Problematic

“Muslim converts,” declares yet another enlightened believer, “are the worst problem of Islam.” It seems to be a popular sentiment these days. There can be nothing worse than people choosing to believe in the faith you have inherited: damn their pursuit of truth! Ah, but rejoice in that certainty: blame that pesky, eccentric minority in your midst for all of your problems. In certainly won’t do to review mis-invested petro-dollars and the perpetuation of ignorance. Stop bringing religion into religion.

Spaces of being

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of Muslims really don’t like converts. Oh yes, there are the celebrity converts that they embrace for a little while, until they get mouthy and start saying, “I’m glad I became Muslim before I met the Muslims.” Celebrity converts, generally, are a good thing, because it helps assuage the doubters’ doubts, and give them a momentary iman boost. But generally speaking, Muslim converts are not really the flavour of the moment any more. White converts, especially, have gone out of fashion. Those who have lived as Muslims for generations are, frankly, sick and tired of white converts who think they know better than them. If a convert has their own opinions, we are told, it is only that they believe all other Muslim to be misguided savages. But fair enough. Society is growing ever more racist, and people who have lived as Muslims for generations need their own space to grow and express themselves. I don’t blame them for their open contempt for people like me. To them their space, to me mine.

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.

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. Continue reading “Good trees”