Permission to grieve

I hate that we fly into a rage only when we are told to do so… that the whirlwind of sympathy and condemnation only occurs when the critical mass of sentiment drives us to take a stance… until then we must look the other way, or pretend not to notice horrific evil and our own double standards.

So Saudi Arabia and its allies may kill thousands of civilians indiscriminately in Yemen, but it is none of our business: no need to take a stance. They may kill hundreds in a single night, or destroy a hospital, or a block of flats… but we will not seethe and ache, and post news item after news item to our social media pages, and demand reprieve for some of the poorest people on earth.

There will be no wall to wall coverage of these victims of this aggressor. At least not until we are instructed to sit up and take note: when that happens, then we will bang our drums and wail out loud: then we will become enraged. But until then, let’s pretend not to have noticed. Let’s look the other way.

We await the next political crisis, media storm or social media frenzy with baited breath.

Take your time

Do not rush into anything. It is still very early days and there is still much to learn and discover. If you find yourself veering towards atheism or agnosticism, you’ll be aware that there is no urgency to believe in either position. Nothingness does not require a testimony of faith, or commitment to a way of living. If you feel a hypocrite while uttering words you do not believe in, you might write it off as the reverberations of your soul. Or you might sense that something deeper is at play.

Slow down and take your time. Recall how the Prophet, when dissatisfied with the answers of his people to the questions of life, ascended Mount Hira to sit alone in meditation to ponder and reflect. Islam is truly not how it is portrayed by those doing dawah on YouTube: it is a path you have to struggle to find. Use this time of inner flux to ponder and reflect on life, the universe and everything, free of the pressures of dogmatism and so-called orthodoxy.

Don’t worry what other people might think. We are individually accountable for our actions and beliefs. The community always has labels for people who arrive at different conclusions. Many people who reject some of the orthodox inheritance and try to retrace true prophetic Islam are labelled as modernists or deviants or heretics. The challenge is to be true to ourselves, to be open-minded and not be bullied by others, however hard that undoubtedly is.

Look at yourself — do not worry what others think. Hold back, take your time, have sabr. You have all the time in the world.

An issue at a time

We are only required to pray the five prayers and fast one month of the year; anything more is optional. Prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves, but necessary vehicles to higher goals.

On the contrary we are asked to sit and reflect for a long time: “Those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You!’”

God does not compel a soul beyond what it is able to do. We will not be judged for what we do not know; God will judge us by our level, not someone else’s. Perhaps the key to more certainty is to spend more time reflecting and pondering on the beauty of creation: to go for walks in the hills, through dense woodland or by beautiful winding rivers.

Some of what is stated as Islam is clear cut and factual. For example, there are five things that make up belief: from the Quran it is clear that the universe has a creator called Allah; that there are unseen creatures called angels; that there were Prophets and Messengers; that Books were revealed to those Messengers; and that there will be a Day of Judgement.

Other certainties are that the core mission of all Prophets was for people to uphold justice, not to convert everyone; that prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves but are necessary vehicles to higher goals; that individual responsibility rests within their ability.

Some of what is stated as Islam is probable. For example, from the Quran it is not clear if there are other creatures on other planets, though when reading you get the feeling that this is the case. Similarly, it is probable that before Adam there were no other human-like creatures.

However some of what is stated as Islam is not true or is at least disputed. Examples are that a woman can be pregnant for more than a year, that the Prophet — peace be upon him — waged war against people who did not wage war against him or that everyone in Arabia became Muslim in his time.

When we separate out what is clear cut and factual from what is not true or disputed, many of the contentious obstacles to belief disappear. The biggest obstacle people face when it comes to belief is not the Quran, but other sources which have been allowed to contradict and undermine it. Saying that something is true because it is found in our books or is old is a problematic approach. It could be true, but it might not be: we have to evaluate things and challenge suspect ideas.

The idea that a person who has tried hard to believe is punished is not from the Quran. Rather the Quran talks about being held accountable according to your level or ability, although of course that doesn’t mean it is easy, for the Quran asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tested?”

We have to take one thing at a time. Nobody can be certain about absolutely everything. We have to experience things for what they are. When we see things with our heart, we will become certain; if we only see with ours eye, we will never have certainty.

To be certain

In my days as a wavering agnostic, when searching after the truth, I used to say to myself and others, “I must believe with absolute certainty.”

Later, in my early days as a Muslim when simplistic apologetics appeared persuasive, I would continue to talk of my faith being about conviction and certainty. To my youthful mind it was convincing, as I shunned philosophy and the musings of theologians, whom I arrogantly considered pompous fools. I was a fundamentalist and proudly so.

But the reality is that faith is at root about belief, trust and hope, for we are dealing with the unseen: we cannot see our Creator, nor can we physically experience events that occurred in the past or that will happen in the future.

Of course, the work of scientists and historians show that it is quite possible to develop a level of certainty in the unseen based on signs, experiences or historical evidences. We might point to James Clerk Maxwell’s theories on the existence of radio waves towards the end of the nineteenth century, which set the stage for Heinrich Hertz to actually demonstrate their existence experimentally. This is the root of the scientific endeavour.

The Quran invites us to come to belief on the basis of evidences on the horizons and within ourselves. I reflected on this the other day when attending a hospital appointment, where the surgeon sketched out the inner workings of the ear: we take our hearing for granted, but it is a phenomenal piece of engineering when you’re faced with the mechanics that translate sound waves into signals that our brains can understand. The same is true of our eyes or taste buds.

When I reflect on my ability to see, hear, smell, taste and perceive the world around me, my belief in God is unshakable. Or when I reflect on the numerous preconditions for life that came into being to enable me to sit here and write all of this, I am utterly awestruck: that the sun came into being, and that a planet capable of sustaining life orbited it, with a gravitational pull and atmosphere that would enable strings of amino acids to come together, let alone complex life forms. To me our very existence is mind-blowing; on the level of probabilities alone it breaks mathematics itself.

God does not unveil Himself before us, but asks us to explore and ponder deeply on the heavens and earth, on natural phenomenon, on our own existence and on signs within ourselves. It is worth reflecting on that fact the Quran uses the word ulama for those who study the human being and the world around us: it indicates the importance of these areas of study.

This is perhaps the verse that most touched me at the age of 21 and to this day:

“Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?”

Another concerned the resurrection on the Day of Judgement:

“Does man think that We will not reassemble his bones? Yes, We are even able proportion his fingertips.”

Small signs, perhaps, but they were capable of reigniting a tiny flame of faith in the existence of God and revelation that would lead me on for two decades to come. This is what it means to have faith: to believe and trust and hope in the promise of God.

To be convinced

Many years ago when still a searching agnostic, I wanted others to convince me to believe as they believed. I used to lament that neither Muslims nor Christians would reach out to me or answer my questions.

Continue reading “To be convinced”

Arguments in context

Much to my peril, I have probably spent more time than most, both before my shahada and since, reading polemics against Islam in my pursuit of the truth.

Some of the arguments against what is said to be Islam have merit, some do not: it is a mixed field, made up of all kinds of players from the very political to the devoutly religious. Some arguments when taken out of their historical context can seem persuasive, but others simply prey on ignorance.

Unfortunately Muslim refutations of polemical arguments are far too often very weak: they skirt around the issues raised, fail to address the core points and betray an abject ignorance of history.

Nevertheless, before getting too involved in the argument it is sometimes necessary to ask questions about those promulgating it. For example there are some critics of Islam which present themselves as being pacifist or opposed to political violence, who on further investigation are found to advocate war against Muslim countries. Similarly, there are missionary organisations which hold Islam to a much higher burden of proof than they apply to themselves.

One particularly famous belligerent website maintained by a group of evangelical Protestant Christians sees its contributors giving themselves the privilege of leapfrogging Christian history and presenting themselves as true first-century believers who follow the Bible alone. This, they believe, allows them to ignore two thousand years of Christian scholarship, whilst simultaneously trawling through classical Muslim works to reveal the unpalatable views of ancient scholars.

The doctrinal excesses and crimes of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or early Protestant churches are nothing to do with them, they claim, making what Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or George Whitefield had to say on the same subjects irrelevant. But of course their views are not irrelevant at all, for they provide context to the ideas discussed.

We have to always look at claims in their proper historical context — and this applies both to Muslim and non-Muslim polemicists. When we put things in the proper order, they begin to make a lot more sense. Perhaps then we might begin to make progress in our mission to determine the best way to live our lives.

When in doubt

Not everything that we are taught in Muslim scholarship is in fact Islam, in the sense of what the Prophet brought — peace be upon him. Many who think themselves to be rejecting Islam may in fact just be rejecting an incorrect notion of it and, in doing so, they may actually be moving closer to Islam in its true sense. There are many things that Muslims preach which go against the teachings of Islam; remarkably, in rejecting such ideas we might find ourselves to be the real believer, whatever others might say.

In our zeal to hold fast to the particular school of thought we find ourselves on, many of us would throw out the entire intellectual heritage of Islam simply because it falls outside the realm of our experience or imagination. We may be taught that we are on true Islam and that all other practice is deviation at best, but we should be very careful about rejecting an entire tradition because of our encounter with one aspect of it. When our faith in our school is shaken, we do not ask ourselves whether there could there be a problem with a particular understanding, interpretation or practice of Islam, but instead often dismiss Islam as a whole.

We have to have the right information, and then we have to practice it: this is very difficult. Even very learned people can go against the teachings of Islam. Isn’t it said, “Many much-learned men have no intelligence”? Sometimes scholars become idols in themselves, and stand in the way of us truly understanding Islam. Historically we have had a lot of problems as Muslims. When things are not properly understood it creates a lot of unrest and people find that they are not at peace with themselves.

Islam is from the root word salima which contains two meanings: safety and health. Hence Islam in its essence is the way to be safe and healthy, physically as well as spiritually. A Muslim is a person who aspires to the ideals of Islam. Hence a true Muslim is the one who struggles to tread the path of safety and health at all times. This requires useful knowledge and good practice within one’s ability.

It is normal to have doubts, but you have to keep your feet on the ground. We all have a lot of questions. You cannot be asked to believe in something which is not clear to you. Some things that we are taught are clearly a part of Islam, some things may be or are probably part of Islam, and some things are definitely not part of Islam, neither in law nor belief.

When afflicted with doubt, the best approach is to list each of the problems you have and then address them one by one. You may not find the answer immediately — indeed it may take years — but this is the nature of the search for truth. As René Descartes said:

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

You have to have to have patience with yourself: it is not like a take away meal, or a fruit you pick from a tree. It can take many years to discover a satisfactory answer to your questions. “And God loves those who are patient.”

Letter to an agnostic

I understand and can empathise with almost everything you have said, as someone who went through a similar period of searching at around the same age as you. There are clear parallels between your experience and mine: the period of agnosticism, the concerns about being true to yourself, being open-minded and determined to read different perspectives, the insistence on reading polemics despite yourself, the obsession with religion and finding answers… it all rings true.

Continue reading “Letter to an agnostic”

Restoration

We have a problem. Some of these so-called Islamophobes simply know what some of our classical books contain, whereas we evidently don’t. So our response to being told about these unpalatable aspects of our inheritance is to wail about prejudice and hate. Or, if we are feeling particularly generous, to attribute them to Wahabis instead. But of course they are in books lauded in traditionalist circles. If you don’t know, then ignorance is bliss. For the rest of us there are choices to be made: to develop schizophrenic personalities, never at peace; to bring those unpalatable rulings to life, no matter the chaos that ensues; or to ask questions and dig for the truth. We are not talking about a reformation, but restoration. Factory reset. Rebalance. Reboot. 

Balance

Let’s stop romanticising the past. Like any other culture or civilisation, Muslim history is characterised by both brilliant golden periods and periods of immense darkness, and of course everything in between. It is not necessary to go to either extreme of celebrating the good and ignoring the bad or of denying any positive contributions to the history of the world at all. There is a middle ground which recognises that Muslim history is extremely diverse.

We have and have always had those groups which seek to destroy, as much as we have those which seek to preserve and create anew. The mercenary army in Syria is no aberration on the landscape of history. Groups like this have been seen before and will be seen again. Hippy artists, preaching love and peace, have also been seen before and will equally be seen again. Our history — like all history — is diverse.

So of course it is absolutely true that we have profoundly merciful rules of engagement in war — unmatched even in modern times — based directly on the traditions of our Prophet, peace be upon him. Do not chop down fruit trees; do not destroy places of worship; do not target civilians; do not destroy wells. What an antidote to the doctrine of collateral damage that has found such widespread sway over the past century!

Yet tragically in our books we also find rulings such as the doctrine of perennial offensive war, developed in later Hanafi and Shafi fiqh and practised for centuries, which are anything but merciful — and quite contrary to Quranic edicts. Indeed we find many rulings with respect to conquered peoples, slaves and their properties which fly in face of the rules of engagement mentioned in my previous paragraph above.

Let’s stop romanticising the past and our inheritance. There is the good and the bad and everything in between. Let’s be balanced.

Heal the sick

Every time I encounter the hashtag ?#?youaintnomuslimbruv?, words of the gospel I was raised on spring to mind…

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The hashtag causing so much amusement is in fact contrary to the spirit of all our traditions, which emphasise the power of redemption, not pious self-righteousness.

Strive for peace

We should always strive for peace. Peace is the optimal state for any society. War causes a lot of problems for us. It prevents individuals and communities from taking themselves to account, to reset course and take corrective action when necessary. It creates an environment where politics drives our agenda and influences our culture, and knocks us off course. Sometimes war is a necessary evil, but it should never be our default state.

Finding our voice

I fear we protest too much, self-centred as we are. In the wake of Parliament’s vote to permit military action in Syria, BBC Question Time invited Maajid Nawaz to join the panel along with Nicky Morgan, Diane Abbott, Caroline Lucas and Jill Kirby. The inclusion of Mister Nawaz prompted immediate consternation online: “Couldn’t the BBC find another Muslim voice?” protested one of our many vocal activists.

I instantly wondered what it must be like to be a Sikh or Hindu living in Britain today, or to be of Chinese or East European heritage. Where are their voices in the clamour for representation?

Over the past year and beyond, Question Time has featured numerous Muslim contributors on its panels. Two weeks ago, for the second time this year, the journalist and commentator Medhi Hassan sat on the panel. Other Muslim voices over the past year have included the politicians Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Humza Yousaf. Others of Muslim heritage, who do not actively subscribe to religion in their personal lives have also contributed to the programme.

Now the contributors may not be our kind of Muslim — whatever that means — but individuals of Muslim heritage appearing in 25% of all episodes or making up 5% of all panellists is pretty good representation for a group (if we insist on identifying people purely by religion) that makes up just 4.5% of the UK population. By contrast, there are many other minority groups under-represented and consistently absent in the make-up of Question Time panels.

There is of course a hierarchy of people we really do not like representing us — the likes of Maajid Nawaz, Anjem Choudary and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown most frequently lamented — but the daily reading of the morose Muslim presence on Social Media reveals constant dissatisfaction with any kind of representation. No matter who speaks up, others will be quick to point out that they are the wrong kind of Muslim, or that they do not represent the mainstream, or that they are excluding other voices. Each of us demands that only our voice or interpretation or narrow sectarian viewpoint or political perspective deserves attention, and everything else is condemned.

We protest an awful lot for a community so divided. The truth of the matter is that we each represent ourselves. Religion plays an important part in some of our identities; for others ethnicity, class or political affiliation is more important, or not important at all. For some a love of baking, motherhood, football or mountain climbing is the overarching marker of social belonging. And even for the self-described religious, various sectarian affiliations or philosophical leanings take precedence over a simplistic unified whole.

One of the beauties of maintaining an unpopular blog, rarely read, is that it enables one to represent not the world or a whole religion or community, but personal thoughts, beliefs and sentiments. Within our community are those — of all sorts of persuasions — quick to judge others as heretics and write off their contributions without even first investigating their ideas. We do enjoy to listen to yes men, who reflect our own prejudices and views precisely. We’re not so keen on voices which challenge us and nudge us out of our comfort zones.

In my frequent forays online amongst Muslim activists, both political and apolitical, Traditionalist and Salafi, I frequently regret that I find I have little in common with my compatriots in faith. Perhaps I am too much a cynic, or reside too much on the periphery, to ever see the world through populist eyes. But that’s absolutely fine; it’s as it should be. Blind group think will lead us to disaster.

Bemoan the inclusion of an opposing voice if you must. Bewail those who do not represent you. Weep in sorrow at the amplification of extremist voices on the Left and Right. Petition those who seek to silence the voice of reason, or the voice of puritanical zeal, or of presumed orthodoxy. Protests as much as your like.

Just know that the only person who can truly represent you is you. So speak if you must.

To war

The irony of parliament’s decision is that it will now make it impossible to confront extremism in our communities. The world will now be framed as a polarised us and them, silencing voices of reason and restraint. Today, just like the government, our activists will silence all dissent, writing it off as treachery and dereliction. It is a tragedy of far-reaching and epic proportions.

Those who oppose warmongers of whatever shade will always be shouted down. In one fell swoop, parliament has radicalised a generation. Now is not the time to speak of food banks, or a winter fuel crisis effecting the elderly or the disintegration of public services. We now know why the Chilcot Inquiry has been delayed: because we dared not learn lessons of the last misadventure lest it dampen our enthusiasm for today’s.

Is there really a hierarchy of evil that makes it acceptable for us to sell arms and provide technical support to a regime responsible for killing thousands of civilians and displacing over a million more? We’re doing just that in Saudi Arabia today with respect to Yemen. Why lament these tragic hypocrisies? We have been engaged in this war without end for well over a century, but collective amnesia allows us to project our reality onto the other without a moment’s introspection.

Patriotism demands that we go to war. Peacemakers are terrorist sympathisers. That was the Sermon on the Mount nobody heard. Only the odd voice in the wilderness truly recalls the Beatitudes, and he is labelled an extremist. To war!

Illogical

I admit that logic does not necessarily have a place in international relations, but each time I hear this claim that da’ish want us to attack them, I find myself asking, “Why would they do that?”

If I had a mind to create my own State, I would start by making alliances. I probably wouldn’t try to provoke the most powerful army in the world into sending more stealth bombers, drones, aircraft carriers and cruise missiles to attack and wipe out my nascent state.

Maybe these people just have confidence I don’t. Maybe a fleet of Toyota Helux pickups really can take on a fleet of F-35B Lightning joint strike fighters (if so, somebody better start questioning the cost effectiveness of that particular $1.1 trillion project).

Either these people have been raised on different books to me — The Prince or Tauromaquia perhaps — or this script has been written really badly. To go boldly where so many have gone before: it is all highly illogical.

Manufactured schisms

Religious groups are just as capable of engaging in cunning marketing schemes as commercial organisations (if, indeed, such a distinction exists).

The mere mention of a banned video with a traditional religious message in the run up to Christmas was guaranteed to be splashed all over the press in a frenzy of head-shaking disbelief in no time.

What we have seen over the past few days is merely a more sophisticated version of the tried and tested viral marketing campaigns employed by all kinds of religious and political groups daily on social media.

Step one: make an almighty fuss about something nobody would have otherwise known about. Step two: sit back and relax as it goes viral in a self-perpetuating cycle of manufactured hurt, offence and counter-offence.

Give your PR company a raise.

Smoke and mirrors

It’s intersting that the media is abuzz with panic about the mercenary army.

It’s not the mercenary army that’s sending its bomber jets to the edges of UK air space. Nor do they have nuclear submarines lurking off the northern Scottish coast, which only our French allies can detect because we scrapped our own recognisance aircraft.

Yes, the mercenary army has its sympathisers capable of committing attrocities as we have seen, but they pose no existential threat.

Is David Cameron’s rushed procurement of military hardware really about mercenary armies armed with Toyota pick-ups and cannon-fodder? Or is it about a nuclear power flexing its muscles?

Russia tested the waters in Ukraine. Nobody did anything.

They are now in Syria, bombing rebels armed by the US and its allies. Nobody did anything.

Could it be that, behind closed doors, the powers that be are just a little alarmed by this bold new resurgent Russia?

False witness

It is disturbing how willingly we will share photographs from one situation and pass them off as new images of another.

We have witnessed this repeatedly this week as France stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there have been civilian casualties as a result of this action.

However, every one of the phtotographs provided as evidence has on investigation turned out to be several months old. Some actually depict the victims of the regime’s bombardments.

Using photographs of one conflict to depict another is not just unethical, but also alters the historical narrative. Who nowadays recalls the crimes of the regime?

The land that welcomed Emir Abdel Kader

When the French invaded Algeria in 1830 they were met with fierce resistance from its Muslim scholars. In time these scholars lost the war against the French. About 500 of them were expelled from Algeria with their families, never to return. However they were welcomed somewhere else: in Damascus.

The area where they settled is called Hay alMuhajireen, the neighborhood of the migrants. They thrived in Damascus and enriched it.

After the scholars were expelled, a man rose and led the revolution against the French armies. His name was alAmir Abdel Kader. He fought for many years and was a champion of human rights. Even his prisoners had rights. In the end, however, he also had to surrender.

The Emir, his family and followers were taken into captivity in France. He was moved to Toulon, then Pau and then the Amboise castle. The physical and moral health of the Emir deteriorated during their stay at this castle. Victor Hugo (French), Lord George of Londonderry (British) and others campaigned for his release.

The Emir was released after Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler and he thought about where to move next. He was contacted by the Algerian scholars in Damascus, who invited him to move to them. Eventually he moved there and was later buried next to aShaykh Muhyideen. They were spiritually one.

During his stay in Damascus, the Druze attacked the Christians and killed many of them. The Emir opened the doors of his house and many fleeing Christians took refuge therein. The Druze even came to his door asking for the Christians to be released to them. His reply was that if they did not go away he would call his compatriots and would fight them.

For this, many rulers of the time decorated him or sent him gifts. The list includes Queen Victoria, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln and others. He was recognised as a vehicle for peace in this troubled world. The United States have named a town after him.

There are undoubtedly some bad people in Syria. However some of its people are amongst the greatest people alive.

 

Defining our narrative

We need to reclaim our narrative from politicised activists who seek to divide us. In focusing exclusively on Islamophobia, real and imagined, they promulgate a polarised and negative depiction of society, which completely ignores the positive and encouraging interfaces of British Muslims with the wider community.

Try searching for Muslim Scouts or Charity Week on the most popular activist news website to claim to represent what Muslims are thinking. You might have thought that these two very successful and positive youth movements within the Muslim community might elicit frequent mention. But no, you will discover nothing at all.

All around the country, grassroots groups are making positive contributions to their communities: they are promoting learning opportunities and engaging in charity and social work. Here we witness positive interactions between a religious minority and mainstream organisations, whether in fundraising for a local hospital, supporting a cancer trust or working together on significant local issues.

All of these efforts are ignored by the politicised advocacy groups which claim to represent us all, for they do not fall into the neat division of the world into us and them. But unfortunately it is these groups that are taking us with them and not the other way around. We are all being dragged down into adopting the perpetual narrative of doom and gloom that will help set us against each other.

We need to define our own narrative, which is informed not by the extremes of left and right, and of patriot and anti-imperialist, but by our realities on the ground.

People of truth

One of the most painful discoveries of the seeker is that we are not, by and large, people of truth. There are amongst us honest, upright people, who will bear witness to truth, even against themselves, but the masses sadly have no compunction in sharing convenient untruths.

The question which occurs to the seeker is this: why do we talk about the importance of trustworthy chains of narration and verifying the information that comes to us in our tradition, if we do not institute it in our own lives with regard the information we receive from friend and foe?

It’s great calling the seeker a self-righteous, pompous fool for perpetually objecting to claims that can clearly be shown to be erroneous at best and downright lies at worst; it’s probably true, for we are all in need of inner reform and humility. But this principle of verification has always been the selling point of this deen: that we’re a people who cares about the truth.

Are we really? More often we seem to believe in political expediency. We believe in contingent truths. If an untruth serves our interests, we will share it. If the whole truth is too much to bear, we will edit it, conceal a part of it, chop it in half, censor it and alter it. Every sect, political movement and commercial organisation has its own truths, refined and honed to counter the truths of the other. There are our truths, and then there is the truth.

As a community we would be better replacing the notion of the pursuit of knowledge with the pursuit of truth. You may say this really means the same thing, but the latter would better focus our efforts on the ultimate goal. It might also help us remember to be people of truth, and not just wanderers taking sides.

Legends

The daily reading of the Facebook news feed is an instructive illustration of how myths easily and permanently solidify into undeniable realities: once an untruth has been repeatedly recounted it becomes real and true in the popular imagination. Preposterous embellishments only make it seem truer still: even if we disagree on the details, agreement on the core guarantees that the original claim was always broadly true. In past times legends had decades to incubate; today our myths are instantaneous. Depressing, but fascinating all the same.

That Nativity Play

Amusing as this constant stream of memes circulating on Social Media is, seeking as they do to compare Syrian refugees to the Christmas Nativity, I can’t help thinking people are getting their stories mixed up.

The Biblical narrative doesn’t describe Mary and Joseph as refugees: they’re simply registering for a census in their home town, taking a circuitous route from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

There certainly is an episode after the birth in which they flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous decree, where they remain until he passes away: an asylum tale of sorts.

Of course the Nativity tale in popular culture as it is enacted each year by primary schools the world over is subject to all sorts of embellishments not found in the Biblical tradition — so it could mean whatever you want it to.

The reality is that compassionate people do not need to be moved by a false retelling of their religious tradition in order to act on behalf of the poor and vulnerable: they will act anyway.

But more to the point: we each project ourselves — our political leanings, our prejudices, our worldview, our culture, our environment — onto our respective religious traditions. This applies to all people at all times. Simplistic, if amusing, soundbites aren’t going to change the world.

Mockery

If on Remembrance Sunday we had been able focus less on who was wearing a poppy and more on the tragedy of that hideous war that was supposed to end all wars, how might we be reacting to this weekend’s terrible events? Less than two weeks after that profound moment of silence we are beating the drums of war one more. We make mockery of ourselves.

Real world

It’s sad that so many people seem to be genuinely surprised that not everybody is a bigot — that complete strangers will stand up in defense of the innocent. Get out of your bubble! This is the real world outside the self-polarising infinity loop of gloom we all seem intent on occupying.

Confirmation bias

Keep in mind that on Social Media we are afflicted with amplified Confirmation Bias.

Most of us would agree that it is unhealthy to read only the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail or Guardian, for each of these partisan newspapers will only reconfirm the readers’ own political views. A feedback loop is created in which the source and the audience feed off each other.

Yet on Social Media we do just that: we surround ourselves with people with similar views, who echo and mirror our own sentiments ad nauseam, setting in motion an even bigger feedback loop, which creates a distorted picture of the outside world.

We subscribe to news feeds which we believe represent our interests, but which instead channel the world through selective filters. The simple act of Sharing and Liking another’s post, picture, video or article creates viral avalanches the power of which can never be diminished, no matter how hard the voice of reason tries.

Meanwhile, largely unbeknownst to us, complex algorithms designed to sell advertising work away in the background to serve up targeted news and products determined to appeal to us.

In short, Social Media creates a version of reality which only confirms our own fears, prejudices and beliefs correct. We prioritise information that confirm our biases and ignore everything else.

A trip outside, a conversation with neighbours, a walk in the wild, a moment’s meditation, a few hours volunteering or a day without the ever-present smartphone might break the infinity loop of despair. I suggest we try it.

Confutation

We need to stop rejoicing in what we think we have.

There’s a reason our scholarly refutations consistently focus on the question of authority and not on actual practices.

What would happen if, instead of revelling in our selective reading of tradition, we acknowledged all that we have inherited, both the good and the bad?

Would we still blindly celebrate the esteemed scholars’ every word, or would those unasked inner questions finally break surface?

Might we allow ourselves to ask if this is truly the prophetic way? If this is truly what we find in the Qur’an? Might we allow ourselves to truly follow the best of ways, and not just a schizophrenic reading of it?

A time to mourn

Europe is mature enough to mourn these acts of barbarism without descending into civil war or embarking on pogroms.

The days ahead will be hard for some, but our leaders — who gathered a week ago to remember the 13 million who died in WWI, 60 million who died in WWII and the hundreds of thousands killed since — know that the responsibility for what happens next is theirs. These difficult moments will pass.

Spare us the commentary, the fear-mongering, the conspiracy-theories, the appropriation of victimhood, the excuses, the blame, the calls to action, the false patriotism, the ethnocenticism, the propaganda, the pseudo-religious apologetics, the sectarian polemics, the moral equivalence, the misguided lamentations.

Let those who must grieve.

Introspection

If Facebook and Twitter had existed in the midst of the Ottoman Empire, what would our news-feed look like?

Would we be attacking our own leadership for its wars without end, as we do now for the West?

Would we be circulating a meme pointing out that the Ottomans had been at war for over 600 years without pause, or is our censure only for our enemies?

Would we still be absolutist regarding our madhab, finding that it is a communal obligation to wage offensive war every year to expand the borders of the Islamic State, or would we side more quietly with those we nowadays condemn for returning the Qur’an to its rightful place as the filter through which we read our tradition?

Would we be condemning the authors and implementers of our books of fiqh for disrespecting life and taking slaves? Would we label the warring Sufis a Crusader black-opp?

Would we stand up for life, against extremism and in favour of freedom of conscience? Would we be the voice in the wilderness calling to sanity and reason? Would we be calling our own leaders to account? Would we be championing the cause of the oppressed?

The loss of political power has humbled us: we cannot imagine being on the ascendancy, when we are not downtrodden and despised. But sometimes it is helpful to remember that it wasn’t always so.

Sometimes you have to look into what you are blindly defending, be it the romantic past, presumed glory days or every single ruling of a scholar of the past. If we view the past through the same eyes with which we view the present, what do we see? Are we fair and just and true, or are we just taking sides?