Make up your own mind. Think for yourself. Don’t be bullied by scholars, acolytes, cultists, proselytisers, politicians, critics, bloggers. Weigh up all the evidence you have gathered and have courage to make your own judgements. Defer to experts in their own fields, yes, but do not subserviently abdicate intellectual autonomy to others in pursuit of piety. You will stand alone on that awesome day, to be held to account for your own deeds. Your leaders, for sure, will denounce you and deny having any influence over you at all.
I have encountered many religious movements over the years — some of them mere cults — that demand blind obedience and utter devotion, lending themselves authority to veer widely off track in pursuit of their ultimate objective. Sometimes that objective seems so noble and necessary that disciples sincerely countenance the instructions they have been given, that the end justifies the means.
Years ago, not long after I had happened upon this path, I found myself in the company of a sincere and devout band of men. Weekly, I would travel to sit in their company, to absorb their beautiful fraternity, imbibe their weird parables and enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal. The fraternity was indeed a revelation: so warm and embracing, delectable to taste. The parables: yes, truly weird, inimical to the intent of the fables I had been raised on, which through allegory made the esoteric tangible; here, the reverse: simple teachings made obscure, incomprehensible. Each week I left their circles puzzled by the evening’s lesson, charitably ascribing my bewilderment to mistranslation.
One of their teachings, though: less ambiguous. A conversation really. I was probably not the intended audience, but I was present and I listened in intently. I remember it well because it bothered me for years. The masterplan of the movement to infiltrate every branch of every civil institution of their homeland, placing their men and women in positions of influence. We did not bat an eyelid at that, for the cruelty of their overlords in vanquishing the religious realm was well-known and clearly understood. If they could not affect change from outside, then they would have to work from within. So why not work hard then, and climb the ranks until you have authority to bring about change?
It was not this that bothered me. It was the methods they spoke of. For years I mulled over that night’s conversation within. Sometimes I wondered if I had misremembered it, though a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks a decade later reminded me that my recollections were quite complete. Their methods were obfuscation; some benign and comprehensible, for all of us have hidden our religious affiliations at times, to get on at work or avoid derision. By all means, pray when you get home from work, or pretend to be Scrooge at Christmas rather than admit that you are a follower of an unpopular creed. But to engage wilfully in the prohibitions of your religion, for years on end, waiting patiently, endlessly, for your ascendency to the top of your institution, when you might then foment change all around?
I wrestled with this notion for years, because of course it is at heart utter nonsense. Our religion does not teach that the ends justify the means. It is not founded on the principles of a secret society, but rather calls us to open and honest engagement with the world. Far from being called to get ahead by any means possible, we are asked to work diligently and honestly to earn our livelihoods. “Woe to the defrauders!” we are warned.
O my people, give full measure and weight in justice and do not deprive the people of their due and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.— Quran 11:85
Fortunately I was not alone in my misgivings. A decade later, a close relative got involved with the same movement abroad. A newly religious student who had recently taken to wearing a headscarf — a giant step, coming from a rabidly secular and anti-religious family — she too had been attracted to the fraternity of their circles. However she was was much brighter than I ever was, a brilliant student at the top of her year, destined to go far. Whereas I was merely a guest passing through, her companions saw great potential in her and began to prime her for a life of service. They were to send her to Moscow, they told her. Ah, but she would have to remove her headscarf and behave like a normal person — like her old self, before she found faith.
Unlike me at that age, to her credit she was one to probe, ask questions and seek answers. In her early exploration of faith, she had placed the Quran front and centre, and had had to justify her course to a wider family intent on suffocating religion at every opportunity. Hers was not a faith to be messed with. So it was that she questioned her fraternity assertively, demanding evidence from the Book and tradition to support her reversion to type. When their answers did not satisfy her, she tried to break ties with them, but instead found herself harassed, descending into misery and despair. In the end she had to transfer to another university in another city at the other end of the country, far away from her family and friends. Thankfully, she has put that episode behind her, and remains firmly on the middle path.
From my account, this might sound like a sinister organisation, but outwardly it is nothing of the sort. Our paths have crossed numerous times over the past two decades. Close friends of ours have found faith through them. I have attended their public dinners, and enjoyed the company of their highly educated and hospitable devotees. A scholar I hold in high regard once described their spiritual leader as one of the most important Muslim scholars of our time. Friends have sent their children to their schools and hostels. I had their magazine on subscription for a time. I read the slick newspapers published by their adherents, and watched their satellite channels. I have looked on as people I trust engaged in their dialogue and interfaith activities. I watched as they courted organisations supporting Muslim converts, and faith leaders, academics and community leaders.
To all who encounter them, they are a benevolent and benign organisation, producing a righteous generation, moved by their faith to bring about positive change in the world. I don’t doubt that they are sincere. I believe that many of them believe they are chosen by God and are on a divine mission to restore the fabled transnational caliphate they maintain was unjustly ripped away from them, and yearn for nothing less than to pave the way for a singular righteous caliph to rule over the world with true justice, bringing about an epoch of peace and prosperity. They are on a mission greater than themselves, they believe, quite earnestly. They are the righteous generation, living profoundly meaningful lives in the service of others, and by appearances this can only be true.
Yet I return to a conversation, over two decades ago now. As I turned the pages of their magazine each time my subscription materialised — and thought to myself: “These are good people” — I would recall that conversation anew, interrogating myself: how could I keep faith alive in my heart, if all of my outward actions ran counter to the demands of faith. How could I stand in prayer at night, if in order to maintain my cover in anti-religious institutions I was to drink wine with my colleagues, or worse. To hate it in your heart, perhaps, “but that is the weakest of faith.” It troubled me enough to view their fraternity with scepticism. To accept their hospitality, yes — and be grateful for it — but to keep my distance.
I am glad I remained aloof — with them and many other ostensibly religious movements. The things people will do to maintain power and influence will curdle the blood. From witch-hunts against enemies to the fabrication of evidence, blackmail, threats and violence. This is not an ode to the other side, for all sides are playing these devious games. Crooked men will do whatever it takes to gain and hold on to power. When it serves their interests, two groups will make profound alliances, each of them taking advantage of the other, and when it no longer serves their interests they will discard them, and turn on them and, if necessary, utterly obliterate them. Proponents of vaguely different interpretations of the same faith will willingly vituperate the other in their pursuit of their ultimate goal. Little does mankind recall the fear of the mighty mountains, and all of heaven and earth, when offered the responsibilities we rushed towards.
Indeed, We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they declined to bear it and feared it; but man [undertook to] bear it. Indeed, he was unjust and ignorant.— Quran 33:72
So the end is good, perhaps. Perhaps all their efforts are for a noble goal, that future generations will one day benefit from and be grateful for. But their means? Do they act justly even against themselves? No, they lie and cheat, manufacture false evidence, slander their opponents, make sly alliances, because they have convinced themselves that to lie in the service of good is itself good. But our Book says, “Do not mix truth with falsehood.” Be not an advocate for the deceitful reads its verses. And be true in your testimony, and be not unjust.
O believers! Stand firm for God and bear true testimony. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness. And be mindful of God. Surely God is All-Aware of what you do.— Quran 5:8
Do they repel evil with good? Do they do as they are asked and practice what they preach? Do they shun bribery and corruption? Do they make peace, and act fairly between groups, friend or foe? Do they walk humbly on the earth, and call one another to virtue?
Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not reason?— Quran 2:44
I have no doubt whatsoever that our Lord will reward the good for the good that they do. God does not require of any soul any more than it can bear. As our Book says of the soul: “All good will be for its own benefit, and all evil will be to its own loss.” The good and sincere, whoever they are, whatever their affiliation, will definitely be rewarded for all the good they do in the service of others. Those that do righteous deeds, regardless of political or sectarian demands, will be pleased with their Lord, and He will be pleased with them.
But those who deliberately use deception to trample on the rights of others? The men and women in positions of power who abuse their power to victimise and quash their opponents? Those who use underhand means to plunder valleys of gold? Those that attack the speakers of truth and doers of good? If the teachings of many a cultish sect are true, then perhaps such men are justified, their actions legitimate, their deeds upright and virtuous, and it is my mindset that is at fault. But in my thinking for myself, in my making up my own mind, in my judging by the evidence that I have at my disposal, in my meditation on life, my exercise of my intellect — such as it is — I have chosen to shun that path. That is not the path I embraced at all.
I will not be bullied by scholars — however much I admire their work — or by preachers, politicians, journalists, family friends, friends of friends — not even esteemed friends, relationships long cherished — into subserviently adopting a narrative which flies in the face of natural ethics and the teachings of the Book which set me on this path in the first place. One day I will stand before my Lord, to be judged on account of my own deeds, my own intentions, desperate for His grace and mercy. I will not be held to account for the actions of others, for God is the eternally just. And, for sure, when our leaders and wise sages are similarly held to account, they will deny having any influence over us at all. It was our life to live, not theirs.
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding — who remember God 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 all of this for nothing; exalted are You; protect us from the torment the fire.Quran 3:190-1
Give thought. Think for yourself.