The backstreets, parks and squares of central London have an appeal that is sometimes difficult to explain. I used to wander Bloomsbury, Holborn and the Regent’s Park—Coram’s Fields, Lincoln’s Inn, Tavistock Square, Montague Street, Langham Street, Bow Street, Covent Garden—often lost in a world of my own, pondering on all that surrounded me. Friends often spent those weekend evenings in the loud pubs and clubs of the city, but I found myself a silent witness instead, exploring its every street on foot. Sometimes I would find myself returning home to the accompaniment of a beautiful dawn chorus as the sky lightened and turned orange, the sweet song of blackbirds surprising me given the din that characterised WC1. One bank holiday in early May I returned to those streets with purpose. Through study and prayer I had gradually been coming to believe in the religion of Muhammad, the Messenger of God, and now a kind of certainty had settled within. Having spent the whole weekend on my own, contemplating the urge to honour God that now dominated me, I emerged from my flat in the early evening and set out along my favourite streets, continuing my innermost conversations as I sauntered onwards. Although the holiday weekend was drawing to a close, Covent Garden was still lively with crowds of people bustling here and there. It was there that I posed a question to myself: ‘Will you leave all of this behind?’ Perhaps I did not need to, but just then I felt an incredible need to reform myself and start anew, and so this question was quite symbolic. It was as if I was about to leave one world and enter another. ‘Will you be able to leave all of this behind?’ was what I really meant. I stood in that market square for quite some time, observing the scene all around me as I pondered upon this question. By nightfall I had the answer.
A sentiment commonly expressed by those without faith is that religion should be a private affair and yet they often seem to deny this slogan by their insistence on making what is private public. My testimony of faith came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, but as soon as I made the decision to state those words I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered my utterance of those two simple sentences—I bear witness that none is worthy of worship except God and that Muhammad is His Messenger—a personal matter, but within only a few hours this news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who by sundown refused to speak to me. The questions I had been asking myself the previous evening had suddenly come into sharp focus for I had not anticipated that the reaction of my acquaintances would be quite like that. ‘Will you leave all of this behind?’
The reason my answer was yes in every case was that I desperately wanted to honour God, to leave my atheism and agnosticism behind me, and return to Him. This was why I had returned to studying the Bible and to attending church over the previous year despite the derision of my friends: I knew that I needed God and I was desperately seeking truth. I was never put under pressure to convert—in fact I was often perturbed by the reluctance of both Muslims and Christians to share their faith and convince me of its truth—but found myself driven onwards by an overpowering feeling of alienation from God instead. Thus rather than dwell on the reaction of others I busied myself with learning.
Religious belief is not merely centred on faith. Since coming to believe in Islam I have performed a certain ritual over 11,000 times and have prostrated before my Lord around 90,000 times.
These numbers indicate that there are duties which Muslims are obliged to perform as part of their day-to-day lives. From the moment I made my testimony of faith, I established the routine of formal prayer which is performed five times each day at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and nightfall, although it did not all come naturally to me. For some weeks I was reliant on handwritten prompts to guide me through the words, only to discover that I knew them off by heart one day when I had to pray alone in unfamiliar surroundings without my scrappy notes. The purpose of this ritual prayer—known as salat—is to remind us of the reality of our life in this world, to give us more opportunities to please our Lord and to wash away the sins which we accumulate during the course of any day.
Salat begins with intention and is followed by a succession of actions—standing whilst reciting verses of the Qur’an, bowing whilst praising God, prostrating and kneeling. The opening chapter of the Qur’an is recited in every single prayer—at least 17 times a day if one offers only the obligatory prayers—and reads:
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Sovereign of the Day of Judgement! You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom You have favoured, not of those who have incurred Your anger, nor of those who have gone astray.[footnote]The opening chapter of the Qur’an, 1:1-7.[/footnote]
While bowing we utter the words, ‘Holy is my Lord, the Magnificent.’ While prostrating we say, ‘Glory to my Lord, the Most High.’ This ritual prayer performed five times a day is our means of maintaining a continuous link with God. It is not, of course, our only bond to Him for individuals can pray at any time and in any manner according to the will of the supplicant. In due course other duties followed such as fasting, paying zakat and pilgrimage. While fasting is a voluntary act throughout the rest of the year, it is obligatory during the month of Ramadan for all physically able Muslims. Those who are sick, on a journey, pregnant or nursing are permitted to break the fast although they are required to make up an equal number of days later in the year or else feed a needy person for each day they missed. Fasting is regarded principally as a means of purification. By abstaining from normal pleasures and comforts the fasting person achieves growth in their spiritual life, learning discipline, self-restraint, patience and flexibility. Similarly, zakat—the etymology of which is to increase, foster and make pure—is the process of giving a proportion of one’s wealth to the poor and needy each year. The pilgrimage to Mecca once in a Muslim’s lifetime— the hajj—is also obligatory for all who are able.
Not every religious duty is an act of ritual, however. Our Prophet was asked,‘To whom should I be dutiful?’ He replied: ‘Your mother.’ When he was asked who next, he repeated the same answer two more times, before finally mentioning the man’s father.[footnote]Hadith recorded in Al-Adab al-Mufrad of Bukhari.[/footnote] In Islam, breaking the ties of kinship is considered a major sin, listed alongside murder and polytheism. Islam is a religion of action: having good manners, being charitable, looking after orphans and feeding the poor are all duties that Muslims are strongly encouraged to fulfil. If I learnt anything during my earliest days as a Muslim, it was that our path is considered the Middle Way.
When I embraced Islam in 1998, one of the first pieces of advice which I received from Muslim friends was to learn the names of three people and then stay far away from them. They were three men who have since been made infamous by the media as purveyors of extremism: two have been deported from the country, while the third is serving a prison sentence. Shortly afterwards I received an angry email from my father demanding to know whether I had passed his email address on to a group of zealots. He had received a message purportedly sponsored by a vast array of Muslim organisations which told him to convert to Islam or face the consequences. I most certainly had not passed his address on to anybody and glancing at the other names in the bulk mailing list—other public figures in the church—I surmised that his email address had been harvested along with others from Christian websites. Rather distressed by my father’s anger I showed the email to a fellow student who had been involved with Hizb-ut-Tahir in the early 1990s who told me that the author—then the leader of a group known as al-Muhajirun—was an eccentric who had had a habit of making up organisation names to make his little band of followers efforts’ appear more credible. None of the organisations listed at the end of the email actually existed.
Over the next few years we heard a lot from the trio I was told to avoid. Around the middle of 2000, a close friend of mine found himself the focus of an evangelical Christian colleague’s attention, who spoke frequently of Islamic extremists in our midst, for her husband worked for the Metropolitan Police force and apparently had much to say about Muslim radicals. Tired of her constant bombardment, my friend asked her to find out why one of those men was still free to preach despite frequent complaints from the Muslim community at large. His question was never answered. To be continually told by the government, media and senior police officers today, therefore, that the Muslim community in Britain is in denial about the existence of extremists amongst us is quite hard for me to grasp. The warnings I received were not from lapsed Muslims who were happy to compromise their beliefs for political gain, but from practising, active individuals. Prior to the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, I listened to many Muslims lamenting the authorities’ refusal to deal with people well known to be creating community tensions. Indeed, witnessing this laxity, some members of the community even began to entertain conspiracy theories about these free men. The Muslim community complained about their outrageous statements and the authorities appeared to do nothing.
For the first year and a half as a Muslim I enjoyed the company of a small group of friends who were predominantly apolitical Salafis who believed that a renewal of an Islamic society lay with the purification of the individual’s soul. ‘God does not change the condition of a people,’ they would often say, quoting the Qur’an, ‘until they change the condition of themselves.’[footnote]Qur’an 13:11.[/footnote]
Today much is made of the threat that Hizb-ut-Tahir poses to British society, with calls for it to be proscribed arising from various quarters, but this does not marry my experience. My friends certainly derided the group as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims with its Leninist view that all of the problems of the Muslim world would be solved once the Caliphate was restored, but its members were viewed as an irritant more than a menace. I once encountered an angry scene before a lecture at a mosque during which a Salafi seized upon some Hizb-ut-Tahir literature and proceeded to tear them to shreds, complaining that the ideas contained therein were dangerous and heretical, but apart from that I had the impression that very few people took their ideas seriously. A close friend of mine who had started practising Islam just before I became Muslim was swayed by the ideas of this group and so I frequently encountered his arguments in favour of working for the return of Muslim governance, since they believed that the governments of the Muslim world were not Islamic.
Contrary to contemporary claims about violent activism on the part of its members, I found that they were obsessed with the concept of intellectual argument which they seemed to believe would change the world. Their only reference to violence was in their critique of British and US foreign policy, which they viewed as an aggressive force in the Muslim world, detailed in tracts—Socialist Worker style—which they would thrust into the hands of worshipers after every Friday prayer: this was no call to arms for the violence belonged to the West. I never attended any of their meetings, so of course I cannot say what went on behind closed doors. Still, my friends and I tended to think of them as a broken record—a talking shop—harping on and on, and on, about the same issue over and over again at the expense of any spiritual growth. Indeed when I once declined an invitation to join a friend for an evening smoking fruit-flavoured tobacco from a sheesha pipe, suggesting that this was perhaps not the way a Muslim should pass his time, he replied that we would adopt this attitude when the Caliphate returned. Until then, it was business as usual. This said it all for me.
I was a great idealist for the first few years as a Muslim, seeing that letter of James come alive in my own life. I got on with the task of adopting Islamic characteristics which mirrored my favourite epistle: quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry; speak and act as men who are judged under a Law which makes them free; if faith does not lead to action, it is itself a lifeless thing; a man who controls his tongue is capable of controlling every part of his body; God opposes the arrogant and gives grace to the humble; a good man’s prayer is powerful and effective. Once I had established the prayer and had learnt the foods I could eat, my concern turned to the purification of my heart. According to the Qur’an our success is linked to the purity of our soul:
By the sun and his brightness, and the moon when she follows him, and the day when it reveals him, and the night when it enshrouds him, and the heaven and Him Who built it, and the earth and Him Who spread it out, and a soul and Him Who perfected it and inspired it with awareness of what is wrong for it and what is right for it, he is indeed successful who purifies it, and he is indeed a failure who neglects it.[footnote]Qur’an 91:1-10.[/footnote]
Initially my overwhelming concern lay with sincerity. Islam teaches that actions are only accepted according to the intentions that lie behind them: ‘Whoever’s emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry,’ said our Prophet, ‘then his emigration is for that which he emigrated.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote]
Sincerity to God is the key to faith in Islam. Believers must ensure that all acts of worship are done exclusively for God’s pleasure. Where a person’s intention is to show off, their acts of worship may be nullified. The greatest action such as feeding multitudes of the poor could be reduced to nothing because one’s intention was to earn a good reputation. Yet at the same time even the smallest action can be made great by the intention behind it. Intention and honesty are intimately linked, and the desire to honour God is tied to both.
When I came to believe in Islam my journey had barely begun. The early days were often characterised by feelings of fear and isolation as I negotiated the reactions of family, friends and even complete strangers. At the same time I discovered that I had greater strength than I gave myself credit for, persevering with my new-found faith and ignoring the disdain of others. Some of the university’s non-practising Muslims hypothesised that I had been pressurised to convert by fundos, while a group of practising Muslims—questioning my sincerity—agreed that they should view my adoption of Islam with suspicion. The theories of others varied: I wanted an ethnic religion, it was an act of rebellion, I had been pressurised by friends or it was a passing phase. Of all those who had formed an opinion of me and my change, very few ever thought to actually ask me for an explanation and even when I did explain it seemed that they did not believe me. The reality was that a discomfort within— the call of my heart—drove my search for God. It was perhaps only natural then that my first steps as a Muslim centred upon looking inwards as I focused on treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.
The testimony of faith signified a new beginning for me, like others before it and others since. Whenever we repent of our sins it is a new beginning, just as it was a new beginning when I started attending church again in my quest for truth. Each new beginning comes after an awakening inside, although change is not always immediate. When I was asked why I had become a Muslim there were many answers I would give: sometimes I would say that I had been brought this way through reading, through listening and through watching, but the final impetus was deeper than that. There was that awakening within to the realisation that I needed guidance and had to change. Some months before I became Muslim I spent a bright Saturday morning wandering aimlessly through the streets of London and it was while heading through the Regent’s Park that something within troubled me. My response to this was a turning point in which I began to speak to God and made myself a covenant with Him.
Islam is a religion of reform: it refreshes, brings life anew and grants new beginnings. It was clear as I struggled with myself in my new faith that action was required on my part. Belief in itself was not enough, for I had to begin the process of reforming my character. It was not that I was an incredibly bad person who had to go through a complete transformation—I certainly had my share of virtues to help me on my way—but I was aware of a number of issues that required redress. Emerging from a tradition whose entire theology hangs on the idea that mankind is primarily a sinful being in need of salvation it is easy to go to extremes in viewing oneself in a wholly negative light, but many of my concerns were genuine. The majority of them were related to the heart—sincerity, honesty, gratitude, the use of words, suspicion, envy. My pursuit of the outward forms of worship lacked precision as I uncritically absorbed the plentiful but sometimes contradictory advice of well-meaning individuals around me; once I had learned the basics I found that I could not dwell on them anymore.
I was never very good at performing the ritual prayers on time and rarely followed them with the optional prayers favoured by my friends, preferring to do the bare minimum in the hope that it would see me through. As my studies in London drew to a close, I began telling myself that I would practice properly once I moved away, escaping the controversies that divided the Muslims at my college. This was not a very logical view for I was about to leave the company of like-minded individuals to spend time with people who disliked Islam. Yet although my practice did not improve over that period, I still encountered moments of renewal prompted by the worries that I faced.
One evening, having applied to study for a post-graduate degree and wondering what my future had in store for me given that I still had not received an offer of a place by midsummer, I decided to read a prayer known as istikarah, which is the supplication for seeking guidance in forming a decision or choosing the proper way. After my main evening prayer, I knelt on my bedroom carpet with my English prayer book in hand and addressed my Lord: if my going to study Publishing was good for me in relation to my religion, my life and end, then decree and facilitate it for me, and if it be ill for me, remove it from me and remove me from it. The very next day I received an offer in the post. Remembering my supplication as I retrieved the envelope from the doormat, my faith was suddenly renewed, it felt strong and I became devoted in my prayers.
This renewal, alas, did not last and I soon returned to my former self. A few weeks later I had an argument with one of my siblings, both of us saying things that would offend the other. I thought that the family conversation about our argument would destroy me for I knew that I would never be asked to explain my side of the story. Descending into misery as the sense of isolation overcame me, I went inside and prayed. After half an hour I felt better and again I was devoted to God for a while.
Throughout the summer, these beginnings recurred, for despite my wavering and the constant struggle that I found myself facing, one thing always seemed self-evident. I knew that if my life were to end suddenly, I would not be ready. This is why I persevered, returning in a hurry to renew my faith after every period of stagnation. Each of us is responsible for the ultimate destination of our soul; no one can believe for us. Between my soul and God, I always remind myself, stand my heart and my deeds, and our end is in our own hands.
There is an undeniable truth which faces us, which is that no excuse will suffice when we confront the Day of Judgement. Through ‘negligence, weakness and our own deliberate fault’ we sometimes place ourselves in great danger. It is clear that we can conceal the diseases of our hearts from one another, but we realise that on that awesome Day when we gather before our Lord there will be no cover for them unless we strive to cure them now. Each time I turn back to God in repentance I tell myself that I must hurry to put things right. God is most merciful, nullifying every bad action that passed before whenever we sincerely beg for His forgiveness. Having detailed the consequences of living a sinful life, the Qur’an states: ‘…except for those who repent, believe and do good deeds. For them does God convert their evil deeds into good. And God is eternally forgiving and merciful.’[footnote]Qur’an 25:70.[/footnote] Ever since I came to believe in Islam these phases of realisation and renewal have accompanied me; they have been the central theme of this journey of mine, characterising my struggle between reconciling my heart and other calls.
This is an intensely personal journey and yet it is not a road that we can travel alone. I will always be grateful to a friend who provided wise counsel whilst I was studying in Scotland and feeling the effects of isolation. I knew of eight practising Muslims on campus whom I sometimes encountered in the prayer room throughout the day, but generally I lacked any kind of spiritual support; indeed the responsibility of organising the Friday prayer, social gatherings and the break of fast in Ramadan had been placed upon me, a role I disliked given that I had only recently joined the fold of the faithful and considered myself the one most in need of help. The result was a growing sense of unease, which my friends detected in the emails I regularly dispatched. Unlike those companions who will tell us only exactly what we want to hear, I discovered that I had friends who would always go well beyond the extra mile to help a person in need. One such friend travelled an extra 420 miles north from London to tell me that God had done His part in guiding me: now it was my turn to strive in His way in an effort to repay my debt.
My friend did not tell me what I wanted to hear—I wanted sympathy to support my self-pity—but his words were true all the same. There is indeed so much that I owe my Creator—so much that I cannot innumerate. I am grateful that He granted me my loving, caring parents and I am grateful to them— although they may not think so given that I chose to walk this path, not theirs. But I am grateful; I am grateful for their unerring provision, the clothing they provided for me in my youth, the education they furnished me with and the meals they prepared for me day after day. I am grateful that they sent me to Sunday school and took me to church, and instilled in me my moral compass. I am grateful for all these things and I thank God for granting me bounties greater than I can measure. I am grateful that He granted me so many friendships throughout my years and throughout this land and others. I am grateful to my Lord for granting me the gift of faith. I am grateful to the Most Merciful for making me shy throughout my youth. I am grateful that He protected me from bringing harm upon myself. I am grateful that He granted me warmth and gave me food. I am grateful that He protected me from harm and has sustained my life long enough for me to begin to correct my conduct and start to purify my heart. I am grateful that God tested me in a way which made me appreciate His bounty. I am grateful that He makes my heart ache whenever I do wrong and that He causes tears to well up in my eyes when I stumble into sin. I am grateful indeed. May God, how glorious is He, forgive me for every moment of sadness, for every moment spent with ingratitude. There is so much that God has poured upon me and I am truly grateful.
In life we must always remind ourselves of the debt we owe our Lord. Seven years ago a flat battery had to remind me this. That morning my rented car would not start and so I had to call out recovery. It was funny how something foreign could become so familiar within such a short space of time, such that something we could once do without becomes something we take for granted. It was funny how when something is always there we do not thank God for it as we do when something new arrives.We pray for safe travels when we go on holiday and thank Him on our arrival, but the daily trip to work and back becomes a routine normality which we do not thank Him for.
We pray for sound employment and thank Him when He responds, but we take our daily bread without the same words of thanks. We ask for good health when struck down with illness and thank Him when we recover, but as we go about our everyday business in good health, sometimes we forget to thank the One who has power over all things.
When I first got that car I was wondering at all the blessings that God had bestowed on me, but soon I would get in the car in the morning, drive to work and park, failing to say my praise in exchange for His blessings, just as I made my sandwiches at lunchtime without saying, ‘Thank you Lord,’ just as I would wake in the morning without thanking God for the opportunity of another day to better myself, just as I would write a letter without thanking God for giving me sight—and what an amazing thing that is—just as I would take so many things for granted and yet not express my gratitude to the Bestower of all things.
It reminded me of the words of a poet: ‘If my thanking God for His blessings is a blessing, then I must thank Him in the same measure again. How can one thank Him save by His grace as time goes on, and life goes by? If a good thing comes, I rejoice heartily; if a bad one comes, I receive a reward. In both cases He gives me a gift too large for the minds of men, and the land and sea.’
That day, I thought, I would not moan about the frost killing my car battery. I decided to thank God instead for giving me time to reflect upon His blessings. How perfect He is, and how we fail to express the gratitude He deserves. Years later it was the sudden beauty of my garden that brought this back to my mind after a seemingly long winter and the arrival of spring at last. Our front garden was suddenly blooming with flushes of new green leaves and splashes of colour everywhere. There were pinkish red flowers on the camellia, purple tulips, bright yellow cowslips, orange on the berberidaceae, yellows, pinks and blues everywhere. The scent was splendid and it was a sight that made me mutter praises of God over and over again.
God has always been generous to me. His magnificence never fails to amaze me. His signs, His bounties and His blessings multiply. One evening I decided to stop writing, for words worry me. The responsibility we shoulder when we use words is great and so that night I decided to rest my pen. Not for the first time, however, I received an email later that evening in which a stranger told me that he found my writing useful. The timing: God’s generosity? Why was it that every time I concluded that my writing should cease somebody had words for me? Was it a sign or a test? God knows best, but I know that God is always generous to me. He never ceases to shower His blessings upon me, despite myself. God is great, magnificent.
We say that God is the Most High because everything around us bears witness to this. We say He is Great—Allahu Akbar— because this is evident all around us. I thought of His generosity one evening when my computer crashed in the middle of a piece of work. I had spent an hour writing words in my defence, choosing the right words to respond to another’s. Yet when I tried to send those words my computer timed out and it timed out three more times after that, and then my other computer crashed when I tried to use it instead. It was then that I recognised God’s generosity. What was to be gained by responding? What was to be gained with those words? I recognised His generosity at last, and so finally I deleted that email, wiped away that text and—praise belongs to God—the computer worked once more. God’s generosity. Were matters within my hands, were I able to control such things, were I able to decree anything, I would decree that I land face down in the fire of Hell. But God is ever generous, ever protecting us from ourselves, ever granting us an escape from our own wickedness. He is the ever generous, and this is why we call Him the Most High, the Great.
A few days earlier I had been feeling sad and so I returned to my Lord in prayer, supplicating to Him who has the power to grant and withhold. I was feeling confused, recognising that without His help all of us will go astray, and so I prayed as best I could. What can I say except that God is ever generous? Without any effort on my part, He sends aid, He sends guidance. That day I had conceded that it was time I did the decorating I had been promising my wife all year and so I went down to the hardware store to get some paint. A member of staff there told me that, at last, the Islamic Studies classes were starting in the mosque the following day. He walked with me to the car park and fetched me a timetable from his car. The following morning my wife and I walked the 10-minute trek from our house, across the top of the hill and down through the graveyard to the mosque in that wonderful sunshine for the first class beneath that stunning calligraphy in the dome. The gentle Algerian introduced us to half an hour of Qur’anic commentary and half an hour of the biography of our Prophet.
For half an hour he began to tell us the meaning of the Arabic word hamd, and for half an hour he described to us the appearance of our blessed Prophet. What can one say except that God is the Most Generous, the Most High? What can one say except that we count the Blessings He showers upon us every day?
We learnt that morning that God has said that very few of His servants say shukr—thank you—and so we begin every prayer with Alhamdulilah, a gift from God, that we thank Him for those things that we are aware of and those things that we are not. Alhamdulilah—all praise is for God. God the Most Great saves us from ourselves and gives us the words to say because He knows that we would not say shukr on our own accord. Alhamdulilah: God is the ever generous.
If I were to write of all the bounties that I felt that weekend it would take up too much space and too much time, but nevertheless I was made aware of His generosity—this was His generosity in itself. I felt humbled and blessed, for God had granted me so much despite myself. He had granted me so much although I am so undeserving. Time after time He protects me from myself and I wish I could repay Him, but I know I never can and so all I can say is this: I seek refuge in God, the Lord of the Worlds, from myself, and I pray that He guides me and does not let me die other than as one who has earned His pleasure.
In faith I remain an idealist—a literalist to some—who takes the words of the Messenger of God to heart. One of the companions of the Prophet said, ‘I said, “Messenger of God, whose Islam is best?” He said, “The one from whose tongue and hands the Muslims are safe.”’[footnote]Hadith recorded in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] Some Muslims mock this simple faith of mine, placing conditions upon those words, loosening the tongue for those perceived to be heretics. Thus disappointment is a word that frequently returns to my mind as I encounter people of knowledge from whose tongues we are not safe, but such feelings can lead to resolve. Though the road will be long and I must forever fight the laziness and distraction that has always accompanied me in life, one day I found my determination to seek true knowledge. In the meantime this simple faith remains with my literal readings of speak good or remain silent; your mother, your mother, your mother; the one from whose tongue we are safe; and this brotherhood of yours is one brotherhood. Fortunately I am not alone in walking this path. A stranger once wrote some words that struck a chord with me:
For myself, my journey began on these reflections… though blessed with a family and community of Muslims, something was lacking: the frequent quarrels, petty back talking that I witnessed between Muslims and even at the mosque made it obvious that something was missing and soon I was on a search for something greater, and that was the ‘Prophetic Character’, as I realised that truly that was the foundation of Islam.
He went on:
So my search began to find the scholars who called to God with the display of the Prophetic character, following the footsteps of the noble Prophet building solid communities based on firm and pure hearts, who went on to call the masses to the religion with the precious light that emitted from the very inner fibres of their beings.
The journey to reconcile oneself with God is on-going and continuous, and in my case it is one that has only just begun. Though my knowledge now is little, I already know well the gems of the Prophetic character in those few words that I have learned from their renderings into the English language. This is a journey I must undertake myself, for it is my heart and my soul that seeks redemption. I have done the bare minimum for the past few years, but my soul tells me that this is not enough. I do not wish to become a scholar, but merely wish to redeem my soul, to put confusion behind me and to live as our blessed Prophet taught us to. I want to live a good life and perhaps— if God wills—embody however faintly the true light of Islam.
I came to Islam towards the end of the 20th century of the Christian era, more than 1,400 years after the Prophet’s migration to Medina. I came to Islam after the European colonial age which saw the slaughter of Muslim scholars and the Great Powers playing different groups of Muslims off against each other. I came to Islam after the seed of nationalism had grown into a vast but barren tree. I often reflect that those born into practicing Muslim families can at the very least grasp on to the tradition of their parents, seeking refuge in the remains of a living tradition. As converts to Islam we are thrown into the deep sea of confusion, looking this way and that, listening to the competing claims of Muslims here and there. The scholars are the inheritors of the Prophet we are told, but perpetually we are warned of corrupt scholars, government scholars, wolves in sheep’s clothing and pretenders to the throne. We do not have Muslim heritage to look back on and we cannot ask our grandparents about their grandparents.
Two years ago I found myself harking after the simple faith of the nomad. If I was asked what my creed was, I would only answer with the Prophet’s words when questioned by the Angel Gabriel, for the frequent, complex debates on the topic meant nothing to me.[footnote]Hadith recorded in the sahih collection of Muslim and explained in anNawawi’s Forty Hadith: ‘…The Messenger of God said, “Islam is that you witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, and you establish the prayer, and you give the zakat and you fast Ramadan, and you perform the hajj of the House if you are able to take a way to it…’[/footnote] I prayed, fasted and gave charity, and tried to be kind to those around me. I clung to the community wherever I found myself and focused on those actions about which there is no disagreement: the smile which is a charity, control of the tongue, the five prayers and their companions, a few coins to the one in need and responding to the one who asks.
I could not do more than this, I felt, because my mind was too small to fathom the pathway to the past as it passed through the era of European empire and beyond. An Armenian observer is not alone in her scathing attack on the mischief of the British as they encouraged the Armenian uprising whilst the Turks were defending their borders at the start of the 20th century, for this scene was replicated throughout the colonised lands. Ethnic groups turning on one another, scholars of religion slaughtered and the European powers promoting one group of Muslims against another; the simple faith of the nomad seemed safer somehow.[footnote]Some observers suspected that such unsavoury political machinations continue to occur in our own times after two SAS servicemen in civilian dress—charged with killing five or nine inhabitants—were arrested in Basra, Iraq in September 2005. It was alleged that their Toyota Cressida was found to contain weapons, explosives and a remote-control detonator, while initial reports claimed they were dressed as Arabs. It has since been reported, however, that the men were engaged in undercover surveillance of senior Iraqi police officers suspected of being behind a series of attacks on British troops. God knows best.[/footnote]
As an agnostic more than 10 years ago I wrote a somewhat irreverent piece about my search for truth. While I have faith today, testifying that none has the right to be worshipped except God and that Muhammad is His messenger, there remains a mustard seed of truth in that piece. For me it is no longer a question of religion, but of navigating the competing claims of self-appointed spokesmen. Just follow the Qur’an and sunna, say some, but it is not so simple. There are more than 37,000 hadith and more than 6,000 verses of the Qur’an. Am I to interpret them myself given my distance in time, space and language from the Prophet and his companions? Muslims agree that the scholars are the inheritors of the religion and best placed to explain these matters to us, but the most vocal commentators insist on warning us of wolves and pretenders to the throne. In reality the Muslim corpus has in place exact sciences to guarantee authenticity—such as the ijazah that can be traced to ijazah, back through the generations—but there remains a grain of truth in that piece of mine from a decade ago:
Question everything, but don’t tell anyone. When you’re on that journey of yours, never confess that you’re completely lost. Just smile, grin, and bear it. It’s going to infuriate you, but nobody will understand. In their control rooms, they have their timetables and maps. To them it’s obvious, so why can’t you see that?
…Recently, you were going to church every Sunday, hoping a sermon would cure your questioning mind. And one day, your lucky day, they invite the unsure, the faithless, the agnostic, to stay behind after the service, where they’ll explain it to you and make you see the truth. You sit there and wait: you pray they’ll make you see, but soon you discover that it’s not you who’s blind. The preacher arrogantly assumes that you’re just ignorant, that you don’t have faith because you’re ignorant. Because you didn’t read the Bible.
‘Well, actually, I was reading the Bible, I just didn’t see the proof.’
And what is the preacher’s proof? He says it’s obvious. Well, no, it isn’t obvious, because you wouldn’t be sitting here listening to him if it was. He arrogantly assumes that those without faith simply have no faith because they never tried and never thought about it. He tells you that it’s obvious, so obvious that even a four year old could understand. But wait. You’re not four years old; the four year old didn’t read the Bible, she just sucked on her lolly and never wondered if the sugar would rot her teeth.
Yet there is an antidote: I have long noticed how love for the Prophet permeates the actions of those who sit and learn and who immerse themselves in learning. Noting how distant I am from that example, I found that their love inspired me to learn, for I have the faith of the nomad, but I want so much more. Taking stock of the longing of my heart, I once came across some more words that resonated with me. It was an article in which the author had written about what traditional Islam meant to him. Part of that description included this sentiment:
‘It is the Islam of the quaint villages…’
It reverberated in my mind because for weeks I had been thinking of a faraway place I passed through the previous summer. It also touched me because there is a part of me which does not sit well with the modern age. Throughout my teenage years I was something of an eccentric. While my friends were interested in mountain bikes, football, Nintendo and Baywatch, I was a dreamer. I yearned after a romantic past, of a wood-framed house surrounded by the cottage garden, of self-sufficiency, spring-fed waters, of the homestead farm. I would sketch out my rough architectural diagrams of my self-build Tudor house. My favourite book as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy: I imagined I was Almanzo and I dreamed of living my life as he had all those years ago. Later—and this led to my eventual arrival as a student of Development—my attention turned to sub-Saharan Africa. An article about life in Burkina Faso offered me unimaginable inspiration.
Though through marriage and good fortune I now have an extended family whose members include those that live a subsistence lifestyle—residing in wood-framed houses on homestead farms fed by spring waters—with the wisdom of age I realise that all those dreams were indeed for a romantic past. The reality of life is that it is hard: inoculated from birth against mumps and rubella, and against tetanus, living in an age protected from TB, and able to access an education from the age of five to 21, we forget the realities of existence in different times and places.
Still, that was my dream and an element of it remains with me even today. Something was bothering my heart and that article gave me an inkling of what it was: a kind of discomfort with the age we are living in.
One summer I spent two weeks up in the highlands of eastern Turkey with my mother-in-law, up above the clouds. My wife’s family originate in Hopa on the Black Sea, close to the border with Georgia in Artvin province. Every year, to escape the summer heat, my mother-in-law packs up her possessions like the nomads of old and ascends the mountains for the refuge of that usually cooler air. Life up there is quite primitive: the houses are simple stone-walled structures without cement, covered with the tarpaulin these travellers bring with them. The evening meal is prepared on wood burning stoves, which in turn warms the shelter as the cold evening draws in.
That August my wife and I began the journey in the early morning one Friday, looking forward to our reunion with her mother after such a long time. There is a vast dam-building project under way in the valley between our village just inland from Hopa and the major town of Artvin, so we had to leave at first light so we could travel while the road along the bottom of the valley was still open. We travelled inland rising steadily higher and higher into the mountains. At around 11 in the morning we stopped in Ardanuç to get some vegetables and have a rest, but not for too long. Soon we were winding up a dirt track through a beautiful landscape which reminded me of my holidays in Switzerland as a child. It was a steep landscape of meadows, streams and log chalets. It was a landscape that almost made me cry tears of joy. We were heading for a yayla about two hours short of Ardahan, but I could have stopped just there, so magnificent was the scenery.
We continued onwards however until we came to a camping ground on the side of a valley, where we stopped for lunch. There was a shack on the edge in which a group of men were preparing to barbeque cubes of lamb meat. I sat down on a bench with the lady-folk close to an ice-cold spring, for we had just discovered that the men were chilling bottles of Turkish spirits beneath the bubbling surface. After lunch, leaving my male travelling companions to their Raki and the ladies to their conversation, I caught a lift with an old Muslim man back to the mosque for the Friday prayer. I speak very little Turkish, but that ride was an immense blessing: we exchanged salams and I watched as those I had left behind appeared as dots across the valley.
This trip to the mosque had been in my thoughts for many weeks, and made the words about the Islam of the quaint villages strike such a chord with me. I should think that mosque had never seen an English Muslim enter its doors in all its ancient history. We parked our car just off the road, because the mosque could only be reached on foot. Together, communicating with one another only by hand gestures and that brotherly fondness in our hearts, we walked up the hill through that village that seemed to be caught in a time warp. There was a water-trough fed by a stream in front of the mosque—what a beautiful sight— but it was the sight in the small garden in front of that place of prayer that touched my heart. All of the men were gathered in a circle, awaiting the call to prayer, expressing such affection for one another, conversing with kind words. We exchanged salams, but I did not join them, entering the mosque instead with my old companion. That building seemed centuries old inside. It was dark, and yet it seemed light. The walls were stone, not decorated like those fine mosques of Istanbul. There were some pieces of calligraphy high up on the walls and old worn out rugs on the floor. There was a spirit in that mosque which warmed my soul. This was the place that occupied my thoughts. The tale of the remainder of my journey up into the mountains is for another time. This story is about that place in my heart. It is not a geographical space, but an emotional place. That place that the author described: ‘It is the Islam of the quaint villages…’ Yes, this is the yearning of my heart. That place of true brotherhood outside the mosque, that place of a simplicity that does not care for our modern-day obsessions with labels and debates. That place where God is remembered, where life stops for the prayer, where brothers respect one another and welcome the stranger passing through. That place of beauty.