Most of us humans are unreliable. We create our own versions of history. We choose what we want to believe and will hold to those beliefs, irregardless of the evidence. We will canonise men or women we believe support our cause, turning them into perfect saints.
I witness this daily throughout this crisis. In fact I witness it daily throughout any crisis. This week Judy Mikovits. Last week Andrew Kaufman. Before that Rashid Buttar. All of them canonised by crowds of adoring admirers for apparently speaking the truth to power and revealing the much-maligned truth about the intrusive deep state in its plan to subjugate all mankind. Before them, Alex Jones, Paul Watson, Michael Rivero. For some, Tariq Ramadan and Moazzam Begg. For others, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Katie Hopkins.
In just days and weeks, their truths become cemented in the minds of zealous truth-seekers, refined in ever more detail as weeks turn to months, and months to years. In decades their truth becomes indisputable amongst masses, until even the most powerful man of the world’s largest superpower has unwavering faith in the new religion. We believe what we want to believe and then we fill in the gaps with any new information that comes to light, whether true or false. Such information does not need to be reproducible, it just has to reconfirm our preexisting ideas and conclusions.
Observing this human propensity over the past twenty years I find myself less able to accept the official histories of profound events, with their claims to know the intimate details of the lives of men and women who lived eons ago. For my own part, I am incapable of claiming that I am saved or rightly guided, holding my understanding of events the best and most true; at best I hold onto key principles and practices, and hope for the best. Never will you hear me proudly declare my belonging to Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, as the locals do, casting out all others whose faith apparently falls too far short of their dogmatic certainty. My faith is simple: a few things that I can hold fast too, but no boastful self-belief, ascribing piety and right guidance to myself.
As I listen to the truth-making in times of crisis, my mind conjures up thoughts of Saul of Tarsus, known to many as Saint Paul. In his own account of his conversion in his Epistle to the Galatians, thought to have been penned around 50CE, Saul writes that he consulted no one — the gospel he preached, he claimed, was not of human origin taught to him by any man, but was revelation received from Christ himself — and went instead into Arabia. He did not at that time go to visit the apostles in Jerusalem, but instead returned to Damascus. According to his own account, it would be another three years before he travelled to Jerusalem, where he saw only Peter and James. “I assure you before God,” he wrote to the Galatians, “that what I am writing you is no lie.”
By the time the Acts of the Apostles were penned thirty or forty years later, his conversion occurred on the road to Damascus, when in the company of others he saw a blinding light which took away his sight, and that miraculous voice from the ether: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Immediately he went back to Damascus, where for three days he remained blind, until the disciple Ananias entered his house, laid hands on him and restored his sight. Thereafter he spent several days with the disciples in Damascus and immediately began to proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God. When he finally sought refuge in Jerusalem, he was taken in by Barnabas, who took him to see the apostles, amongst whom he remained for some time, until he was finally sent away to Tarsus for his own protection.
It might be said that Saul misrepresented his conversion — after all, most converts are known to embellish accounts of their own journey of faith. He may even have lied, which might account for his insistence that he hadn’t. On the other hand, he might have thought he was telling the truth, his account of his conversion closer to reality than that recorded by Luke in the Acts. It might be said that it was Luke — a disciple of Saul, thought by some to be a Greek physician and others a Hellenic Jew — that misrepresented the conversion, furnishing the creative narrative himself. If he was a true historian, as some claim, then perhaps he simply compiled the narratives that had sprung to life over the preceding decades, embracing the mythology he had inherited from his interactions with others. If he was foremost an apologist, precise accuracy may not have been his primary concern.
Over the past decade, the actual practice of believers, amongst them both Muslims and Christians, in handling and conveying the information they receive has led me to question pious narratives and holy propaganda, interrogating the veracity of our inheritance. I once held, quite smugly, that the Muslim tradition of historical verification was far superior to that of the Christians, noting that we had ahadith with chains of narration all the way back to the source, while their texts were written down decades after the events they purported to capture. Of course, this does not necessarily stand to scrutiny once we consider that the compilation of those ahadith were in some cases centuries removed from the events in question. The earliest manuscripts of the Christian gospels in existence today date back to the first half of the second century, a similar time period of about six generations to the compilation of the most famous books of ahadith, between the events they claim to record and their preservation in writing.
Years ago I wrote of my nomadic faith that I cling fast to because “my mind is too small to fathom the pathway to the past as it passed through the era of European Empire.” In the decade and a half since then, my unease has only increased. Now not only the era of European Empire, but also the era of the Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, the Abbasid dynasty, the Umayyad caliphate, sectarian schisms and the civil wars that followed the Prophet’s death. Some anomalies perturb me, such as the absence of some hundreds of Friday sermons we would surely expect to have been preserved, alongside the Prophet’s farewell sermon. But mostly I am just perturbed by our own conduct, as we continually mangle any kind of truth that passes before us, pushing propaganda when it suits us and misinformation when it makes us feel better.
So yes, I still hold fast to that simple faith I wrote of fourteen years ago: “I simply pray and fast and give charity, and try to be kind to those around me. This is about the entirety of my Islam. […] the smile which is a charity, control of the tongue, the five prayers and their companions, a few coins to one in need, responding to the one who asks.”
In the end, we just have to hold fast to the little we know for sure, and hope in the mercy of our Lord for all else. Our goal as individuals can only be to become personally reliable: refusing to pass on the legends of our own times, probing the veracity of claims that pass before us, interrogating ourselves as to the benefit or harm that may come from sharing suspect information. I imagine that in ancient times a pious soul saw no harm in calling the righteous one the son of God, replicating the scriptures of old. He could not have known how unreliable most of us humans are, as we create our own versions of history, choosing to believe whatever we want to believe. For the warmonger the warlord. For the peacemaker the saint. For the disenfranchised, a vast conspiracy, and certainty to counteract inner ignorance.
Oh my Lord, make me truthful and reliable, returning to source under your shade and mercy. You witness all of time; we, just a shadow or a speck.