The challenge of our times

So the tables have turned. As I approach my fifth decade — the hallowed middle age — I find myself in the role of those unwilling advisers I castigated in my youth for their answers to questions of belief and doubt. From my mid-teens to early twenties I would demand guidance from my elders, be it a youth worker, a teacher or priest, insisting that they assuage my doubts and prove to me that God was real and that our faith was true. I would take myself off to church and later an evangelical cult in an effort to be persuaded. I would harangue my parents with questions that I had already decided would never satisfy me. I wanted others to persuade me — on my terms — that I could believe as they did.

But the tables have turned. Now the young look on at me, dissatisfied. They dispatch questions and life stories by email, asking me to convince them that their faith is true, to provide relief from the doubts which afflict them. But I have taken on the role of my guides, no longer convinced by the certainties and absolutes that seemed so appealing and obvious and true when newly treading the path of faith after those dim days of atheism. For a decade I could cling to different strands of puritanical fundamentalism, convinced that each narrative in place of the last now provided all of the answers to the questions that life had to throw at us: that its version of history was alone true, that its ideological underpinnings were soundest, that its chain to the past was most convincing.

Time and experience change us, however. Exposure to new ideas cause old ideas to founder. In truth, doubts don’t diminish as you grow older, they just grow less urgent. Patience takes place of that youthful flailing around for certainty. We hang on to what we have of faith, practising it to the best of our abilities, numbing our intellect for a while until we have understood what we are yet to understand, quieting the inner clamour until we have found the piece of the jigsaw that is missing, putting discomfiting narrations to one side or out of sight until such time as we can accommodate, explain or dismiss them.

In short, we have no easy answers for our youthful petitioners because with time we have discovered that there are no easy answers. We have learnt the hard way that those before us were right. The answers are not written in a neon glow on great billboards for all to see; you must seek and adventure along often lonely roads, in pursuit of crumbs of knowledge that may lead you to a greater reality, eventually.

Over the years I have encountered many who have fallen along the way. Great stalwarts of sectarian certainty. Redoubtable promoters of the minutiae of the hardest positions of Shafi fiqh. Assured apostles of the Hanbali school, who once would vanquish every opponent with a silo of footnotes and unarguable disputation.   

Much have I mourned as once firm believers turned their backs on faith and walked away to begin new lives elsewhere, deaf to the repugnant clamour that filled the void they left behind. A decade ago it was like mourning a deceased friend, but today optimism takes its place: perhaps that time away may be a period of cleansing for them. Perhaps one day they may return with renewed faith, less easily swayed by the sectarian readings of history that made them blind to a thousand other ideas. Perhaps they will have learnt that it is not “my way or the highway”, but that if they allowed themselves to explore, to risk accusations of heresy, they might discover a greater truth that had remained hidden from them for so long.

Thoughts like these perturb my young companions. They dispatch emails demanding answers, but are never heard of again when my answer is not a simple proof, so beloved by Muslims today. I feel sorry for them, for I see myself in their shoes twenty years ago. Yes, I too castigated the head preacher of the foremost evangelical church in Central London in 1997 for his risible attempt to convince this agnostic that his exposition on John’s Gospel was reliable and true. Naturally in turn, today’s young agnostic castigates me for my inability to provide the answers they demand to the one thousand and one objections posited on a multitude of forums on the web, that become like wine to the soul, addictive and toxic and yet somehow so delicious.

Instead of providing answers, I ask more questions. I ask them to ponder why they have assumed that their reading of Islam or their version of it is the only possible narrative against which to gauge truth and falsehood. How can it simultaneously be both the only true version of Islam and undoubtedly false, causing certain disbelief? It is of course a common refrain: you must believe in the one and only true Islam as presented by the particular sectarian community you happen to be a member of, or you must become an apostate and leave the faith altogether; never are you permitted to find comfort in a heresy that maintains your connection with God and His messenger. Indeed, even to the disbeliever, the heresy remains a heresy, to be perpetually ignored, while the errors of the self-proclaimed orthodoxy justify their turning away.

The gatekeepers of our tradition, across the board, exhibit no interest in saving souls. Far from it! Instead they are all too ready to declare those they disagree with as heretics or, worse, disbelievers, for holding a different opinion or arriving at a different conclusion. Alas, too often it appears that there is no problem too big or small in our tradition that cannot be resolved but by killing the proponent. Authors, bloggers and unpopular scholars may all be gunned down for speaking their mind, or for telling the truth, or for understanding a text via the language it was written in, rather than the theological encoding later generations subjected it to.

Instead of allowing humble servants to believe as their hearts command, gatekeepers provide a binary choice: believe as we believe or become a disbeliever. For the troubled youngster, all too well versed in peculiar narrations that curdle the blood, preposterous and clearly false beliefs, and legal rulings that fly in the face of divine justice, there is no way out. They must join the ever swelling ranks of the disbelievers in order to maintain their sanity. Or else allow their youthful sincerity to drive them in the other direction, to sacrifice the goodness of their soul in the crucible of misguided certainty, to join the ranks of puritanical groups intent on bringing to life every peculiar narration that curdles the blood and legal ruling that flies in the face of divine justice.

How different matters could be if we offered our youngsters alternatives: to ask questions without fearing for their redemption. To learn of other traditions, instead of constantly warning them against reading the works of supposedly heretical scholars. How would it be if we were more honest with our youngsters, when they come to us with their difficult questions? If we could answer their questions without evading the truth. If we could really be honest and uphold the truth, even against ourselves, instead of reverting to propaganda, half truths and outright lies?

Too many of us have been taught a whitewashed version of our histories — if we have been taught history at all. Some seem to believe that our problems began and ended with European colonisation of the Muslim world. That before that there was a golden age of glorious and innocent rule, uninterrupted for over a thousand years, wherein justice ruled and Muslim were unaffected by the diseases which afflict us today. When I recently noted that the medieval spread of Islam in Europe had involved conquest — few seem to be aware that the Ottoman Empire was at war for over 600 years without pause or that our fiqh made it an obligation to wage offensive war every year to expand the borders of the state — a shocked onlooker responded that it was not conquest, but the defence and protection of the people of Europe after the horrors of the Crusades. That of course is a common argument, but it is unpersuasive to those who have taken the time to open up the chapter of war in any state-sanctioned manual of traditional fiqh.

Unfortunately it is precisely this whitewashing of history and our tradition that is the stumbling block for many a curious and sincere young seeker. They may have been devoted to their faith throughout their youth: attending madrassah from the age of seven, memorising the Qur’an, wearing Muslim dress from an early age, practising the tenants of their faith through school and late into the night. On leaving school they may have enrolled into a Muslim college to pursue higher studies and devote their lives to one of the traditional sciences. They have been raised to always tell the truth and to love the truth, to live a good life, to uphold the best of morals. They are sincere and virtuous, determined to worship their Lord and devote their lives to Him.

And then all of a sudden they are struck by realities they had never encountered before: teachings that fly in the face of everything they had learnt until then. A morality so at odds with their vision of divine justice, that it can do nothing but shake them to the core. They learn of state-sanctioned slaughter, of the capture and exploitation of slaves. They discover in the works of their great scholars preposterous unscientific monstrosities that would cause the world to die of laughter if they ever became common knowledge. They are taught that whole swathes of the Qur’an have been abrogated, or that laws stand for verses that were lost when they were eaten by a goat, or that the meaning of a verse is not as it is understood via the Arabic language, but as it has been explained by particular scholars at a particular time (and they are not reminded that God condemned the Jews and Christians for doing precisely that in surat at-Tawba).

Faced with such realities, some youngsters imbibe all that they are taught and go on to promulgate such ideas throughout their lives, holding fast to them with a certain zealotry, always ready to lambast those who disagree with them. Others put those matters to one side, to be returned to later perhaps, while they focus on matters of the heart. But for others, taken altogether as an accumulated agglomeration of problematic ideas, they are too great a stumbling block on their path of faith. They ask questions of their teachers and guides, but their answers do not satisfy them. They write to scholars, but if they ever receive a response, it is formulaic and unconvincing. They approach the crowd of internet proselytisers, but none of them have ever heard of such matters. Sadly, all too often, for the sincere young seeker it is the end of the road. This is their bus stop. This where they disembark.

How different things could be. How different if we understood our inheritance differently. How different if we looked upon the challenges we face daily not as an unrelenting assault, but in a positive light, as a gauge or measure or filter. Perhaps the profound challenges we face today will be good for us in the long run. Perhaps they will help us separate truth from falsehood, reality from pretence, the good from the bad, the authentic from the make-believe. Perhaps they may force us to ask questions — to become like the pre-Islamic hanifs of old — to seek out the truth, regardless of the impenetrable forces of culture, tradition and politics, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps they may allow us to rediscover the path of true mercy, without forever feeling like frauds and hypocrites because our reality is anything but merciful. Perhaps we are being challenged to challenge ourselves.

When I was the age my young petitioners are now and my presumed guides were the age I am now, I yearned for easy answers. For absolutes and incontrovertible evidence that would prove to me all that I desired to be true. Once, while on a remote island in the Hebrides sea favoured by Christian pilgrims, I demanded personal visions of God before me like those monks of old. Later it would be a definitive text or an astounding miracle. And if not that, then it would have to be the argument of someone older than me: they would have to convince me that what they believed was true without doubt. They would have to convince me.

In reality we have but sign posts. Signs on the horizons and within ourselves. Ideas, however small, that we can believe in and hold fast to. It might be a photograph of deep space aggregated by a radio telescope. It might be the unique pattern on the tips of our fingers, that our Lord promises to recreate perfectly anew. It might be the experience of praying, or that unceasing feeling of divine intervention in our lives. Or it it might be none of these or something else entirely.

Our guides can only provide advice — they can suggest a route to follow — but certainty is non-transferrable. Given that even the deluded can be absolutely certain, the best your guide can do is ask you to be patient on the long onward journey. To avoid those youthful tantrums we have all had when faced with discomfiting realities. To avoid stamping our feet in anger and slamming doors shut before we have looked inside. To keep an open mind, and to keep asking questions. To read those books you were told to burn, or to investigate those scholars you were told to spurn. To interrogate history. To make no excuses for those before us who killed their opponents en masse. To approach those you have always been warned away from with a clean heart. To close your ears to slander and gossip, and to reacquaint yourself with those men and women that history chose to forget.

This believer has no answers for you. Like you I continue to fumble forward along this path, still trying after all these years to find my way. At times, even if you have traveled very far along a road, you will realise that you have no choice but to do a u-turn and go back. You may take a wrong turning. You may later learn that what you thought was a wrong turning was actually the right road after all. You may learn things which later turn out to be false. You may learn that certain ideas are false which later turn out to be true. Such is life.

Hold fast to the rope of Allah and do not be divided. A perpetual refrain which should serve as a guide. Cling to what you can be certain about, make room in your life for reflection and study, and be prepared to embark on a long journey that will probably last a lifetime. Seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed God is with the patient.

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