In my religious education at school, I learnt only of one faith: Anglican Christianity. By the time I left secondary school, I knew nothing of any other world faith; neither Roman Catholicism, Judaism or any tradition of the east. If I was going to learn anything, it would be on my own initiative, motivated by pure curiosity or a yearning to make sense of events.
I first learnt of the monotheistic paths of Sikhism and Islam in response to bad experiences. In each case, I bought a book, hoping it would help me understand what had happened. The first of those experiences led to me buying a copy of Sikhism and Christianity by the late great Piara Singh Sambhi and Owen Cole. The second of them led to me obtaining the Penguin Classics rendering of The Koran by N J Dawood.
In reality, neither case had much to do with religion at all. In fact, those experiences had much more to do with my own mental and physical state. In truth, few I came into conflict with then had any grounding in their religious traditions.
This was difficult for me to grasp because I was raised in an environment in which religion defined everything. My mother studied theology, worked as a hospital chaplain and was later ordained priest. My father, for as long as I remember, was a lay preacher and later a church official known as a canon. Furthermore, several of my relatives were missionaries.
Though I personally wrestled with atheism and agnosticism, religion pervaded every interaction in our lives at home. Naturally I imagined the same to be true of those I encountered. Of course I was completely wrong. The conflict I experienced was mainly because I was an idiot, completely out of my depth, guided by assumptions, misunderstandings and my own extreme naivety.
Those days were not like now. Nowadays you can buy virtually every book in print at the click of a mouse. All of the sacred texts of every tradition have been digitised, freely accessible online. The public realm teems with websites, channels and podcasts delineating every detail of every tradition. Today we have little excuse for our ignorance.
Back then it was different. We were at the mercy of whatever we found in the religions section of our local branch of Waterstones. Access to the internet was not widespread, and even then there was a dearth of information of any assistance. Nevertheless, these books planted seeds in my mind that would ultimately blossom and fruit when the time was right. The fertile soil was my inner turmoil, which would ultimately lead me to pursue the One.
Those I once knew, with whom I came into such conflict, would be perturbed to learn that my interactions with them led me towards faith, but it is true. They would say that religion played no part in their lives whatsoever, except in a very vague way, somehow informing an aspect of their culture. That may be so, but those interactions led to me searching for understanding.
I misunderstood much back then. I misread glances and misinterpreted comments. I became confused by different people whispering contradictory thoughts into my ear. I got myself into an emotional tangle, thinking some things to be true and others to be false. I ended up fractured, unable to separate fact from fiction, love from hate, reality from fantasy. The first culminated in a threat which sent me spiralling into forlorn despondency.
At my rock bottom, I picked up a book. Perhaps that is the reason I have such respect for that path, which teaches the seeker to value the truth above all else in their journey back to the One. Some may have transformed that path into a vehicle of oppression or a marker of identity, but at heart it is a movement for social justice. Thus do they embrace monotheistic bhagats (devotees) of different traditions as their own. Don’t be surprised to find Baba Nanak encouraging Muslims to become truly Muslim.
Perhaps all of the above accounts for me being unable to consider those I once found myself in conflict with my enemies. Without them and those experiences, I doubt I would ever have explored any of this. In the end, I owe them some kind of debt for directing me towards these paths capable of reforming my soul. No longer is there any excuse for ignorance.
Read! In the name of your Lord who created. He created man from a clinging form. Read! Your Lord is the most bountiful One. Who taught by the pen. Taught man that which he knew not.