An issue at a time

We are only required to pray the five prayers and fast one month of the year; anything more is optional. Prayer, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves, but necessary vehicles to higher goals.

On the contrary we are asked to sit and reflect for a long time: “Those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You!’”

God does not compel a soul beyond what it is able to do. We will not be judged for what we do not know; God will judge us by our level, not someone else’s. Perhaps the key to more certainty is to spend more time reflecting and pondering on the beauty of creation: to go for walks in the hills, through dense woodland or by beautiful winding rivers.

Some of what is stated as Islam is clear cut and factual. For example, there are five things that make up belief: from the Quran it is clear that the universe has a creator called Allah; that there are unseen creatures called angels; that there were Prophets and Messengers; that Books were revealed to those Messengers; and that there will be a Day of Judgement.

Other certainties are that the core mission of all Prophets was for people to uphold justice, not to convert everyone; that prayers, fasting and pilgrimage are not goals in themselves but are necessary vehicles to higher goals; that individual responsibility rests within their ability.

Some of what is stated as Islam is probable. For example, from the Quran it is not clear if there are other creatures on other planets, though when reading you get the feeling that this is the case. Similarly, it is probable that before Adam there were no other human-like creatures.

However some of what is stated as Islam is not true or is at least disputed. Examples are that a woman can be pregnant for more than a year, that the Prophet — peace be upon him — waged war against people who did not wage war against him or that everyone in Arabia became Muslim in his time.

When we separate out what is clear cut and factual from what is not true or disputed, many of the contentious obstacles to belief disappear. The biggest obstacle people face when it comes to belief is not the Quran, but other sources which have been allowed to contradict and undermine it. Saying that something is true because it is found in our books or is old is a problematic approach. It could be true, but it might not be: we have to evaluate things and challenge suspect ideas.

The idea that a person who has tried hard to believe is punished is not from the Quran. Rather the Quran talks about being held accountable according to your level or ability, although of course that doesn’t mean it is easy, for the Quran asks, “Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’ and they will not be tested?”

We have to take one thing at a time. Nobody can be certain about absolutely everything. We have to experience things for what they are. When we see things with our heart, we will become certain; if we only see with ours eye, we will never have certainty.

Arguments in context

Much to my peril, I have probably spent more time than most, both before my shahada and since, reading polemics against Islam in my pursuit of the truth.

Some of the arguments against what is said to be Islam have merit, some do not: it is a mixed field, made up of all kinds of players from the very political to the devoutly religious. Some arguments when taken out of their historical context can seem persuasive, but others simply prey on ignorance.

Unfortunately Muslim refutations of polemical arguments are far too often very weak: they skirt around the issues raised, fail to address the core points and betray an abject ignorance of history.

Nevertheless, before getting too involved in the argument it is sometimes necessary to ask questions about those promulgating it. For example there are some critics of Islam which present themselves as being pacifist or opposed to political violence, who on further investigation are found to advocate war against Muslim countries. Similarly, there are missionary organisations which hold Islam to a much higher burden of proof than they apply to themselves.

One particularly famous belligerent website maintained by a group of evangelical Protestant Christians sees its contributors giving themselves the privilege of leapfrogging Christian history and presenting themselves as true first-century believers who follow the Bible alone. This, they believe, allows them to ignore two thousand years of Christian scholarship, whilst simultaneously trawling through classical Muslim works to reveal the unpalatable views of ancient scholars.

The doctrinal excesses and crimes of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or early Protestant churches are nothing to do with them, they claim, making what Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or George Whitefield had to say on the same subjects irrelevant. But of course their views are not irrelevant at all, for they provide context to the ideas discussed.

We have to always look at claims in their proper historical context — and this applies both to Muslim and non-Muslim polemicists. When we put things in the proper order, they begin to make a lot more sense. Perhaps then we might begin to make progress in our mission to determine the best way to live our lives.

When in doubt

Not everything that we are taught in Muslim scholarship is in fact Islam, in the sense of what the Prophet brought — peace be upon him. Many who think themselves to be rejecting Islam may in fact just be rejecting an incorrect notion of it and, in doing so, they may actually be moving closer to Islam in its true sense. There are many things that Muslims preach which go against the teachings of Islam; remarkably, in rejecting such ideas we might find ourselves to be the real believer, whatever others might say.

In our zeal to hold fast to the particular school of thought we find ourselves on, many of us would throw out the entire intellectual heritage of Islam simply because it falls outside the realm of our experience or imagination. We may be taught that we are on true Islam and that all other practice is deviation at best, but we should be very careful about rejecting an entire tradition because of our encounter with one aspect of it. When our faith in our school is shaken, we do not ask ourselves whether there could there be a problem with a particular understanding, interpretation or practice of Islam, but instead often dismiss Islam as a whole.

We have to have the right information, and then we have to practice it: this is very difficult. Even very learned people can go against the teachings of Islam. Isn’t it said, “Many much-learned men have no intelligence”? Sometimes scholars become idols in themselves, and stand in the way of us truly understanding Islam. Historically we have had a lot of problems as Muslims. When things are not properly understood it creates a lot of unrest and people find that they are not at peace with themselves.

Islam is from the root word salima which contains two meanings: safety and health. Hence Islam in its essence is the way to be safe and healthy, physically as well as spiritually. A Muslim is a person who aspires to the ideals of Islam. Hence a true Muslim is the one who struggles to tread the path of safety and health at all times. This requires useful knowledge and good practice within one’s ability.

It is normal to have doubts, but you have to keep your feet on the ground. We all have a lot of questions. You cannot be asked to believe in something which is not clear to you. Some things that we are taught are clearly a part of Islam, some things may be or are probably part of Islam, and some things are definitely not part of Islam, neither in law nor belief.

When afflicted with doubt, the best approach is to list each of the problems you have and then address them one by one. You may not find the answer immediately — indeed it may take years — but this is the nature of the search for truth. As René Descartes said:

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

You have to have to have patience with yourself: it is not like a take away meal, or a fruit you pick from a tree. It can take many years to discover a satisfactory answer to your questions. “And God loves those who are patient.”

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.

Forrest Gump meets the Internet

Have you heard it too: that enchanting, haunting hymn of crickets singing in the garden, slowed down to an unspecified speed, that has gone viral on the internet? It is beautiful, spellbinding. But alas, the first thing this soul asked himself on encountering it is what happens if you speed this track up again?

A little probing around carried me to an audio track entitled “Twisted Hair” by Robbie Robertson, which features the raw cricket choir for a while, uninterrupted by that recognisable insect chirping. If you were to take that raw sample and speed it up again, would you end up with the natural sound of crickets? Someone must be able to do that, and I’d really like to know the result.

Och, perhaps this Muslim has absorbed the science of Isnad too much into his life. Every time I come across these viral tales I end up asking too many questions. Is it real, who created it, when did they create it… on and on…

My area is in graphics, so adventures in Photoshop are easily analysed, be it a miracle in the clouds or a mysterious creature in a cave. But enter the world of audio or even video manipulation and I’m at a loss. If Forest Gump met Osama bin Laden today we would most certainly believe it. In an age of technological deception it is easy to be deceived.

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.

Hold fast to the rope of Allah

Hold fast to the rope of Allah and never take your faith for granted. These are not empty words.

I have passed through those phases of great despair — despair at my own propensity to overwhelm myself with the same sins over and over — when a voice from within whispers, “There is no hope for you.”

God is Most Merciful insists optimism in one ear. But my sins are too many, too consistent, too repetitive, too foolish, too inexcusable… too much to bear. The pessimistic soul feels them weighing on him too heavily. It is not long before he is contemplating abandoning his soul to destruction, not because he disbelieves in God, but because he disbelieves in himself.

This blog has documented many such troughs in my own life, but I am not alone. A friend’s words were once littered with sentiments such as these, though few noticed at the time, attributing them to modesty or humility instead. “Be who I am not,” they once said, telling us how far we had misjudged them: “From these depths, I see what goodness is, and this is why I want you to aspire to it.

These were not the words of one who had lost their faith in God, but of one who had lost faith in their own capacity to rise above whatever dragged them down. They saw what faith could do for you, but they had already given up on their own self. Such is the nature of despair.

But who despairs of God’s mercy except one who has gone astray? This verse reverberates in my mind each time I descend into that heavy gloom under the weight of my sins. There remains an intense fear that we take His forgiveness for granted, and that He might withdraw it from us. The fear remains that those sins will come back to haunt us, but hope must prevail for it is the antidote to despair. The ultimate outcome of despair is simply giving up: my sins are too many, too vast, too great, so why bother?

The answer, I have found over recent months, is to make gradual steps towards rectifying one’s condition. For a decade I was unable to read the Qur’an in Arabic, for I told myself that the task of learning it was beyond me, but these past few months I have begun to make progress. For five years my Qur’an teacher instructed us to make a regular habit of reading the Qur’an, but only in the past few months have we begun starting the day with a portion of Ya-Sin and ending it with Surat al-Mulk.

My shortcomings outweigh my progress for sure — and I am not immune to continuing to fail — but it is necessary to put in place an antidote to despair. It is necessary to take small steps now, in order to make greater strides in the future, if the Most Merciful wills. “Certainly,” says our Lord in a Hadith Qudsi reported by al-Tabarani, “I run the affairs of My servants by My knowledge of what is in their hearts.”

In these past few months when our little universe has changed immensely, when great blessings have descended upon us unexpectedly, I have come to appreciate the rope of Allah all the more. In God is the remedy to all of our affairs.