For about five years from my mid-teens, I considered myself an agnostic. Towards the end of my first year at university, dissatisfied with the state of my soul, I began the search for God and faith. On Sundays I began taking myself to church, withdrawing from the company I had kept until then.
I approached the Bible on which I had been raised with highlighter ink and pencil underlinings. Then came the study of another book: The Koran in paperback by the Jewish translator, N. J. Dawood, as published by Penguin Classics. In due course it would be replaced by The Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, with tiny text and copious footnotes.
Over the months that followed I became something of a bore for my few friends as my life centred on that search for truth. There was sincerity mixed with other emotions: at twenty, life is complicated. How you are perceived by others matters too much for true sincerity to govern every decision and action. Still, there was some kind of contemplative urge driving me forward.
I was an agnostic wavering between belief in God and disbelief, and between the idea of revelation and its absence. I wanted to believe, for at times I sensed His presence intimately and intensely. At other times it struck me as mere folly, my mind’s eye cast towards distant galaxies and the incomprehensible vastness of space and time. Sometimes, lying on my side in bed I would have conversations with my Creator. Sometimes after an evil thought, repulsed by myself, I would utter private words of remorse, or resign to my fate as a loser in the hereafter. Here in my disbelief an intuitive belief made itself known.
After months and weeks of reflection, passages of the Qur’an rendered into English convinced me that God existed and that revelation — the act of God communicating with mankind — was not just possible, but a reality. But my reaction to that epiphany was not as you might imagine. Instead of turning to the religion of the Muslims, I returned to the Bible with renewed vigour, allowing myself to believe in it, to believe in God and prophets and divine revelation. Soon I started going to church again, seeking answers from my ancestral tradition once more. Several weeks passed before it dawned on me that the reason I believed in God with an assured certainty now was because of passages I had read from the Qur’an.
What is the reason for this voyage into the past? Why the reflections on moments long forgotten? Because those moments are not long forgotten, perhaps. Because those same symptoms never left me, perhaps. Recently it occurred to me that many of us, throughout our lives, behave like that young version of myself. We let the Qur’an guide us to a reality, and then we turn our backs on it.
In recent times I have been reflecting on my relationship with the Qur’an. It is as if I have neglected it all these years in an effort to conform with custom and community. The Qur’an brought me to this path, and then I abandoned it, adopting all of the accumulated baggage of centuries of institutional lore and practice instead. Sadly I am not alone. How many people come to faith through the light of its guidance, only to quickly turn away within moments of their shahada, in pursuit of all kinds of isms?
It occurs to me that as a community, we have largely done the same. We have put the Qur’an to one side, making it subservient to our own agendas and desires. We have shunned the guidance it brought us in favour of the inheritance of tradition. We have abandoned its call to reform us; instead we reform it by abrogating its verses in theory and practice. We recite it, but it does not reach our hearts. Its verses set in beautiful calligraphy decorate our walls, but they do not penetrate our souls. We have turned away from guidance, thinking that truth was an effortless prize already won: it never occurred to us that we would have to work and toil, to disappoint ourselves and others, and struggle hard to acquire even the faintest scent of it.
It occurs to me now that the laborious, arduous endeavour is yet to begin, even after all these years. I thought I had arrived at my destination. Now I realise that the journey has only just begun. It is as if I have been walking blind for years and years. Now it’s time to walk in the light: to embrace that light of guidance, and step forward on the path illuminated by it. It is time to return to my Qur’an.