I still wavered between belief and disbelief. Established belief in Christianity, however, never returned.
My mother noted in her essay that while studying for my A-levels I got to know a number of Pakistani students. In fact I actually got to know just one Pakistani student and one Bengali student, along with quite a number of English students, but there had been no religious dimension to this relationship. At that time, ethnicity seemed to be much more of a defining feature in the relationship between different groups of students than religion ever was. The sum total of my knowledge about their religion from that friendship was that Muslims shouldn’t drink alcohol and don’t eat pork.
My mother also mentioned that I later wrote a novel about the relationship between an English boy and a Pakistani Muslim girl. In fact, the latter character was actually an Indian Sikh, and the book, again, was more concerned with racial issues than anything to do with religion. When I rewrote the book in 1997, religion was much more an apparent feature, reflecting the thought processes I was going through at the time. Again, my mother mentioned my visit to Tanzania before going to university. At that time there were indeed many issues I struggled with and perhaps I felt some things which I would no longer accept, and a few things which I might still hold to.
Personally, I do not believe that either my friendship with two nominally Muslim students at college, my initial writing of that novel or my stay in Tanzania had any bearing on my eventual path towards Islam. For that period of time I had little interest in religion and the only continuing occurrence was my discomfort at attending church; some of my English friends at college invited me to attend a youth group at their Methodist church on several occasions, but I declined.
When I started university, I was not so much appalled by the lifestyle of those I found myself amongst as uncomfortable with it. To be frank, the main issue was sexual morality and their approach to it seemed inimical to the Christian morals with which I had been brought up and to which I continued to adhere, even if I didn’t hold the faith myself. It would be wrong, however, for me to suggest that I moved away from this group out of some high conviction. The driving factor as I recall was finding myself on the periphery of a group, uninvolved in the conversations, flattery and, quite often, ridiculous self-promotion (the tales of the coffee expert spring to mind). Out of boredom I migrated from a table of my peers in the pub to that of someone I had met at the time of my interview for SOAS, where I was greeted and made to feel part of something.
It was this friend who later introduced me to a Scottish-Iraqi student with the intention that we should go to a comedy show together at the Student Union. Apparently we had been playing pool together prior to this, but I don’t remember this personally. At the time we were both pretty miserable characters, but were both entertained by the bizarre record-smashing DJ comedy act and soon became good friends. I don’t recall that we ever discussed religion during that period, although that would change in the following academic year (he did have a tendency to quote obscure words which he attributed to the Book of Proverbs, but I don’t think that counts).
Opening to religion
There were, at the same time, a number of other influences on me which introduced me to Muslim belief, if in a rather superficial manner. I had a Swahili speaking Danish friend who seemed to have a strong interest in Islam. Together we, both of us non-Muslims, talked about the religion on a number of occasions. Another influence was unspoken; it was simply the conduct and behaviour of a single Muslim student which impressed me greatly, no matter the pretty negative experience I had had with a number of other Muslim students during the same year. The little things are often the most powerful and there were quite a few of them. I would say that by the end of that academic year I had an inkling of an interest in Islam and more of an openness to religion in general.
With this revived interest in religion, I attended All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, during the summer holidays of 1997 with my maternal grandmother and listened to one of a series of lectures on the ‘Four Faces of Christ’. The thrust of John Stott’s argument was that each of the four canonical gospels represented a different image of Christ: Matthew presented the Christ of scripture; Mark, the suffering servant; Luke, the saviour of the world; and John, the Word made flesh. There being some substance to what was being taught and it being said in a well considered manner, I was impressed by his sermon. In fact, more than that, it renewed my interest in Christianity and convinced me that I had some serious work to do on myself.
With the new academic year I began attending that same church every Sunday, motivated primarily by my search for the Truth and slightly by the prospect of a good lunch in the basement afterwards. I offered little input to the proceedings of the services, refraining from singing the hymns and reverting to saying only the first line of the Nicene Creed again, but would attend mainly to listen to the sermons. An older couple who I sat next to one week gave me some kind encouragement, but unfortunately my claim to be confused and just searching for the Truth was met with less sympathy by others I met. It was as if some ‘got it’ and some ‘couldn’t get it’; indeed this sentiment was later expressed by the preacher on one particular Sunday, Richard Bewes. He had invited anyone not absolutely convinced by his evangelistic sermon to stay behind after the service for further explanation. Sadly his elucidation included the concept that this was so simple that even a four year old could understand it. As someone who wasn’t even sure of the provenance of the scripture itself, this explanation hardly solicited great encouragement. One can understand something, but that is very different from believing in it. I felt insulted by the nature of the preacher’s explanation and decided, rightly or wrongly, that there was nothing to be gained from returning the following week.
During this same period and more and more following this experience at All Souls’, I retained an interest in Islam. My pool-playing friend from the previous year was just getting interested in Islam himself and, although he was hardly what you could call a missionary, I frequently asked him questions about his belief. One thing which seemed apparent to me at the time was that people of faith, both Christians and Muslims, were rather reserved when it came to sharing their beliefs with others. Searching for the Truth, it seemed like a steep up-hill struggle getting answers from anyone. My mother suggests in her essay that it could be perceived that I was targeted by young Muslim friends. In fact my own experience was that the Muslims students, with the main exception of my Scottish-Iraqi friend, were rather aloof and unapproachable, at least while my interest was more academic than prospecting. They appeared to have no interest, I thought at the time, in sharing their faith with the non-Muslims around them.
Despite this, my interest in Islam grew. I began taking books out on the subject from the library at SOAS to read in my own time. I began forcing my questions on other Muslim students, seeking to know what they thought about such and such, or why they believed this or that. At night I began praying in the manner I imagined Muslims must pray, prostrating with my head on the ground, asking God (if He was there, for I still wasn’t sure at the time) to guide me. Then slowly, through reading the Qur’an and a modern commentary on it, I began to have certainty in belief that God was indeed there and that He really did exist.
So at that point, did I then turn to Islam? No, I turned back to Christianity! The Qur’an had proved to me, as far as I was concerned, that God did exist. So, with this belief, I found the person who had invited me to a Bible study earlier in the year and asked if they still did them. I was suddenly positive that God had communicated to mankind through Prophets, so looking back at Christianity seemed easier: there was less to doubt. I was invited to attend the London International Church of Christ, an evangelistic conservative church (described by many as a cult) with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and an attitude about themselves that they were the true ‘first century’ church. For a while I was keenly looking into the Bible again, until it dawned on me that the only reason I was looking into it was because of the Qur’an which had made it clear to me that revelation from God was not such a ridiculous idea. Now and then I would think, ‘Revelation? That’s so unlikely,’ but then I would remember the Qur’an and I would think, ‘But how do I account for that?’
You search desperately for the Truth, considering it an urgent quest, until you start to see where it might lead which is when disproving ‘that’ Truth takes over. A week or so before Easter 1998 I had been planning to return home with all my questions about Islam and to discuss the issues with my parents. I thought it possible, because some time earlier I had had a long discussion about Christianity on the telephone with my mother. She had encouraged me to dispense with my attempted readings of the Old Testament for a while and focus on the Epistles of Paul instead. In the event, it seemed that the discussion was no longer necessary. Before the end of term I discovered a Protestant Christian website devoted to all things to do with Islam, and it seemed to answer all those questions, to throw doubt on my previous conclusions.
As a result, when I returned home for Easter, I didn’t even mention Islam, but instead returned to the florescent pen study of my Bible. Looking for the Truth once more, I kept thinking, well maybe this is true. I had Dunn’s Christiology in the Making and Lohse’s Short History of Christian Doctrine, which I had bought thinking I might be enlightened. They don’t, however, provide any answers – only more questions. On my return to London, Islam was back in my mind; I couldn’t help thinking about what I had read about Islam. Were the refutations of that website really so solid? There were things which certainly seemed to be true in the Qur’an, a number of which I couldn’t remove from my head. So it was over the early May Bank Holiday weekend of 1998 that I shut myself in my room, switched off my telephone and worked through everything that I had come across. I had heard the refutations and the explanations, but they suddenly fell into insignificance. I believed in Islam.
Naturally, this account is wholly inadequate as an explanation of my journey towards Islam. I will have forgotten some of the things which happened, put things in the wrong order, neglected to mention something I felt or thought. That is why it is easier to explain why I became Muslim than to say how, hence the quotation of something I wrote two years ago in my mother’s essay; that I came to accept Islam not because of people, but because I believe it to be from God.
Believing in Islam
I had wanted to speak with my family before coming to my conclusion. After all, if I am honest, this whole search for God had come about as a result of not wanting to be alienated from my family through my disbelief, as indicated by the quotations I presented at the beginning. As it happened, I came to my conclusion first and then mentioned it to my parents. I spoke to my mother on the telephone and then sent a letter to both of them the following day. Their response was naturally one of upset and they encouraged me to give it some more thought, to discuss it with my uncle who had or was doing a Masters in Islamic Studies. I felt duty bound to do so and returned to that Christian website devoted to their view of Islam. This rocked my certainty to some degree, but I had started praying five times a day by then and persevered. I believe I have always been fairly open-minded and I believed I should continue so to be, hence my continued diet of Christian reading material on the subject. This disturbed some of the Muslims with whom I was now praying who heard me asking about one polemic or another. I don’t know if they understood how the decision to embrace Islam would affect my relationship with my family. But for me personally, this was a matter I could never take lightly. I knew the hurt and offence this decision would create, and I was so, so scared by it.
For a long time I kept my new faith secret from everyone in my family except my parents, for I feared embarrassing them. Throughout the summer of 1998 I worried about going home because I didn’t know how I would handle my new diet. I didn’t want to give my secret away. What would I do if someone put pork on the table? I wasn’t sure if chicken was acceptable to me, for although I knew that the meat of the Jews and the Christians was allowed, I didn’t know if this included meat not slaughtered in the traditional manner. When I went to visit my maternal grandmother I became a vegetarian. As for my paternal grandmother and our uncle and aunt on that side of the family, I kept it a complete secret. However, despite treading very carefully for two and a half years, my grandmother let me know that they had all known about my interest in Islam since my failure to turn up for the family lunch on Boxing Day 1998. Finally in 2000, I knew I would have to reveal my new faith to my other grandmother, for I had arranged to drive her up north for Christmas. I would be fasting for Ramadan and I knew I could not hide that from her, so an explanation was in order. I told my middle brother quite early on what I believed because he was asking me why I wasn’t attending All Souls’ any more and I felt duty-bound to tell the truth. He told me that he looked forward to meeting my four wives. I don’t think I ever formally told my eldest brother or my sister; they gathered from my Christmas conduct. Personally, I was struggling with how to conduct myself in relation to my family as a Muslim. The first year I had suggested that perhaps I would not go home for Christmas, given that it coincided with Ramadan. I mentioned something about the commercialisation of the festival and how my family might consider donating any money that would be spent on my present to the shelter for the homeless in Hull. Nevertheless, my father encouraged me to come home and so I agreed to. I did not, and still do not, find it easy to balance my faith with my family life. I fear upsetting my family on the one hand and disobeying God on the other. Neither can be taken lightly and it is just plain difficult. My mother comments in her essay:
Tim … made clear his disapproval of various aspects of our home-life (e.g. drinking of alcohol) and those of his siblings, and when he came home, he resented having to join in with family plans which made it difficult for him to pray at the prescribed times, was upset if we went to the pub for a meal, and when Ramadan coincided with Christmas would not eat until the evening. This made family members resentful and again reduced the possibility of good communication.
My discomfort with these things was not the fruit of malicious intent, but rather the outcome of my inability to strike the right balance and, indeed, I still do not know the correct way to approach the issue. On becoming Muslim, one does not suddenly acquire knowledge of all things. Rather, there is a process of learning, of making mistakes, of reading, of relearning things you misunderstood first time round and of generally grasping a way. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the resentment this caused and how it built up barriers rather than knocked them down. I recall while studying in Stirling how I felt hurt when my eldest brother came up to see me and my sister in St. Andrews and then proceeded to take us on a tour of various local public houses in the town. I was uncomfortable with this, but I thought that my objection would create animosity between us.
The issue is one of context. For my family the issue could have been that I was still insisting on living as a Muslim, inconsiderately ignoring the fact that they are Christians with different aims and likes. Meanwhile, my context at the time was that I was feeling isolated amongst a group of students where the height of daily conversation was pub culture and I desperately needed companionship on my wavelength. I had indeed been involved in the Islamic Society that year, but since it consisted of fewer than ten people it was hardly the support base that perhaps my mother may have imagined when she mentioned it in her essay. In terms of dialogue, being aware of the contexts we are each facing is of vital importance. Without it, we each make assumptions of the other and end up with skewed understanding, which is evident in much of contemporary dialogue.
Beyond this, as my mother points out, the biggest sore point in our relationship after becoming Muslim was my decision to marry. I believe marriage is the hardest issue every person who converts to Islam out of a desire for the Truth confronts and, having spoken to quite a few of them, it seems we all make similar mistakes and face the same struggles in ourselves and with our families. I knew from early on in my adherence to Islam that this would be a major issue; when or if it would eventually arise. The Islamic method of introduction for marriage, at least as we understand it, is of course inimical to what is practised in Western Europe. With the historical exception of the aristocracy, this way of doing things is unheard of in these lands. Culturally, therefore, my decision to approach marriage in a manner in accordance with my religion came as a huge shock to my family; a shock which I do understand, despite the protestations that I clearly didn’t.
In late April during a waiting period between the end of a temporary job and my starting full time, I met a friend locally, with whom I discussed many things. Amongst them I expressed my desire to find a companion with whom to spend the rest of my life, just like any sane person does. Although I did not know that he would be able to help me personally, I did know that he was quite well connected in the local community, so I asked him if he knew of any women who had also converted to Islam, by which I really meant of British stock. I had felt some time earlier that as an English Muslim, someone of a similar background would best compliment me. As it happened, that was not to be, but as two converts we find that our bonding culture is in fact our religion, while our two superficially different national cultures strike us as being more like decoration.
Some time later, this friend contacted me to tell me that his wife knew of a convert who was also looking for a soul mate. He asked if I would like to meet her, which naturally I did, and so a meeting was arranged and dinner prepared. I decided to place the matter in the hands of my Creator from the outset and thus prayed a simple but powerful supplication with genuine sincerity. The prayer is known as Al-Istikharah and is used for seeking guidance in choosing a proper course.
…if You know this affair, that I should marry this person, to be good for me in relation to my religion, my life and end, then decree and facilitate it for me and bless me with it…
At that time I placed my trust absolutely with God and relied upon prayer as my guide. It is perhaps for this reason that I accepted this seemingly alien process towards marriage, even as it would be unacceptable to those around me. After a few meetings, having decided that we did like each other, and with me finding that God had not turned the possibility away from me as a later part of that prayer asks for something which is bad, we decided that we would marry in just three months time. Like all those other issues of Christmas, of diet, of going to the pub and so on, however, this proposal was fraught with difficulty for me. The authority I was accepting over theirs, contrary to my mother’s conclusion, was the command of God via His Messenger as we accept it in Islam. It is indeed true that Islam commands respect of one’s parents and, furthermore, obedience. It is only recently, however, as my religious knowledge has increased slightly that I have come to realise the gravity of this teaching. Some of the words of Prophet Muhammad and his companions are uncompromising on this (and these are but a few of them):
Bahz ibn Hakim’s grandfather said, “I asked, ‘Messenger of God, to whom should I be dutiful?’ ‘Your mother,’ he replied. I asked, ‘Then whom?’ ‘Your mother,’ he replied. I asked, ‘Then whom?’ ‘Your mother,’ he replied. I asked, ‘Then whom?’ ‘Your mother,’ he replied. I asked, ‘Then to whom should I be dutiful?’ ‘Your father,’ he replied, ‘and then the next closest relative and then the next.’”
Abdullah ibn Umar said, ‘The pleasure of the Lord lies in the pleasure of the parent. The anger of the Lord lies in the anger of the parent.’
Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Disgrace! Disgrace! Disgrace!’ They said, ‘Messenger of God, who?’ He said, ‘The one who fails his parents or one of them when they are old will enter the Fire.’
Imran ibn Husayn said, “The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘What do you say about fornication, drinking wine and theft?’ ‘God and His Messenger know best,’ we replied. He stated, ‘They are acts of outrage and there is punishment for them, but shall I tell you which is the greatest of the great wrong actions? Associating others with God Almighty and disobeying parents.’ He had been reclining, but then he sat up and said, ‘and lying.’”
What I found myself struggling with was the fact that being dutiful to parents is conditional on that not entailing disobedience to God. I believe this concept itself is easy to grasp, regardless of one’s religious belief, even if we differ in what God actually requires from us. My fear was that to date her for six months to a year or more would entail disobedience to God. I concluded, therefore, that I had a dilemma. It dawned on me much later, after the event, that there were not in fact just two positions here, but other options I could have taken. If to marry in accordance with Islamic teachings meant to disobey my parents and to marry in accordance with Western tradition meant to disobey God, then the third option could have been not to marry at all. In the event, I could see only two paths which resulted in me shedding many tears, complaining to God that I was not strong enough to be a Muslim and, may God and my beloved forgive me, even praying at one point that He take me away from this life rather than test me with what I thought I couldn’t bare. I felt torn in two between my family, whom I love, and my Lord who created me and all things. That is not an easy situation at all.
In the end, we married on the 4th of August 2001. At first we fell in like, and then, within the luxurious bounds of marriage, we fell in love, with all praise due to our Creator, who promises in the Qur’an that he puts love and mercy between the married couple as a sign for us all to reflect upon. My mother’s comments on the way we set about our marriage reflect my family’s hurt which I recognise and accept; she brackets incorrectly that I had my marriage arranged for me, but I can appreciate that the speed at which events took place prevented a lot of genuine understanding from occurring. Furthermore, greater wisdom and learning on my part could have made things easier for all concerned, but both of these are things which only grow over time.
There have been a number of influences on me in this regard since my marriage. My mother commented that our marriage was attended by a large number of Muslim friends. It has to be said that most of these at the time were hers; up until then my circle of Muslim friends consisted of a very few individuals. The widening of my social circle has naturally widened my appreciation of diversity within the Islamic tradition. I have also inherited a fair number of convert friends from my wife which has allowed room for reflection on our shared experience, making the manoeuvres between our two traditions less jarring. The interface between European Muslims, in the native sense, is often one of learning from each other’s mistakes and successes.
A further influence has been increased motivation to attend study circles, the two of us supporting the other to attend. Lastly, it could be said that experience of events within the Muslim world, both on a local level and at the macro level, inspire greater thoughtfulness. As a solitary Muslim with a small circle of friends prior to marriage, it could be said that my worldview was inspired almost solely by my experience and that of my friends. Once you move out into the world you are invariably confronted with uncomfortable sights and sounds, as well as beauty which you did not know before, which impact upon your thought processes. Sympathy for the aims of certain groups easily, although gradually, gives way to cynicism, and vice versa. The old metaphor of good fruit from a good tree provides food for thought.
In the next section I wish to offer my reflections on the theological perspectives presented in my mother’s essay. I would emphasise, however, the point that knowledge and insight grows with time, such that what I write here may well not be my view tomorrow. This is perhaps especially the case now, as I am very much aware of my feeling a sense of flux in my thought processes. Hence dialogue should be a perpetual process, taking into account new realities on both sides.
My mother begins her study of theological perspectives by mentioning fundamentalism. I do not think it useful, however, to begin a discussion on Islam with some vague reference to this phenomenon. While fundamentalism may be common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam (and Hinduism, Sikhism, etc.), I would argue that what is meant in each case is actually very different. In the Christian context it is generally used to signify conservative Protestantism characterised by a literal interpretation of the Bible as God’s unadulterated word. In the case of Islam, by contrast, all Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God, but the term fundamentalist is not generally used in this sense. Instead, fundamentalism when speaking of Muslims is more often aligned with ideas of extreme militancy, although this wholly depends upon who is using the label. From within, those whom a non-practising Muslim may label fundamentalists could be labelled puritans, modernists or whatever by others quite happy to reclaim the thus far negative term for themselves, as meaning those who adhere to the fundamentals of the religion.
In other words, what is meant by fundamentalism has to be specified from the outset. To align Muslim fundamentalism with the view held by conservative Protestantism would clearly negate James Barr’s view of it by default, for it is then not a reaction against other forces, but merely accepted dogma. Only in its more common usage, of meaning reactionary militancy, would the definition fit. This illustrates the problem of using one term for very different circumstances. My mother writes,
Whereas this manifests itself in Christianity mainly through a particular approach to the Bible, Islam has demonstrated the emergence of coercive ideologies resulting in detailed legislation concerning every aspect of personal and social life.
I feel that this is incorrect. The reason it manifests itself in Christianity in one way and in Islam in another is because the term is used in one context to mean one thing and in another to mean something quite different. So we are left to chasing our tails as to what we really mean by this term and, as a result, fail to reach any meaningful conclusions. What we need to do is take one definition (at a time, at least) and stick to it.
For the sake of argument, let us define fundamentalism by using Hugh Goddard’s third criterion as quoted in my mother’s essay, ‘the conviction that the authentic version of their faith is to be found in the earliest period therefore an emphasis on a return to “fundamentals”’ (Hugh Goddard, Fundamentalism, p. 148). I feel this best describes the common ground for the term when used for both religions. The first question we must address is whether there is something wrong with fundamentalism. In general fundamentalism is viewed as a deeply negative force, hence, perhaps, the question, ‘Is Islam a fundamentalist religion?’
I would argue that a return to the fundamentals of a religion and, therefore, to its earliest history should be the starting point of any dialogue between faiths. This definition of fundamentalism implies a study of history, which in my view is something positive. To become ahistorical implies a denial of the most important aspects of one’s belief, i.e. its origins and primal teachings. Last Christmas, I listened to an Anglican Bishop on the radio say that the historical figure of Jesus was not really important; what mattered, he argued, was what Jesus meant to Christians today. This view is in fact illogical for if, as Muslims contend, Jesus was actually a Prophet calling his people to the worship of one God, to then worship him as God would be to go against his teaching. Similarly and by extension, if as Christians hold he may be taken as an object of worship, then to deny his alleged divinity would also be of consequence. In other words, the historical person of Jesus is of great importance. Sadly, this position, that the figure of Jesus in faith is more important than in history, appears to be a view held quite widely amongst contemporary Christian theologians:
During the past thirty years theologians have come increasingly to admit that it is no longer possible to write a biography of Jesus, since documents earlier than the gospels tell us next to nothing of his life, while the gospels present the ‘Kerygma’ or proclamation of faith, not the Jesus of history. (G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? p.1)
At one extreme, the peripheral writings of John Hick in The Metaphor of God Incarnate seem to me to make a mockery of the notion that there is a religious Truth. If faith becomes merely what we make it, how does that help us? If Jesus himself did not teach that he was God incarnate dying for the sins of the world, as Hick argues, isn’t the idea that divine incarnation should be understood merely as a metaphor simply another way of saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what he taught; I wish to believe this.’ While many theologians reject Hick’s thesis, their writings follow a similar pattern. It is in this light that I would argue in favour of fundamentalism in accordance with the definition I chose above. To follow our teachers, be it Jesus in the case of Christianity or Muhammad in the case of Islam, we need to know what they themselves actually taught.
It could be argued, however, that the reason fundamentalism is often frowned upon from within certain Christian circles is exactly because constructing a picture of the historical reality is so difficult as a result of the paucity of source material. It is a fact, after all, that this material is limited pretty much to the four gospels contained within the New Testament. Two references in the writings of Josephus to the life of Jesus are now considered later Christian interpolations. Having said that, it is true that there are those who look to the apocryphal writings of the Church, as well as the more recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hamadi Library as a further source. Indeed, there has been a move on the part of Vatican scholars to include some material from the Dead Sea Scrolls in the New Testament, as reported by The Guardian on the 11th of September 2001:
Vatican scholars are preparing to rewrite the Bible by incorporating revelations contained in ancient scrolls discovered beside the Dead Sea in Palestine, it emerged yesterday. … Martyn Percy, a canon doctor at Sheffield University, welcomed the initiative but suggested the results may be less than dramatic. “There has never been a settled, definitive version of the Bible; it has been an evolving book which has gone through many translations. Only fundamentalists think it came in a fax from heaven.” (R. Carroll, Vatican scholars prepare to rewrite Bible)
Despite this, the main focus of study makes it is easier to appreciate the position taken by modern theologians on the figure of Jesus. That view of John Stott that each gospel was written to present a different face of Christ highlights a problem we have. If these primary sources themselves were written with the intention of converting non-Christians and strengthening the faith of believers, the biographer of Jesus’ life is faced with an absence of material which the original authors thought unimportant in their attempt to convey a particular story. The result being that if we were to collect all the words actually spoken by Jesus in the four Gospels, removing those passages duplicated across the different books, we would find that they would fit on no more than two sides of a sheet of A4 paper. Given the impact Jesus has had on the life of countless generations of Christians, this is a woefully small amount of information. In the introduction to his book The Parables of Jesus, Robert Funk writes:
So far as I have been able to discover, no one had ever compiled a list of all the words attributed to Jesus in the first three hundred years following his death. … Among the many scholarly books written on Jesus in the last century and more … I could find no critical list of his sayings and deeds. (p.xi)
The scarcity of information means that we are not even sure of the most basic questions about Jesus’ life. The gospels do not tell us what language he spoke with the result that Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac and a Galilaean dialect of Chaldic have all been suggested by scholars as possibilities. The gospels fail to teach us any of the doctrines later adopted by the Church, such as the early Eastern Creeds Epistola Apostolorum, The Old Creed of Alexandria, The Shorter Creed of the Egyptian Church Order, The Marcosian Creed, The Early Creed of Africa, The Profession of the ‘Presbyters’ at Smyrna (F.J. Badcock, The History of the Creeds, p.24) and, of course, the later Nicene Creed which was forty-one lines longer than the first. Nor do the gospels help us to understand that Palestine at the time was under Roman occupation. More importantly, the gospels do not tell us anything about the authors of the books; we are merely provided with first names and are then left to guess their relationship to Jesus, whether they were eyewitnesses to the events of his life, whether they were known for their honesty and what their role in the early Church was. The seasoned argument that the four gospels prove to be reliable witnesses by virtue of the fact that they agree on the main points but differ on a few of the details, pointing to the fact that the authors did not collude in their accounts is unsurprisingly not supported by many biblical scholars. Evidence of copying from Mark is brought out by some, whilst others argue for the existence of an earlier primal document which they label Q.
Burton Mack argues in The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q & Christian Origins, that Jesus’ earliest followers had collected his teachings, ideas, manners and calls for social reform in a book which predated the development of the gospels. In his view this text developed in layers. First there were the sayings of Jesus divorced from any idea that he had brought a new religion (p.73-80). Later, a more sectarian attitude becomes apparent (p.131). Finally, with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, Jesus is described as the Son of God (p.173-4). At the close of the first century, he argues, the authors of the synoptic gospels used Q in the process of writing their accounts of the life of Jesus. Although the theory of Q is based on critical analysis of the text of the extant gospels, it remains a speculative notion, there having been no discovery of an actual text.
When it comes to a comparison with the recording of the Qur’an and the collected sayings of Prophet Muhammad there is a noticeable difference. The Qur’an itself is considered a Book sent down with the Prophet, rather than a description of his life as in the case of the gospels, and is thus not compared with the New Testament. In terms of substance, the collected sayings of the Prophet could more easily be equated with the gospels, although the method by which they were collected does not compare. If we consider that the earliest gospels are thought to have been written during the latter part of the first century, it is notable that the Muslim community during the lifetime of Muhammad himself was concerned with documenting and committing to memory every verse of the Qur’an. In their midst, the Prophet dictated, explained and arranged every verse of the Qur’an and, following his death, his community took it upon itself to continue to preserve it from corruption.
The reason that the Muslim community felt it so important to preserve it was that the Qur’an itself stated that the previous scriptures had been corrupted from within. Fearing that people would treat this revelation in the same manner they devised means by which to protect it. So successful were they that today you will hear other Muslims who have learnt the Qur’an correcting the leader of the prayer, in which it is always recited, if he happens to make a mistake during his recital. The millions of Muslims who have committed the whole of the Qur’an to memory stand as the first line of its defence, but certainly not its last. In order to preserve both the Qur’an and the stories of the Prophet’s life, his community established an elaborate structure based on the law of witness to diminish the risks usually encountered when passing information on.
During the lifetime of the Prophet, his companions would relate his words and actions to one another by saying, ‘The Prophet said/did such and such.’ When such a report was mentioned to a further person the source would be related along with what was said or done: ‘Aisha said the Prophet said such and such.’ As time passed by, the scholars of Islam insisted on carefully examining the source of all information which they received so that, by the end of the first century of the Muslim calendar, the practice had become a science in its own right. For a report to be accepted, scholars demanded that four conditions be met: that it was accurate, that all narrators in the chain of narration were trustworthy, that the chain of transmission was unbroken and that there was positive support for the statement from all other available evidence.
During the second half of the first century of the Muslim calendar, the sayings of the Prophet began to be categorised by subject in booklets. Again the Muslim scholars considered it necessary to establish a means of protecting the content of these books from possible adulteration. They therefore required any scholar involved in passing on sayings of the Prophet to be in direct contact with the person to whom they were being passed. So insistent were they on the role of witness, that they considered the use of a book without hearing it from the author tantamount to giving false evidence. One could not contemplate adaptations such as those currently been undertaken by Vatican scholars in respect to the gospels or the ninth century addition of the story of adulteress woman in John’s gospel. A personal commentary added to a book had to be signed, or else it would be considered to invalidate the text. Rigorous controls were instated even when it came to using books of the sayings of the Prophet, where reading certificates which amounted to licences were mandatory. When transmitting such books, a detailed record of the attendance at the gathering was taken and added to the reading certificate, which then became an exclusive authorization for those listed in it to read, teach, copy or quote from that book. Other checks were also employed to ensure that sacred knowledge was preserved in a suitably respectful manner.
The point of all this is to show why I believe fundamentalism, or a return to the earliest period, need not be a troublesome issue. The insistence of scholars on preserving knowledge in the case of Islam, however, makes such a return much more realistic than it would be given the Christian’s situation. Surely if we claim to follow Jesus and Muhammad, we need to know what they themselves taught. By default this would mean going back to the source. If our inter-faith dialogue is genuinely concerned with faith, rather than contemporary politics, then I would argue that a study of history, of belief, doctrine and theology is of crucial importance. We cannot throw around slogans about fundamentalism and tolerance and then expect that this will contribute to our mutual understanding.
While Muslims need to develop an appreciation of why Christian theology has developed in the way it has, there always remains the urge to pursue the historical reality. It is, I believe, because Islam speaks specifically about the role of Jesus that this situation arises. Historical reality may not, for example, be an issue for a Hindu whose sacred texts have nothing to say about Jesus. For Muslims, however, Jesus is explicitly referred to as a Prophet sent to the tribe of Israel to bring them back to the essence of the Law of Moses. The Qur’an categorically denies that he is the son of God and, furthermore, states that all an individual need do for the eradication of sin is pray to God for forgiveness. Because Islam makes this claim, the Muslim naturally finds himself asking for proof of the Christian position, that Jesus taught the idea of divine son-ship; hence the emphasis on the earliest period.
I believe Muslim-Christian dialogue needs to confront this issue head on. Muslims and Christians need to explain what they believe and why they believe what they do, to promote mutual understanding. Becoming ahistorical and launching instead into debates about how much more tolerant contemporary Christianity is than Islam cannot serve our needs because, at the end of the day, we still do not appreciate why we each believe what we do. The latter is, furthermore, a highly reductive view of our affairs. It is notable, for example, that when speaking of Islam, any place in the world may be used as a model, whereas in the case of Christianity it seems that a very specific, regionalised (and contemporary) form serves as the point of reference. Khokhar’s story of his conversion to Christianity from Islam, for example, is distinguished from the experience of a Muslim convert from Anglican Christianity. Replace that form of Christianity with Serbian or Ethiopian Orthodoxy, or indeed Irish Roman Catholicism as in the case of one of our friends, and the delineation is not so clear. Failing to grasp the importance of the historical persons we follow would seem to imply that we have not really thought properly about the purpose of dialogue.
An article in the Church Times some time ago had David Banting saying, in relation to the General Synod discussion on Christian witness in a plural society, that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. While diversity of opinion is of course to be welcomed, the meandering, self-conscious spirit amongst many does not promote confidence in the process of dialogue. As I argued previously while discussing fundamentalism, representatives of the two faiths need to define clearly what it is that they believe, not wavering because they fear causing offence. Honesty must crown any efforts at dialogue and this means addressing issues even if they cause discomfort. This being said, I understand that the discussion on pluralism is a genuine effort which has been ongoing for some time and so it is worth considering.
In my view a Christian exclusivist approach makes more sense in the light of Church history, however much I may disagree with its proponents. While Muslims believe in God as the Creator of all things and therefore as the God worshipped by Jews and Christians, I understand the argument that there is no continuity, for by believing in the divinity of Jesus you cannot then accept those who say that he is absent from the so called Godhead. Since Islam rejects the idea that anything in creation can also be the Creator, the demarcation is clear. Furthermore, the quote from Hendrick Kraemer throws up other issues arising from a particular theology which may be exclusive to Christianity. Islam, for example, denies the concept of fallen man, original sin and the irreparable – except through Christ – depravity of human beings.
I would, however, argue that there need be no conflict between the idea that of Christian uniqueness and pluralism. We need not be totalitarian about our faith (whatever that may be) because we believe in its uniqueness; it is perfectly possible to live peaceably with people of other faith traditions whilst maintaining our own convictions. Muslim tradition teaches that Islam is the religion of the Prophets, going back to Adam. In that sense it is inclusive, yet at the same time it stresses that there is one path to God: that affirmed by all the Prophets, that none should be worshipped except the one true God, the Creator of all things. Islamic history attests to the fact that pluralism can coexist with a one way faith, however much today’s Muslim puritans may wish to prove otherwise. The vast landmass touched by Islam, for example, is characterised by provincial culture. The famous mosque of Timbuktu reflects the beauty of its own particular culture, like the mosques of Istanbul or India. Abdal-Hakim Murad writes that ‘classical Islam has always been able and willing to see at least fragments of an authentic divine message in the faiths and cultures of non-Muslim peoples. If God has assured us that every nation has received divine guidance, then we can look with some favour on the Other’ (Lecture British and Muslim? 17 September, 1997). He goes on:
Those who believe that Muslim communities can only flourish if they ghettoise themselves and refuse to interact with majority communities would do well to look at Chinese history. Many of the leading mandarins of Ming China were in fact Muslims. … In China, mosques look very like traditional Chinese garden-temples, except that there is a prayer hall without idols, and the calligraphy is Koranic. (ibid.)
William Cantwell Smith’s accusation that to believe that Christianity alone is true is a form of idolatry suggests that Christians worship Christianity. Surely, for the majority of followers, the religion is merely the transport towards an end; they do not worship it, but use it to worship. To me, this argument is unfair. It is true that a religion itself can become an object of worship, but that is not what believers are doing by insisting on its truth. I believe that it is a mistake for Christians to renounce their faith – to deny previously established beliefs – simply because they are now encountering people of other faiths. It is my contention that people of other faiths expect Christians to hold their ground and that the real source of discomfort is not religious pluralism but effective secularism. It is the latter which demands that there is no absolute truth (except this one), not adherents to other religions. In truth we are really talking about secularist theology, with the idea of pluralism acting as a fig leaf.
For dialogue to be beneficial, I feel that we should set aside philosophical debates over our approach to different faiths and come as we are with a view to first understanding what we each, as faith communities, believe. I have encountered time and again Christians writing about Islam with no real knowledge of its basic teachings; and, yes, Muslims writing on Christianity in a similar manner. The question of forgiveness is a key example, many writers convinced by the notion that Christianity exclusively amongst the world religions has addressed the issue. The prominent evangelist associated with the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel writes, ‘In Islam sinners will face judgement without forgiveness.’ (Searching Issues, p.31). This is wholly incorrect. If one repents, then God may forgive him; if he does not, then he will face judgement without forgiveness, which is exactly the same position held by the Church for those who do not except Christ. Similarly my mother writes:
Was his religion not denying the grace and truth found in Christ and instead making him rely on salvation by good works? Though emphasising Allah as compassionate and merciful there seemed little concept of forgiveness, the Fatherhood of God and of the pre-eminence of love as in the Christian faith.
This small passage presents a number of simple misunderstandings. Salvation by good works is a Catholic concept. Muslims do not believe that humans are by nature fallen; therefore they do not seek salvation. Instead, good works are undertaken for the pleasure of God, who loves goodness and beauty. Furthermore, we are not judged by the deeds themselves, but by the intentions behind them. Thus I could feed the poor seeking people’s good opinion of me and it would not benefit me at all. Secondly, there is a huge amount of emphasis placed on the concept of forgiveness; it just happens that it is a practical rather than metaphysical step:
From Anas that he said, ‘I heard the Messenger of Allah saying, “Allah said, ‘Son of Adam, as long as you call on Me and hope in Me, I will forgive you whatever comes from you and I do not care. Son of Adam, even if your wrong actions were to reach to the clouds of the sky and then you seek forgiveness of Me I will forgive you. Son of Adam, even if you were to come to Me with nearly the earth in wrong actions and then later you meet Me, not associating anything with Me, then I will definitely bring nearly as much as it in forgiveness’.” ’ (Quoted in An-Nawawi, The Complete Forty Hadith, p.145)
It may be the Muslims’ fault that such misunderstandings exist and, indeed, it possible that the angry faces and actions of some Muslims have perpetuated these ideas. The fact is, however, that learning must precede dialogue, if such elemental concepts are not yet appreciated, or at least take place within that realm. In our reading of The Road Ahead we noticed that the dialogue began immediately with a number of quite focused studies; there was no presentation of what either religions believe at heart. It may have been taken for granted that this was previously known, but it is possible that this was too generous an assumption.
My mother ended the penultimate section of her essay by stating, ‘we look forward to further opportunities for dialogue in the future.’ In writing this response to her essay in bits and pieces over several weeks since she gave us a copy, my intention has been to take up this challenge and continue the process. As I begin to find my own feet in faith, pondering still on direction, learning more and moving on, it seems natural that a process of real dialogue should commence between us.
In the first section I sought to take the story of my conversion to Islam to a slightly deeper level, suggesting where there is room for dialogue and manoeuvre. I also wished to point out that my post-conversion experience was not one of particular ease. Fortunately I have learnt a number of useful lessons from other convert acquaintances, finding my encounter mirrored in that of others. To quote Abdal-Hakim Murad once more:
The initial and quite understandable response of many newcomers is to become an absolutist. Everything going on among pious Muslims is angelic; everything outside the circle of the faith is demonic. The appeal of this outlook lies in its simplicity. … This mindset is sometimes called ‘convertitis’. It is a common illness, which can make those who have caught it rather difficult to deal with. Fortunately, it almost always wears off. … A majority of people come to Islam for real spiritual or intellectual reasons, and will continue with their quest once they are inside Islam. Becoming Muslim is, after all, only the first step to felicity. (British and Muslim?)
My later discussion on the theological perspectives raised by my mother may in the end be of less worth, but I attempted to illustrate some of my interpretations of the issues anyway, perhaps as a way of exhibiting my current thought patterns. Saying what we think is often easier than describing it, thus it may be useful for this reason if for no other. Those sections which I ignored, such as on the Trinity and Mission, I did so because I do not have the relevant knowledge. This example could, therefore, be an area for further discussion, where an exposition of the Christian viewpoint could be explained in detail.
Although Muslim politics are very much in the news at the moment, I feel it is too early to jump to a discussion of these matters. It would be better for us build foundations of understanding as to what each of us believes. The machinations of terrorists, after all, are something I understand no better than the next man. If we focus on that which we understand, then the outcome will inevitably be beneficial. My mother writes:
As regards Tim, we are now ready to engage in dialogue which is not seen as accepting everything he wishes us to, but not denying the genuineness of his faith and that of other Muslims. He expects Christians, too to share their faith.
This is wholly reasonable and I hope my efforts here may be accepted as a small contribution to this dialogue.