Fix yourself

Honestly, converts and the newly religious are their own worst enemy.

From knowing nothing, suddenly you know it all. Yesterday you did not believe, but today you are the truest believers of all: yours is the saved sect, free from error and misguidance, purified of the heresies that disable all other believers everywhere. It is time to publish a hundred books, to establish a dawah website, a YouTube channel and that persistent social media presence. All of a sudden it is time to teach, and to guide, and to lead others into the light. Continue reading “Fix yourself”

Are you sure?

I am being interrogated by a child at the mosque. Are you English? Why are you here? How can you be Muslim if you’re English, it doesn’t make sense? I think you’re a Patan. Are you a Patan? What does English Muslim even mean? You mean a Muslim who speaks English? Are you sure you’re Muslim? You don’t have black hair. Are you sure you’re English?

I laugh it off, but sometimes I ask myself those questions too.

Keep your heart alive

You have to nurture your faith to keep it alive. If you let it go, it will go. I have seen too many people leave the deen, steadfast and passionate though once they were. You have to feed your heart and keep good company and close your ears to the nonsense — from outside and within. We’re all taking too much for granted; rejoicing too much for what think we have. In a blink of an eye the light of faith could be removed from us and passed on to a more deserving people. Step back from the maddening clamour of the crowd. Remember to look inward, to renew and reform daily. Remember to keep your faith and heart alive.

Convert Extremism

On the World at One on BBC Radio 4 this lunchtime, they were asking why it is that converts to Islam who make up 2% of the UK Muslim population are represented in 30% of Muslim terrorism-related convictions. Why is it, they ask, that so many of Muslim extremists are converts?

Well it’s complex, obviously, but here are a few ideas…

1) There is no real Muslim community, just collections of families. Most of what appears to us to be community amongst the migrant Muslim communities, turns out to be large extended families. Outsiders naturally feel unwelcome and thus become alienated.

2) Outside of big cities, mosques serve tribal and ethnic affiliations. Often the English language is not used. There is usually no recognisable provision for those outside the dominant tribal/ethnic/sectarian group, causing individuals to turn elsewhere for support and guidance.

3) The call to faith, which many young people encounter online, is often simplistic and sectarian. Simplistic in that it presents an unrealistic binary view of the world, which is attractive to young minds. Sectarian in that the faith of migrant Muslim communities is considered wanting and unworthy of respect or consideration.

4) We all have history and cultural baggage. Conversion does not render one’s psychology benign. Many extremists have a violent or criminal past. Some individuals use their interpretation of religion as a means to legitimise criminal behaviour.

5) Muslims generally are not provided with a convincing toolkit to help them navigate their faith. They do not know how to approach and interpret textual sources, rendered into English. Muslim history is not taught, except in a very romantic and white-washed fashion. Muslim education does not provide context or address cultural difference, and problematic ideas are swept under the carpet, rather than addressed openly.

6) New converts are often encouraged to suspend their intellect and to slavishly accept the interpretations of others unquestioningly. Frequent accusations of heresy in some circles prevent individuals from asking questions. In early periods, converts are often afraid to challenge the ideas of those presumed to have more knowledge and understanding of religion and politics.

7) There is injustice in the world. Empathetic individuals often have a desire to “do something” to rectify perceived wrongs. While some individuals might respond by focusing on charity or social work, others will naturally respond in anger. There is nothing unique to the Muslim psyche in this.

8) It is just one of those things: we’re talking about a very small number of individuals. Not 30% of Muslims and not 30% of Muslim converts, but 30% of Muslim terrorism-related convictions.

Quarantine

Convertitis is an intolerable ailment. I suffered from it for the best part of a decade. I have every sympathy for those who had to put up with me. I probably should have been put into quarantine.

Calling the caller

I regret that I cringed when I read about a “da’wah training session” held for students over the weekend. “Da’wah training to unleash your inner da’ee,” read the poster.

True, back when I was a student I decried the reluctance of religious folk — both Christian and Muslim — to share their faith with others. For the seeker it was like getting blood out of a stone.

The passing years have dampened my impatience. Youthful urgency soon feels like folly. The young are often idealists — witness many an impassioned revolution sparked by a student uprising — but that often makes them arrogant too, believing themselves to have a better understanding of reality than those twice their age or more. Truth, when you are young, is so obvious and clear: Atheists, Evangelicals, Muslims, Socialists, Anarchists… they all agree on this. The young wavering Agnostic — so very English in his refusal to confirm whether he believes or he doesn’t — soon settles for an absolute he can hold to: any one of the above; whichever seemed convincing at the time.

Preach, oh young one, if you wish to. Have your pseudo-poetic, hip-hop-hypnotic YouTube videos ready on your iPhone. Stuff your pockets with twelve-page pamphlets pointing out 101 contradictions in the Bible. Limber up your tongue, practice those ontological arguments of yours and prepare to bamboozle your opponents.

But, alas, I cringe. For lack of faith? Not at all. Because of faith and the state of the world around us. Instead of allowing their faith to reach their hearts and make their lives better, young men — often new to their religion –take it upon themselves to become perpetual guides to what they never grasp. Isn’t it foolishness to concern yourself with the fate of others and forget yourself?

We preach, but our words are like smoke, for we are ablaze. Young men call, but they don’t know what they are calling to. We steamroller over realities and present mythical representations of the past: ours is a religion without history, we exhort, unaffected by politics, culture and violence. We call others to an ideal we never make real.

Yes, so after all these years I cringe in the face of the student da’ee. If these youngsters were ever to ask my advice, it would be this: don’t concern yourselves with the fate of others, but work on yourself; before seeking to enlighten others, enlighten yourself; embody the message you wish to convey. Be a seeker: the real truth you are looking for may take years to find, so be humble, patient and kind.

“Do you exhort people to goodness and forget yourselves, and you recite the Book? Have you no understanding?”

You do not need training in how to do da’wah. You need training in how to be a human being. Isn’t that the purpose of our deen?

Letter to myself

Dear Younger Self,

Salam alaikum!

I am writing to you from the future. In a couple of years I will be 40; you have just passed 20. The year is 2015 and while it only vaguely resembles to world of 1989’s Back to the Future II, it is shaping up to mirror the dystopian nightmares of other works of contemporary fiction: ours is an advanced technological society, supported by wars without end overseas.

The Internet, which you have recently discovered, has grown exponentially and has had a vast impact on our lives, both for good and bad. That brick of a mobile phone in your pocket has evolved into a handheld computer, vastly more powerful than that huge beige machine on your desk.  Your 100MB Zip disks are long obsolete; today we can store 128GB of data on a slither of plastic smaller than your fingernails. As for your dreams: instead of working in International Development, you work in a new-fangled field called Web Development. I’m not sure how that happened, but I blame you! Continue reading “Letter to myself”

Good trees

I have no issue with sufism that is founded on and grounded in Islam. Many (though by no means all) of the Muslims I find most inspiring are students of that path. Furthermore, it is nigh on impossible to learn any Islamic science without the chain of transmission having passed through scholars of the tradition. One of my favourite books is described by some as a manual of sufism, though I would simply describe it as a guide to Islamic devotions, prayer and practical ethics.

But to speak of a sufism founded on and grounded in Islam is to acknowledge that there are instances of practices with the same name which are not. Alhamdulilah, I was blessed from the earliest days to learn that the spiritual path is the core of our faith, regardless of the labels we assign ourselves. Though a salafi would never use the term sufism to describe the process of purifying hearts, preferring a term like ihsan or tazkiya, it has nevertheless been emphasised by all I have ever had the good fortune to know and meet. As my salafi companions used to say: “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

Alhamdulilah, many set out on a spiritual path — emphasising the purity of intention, the soundness of their hearts, gratitude to God, love of God, hope in God, repentance and remembrance — without ever employing terms like sufism or tasawwaf. Indeed perhaps I am one of them, poor though I may be. Our hearts yearn for a nearness to God, a rest, that can only be found in remembrance of God.

But there are aspects of some groups that loudly proclaim their adherence to the sufi path which trouble me. I have seen dhikr appear to become an end in itself, supplanting the means to God prescribed in the obligatory acts of worship. That old maxim that there is no tasawwaf without fiqh has vanished from mind, and so the evening prayer comes and goes unuttered, because a sunnah was emphasised over a fard.

Is there not something wrong when we cannot build a community in our locality, because the worshippers have become intoxicated by their devotions? Is there not something wrong when we cannot spare a few minutes to stand in prayer with our brethren at the mosque, but can travel great distances to vast gatherings to spend hours absorbed in the poetry of the soul?

If you detect bitterness in my lament, it is because I crave a spiritualism which moves us to action, in which we serve those around us, instead of our own inner egos. Yes, I crave that humble community, where we each greet the other at the mosque at the time of prayer, standing together before our Lord as kindred spirits, and afterwards exchange good words, perhaps wandering home together, perhaps sharing a cup of tea or a slice of bread. But we don’t; we have neglected the core and made the peripheral central. And it is true: I too have stopped going, praying on my own instead.

I crave a community where I live in which I find companionship. But instead you invite me to a gathering far away, where no allowance is made for the time of prayer. Where you speak of your mystical love of God, but let maghrib prayer slip past unsaid. Do you not reflect? Dhikr which causes us to forget is hardly remembrance at all. Isn’t it a tragedy that our boundaries have become so insecure that we find our Christian family more accommodating of our faith than Muslims themselves? Why must you transport us to Fez, Cordoba or Istanbul, and back in time to supposed glory days, when here we are now in the present, in this place we call home?

Speak not of the glory days. Your brother fell sick and none of you visited him. Do you ever wonder what became of him, or is he just another drop-out who could not keep up with your programme of devotion? Have we transformed out communities? Do we provide services to the poor? Do we care about our neighbours? Do we answer the questions of our youth? Have we done anything to make our locality a better place to live? Or is it all just talk? And yes, this is all just talk. I am one of those who talks about what I do not do.

But I have been inspired. Yesterday I was blessed with an invitation to a beautiful gathering focusing on the spiritual plight of nascent Muslims. Perhaps we were carried far from our intended goals, to the regret of some; beyond the anticipated focus on the stirring soul and the heart kept alive. But for me it set in motion a train of thoughts about a rekindled faith — for my faith like many others’ just smoulders, effecting neither myself or others — one borne in efforts to build our own communities in our midst. To start a home group for the Strangers — those on the periphery of the community, for whom the mosque offers no refuge — to come together to recite from the Qur’an, to reflect on Allah’s signs, to read together and re-remember the shahada, to recall subhanullah, to seek God’s forgiveness and aid. And to bring and share: a cup of tea, a piece of cake, fruit salad. To pray together. To become whole once more.

We ran out of time yesterday to complete our thoughts, to properly think about our next steps, but there was something I wanted to share. Perhaps it was just the buzz of having a voice, living in a community where I have none, but for me a kind of clarity settled. There is a need amongst new Muslims all over the country — and by new Muslims I do not mean just the narrow definition of the convert to Islam, but also youngsters, teenagers, children, and older people discovering or rediscovering their faith anew — for a spiritual home, for a place to go to maintain a connection with our Creator.

And then there are those of us who have been Muslim for fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years. We have a job to do. Not to go forth and multiply, but to go forth and satisfy the needs of the next generation. We are now established in our faith: we must stop infantilising ourselves as converts in perpetual need of a helping hand (that’s not a denial of the need for pastoral support in the community), and instead recognise that we need to be the helping hand.

A new Muslim should be defined as a person in the very early stages of their journey. The first five years, perhaps, when they are at their most vulnerable and in most need of guidance and help. But for us to start to make changes, we need to graduate, to come of age.

And so what would it be like if those of us established in our faith went out to sow seeds in our localities, wherever we might be in the country, establishing humble gatherings in our homes, once a fortnight? What if we adopted that as a model for fostering spiritual wellbeing in every locality around the country? We do not need to advocate anything grand: no committees, trustees, minutes of meetings: just modest fellowship, a pot of tea, recitation and prayer. Walks in the countryside, so that we might reflect on the Signs of God, on the beauty manifest in His creation.

What if the answer to our spiritual morass was a vision as simple as this? A letter sent to no-longer new Muslims, inviting them to switch roles, to become mentors, servants, tea-makers. Not to become pseudo-scholars, community leaders or the voice of reason: no, just a conduit to counteract isolation and spiritual stagnation. To foster growth, companionship, mutal-respect, healthy hearts, gratitude to God, patience, love, kindness and compassion.

From a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak.

Change

On this day, sixteen years ago, I became a believer, albeit one still wavering. A lot has happened since then. The zealotry of youth has given way to more considered thought, more open to new ideas. Gone the certainty in absolutes, the black and white view of the world; in their place more nuanced understandings, and shades of grey, and pastel tones.

In place of the defence of fundamentalism, a readiness to think for myself, to shun group-think, to question accepted wisdom; to reject cynical, manipulative propaganda, whether it originates with “friend” or “foe”. Verses of the Qur’an resonate within in place of the clamour of the community… “Stand out firmly for justice, even against yourselves” … “and God does not love the arrogant, boastful” … “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth” … For every moment, an answer.

Today a faith ready to reject all that seems ungodly. Today a faith ready to centre on what is good and virtuous, to believe in a better way, beyond the simplistic renderings of an academic creed. And finally, to recall the best of advice: “Do you exhort people to goodness and forget yourselves, and you recite the Book? Have you no understanding?”

Whether out of loneliness, ego or fear of damnation, I spent years praying that my nearest and dearest would join me on this path, as I suppose they did in reverse. But as a dear friend once put it: “What foolishness to concern yourself with the fate of others and forget yourself.”

This is a faith which calls us to affect change in ourselves. But most of us have been fools, turning it into a repository of slogans and a wellspring of identity. The faith that we have presented appeals to no one: it is all ego. Had we let our faith reform and renew our spirit, exhorting ourselves to goodness: then perhaps we might find ourselves in a better place and standing.

Each day is a new beginning, an opportunity to start afresh. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day, a source of change. Not unlike this day sixteen years ago.

Secret Muslims

Comment is free | Monday 10 December 2012 10.31 GMT
Muslim women face an uphill battle against prejudice to find work
Many Muslim women feel pressured to change their appearance to get a job. Employers must question their own assumptions
Myriam Francois-Cerrah

I’m sure it is true. In my naivety as a new Muslim, I ruined many a perfectly good interview by asking in the follow-up questions whether there would be anywhere to perform salat. Jolly faces turned sour, the atmosphere turned frosty. I quickly learned not to be so daft.

Conversely, I always felt compelled to shave off my whiskers before an interview, fearing it would count against me. In the end, after a long spell out of work, I concluded that my Lord probably wasn’t impressed by this, so threw caution to the wind and attended with that strange growth on the end of my chin. Perhaps some employers just like an eccentric. Over the years that followed my colleagues would call me d’Artagnan, Oliver Cromwell and Shakespeare in that hilarious mocking manner of theirs. To beard or not to beard, that is the question.

I have every sympathy for Muslim women entering a work environment like this. It’s easy for a white male like me. I learned long ago not to publicize my religion in the workplace and it is easy to hide it. Not so for those that wear hijab. People just consider me mildly eccentric and an irritating scrooge at Christmas.

A colleague did once let slip that I’m a Muslim in a team meeting. Shortly thereafter my post was miraculously dissolved. But it was good for me. I moved on to better things. But I remain a secret Muslim. It’s a bit of a cop-out, a bit weak… but I have a family to support. I’m sure I’m not alone.