This lineage

My father’s brother — an amateur historian — has traced our family tree on that side of the family back generations. Hundreds of years, in fact, discovering fascinating tales of our predecessors. One branch of the family emigrated to Canada in 1865, while the remainder appear to have been established in East Yorkshire for generations.

My mother, meanwhile, has traced her family tree back to the mid-1800s, with a lot of gaps. Her mother was born in southern Ireland to a farming family. Unsurprisingly, hers was a very religious upbringing. She initially came over from Ireland with a faith mission in Scotland, intent on preaching the gospel, while playing Christian hymns on the piano.

In 1942 — at the height of the Blitz — she moved to London to start training as a nurse. That’s where she met my grandfather, whose first post as a newly-qualified doctor was at a Mission Hospital in the East End. They married in 1945, but he was then sent to India to do two years of National Service with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He must have been there during the catastrophe of Partition, though I have no idea where he was stationed.

As a young adult — through my twenties and thirties — my two grandmothers played a major role in my life and we became very close. My maternal grandfather was a perpetual joker, never serious and often found messing around, but he passed away while I was doing my GCSEs. My paternal grandfather, whom I always found to be rather stern, passed away while I was doing my A-levels. Therefore, I never really got to know my male grandparents as I did my two grannies.

I grew close to my maternal grandmother when I came down south for study in 1996. She lived in Buckinghamshire, so was easily reached by train from Marylebone station. Though she was always disappointed that I became a Muslim — she had dedicated her life to Christian mission, two of her daughters were overseas missionaries and my mother had been ordained priest — she cared for me with great affection. She attended my marriage in 2001, both the civil registry in Ealing and the religious ceremony in a mosque in east London, and she and my wife became close friends. So much so that it partially influenced our decision to eventually move out to the Chilterns and buy a house ten miles from her.

I was also close to my paternal grandmother, who remained in Hull. She was the first member of my family to accept I was Muslim; in fact she embraced me and my faith, and made herself my ally. She was a strict Methodist, and seemed to believe she had more in common with a Muslim than Anglican Christians. That’s how she framed it to me, anyway, but I suspect she was simply acting as family peacemaker. She did not drink and was vehemently opposed to gambling. She too attended my August marriage, but was also determined to come to our walima in September, travelling down by train with my aunt and one of my cousins.

Both grannies loved my wife — well, it would be hard not to — embracing her as their own. My wife also embraced them. My wife and maternal grandmother were often found exchanging notes on their experience as first-generation immigrants, albeit an experience separated by fifty years. In the early years of our marriage, they also exchanged notes on my awful hoovering technique and domestic ineptitude. She would later meet my mother-in-law when she came to England, and they too got on like a house of fire, despite a clear language barrier. She was also a great support to us during the process to adopt, and similarly held our children in great affections.

I think without my grandparents, I would have found my journey of faith much more difficult than it was. I mustered the courage to tell my paternal grandmother I was a Muslim about a year after my testimony of faith. At that point, she simply smiled and said, “Oh, I’ve known about that for ages. Don’t you worry about me!” At family gatherings, she would always insist on me sitting at her side, declaring, “Tim has the right idea!” — which, as you can imagine, didn’t go down very well with everyone else.

Despite their deeply-held Christian beliefs, both grandparents were very tolerant of my beliefs in those early days along this road. I think they could see that I was sincere, and that I was living a good life. Both of them knew me to be a very shy young man who needed a bit of helping hand as a young adult. I think they were also determined that I live up to the meaning of the biblical names given by my parents — Timothy (to honour God) and John (God gave graciously). Certainly, they tried their best, encouraging me with their unending kindness.

My journey of faith was more difficult for the rest of my family in those early days, although we are generally on good terms now. During the interfaith module of her Masters degree in Theology in 2003, my mother wrote an essay about the experience, reflecting how difficult it had been for the whole family. That was not at all surprising, for my parents had dedicated their entire lives to the church and had raised all of us children as practising Christians. My mother began a part-time degree in Theology when I was six, completing it when I was twelve. She then commenced ordination training, and was ordained deacon when I was fourteen, and priest when I was seventeen.

My father, meanwhile, had been a lay preacher throughout my childhood, and would ultimately be ordained priest himself in his fifties after retiring from an illustrious career as a solicitor. All of my family had this calling to the church. My sister, especially, found my journey of faith difficult. We had had a bad relationship throughout our childhood and just when I reached the age that siblings normally begin to reconcile, I embraced a faith which upset my entire family. In the early years, my decision to take up this path was viewed more as a rebellion adopted to deliberately upset my family, rather than as a sincere journey of faith. As a result, I have never really been very close to my siblings.

Learning of my lineage, so firmly intertwined with the Christian faith, the outside observer would be justified in considering me utterly insane. Why on earth would I make my life so difficult, causing this rift in the family. For me, the answer to that question concerns sincerity. My family didn’t do anything wrong, which resulted in me taking up this path; indeed, they did everything right. They raised me to live a good life and be sincere in faith. So when I concluded that a man was not God, I had to follow through, despite the difficulty that decision would bring.

Thinking of that now, I can only muse at the irony, for as a youth I was widely considered a weakling and a coward, timid and shy. And yet, for thirty years I have walked the most difficult path, estranged from family. First, returning from a Christian youth festival on the Isle of Iona an atheist. Then in continuing to attend church as an agnostic holding to a nascent monotheism. Then finally embracing a path that would set me at odds with my entire clan. A journey not for the half-hearted.

Who knows what my descendants will make of me in years to come. There is no guarantee that our children and their children will walk the same path as I have. We could easily be an aberration in the long lineage of our family. In one sense, I am the end of my line anyway, but our adopted children have embraced us as their own. They will have their own stories to tell in the years to come.

I suppose one reason I have taken to writing so much these past two decades is that I know that only I will document my history. If anyone decides to write down our family tree in years to come, I am determined not just to be a subscript: “Became a Muslim; nothing more is known.” I hope that those that come after me will recognise that my journey of faith was real. That this shy Englishman was once brave, choosing to walk this path back towards the One, alone.

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