Lessons from the garden

Often when I get to this point in the year I find myself looking back and reflecting on how quickly the past twelve months have seemed to have passed by. But this year quite the reverse is true: I’m not wondering where all the time went, but pondering how many memories seem to fill the past 300 days. The snow, the passing of a loved one, travels in Arabia, the hard slog in the garden, friends visiting-visiting, the adoption assessments, the family holiday, a month of fasting, visiting friends…  It has been a busy year.

Where the garden is concerned, it appears to be a metaphor for my entire life. Keeping it under control and pulling it into shape requires hard work of the highest order. Whenever I neglect it, it is suddenly sprawling out of control until only another bout of hard slog will suffice. It can be a disheartening affair. In late spring the garden was a picture of beauty—and in some ways my heart was in reasonable shape too—but by the end of summer it was a mess once more, and so too was my soul. It could be that hard work on the land is some kind of treatment for my soul.

Transforming a garden path from this…

to this…

was backbreaking work. But it was worth it. In the solitude of the task, I was found conversing within, carrying me far from the lower calls of my self. And at the end of the day, there was no energy left to sin.

I remember the pride when I conquered the vegetable patch, eradicating every weed in the ground…

but alas, weeding is a constant task and within weeks the weeds were once more dominating the plot, my pride long forgotten, as in my heart.

But perhaps there is reason to be optimistic. We conquered that old, rotting out-house…

though sometimes anger was my fuel, not protein.

And though sometimes it seemed like a mountain too vast to climb…

…in time, with patience and perseverance, and hard work, the unconquerable became but a distant memory…

until at last we achieved our goal.

But more to the point was the realisation that the true beauty of the garden is from Allah.

We don’t make the flowers bloom or call upon the butterflies.

We try our best in life, of course, but true beauty comes from above. With this realisation comes immesaurable ease.

Chasing wild geese

I opened The Independent this morning to find a photograph of someone I once knew staring back at me. An entire decade has passed since we last set eyes on one another, but this article by Johann Hari brought memories flooding back. Not because his article resonated with me, mind you, but because his narrative troubled me. In Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again, Hari presents that old acquaintance as an ex-Jihadi—or he presents him as presenting himself that way. But the fellow I knew back then was nothing of the sort.

I cannot say I was ever a close associate of his—and so it is quite possible that I missed the portion of the tale that Hari recounts in his article—but we did encounter one another frequently between 1997 and 1999, as we were both students at SOAS in central London.

I first encountered him in the student common room in our halls of residence on Pentonville Road, where he would play pool and chain-smoke cigarettes. He wore designer clothes, had a very fashionable hairstyle and was always cleanly shaven. His rhetoric constantly concerned neo-colonialism, but this never had much impact on me as a student of International Development, where the post-colonial discourse was already commonplace. At SOAS, his assault on the mischief of the West was nothing extraordinary, for the socialists’ arguments were the same.

Even as a non-Muslim I found myself socialising with him quite frequently through my Muslim pool-partner, whom I had met going to a bizarre comedy show at the student union earlier in the year. Our gatherings often took place on Friday evenings in the cafes of Edgware Road, where we would drink bitter black tea and smoke fruit-flavoured tobacco. Again, the talk was of neo-imperialism, of western-proxies ruling the Islamic world and the Khilafah, but memorably the sources were Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and John Pilger.

Those social meetings ceased when I became Muslim in 1998, as I considered the smoking and time-wasting un-Islamic, but I continued to encounter him on campus. I largely kept company with a group of apolitical Salafis at the time, who were fiercely critical of HT whom they considered to hold heretical beliefs. The Salafis believed that the Muslim world would only be reformed by individual Muslims reforming themselves and adhering to the sunnah, whereas HT had a Leninist view that change would come about upon the establishment of the State. Thus I frequently stumbled upon arguments between this fellow and my friends, with the latter mocking HT as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims.

I am puzzled, therefore, when Hari writes that my acquaintance, ‘wanted to be at the heart of the jihad’, for I never heard him talk about this even once, even theoretically. Instead he was perpetually obsessed with the idea that ‘intellectual argument’ would be the driver for change in the Muslim world. He went on about ‘intellectual arguments’ to such an extent that it became something of a joke amongst the other students.

I have no idea whether the tale of a coup plot involving junior Pakistani army officers is in any way true. However, it is the case that he was involved in an attempted coup in 1999 rather closer to home: not in dusty Karachi, but in the tiny second-floor prayer room at SOAS. Here he intended to wrest control of the Islamic Society from the Iqwanis, who had wrested control from the Salafis earlier in the year.

I know this, because he thought this quite amiable, decent chap would help him. His great talent, as I recall, was not so much in being able to convince people and win them over, but in talking them into submission. He would go on and on at you with circular arguments so that in the end you would agree with him just to be able to change the subject.

And so it was one day when he came over to my flat to argue that something had to be done about the Islamic Society, which he claimed was corrupt and unrepresentative of the Muslim students: he talked at my flatmate and me for ages until we finally agreed to put our names to his vote of no-confidence. Unfortunately he did not get the message when I rang him back to tell him I had changed my mind and the next I knew about it was when members of the Islamic Society came for me, demanding to know why my name was listed on a petition pinned to the notice board in the prayer room.

Alas, I never had the privilege of reading the notice, but was in any case called on to attend a special meeting of the Islamic Society to explain what it was all about, for the instigator had disappeared and was unreachable on his mobile phone. As in Hari’s article, he was never drawn on the details of this coup plot either, but it did make my remaining days at SOAS uncomfortable where the Islamic Society was concerned.

Meanwhile, he continued to organise lectures on campus, inviting academics like Fred Haliday to duels where he would demonstrate the power of his ‘intellectual arguments’. Nobody I knew ever considered him a jihadi, but only something of a friendly bore. Rather than taking him seriously, people dismissed him as a caricature socialist wrapped up in Muslim garb.

Reading Hari’s article, however, he sounds like a great Missionary, steaming off to one Muslim country and then another as if on an adventure inspired by Indiana Jones. Hari writes that he ‘decided to move on to Egypt’. Yet to say that he decided to move on to Egypt is to stretch language a little far. In reality he was undertaking a degree in Arabic at SOAS and was required to spend a year in Alexandria as part of the course, like every other student.

Even there his capacity to talk people into submission was well noted, even by his lecturers, who advised him to reign in his tongue. But he was not one to listen to such advice and was soon arrested for belonging to a banned political party. Upon his release several years later, he appeared on Hard Talk on the BBC News channel, still eloquently and passionately defending HT, once again talking of those ‘intellectual arguments’.

All these memories signal my trouble with Hari’s article. Yes, he was indeed a recruiter for HT and he was dedicated to this cause. But to claim he was a jihadi is to stretch the truth too far. Granted I never attended any of HT’s gatherings to learn what may have lain beyond the mockery of my friends; perhaps, if I had, I might have formed a different picture of him. But in the ordinary interaction between us, and in witnessing his debates with friends and his famous debates with secular academics, I believe I framed a fair picture of the man. He was a passionate and eloquent disputant, absorbed in the kind of post-colonial rhetoric common to many students of the time, like my many socialist acquaintances.

I am not dismissing his devotion to HT or excusing it. I am merely suggesting that the article I read this morning was full of exaggerations. I am not in denial about the threat of extremism within the Muslim community—indeed, I have noted elsewhere the advice I was given to steer clear of known extremists when I first became Muslim. My objection to Hari’s article is that for me it raised more questions than it answered.

Why, I find myself wondering, is it necessary to build oneself up as a great sinner who saw the light—like Paul on the road to Damascus—in order to denounce what is wrong? There are many, many Muslims who have been quietly, modestly, cautiously working on the ground to counter extremism for years and years. Theirs is a thankless task. Condemned by the extremists and ex-extremists alike, their work is ever more difficult. These men and women did not need to venture to the brink and back to realise that it was wrong; they had already delved into their faith and forged a forward path.

Should I be grateful that I saw that face peering back at me from the newspaper this morning, for reminding me of all of this? I’m not sure to be quite honest, but of one thing I’m pretty sure: Johann Hari has just been sent on a wild goose chase. I hope he realises this before he invests too much hope in his new found friends.

Credit where it’s due

The old Pakistani uncle at the mosque is due his seventy excuses too.[1. “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” — Hamdun al-Qassar, narrated by Imam Bayhaqi in his Shu`ab al-Iman 7.522.] People like me are often found muttering taciturn complaints about the unfriendliness we perceive in our fellow travellers when we come together for prayer. In weeks and weeks it could be as if we are not even there, as if ghosts standing in line.

But to give your brother seventy excuses was the lesson I learned when I returned to the mosque after some months’ absence. There was a time—when I was doing better—that saw me hurry there for every prayer, until laziness got the better of me. My Lord would note my disappearance, I told myself, but no one else would miss me.

I was wrong. As I wandered into the mosque that afternoon, an old, white-haired man with weak English got up from his place and headed straight for me. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked me, ‘We thought you’d fallen dead.’

A minute later another approached to ask after me. Had I been away? Had I been ill? Um, no, I muttered, I’ve just… ‘Well as long as you’re alive and well,’ he interjected, sensing my inability to account for the months that had passed.

It is difficult to prise many words from these old folk. Salam alaikum is usually all they will spare, or the occasional, ‘How are you brother?’ We don’t have conversations, but that afternoon encounter taught me much. Perhaps they’re shy. Perhaps English isn’t their strong point. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to strike up the discussion. Perhaps their mind is on the prayer. Perhaps they have problems at home on their mind. And for the literalist, this is only seven percent of the excuses due to them.

Nowadays I attend the midday prayer each working day in another town. The folk there don’t seem all that friendly either, but here I have learnt to give them their seventy excuses too. We may not sit and chat when we come together for prayer, but still we are brothers to one another, witnessed in random acts of kindness.

My office lies a fifteen minute walk from the mosque—a hurried march there beside main roads set apart from my leisurely saunter back along the cobbled streets of the old town. It is in this daily journey that I learned my lesson, for I have lost count of the number of times someone has stopped to give me a lift. Often I don’t even recognise them as they come to a halt beside me, tooting their horn, but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Salam alaikum,’ they say as I peer in at them, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Or, ‘You’re going to miss the jamat. Jump in.’

Most of the time we don’t strike up conversation. We exchange salams and I reiterate my gratitude, but that’s it. But it does not matter. These random acts of kindness serve to remind me that things are not always as they seem. When someone is silent it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you; they may just have nothing to say.

Sometimes I am too hard on people, jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about them. And sometimes I fail to give credit where it’s due. Bumping into a couple of friends from Arab lands after Friday prayer one week, conversation soon turned on our favourite bugbear: the incomprehensible Urdu speech followed by the hastily sung generic Arabic sermon. It’s a problem, I had to agree, but then another thought occurred to me. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘were it not for these people, we wouldn’t have a place to pray at all.’

Beside me, my friend stopped and smiled. ‘That’s very true,’ he said, and soon we were considering our own shortcomings. And there were many.

Killing

Why all the killing? I really cannot comprehend it at all. A bomb planted in a Peshawar marketplace extinguishes the lives of 91 in an instant as it rips through everything in its path; 200 more are left injured. Just a matter of hours earlier 150 are slaughtered in Baghdad.

Islam holds that indiscriminate violence is makruh (offensive) on the battlefield and haram (forbidden) in a place where there are civilians. This slaughter follows not the sunnah of our Prophet, upon whom be peace, but that of the twentieth century, during which 250 million people were needlessly killed. Fifteen million during the First World War, 9 million during the Russian Civil War, 20 million under Stalin’s regime, 55 million during the Second World War, 2.5 million during the Chinese Civil War, and on, and on.

Who gave Muslims permission to adopt the sunnah of the Luftwaffe and RAF, who once championed terror bombing for utilitarian ends? And who gave them permission to abandon the sunnah of the Messenger, peace be upon him, which forbade attacks on non-combattants?

Who now will stand up to the killers and defend our deen and the common man? If a man in the midst of this anarchy must now blunt his sword and resign himself to a fate like that of the better of the two sons of Adam, does the burden then pass to those of us living in safety and security?

For years Muslims have lamented that though we condemn terrorism repeatedly, nobody hears us. But today we realise that all this time we have been addressing the wrong ears. Those who needed to hear us were not our angry neighbours, but those men wielding high explosives and an alien utilitarian way.

Amidst the carnage of a bombed-out marketplace, who now will make themselves heard?

In their words

Some of my friends are angry with me, dispatching lengthy emails voicing their dissatisfaction. I know I should be hurt and offended, but instead I find myself thinking that this is just the voice of the Divine, revealing itself through His creation. I could compose great tracts in my defence, but I fear it would be futile. My friends, no doubt, have legitimate gripes, but it is the anger of my Lord that concerns me. Yes, I have been a fool of late, hurtling off once more towards oblivion, and my Lord witnesses all things. Is anger not His right? The friend rails against what they see—or what they think they see—but with the Lord of all the Worlds feeble petitions such as mine carry no weight, for He knows both the inner and the outer, the hidden and the seen. How much better to be called to account by friends, causing a moment’s discomfort and then reform, than to awake on a Mighty Day to witness one’s utter downfall? With the last of the epistles comes not a rush to pen excuses, but instead to return to my Lord, prostrate. Alas, the call to foolish things is strong, pulling hard from within. But in the fallible words that call me to account are the echoes of my state. So slowly comes the acceptance that there is only one path for me. Struggle, I tell myself reluctantly; struggle in His Way.

The curse of addiction

There is a disease that I have harboured for the best part of my life. It accompanied me as a child, an adolescent and an adult; as a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic and a Muslim; and in times of both health and sickness. I would define it as a disease of the soul — a spiritual malady — that stifles realisation of any lofty goals. As familiar symptoms return as the years pass by, it becomes ever more apparent that it is an addiction. I turn to treat it frequently and promise to abstain, but in time the cravings become too intense, sometimes manifesting themselves in physical form, and once more I succumb.

In my mind’s eye, I can map out every resolution of reform, for I have long recognised the nature of this disease, striving to conquer it whenever the moment of clarity descends. There was that cold night on Christmas Eve — perhaps 1990 — sitting alone in my bedroom, my parents at church for the midnight service, the window obscured by condensation; I sat on my bed with my bible between my palms, conversing inwardly on the sudden urge to seek out righteousness in place of this affliction. I resolved to displace the ailment with faith and determined to focus on the bible now, reading it from cover to cover, penning my own copy in the process. What happened thereafter, I do not recall, but it is most likely that I forgot my pledge as the sun rose on Christmas morning and the celebrations carried us away.

Another resolution came in my second year of university. The virus was becoming epidemic, infecting every private moment, calling me towards ever lower depths and pulling me closer and closer to despair. My conversation with this agnostic’s God became hopeless, giving in to a grim fate after a death that somehow felt so close. Then one morning I arose and took to the streets of London in a crisp, cool sunlight, the sky an enlivening blue. My steps were aimless, but I ended up in the Regent’s Park, cutting through its beautiful gardens with my mind a million miles away from there, until all of a sudden I was very much there and abruptly conscious of myself. In that instant came a prayer: a resolution of instant reform and dedication to my Lord. In the days that followed I made contact with evangelists and took up their invitations of months before.

Such resolutions — and my revulsion for myself — became key drivers of my search for God and faith. It felt over those first days and weeks after my testimony of faith, months after that Saturday sojourn, as if a great burden had lifted. With belief in God and His messenger came a desire to be good now. The weather was hot and dusty in the city that summer, yet it was in my mind that I felt my sins burning up and blowing away in the wind like parched dust. I had broken the chains, I naively thought, as I adjusted myself to my new-found faith.

This disease, however, is pervasive and deeply ingrained. I frequently blame the television of childhood and the gaze of my infant eyes for planting the seed that has grown and grown, until it has become more rampant than the Russian Vine in my garden, or like the Bamboo the previous owners foolishly thought fit to plant. The kernel of this ill may have been miniscule, but the years have fed and nurtured it, creating a monster whose shoots push up from a new fragment of root whenever another is cut off and cured.

Another marker on the map comes to mind as if it were only yesterday. It had not taken a year for this soul to relapse into the ways of old — in fact it may have only taken a matter of weeks — and soon the self would justify its conduct, normalising it and dismissing the significance of such minor matters. But in time this would dissatisfy me, for I could not promise that the minor would not become major and undermine whatever I had achieved. It was a realisation that struck me one late spring day in 1999.

I had finished my studies for the day and was heading back to my flat beside Waterloo Bridge on the southern bank of the Thames. My saunter, as always, had carried me along the western edge of Russell Square, along Montague Street, half-way up Great Russell Street and down Museum Street. Now I was meandering up Drury Lane. Half way along my portion of the street I sidestepped Jay Kay from Jamiroquai as he got out of his Lamborghini[1. Fame had clearly aborted the environmental message of his early lyrics.], but inner thoughts prevented me from glancing back or lusting for his Italian marque. I was mulling over reform: the time had come, I was telling myself, to finally conquer that disease. A voice was asking questions: will you really abandon all of that, when your life is so long and you so weak? But my mind was suddenly conscious of the Hour and mindful of punishment if nothing changed, and convinced that death could come at any minute. As I cut onto Bow Street I arrived at a reluctant retort. Yes, I would abandon my addiction and dedicate myself to God and His way.

Why I remember that conversation as if it were yesterday, I do not know, except that it was a pledge that I failed to keep. Weeks would pass — perhaps even months —when I would persevere patiently, ignoring the call of the ogre within, but eventually I would succumb to it. How many times I have resolved to reform and overcome this great infection, I cannot say or count. Another conversation came one hot afternoon on my return from Friday Prayer on an early summer’s day in Ealing. Another came on a painfully frosty night in mid-winter as I awaited a train to carry me home.

I oscillate continuously between a call to righteousness and the call of a pervasive addiction that never seems to leave me, regardless of good intentions or the sincerest resolve to leave it behind. It is what evangelists refer to as ‘the addictive grip of sin’ and what Muslims call ‘the domineering nafs’. I call it my great test, and it is a test I would not wish on anyone.

The past two or three years, I fear, have been worse than those earlier years. My memory fails me, of course, for in the continuum of life it is the same old-same old. But worse because I now know better: because a teacher has taken time to explain the stages of the nafs and provided the tools to overcome such burdens, because I have awoken to the necessities of faith, because I am supposed to be older and wiser now. My faith provides the resources to climb to a great height, but there is no instant panacea for any ill; we are required to exert effort, to persevere and be strong — as in any field of life — or else we fail.

Earlier this year I believed that I had cured my addiction. Months passed when its symptoms ceased, when I preoccupied myself with other tasks in order to dull its calls, when I shut down each avenue that would lead to this giant’s reawakening. Imagine if I had succeeded! In my mind it is like a golden ticket — if only I could grasp it, I tell myself, I could then progress. What a blessing to be close to one’s Lord! What a blessing to earn His pleasure! What a blessing to rise in rank before Him! But alas!

I must have compromised somehow — opened the door a crack — for all my achievements of the early part of the year have now been lost and reduced to just a distant memory. Could I not just repent and start over? If I have achieved forty days once, can I not again? If I have achieved sixty, why not try to better it, and gradually — pole pole ndio mwendo[2. A Swahili proverb that roughly translates as, “Slowly, slowly fills up the bowl”.]— build up some kind of immunity? I should aspire to that, at least, I know, but with each resolve to return to God my determination weakens. Mankind will never comprehend the mercy of God; when we despair of His mercy, it is really despair of ourselves, for though our Lord can forgive a world’s weight of sin and more, man is short on tolerance. Yet in truth it is not disbelief in God’s mercy at all, but rather surrender to addiction.

Two weeks ago came that resolve to turn to righteousness and abandon foolish ways. I knelt in prayer and tried my best to eradicate every trace of the poison that had welled up like a bitter sore. But soon the cynic within was once more whispering those familiar counter-arguments, chiselling open the crack, nudging the door back open. And so, so soon, the foolish ways returned, each period of reform narrowing against the last, until it is but a slither of time: the proverbial mustard seed, perhaps. Last night, again I resolved to change, to strive in His way. But by morning I could hear the virus calling.

And now? What now? My sorrow stems from my acute awareness of the affliction. Were I an ignorant fool succumbing amidst blindness to the realities around me, surely I would find respite. But instead I am a learned fool: one that knows of right and wrong, good and bad, of the diseases and cures of the heart. For such a fool, what hope could there possibly be, except the undeserved mercy of His Lord?

All of this, my dear friends, is the woeful curse of addiction, the oscillation of the wayward soul. So don’t be a fool like me, my friends. Shelter yourself and your children from the poisons of this world, and seek refuge in your Lord.

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.[1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)] In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’[2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds) ] with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.[3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18 ] To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”[4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31]

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’[5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44] And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’[6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34] let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.[7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994]

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.[8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14] A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.[9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack ] It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

To beard or not to beard

I have long been one of those admirers of the Muslim woman, who says, ‘How I wish I had faith the strength of theirs.’ For to take upon a visual marker of identity outside the norms of society and to wear it whenever one wanders into the public eye takes great courage. Observing English women wrapping their heads in fabric soon after embracing the deen, I used to wonder at their faith. Had I been born on that side of the gender divide, I would ask myself, would I have had the daring to envelop myself in that unfamiliar garb?

The mirror, however, has been speaking to me these past few days and it has reminded me of the shortcomings of my biased admiration. The act of revealing one’s beliefs through the physical is not confined to Muslim women alone. For the Muslim man, the clearest marker is his beard. It is true, of course, that a beard does not automatically identify one as a Muslim, whereas the hijab, except amongst the unenlightened,[1. My wife has been mistaken for a nun on several occasions — white skin, you see.] almost always does.

I believe it takes great courage to wear a headscarf — not to mention persistence, tolerance and fortitude. I have often heard it said that some women find wearing the hijab saves time getting ready to go out, but I can’t think how this could possibly be true, for it takes me at least ten minutes and numerous pricks to my fingertips to close a safety-pin if I can’t see it — and you don’t have to iron your hair.[2. Although I have glanced in the mirror half-way through a working day and realised that I still have punk tufts all over my scalp too many times to count.] Of course it may well be true in the case of the Afghan veil or Somali khimar, but I am hugely doubtful that sartorial convenience is utmost in the minds of those who choose to cover.

You must have a certain determination and spiritual height, I am often found reflecting, to move amongst people who are commonly contemptuous of your faith, announcing by your appearance that you are a Muslim. Although only Allah knows what our hearts contain, to me it signifies a level of iman worthy of respect.

Yet the mirror speaks: at least the act of putting on a headscarf is within the woman’s control. So long as a woman has enough money to buy a metre of fabric, she can consider herself a hijabi. Her male counterpart, however, is at the mercy of his biology. While she decides whether it will be a pashmina or a khimar, and black or blue, or floral, and cotton, wool or nylon, he stands there wondering if it will become a thick Afghan mane or a straggly Malaysian outcrop, or if it will forever remain a single whisker dangling on the end of his chin.

Adopting the hijab can be a slow process, involving a readjustment of one’s mindset — and that of one’s friends — sometimes stepping from bandanna to scarf and back again. Yet once a decision to wear a headscarf has been made, the transformation is immediate. A scarf does not grow in patches. By contrast, for some of us, the road towards achieving anything even resembling a beard can be a long one, complete with the accompanying chastisement and mockery favoured by those around us.

Pious Muslims — both men and women — like to remind the fresh-faced ones of their grave shortcomings. I decided to grow a beard when I became Muslim in 1998, believing it to be obligatory, but over the years that followed others would pick up on my lack of facial hair and find my faith wanting. Attending a series of lectures, three months after I became Muslim, somebody twice asked the speaker if growing a beard was fard. Each time the respected teacher answered the question with the affirmative, he looked directly at me. My three whiskers were inadequate there, but still I persevered. My family and friends did not need to sit staring at my chin as we conversed, for I knew that I looked peculiar, but for the next few years they always would, whenever we met, without fail. I would console myself, imagining an angel swinging beneath my chin as in a hadith I had once heard.

As the years passed by, my whiskers gradually multiplied, resembling a tray of salad cress as they grew longer. With them came more mockery. ‘What’s with his chin?’ a consultant would ask a colleague, who insisted on calling me d’Artagnan. ‘He’s a Muslim,’ she would reply with raised eyebrows, sniggering something about my three musketeers. Now they call me Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare at work. Cryptically they ask me how the novel’s coming along before guffawing, ‘Shakespeare!’ yet again — I don’t have the heart to tell them that he was a playwright, not a novelist. It amuses me, somehow.

The mirror has been reminding me of all this since the end of Ramadan. For the first time in my life, something resembling a beard has begun to populate my face, sparse though it remains to the casual observer. I am fortunate to discover that medicines sometimes have beneficial side effects. Though the pious ones still turn away, dismissing my corruption of the sunnah, for me it is a start. Some are unable to comprehend that it could take eleven years to grow a beard, or that one could fail to grow one at all.

Though I have long been an admirer of the Muslim woman’s faith, the mirror proposes that the Muslim man’s faith is no less meagre. The visual marker that he takes on may not provide that instant flash of identity recognition, setting him at odds with the people around him. But somewhere in the process — whisker to goatee to garibaldi — as a mass of evidence amounts that it is not worth the trouble, it becomes self-evident that we persevere for a reason. The Muslim woman does not wear her headscarf to avoid brushing her hair in the morning. The Muslim man does not grow a beard because it saves money on razors. We persevere, in the face of criticism and mockery, because we want to please our Lord. It is only one aspect of our faith — and it is our hearts and our deeds that concern our Lord — but it is still a start.

Risk Assessment

Dear Editors,

Explain to me, would you, what this means: ‘Sebastian Faulks outburst risks anger of Muslims’? Or this: ‘Sebastian Faulks has risked sparking Muslim outrage…’

Does it mean that you have not yet found any angry Muslims and you’re stirring? Or is it just that you’ve taken your risk assessment training a tad too seriously?

‘The bestselling author Sebastian Faulks has courted controversy by saying the Koran has “no ethical dimension”.’

He has courted controversy, has he? And how is his courtship going? Are Muslims engaging, or as it seems to me, are they too preoccupied with a month of fasting and prayer to lap up this manufactured schism? The comment fields are filling up with condemnation of backward Muslims who have no respect for free speech, for sure, but the Muslim voice is strangely absent. Hence ‘risk’.

As for you, Mr Mair, what was with that package on PM last night? No, don’t get me wrong, it was quite fascinating and instructive. I was just wondering about the invitation of Fay Weldon. Well, when I say wondering, I mean I was thinking, ‘Good choice’. For it was Fay Weldon, was it not, whose contribution to the Satanic Verses affair was:

‘The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based. It gives weapons and strength to the thought-police — and the thought-police are easily set marching, and they frighten’ (Sacred Cows, 1989, p.6)

And when I say, ‘Good choice’, I really mean — well — on a discussion concerning the literary merits of the Qur’an versus the Old Testament, you could have invited a doctor of literature, an Old Testament scholar, one of the non-Muslim translators of the Qur’an. Rather than an author who is more associated with fictional tales of women trapped in oppressive scenarios. Though I admit, her contribution wasn’t lacking in that regard.

So a good choice if you’re stirring and you’d rather like to move beyond the ‘risk’ stage and onto to something more compelling. Effigies, bonfires, that kind of thing. Indeed, one blogger has already titled his post, ‘I smell a fatwa’ in anticipation. It would be a shame to disappoint.

But perhaps not the best choice if you seriously wanted to enlighten your listeners on the merits of one over the other. Never mind, we had Dr Mir. I can’t say I was awfully disappointed.

My dear editors — pardon me if I speak out of turn — but is it possible that you misjudged this one? Ever so slightly? I don’t even think Mr Faulks needs the publicity; his book seems to stand up on its own merits in the reviews I’ve read.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to risk assessments (for I really must give you the benefit of doubt on this). No, I think they’re a jolly good thing. Indeed, I often think to myself, ‘If only I had done a risk assessment’ when another DIY job has gone terribly wrong.

No, it’s just that while undertaking your risk assessments, in order to have quantified the probability of Muslim anger properly, as well as identifying the hazard (Mr Faulks’ opinion) you really should have quantified exposure to the hazard, taking into account all of the environmental factors relevant to the case. Factors, I might posit, such as the fact that Muslims are currently fasting the month of Ramadan, which has numerous implications.

For example, it could be argued that a person who rises at 3.00am in the morning to take breakfast and then abstains from eating anything until just after 8.00pm might possibly feel somewhat weary, thus exhibiting less interest in manufactured schisms than usual.

Similarly it could be argued that a person who is spending their free time reading the Qur’an and standing the night in prayer, both ingrained habits of this month, may fail to get full exposure to said manufactured schism. Indeed, since many Muslims abstain from TV and internet use during this month, we are at risk of seeing the risk severely diminished.

Furthermore, you might possibly find that conditions of the fast such as restraining oneself from getting angry and holding one’s tongue from ill-considered speech lessens the likelihood of the full blown riot required. I could list other factors, but you’re intelligent folk; you get the gist.

Therefore, dear editors, I suggest you sit on this story for the time-being and then pull it out just as Parliament is debating the Religious Hatred Bill or something. Obviously you will have to think of another piece of legislation, as you used said Bill in 2006 when the issue of the Danish cartoons miraculously reappeared all across the media three months after the actual incident.

Not quite sure how you’ll bring it up again post-Ramadan; with the cartoon issue you had the redundancies at Arla foods. Perhaps when Mr Faulks gets nominated for the Booker Prize and you run the story, you could add this line: ‘Faulks courted controversy in August when he said…’ Well, you know the script already.

Risk assessments are all well and good. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for not publishing the story when you have a non-story.  I know it’s us who look stupid when you run these stories, but the ultimate judge of stupidity lies elsewhere.

Kind regards,

etc. etc.

Sunset visitor

Every evening as Maghrib calls, a baby fox appears at our back door, ready to pounce… on a pair of slippers or a football. We have learned not to leave the garden flip-flops out now, for otherwise we will find them abandoned on the lawn in the morning, mildly chewed. So now the fox just stands there watching as we bow in prayer and then scarpers as we fall prostrate.

Technolust

It is unsettling that I have a daily routine almost as regular as my five prayers: to peruse the online press for the latest reviews of the latest Netbook computers to go on sale. I am amazed by these little machines: attracted by their looks and fascinated by their form.

But just as the full force of this addiction kicked in, carrying me to Comet and Dixons to see numerous examples for real, a subtle realisation dawned… Actually, I have no need for a Netbook. I have an aging, second-hand laptop, which though far from perfect, serves my needs satisfactorily, and a desktop computer too. The truth is I’m suffering from technolust.

Over the years I have made myself deeply unpopular with acquaintances by voicing my fears of technolust aloud. Though undoubtedly irritating, every plea is heartfelt at the time. In a discussion on the merits of the iPhone vs the Blackberry, I will be found remonstrating that last year’s phone will suffice. My acquaintances respond in anger, demanding to know why I must inject irrelevant ideas into their discussions. Why don’t I just bog off, is the gist, though it is expressed with far more elegance.

Yet in truth I seek not to be a thorn in their sides. It is just that such discussions remind me of my own technolust. Yes, I really, really want a Netbook… but actually I have no need for one at all. It would just be a bit of a toy. Sure, we can all talk about the need to post our Twitter updates, to check our email and to post to our Blog wherever we are in the world. But actually that isn’t a need at all. It is a want and it is technolust. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.

I have always had this fear of gadgetry, or more specifically the cost of gadgetry. In my youth I was found yearning partly after a romantic past of subsistence farming and partly after a clean future harnessing the power of river currents. At university I studied environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, seeking out low impact technologies to carry us forward.

And then I became a Muslim and learned that the best of our community lived lives that had minimal impact on the world around them. Some of the rulers of the early Muslim ummah shunned stallions to walk on the earth with humility. At night they slept like paupers. Their garments were unpretentious and their possessions few. Their lives mirrored the great sentiments of the gospels I had been raised upon.

And so what is the cost of our technolust? To the earth, the cost is great. To regional peace and stability, the cost is huge, fuelling mineral wars and civil strife all over. To our spiritual growth, only God surely knows. Our deen encourages restraint in terms of the food that passes our lips, the words that slip from our tongues, the gaze of our eyes and our craving for the delights of the world. For me, technolust is a modern extension of age-old trials. Yes, my injections into many a conversation are irritating, but they come from these thoughts. Ultimately the cause of my discomfort is my accountability before my Lord.

Nowadays such fears are quite inconvenient for I am paid to build websites and web applications, to keep abreast of the latest technologies and push boundaries. Websites — like this blog — depend on servers, and vast server farms exist to keep today’s internet running.

I believe I am a realist. Technology brings us great advantages, from CAT scanners and digital x-rays at the hospital to the washing machines and cookers in our homes, or from the video messaging allowing families scattered around the world to communicate face-to-face to the mobile phone enabling one to call for help in an emergency. Tis great and wondrous indeed.

But there is a line — I believe — somewhere here, but it is one that shifts constantly, blurring benefit, need and want. Many humans live comfortably without access to washing machines, but for those of us who have never known the world without them, such machines are considered a necessity. To speak with certainty about technolust is difficult in such shifting sands, but I believe we do retain a measure. It is our heart.

When the heart whispers that it is technolust, it probably is. When the heart whispers that we cannot justify spending all that money on yet another gadget, it is probably true. And when we look in our cupboards and see all of those other gadgets we thought we needed before, we can surely consider this a guide as well.

The cravings for the Netbook — or whatever the next gadget of the day would be — are certainly strong — but I am not going to fool myself with talk of some great need. I love shiny gadgets as much as the next man, but truth will always prevail. Though what I want is great, what I actually need is little; with the realisation that I suffer from technolust comes the recognition that somewhere in-between will suffice. Eat from the good things of the earth, yes, but do not go to extremes.

Deify not mere mortals

Deify not mere mortals, for it is liable to end in tears, nor set out seeking their approval. This is the lesson we learned when we admired the writer too much and praised them beyond their station, forgetting mashaAllah and subhanAllah, forgetting that everything is by the will of God. When we forgot our manners, we slaughtered our friend.

Is it not the case that when the Prophet — peace be upon him — heard a man praise another man with exaggeration, he said, ‘You have destroyed the man’s back’? And did he not tell his companions to throw dust into the faces of those who praised people in their presence?

It is the case, but we were oblivious, building the author up, not realising that we were cutting them down. Who knows if it was you or I that destroyed the writer, with our admiring glances and praising words? Who knows the harm we caused when we overstepped the line? Who knows, except Allah?

Deify not mere mortals, for only One deserves our praise. Seek not the approval of mere mortals, for it is by Allah alone that we are judged. Look within to purify your words and, from this day forth, seek only the favour of your Lord.

What purpose have I?

Remember when you ask yourself, “What purpose have I?” that you have a purpose. It is easy to delete your email address, to cut yourself off, to head for the hills and vanish—it is easy to hide yourself away, but you will forever remain in hearts of the people you touched. Remember as you head for self-destruction, throwing yourself to oblivion, abandoning all that went before: yes, you have a purpose. Not for nought was all of this created!

The restoration

The past two weeks have seen this blog go through the full mid-life crisis. First going into maintenance mode, then reappearing for a couple of days, then being deleted and replaced with the finale from a Walt Disney cartoon, then momentarily restored, only to be shunted into a sub-directory, to be abandoned in favour of a much needed sort-out of my scattered study notes.

This morning—thanks to a long chat with a trusted advisor last evening—I have put everything back as it was two weeks ago, and I have locked up the notes repository to spare the general public my mistakes; if they do make it back into the public domain at some point in the future, it will only be once they have been checked, edited and put into the right order. Patience is then the order of the day in that regard.

Of course, it wasn’t this inanimate website that had a little crisis; that was me. Blame it on the maddening antics of friends on Facebook that caused me to flee the technology in an instant, blaming the tool instead of dominating nafs; indeed, just as I deleted my blog, so I deleted numerous other online accounts that I have accumulated over the years. Or blame online discussions that to me resemble backbiting and mere gossip—two of the deeds condemned by our deen—that inspired me to rid myself of any blame by association. Or blame the way I stumbled once more soon after venturing back online after many weeks away. Or simply blame my numerous insecurities, my persistent fear of my use of words, the lack of constancy in my life, the wavering between certainty and doubt.

I might blame all of these, but I blame too the lowly character traits of mine that arise from time to time: pride, arrogance, the ego, the desire to be known, respected and liked. Yes, this much is true. This web of little boxes connected by cables all over the world is like a plain upon which we amass our troops, ready to battle our corner for the diseases of our hearts. We fire off rounds and shells: the cruise missile called “respect me”, the scud-missile called “don’t condemn me”, the atomic bomb called “I respect you, so you MUST respect me”—mutually assured destruction?

Yes, I have witnessed all of this in myself, and as a true soldier I kept on fighting my corner right up until last night, even after I had pulled the plug on the website. Because even pulling the plug was part of the battle: it is the ego, the desire to be seen. One’s intention, as we know, is as difficult to detect as black ants crawling on a black stone at night. Even so, as we attune ourselves to our heart as the years pass by, we soon learn that we cannot escape the two witnesses of the heart: God and ourselves.

The games we play are incredible, rekindling the inner child with every passing day. A visitor shall respond, “Actually you’re wrong.” But the inward gaze laments that I’m not wrong at all, and so I can only envy that one that has conquered the calls of his nafs and the whispers of the rejected one. To that one I must repeat that I only know what my own soul contains; you have your journey and I have mine.

My foray into the world of “blogging” has been recent. Prior to mid-2005 I had never heard of a blog—or if I had, I had never given it any thought. I had created a website in 2001 and had occasionally added an article to it over the years that followed, but by 2005 it seems that I was totally out of touch with the technologies of the Internet—my websites were all still static affairs, using table-based layouts and plain HTML. Even a cascading style sheet was a mystery to me.

I believe it was an article in a computer magazine that first pushed me towards creating a blog. I read it in the week that four bombs exploded on the London public transport system and suddenly I had a need to write, to work things out of my system. I googled for a blogging platform and promptly minted one using the first offering that came up. The Neurocentric—my journey of a self-centred soul from my student days—was thus resurrected on Blogger, shedding the sarcasm that my magazine column was famous for in favour of an intense inward gaze. Soon I was hammering out my thoughts, spewing my anger onto the keyboard, relieving the heaviness within.

Google also provided my first link into the world of Muslim blogging. I had no connections with Muslims in cyberspace, for all of my friends were three-dimensional folk. So my search would have been, “blog islam”. The first site I discovered was Yusuf Smith’s Blogistan, and I don’t believe I got much further than this, for his site was the gateway to this corner of the internet; had I hit upon SalafiManhaj, my virtual world could have been entirely different. Br Yusuf had carefully collected a huge list of Muslim blogs, categorised as “Brothers” and “Sisters”, and so I was soon clicking away in my discovery of this other world. He also had a small collection of links entitled, “A-List Blogs”, which would soon become my staple: sunnissisters, izzymo, writeoussister, ae and rolleduptrousers, plus Bin Gregory because I liked the name.

But for me, blogging was not so much about reading what everyone else had to say as about writing, or more specifically, counselling myself with words. That period—however long it lasted—wrought good and bad for me: the bad in an intense depression brought on by unsuccessful medical treatment, the stress of moving house and a disastrous change of job; the good in the bad leading me to re-evaluate my priorities and refocus on my deen. The writing was a kind of therapy, complimented by the words of others, far wiser than I. The blog known as Sunnisisters was the jewel in the crown, always providing exactly what this soul needed exactly when it was needed. Like early in 2006, a post brimming with useful guidance on fasting the Day of Ashurah in Muharram, about which I had been oblivious. Or a beautiful post about the importance of being disciplined in the use of words.

Though, ever since I entered this world of blogging, I have frequently had the urge to walk away, in truth I have benefited from it enormously. Yes, from thinking things through and receiving feedback on my thoughts, and in encountering the words of others. Over the net I hear rumours that the world of the Muslim blog is imploding as battles rage on, but in truth there has been more benefit here for me than the despair that others speak of. Perhaps my blog vision is just too narrow to know much of the wider web. I have moved on beyond that famed A-List, discovering the wonders of Dynamite Soul and Mr Moo, but I am no adventurer: I can count the websites I visit regularly on my finger tips.

Despair descends suddenly and this imperfect soul is well known to waver and stumble, between its bouts of constancy. With the despair come doubts about one’s worth, or the worth of one’s efforts, and so it is only natural that I should return to the same old argument within, between keeping the blog and closing it. But it also helps to step back and be reflective, to evaluate the good as well as the bad, the benefit as well as the harm. Sometimes we can do this alone, but sometimes it takes an outsider to help us see an issue in its proper light. For some, the world of the blog has run its course: they have nothing more to take from it and nothing more to add. But the blog, as a trusted advisor told me last night, still has its place, and can still be a worthwhile pursuit and can even be important.

Somewhere in this jumble, splurged onto the page, is some kind of explanation of how he persuaded me to carry on and keep it up, and keep at it. Yes, with words come responsibility, but that is not only to be silent, but to convey truth, goodness and beauty as well. And so I am here to say, inshaAllah.

Beauty

It is said that Moses—peace be upon him—was walking with his disciples when they came across a donkey’s corpse.

One of them said it smells so bad. The other said it looks so ugly. Moses, however, looked and said: ‘Mashallah, its teeth are so white.’

  • The gratefulness of the ears is to hear goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the eyes is to see goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the tongue is to say goodness with it.

There is beauty around but it’s for the trained ear, eye and heart.

Anger

Last week I was saying alhamdulilah for words that made me angry, for I thought it was fuel to help me get a job done. I was going to write a post about how anger—when channelled in the right direction—can be something positive, and something useful. Anyway, I didn’t have time in the end, because I was busy channelling my anger towards that stubborn concrete.

It turns out that it wasn’t a very nuanced argument at all. I mean, I’m sure there is truth in this point in general, but it wasn’t a great example. True, I smashed my way through a third of it with an energy I probably could not have mustered in my usual melancholy state.

True indeed, but I also badly damaged my wrist.I know, to you it’s obvious that if the sledgehammer will fracture reinforced concrete, it will do the same to bone if you let it. But you have to understand: this rage was a fuel, and I was writing out the blog post to accompany it in my head as I worked: I had to carry on to prove my point.

Plonker. By the end of the week I couldn’t even carry a bag with that arm, let alone finish the job.

Yes, so I hired a Bosch breaker on Saturday and finished the job in half an hour.

Hmm, nice. I spent every evening after work on that job, and I could have just hired the machine and saved myself the trouble. It’s so funny that I was coming up with this argument about the benefits of anger as I worked. Because now all I can think of is a saying of our blessed Prophet, upon whom be peace.

‘The strong man is not the one who is strong at wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger.’


Do the flowers bloom in rage?

Obsessive Compulsive 2.0

I’m not really sure about this Web 2.0 malarkey. I’ve just deleted my Facebook account again. Last time it was because I imagined a fantastical conspiracy in which key investors were databasing our identities for unspeakable ends. I can’t remember how the account came to be resurrected, but somehow I delved back in and rebuilt my global empire of friends. I found old classmates, connected with the Turkish relations and found myself sought by people who knew me from somewhere, or who were a friend of a friend, or who were just trying their luck.

But as of two nights ago, my Facebook account is no more (well technically, it will be no more in 14 days time; in the meantime I can change my mind and pretend this never happened). This time the reason was closer to home. Learning of another marriage on the rocks in which Facebook had played at least a part, I found myself heeding the alarm bells going off within. If this could happen to folk likes these—far better believers that I—it could clearly happen to me.

Although Facebook for me was just a glorified address book—as I shunned the invitations and applications that appeared on the dashboard when I logged in once a week—the analogy that sprang to mind was that of the marketplace. Now I can understand why sitting in such a setting without purpose is discouraged. ‘The nafs that walk the street,’ as a friend said recently, oblivious to the fallen relationships, ‘are the same nafs that surf the net.’ The face in a crowd that appears much more beautiful than that of your beloved is no different to the virtual contact who appears far more interesting than them.

In the past when my wife recounted yet another article describing a family torn apart by a blossoming relationship across the keyboards on Facebook, I felt able to dismiss it, pointing out that these things have always occurred, that it’s only the technology that’s changing. Why single out Facebook, I would ask? It was a valid argument, but it missed the point. She would condemn any forum where people were losing their senses and falling headlong into sin. But media accounts always carry a different weight to those of people you know. It is scary, to be perfectly honest, to realise that real relationships, real families, real spouses and real children are indeed reaping the consequences of our abandonment of the sunnah when we venture online.

I have enough experience of my own to learn that the Internet can be an addictive drug. There is something rather unsettling in the routine that sees one repeatedly checking back to an old favourite to see if it’s live again at last, even though it’s become perfectly apparent that we’re stuck with visual commentary for the rest of eternity. Such a habit is, of course, the least of the problem. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is rather more intrusive.

The weeks I spent offline, bringing the garden under control, were physically exhausting, but emotionally liberating. The world offline—for me—brings a peace to my heart (but often aches to my back, knees and arms). My return online soon has me spinning back into old, irritating ways. It is my curse.

And it is the curse of others too. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is taking over people’s lives, as they forget a multitude of sunnahs—the gaze of our eyes, the company we keep, our use of words, sitting alone (albeit with the intervention of fibre-optic cables) with those haram to us, and this list goes on.

‘What has happened to Tim?’ asks a friend. ‘Why such extremes, so suddenly?’

Is it an extreme, or is it the dawning of reality? Today ‘extreme’ is where Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 led two friends, but tomorrow I may change my mind. Today I am thinking out loud. Tomorrow I may make the hard choices.

A role model

Aslam, the servant of Umar Ibn AlKhattab, narrated that one night he went out with Umar Ibn AlKhattab until they reached a place with harsh terrain, where they saw a fire. Umar told Aslam that these people had been forced by the night to set camp and decided to go to them. There they found a woman with children and a pot on the fire; the children were crying.

Umar said, “Assalamu alykum, O People of light” —for he did not want to say people of fire—and she replied, “Walykum assalam.”

He asked if they could come closer, to which she replied, “Come closer or leave.”

So Umar went closer and asked what they were up to. She said that the night and cold had brought them there. He asked what was the matter with the children, for they were crying, and she replied that it was their hunger. Umar asked, “What’s on the fire?”

She said it was water, to distract them with until they would fall sleep. Then she said, “Allah is between us and Umar.”

Hearing this, Umar cried and went back in a hurry to the state’s food store, took some wheat and meat, and said, “O Aslam put it on my back.”

Aslam said, “I’ll carry it for you, O prince of the believers.”

But Umar replied, “Will you carry my burden on the day of judgment?”

So Umar carried it on his back until they reached the woman. There he put some of the wheat and meat in the pot and kept blowing on the fire while smoke was penetrating his beard. Once the food was ready, he served the children and they ate until they were full, while the woman kept doing dua for him not knowing who he was. And he remained there until the children slept. He then left and ordered provisions for them.

Manliness

A week or so ago I received some advice that knocked me off course and disorientated me. Reflecting on their words, I found myself wandering around, wondering if I really had got everything wrong. I pondered on the advice and criticised myself for not being a dictator. And then, when I was done, I decided to ask a trusted friend and teacher for his advice as well.

“I was wondering if you could advise me how Islam defines manliness,” I said, “and/or point me towards a good book that covers the topic.”

As is often the case, his insight set me back on course again. I intended to post his response early last week, but the demolition of an outbuilding took precedence, occupying me every evening after work. But better late than never:

‘Manliness is “rujula”; it is what a man should reflect. In short, a true man is close to Allah, and the further from Him he is, the less of a man he is. So humbleness is manliness, arrogance is not. Patience, endurance, forbearance and so on is manliness.

Eating while walking in the street without a good reason diminishes one’s manliness. To serve your parents, your wife and family is manliness.

It is one of these men of our predecessors who said to his wife, “May my hand be cut off if it were ever lifted to strike you.”

Anyway this is a very broad topic, however I hope that the following points will be of help inshallah:

1.There are books about men, closely linked to the sciences of hadith but not always. There are also books about women. These books have different names. Some of these books are called “tabaquat…” e.g. tabaquat alquraa (men of Quran recitation), tabaquat alhufath (men of memorisation), tabaqat ashafiaa (men of the Shafiee school), etc. Tabaqat actually means levels, but it’s about men hence I translated it as men, albeit men at different levels.

But the best book of all about who is really a man is AlQur’an. AlQur’an mentions men who were Prophets and some who were not. Sometimes the Qur’an just uses the word “man” without naming the person.

2. Man and male are two different things. Every man is a male but not every male is a man. Man is a status, so a young boy of 11 may be a man and yet an adult of 50 may not be. We have a very common expression that goes “mashi rajel” —“he is not a man”— when a person breaks the etiquettes of Islam when dealing with others.

There are always men but not all are complete. Men are ranks: they are of different categories and they enter aljannah in the group they belong to.

3. We’ve been studying one category which is called “ibadu rahman” i.e. the servants of the Most Merciful at the end of Surah alFurqan.

4. Culture has a lot of influence on men and can entrap them. Hence spiritual migration, but sometimes it has to be a physical one. Historically all Prophets travelled, and were even expelled and rejected by some members of their tribes. Also it has always been the way of the ulema to travel.

However not everything that is cultural is condemned by Islam. As you know, in the Algerian desert, men cover their faces, but women do not. Also in the countryside sometimes it is the women who work the fields. The kitchen in Islam is not a space reserved only for women. The Muslims as you may know developed a whole industry related to cooking. As you may know the famous scholar ASuyuti wrote a book about cooking. And ASuyuti is definitely a man of high calibre.

6. Some men had very hard wives, but the good way they behaved with their wives propelled them to amazing levels of men. They became ‘legends’.

7. No true man sees himself above anyone else even if it were on a battle field. And there are true men who do not even feel their very existence in front of their Lord.

And Allah and His messenger know best.’

Cup of tea?

I followed the lamentations about the Westernisation of Muslim women for a while—I call them islamofeminists, quipped one of their detractors—but it started to occur to me that the complainents’ views had a ring of the very traits they claimed to abhor. Remarks about the housework began to fall flat as I recalled the scholars of our deen who spent their lives cooking every single meal for their families. Yes, and as I remembered that our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, mended his own clothes, a habit that even the most enlightened Westerner would still consider women’s work. A poor husband feels oppressed because a wife will not respond with a cup of tea when he asks for one. For crying out loud, man, do it yourself. And while you’re at it, offer to make her one too. You might get some reward.

Races off to do Maghrib… and a thought occurs to him…

I mean, you will happily spend several hours watching your football each week. It’s a bit like the toaster calling the kettle white. Isn’t that Westernisation?

First faltering steps

To become a faithful believer is not easy. This thought occurs to me repeatedly as I set out to renew my faith and recommit myself to God. This voyage has recommenced many times over, only for me to stumble again within days. This time I’m serious, I tell myself, but still it is a struggle.

In ten years I have never abandoned the prayer, but there is more to the deen than this. Over the years I have become but a shell, fulfilling the minimum of our obligations, my prayers often rotten beneath the surface, their core like dust. As the months and years passed by I emptied sins into my book of deeds, always oblivious to their gravity, returning to them often as if they were of no consequence. To lift oneself from the habit of certain sins is a real test, for after a few days they pull at the heart, the symptoms of that addiction soon infecting one’s whole being. And so, once more, I slip.

Perhaps this time is better than all those previous occasions, I think to myself, because this time I have learned of the gravity of those sins; because this time my response is founded on knowledge and certainty. Right now I cannot imagine returning to them. It would, for me, be like drinking alcohol, stealing or taking a life. If I returned to them now, would I just give up? I pray I do not return to them. I pray I do not return.

And so it is that I find myself, a decade after I uttered my testimony of faith, making my first faltering steps along this way, and it is hard. How easy it is to fit in one’s prayers at home between one task and another, ending the day upon the prayer mat just metres from one’s bed. But to await the congregation, to venture outdoors when already tired, to head out to one’s place of prayer as others are preparing to sleep: for one unaccustomed to striving in the way of God, by the third day exhaustion has set in. And what of arising early in the morning to return? Here the fears for our community set in, for when those grey and white haired ones pass away, will the mosque any more open in the morning? One day I make it on time, the next day I awake just as the congregation draws together, the following day, who knows?

As each evening draws in, I commit to abandoning the computer and the internet, in order to sit and read instead. I have found this a blessing, a habit I could easily get used to. Yet my eyes are constantly drooping, a heaviness descending, craving for sleep, though there seems to be no time for it after work, in-between study, prayer and food, and so I find myself wondering how I will ever conquer my laziness and retrain my soul. Though a decade has now passed since I first uttered my testimony of faith, all I carry with me is a smattering of du’as and the shortest chapters of the Qur’an. Where have all the years gone and how is it that I learnt so little, committing to memory so few words?

To make up for lost time is hard, to be patient is hard, to maintain constancy is hard, to stop grieving over one’s sins is hard, to become a servant of God is hard. And so it should be. In life, we are told by those around us, you get nothing for free. Although the billions of blessings from our Lord cast doubt upon this claim, it nevertheless puts the difficulties of our spiritual quest into perspective: if, in life, we get nothing for free, why then should I demand an easy approach to the hereafter?

Taking stock of how far I have put myself back, how much I have oppressed my own soul and how little I have done to rectify my situation, it becomes apparent that this struggle of mine is not just necessary, but obligatory. It is my jihad: a real struggle, not a leisurely sojourn. Hence these first faltering steps of mine.

‘What’s he twittering on about?’

What’s this Twitter business then? Crawling out of my cave recently, I learned that Twitter’s all the rage. They’re even talking about it on PM. Politicians, singers, comedians: they’re all at it. And friends, too, have helpfully found ways of documenting their every move, so that I can catch up on everything they have done all day.

One chap recently announced that he needed a smartphone with a keyboard because he needs to post his status updates. Tweets, I think they’re called. Well yes, it may be that I’m living in a technological backwater, that I am yet to appreciate glorious connective possibilities realised by real companies out there, but his “need” made me stumble. What need? I visited the Twitter website this morning to find out what it’s all about. Naturally I had to click on “Why?

Why? Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, or colleagues—especially when they’re timely.

* Eating soup? Research shows that moms want to know.
* Running late to a meeting? Your co–workers might find that useful.
* Partying? Your friends may want to join you.

Hmm. Well I think the running late thing has already been solved by the invention of mobile phones (although I already hear the complaint in my ear from those who can never get hold of me because I have the irritating habit of saying, “We didn’t have these things twenty years ago and we survived” – I mean, why should I switch my phone to silent in the masjid when I can just leave it at home – grrr!).

Eating soup? Interesting. What can I say? Just don’t get the stuff on your keyboard or you’ll be wanting a new smartphone (well no doubt you already want one anyway – and what better excuse to replace your iPhone with a Bold – well not a very good excuse actually, because last time I checked the iPhone doesn’t have a keyboard – think of something else).

It’s true, I am the biggest bore of them all and the greatest party-pooper to have ever been born; I believe there was even a character on the Fast Show based on me. You would hear an objection from me, you say, regardless of it being good or bad. Well, tell yourself that and vent your frustrations on Twitter; I expect to see a perfectly formed one-liner in Unicode text on my computer screen right after the one about what you had for lunch.

Call me an ignoramus — I don’t mind — but let me whisper ever so faintly what it is that bothers me about this grand phenomenon. It’s not that I fear you are creating your own Big Brother world by your voluntary participation in sharing every boring detail about your life, nor that a Tweet appears to resemble 1984’s Newspeak, although I’m sure some are bound to make an argument about that before long.

No, it’s something else. It’s the ego. You know me and my ego. I used to publish “The Neurocentric” for crying out loud: “The journey of a self-centred soul”. So if anyone knows about the ego, it’s me. My ego and I are not exactly the best of friends; in fact we could be called the worst of enemies, for my ego is a prick.

Excuse me if this sounds harsh, but Twitter reminds me of my ego. Pardon me if I have grasped the wrong end of the nettle entirely (if indeed one end is better than the other), but the sharing of the trip to the kebab shop, the visit to the gym, the decorating, the hoovering, the profound intellectual article you are reading, the hilarious comedy you’re watching right now, all remind me of the worst part of me: that lust for fame, for acknowledgement, for attention, for respect. That ego of mine that still cannot get over an injustice a decade ago, driving me to make who I am known to all and sundry, in the hope that the unjust character might come to know how unjust they were.

I am not raging against the machine because it takes me ten minutes to send a five word text message (although that much is true), or because I would rather head into the hills to live a subsistence lifestyle on a homestead farm (although I might dream about this too). It is perhaps, I whisper to myself, because too much speech is hardness of the heart, because the ego is swift to dominate, because silence is golden, because I seek meaningful relationships not sound bites, because it’s all becoming pointless, because I seek something greater, because the true tweets — the birdsong in my garden — is far more profound and beautiful than any line of Unicode text on my screen.

All of which summarises why I am heading back into my cave. Wake me up if I miss anything important. A delicious kebab doesn’t count.

Who said we were pacifists?

Who said Muslims were pacifists? I have never heard a Muslim say such a thing. In fact, the only religious community I have encountered personally who take an anti-war stance are the Quakers. My father is now an Anglican priest, but his passionate faith did not prevent us from spending our childhood climbing all over tanks, artillery and fighter planes at military museums and air shows. My practising Christian neighbour used to design guided missile systems for the RAF. I seem to recall that the vicar that oversaw my Confirmation used to fly the Lightning (I may be mistaken here).

The fact that I was brought up in a Christian household did not prevent me from receiving a toy sub-machine gun for my seventh or eighth birthday, it had no impact on the choice of the SAS Handbook as a Christmas present for me one year, or stop us boys from each adopting a fighter plane: my eldest brother had the Tornado, my middle brother the Phantom, while I the Harrier Jump Jet, and still I would probably champion it if a top-trumps discussion on fighter planes were ever to occur.

Today there is a discussion occurring online in which it is claimed that there are Muslims that can be compared to Zen Buddhists, who deny that Islam has anything to say about warfare. This is peculiar, because I have never encountered such people or such arguments. I have never read a book concerning the sira—even those intended for children—that has not touched upon the battles that occurred in the Hijra years. The charge seems to be being levelled particularly at those who call themselves Sufis, but this too seems peculiar to me, for in my reading of Islamic history Sufis have always featured prominently as those who would go to war when the battle cry was heard.

What I have encountered, however, are the many Muslims that point out that war is limited in Islam by the shariah: that we don’t just adopt the norms of modern warfare because everyone else is doing it, that we don’t accept the concept of total war, that we consider the idea of collateral damage illegitimate. Yes, I have heard all of this, for sure. And what is wrong with this? It is called adherence to the sunnah.

Yes, I have heard Muslims condemning terrorism. Are such Muslims pacifists? No, they are people who are familiar with the sunnah and shariah: people who appreciate that indiscriminate killing and vigilantism are prohibited in Islam. People who respect the Prophetic guidance passed down to them, which places boundaries on what is halal and haram.

Sure, there are non-Muslims who demand that Muslims deny that their religion has anything to say about war, like that mocking website, Religion of Peace, which all the same permits its contributors to support Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. Sure, there are powers that demand the disarmament of Muslim nations, despite their own frightening arsenals of nuclear weapons and stealth technology. Sure, there are those that demand that Muslims should forever turn the other cheek like the Christians of the first century of their era.

I have never, ever heard a Muslim say such things, however. Sure, plenty of Muslims have claimed that Islam means Peace, but that’s not quite the same thing as saying that Islam has nothing to say about warfare. Even the Qur’an presents that duality: ‘Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God.’

To take a Muslim’s condemnation of indiscriminate, unlawful violence and twist it into a parting from the sunnah is pure mockery. I won’t be apologetic that Islam pronounces on warfare and sets out rules of engagement, but I also won’t stand for those who demand that we blindly support the actions of Muslims wherever they are involved in conflict. That is not pacifism. It is recognition that warfare is a serious matter that is viewed entirely seriously by our deen.

Ignorance

Ignorance is a blameworthy state, while seeking knowledge is praised. I don’t doubt or deny this, but sometimes witnessing the great schisms between better Muslims than I, I start to take comfort from my ignorance. I cannot call myself a Salafi, a Sufi, a Traditionalist. I am none of these things, for my knowledge is meagre, my learning scant.

My knowledge of the deen covers how to pray, a few verses of the Qur’an, how to fast, what is halal and what haram, and a few characteristics of neighbourliness. To be complacent in one’s ignorance is a trait condemned in our deen, so when I say what I say it carries no authority: it is purely the defence mechanism of one who just now finds the ranting of the learned a blow to the soul and his iman.

In my ignorance I am a literalist about the words of God and His Messenger, peace be upon him. I do not have at my disposal scholarly texts, fatwas and commentaries that place conditions and clauses upon those words. Thus when I read that our Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘The Merciful One shows mercy to those who are themselves merciful to others; so show mercy to whatever is on earth, then He who is in heaven will show mercy to you,’ I take it to mean what it says. Because I do not possess texts that explain that such mercy is restrained when dealing with Salafis or Sufis, I understand that I should be merciful to everyone I meet regardless. For the brevity of my learning, for the literalism of my learning, here I say Alhamdulilah.

Alhamdulilah that my learning does not extend far beyond lessons like these: he who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent; fear God wherever you are, following an evil deed with a good deed so that you blot it out, being well-behaved towards people; beware of envy, for envy devours good deeds like fire devours firewood; the strong man is not the one who is strong in wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger.

Alhamdulilah, for in my ignorance of refutations and conditional clauses, these words prevent me from commenting on the fate of fellow Muslims, from pronouncing on the faith of whole communities of believers. Alhamdulilah that I am unversed in learning that would allow me—so easily—to make light of Prophetic guidance, disregarding the sunnah because my opponent is a Salafi, a Sufi, a Traditionalist. For isn’t our sunnah having good manners, restraining our tongues, showing mercy to our brethren and our neighbours? I don’t limit it to this; I just note that they seem to be the most neglected.

A few days ago I felt the need to recommence my journey of faith, to take my shahada anew and set out to chase after the mantle of piety. It was a noble aim—I don’t deny that—but pondering on my evident failure so far, I suddenly find myself almost content with my state. This is not a good place in which to find myself, for my state is poor indeed, but that contentment does not come from nowhere; it is the result of witnessing great schisms amongst those much more learned than I. I have read words over the last few days that crippled my iman. What saved me was my simple, literalist faith. Words like these from the Qur’an:

Serve God, and do not join any partners with Him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer and what your right hands possess: for God does not love the arrogant, the boastful.

It is true that ignorance is a blameworthy state and that seeking knowledge is praised. All of the above is not intended as justification for my ignorance. It is just a note to those more learned than I that your actions have consequences. While you engage in your battles, the lesser of us draw back repulsed. And so, perhaps, the ignorant masses grow.

In Loving Memory

My mind is crowded with memories of my paternal grandmother. Of those warm days in summer when she would host my sister and I, treating us to elevensies, to a mug of Ribena and half a Kit Kat each. Of those moments passing through the fly screen door at Tree Tops with bowls with which to harvest gooseberries from the bottom of the garden. Of super-ripened bananas powdered with glucose for pudding at lunchtime. Of mountains of sunflower seeds munched before Coronation Street whilst babysitting for us at night. Childhood with Grannie was always a joy.

When I was a teenager, Grannie set herself up as my mentor, undertaking to study GCSE French at the same time as me. I was a poor student, but she always encouraged me, writing out vocabulary on pieces of card, hoping that I would be inspired by her love of the language. She would speak of a hitch-hiking adventure in France with Uncle David years earlier, as if she dreamed that I might become fluent and accompany her on another great journey in her retirement.

Grannie was forever generous, always thinking of others and giving. Many will remember her famous coffee mornings for animal welfare, and those miniature bricks bought to fund the construction of an animal sanctuary. We grandchildren will remember the boxes of goodies she always prepared for each new term of college: jars of coffee, packets of biscuits, tinned food and cartons of juice. And we will remember too that she never forgot a birthday, or let an anniversary pass by unmarked.

Yet, for me, it was over the past ten years that my relationship with Grannie became something special. Grannie became a sincere friend, an earnest advisor. As I embarked on a journey of faith that troubled many, Grannie took it upon herself to offer me considered counsel, never shying from confronting any issue head-on. In that sense, Grannie was a true friend: not one to say only what we want to hear.

When I returned from university she would request my company for lunch at a local restaurant and, over a two-course meal, she would question me and recount tales of her life with Grandpa, relating the lessons that their life had taught them. She saw her role as that of a mediator, a peacemaker. The lengthy letters she sent me were often an unusual cocktail of idle chit-chat, Christian theology and her own unique personal philosophy.

Grannie was a true blessing from God. When, at the age of 83, she journeyed from Hull to London to join me in the celebration of my marriage, she left a remarkable impression on so many of my friends. Every single time we met up over the seven and a half years that followed, I would listen as they asked after Grannie—about her health and wellbeing. As one of them said when she learnt of her passing, ‘She was a real, honest to God, lovely person—the stuff of real grannies.’

Two weeks before Christmas, Grannie called us to ask if we would visit her. I suggested Boxing Day and she said that would be nice. So early that morning we set out to drive up north to see her, and what a blessing that was. We ate lunch together in the dining room and despite her evident frailty she spoke with us like it was a reunion of old friends. And so it was.

My grannie was more than a grandmother. She was a friend, an advisor, a mentor, a teacher and so much more than this. Acknowledging her role as mediator, all of us can take comfort from beautiful words: blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

Each of us will have memories like these that will comfort us as our own lives pass by. All of us will thank God that we had the opportunity to know and learn from her, and in our hearts we will always be grateful to her.

All of us belong to God and unto Him is our return.

In Defence of Civilisation

I have before me a copy of The Telegraph—it isn’t mine; my grandmother left it with us after her visit today—and there is a photograph and a headline on the front that occupy me. I keep on returning to the dining table to sit hunched over it, studying the photograph and the words that accompany it.

The strap line above the photograph reads ‘Hamas Leader killed as bombs destroy home’, but the picture immediately below tells its own story. In the background we see three buildings severely damaged: not destroyed, but still no longer habitable. And then there is the rubble strewn land where Nizar Rayan’s house is said to have stood. But looking at the buildings in the background, it seems clear to me that this space once accommodated—by my estimation—at least a dozen similar buildings.

And so there we have it: in its pursuit of one man the Israeli air force not only chose to hold his seven innocent children responsible for the decisions of their father, killing them along with his wife and relatives, but it also chose to blow to pieces the homes of fifteen of his neighbours.

And what is a home? It is not just the place where we rest our heads. A home contains furniture, clothes, books, photographs, memories. A home contains treasured possessions, things of sentimental worth. The jewellery that a husband bought his beloved. The toys that a mother bought to put smiles on the faces of her children. I consider my own home a part of me: it is my abode of peace, my sanctuary, the container for much that I am. A home is more than bricks and mortar.

The newspaper article does not say what happened to his neighbours. If they survived, clearly all they have left is their body and soul, for the bricks and mortar have been pulverised and their every possession destroyed. If they are alive, they will have only the clothes on their backs.

The loss of innocent life is regrettable say the spokesmen for the state of Israel, but what are such words worth when the missiles fired at ‘identified targets’ are powerful enough to pulverise an entire street? Our politicians—who only a matter of weeks ago rightly condemned the atrocities in Mumbai absolutely—express ‘worry’ about the situation. A dozen houses flattened in a split second and you tell us you are worried?

A couple of nights ago I read an article by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator which sought to condemn her one-time ally, Mr Ed Hussein, for his part in protesting about the massacre of innocents. Mr Hussein, she argued, was still the Islamist through and through, misrepresenting the actions of Israel to suit his own agenda. The article was only partly about that infamous author however: it was really about the innocence and righteousness of Israel in responding to its terrorist neighbours, and the bulk of the comments that followed the article were congratulatory in their tone, praising Ms Phillips for speaking the truth, for consistently standing up in defence of Western Civilisation.

She and they are entitled to their opinions, but to me the arguments resembled those of the very people they claim to loathe. Responding to Mr Hussein’s claim that innocents were being massacred, Ms Phillips wrote, ‘The vast majority of Gazans who have been killed were Hamas terrorists. According to today’s UN figures, 364 have been killed of whom only 62 were civilians.’ Ignoring for a moment that police officers have been included in the non-civilian category, is ‘only’ an appropriate word to describe the tragic deaths of innocents? The death toll of the bombings in London on 7 July 2005 was 12 less than this number, but I have no difficulty describing it as a massacre. Fifteen people died in the Columbine High School shooting, and we still call it a massacre. What an odious defence.

What is it that these people do not get? The protests against this conflict are not a defence of Hamas. It is a protest against the killing of innocents, against firing heavy explosives into densely populated residential areas. Oh yes, Britain dare not complain after conceiving Operation Gomorrah. Germany would be a hypocrite after the Blitzkrieg. And what could the United States say after the Manhattan Project? Nations may stumble, but the ordinary man and woman knows that it is wrong. And so this is their cry.

Repeating ad nauseam that Hamas is to blame misses the point entirely. Ms Phillips may claim that ‘Israel has been targeting only the Hamas infrastructure and its terror-masters,’ but she ignores completely the power of the weapons they are using: weapons which are capable of pulverising a dozen houses into a pile of rubble within minutes, which cannot target with the precision she believes they have because their power is just too great.

We the people—not the leaders of our nations—protest because we see with our own eyes children’s lives cut short. Can you justify the death of one child? I can’t.

But in the comments that followed that article, people were indeed doing just that, arguing that it was just an unfortunate consequence of the battle with the terrorists. Thus the respectable readers have themselves become the very people they claim to loathe, no different from another group of people that is indifferent to human life. There are no surgical operations here—in the old European world amputation was the answer to many an ailment when directed infection control was all that was required—for collateral damage is not just tolerated, but justified too.

Some people may defend Hamas, claiming that by their actions they are fighting a resistance against Israeli occupation, but I cannot. The argument is often made that the Palestinians do not have F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, cruise missiles and tanks, and that if they did they would fight a traditional war of army versus army; because the only weapons they have are the meagre resources around them, striking against the military is like David fighting Goliath. I would not necessarily reject that thesis, but still I lack sympathy for the organisation we know as Hamas.

What options do the Palestinians then have to resist occupation, to break the wall and fight the blockade? I’m afraid I do not have an answer. I am not a strategist and I have no skills in international relations, so I cannot provide an educated commentary on the actions of Hamas. I can only return to my very simple interpretation of my faith: to those ideas that the civilian is not to be attacked in war, that we do not destroy their homes or cut their fruit trees down. If our jurists sought to condemn the use of suicide bombing in 1994, why should the passage of 15 years now make it halal?

I may well be mistaken in my simple faith, and of course it is easy to be an idealist as an outside observer with little intimate knowledge of the facts on the ground—and indeed as one who has never had to live all my years under a humiliating occupation—but I would be a liar if at this time of passion and emotion I denied that my gut reaction to the practice of firing hundreds of missiles indiscriminately at civilians in a nation with vastly superior weapons each day was that it not only flies in the face of our Prophetic guidance, but also makes no sense at all. But again I speak as a simpleton, one unversed in strategy.

In truth, I do not know a lot about Hamas. When I was an undergraduate 10 years ago the Palestinian Society at my university organised a lecture on the conflict which included a discussion on the role of Hamas. Some students claimed that Hamas was being funded by the Israelis to undermine the PLO, while others claimed that they were actually a popular social movement that spent 90% of its income on hospitals, schools and welfare, and just happened to have a military wing as well.

I don’t have enough information about Hamas to make an informed decision about them, but can I honestly deny my feelings about the deaths of over 600 people, women and children included, that it is claimed were killed during the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah over the past year? That’s far more than were killed during the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002, for which Hamas claimed responsibility. When I read on Christmas Day that 27 bakeries out of a total of 47 in Gaza City have been shut down completely due to a lack of cooking gas and wheat, and that the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees had had to halt food distribution to 750,000 refugees because their stocks of wheat flour had run out, I couldn’t help the obvious questions that bubbled into my mind. Rockets versus bread.

When we protest about what is happening in Gaza today, it is a protest for humanity. It is not a defence of the actions of the group the Israelis claim to be fighting. It is a plea for a people already suffering from an 18-month blockade—the majority of whom are without adequate water, electricity or gas—to be allowed to live their lives in dignity. To be allowed to live, to have a right to their home, without the fear that it will be blown to pieces because Israel has identified a neighbour as a Hamas target.

Ms Phillips tells us:

‘The issue of Israel sits at the very apex of the fight to defend civilisation. Those who wish to destroy western civilisation need to destroy the Jews, whose moral precepts formed its foundation stones … Unless people in the west understand that Israel’s fight is their own fight, they will be on the wrong side of the war to defend not just the west but civilisation in general.’

But here I sit, with my grandmother’s copy of The Telegraph spread out before me and there’s that photograph that haunts me. Is this the defence of civilisation? A dozen homes destroyed for the sake of one man, his children executed for their father’s crimes? What kind of civilisation is this?

Shall I remind Ms Phillips of some of those moral precepts that formed the foundation stones of the civilisation she cherishes so? Let us delve into the Beatitudes:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Eight lessons to live by. That, Ms Phillips, is civilisation.