Between my soul and God stand my heart and my deeds. Nothing else stands between us. It is 16 years since I departed from the religious tradition of my family. Although I was confirmed into the Anglican Communion on Sunday, 2 December, 1990, by Bishop James Jones, my faith was already wavering. Within two years, the doubt outweighed my faith: the doubts within my faith gave way to religious agnosticism, which in turn gave way to atheism. In time, belief in God returned, but belief that a man was God never did. I became a searching agnostic, one who sought truth. I did not know where this quest would lead until I arrived at the destination—and it was only a hesitation within the journey, not its termination, for my pursuit goes on. When I came to believe in Islam in 1998 it was not the end of the road, but merely a stopping point along the way.
By its very nature, agnosticism need not cause particular problems in the relationship between people, even if it is disliked. The agnostic has no commitments to observe, other than the call of his heart regarding sincerity. Thus he may attend family gatherings with ease, his presence never an intrusion. In the case of one who adopts another faith the situation is quite different: he has rites and principles he must observe which create differences. I have experienced both scenarios and I am acutely aware which is the more problematic. It is impossible to ignore the fact that my belief in Islam causes deep unhappiness within my family. Despite suggestions to the contrary, this is a reality I have never denied. Yet doubt is cast on this claim of mine, for I apparently continue to cling stubbornly to my principles. Is this not evidence enough that I am unaware of the impact of my beliefs?
The answer is no. I am acutely aware of the feelings of those around me, but matters of faith—and of the heart—require action. While I am not a good believer and my practice is hugely wanting, I do believe sincerely. My faith is not something that I take lightly, nor one that I took on as a choice of fashion. I came down this path because I believe it to be the best way to worship God. For this reason, I cannot turn my back on it just to bring ease in my personal relationships.
The heart and our deeds are all that lie between us and our Creator. Only two know what is in our hearts and they are God and ourselves. Faith or doubt, love or malice, sincerity or hypocrisy: these are known to us and to God alone. For me, the one aspect that recurred time and again was sincerity versus hypocrisy. It was this that forced me to sit at the back of the church and to utter only a few lines of the Nicene Creed for more than two years. It was this issue that made the question of faith seem so difficult as I engaged in my search for truth. In 1997 I was continually writing about the matter, much to the distaste of friends whose rational minds had long since abandoned belief in God. The following reflects my feelings at the time:
You don’t want to reject their faith, you don’t want to be different, you don’t want to be an outcast; you just don’t have their faith, but at least you’re trying to find it. But it’s so hard to admit that. They prefer to hear that you’re lazy, because that’s not such a disgrace. You’re filled with fear, so you don’t admit openly that you’re completely lost. You’re hoping that someone will pick up on your blatant hints.
Halfway through my first degree, I found myself with an intense thirst to find my way in faith. On the one hand I wanted to believe like every other member of my family, on the other, I was adamant that sincerity before God was paramount. Thus that same piece went on:
I can listen to the readings, the gospel and a psalm. I can listen to the sermon and learn. But how do you think I feel when we all stand for the Nicene Creed, and all I can say is ‘I believe in one God the father almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible’? You want me to say it all, but faith isn’t about you, it’s about God. Do you want me to be a hypocrite before God? Of course you don’t. I don’t go to church because I don’t have the strength or the knowledge to claim your faith and I refuse to lie in the Name of God.
Later on, having learnt something of Islam, I expressed similar concerns. I recently came across an old notebook into which I had poured my thoughts as my interest in the Muslim faith grew. Penned over two sides of lined paper, I found a lengthy answer to a question somebody must have asked me around that time. I had obviously said that I could never be a Muslim and had thus written a series of paragraphs under four headings to explain why: the hypocrite; knowledge of one’s self; true belief; and fear of rejection. Each passage focused on a matter that troubled me within. Of true belief I wrote:
I must believe: truly and truthfully. Of course I believe in God, our Creator, but the faith through which I should worship Him is still unclear to me. I refuse to have a blind faith; this is obvious, for would I have gone astray otherwise? To be convinced by man of the right path is not enough. The proof should be in the religion itself.
A fellow student—hearing my complaints about my lack of faith—once told me: ‘The problem with you is that you question it; I’d never question it.’ I was never able to accept this view, for I felt that it was important to be able to say what I believe with conviction. I was one who would say, ‘I’m not really sure, I’m confused, I’m lost,’ in contrast to the person who could simply say, ‘I don’t have a reason, I just believe it— it’s just my religion.’ The source of this lies in the heart.
The journey of the heart is on-going and continuous. Though those early obsessions have subsided, the question of reconciling my heart goes on. Between my soul and God, I remind myself over and over again, lie my heart and my deeds. I no longer have the luxury of the simple and innocent faith of childhood. In the Islamic tradition, the child is considered pure—there is no concept of original sin, and the child that dies in infancy will go straight to paradise—but we do not need faith to tell us this. The pleasing faith of the child makes this self-evident. Contrast its simplicity to the perplexity of adolescence; in my case, the two do not compare: my earliest days were characterised by my taking key principles to heart. In primary school I would censure friends who exclaimed, ‘Oh my God,’ for one of my godparents had criticised those who took the Lord’s name in vain. In junior school I refused to provide a cover story for a friend in trouble because I believed that as a Christian I could not lie. Later on, when I was asked why I did not stand up to a boy who was picking on me on the bus on my way home from school, I got the first inkling that something was amiss in my simplistic interpretation of the command to turn the other cheek.
Blessed are the little ones, say the scriptures of more than one tradition. My wife and I once looked on in awe as a tiny baby, with eyes closed, lay in a cot before us and raised her miniature hands out in front of her, cupping them just like our own as we prayed for her, her parents and ourselves. We all knew who the best amongst us was.A few days later we received news that this baby, born prematurely, had also left us prematurely. Blessed are the little ones: a friend of the grieving father reminded him that these children are the residents of Paradise. Of these children on the Day of Judgement, our Prophet said: ‘They will meet their parents and grab them by their garments or their hands to no end other than that God will enter them into Paradise.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Muslim.[/footnote]
As we grow older we cloud matters with prejudice and desire, losing sight of the pure and beautiful. Certainly, in time, the church I attended in early childhood became the target of derision although it had been responsible for promoting ideas of good living amongst its congregation. Its leader was sometimes unflatteringly described as a fanatic, and yet he taught us to thank the Lord for the blessings He bestowed upon us week after week and that our faith was one that brought joy, that we should wear like a garment and not be ashamed of sharing. Yet, for some, our family’s move from a more charismatic, evangelical church to a traditional Anglican place of worship was a cause for celebration.
Looking back on that transition, however, I wonder whether my later hesitation in faith was a result of swapping dogmatism for something a little vague. As I got older, I found myself less keen on revealing my faith to friends, shying away from exhibiting overtly Christian behaviour. Indeed, just 19 hours after I was confirmed into the Anglican Communion, I cringed with embarrassment when a friend from church congratulated me in front of my classmates at school.
It was during a Christian holiday camp which took me away from home and my family for a week that I found myself clearly conscious of the fragility of my faith. My companions at the Lakeside YMCA centre in Windermere, whom I had never met before, were characterised by their zeal. Their style of worship reminded me of my early church. On the first evening, witnessing their enthusiastic worship in a marquee on the site, I found myself uncomfortable in their company. This was partly because I was a rather shy character and partly because I had grown used to the more reserved, restrained worship of our traditional church. Yet there was another cause of my discomfort: the recognition that I did not have the strength of faith that would allow me to sing those songs with such cheer and dedication. It was a feeling that began to recur.
Over two or three consecutive summers I journeyed to the small Hebridean island of Iona, a mile from the shores of Mull, its sights and sounds pulling me back. I could walk from one end to the other in an afternoon, three miles from a white, sandy beach to a dark, grey cliff top—and from time to time I still find myself traversing those paths in my dreams. My first visit was with a small group of young Christians from the Dioceses of York, although we soon became attached to a larger group from across Europe travelling in the same direction. Catching the early train at York, we headed north into Scotland and on up to Glasgow Queen Street station in time to catch the midday train to Oban. The winding journey along the base of vast, dark green valleys was painfully slow, but somehow it aroused my curiosity: there was something unique about this expedition, I thought. Its ease unapparent, there was a definite sense of journey. We arrived in Oban three hours later. From there, the voyage by ferry around the islands took threequarters of an hour, docking at Craignure on the Isle of Mull. We travelled on by coach, cross country to Fionnphort, another journey lasting two hours. The last, and welcome, leg was the ferry to Iona itself, which turned out to be a pleasantly brief crossing.
Wearied, but relieved, we reached the MacLeod Centre on the lower slopes of a hill beyond the Benedictine Abbey in the early evening. Separating from my Yorkshire companions, I found myself sharing a room with characters from across the continent, one of whom stood out immediately. His feet shod in sandals and his scalp hidden beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat, this blond-bearded German soon took to playing House of the Rising Sun on his acoustic guitar over and over again.
For the next week I would be a visiting member of the Iona Community, which was founded in 1938 by Reverend George McLeod on the site of a much earlier Christian community. It is believed that Columba—a Catholic saint who had previously established a number of monasteries in Ireland—set down on one of the island’s shores around 563ce. Having led an army in battle at home that left 3,000 men dead, he had fled Ireland with 12 others, intent on seeking refuge on the west coast of Scotland. His exile may have been an attempt to escape his conscience as much as retribution. When he finally arrived on Iona by coracle, it was to change the destiny of this small, exposed outcrop amidst choppy seas; he climbed to the summit of its highest hill and looked across the horizon. Standing atop Carn-Cul-ri-Eirinn—the hill with its back to Ireland—he could no longer see his homeland, and Iona became his home. The modern community is centred upon a 10th-century abbey which post-dated the monastery that Columba built, but its spiritual essence undoubtedly has different ancestry. Although its current incarnation started as a project linked to the Church of Scotland, it is now an ecumenical community which appeals to Christians of many denominations and of different social and cultural backgrounds. Its liberal approach brings together individuals who are interested in restoring the common life through social and political works, empathising with issues of peace and justice. It was the emphasis on social work that appealed to me more than the call to renew a faith based on the gospels, and it was this that drew me back the following year. The MacLeod Centre was a modern building accommodating arts facilities, meeting rooms, a kitchen and dining room, a social area and numerous bedrooms. We soon learnt that we were there to live as a cooperative community for the week, each of us given our chores. On one day we would be cleaning the toilets, on another doing the washing up or clearing the breakfast tables. The water we drank was coloured by the peat on the moor, dribbling out of the taps straight from the island’s own reservoir. Our food came from the community’s allotments. Living as companions from several nations was relatively simple. Given that the activities we engaged in were challenging, we always thought deeply about the issues raised. Meanwhile, Iona’s unique liturgy used in worship every day was intensely moving, pulling unexpected emotions out from the depths of our souls. The mid-week pilgrimage around the island focused on its history and provided pause for reflection. Entering this environment as one whose faith was doubtful, however, generated its own set of emotions, leaving me confused and feeling lost. Conscious of the weakness of my faith, I demanded the signs that those early saints were said to have witnessed on the island. If old sages had seen Christ before them on these rocks, why could he not reveal himself to me?
While I had travelled to Iona in a group, I soon found that I preferred solitude. Our mornings and evenings were spent in workshops, but our afternoons were free and so I would wander off to explore the lanes and footpaths on my own. Every evening a beautiful service was held in the abbey, but I soon found myself uncomfortable within those stone walls, mindful of my weak faith and the resulting sense of hypocrisy that dominated me.
By the middle of the week, I was no longer hurrying down to the abbey for worship before sunset, but heading off in the opposite direction, climbing the steep hillside to the summit of Dún-I, where I would sit at the base of a huge rock and survey the scene below me. I would stay there until I saw people—the like of ants from that height—emerge from the abbey’s entrance and then I would descend the slopes again while there was still light, the sky already orange, to meet my companions in the MacLeod Centre in time for our evening activities.
One evening towards the end of the week I took part in a workshop in which we were asked to ponder upon what we possessed, whether that was something tangible, a relationship, a collection of material goods or something of emotional value. Unfortunately, despite the many very real blessings I had been bestowed with—my family, my home, my education—I was an unhappy, pessimistic teenager. The purpose of the workshop had been to link what we had been given in life to the existence of a generous God, so that we might find greater focus in our worship, expressing real gratitude in prayer. When my depression broke this linkage, however, my fragile faith evolved into disbelief and I now denied that we had a Creator and an Overseer of our affairs.
That same evening I climbed half way up Dún-I again and stood looking up towards the stars. I drove myself to tears and in a moment’s theatre cried out, ‘You’re not real, you’re not there’—an irony that was lost on me at the time. It was an act of rebellion at first more than an affirmation of a reality that had dawned on me just then. My faith was weak to be sure, but I was no more convinced by my disbelief than I was by the belief which had accompanied me throughout my childhood. Yet just as faith can grow over time, my belief in nothingness became almost religious as I served it with the philosophical acrobatics of an immature mind.
I confessed my unbelief to my mother on my return from Iona, half hoping that she would have words to convince me that our faith was true and half hoping that she would accept the conclusion I had reached. It had never occurred to me that I was not alone in my struggle to find faith and so it came as some surprise that one of my brothers had found the writings of the Archbishop of Durham useful in setting him back on track. Instead of feeling reassured, however, I just found myself more confused.
Initially disbelief gave rise to questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. I used to wonder whether the nothingness on the outside of the universe—if such a place existed—was of the same substance as the nothingness between all the matter contained within it.
I used to wonder if every star above us at night was a clone of our galaxy, each following an identical course but in the future and the past. I used to wonder how it had all started and how, given the infinite timescale involved, we had ever reached today. I pondered on questions that my mind was too small to comprehend, until at last I absorbed myself in science fiction and settled for the make-believe world of time travel and quantum leaps.
If I could not convince my family that I was too tired to attend church on a Sunday morning, I would insist on sitting at the back only to observe. This was not a boycott of my family: my brothers were already away from home and studying at university, my sister was in the choir, my father was invariably involved in lay preaching and my mother in delivering the sacraments. At the communion rail, I would hide my hands and bow my head, seeking only the blessing and refusing the bread and wine. Instead of singing hymns I would gulp like a fish, opening and closing my lips silently with my hymnal in hand, declining to read those words.
Although I claimed not to believe in God, those actions spawned by the feeling of hypocrisy revealed a subconscious faith. I might well have argued that my concern was discomfort at that stage, asserting that as an autonomous character, nobody knew what my heart contained except me, but my behaviour consistently proved otherwise. Nevertheless, there is no denying that such discomfort was sometimes unbearably painful.
The death of a loved one when you believe in nothingness, when you believe that life has no meaning and that this life is all there is—death when you do not believe—is an emotionally crushing experience. When my maternal grandfather passed away, clearly every member of our family was terribly upset.Yet his funeral was marked out by the sense of optimism which pervaded it, the service really quite beautiful and profound. My grandfather was an ever-generous gentleman who lived a good life all of his years. In that country setting in the heart of Buckinghamshire, on a lovely summer’s day, there was a sense of peace. The message that day was clear. There was upset, but not grief, because the faithful saw that, as a deeply kind, practising Christian, he was taking his place in Paradise. As for this 16-year-old boy: disbelieving in God, and therefore in the Day of Judgement and the Hereafter, I could not come to terms with this. My grief overwhelmed me and I could find no solace in the words of all those compassionate souls surrounding me. I felt all alone and I began to see greater meanings in those initial meanderings of my mind than I could have intended at the time: nothingness amidst nothingness.
Doubt, however, does not only apply to belief, but to disbelief as well. As much as I rejected belief, I was also becoming agnostic in my atheism. A change of scenery confirmed this when, in 1996, quite apprehensive about a journey across a continent, I travelled to Tanzania in east Africa. When my plane touched down in Darussalam on a very warm winter’s evening there was some sense of relief. Sweating in the unexpected heat, I was greeted affectionately in the airport lobby by my uncle and aunt who were clearly happy to see me. That night we slept in the Catholic Secretariat beneath mosquito nets, the song of insects outside cheering my arrival.
Darussalam was bustling on Sunday morning, a scene far removed from the sleepy Sabbath days of suburban England. Warm conversation greeted our arrival in town, a Tanzanian at the telephone kiosk engaging my aunt with Swahili chit-chat. After a telephone call home, we were soon on the road again, heading out of the coastal city in my uncle’s white Land Rover. All along the edge of the potholed Tarmac road, salesmen could be seen selling every conceivable ware: bananas, bricks, CocaCola, clothes. Into the countryside, their numbers lessened, the stalls replaced by fields, homes and forest. Out here the vegetation was lush and green, revealing banana palms, coconut palms and even rice on the low river-fed fields.
We stopped for lunch in Morogoro at the New Green Restaurant, 2,000 feet above sea level. Though there was a short rain shower during our stopover, the vegetation was not as fresh here as it had been towards the coast. The journey onwards was long, for we were heading far into the interior where the land was dry, the earth dusty and the plants pale in colour, but the smooth road afforded us some comfort. To our left and right, graceful mountains rose out of the plain, each one veiled beneath a layer of trees. Forty kilometres from our destination, we finally cut off the good road and took to a dirt track across Kongwa Ranch, passing through Kongwa town and then the village between it and St Philip’s Theological College. After a full day travelling, we arrived at our destination at six in the evening.
The Iona community—in whose company I had lost my faith—out in the Sea of the Hebrides thousands of miles from here was famous for its African choruses: I used to love those atmospheric gatherings in the abbey. Yet those Celtic renderings of Swahili and Zulu verse paled now as the native voices rose into the heavens from the evening service in the white-walled chapel. Those songs were my welcome to this college in the heart of Tanzania. I loved my hosts’ flat at the head of the road: its views were spectacular, while its architectural style appealed to me. I slept well that first night on the campus.
The following day was a national holiday in honour of 500 people—many of them students returning home following their exams—who had died in the MV Bukoba ferry disaster on Lake Victoria a month earlier. All around there was a sense of mourning. It was a sad day, but at the time I considered it a blessing in a way: it gave me pause to reflect on my own approach to death. It seemed to me that death was not a taboo as it often seemed to be within my own culture, two years before the very public outpouring of grief that marked the passing of a princess: a taboo which seemed to leave behind so much pain as the consequences of loss and sorrow were hidden away. I wondered whether the source of this was a greater appreciation of life and death. In the afternoon, a service was held in memory of the mother of one of the college workers, who had just died from tuberculosis. In England in our era, I thought, we do not know of TB, polio or pandemic flu and the survival rate among children is good: and so death is perceived differently, I believed. As the departed soul was remembered in the chapel, beautiful African hymns were drifting through the air once more.
Despite my own shyness, everyone I met seemed to be extremely friendly and kind. A young man called Yohana brought me his school exercise book one evening in an effort to help me grasp his Swahili tongue. Everyone I met on a personal level was welcoming and yet that paranoid discomfort remained. Travelling up to the capital, I interpreted faces and eyes in my own way, worrying about those glances from strangers. Dodoma was hot and dusty, its climate distinct from coastal Darussalam, just like Ankara compared to Istanbul. My uncle was visiting the bishops at the cathedral and so I spent the day wandering around the town with my aunt. In that suffocating heat, a chilled bottle of ginger beer was most welcome, but it did not set my mind at ease. I was a selfconscious visitor to that unfamiliar country in 1996. I was anxious about the European colonial past and about how I would be perceived in that now independent land. What was I to make of the glances of the people I passed by? These were amongst my thoughts throughout my stay as a white-faced guest in a proud African state, even after I came across the following advice in my Swahili textbook:
In Tanzanian culture there are conventions about who is the first to speak. It is usually the person of lower status who greets the other person. A stranger entering a village should greet the villagers who will then welcome him. These are conventions that should be noted, for the visitor will feel unwanted because nobody speaks and everyone looks unwelcoming, likewise the villagers may misinterpret it and feel offended because he is wandering around in their territory without even having the decency to make himself known to them. It is important in Swahili culture to greet people properly. A smile or a mumbled word is not sufficient and it is considered rude to ignore people.[footnote]Adapted from J Maw, Twende! A Practical Swahili Course (Oxford University Press, 1985), p.7.[/footnote]
This discovery proved to be a valuable lesson for the years that followed, as I navigated my way between various unfamiliar cultures. Many a misunderstanding can be avoided by replacing assumption with learning. In Tanzania, for every encounter with strangers and my perception of it, my meeting with individuals seemed to throw doubt on my previous conclusions. Tuesday, 18 June, was a day of conversation, surprising me given my frequent reversion to silence. From next door came the Rwandan sisters, intent on bringing more Swahili through my lips, for my lack of words was quite an aberration in this land. After lunch I ventured down the road to the student accommodation closer to the chapel where I met three trainee priests: Amon, Suleman and Mote. Mote had excellent English and thus acted as an interpreter between the others and myself: Suleman explained that they had been expecting me to visit and that not visiting would usually be interpreted as a sign of hostility. Taking his obvious upset to heart, I found myself visiting almost every day after that.
One evening, a very sick child was brought to my aunt as the doctor on the campus. Tending to the frail girl in her mother’s arms, she gave her some kind of injection. It struck me as a strong reminder of how fragile life is and how precious people are. The previous night the father of one of the night watchmen had died of illness and now there was this sight of a hopelessly weak child. All I could do was pray. I did not know what the illness was, or how serious it was, but the concern that I saw in my aunt’s face after the family left told me that this was a delicate situation. I felt sad realising that this family was lucky in being able to see a doctor and I wondered how many other families would go without healthcare at a time like this.
That night I prayed, seeking the aid of our Creator. As an agnostic without the strong faith of my family it was something that did not come from me easily, but the sight of that poor girl prompted me to take the only action that was within my grasp. With genuine concern and true sincerity, I prayed in the darkness until I was too tired, begging for an answer well into the night, asking that the girl would be blessed and return to health. Were my prayers answered or was it just the dawa, I asked the following day? I did not know, but hearing news of her recovery, I decided not to reject my initial reaction: that someone up there had listened to me. I did not know if I should read unnatural causes into what I encountered, but sometimes I believed strongly that there was something guiding me. I found myself in the heart of Tanzania with a group of theological students who, despite myself, had offered me great friendship. I found myself listening to their beautiful choruses and gripped by discussions about how the church should act in our world. At the time, I thought that I might be searching all my life for faith, but just then I decided that I would not give up. The previous day I had seen a vomiting, dehydrated child. Today she was looking so much better and was eating at last. I wanted to praise the Lord for that.
It is difficult to recall the journey between faith, disbelief and agnosticism in any detail, for the latter two are characterised by feelings rather than action. Nevertheless, the signposts remain. I do not remember when my belief in God returned, but I do know that for a long time I would utter only a portion of the Nicene Creed: ‘I believe in one God, creator of Heaven and Earth.’ For the most part, from the point of my rejection of belief, I did believe in God—only occasionally did I find myself without any faith at all—but I never regained the belief that Jesus was God. While many people talk of not understanding the Trinity, my problem was much more elemental; I had no deep philosophical objection, only a strong feeling inside that God was completely separate from His creation.
It was as my first year at university drew to a close that I began to feel the need to find truth. During the summer holidays I attended a service at London’s All Souls Langham Place with my maternal grandmother where I listened to a sermon which impressed me, inspiring me to reform myself. With the start of the new term I began attending All Souls every Sunday just to listen to the sermon—and perhaps to get a good lunch. My weekly trek from King’s Cross to Regent Street lasted for about two months, only for it to end abruptly. On my final visit, the evangelical preacher invited all those who were still unsure about his message to stay behind after the service for whom he promised a clearer explanation. Since that was my very reason for attending, I decided to accept his invitation and waited in the church beside a kind, elderly couple. His advice, however, angered me, for it was a lazy explanation, poorly thought through for an agnostic audience such as this and I decided not to return the following week.
At university I had disassociated myself from many of those I had known the previous term and kept myself to myself. I felt that I had been unduly influenced by friends into behaving foolishly in my first year and now found myself seeking to escape that way of life. But for the company of a friend of mine who was interested in Islam although she was not Muslim, I became quite a recluse and would not even go to sit in the pub, preferring instead to seek out new corners of the library and wander the greener parts of London. As the academic year progressed I became obsessed with my search for faith. Although I knew very few Muslims other than those with whom I had come into conflict during the course of the previous year, I started to read into Islam, impressed by the manners of one student I had never spoken to, the content of books in the library and the general enthusiasm of my non-Muslim friend for this alien culture. Gradually I began to appreciate this unknown faith. I found myself contemplating two traditions—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in turns—negotiating my path back towards God.