Prior to the autumn of 1993, I knew nothing of Islam. It wasn’t on my radar. I may have heard mutterings of the Satanic Verses saga from a teacher one cold morning in 1988, but it meant nothing to me. From those first Muslims I ever came into contact with as I entered sixth form college, I only learned two things: Muslims don’t eat pork and shouldn’t drink alcohol. The first time I ever saw somebody wearing the hijab in real life was in 1994. She was an English student, the daughter of a convert, and the only person in the college to dress that way.
When I started at university in 1996, I knew a little more. There, in the capital, I came into contact with many more Muslims. With some I built up a good rapport, while with others I fell into bitter conflict. In these surroundings, Islam seemed to be more visible. Several newly religious female students donned the hijab anew for a time. Some young women, dressed all in black, wore the niqab. A few wore the uniform of Hizb ut-Tahir: jilbab and a long khimar. But for the most part, the hijab did not exist for the majority of female Muslim students there. And as for male Muslim students? They were generally fashionable young men, concerned with either ideologies or girls.
This period before I became Muslim in 1998, I think of as pre-history. Whatever happened in that period before my consciousness is rather like Schrödinger’s cat. While others can persuade me that the Muslim world had certain characteristics in that period before I became aware of Islam, I really have no way of knowing for sure. We are at the mercy of the narrators around us, who define for us authenticity, orthodoxy and the inheritance of time. We see the world through their eyes, imagining history as they explain it.
It occurs to be more and more these days, that in my lived experience of faith, I have been buffeted by competing visions of history, be it the renderings of the salafis, the chronicles of traditionalists or the tales of the ikhwan. Each has a vision of its place in time, imagining themselves as part of a continuum, when in reality all they can trace back to is the moment they began practicing faith, when they too thrashed around for guidance. But for a website made famous by the BBC, traditionalism would be no more real than that CIA-sponsored movement nurtured in a mosque in Munich.
All that I have tasted over the past two decades were various flavours of populist thought, founded on my ignorance of the past. Perhaps that is why converts and the newly religious are so easily exploited: because they have no link to an authentic faith at all, only to competing claims and counter-claims. It is only by fortunate happenstance that they wander one way or another. We are all on the path of our companions and had circumstances been different I would have ended up elsewhere.
It is only our lived history that we can relate to, which truly informs our direction of travel. It is best to start with what you know, and move forward from there.