Namesake

For me, my namesake is a gem of our community. We are unalike in nearly every way: he is a brilliant intellectual, articulate in speech, spiritual, courageous and of profound learning. Those who know me will confirm that in speech, I struggle to string together a coherent sentence, my mind given to blackouts mid-thought. In religion, too, I am more wayward spirit than wise sage.

Continue reading “Namesake”

About a girl

Probably in common with many people, one of my family’s hypotheses when I took up this path was that there was a girl. In their mind’s eye, I had fallen in love with a Muslim girl and had thus converted to placate her family. An amusing theory, I must say, because there was no girl at all; in fact I was more or less a recluse in the months leading up to my testimony of faith.

Continue reading “About a girl”

Normal

A question I often ask myself — and I suspect others ask too — is why I didn’t just opt for a normal life. To be subsumed into the dominant culture, to go to the pub like everyone else. To join the rat race and obsess over a football team, just like any other normal English bloke. Why did I head off in this other direction, breaking with everything I once knew?

Continue reading “Normal”

Pure prejudice

What if I beat myself up for twenty years, thinking that the way you treated me was because of something I had done, when it was nothing like that at all? What if your contempt for me was founded not in my behaviour, but on a sectarianism I had never considered? Is it my fault that those who took me under their wing in those early days were Salafis? Is that all it was? That you considered me a Wahabi and therefore a heretic before I had even got started?

Continue reading “Pure prejudice”

To the one we wronged

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we drove you out of the religion. I’m sorry that we drove you from the path you once embraced with sincerity and passion. The one you once pursued with all that inner strength of yours, that forced you to sit at the feet of those you thought would guide you, enlighten your soul and raise you to great heights. I’m sorry that instead we trampled you under our feet, and slandered your name and spoiled your reputation everywhere we went.

Continue reading “To the one we wronged”

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.

Restoration

Muslims, it seems, are intent on making our religion difficult to believe in. Many converts — who you would think would be foremost in smoothing the way for people — are now found trying to convince everyone they know that the earth is flat, and that an international cabal of Freemasons who control all things have taken it upon themselves to convince all people everywhere that the world is spherical, for unknown reasons.

Continue reading “Restoration”

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.

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”

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.

Undue Praise

I return once more to the word of our Prophet, peace be upon him, when he told his companions to throw dust in the faces of those who praised people in their presence. I was in Turkey, taking tea with our Muslim neighbours, when conversation turned to my conversion. People always assume that I converted because of my wife, but she was putting them straight, explaining that it all came to pass before we ever set eyes on one another. And suddenly all that hideous praise. It is humiliating, for I am the worst amongst them. They put you up on a pedestal which you do not deserve, oblivious to the pain within: that to be good is such a struggle, such a battle. They talk of you as a pious saint, when in truth you are a wretched sinner.

But worst is all that follows. Those words are so true: ‘You have destroyed the man’s back.’ There seems to be some strange metaphysical link between the act of praising and the well-being of the recipient. Thrown down on my face, all that follows the laudation is absolute proof that their kind words were unwarranted. And yes, my back is now killing me too. It causes a horrible sickness, both physical and spiritual. How many good men and women before us have been destroyed by the excessive admiration of their companions?

 

 

From Whispers

I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief saunter in the back garden, a name whispered its way into my mind. I did not need to respond to the surprising murmur, but all of a sudden I was back at the computer, googling an old acquaintance of a bygone era.

I had been away from the Muslim quarter of the internet for some time, absorbed instead in the new-found art of the nappy change, and had missed the return of a perennial obsession. Others too, it seemed, had failed to recite audu billahi minal shaitani rajim when that name fluttered into the space between their ears for no apparent reason. Perhaps they too had considered it inspiration, as I foolishly had at first, ignoring the recollections of last time.

Four months earlier, almost to the day, there had arisen an impulsive urge to venerate a departed companion, lamenting upon life without them. Just as a week ago, that name had abruptly fleeted across my brow, lodging itself firmly in my mind. In that instant I felt the need to speak up for a friend. And so I wrote an ode to glad tidings. Yet within days bad tidings had arrived in their place, for our companion’s secret had been revealed before the world.

Reflecting on them now, I notice that these affairs had something in common: both had followed a certain resolve to return to God and to place my affairs solely in His care. Instead, responding to a whisper within, I replaced one set of sins with another and tried my own faith in a different manner.

My journey towards God, since those awkward days of atheism and agnosticism fifteen years ago, has always been characterised by my willingness to jeopardise everything for the sake of certainty. As I came to believe in Islam a bipolar disposition began to become apparent within: there was a desire to believe in this path, but also a desire to turn away from it.

Long before I was Muslim, I began praying and fasting in private, as best I could with only an English translation of the Qur’an as a guide: in those moments I wished to believe. Yet I turned too to the polemical work of Ibn Warraq which sat amidst the serious works on Islam in the university’s extensive library. At one stage, his work was capable of eradicating my nascent belief in God that my readings on Islam had rekindled.

Later, when I had forgotten the pseudonymous author and had rebuilt my fragile faith in God, I was to be found turning my back on the teachings of Islam and approaching a Christian friend instead, to ask if I could attend her church. Although it was the Qur’an that had convinced me that God did exist, I decided to turn to the combative evangelical website, Answering Islam, for guidance on where to go from there, and the answer was clear: not towards Islam.

I had reason not to take this website very seriously. For one, I had encountered two of its contributors the previous summer at All Souls, Langham Place, while having lunch after the service with my brother and grandmother. They had, they were pleased to announce, hit upon the ultimate knock-out blow for the Muslims, and they were on their way to Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner to deliver it. For another, a senior (non-Muslim) lecturer in Islamic studies at my university had described another key contributor — who had been his student — in particularly unflattering terms. Nevertheless, I continued to mine the website in an effort to be as objective as I possibly could be.

Yet it was not just in that wavering phase before my testimony of faith that I consulted Islam’s opponents for guidance. In the months that followed, much to the apprehension of my new Muslim friends, I would return back to those arguments against Islam and dwell upon them, sometimes shaking the faith I was beginning to hold dear.

The advice of my friends was to replace my reading at the flickering screens in the university’s computer rooms with study of the biography of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But I may have moved on for other reasons. The trouble with that website was that it could say nothing good about Islam at all: my religion was absolutely despicable and so completely wrong. There was no mention of the charity enjoined upon Muslims, of the exhortation to care for widows and orphans, of our duties towards our neighbours whether Muslim or not — true virtues in Christian eyes, surely — or even that Muslims were worthy of respect.

In time I did indeed move on for a variety of reasons, from my bizarre authorship of numerous emails in Olde Inglishe to the pursuit of the final year of my degree. But it would not be my last brush with polemics against Islam.

My upbringing, as well being staunchly Christian, had a feminist flavour. My mother was amongst the first groups of female priests to enter the Church of England after several years of contentious debate amongst Anglican congregations in England — which coloured my views on the role and rights of women in society enormously. Inevitably a time would come when those assumptions would collide with the polemics concerning the status of women in Islam.

I was studying for my postgraduate degree in Scotland when I chanced upon an article of this kind whilst browsing the internet one evening. Following one hyperlink to another led me into a maze of confusion and shock. Soon, with those painful vibrations in my stomach that come with anger, I was hammering out a lengthy email to my friends back in London, demanding to know why no one had told me that this was how our religion treated the fairer sex.

I don’t recall their response to that email at all. I only recall how, by strange happenstance, a young Muslim woman of Yemeni origin from my old university emailed me out of the blue the following day with some sort of news. With her words, my rage suddenly lifted, for here was a real, non-theoretical Muslim woman, talking about her faith and life with perfect contentment. Her emailed advice and guidance for me over the months that followed was invaluable as I stumbled onwards along this path.

Over the years that followed there would be more days like that, as the internet grew and more and more people took up the crusade against Islam. Sometimes the attacks appeared to have more substance than those of old, as Muslims began to publish volumes of hadith online for all to survey as they pleased. Now anyone could mine the knowledge of centuries for a paragraph or sentence to prove a point, ignoring other material that explained, qualified, contextualised or contradicted it. What those academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of Islam — like H Motzki, U Rubin, FE Peters, H Berg and GR Hawtin — must think of this cut and paste revolution, I do not know.

And so to the present. Some years after I abandoned my efforts to keep up with a former-Muslim’s blog entitled Towelianism, I was led to the website of an old friend who, though once an ardent defendant and advocate of Islam, now writes about it with dedicated hostility. I first came across the website in June, when I read it in full in reverse order, from the earliest post to the latest. The early posts had been written while they still maintained their Muslim blog, and so I decided to read the two in tandem: the live site and the archived site. This way I felt I could better make sense of what had come to pass. This was true to a degree, but these matters are always more complicated than that.

As I progressed through the blog it appeared to become less and less personal, and much more the case against Islam. But I knew the reason for that: after all these years reading websites dedicated to undermining and attacking Islam I recognised that what I was reading was nothing new. I had read all of those articles before, lightly repackaged though they were in the author’s own style and distilled through the prism of their own understanding. Although I felt sad and disappointed, I found that what I was reading could not elicit any stronger emotions. They may as well have just copied out that old Ibn Warraq work word for word.

I left that website then as I busied myself with the preparations for the arrival of two strangers in our lives. It has been a summer like no other, when our Lord decreed for us such incredible bounties, blessing us with the company of two delightful children in the last ten days of Ramadan. After difficulty comes ease, promises God, and He is indeed the most truthful.

Even so, alas, I maintain my bonds with my lowest desires at moments of particular weakness. I can absorb myself in strange pursuits for days on end if I so choose, until my conscience eventually drives me home. And so it was. I had only just repented for the sins of the previous days and returned to my Lord ashamed when, on my return from a brief stroll outside, the picture of an old friend pranced before my mind.

Soon I was reading through their website once more, this time in the published order, from the newest backwards. As I read, I pondered. Their experience was distinct from mine, and mine from theirs, but I could not dismiss it all. Their anger at the treatment of numerous women by various Muslim communities mirrored my own anger; I only lamented that those who need to hear the message will never listen to such a voice. But the author has read some hadith which they believe show that Islam sanctions this kind of behaviour towards women. I, on the other hand, have read other hadith and scholarship which I believe show that Islam prohibits it.

It is here that I found where I stand. Twelve years ago I found myself carrying an incredible urgency to find faith and believe in God. It was something I had to do without delay, even if it meant messing up my studies. If there was a God and there was something after death, it was important to pursue it at once, I convinced myself, and for that reason I demanded answers.

But to go the other way? To exchange belief for disbelief, or theism for atheism? I can see no urgency in that. If our intellect is merely a hyper-evolved collection of chemical reactions that shall cease forever on our death and return to the earth as our bodies decay, if our life has no purpose, no direction or meaning, if we live a life and then disappear, what then is the urgency in believing in the new atheistic orthodoxy?

If I were to hold to that paradigm, who shall hold me to account for believing in God and thus condemn me? If I should die whilst in pursuit of the answers to my questions — such as what kind of behaviour does Islam sanction in respect to women, children, neighbours and non-Muslims — what difference would it make if the new orthodoxy were correct? If nothingness were to lie on either side of us, before us and after us, would there be any urgency to disbelieve? Or to do anything at all in fact?

For a second I had been perturbed as to why my old friend’s words had not affected me as others had in earlier times, although the ideas were the same. I wondered if I had become the intolerable caricature that the author now raged about: blind and deaf and dumb, promulgating unspeakable evil throughout the earth. No, that was not it. It was that I have no need to believe in the pointlessness of being, and there was certainly no need to try to believe in that. I am content, I realised, to continue to explore and experience this faith of mine. Questions that cause discomfort — and there have always been those — still demand answers, but the urgency I once felt has left me. A hundred proverbs about patience now spring to mind in its place.

The curse of addiction

There is a disease that I have harboured for the best part of my life. It accompanied me as a child, an adolescent and an adult; as a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic and a Muslim; and in times of both health and sickness. I would define it as a disease of the soul — a spiritual malady — that stifles realisation of any lofty goals. As familiar symptoms return as the years pass by, it becomes ever more apparent that it is an addiction. I turn to treat it frequently and promise to abstain, but in time the cravings become too intense, sometimes manifesting themselves in physical form, and once more I succumb.

In my mind’s eye, I can map out every resolution of reform, for I have long recognised the nature of this disease, striving to conquer it whenever the moment of clarity descends. There was that cold night on Christmas Eve — perhaps 1990 — sitting alone in my bedroom, my parents at church for the midnight service, the window obscured by condensation; I sat on my bed with my bible between my palms, conversing inwardly on the sudden urge to seek out righteousness in place of this affliction. I resolved to displace the ailment with faith and determined to focus on the bible now, reading it from cover to cover, penning my own copy in the process. What happened thereafter, I do not recall, but it is most likely that I forgot my pledge as the sun rose on Christmas morning and the celebrations carried us away.

Another resolution came in my second year of university. The virus was becoming epidemic, infecting every private moment, calling me towards ever lower depths and pulling me closer and closer to despair. My conversation with this agnostic’s God became hopeless, giving in to a grim fate after a death that somehow felt so close. Then one morning I arose and took to the streets of London in a crisp, cool sunlight, the sky an enlivening blue. My steps were aimless, but I ended up in the Regent’s Park, cutting through its beautiful gardens with my mind a million miles away from there, until all of a sudden I was very much there and abruptly conscious of myself. In that instant came a prayer: a resolution of instant reform and dedication to my Lord. In the days that followed I made contact with evangelists and took up their invitations of months before.

Such resolutions — and my revulsion for myself — became key drivers of my search for God and faith. It felt over those first days and weeks after my testimony of faith, months after that Saturday sojourn, as if a great burden had lifted. With belief in God and His messenger came a desire to be good now. The weather was hot and dusty in the city that summer, yet it was in my mind that I felt my sins burning up and blowing away in the wind like parched dust. I had broken the chains, I naively thought, as I adjusted myself to my new-found faith.

This disease, however, is pervasive and deeply ingrained. I frequently blame the television of childhood and the gaze of my infant eyes for planting the seed that has grown and grown, until it has become more rampant than the Russian Vine in my garden, or like the Bamboo the previous owners foolishly thought fit to plant. The kernel of this ill may have been miniscule, but the years have fed and nurtured it, creating a monster whose shoots push up from a new fragment of root whenever another is cut off and cured.

Another marker on the map comes to mind as if it were only yesterday. It had not taken a year for this soul to relapse into the ways of old — in fact it may have only taken a matter of weeks — and soon the self would justify its conduct, normalising it and dismissing the significance of such minor matters. But in time this would dissatisfy me, for I could not promise that the minor would not become major and undermine whatever I had achieved. It was a realisation that struck me one late spring day in 1999.

I had finished my studies for the day and was heading back to my flat beside Waterloo Bridge on the southern bank of the Thames. My saunter, as always, had carried me along the western edge of Russell Square, along Montague Street, half-way up Great Russell Street and down Museum Street. Now I was meandering up Drury Lane. Half way along my portion of the street I sidestepped Jay Kay from Jamiroquai as he got out of his Lamborghini[1. Fame had clearly aborted the environmental message of his early lyrics.], but inner thoughts prevented me from glancing back or lusting for his Italian marque. I was mulling over reform: the time had come, I was telling myself, to finally conquer that disease. A voice was asking questions: will you really abandon all of that, when your life is so long and you so weak? But my mind was suddenly conscious of the Hour and mindful of punishment if nothing changed, and convinced that death could come at any minute. As I cut onto Bow Street I arrived at a reluctant retort. Yes, I would abandon my addiction and dedicate myself to God and His way.

Why I remember that conversation as if it were yesterday, I do not know, except that it was a pledge that I failed to keep. Weeks would pass — perhaps even months —when I would persevere patiently, ignoring the call of the ogre within, but eventually I would succumb to it. How many times I have resolved to reform and overcome this great infection, I cannot say or count. Another conversation came one hot afternoon on my return from Friday Prayer on an early summer’s day in Ealing. Another came on a painfully frosty night in mid-winter as I awaited a train to carry me home.

I oscillate continuously between a call to righteousness and the call of a pervasive addiction that never seems to leave me, regardless of good intentions or the sincerest resolve to leave it behind. It is what evangelists refer to as ‘the addictive grip of sin’ and what Muslims call ‘the domineering nafs’. I call it my great test, and it is a test I would not wish on anyone.

The past two or three years, I fear, have been worse than those earlier years. My memory fails me, of course, for in the continuum of life it is the same old-same old. But worse because I now know better: because a teacher has taken time to explain the stages of the nafs and provided the tools to overcome such burdens, because I have awoken to the necessities of faith, because I am supposed to be older and wiser now. My faith provides the resources to climb to a great height, but there is no instant panacea for any ill; we are required to exert effort, to persevere and be strong — as in any field of life — or else we fail.

Earlier this year I believed that I had cured my addiction. Months passed when its symptoms ceased, when I preoccupied myself with other tasks in order to dull its calls, when I shut down each avenue that would lead to this giant’s reawakening. Imagine if I had succeeded! In my mind it is like a golden ticket — if only I could grasp it, I tell myself, I could then progress. What a blessing to be close to one’s Lord! What a blessing to earn His pleasure! What a blessing to rise in rank before Him! But alas!

I must have compromised somehow — opened the door a crack — for all my achievements of the early part of the year have now been lost and reduced to just a distant memory. Could I not just repent and start over? If I have achieved forty days once, can I not again? If I have achieved sixty, why not try to better it, and gradually — pole pole ndio mwendo[2. A Swahili proverb that roughly translates as, “Slowly, slowly fills up the bowl”.]— build up some kind of immunity? I should aspire to that, at least, I know, but with each resolve to return to God my determination weakens. Mankind will never comprehend the mercy of God; when we despair of His mercy, it is really despair of ourselves, for though our Lord can forgive a world’s weight of sin and more, man is short on tolerance. Yet in truth it is not disbelief in God’s mercy at all, but rather surrender to addiction.

Two weeks ago came that resolve to turn to righteousness and abandon foolish ways. I knelt in prayer and tried my best to eradicate every trace of the poison that had welled up like a bitter sore. But soon the cynic within was once more whispering those familiar counter-arguments, chiselling open the crack, nudging the door back open. And so, so soon, the foolish ways returned, each period of reform narrowing against the last, until it is but a slither of time: the proverbial mustard seed, perhaps. Last night, again I resolved to change, to strive in His way. But by morning I could hear the virus calling.

And now? What now? My sorrow stems from my acute awareness of the affliction. Were I an ignorant fool succumbing amidst blindness to the realities around me, surely I would find respite. But instead I am a learned fool: one that knows of right and wrong, good and bad, of the diseases and cures of the heart. For such a fool, what hope could there possibly be, except the undeserved mercy of His Lord?

All of this, my dear friends, is the woeful curse of addiction, the oscillation of the wayward soul. So don’t be a fool like me, my friends. Shelter yourself and your children from the poisons of this world, and seek refuge in your Lord.

The Office Eccentric

My current colleagues at work do not know that I am a Muslim, but they have concluded that I am an eccentric. There is something not quite right about me, they think, pondering on all the strange things I have let slip over the past year working with them. I do not own a television and have been caught sighing as the running commentary on I’m a Celebrity and Big Brother picks up in the office. I do not read The Sun and I once rather foolishly read out a comment I saw on my computer screen that said, ‘Those who read tabloids deserve to be lied to.’ I do not drink alcohol, I am young-but-married and I haven’t put a Christmas Tree up.

Today I came across a poster in the office featuring a picture of William Shakespear. Underneath it somebody had written my name. It has been there for ages apparently, and my manager laughed: actually they were calling me Shakespear since before I even started. I can’t claim to have been mortally offended at being named after England’s greatest playwrite, but I was slightly surprised. It is my peculiar beard apparently. Another nickname they have for me, I learned today, is Oliver Cromwell. I am sniggering at that one even now.

I really enjoy my job and so I have had fun as the last twelve months have passed by. I haven’t really minded the odd dig about my eccentricities. There is a running joke about me that my house is made out of things other people would throw away because I once made a stand for my monitor out of the polystyrene packaging from a new computer. My colleagues think I come from another age because I buy my fruit and veg from the market instead of Tesco. Well, in all honesty, I don’t mind being the office jester if it makes people smile.

Two things over the past couple of weeks, however, have slightly dampened my humour: Christmas and meeting up with old friends. Christmas because answering all the questions about my participation in the festivities remind me that my role as office odd-ball is a bit of a lie. And meeting up with old friends because I noticed that I was distant from them spiritually and intellectually; my mind seems to have become dull.

The drawbacks of keeping my faith private, as is the Englishman’s way, have hit me all of a sudden. At some point last week a colleague asked me if I had put a Christmas Tree up yet and if I intended to. Well obviously I could not lie. I hadn’t, I didn’t and, in all honesty, I hadn’t even realised it was two weeks until Christmas. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I had a new nickname in the office. Scrooge they call me now.

At the weekend, our elderly Christian neighbour had some advice for me. She said I should have said, ‘No, I’m not getting a Christmas Tree because I’m a Muslim.’ She said she could understand my point about not announcing my faith in ordinary conversation earlier on in my employment—’Hi, I’m Tim and I’m a Muslim’—but she couldn’t understand the need to hide my belief so extensively that I have to pretend to be Scrooge for three weeks of the year. She speaks with some authority, for as a practising Christian she had to exempt herself from the Office Christmas Party throughout her career and thus expose herself to the constant mockery of her peers.

On reflection, I think she was right, but I wonder if the whole Scrooge shenanigans have gone too far already. Possibly, since arriving at work last Wednesday I found that somebody had placed a present on my desk. I thought it was slighly odd, but I proceeded to open it anyway. Inside there was what we would call a Santa Claus hat, except that it was black, and it had the words, ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazened across it. Well I can have a laugh too: this weekend I bought a packet of reindeer droppings (chocolate covered raisins) from Oxfam and sent them back to the sender.

Despite such silliness, there is a serious point here. Every time I downplay my lack of enthusiasm for the great festival before us, I am in fact downplaying my faith. I do not have a Christmas Tree because I do not celebrate Christmas.  Can I not just say this? Well perhaps if my colleagues were Christian they would understand, but for the atheists of the entertainment generation, there is an irritating question that returns: ‘What has religion got to do with it?’ For many, Christmas is merely part of our culture; it has no sacred value. So what could be wrong with celebrating it whether you believe in Christianity or not? In a secular world, nothing at all.

But I am a Muslim and I do not celebrate Christmas because I have not lost sight of the sacred. Christmas is sacred for Christians, regardless of its origins and the views of the early Church Fathers. It is a time of worship and thanksgiving for them, and it has theological resonence. This is why I do not celebrate Christmas, because it is not my festival and it is not of my faith. I am clear on this within and comfortable with my position, so what goes wrong in the office? Why this great pretense, that I am merely a kill-joy, a Dickensian Scrooge? Surely it is hypocrisy.

I often tell myself that I keep my faith to myself because it is the English way, and there is certainly some truth in this. There is nothing the English hate more, we are told, than people wittering on about religion. So my faith is a quiet thing: I hurry down to the mosque to do my prayer at lunchtime, and hide in a disused room for the afternoon prayer, and fast in the month of Ramadan in secret, and inscribe everything else on my heart. Perhaps I am just too English in that regard.

But perhaps there are other things that keep me from sharing my beliefs. Perhaps all those petty comments about Muslims that I have heard in the office over the months indicate that my confession would be unwelcome. Unwelcome because some have clearly conveyed their dislike of Muslims, but also because some would be embarrassed to know that I had been listening to them all along and I never said a thing. That was certainly how my previous manager felt when she outed me in a team meeting two years ago.

Later on in that old job of mine, my manager decided to tell all of my colleagues that I was Muslim. I believe she had good intentions, hoping that social gatherings would be less drink-centred. The consequence, however, was that many of those colleagues stopped talking to me. Perhaps I am after an easy life; perhaps I don’t particularly look forward to a repeat of that scenario all over again.

And so in the office I am Scrooge. Not a principled believer in an alternative faith, but the great eccentric of the office who will not have Turkey on Christmas Day, mulled wine on Christmas Eve or presents around the tree. And at Easter there will be no Chocolate Eggs. And in summer I will turn down the birthday cakes in the office for an entire month, as if I am on a diet. Such pretense, when four short words would suffice: ‘I am a Muslim.’

Meeting up with old friends last week showed me the consequence of all this. My role as court jester has somehow stunted my intellect. I am not a fool actually. I have brains and interests, but somehow I have become the caricature that I have been made. My friends seemed to soar high above me both spiritually and intellectually. And I, somehow, have just dumbed myself down.

Storm in a tea cup

Much ado about nothing, I say. Before we can draw our team brief to a close this morning at work we have to cover preparations for Christmas Dinner. It’s all going swimmingly until the organiser thinks she should inform us of a problem. Apparently a certain employee upstairs cannot attend because it has been booked in a pub and her beliefs stop her from going to pubs. She’s a Muslim. That causes a few raised eyebrows and laughter. Someone points out that if it was a restaurant, they’d still be serving alcohol.

I start sinking in my seat, burying my eyes in the table top. The organiser adds, actually the lady in question wasn’t bothered too much, that it was another member of staff who was worried about it on her behalf. Who’s attended Equality and Diversity training, asks our Director, what should we do? My Manager starts saying that we should have thought about this. Yes, they agree, but now what are we going to do about the lady upstairs? Will we have to cancel our booking and arrange something else? I could easily say something – suggest that I’m sure she’s not even bothered about it – but I’m staying out of this one.

Except I’m not going to be allowed to let this pass me by; I’m about to be outed. We should have thought about this from the start, says my Manager, she’s not the only person in the organisation who wouldn’t be able to attend for that reason. There are at least two people affected. Who, asks the organiser, you don’t mean X (the Indian woman upstairs)? My time has come. I think she means me, I say, and all eyes are on me, a look of horror on six of the faces. Tim’s a Muslim, my Manager tells them.

Faces are red. It probably wasn’t the best timing; after the words exchanged moments earlier. Never mind, my Manager’s brought me in. So yes, I tell them, it’s true, I am a Muslim. Personally, I tell them, I wouldn’t go to the pub either, which is why I excused myself from attending. I don’t expect them to change their plans on my behalf. I appeal to the memory of my Methodist grandfather who similarly excused himself from alcoholic gatherings. I explain that the lady upstairs probably isn’t worried about the matter at all and wouldn’t expect anything to be rearranged. I point out that last year’s storm about a council allegedly banning the word Christmas in case it offended Muslims had absolutely nothing to do with Muslims, but was the product of some well-meaning official. And I say, yes perhaps my faith has implications for them when it comes to organising social functions, but I am not guilty of keeping a secret any more than they are; none of them had told me they were atheist, Catholic or whatever.

After the meeting my Manager sends me a one line email:

Tim, I didn’t mean to embarrass you in the team meeting. Sorry if I did.

I tell her not to worry about it, but I send an email of my own to my immediate colleagues, my Director and the organiser of the Christmas Dinner.

Dear all,

A clarification on today’s revelation during team brief… It is indeed the case that I am a practising Muslim – as I have been for about a decade. This was a personal choice, following a period of searching prompted by the discomfort of being the only agnostic in a very religious family – both my parents are Anglican priests.

I really don’t have a problem with people knowing that I am Muslim, but I did make a conscious choice when I started this job not to publicise it widely given the prevailing political climate. I am sure it won’t have escaped your attention that my religion has been receiving a lot of negative attention over the past few years, particularly after the massacre on the London transport system in 2005. Having experienced colleagues making wild assumptions about me because of my beliefs in past roles, I felt that silence was the best option. Thus I disappear off at lunchtime to do my prayers and make excuses for not coming to the pub with you.

I do not expect you to make alternative arrangements on my behalf. Generally I do not sit where alcohol is being consumed – partly for reasons other than religion – which I guess is rather an anathema at Christmas time. But don’t worry about it. At the end of Ramadan, I had a lovely Eid celebration – I don’t feel I’m missing out. Others may feel differently, but that’s my personal take. If in doubt, talk to the people concerned – whether it is someone with health issues or specific cultural needs.

Apologies to anyone who thinks I should have been more open about my beliefs – but you know the English way; we tend not to broadcast our beliefs. Hence I never knew that David is a Jedi Knight.

Thine,

Tim

Almost straight away, my director responds.

Tim, I apologise if you were put in an embarrassing position this morning. As a PCT I hope we are sensitive to everyone’s beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to think of everything so I was appreciative of your understanding. Please don’t hesitate to come and see me if there is anything you want to talk about.

The organiser of the Christmas Dinner writes to me to say she’s sorry I won’t be attending, but now she understands why. Meanwhile, my colleague writes:

Good clarification, thanks Tim. And there’s nothing wrong with being a Jedi Knight! It is an official religion on a number of planets I visit as an ET Technical Projects Manager, including: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1589133.stm

As for the conversation which sparked gale force winds in our best china: a colleague of the lady in question casually mentioned it in passing that she would have liked her to be there for Christmas Dinner. The individual organising the dinner became very worried after this, even though the lady explained several times that she did not celebrate Christmas and did not feel left out at all. Having explained that she did not want any plans changed on her behalf, she left it at that. She tells me, “It’s all a storm in a tea cup.”

The legacy of my Christian upbringing

I once knew a fellow who explained that the reason he was not taking his shoes off to pray on the dusty carpet in the basement of his bookshop was that we should differentiate ourselves from the Jews and the Christians. I had heard other justifications for shoes-on-carpet before, but I thought he was confused. I pointed out that in this country certainly, Christians don’t tend to take off their shoes when they go to Church; at home too, they do not remove them at the door. Far from differentiating himself from the Jews and Christians, he was differentiating himself from those who differentiate themselves.

I am thinking about the question of differentiation because I have been pondering over recent days the legacy of my Christian upbringing. I think the initial response of the convert is often one of rejection. Certainly in my case I took various positions, led by a series of lectures I attended in those early days, which I now regret to some extent. The celebration of birthdays is a case in point. I was told that this is haram and so I built up yet another wall between myself and my family, refusing to accept well-wishes and gifts. I look back on that now with some derision, taking a more magnanimous stance, but the damage is done. We live in a society in which families spend less and less time together, but the birthday provides the perfect opportunity to reconnect, to get together and share a little love. Indeed it provides the opportunity to say that we care, to say thank you, even to acknowledge our place in the world. Conversely, what is the benefit of rejectionism? It does not serve any religious function; if anything it creates conflict with other imperatives (creating anger, conveying ingratitude).

In any case, there is a more pertinent question here: how much of this rejectionism is just skin deep? Much of who I am, how I act and what I think are a legacy of my Christian upbringing. I am not ashamed of this and do not think I should be. This upbringing taught me good manners and modesty after all, both of them perfectly admirable Islamic characteristics. And there is more; concerns about global justice and social responsibility come from this root, and I am thinking here of the Drop the Debt campaign and Fair Trade in particular. As a Muslim who believes that fairness and social responsibility is part of our religion, I buy Fair Trade products, but I still acknowledge the root of this concern. I buy my fish from an independent supplier and my milk direct from the producing farm via Abel & Cole. If I buy chocolate, I check that it’s from a source which pays cocoa farmers a fair wage. And I’m proud that my adopted town is known as a Fair Trade Town. All of this is a legacy of my upbringing.

Yet my upbringing has done more than affect how I act: it can be seen in my thinking. As a Christian I was raised on the parables and reported stories of Jesus’ life in the four gospels. The commentary provided by Paul’s epistles seemed less important in childhood as it becomes for the adult faithful. Jesus’ exhortations to the Pharisees to observe the spirit of the law not just its letter is no doubt reflected throughout everything I write. The gospel accounts do not call for the law to be abandoned — although Luke tells us of the infamous dream in which all foods were shown to be lawful in his contradictory Acts of the Apostles — rather there is a call to appreciate its purpose. Unconsciously I see this affecting the way I live. For example Muslims are taught to respect water and indeed there are rules about how water is used. In the spirit of this, I find the idea using heavy bleaches in the toilet abhorrent; I know it doesn’t make a difference in the big scheme of things, but my conscience drives me to choose biodegradable products. Likewise, Muslims are taught to be careful of the tongue, so in this spirit I consider it applicable to what I write.

I do not consider Islam a negation of my upbringing, but a continuation of it. Indeed, retaining that which is good, I consider it a perfection of it. I think it can be useful to acknowledge the legacy of our upbringing and to be truthful too; a lot of the rejectionism I see around me is surely just skin deep.

Do I want some wine?

‘What have you gained from being Muslim?’ asks another mocking voice. ‘Why make your life so difficult?’ It is true that living life as a Muslim has not always been easy. Indeed, on the first day that I acknowledged my belief in Islam I lost most of the people whom I had considered friends. My journey towards faith had been a private affair, but outside, my private affair had already become public knowledge. So many nominal friendships were now dead, and I hadn’t even moved from my place of prayer. I had, it seemed, really blown it this time.

Continue reading “Do I want some wine?”

Us old fools

People often ask me why I became Muslim, or how, or what brought me this way, and there are many answers I give. Through reading, through listening, through watching. And yet, when I really think about it, it was something more. The final impetus was something deeper. There was a realisation that inside all was not well: the lies I would tell to get myself out of an awkward situation, my thoughts, the nature of my intention. Inside, hidden from view, my life was a mess and I was lost.

A few months before I became Muslim, there was a Saturday morning when I had gone to the library to do some work on the computer, only to find that the network was down. So instead I started out on an aimless walk through the streets of London. After a while, I reached Regent’s Park and I was walking through there when something troubled me. I was disturbed by something inside. Enough was enough, I told myself. So walking through that park in the bright sunlight, I began to speak to God. I made myself a covenant with God, saying that I would stop this and if I should start again, He could desert me. For a while, I was good, I did reform myself and I felt better, but then I slipped again. I broke my promise, but He did not desert me.

There were other things which kicked me; my insincere intention – looking to impress people by any means possible – and my self-pity. Over a few months, there was a realisation that within me there were problems. The final change came quite suddenly, however, over a long weekend when I did a lot of reading, little sleeping and I became convinced that Islam was the true religion of God.

A new beginning is always possible, though I did not really understand this at first. I became distressed after a few months: ‘How can it be that God guided me,’ I asked repeatedly, ‘when I was such a foolish person, while my family are good people, devoted to their religion?’ It took time to recognise that Islam refreshes, brings life anew and grants us a new beginning. Muhammad, like Jesus before him, came for the sake of ‘sinners’, not the righteous, for the religion is one of reform. It is us old fools who need a religion of reform, not the already pious.

But why?

Who in their right mind, in this day of age would become a Muslim? This appears to be the often mocking sentiment of those who question the convert to Islam. Look at all the civil strife in the world, the acts of wanton terrorism, the way they treat their women. Show us a Muslim democracy; show us a peaceful Islamic State. What could possibly attract a person to that aggressive, uncivilised faith? The question presupposes that the believer is a consumer, acting exactly as they would when buying a car. Yet in reality the decision is made on the basis of what one considers to be true.

Continue reading “But why?”

Why do I believe in Islam?

AT SOME point whilst I was still at school my heart began to turn away from Christianity. I believe a large part of this was teenage selfishness – seeing life in a wholly negative light, despite its reality. And maybe, too, there was a shyness of my beliefs. I remember Frasier from St. Andrews congratulating me on my confirmation one lunchtime at school and feeling a little embarrassed by it.

Continue reading “Why do I believe in Islam?”

Now you know me… Now you don’t

It’s strange. To the other tenents in my flat I was ‘nice’. I was a bit quiet, quite polite, considerate and gentle. I was just, to them, ‘nice’. But suddenly, one day, I was a manifestation of evil. Someone to be ignored and hated. No more patronising “Oh, you’re so good”s when they found me hoovering the stairs; I was now to be frowned upon. To be whispered about and to be slandered. Because yesterday I was one imagined character, and today I am another. They had all heard that I had embraced Islam.