7 To Honour God

This short book has been a long time in the making and has passed through numerous iterations, surviving every change of heart and period of stagnation. It began as a work entitled, My Journey, which remains apt for this describes the approach of each of us to our Creator. We find the journey in the religious imagery of our two traditions: ‘Guide us along the straight path,’ recites the Muslim in every prayer, while the Christian reads from the scriptures, ‘But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’[footnote]Qur’an 1:6 and Gospel of Matthew 7:14.[/footnote] In my own case, I began these notes with the sentiment that when I came to believe in Islam in 1998 it was not the end of the road, but rather its beginning.

Two years ago I renamed this book, Reconciling the Heart, for this too described my journey towards God. Yet although I am still fond of that title, I settled in the end for the name at the head of this chapter and on the cover of this book: To Honour God. For many years—even as a wavering agnostic—my constant refrain has been the notion that I only want to honour God, and so the imagery of the journey returns for I have made little progress in this regard, taking only a few steps along this path. It is a journey that begins with us turning to God as we sincerely call ourselves to account: there comes a time when we realise that we want to be close to God and there can be no substitute. Thus, responding to the call of our heart, we bring ourselves before Him, repenting for every wrong action that passed before and dedicating ourselves to this path: to worship God as if we see Him, knowing that truly He sees us. For me, it means to turn in repentance, to strive to purify my heart from its spiritual diseases, to conquer the calls of my lower self and to adhere to God’s commands. I find myself with a great need to accomplish humility in prayer and to enjoy true focus, to ward off pride and arrogance, and to replace self-centredness with a life revolving around God, recognising that good works are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves. All of this—I believe—is encapsulated in those six oft-repeated words of mine: I only want to honour God.

The path of  Muhammad —the religion of Islam—enjoins upon its followers remembrance of God, which means glorifying, exalting and praising Him. In the Qur’an we read, ‘Remember Me and I will remember you.’[footnote]Qur’an 2:152.[/footnote] Elsewhere we read, ‘…and remember your Lord much and glorify Him in the evening and in the early morning.’[footnote]From Qur’an 3:41.[/footnote] Another verse reads,‘Those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of God— for, verily, in the remembrance of God hearts find rest.’[footnote]Qur’an 13:28.[/footnote]

The Prophet said, ‘The difference between the one who remembers God and the one who does not remember God is like the difference between the living and the dead.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] It is also reported that he taught that God says:

As my servant thinks about Me so will I be for him. I am with him if he will remember Me. If he calls on Me by himself I will call him by Myself, and if he calls on Me in a group of people, I mention him in a better group in My presence. If he approaches Me one hand-span, I will approach him one arm’s length; if he approaches Me one arm’s length, I will approach him by a cubit; if he comes to Me walking, I will come to him running.[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote]

For every tiny action on our part, God promises that He will return it with something better. If we turn to Him walking, He will come to us running, for He is indeed the Most Merciful. Even if our sins were like mountains, reaching the clouds of the sky, He promises us forgiveness if we turn to Him alone with sincere repentance. With gifts like these, what excuse do we have not to honour Him?

The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Any activity not begun with the words, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” is severed from its blessings.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Abu Dawud.[/footnote] He also taught that the deeds most loved by God are those done regularly, even if they are small.

He used to sleep during the earlier part of the night and stood in prayer during the latter part, for he said that the best prayer after those that are obligatory is the prayer at that time. He once said, ‘Getting up at night is enjoined upon you, for it was the practice of the pious before you. It brings you near to your Lord and is atonement for evil deeds and a restraint from sin.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote]

Concerning the ritual prayers performed five times each day, the Messenger said, ‘If there was a river at the door of the house of one of you, and he bathed in it five times every day, would you say that any dirt would be left on him?’ His companions replied that no dirt would be left at all. ‘So that is the example of the five prayers by which God washes away sins,’ he said.[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] Once he was asked which deed was most loved by God and he replied, ‘Prayer which is performed on time.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote]

The Prophet used to seek God’s forgiveness and turn to Him in repentance more than 70 times a day. He told us, ‘No trouble befalls a Muslim, and no illness, no sorrow, no grief, no harm, no distress, not even a thorn pricks him, without God expiating by it some of his sins.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote] A man asked him, ‘Which part of Islam is best?’ He replied, ‘To provide food and to say salam—peace—to those you know and to those you do not know.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] In another narration he said,‘Indeed the nearest people to God are those who begin by saying salam.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collections of Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud and Ahmad.[/footnote]

The Messenger of God said, ‘Charity is due upon every limb of a human being each day that the sun rises.To act justly between two people is charity. To help a man with his ride, or to load his provisions on it or lift them up for him is charity. A good word is charity. Every step going to prayer is charity. Removing from the road that which causes harm is charity.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote]

Once he said, ‘While a man was walking along, he came across a thorny branch on the way and he removed it. God praised him for that and forgave him his sins.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collection of Bukhari.[/footnote] He taught us, ‘Fear God wherever you are; let an evil deed be followed by a good deed so that you blot it out; and be well-behaved towards people.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collections of Tirmidhi and Ahmad.[/footnote]

Our Prophet said, ‘Beware of envy, for envy devours good deeds like fire devours firewood.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Abu Dawud.[/footnote] He also said, ‘The strong man is not the one who is strong in wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote] The Messenger of God never used obscene talk, nor did he listen to it. He taught us to be humble so that no one boasts over his neighbour nor oppresses him. ‘None of my companions should tell me anything about anyone,’ he said, ‘for I like to meet you with a clean heart.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Abu Dawud.[/footnote] He told his followers, ‘Do not talk for a long time without remembering God, for talking much without remembering God is hardness of the heart. The most distant from God amongst mankind is the one with a hardened heart.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote]

The Prophet 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.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collections of Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud.[/footnote] He taught, ‘He who does not thank people does not thank God.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collections of Tirmidhi and Ahmad.[/footnote] He also said, ‘When someone has had good done to him and says to the doer, “May God reward you,” he has done the utmost praise.’[footnote]Hadith reported in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote] He said that a man does not truly believe until he likes for his brother what he likes for himself. The word Islam means submission to the will of God and obedience to His Law. Within the teachings of the religion it is defined as the Middle Way, embracing both the Law and its spirit, denying both the Christian’s rejection of the Law in favour of its essence and the Pharisee’s dismissal of the spirit in favour of devotion to detailed legislation. The Middle Way provides balance so that we may appreciate the wisdom inherent in this way of life.

I often make fun of the eating habits of the Hemsinli people who reside in Artvin Province, Turkey—the ethnic group to which my wife belongs—but really I am only joking. I make fun of their taste for Black Sea Cabbage, for every meal seems to involve this pale-leafed brassica, and I am often heard running off a list part truthful, part made up: boiled cabbage, cabbage dolma, cabbage kofta, cabbage soup, cabbage fried with onion, pickled cabbage and so on. It is a variation on the old yarn about the Englishman’s love for the potato: baked potato, boiled potato, roast potato, mashed potato, potato chips, potato waffles and potato crisps. Yet in truth I have a lot of respect for those who have managed to maintain their traditional diet, warding off the endless possibilities of consumerism. Cabbage and Hamsi—the prince of all fish known to the Turks—is my staple diet whenever I go to stay in our village in that forested valley several miles inland from Hopa. Meat is hardly ever eaten and I have a feeling that this is how it should be.

It is sometimes said that the traditional English dish is ‘meat and two veg’, but in fact the meat element only has a history spanning a few hundred years. Cabbage was probably a staple of the English diet for epochs as well, a prospect unbearable to us in our modern age given our love of meat and variety. Not only are we used to great choice on the culinary front, but we have also come to expect and demand it. We live in a society which has made food one great plank of consumerism and sadly—it seems—many Muslims have fallen for this modern sunna, adopting the norms that surround us without question. Vegetarian Muslims are sometimes lambasted for their abstention from the consumption of meat—some zealous individuals even go as far as to say that not eating meat is haram. Yet it seems to me that vegetarians are much closer to the sunna of our religion than most of us. In the olden days, wealthy Muslims used to eat meat once a week, while poor Muslims would consume it on the Eids. Most of the meals that the Prophet ate did not contain meat, and so my friend who eats meat very rarely is simply following the model of the best of us.

I suspect the reason why some Muslims react so strongly to people who eat little meat has less to do with a concern for the prohibitions of our religion and more to do with the desires of our tongues and stomachs. A count of the mostly Muslim-run fried chicken shops along the length of the Uxbridge Road from Shepherd’s Bush in London to Uxbridge out west tell us of an insatiable demand. The delightful spread of the generous host for his guests is almost always a lavish stream of birianis and curries, chicken, lamb and mountains of meat-laced rice. The daily filling and emptying of the counters in the halal butchers tells us that we are a people who really do ‘do meat’.

Perhaps, though, we should control ourselves and ‘do meat’ a little less, in light of this hadith recorded in the Muwatta of Imam Malik: ‘Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.’ In today’s era, however, our problem does not only lie with addiction: what will we say about the way our food was farmed, the way the animal was slaughtered, the way it was cleaned and the way it was sold? When I consider the vast acreage of refrigerated units in our supermarkets always fully stocked with plump chickens, I cannot help but find it quite abhorrent. I am not a vegetarian, but this insatiable demand of ours still worries me. One Eid I visited a commercial slaughterhouse and was horrified by the production line they operated, but that is how it has to be in a culture that demands meat as much as ours. When I was studying Development, one of our lecturers—an expert in water politics—predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be over water. He may not have predicted the intervention of a non-regional army seeking out Weapons of Mass Distraction, but he made a strong case nevertheless. The production of the tons of grain required to rear animals is dependent on the availability of adequate supplies of water.

In our household, our consumption of meat has lessened somewhat. Some days we eat wholly vegetarian dishes, some days an egg quiche, some days some trout or sea fish and, yes, sometimes some lamb, goat or chicken. Though eating meat is permitted, Muslims are commanded to treat animals kindly, not to slaughter them within sight of other animals—not even to speak of it in their presence—and to use the technique that causes them to quickly slip into a state of deep-sleep unconsciousness. Nowadays we buy our meat once a month from a smallholder that takes the welfare of animals seriously and slaughters on the small scale, taking the kind of care that is impossible on a production line.

There has always been wisdom in the saying that we are what we eat, whether we like it or not. If we care about our spiritual well-being, we must realise that religion has much to say about the food we eat. There is great wisdom in every one of the teachings of Islam and in the words of our Prophet. For every piece of advice it is easy to find a reason just by reflecting on our own experiences in our day to day lives.

‘O Tongue,’ I lamented one summer upon returning from a friend’s wedding, ‘what on earth is wrong with you?’ I was reflecting on a disastrous attempt to socialise with old friends and new. ‘Why do you not have the fluency of these typing fingers?’ I asked,‘Why do you stutter and break, and disconnect with freely flowing thoughts? What have I done that makes you whisper in good company, what have I done to make you falter?’ I wondered if I had neglected my tongue, noting that for months my speech had been stuttering and breaking, leaving my thoughts locked within. ‘In every gathering you lock and harden,’ I told this piece of flesh, ‘and all you say with fluency is Alhamdulillah.’

Mankind is never satisfied of course. In different circumstances I would blame my tongue for being too loose. Such is the story of my life throughout these years within the Muslim faith. I have always been conscious of words. Even in the earliest years, I noted the discomfort in my soul which came with misplaced utterances. At work for a moment—seeking some common ground with my peers—I complained aloud about a project manager, feeding upon my own manager’s cynicism about her abilities. Ten seconds later, having said it, regret filled my mind.

A week earlier my words had been about my manager. It was not a complaint, but a description of an almost accusing question he had asked me which had caused me some offence. Returning from the production room that morning, I engaged in pointless chatter with the office manager until, as if it were a release, the unnecessary repetition slipped off my tongue. There was no need to pass on what he had said to me at all, and so regret struck me again just as I said it. ‘What am I doing,’ I asked myself?

In days gone by there were words in the Letter of James that I appreciated well. I had seen their example in action and felt the pain and the misery that grew from the tiniest spark. ‘Think of a ship,’ wrote James, ‘large though it may be and driven by gales, it can be steered by a very small rudder on whatever course the helmsman chooses. So with the tongue; it is small, but its pretensions are great. What a vast amount of timber can be set ablaze by the tiniest spark!’[footnote]The Letter of James 3:6.[/footnote]

It was something that I have always believed in with passion, for I have been cast aside because of rumours and dismissed because of words. Yet repeatedly I have found myself sitting on my own, examining my own soul and recognising that, I too, will occasionally drop a spark when it suits me. We fear alienation from our colleagues, so we join in with their games. We have been done down and we want to get back up. We have been slandered, so we want to get revenge. Or maybe, it is more subtle than that, down in the roots of our intentions: perhaps we want respect and we believe that words will win that prize. Many of us fall into this trap. I used to read the feedback columns that followed articles on the internet and would often come across the thoughtless ranting of individuals responding to words which did not need to be said with more words which did not need to be said. I would sometimes listen to friends telling me about such and such a person, speaking words which need not have been uttered. Sitting with our friends we tend to take in everything they say to us, because they are our friends. We accept slander of our enemy, because he is our enemy.

‘These women, they’re no good, because they did this and this…’

‘Don’t trust that man. He did such and such!’‘Don’t talk to him, he’s no good.’

Do we ever stop and ask, ‘How do you know?’ or do we just accept it because our companion told us so? Do we stop and say, ‘I don’t want to hear this. I’m abandoning your company until you desist’? Do we ever enquire? Do we verify our facts? Will we find out one day that our witness actually only heard it from his friend, who heard it from his friend, who overheard it from some people talking one day, who heard it from a journalist, from a friend who was not even sure and was not even there? Will we find out that our confidante has never even spoken to the woman she deconstructs and scrutinises for our benefit? Will we discover in the end that the man who was convicted a sinner, was in fact more sincere and pious than the best of us? Will we one day find out that we have learned nothing, except that we learned nothing about our companion? Our blessed Prophet said, ‘He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.’[footnote]Hadith recorded in the sahih collections of Bukhari and Muslim.[/footnote] For those of us who love to write, as well as those who have been granted great speech, the implications of this are clear. To write brings with it responsibilities, generating questions which exercise me constantly. The command to ‘speak good’ must equally apply to all forms of communication. In the Islamic worldview a word is an act, just as to walk, run or eat is an act, as Gai Eaton made clear:

In whatever society we may live, our actions are constrained in the public interest and, in Europe and America during the present century, these constraints have multiplied so rapidly that our ancestors, even a hundred years ago, might have found life almost intolerable. The Muslim may reasonably ask how it is that we accept this vast and oppressive network of laws and regulations while, at the same time, removing all constraints from one of the most potent forms of action; the spoken or written word.’[footnote]G Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (The Islamic Texts Society, 1998), pp.40-41.[/footnote]

A book, he pointed out, can easily become the indirect cause of genocide, to take an extreme but not unreasonable example. Yet this viewpoint is not even exclusively Islamic—freedom was understood by Kant as the freedom to do good, for example, rather than the freedom to do anything as it is often presented nowadays. To go further, a distinction can be drawn between freedom and rights. Although Islam grants the individual the freedom to say anything, it does not grant him or her the right to slander, backbite or lie—these are considered reprehensible sins.

In English law, limits are placed on the freedom of expression in certain circumstances, such as the need to protect the rights of others, as in defamation, protection of reputation and privacy. National security also constitutes a justification for censorship, along with sedition, public interest, public health, public morals, obscenity, public order, prevention of violence, terrorism, racism, sexism and religious intolerance.

Muslims are a people commanded to speak good or stay silent, and so I wrestle with myself regarding my love of writing, which brings me joy and relief. Whenever I reconcile myself to this passion, I consider it a gift from God. Some are given the eloquence of the tongue, others the hand of the calligrapher. Some are given great strength and energy, others compassionate gentleness. Everyone is given their gift, to be used to the glory of their Creator and His way. Still, that question recurs: is it a gift or is it a test? Is it a tool to be used for good or is it a distraction that replaces God-centredness with the ego? I regularly ponder this question, for I have an ambiguous relationship with the arts, with those nuances of the human condition. On the one hand, my faith inspires me with beauty, while on the other, some Muslims state that true knowledge is our only armoury. Thus I often find myself caught between the desire to put my talents to the service of good and the fear that they may rather lead me astray.

The power of words is astonishing. Some have the power to stir the emotions, to lighten one’s load. Others strike like a knitting needle pushed through the heart; that piercing pain that arises on receipt of harsh sentiments. Others still just perturb.

Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching says the Qur’an.[footnote]Qur’an 16:125.[/footnote] I wish we did. Sometimes in our zealous desire to convey a message of beauty, we abandon good manners and common etiquette. I have a friend who spent his early days as a Muslim amongst a particular group of believers until he could take their harsh words no more. Ripping into him with their tongues, they left him in tears in a public gathering more than once. Traumatised by those years, he has left them far behind, but now he has harsh words for them. It is not true that the people of that group are alone in suffering from this disease. I have seen and heard the harsh words of both the Salafi and the Sufi, the traditionalist and the modernist, the Sunni and the Shia; indeed I have encountered the callous words of the evangelical Baptist for the Roman Catholic, even of the parochial church council for the priest.

If some of us are remiss, then advise us in the best of ways. If some of us have made mistakes, remind us in a way that is kind. If I do not have knowledge the like of yours, invite me to the way of our Lord with wisdom and beautiful speech. The power of words is indeed astonishing. No wonder we are warned to maintain control of our tongues at all times and of our typing finger by extension. What a vast amount of timber can be set ablaze by the tiniest spark. This does not only refer to the destruction caused by a rumour, for even isolated words can crush the soul. Words can be uplifting, words can be light, words can be a comfort and words can be a guide, but we must evaluate all that falls without. An old Muslim tradition asks us to keep four questions in mind at all times:

‘Are these words true?’

‘Are these words necessary?’

‘Are these words beneficial?’

‘Are these words kind?’

Though difficult to achieve to be sure, the advice that follows is that if the answer to any of the questions is no, those words would be best left unspoken and unwritten. No doubt we all make mistakes, but we would be wise to keep those four questions in mind, to take them to heart and live by them.

One Friday evening, taking the time to listen to some worries I had, a teacher of mine told me about a tree in paradise reserved for those who retained criticism only for themselves in life, sparing their neighbours from assault and leaving alone that which did not concern them—a tree providing shade over a distance that would take 80 years to travel. It need not take us long to realise that certain principles are of importance, permeating the teachings of our Prophet f: our neighbours have rights that include being safe from our tongues; when we give advice, we are commanded to do so with the best of speech; we are told to think before we speak; before taking any action, we are ordered to remove anger, rancour and envy from our hearts. Contemplation of the food that passes our lips and meditation on the speech of our tongues are merely two aspects related to the way we live our lives. Much could be written about the gaze of our eyes and modesty, or about shunning arrogance and envy.

In the Qur’an we read:

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.[footnote]Qur’an 4:36.[/footnote]

Of his mission, the Prophet said,‘I was only sent to perfect noble character.’[footnote]Hadith recorded in the collection of Ahmad and the Muwatta.[/footnote] Yet is all this emphasis on perfecting our character and adopting the simple characteristics of religion not futile in this age of extreme conflict? I do not believe it is, for in the Qur’an we read, ‘The servants of the Merciful are those who tread lightly on the earth, and when ignorant people deride them, they reply “peace”.’[footnote]Qur’an 25:63.[/footnote] Here too we find wisdom in our teachings: violent protests and the burning of flags never achieved anything except increasing hatred. Our Prophet told us:

Towards the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, ‘If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds.’[footnote]From a Hadith recorded in the collection of Tirmidhi.[/footnote]

It is true that sometimes it can be daunting to define a role for ourselves: we wonder what impact we can make on the world around us as individuals. In an age that demands immediate answers to every problem, the traditional approach of religion can seem tiresome. In Muslim tradition, the internal struggles against the lowest calls of the self were seen as the gateway to prosperity, not protest and sloganeering. For me, confirmation of this truth was found in Scotland’s immense beauty.

Whilst staying in Broomhall Castle on the side of the Ochil Hills in Menstrie during my postgraduate studies I used to climb over the fence behind that sandstone building at weekends and ascend vast hills on foot. High up, there were great views of Stirling and the Firth of Forth. Once over the hill I would trample down into the valley and follow the rivers and streams as far as I could.

I learnt a lot from those waters. Sometimes I would encounter a stream that was nothing but a dribble through the grass, sometimes a bubbling brook. Every beck was fed by scores of tiny tributaries and every small river by dozens of streams. In one afternoon I would pass hundreds of watery veins across the fields and rocks, feeding one new watercourse after another. I would ponder on those waterways dribbling down the higher ground at their source, for on my way I had passed the rushing torrent heading out of the valley, carving its way between huge boulders. Across the lowland, through the village, this wide river joined another, that one joining another and on and on, until it joined the glorious shining Firth of Forth far in the distance.

One particular afternoon, while heading onwards further than before, I understood the parable in that magnificent landscape. We are not required to be mighty rivers to get our life’s work done. Each of us can contribute to a wider goal by performing even the smallest deed. Some of us are the tiny tributaries feeding the larger streams. Some are energetic brooks feeding the rivers. Some are cascading rivers swelling the wide, deep estuaries. All of us have a role and however insignificant it may seem at the time, it will always make a huge difference in the end.

Emphasis on perfecting our character and adopting the simple characteristics of religion must continue precisely because we live in an age of extreme conflict. We may be derided and mocked by those around us—by fellow believers as much as those without faith—but we recall that our return is to God. One day, we will face the Hour and stand before our Lord, shoulder to shoulder, as in that grand dress-rehearsal on the Plain of Arafat during the annual hajj—but on a day the like of which is 50,000 years. It will not matter that day what our fellow travellers thought of us.

There used to be a trend in which converts to Islam would be encouraged to change their name, swapping the moniker given to them by their parents for a Muslim variation. Thus Richard might become Abdullah, meaning Servant of God, and Matthew might become Abdur-Rahman, meaning Servant of the Most Merciful, while Ian might choose Ibrahim, taking on the name of a grand prophet that preceded us. My friends, however, have always insisted on Tim—the name chosen for me by my loving parents. I am glad about that, for looking into the origin of my name one day, tired of a stranger demanding to know why I still called myself this, I learnt that it derives from the Greek Timotheos which means, ‘To honour God’.

There could be no nobler end for any of us than to be of those that have lived a life that honoured God. I pray that one day I might begin to realise this fine ambition. Between our souls and God lie our hearts and our deeds, and nothing else lies between us.

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