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.

For a while I was going to Church, but I was dissatisfied with the simplistic answers to my enquiries. I would ask questions of religious people, but did not find their responses convincing. When I had questions about Islam, I would be referred to a Christian expert on the religion. When his answers did not persuade me, I would befriend Muslim students at university, intent on them responding to my queries. Rarely was anyone truly able to answer my questions and so I would often retreat dumbfounded.

Nowadays I take a more magnanimous view, for I recognise that most people are not concerned about this idea we call truth. Most people are satisfied with whatever they find themselves on and do not feel the need to confirm that it is correct and true. This is as much the case for Muslim communities as for anyone else. Whether we call ourselves Traditionalist, Salafi, Hanafi, Hanbali, Sunni, Shia… we each revel in what we think we have, and reject everything else, even if we don’t know why.

We have to accept that the journey we are on is somewhat personal. Formal studies have their place, but the personal pursuit of truth is driven forward by an inner impetus. The Quran repeatedly mentions using the intellect; sometimes you have to use your mind to reach truths that you cannot immediately find in the circles of knowledge. Alas, too often we are not told this: instead we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves altogether. Though the Quran is against this idea, scholars have been made like rabbis and priests, as an authority on everything: “They have taken their scholars and monks as lords besides Allah…”

This is not an argument against sitting at the feet of the learned, but about building and maintaining the right relationship with them. Scholars are often not treated as normal people who have specialised in a field of learning, but as legendary beings, giants and celebrities bigger than the dimensions which contain them. Years of pious folklore turn them into mythic creatures who can never err or suffer the human ailments which afflict the rest of us. Of course we should learn from those who know better — as in any other field of human endeavour — but it is important to put the references of Islam in the right order.

Arguments for or against Islam are all interpretations. Some are stronger than others. Some may appear to be true, but are based on unsound assumptions. Some may true based on the information available, but that information may be incomplete or incorrect. There are many factors to weigh in. However convincing another’s argument may be, or however awesome their faith seems to us, it is of no worth at all if we cannot convince ourselves.

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.”

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.