The addictive grip of idleness

I have been reflecting quite a lot recently on what Christians refer to as ‘the addictive power of sin’, for I am one of those unfortunate souls that makes mistakes and repents only to repeat them again over and over. Faced with this phenomenon, I believe it is easy to appreciate how many Christians come to conclude that there is no escape from sin except through a dramatic external intervention—even if we believe they are wrong. While we would say that their solution is an illogical extreme, given that we only recognise sin in the light of what God has defined as good and bad, there is no escaping that sense of despair when we constantly replicate the same mistake throughout the years of our lives. Muslims are, of course, reminded of the words of God, that had He created a community that would not sin and err and return in repentance, He would have removed it and replaced it with one that would, for He loves to forgive. Indeed we are reminded of the famous Hadith Qudsi in which we are promised forgiveness, no matter what we have done, so long as we return in repentance:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.

We are aware of so many words which give us hope, and yet the sense of despair is real, for recurring repentance for oft-repeated errors begins to feel hollow, shallow and half-hearted. It is true that I am not the worst of people, but my criteria for judging myself is not the standard set by the behaviour of others; my errors may well seem insignificant in a world of widespread bloodshed, but the Middle Way is not defined as the path between the shifting extremes of the day. We judge ourselves against a fixed standard. The earliest Christians would have been aware that all was not lost in the face of sin—even the parables recorded in the contemporary Gospel cannon make this clear—but today’s discourse incessantly emphasises the need for a redeeming saviour. When I look at my own response, I see ignorance at its heart. Ignorance feeds despair, for addiction is persuasive. If we convince ourselves that our addiction is incurable—as is the Christian’s theological position, even though we find that many Christians are in fact people of high moral calibre who are clearly not subsumed in sin—a sense of hopelessness is really only a natural response. In my case ignorance affects me in many ways, which at first seem quite distinct, but which are in fact all interrelated. An ignorant response to mistakes is tied to the ignorance which leads to them in the first place.

All of this carries me back towards my thoughts during my recent stay in the Black Sea, which I have wanted to write about since my return, but have been unable to articulate (I still can’t as I would like to). People in that forested valley not far from the border with Georgia generally lead happy, contented lives and are self-sufficient in many ways, but I was still struck by the hardship of many of their lives. We met widows on the sides of those valleys, and children who had lost their fathers, mothers who lost their sons. I watched as old men busied themselves chopping logs for the stove and women collected hay for their cows, each preparing for the cold winter that will draw down on them in the next few months. I witnessed much more than this, and I reflected on it in light of my own life and the way I live it. My life has always been characterised by remarkable ease—I have never experienced real hardship—and yet what can be said of the way I live it? I am lazy and often feeble, capable of telling myself that I am doing okay when I achieve nothing in weeks and weeks. What my experience in the Black Sea taught me—and this thought kept recurring in my mind throughout our stay—was that our Lord has far higher expectations of us than I have ever acknowledged, that He requires a higher standard. The great hardship I witnessed convinced me that my laziness and feebleness in the face of so much ease could not possibly be acceptable to our Creator.

So here I stand taking stock of my life, and truthfulness—not humility—confesses that there is not a lot to be proud of. I may well deny that need for a redeeming saviour, but I remain tarnished by the legacy of that tradition, for instead of striving against my laziness, my weakness, my emotional addictions, I have allowed myself to succumb to them. Jesus was sent to sinners not saints, Christians often remind us, but we recognise that this was one of the roles of our noble Prophet too: the point is that they were sent to sinners so that they might reform themselves and become the best of people. I reflected on those matters during my stay in a simpler setting in Ramadan, but what have I achieved since my return? Nothing to be proud of once more. ‘To good and evil equal bent, both a devil and a saint.’

I recognise that laziness is one of my greatest diseases, but as I said to my friend last night, most of the time I’m too lazy to do anything about it. In a world of AA for alcoholics and smoking cessation counselling for Smokers, isn’t ‘the addictive power of sin’ a rather lame excuse for idleness?

It is not Islamophobia

Though I do not dispute that some Muslims face discrimination, that Islam is derided (as Christianity is) and damned, that some Muslims are attacked for their beliefs, I have never liked the term “Islamophobia” for it is being used in Britain today as a mechanism of denial, a means of avoiding taking ourselves to account.

Were we like the best of people, I might not object to its use so much—in that case we really could decry irrational fear and prejudice—but we’re not. We’ve become a self-pitying nation, sobbing about victimisation, wallowing in denial about the diseases overwhelming us. To lament forced marriage and domestic violence* in the Muslim community is not “Islamophobia” (though it could be characterised thus if the focus was exclusively on Muslims, which it is not): it is an acknowledgment of reality. When I sat on the management committee of a charity that aimed to aid Muslim women in crisis for five years, the statistics about abuse were not made up, the imaginings of racists and politicians with foreign policy objectives. While this focus on PR remains, displacing pastoral care, thousands of real people must live with the consequences, their plight ignored. We are not in the world of hypotheticals, of disappointing words: this is the world of real lives, of the wellbeing of your sister, the happiness of your brother.

Imagine if you will a promising young student. Half way though the first year of her complex degree she comes to believe in Islam. She believes that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, so she decides to walk upon this path. She discusses it with her mother, who tells her that if she dares become a Muslim she will throw her out of the house. But she already believes—it’s in her heart—she’s sincere and strong in faith, and so her mother throws her out of the house. But she’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. Her friends at university notice the changes—she’s wearing a jilbab now and she’s covering her hair because she believes it’s part of what being a Muslim’s about, she doesn’t hang about with boys anymore and now she’s fully focussed on her studies. She’s lost some of those friends along the way—those who think she’s lost her mind—but she remains steadfast. Within months she’s been advised that she ought to get married, because this is the second piece of advice it seems every new female Muslim must hear, so she’s looking for a good Muslim man. A few weeks later she invites her friends to her marriage to a man who has told her he’s a good and pious believer. The wedding is rather brief and she wonders why she went to all the trouble to have a beautiful but still modest dress made for the occasion, but she leaves for her husband’s home filled with great excitement and joy all the same, looking forward to years of marriage in which their love and compassion grows between them, carrying them hand-in-hand to Paradise. Instead her husband beats her up, yells abuse at her, calls her a nigger, flings her across the room and terrorises her.

Imagine if you will receiving an email one day in which the sender asks if you have heard from his wife and when you press him on it, he tells you that they are now divorced. Why, you ask, for it has only been a month or two? Imagine that he tells you that she complained that he was beating her. You press him on this as well: well is it true? Yes, he replies reluctantly, acknowledging his mistakes. You tell him that our blessed Prophet said only the worst of us would beat their wives, appealing to this pious man’s better nature, but he only responds with ferocious words: ‘I’m not the Prophet, am I?’ It is an addiction for him and he doesn’t know how to treat it. Still, his divorcee is undeterred. She believes in God and His Messenger. Her faith is strong and her heart is firm, and she will continue to tread this path whatever the test before her. Imagine if you will that a year or so after returning to her studies, the young student decides to marry again. She is not going to be deterred by one bad experience. So she weds a kind young man and together they have their first child; but before the baby has had the chance to get to know his daddy, daddy divorces mummy. Shirking on his responsibility (just think that “shirking” exists in the English language), he leaves his wife homeless to bring up their child as a single mother failing to provide child maintenance. Life is hard for that promising young student now: she has given up her studies and her dreams and now lives in poverty with no proper income, caring for a mischievous toddler who drains her energy away. But she’s not turning back because her belief in God is sincere and her faith is firm and strong.

Now imagine if you will that a year or so later she realises that the only way she is going to survive is with the support of a husband, so once more she seeks a good man, taking the most cautious steps this time. She meets his family, and she finds them kind and respectful. She doesn’t rush in, she gives it all the thought in the world, but eventually she decides to marry this man. She is a single mother—she never thought she’d be a single mother—and she can barely survive this way. It is the only way forward, she tells herself, so she marries this good man. But this good man does not know his responsibilities under the law of this deen, for shortly after their marriage when his new wife has just become pregnant he tells her that he can no longer afford to maintain her and a baby—as if he couldn’t have known that before—and promptly he divorces her before their child is born. Imagine if you will a young mother bringing up a toddler alone, nursing her pregnancy alone, a single mother living in poverty, with no child maintenance from two fathers.

Imagine if you will, a young single mother who quite understandably now hates all men, but Muslim men in particular, who finds her life a great burden. Imagine if you will, a once promising young student who finds herself seriously contemplating leaving her religion, although she won’t because she believes in it with certainty—it’s in her heart—for she’s strong in faith. She’s not turning back because her belief’s sincere and her faith is firm and strong. She’s not going to be driven out of the deen because she believes in the Day of Judgement and in Paradise and Hell. Imagine.

I wish I could tell you now that I made this story up, that it was from my imagination like in the books I write, but I can’t. I wish I could say I decided to write a short story based upon extremes. I wish I could say that this didn’t happen to a real person, that it was a metaphor or a fable. I wish I could, but I can’t for this happened to somebody my wife knows for whom I have immense respect because the strength of her faith provides massive inspiration to me. I wish too that this was the only story I could tell, but alas it is not. I wouldn’t say I know many cases—fortunately most people we know are happily married—but those cases that exist are quite enough to make us take note. There is the mother who brings up two severely disabled children all alone, left to cope when her husband walked out because he could not. There is the man living a solitary existence in the loveless marriage that will exist as long as it takes for his wife to get her whole family leave-to-remain. There are alas a multitude of stories I could tell of men and women living in crisis in the Muslim community in Britain.

When somebody highlights stories like these and you dismiss it as “Islamophobia” you are hurting every person affected by them and you are hurting this deen, because it means that the problems persist untackled. The charity I worked with that aimed to help Muslims in crisis had to close this year after almost twenty years serving the community, not because the problems have gone away—if anything they have increased in number—but because our community did not think it important to fund such an organisation. We have become a community which believes it has no problems and that every accusation of an issue is merely a manifestation of “Islamophobia.” Unpalatable certainly, but I raise it here because it matters. In this context the accusation of “Islamophobia” is not the saviour of this community, but its curse.

Please note

Those who rejoice in the problems in the Muslim community should note that it is estimated that a total of 18,569 women and 23,084 children were accommodated and supported by refuges during the year 2003/04, reflecting a deeper problem in wider society. It is said that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and between 1 in 8 to 1 in 10 women experience it annually. Source:

“Domestic violence occurs across society regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, wealth and geography.” Source:

To honour a solemn oath

You may have forgotten that the day God created our souls He took a solemn oath from us. Have a billion years passed since then? Perhaps; perhaps more. But do we abandon our promises just because time has passed us by? Or because we have forgotten them? I wish I could say I was perfect, that I am a pious believer whose heart is clean and strong. I wish I could. But instead the recurring realisation day and night, even if I do not act upon it, is that I must repent. I have so much for which I must repent, and its time is drawing near.

“Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.” {Ibn Maja}

We have been here before, but that’s life, isn’t it? Those recurring cycles and phases. Now is the time. And yes I will repeat these words in the future, no doubt. But now is the time. And if I return, then now will be the time again. So we repent over and over, renewing our faith week after week, driving onwards towards the inevitable event. That day when our bodies will not breathe another breath and our souls will hang there waiting – still alive, but unable to put forth any more deeds. Perhaps we will hang there in our graves for another billion years as our bodies become dust, but a day will come. How did we honour that solemn oath of ours back millenia ago?

“Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.”

Now is the time, and tomorrow will be the time, and a month from now will be the time. Every moment is now.


This year has been a bad year for us in the garden. Autumn was late last year, the leaves not falling from the trees until November and so winter left us late and spring did not even seem to happen. The April showers visited us in May and now we have this scorching sun. Tomorrow the chill may return – Allah knows best. In the garden, the vegetables are not doing well. The slugs and snails have eaten the lettuce already, while the tomatoes, beans and corn just don’t seem to grow, their leaves going yellow and brown instead. There is a reminder in this for us. We thank Allah that we are not people dependent on our own land; we thank Him that the markets are still stocked with fresh vegatables and that we have supermarkets and shops to choose from. Working for a salary, we exchange our coins for dinner. So think of those who live upon their land. Those whose cattle and crops are their wealth. Think of them and be thankful to Allah for his many blessings.

And now think of our folk, our brethren and fellow humans in the Horn of Africa, in the Sahel, in Sudan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Think of those folk who depend on the land and whose crops have failed this year. For me it is not the end that the beans will not flower – we will just visit the market instead – but for others it is a matter of life and death. So be thankful for what you have and remember and pray for those who are without.

From Allah we come and to Him we return. Say alhamdulilah for Allah has showered His blessings upon us, even if we do not comprehend.

Divine Comedy

If ever we needed evidence that we have no control over our own lives, it is in my garden. Last year my wife and I spent a lot of effort working on our vegetable patch, digging it over and working in the manure, all to little avail. It did not get enough light, we concluded, and so this year with advice from my brother and sister we decided to turn it into lawn, seeding it with grass while dispersing the vegetables amidst the flowers in our sunnier beds. The rather wet conditions this summer have been perfect for establishing that lawn. Zeynep did most of the work preparing the ground and making it level. A few days before she spread the seed I took it upon myself to move the compost heap, emptying its contents onto that flat ground temporarily as I relocated the bin. This may have something to do with what happened next. My wife scattered the seeds during the sunny spell we had a few weeks ago and with daily watering the grass began to sprout. And then came the rain. Over the past week the grass has really started to grow quickly and strongly, and almost the whole patch is now green. But a trip down the garden two days ago revealed a very funny sight. All over that fertile ground, amidst the shoots of grass, are a hundred little tomato plants, lettuces, cucumbers, even melons. Seeds from the rotted fruit and veg in the compost heap? Last year’s seeds revived? A scattering blown by the wind? God knows best. But an autonomous vegetable patch in our lawn – yes. However we look at it, our lives remain in our Creator’s hands. We may convince ourselves that we have everything under control, but the truth is quite distinct. Oh for the parables of our lives.

Act 1883

As Robert Cottage from Colne, Lancashire, finally goes on trial at Manchester Crown Court, pleading guilty to possession of explosives, Home Secretary John Reid is set to address Christian children about looking for the tell-tale signs of extremism in their parents.

Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, came under fire last night for his call to ban Orthodontist Ghettos last month after retired dentist, David Jackson of Nelson, Lancashire, denied both charges* under the Explosive Substances Act.

Both men have been charged under the Explosive Substances Act 1883, which was designed particularly for white people who cannot be charged under recent “anti-terror” legislation because it would be unsightly.

Mr Cottage denies conspiracy to cause an explosion. Alistair Webster QC, defending, said Mr Cottage was a former BNP candidate and had been the subject of threats. Mr Cottage accepted the possession charge on the basis that the explosives were designed to deter attacks on his property, Mr Webster said. When police raided his house on 28 September 2006 they discovered 21 types of chemicals which, when combined, could form explosives. Ball bearings – which the prosecution claim could be used as shrapnel for explosive devices – were also found, along with four air pistols.

In a statement released this morning, the Community Cohesion Taskforce says it will be taking a long hard look at extremism amongst middle-aged Englishmen. The Minister in Charge said that community leaders must do more to combat the tide of radicalisation rising in our midst.

But it also sounded a note of caution in dealing with disaffected members of the largely peace-loving British population. “This is a sensitive issue,” said a spokesman, “It is not appropriate that we try to make political capital out of the case of two men found in possession of rocket launchers, a nuclear biological suit, extremist literature, a master plan and a large haul of bomb-making chemicals. We need to look at the underlying causes which are leading old English men towards extremism.’

Pressed on the question on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Tony Blair told John Humphries, ‘Those who don’t like our way our life, who don’t like our values, whose ideology is hate. They can just sod off.’

The trial continues today.

* Pardon the pun.

The return of the ragged Hajji

21 December 2006: It is our forth day in Medina in the warming heat of Arabia according to our own grand master plan. Shortly we will depart for Mecca and the wondrous House. Planned months in advance and carefully financed—ihram sourced a month before departure, suitcases packed two weeks before—but though we plot and plan, Allah is always the best of planners. Here I sit in my own study, warming myself against the icy air beside the radiator, the fog outside covering the hill across the valley, the house across the street obscured by this hanging haze.

Our flight was last Sunday, but it left without us. Awaiting our visas, Tuesday was the next available flight, but still our visas failed to materialise. We planned, hopefully, for Wednesday, but even if it had all come through our plane would have been grounded by the heavy fog suffocating Heathrow airport. Now we plan for Friday, our visas secure we believe, but the meteorologists think the fog will hold for another day or so. Perhaps we will fly on Saturday. Perhaps not. Perhaps we will fly to Mecca direct and there will be no Medina for us this time. Perhaps not. We plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. And Allah is ever with the patient.

We finally got on our way on Sunday 24 December after a couple of false starts, making our way to Stansted airport at half a day’s notice. How lovely to meet with our companions again, each face beaming despite the draining tensions of the past week and the many miles travelled my some of them to get here on time. An evening of further delays could not knock our patience now; we knew we had been called.

While preparing for Hajj, most of the advice I had received had seemed overwhelmingly negative, my well-meant counsellors insisting that they only intended to prepare me for the inevitable. Yet, good though their intentions were, their guidance merely filled me with gloom, undermining my emotional preparations for this incredible expedition. When I set out on my own journey, therefore, I was determined not to moan or fret and to count Allah’s blessings instead. And there were many, even before we arrived: the kindness of friends who dropped everything to take us to the airport, the generosity of airport security staff who took us back to the main terminal for food after the shops closed on Christmas Eve at our satellite gate, the free sandwiches from Pret. Not to mention beautiful company.

We arrived at Medina in the morning, circling the city and sending our salams to the Prophet as we glided above his mosque, its white minarets a centimetre apart, and descended through the cloudless cobalt sky for an easy landing. Alhamdulilah: another blessing. Although we were only able to stay there for two days, our visit was filled with great bounties. We spent wonderful moments in the Prophet’s mosque, visited Uhud and other significant sites, stocked up on provisions for our journey and found ourselves very well fed. It is strange to find that our stay was so short, for my memories could fill a week. How grateful I am to one of my companions who pulled me from my slumber before Fajr on Boxing Day: wearied by my lack of sleep, I would have snoozed until the last athan had he not reminded me where we were and the reward attached to it. Instead we hurried to the mosque to pray tahajud and contemplate on the magnificence of God’s creation, setting in place a routine for the remainder of our stay on sacred soil.

I was soon to discover that our expectations do not always mirror reality. On route to Mecca by bus, we found that the famous golden sand dunes depicted on the big screen in The Message were the product of artistic licence; we found a rock strewn, grey-brown volcanic landscape. After entering the state of Ihram our journey took all day, passing by with relative ease until our arrival at the outskirts of Mecca. There was plenty of cause to say Alhamdulilah: I was taken by the generosity of the charities that provided packed lunches and bottles of water for every pilgrim passing through. That feeling of gratitude was to repeat throughout our Hajj as we encountered the generosity of others.

Our Hajj however was not without its difficulties. In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.

Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But what of the businessmen who sell Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims only to leave the worshipers high and dry? Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship, just as with every period of hardship there came ease. Thus the most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’

Though we travelled as a group, we were all tested as individuals. Personally I found great ease—to the extent that I now fear my Hajj was wanting—but others in our group found our Hajj deeply challenging and a great test. Walking the Hajj made it for me, but was difficult for others. Our stay in the tents at Mina as orphans to another group was a beautiful experience for me—there I discovered one of my closest friends from England as well as folk from the two villages I lived in as a child—and yet it was an uncomfortable period of tension for others. Where there was difficulty though, it was always possible to see good and if not good at least humour: at Arafat I asked Allah to aid me in controlling my tongue and the very same night I lost my voice. In any case, I think all of us drew great inspiration from the most senior member of our group, whose great strength and perseverance throughout was a lesson for us all.

I do have regrets of course. The first is that I did not go to Hajj with a firm grounding in Fiqh. This personal preference arose after a snap decision that I made during the course of my Hajj rites which I immediately regretted and which continued to bother me until I had paid a penalty of compensation. Other regrets are more personal. At the end of the day, however, we can only do our best and overall my Hajj was a wonderful experience, even as the illness that started on my return from Arafat began to change my mood. On Hajj expectations rarely mirror reality: the image of Arafat in my mind was very different from what I found there, while Mudzalifa could not have been further removed. But more than that, I found myself often impressed when I had been prepared to be disappointed, humbled by the efforts of those who helped to make our pilgrimage what it was and grateful to have been invited to the House when I thought I was not ready. Labbaik Allah humma labbaik. Labbaik la sharika laka labbaik. Innal hamda, wan-ni’mata, laka walmulk. Laa sharika lak.

Ashura 1428

Undercover Wudu Area

Tonight on Dispatches – Muslim fundamentalists claim that cleanliness is next to Godliness, but our under cover investigation reveals an atmosphere of whiffiness spreading through Britain

Mullah Nasrideen: We Muslims have lost the mop

Abu Imran: Jif is bid’a

Sheikh Ahmed: If the toilet doesn’t flush, we throw in the towel

Part One

A Dispatches investigation has uncovered the stinkiest toilets in England, spreading from the basement of mosques run by major UK organisations which claim to be dedicated to the message of Islam, to cleanliness, good manners and civilisation.

Caption: Undercover filming

Our reporter went undercover last summer, joining thousands of worshippers. He’s staying anonymous. After his foot got trapped in the sink. The enamel had turned brown and smelt like chicken and rice.

Caption: 9 August 2006

Our undercover reporter discovered this toilet hasn’t been cleaned in three years. He asks the cleaner why?

Abu Imran: Why should I clean it? It has its own cistern. It automatically cleans itself when you flush. Brown is the new black anyway.

The imam didn’t want our reporter talking to the cleaner for long.

Mullah Nasrideen: This is exactly why we can’t afford toilet cleaning fluid. The man’s always talking. If he would just stop talking we might be able to afford some soap.

Shots of manual of Fiqh

This book contains a whole chapter on ritual purification. But our reporter filmed there in a mosque for over four months, and found that nobody cleaned the toilets once.

Reconstruction using actor
Reconstruction using actor

Fatima Khan investigates smelly toilets. She keeps her face hidden in interviews because of the dangers of her work; plungers and squat toilets are an explosive combination.

Fatima Khan: Muslims believe that cleanliness is half of the religion and that it’s next to Godliness, but nowadays the ummah is engaged in important debates about the kuffar, so we have to make compromises.

Not cleaning the toilet is opposed to the traditional beliefs of classical Islam, according to leading Muslim academic Dr Ali.

Dr Ali: We tell non-Muslims that our way of life is best, but they can smell that the stench coming from our bathrooms. We don’t understand the irony when we call them dirty kuffar.

Our undercover reporter discovered just how far the culture of leaving the toilets to clean themselves goes in mosques up and down the country when he dropped his hidden camera down the trap by accident. Find out what he discovered in Part Two.

Disclaimer: This is satire. It did not really happen, although, yes, it may sound familiar.

Hajj Bandits

In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.

Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But the bandits we encountered were the suave businessmen who sold Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds and leaving the worshipers high and dry. There were those who never left these shores, who stayed behind when they were told that their Hajj visas had been rejected. There were the others who arrived in Arabia only to discover that no accommodation had been arranged for them, and no transport, and nowhere to rest in Mina or Arafat. We met many of these despondent folk along the way.

Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship and with every period of hardship came ease. The most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’

Our agent would have had us believe that the Saudis were sitting on our visa application and were dragging their heels. Only, the leader of our group discovered that the Embassy did not even have our passports and had received no application on our behalf. Were it not for the kindest soul from another agency who came to our rescue to take these Hajj Orphans under his wing, we would have had no hope of standing on the Plain of Arafat or kneeling by the Prophet’s minbar. Blessings and trials. There was great beauty in our Hajj, great ease at times and bounty. And still sometimes there was hardship, even if only for moments.

Do the believers think they will be left to say, ‘We Believe’ and will not be tested? We have had our tests. But I wonder if the bandits — ancient and modern — realise that we are a test for them. Do they not think they will be asked?