Be vigilant

One lesson that experience teaches me is that sincere repentance must always be followed by vigilance.

In Ramadan we have the gift of being able to distinguish between two types of sins: those that come from within, from the nafs, and those that come from outside. When, in the midst of that blessed month, we find our tongues dry of words, it becomes quite apparent that our misuse of speech throughout the remainder of the year derives largely from the inspiration of the whispering one. But as for those other sins that accompany us even through the month of fasting, it is usually self-evident that they come from deep within.

I have tried and tried to conquer the sins of the nafs, failing constantly but nevertheless returning to repentance in due course, falling down upon my face with a commitment to strive against them. It is hard work, for I have fed them since childhood and thoughts of them now pervade my mind and memory. On occasion it has been possible to abstain from thoughts of them for weeks and months, but usually progress is less effective: sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes just days, sometimes only part of a day or an hour. It is a painful battle, wherein even the body reacts with hunger, persuading the mind to drop its guard and return to those transgressions that will be its downfall.

Nevertheless there is repentance and the possibility of redemption. It is possible to return to that ultimate realisation that the only way forward is to slay and conquer the sins of the nafs, to burn them out, even if the heaviness of desires causes that aching pain within to become unbearable. And so, slowly in time, even as we stumble along the way, we make ourselves a covenant with God, committing to strive steadfastly on this path, closing down every avenue that could lead to its return.

But experience has taught me that this is not enough. For without vigilance, it is all too easy to replace one sort of sin with another. My epiphany of reform came early on Sunday morning, driving me to fall down in prayer, to beg for forgiveness, help and guidance. Yet on Monday morning, heading into town to take care of some business, I would find myself tallying up a new set of marks in my record. Encountering a friend there, innocent greetings and an exchange of news would soon dissolve into one of those heedless conversations that carries us perilously close to danger. We both believed that we were speaking out of concern for our friends, petitioning one another to action, intent on them rectifying their affairs.

It was not until the midnight hours as I lay in bed that it occurred to me that the source of my sudden concern for a friend was not what I had thought it was. Instead of responding with measured advice and leaving it there, or even saying I don’t know, we had listened to the provocations of the whispering one and threw ourselves into sin, all the while convincing ourselves that we were acting with integrity, speaking up only out of love and mercy.

All of a sudden, quite horrifically, it occurred to me that just as last time when I had promised never to feed those sins of the nafs again, I had hurriedly dashed into another trap without even looking where I was going. And I know not what harm I have caused.

The avenues to our destruction are many — some wide, some narrow, some appealing, some repulsive — and so we must permanently remain on guard. If we are making an effort to overcome one sin that constantly plays on our mind, we must remind ourselves of others of which we are unconscious. The whispering one only requires us to be unmindful for an instant for us to throw all of our good deeds to the wind. So be vigilant both in times of strength and weakness, of joy and sadness, of contentment and of rage. Without it, our progress may forever remain a mere illusion.

Accentuate the positive

We all feel legitimately aggrieved when newspapers lend disproportionate coverage to fringe provocateurs in the Muslim community, magnifying the significance of their actions far beyond realities on the ground. We frequently beg for reprieve in the face of negative reporting concerning Muslims and their faith, demanding fairness in its place. Whatever happened to balance, we demand, petitioning anyone who will listen to give us the benefit of the doubt.

Encountering swathes of the volunteer Muslim media — websites, blogs and free newspapers amongst them — generates a not dissimilar ambivalence. My irritation with the perpetual obsession with documenting every instance of alleged Islamophobia whenever it occurs anywhere in the world, even if it means trawling the online press twenty-four hours a day, has already been forcefully noted. It is tiring having to sift through reports of every misdemeanor of The Other, presented as they are to induce instant gloom. But of greater concern is the habit of some websites insisting on giving such prominence to an insignificant extremist fringe, amplifying their importance out of all proportion: Pamela Geller is the Muslim media’s equivalent of the tabloids’ hook handed mullah.

The picture foisted upon us is, they’re all out to get us — which is presumably the same picture that a regular reader of the Daily Express or Daily Mail forms of Muslims. We are suddenly living in a very polarised world, split succinctly into us and them. Given a bit of push and shove, the wrong economic conditions and the collapse of the Police force, and we will all be at each other’s throats in no time.

Absent amidst all the dreary pessimism is a record of the positive contributions of human-beings to one another, of Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Just as the press cannot find anything to say about the role of Muslim doctors in sustaining the health of our nation, we can only dwell on the light lacking in The Other. We heard there was a bitter pill and we swallowed it.

Yet here I have a flier that was thrust into my hands as I left the mosque last Friday. The (non-Muslim) Mayor of our little market town is organising a sponsored walk to raise funds to assist in the relief efforts for victims of Pakistan’s massive floods this year. It is supported by the town’s Churches Together group as well as Muslim-run businesses. A positive story at last, of communities working together with care and foresight. But of course it’s not the only case: we just need to accentuate the positive.

Surely then this is a sign for you: one of the most melancholic individuals you know is demanding a fundamental attitude shift that requires us to constantly seek out the good.  For I am told that if you seek out goodness, this is exactly what you will find.

O people of the interwebs!

O people of the interwebs, tell me something positive!

What, pray, is the purpose of the daily trawl of the online press for tales of woe afflicting the Muslims, condensed and abbreviated into bite-sized chunks for readers to absorb in a fit of never ending misery? Will nobody stand up and say enough is enough? Why, kind sirs all inclusive, must we constantly record all that keeps us in a state of perpetual gloom? Is this, I have to ask, the way it was meant to be?

I fear a bout of seasonal melancholy is coming my way. If tales of joy do not arrive pretty swiftly, I shall blame my demise on this rampant morass of negativity. I have no time for this, but I am minded to start a blog entitled, People being awfully nice to one another Watch. I know it doesn’t have a very good ring to it, but I’m not sure bleakophobia is a word.

If anyone has any happy tales to share, please do forward them to me at the earliest opportunity. This is an urgent request, so please do not procrastinate. I look forward to being amazed by the sheer humanity of my fellow humans, for which I shall be eternally grateful. I thank you.

From Whispers

I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief saunter in the back garden, a name whispered its way into my mind. I did not need to respond to the surprising murmur, but all of a sudden I was back at the computer, googling an old acquaintance of a bygone era.

I had been away from the Muslim quarter of the internet for some time, absorbed instead in the new-found art of the nappy change, and had missed the return of a perennial obsession. Others too, it seemed, had failed to recite audu billahi minal shaitani rajim when that name fluttered into the space between their ears for no apparent reason. Perhaps they too had considered it inspiration, as I foolishly had at first, ignoring the recollections of last time.

Four months earlier, almost to the day, there had arisen an impulsive urge to venerate a departed companion, lamenting upon life without them. Just as a week ago, that name had abruptly fleeted across my brow, lodging itself firmly in my mind. In that instant I felt the need to speak up for a friend. And so I wrote an ode to glad tidings. Yet within days bad tidings had arrived in their place, for our companion’s secret had been revealed before the world.

Reflecting on them now, I notice that these affairs had something in common: both had followed a certain resolve to return to God and to place my affairs solely in His care. Instead, responding to a whisper within, I replaced one set of sins with another and tried my own faith in a different manner.

My journey towards God, since those awkward days of atheism and agnosticism fifteen years ago, has always been characterised by my willingness to jeopardise everything for the sake of certainty. As I came to believe in Islam a bipolar disposition began to become apparent within: there was a desire to believe in this path, but also a desire to turn away from it.

Long before I was Muslim, I began praying and fasting in private, as best I could with only an English translation of the Qur’an as a guide: in those moments I wished to believe. Yet I turned too to the polemical work of Ibn Warraq which sat amidst the serious works on Islam in the university’s extensive library. At one stage, his work was capable of eradicating my nascent belief in God that my readings on Islam had rekindled.

Later, when I had forgotten the pseudonymous author and had rebuilt my fragile faith in God, I was to be found turning my back on the teachings of Islam and approaching a Christian friend instead, to ask if I could attend her church. Although it was the Qur’an that had convinced me that God did exist, I decided to turn to the combative evangelical website, Answering Islam, for guidance on where to go from there, and the answer was clear: not towards Islam.

I had reason not to take this website very seriously. For one, I had encountered two of its contributors the previous summer at All Souls, Langham Place, while having lunch after the service with my brother and grandmother. They had, they were pleased to announce, hit upon the ultimate knock-out blow for the Muslims, and they were on their way to Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner to deliver it. For another, a senior (non-Muslim) lecturer in Islamic studies at my university had described another key contributor — who had been his student — in particularly unflattering terms. Nevertheless, I continued to mine the website in an effort to be as objective as I possibly could be.

Yet it was not just in that wavering phase before my testimony of faith that I consulted Islam’s opponents for guidance. In the months that followed, much to the apprehension of my new Muslim friends, I would return back to those arguments against Islam and dwell upon them, sometimes shaking the faith I was beginning to hold dear.

The advice of my friends was to replace my reading at the flickering screens in the university’s computer rooms with study of the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But I may have moved on for other reasons. The trouble with that website was that it could say nothing good about Islam at all: my religion was absolutely despicable and so completely wrong. There was no mention of the charity enjoined upon Muslims, of the exhortation to care for widows and orphans, of our duties towards our neighbours whether Muslim or not — true virtues in Christian eyes, surely — or even that Muslims were worthy of respect.

In time I did indeed move on for a variety of reasons, from my bizarre authorship of numerous emails in Olde Inglishe to the pursuit of the final year of my degree. But it would not be my last brush with polemics against Islam.

My upbringing, as well being staunchly Christian, had a feminist flavour. My mother was amongst the first groups of female priests to enter the Church of England after several years of contentious debate amongst Anglican congregations in England — which coloured my views on the role and rights of women in society enormously. Inevitably a time would come when those assumptions would collide with the polemics concerning the status of women in Islam.

I was studying for my postgraduate degree in Scotland when I chanced upon an article of this kind whilst browsing the internet one evening. Following one hyperlink to another led me into a maze of confusion and shock. Soon, with those painful vibrations in my stomach that come with anger, I was hammering out a lengthy email to my friends back in London, demanding to know why no one had told me that this was how our religion treated the fairer sex.

I don’t recall their response to that email at all. I only recall how, by strange happenstance, a young Muslim woman of Yemeni origin from my old university emailed me out of the blue the following day with some sort of news. With her words, my rage suddenly lifted, for here was a real, non-theoretical Muslim woman, talking about her faith and life with perfect contentment. Her emailed advice and guidance for me over the months that followed was invaluable as I stumbled onwards along this path.

Over the years that followed there would be more days like that, as the internet grew and more and more people took up the crusade against Islam. Sometimes the attacks appeared to have more substance than those of old, as Muslims began to publish volumes of hadith online for all to survey as they pleased. Now anyone could mine the knowledge of centuries for a paragraph or sentence to prove a point, ignoring other material that explained, qualified, contextualised or contradicted it. What those academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam — like H Motzki, U Rubin, FE Peters, H Berg and GR Hawtin — must think of this cut and paste revolution, I do not know.

And so to the present. Some years after I abandoned my efforts to keep up with a former-Muslim’s blog entitled Towelianism, I was led to the website of an old friend who, though once an ardent defendant and advocate of Islam, now writes about it with dedicated hostility. I first came across the website in June, when I read it in full in reverse order, from the earliest post to the latest. The early posts had been written while they still maintained their Muslim blog, and so I decided to read the two in tandem: the live site and the archived site. This way I felt I could better make sense of what had come to pass. This was true to a degree, but these matters are always more complicated than that.

As I progressed through the blog it appeared to become less and less personal, and much more the case against Islam. But I knew the reason for that: after all these years reading websites dedicated to undermining and attacking Islam I recognised that what I was reading was nothing new. I had read all of those articles before, lightly repackaged though they were in the author’s own style and distilled through the prism of their own understanding. Although I felt sad and disappointed, I found that what I was reading could not elicit any stronger emotions. They may as well have just copied out that old Ibn Warraq work word for word.

I left that website then as I busied myself with the preparations for the arrival of two strangers in our lives. It has been a summer like no other, when our Lord decreed for us such incredible bounties, blessing us with the company of two delightful children in the last ten days of Ramadan. After difficulty comes ease, promises God, and He is indeed the most truthful.

Even so, alas, I maintain my bonds with my lowest desires at moments of particular weakness. I can absorb myself in strange pursuits for days on end if I so choose, until my conscience eventually drives me home. And so it was. I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief stroll outside, the picture of an old friend pranced before my mind.

Soon I was reading through their website once more, this time in the published order, from the newest backwards. As I read, I pondered. Their experience was distinct from mine, and mine from theirs, but I could not dismiss it all. Their anger at the treatment of numerous women by various Muslim communities mirrored my own anger; I only lamented that those who need to hear the message will never listen to such a voice. But the author has read some hadith which they believe show that Islam sanctions this kind of behaviour towards women. I, on the other hand, have read other hadith and scholarship which I believe show that Islam prohibits it.

It is here that I found where I stand. Twelve years ago I found myself carrying an incredible urgency to find faith and believe in God. It was something I had to do without delay, even if it meant messing up my studies. If there was a God and there was something after death, it was important to pursue it at once, I convinced myself, and for that reason I demanded answers.

But to go the other way? To exchange belief for disbelief, or theism for atheism? I can see no urgency in that. If our intellect is merely a hyper-evolved collection of chemical reactions that shall cease forever on our death and return to the earth as our bodies decay, if our life has no purpose, no direction or meaning, if we live a life and then disappear, what then is the urgency in believing in the new atheistic orthodoxy?

If I were to hold to that paradigm, who shall hold me to account for believing in God and thus condemn me? If I should die whilst in pursuit of the answers to my questions — such as what kind of behaviour does Islam sanction in respect to women, children, neighbours and non-Muslims — what difference would it make if the new orthodoxy were correct? If nothingness were to lie on either side of us, before us and after us, would there be any urgency to disbelieve? Or to do anything at all in fact?

For a second I had been perturbed as to why my old friend’s words had not affected me as others had in earlier times, although the ideas were the same. I wondered if I had become the intolerable caricature that the author now raged about: blind and deaf and dumb, promulgating unspeakable evil throughout the earth. No, that was not it. It was that I have no need to believe in the pointlessness of being, and there was certainly no need to try to believe in that. I am content, I realised, to continue to explore and experience this faith of mine. Questions that cause discomfort — and there have always been those — still demand answers, but the urgency I once felt has left me. A hundred proverbs about patience now spring to mind in its place.

The Narcissist

May God preserve us from fame, celebrity and great acclaim. May He protect us from the attention-seeking ego, from the lust for admiration, from inflated self-regard.

If one day we should state our intention to head for the hills and disappear, may our words be true. Let not the lusts of the narcissistic self drive us back to the crowd, reinvented and redefined, to seek out undeserved praise once more. Let us not forever live a life seeking to be known, but grant us instead a hunger and thirst to know You.

May God protect us from leading others astray, and from being led astray, and from misguided followings, fan clubs, groupies and admirers. May He purify our hearts, keeps us straight, grant us humility, make us prayerful and gentle. May He not let us be a trial for others, may our words not be the cause of great harm. May He be the source of all our pleasure, may He tame our hearts and grant us peace. May He decree for us a blessed return.

May God preserve us from fame, celebrity and great acclaim.

Virtuous Reality

Who sits this side of the computer terminal, tapping out words that shoot out across the web? Nobody knows.

Nobody knows if the author is a believer or a doubter, the pious or a sinner, the learned or the ignorant, a guide, the guided, the misguided or a misguider. Nobody knows if the author is who she says she is, if she is a ghost-writer, a fantasist or an imposter. Nobody knows if what he says is honest and true, or if with his typing fingers he proclaims one thing, whilst his heart witnesses to another.

Of course only God and ourselves know what our hearts contain, but in this world of decapitated voices we are more easily led astray. A thousand admirers praised an author for their vast faith, sincerity and piety, whilst the applauded one’s faith withered away, witnessed only by God, close companions and their computer’s pale night-time glow. But how, but why, but please, oh no!

Such pain for one nobody ever even knew, except through their own words, selected and refined for public consumption. Who sits before the whirring box, its disk drives chattering, its fan blowing hard, its display imprinting the retinas with those small white squares that return whenever he looks back at his beloved? Nobody knows, except He who knows what our hearts contain.

May our Lord grant us virtuous non-virtual companions who guide by their actions and character, not merely by the words of their tongues or typing fingers, who emit that great light of faith that alone can carry us home.

Hold fast to the rope of Allah

Hold fast to the rope of Allah and never take your faith for granted. These are not empty words.

I have passed through those phases of great despair — despair at my own propensity to overwhelm myself with the same sins over and over — when a voice from within whispers, “There is no hope for you.”

God is Most Merciful insists optimism in one ear. But my sins are too many, too consistent, too repetitive, too foolish, too inexcusable… too much to bear. The pessimistic soul feels them weighing on him too heavily. It is not long before he is contemplating abandoning his soul to destruction, not because he disbelieves in God, but because he disbelieves in himself.

This blog has documented many such troughs in my own life, but I am not alone. A friend’s words were once littered with sentiments such as these, though few noticed at the time, attributing them to modesty or humility instead. “Be who I am not,” they once said, telling us how far we had misjudged them: “From these depths, I see what goodness is, and this is why I want you to aspire to it.

These were not the words of one who had lost their faith in God, but of one who had lost faith in their own capacity to rise above whatever dragged them down. They saw what faith could do for you, but they had already given up on their own self. Such is the nature of despair.

But who despairs of God’s mercy except one who has gone astray? This verse reverberates in my mind each time I descend into that heavy gloom under the weight of my sins. There remains an intense fear that we take His forgiveness for granted, and that He might withdraw it from us. The fear remains that those sins will come back to haunt us, but hope must prevail for it is the antidote to despair. The ultimate outcome of despair is simply giving up: my sins are too many, too vast, too great, so why bother?

The answer, I have found over recent months, is to make gradual steps towards rectifying one’s condition. For a decade I was unable to read the Qur’an in Arabic, for I told myself that the task of learning it was beyond me, but these past few months I have begun to make progress. For five years my Qur’an teacher instructed us to make a regular habit of reading the Qur’an, but only in the past few months have we begun starting the day with a portion of Ya-Sin and ending it with Surat al-Mulk.

My shortcomings outweigh my progress for sure — and I am not immune to continuing to fail — but it is necessary to put in place an antidote to despair. It is necessary to take small steps now, in order to make greater strides in the future, if the Most Merciful wills. “Certainly,” says our Lord in a Hadith Qudsi reported by al-Tabarani, “I run the affairs of My servants by My knowledge of what is in their hearts.”

In these past few months when our little universe has changed immensely, when great blessings have descended upon us unexpectedly, I have come to appreciate the rope of Allah all the more. In God is the remedy to all of our affairs.

Fitna

Two or three years ago in one very insignificant corner of the internet, a huge argument broke out between proponents of vaguely different interpretations of Islam, between brothers if you will. To the casual observer, such as myself peering in, it seemed like a skirmish on the border. But its effect on others was catastrophic.

Some of our fellow Muslims, many of them converts to the deen, had already lived through the Salafi inquisitions of the late 1990s that had demanded that the enthusiastic new faithful declare exactly which type of Salafi they were. Some Muslims, distraught by the collapse of the structures that had sustained their nascent faith, found their iman shattered and left the fold soon thereafter. Others held on, trusting in the guidance of Allah, recalling that they became Muslim for the sake of God, not for the sake of people, insisting that the schism would not shake them.

For some, salvation came in the form of what would later be called Traditional Islam. Early websites introduced them to material that had largely been unavailable in the English language until then and a new way forward emerged. Their old enthusiasm for their faith returned as they grasped hold of isnads and ijazahs connecting them back to the Prophet, peace be upon him. The sunnah sprang back to life in their lives, revealed in their conduct and words, and in their appeal to the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, whenever they perceived shortcomings in themselves and those around them.

For a while it seemed that they had found themselves in the midst of a different kind of community, one that would not succumb to the very human failings they had witnessed previously. This community was, it was thought, less self-righteous, gentler, more grounded in the humility that faith promotes.

All of sudden, however, that illusion was blasted to pieces. In the tempest of an argument that came from nowhere, the very voices that had called people to faith now raged with a sectarian intolerance that stunned those who had benefitted from them in the past. It was apparent to me as an outside observer—still just a Muslim lacking investment in any particular group—that many of the participants were oblivious to the impact of their involvement in the new schism. They certainly did not see how their standing fell in the eyes of people who had once respected them immensely, and what that loss of guidance meant for them.

Some, distraught by the apparent disintegration of a firm foundation beneath them, found their iman teetering on the brink and left the fold soon thereafter. Others held on, trusting in the guidance of Allah, recalling that they became Muslim for the sake of God, not for the sake of people, insisting that the schism would not shake them. But just as this was not the first, it would also not be the last, and the aftershocks and convulsions went on, buffeting believers to and fro over the weeks and months that followed.

For some who had invested heavily in their faith, it was a calamity amongst calamities that severely tested them. Alas, for some it was the catalyst for a certainty that none of us would wish for now: that certainty in nothingness, that those of us who have been atheist have had the misfortune to experience in full. It was, if you like, The End.

Yet all of us are tested by degrees. Some of us by the call of our own nafs or childlessness. Some by divorce and in bringing up severely disabled children alone. Some by the destruction of their homeland and being forced to live as a refugee until the end. Some by a great flood, or by the pollution of their livelihood. Some by the death of a loved-one to cancer. Some by their own terminal illness. Some by slaughter and oppression. Some by wealth, and ease, and love and light and happiness. And some by the fitnas that return time after time.

My Qur’an teacher taught his class one day that the word fitna is of the Arabic root alfatn. In days of old there were people who would mix lesser metals with gold for personal gain, but their deception could be detected by tossing coins into the flames of a fire. The process of separating true gold from false in this way is know as alfatn. It is the law of God, our teacher taught us, to put people through tribulation to separate those made from gold from the rest:

2. Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried?

3. But We have certainly tried those before them, and God will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.

4. Or do those who do evil deeds think they can outrun Us? Evil is what they judge.

5. Whoever should hope for the meeting with God—indeed, the term decreed by God is coming. And He is the Hearing, the Knowing.

6. And whoever strives only strives for the benefit of himself. Indeed, God is Free from need of the worlds.

7. And those who believe and do righteous deeds—We will surely remove from them their misdeeds and will surely reward them according to the best of what they used to do.

8. And We have enjoined upon man goodness to parents. But if they endeavour to make you associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them. To Me is your return, and I will inform you about what you used to do.

9. And those who believe and do righteous deeds—We will surely admit them into Paradise among the righteous. {Surah al-Ankabut}

Nothing that happens in our lives occurs without the will of God. And it has been said that those most loved by God are often tested to ever greater degrees, raising their standing before their Lord beyond our wildest dreams. At times, when the darkest and most difficult moments descend, we may stumble and err, for of course we are but human. But our Lord is known as the Most Merciful, the Compassionate, and He leaves the door to repentance open for us repeatedly.

They said: “We give thee glad tidings in truth: be not then in despair!” He said: “And who despairs of the mercy of his Lord, but such as go astray?”  {Qur’an 15.55}

The door is open for as long as he prolongs our lives.

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

Here I am reminded of that old parable of the lost sheep from my childhood. Indeed of the parable of the prodigal son. May God keep us all on the straight path and raise us in a good state on the Day of Judgement. And may He guide those who have lost faith back to His Way, raising them stronger than before.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, was once asked, ‘What actions are most excellent?’ He replied, ‘To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful and to remove the sufferings of the injured.’

He, peace be upon him, also said, ‘Give glad tidings and do not repel the people. Make things easy for the people and do not make it difficult for them and make them calm with glad tidings and do not repulse them.’

Are any more words required?

Amnesia

During the last football World Cup, my wife and I were invited to attend a small gathering hosted by some friends in their home. Although we knew them to be Shia Muslims (Shi’atu Ali), we quite gladly accepted their invitation so as not to break their hearts. So it was that we found ourselves in their living room, kneeling upon the floor, listening to their imam deliver a speech on a particular aspect of Islam. I have to admit that I found his talk all quite normal and acceptable; there was nothing unorthodox about it at all.

Yet when the talk ended, it was followed by almost half an hour of hysterical tears and sobbing. At this point my wife got up from the back of the room and disappeared into the kitchen to wait for it to end, but as I had taken my place close to the imam I was unable to move without causing disruption. So I just buried my eyes in the carpet and tried to work up some sympathy for their distress, wondering if my more muted reaction to terrible events centuries earlier betrayed my insensitivity to the suffering of mankind.

I began, I regret, to start wondering if the wailing around me would ever end. Grown men on my left and right were choking on their tears, the ladies at the back of the room the same. Of course I began asking myself if there was something wrong with me; if my heart had turned to stone and turned cold. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. All of a sudden, just as abruptly as the weeping had started, the great lament ceased.

Before me, the recently tearful imam rose to his feet and asked for the massive flat-panel television to be switched on for the match. Within thirty seconds of the sobbing ceasing, their great distress had seemingly been forgotten. As the screen brightened, all of the eyes already glued to the screen, the scene had completely changed. I offered my seat—the best in the house for TV viewing—to the imam, apologising that I wasn’t really into football. I can’t even remember which team we were supporting, only that it was playing Denmark.

I remembered this experience last week when I encountered a young man wailing about the injustices suffered by the people of Gaza at the hands of the Israelis. I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with him. It was just that I watched as his mourning suddenly gave way to a lengthy discussion about the merits of one football team over an other in the upcoming World Cup. It seemed sort of symptomatic of our state these days.

A kind of amnesia has overcome us, our attention-span severely stunted. One moment we are on a knife-edge, poised in anger and rage. The next moment we have forgotten, wandering on obliviously, until the next crisis strikes.