A theory of relativity

Too often, I feel inadequate because I compare myself to others. I look at their expectations, and conclude that I fall far short of them. In my mind’s eye, I am an imposter, constrained by the lack of ambition which characterised my formative years.

Continue reading “A theory of relativity”

These weights

True repentance is undoubtedly liberating, but that does not make it easy. Sometimes it means letting go of all that you have become attached to, to reject a part of yourself, or to turn away from what you treasure, or desire, or wish for beyond the worlds. But in the end you know that you have no other choice: you let go of everything that holds you back, no matter how much it means to you, because you want to regain the favour of your Lord. In your heart there is a pain; a feeling of alienation. You are distant from faith and all that was once so dear to you. It is clear what is wrong and where the problem lies: you know it is a step you have to take. But it is the most difficult step. To say sorry and to tear down the wall that separates you from your Lord. To replace one set of investments with another better than it. To be patient and sincere and to take that final step, to make everything right. Yes repentance is truly liberating, but it exacts a heavy price from the soul.

Bringing about change

It’s a common lament: we sit there in the mosque, week after week, uninspired and bored. There is nothing for us here, we sigh, listening to the unintelligible oration. But perhaps we are the lucky ones: we have attended the prayer elsewhere in other towns and listened to sermons in English so dreadful and lame that we can only leave in a state of perpetual irritation. Perhaps the sermon in a foreign tongue is a small mercy. Perhaps. This is the lamentable state we find ourselves in. Continue reading “Bringing about change”

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.

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”

Ode to my shoes

My dear noble friends, my humble servants, my trusty companions: alas, the time has come to part ways.

We have been through thick and thin together, through rainstorm, snow and searing heat, on hillside and lowland, on soft verge and hard road. You have served me well.

Two years ago I might have had cause to fling you in the bin, but I am a fool for comfort and fondness. Though water soaked my socks in a downpour, I could not let you go. Though I felt pavement instead of sole beneath my foot, I shunned all talk of the shoe shop. O, what comfort didst thou provide!

But alas, alas, the time has come to part ways. A new pair awaits me in the hall. But, lo, perhaps we will walk together in the garden yet.

Directions

An oft-repeated phrase during our short-lived English khutbahs was, “May Allah give us the tawfiq to know Islam,” and every time I heard it I wished he had said, “May Allah give us the tawfiq to know Him.” The emphasis is always on the transport, never on the destination.

Investment opportunity

I don’t understand the contemporary concern that charities have become businesses.

I expect an international relief organisation to have governance in place to comply with legal and statutory requirements. I expect it to have a board of trustees and directors, and specialist staff. I expect it to have HR, finance and IT responsibilities, to have to manage its facilities. I would be worried if it didn’t.

I also expect it to pay its workers on the ground, to put diesel in their vehicles, to arrange flights, visas and security. I expect it to recruit doctors, nurses, engineers and educationalists who have the necessary skills to make a difference on the ground. I expect it to make strategic decisions as to which type of tent to buy and which type of wheat; I expect it to invest in research to ensure the solutions they put in place are the right ones. And yes, I expect it to have an army of volunteers too.

Not every charity has to be run like a global corporation, but to be effective, all charities have to run like a business to some degree. The alternative is running yourself into the ground.

I once worked with a national helpline charity, which worked on a completely voluntary basis. All staff and trustees were volunteers. Income came solely from a small band of concerned donors, and was spent solely on rent for the office and telephone bills. Nothing was spent on stationery or on marketing the charity, except for a small website.

Unsurprisingly, although the need of the community remained for a helpline of this kind, the charity eventually wound up, because it could no longer sustain itself. Had it been run more like a business, making key investments to carry it forward, I am almost certain it would have survived and thrived.

Charity in itself is an investment:

“those who spend their wealth in Allah’s cause are like grains of corn which produce seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains” — Quran 2:261

It will be the believer’s shade on the Day of Resurrection, and so I have not issue donating to charities which are transparent and accountable in the way my money is spent. If only 90% of my donation is spent on relief and development and what is left is used to support delivery and future fundraising, so be it. I trust that God will reward me and them for our combined efforts.

The way of truth

To me, it is remarkable that the progeny of a community which invested so heavily in the sciences of verification and authenticity to preserve the teachings of our religion will nowadays forward and repost every piece of unverified nonsense, malicious junk and political propaganda that appears before us on a slab of glass, without a second’s thought.

In the age of the internet everything and nothing is true. Whatever serves a purpose will be true for the moment. A lie become insignificant; it is all part of the push for truth.

We have forgotten, or are ignorant of, a verse of guidance: “And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.” –Quran 2:42.

But as we have discovered, it has always been so. Political machinations will trump even the sacred if it serves the agendas of the greedy and untruthful. Cruel and corrupt men often set us upon a path of their own design, heedless of the demands of truth, goodness and light.

We must resist. We must return to the way of truth. That is the true rebellion of our age.

Don’t be surprised

If you hold everyone in contempt, don’t be surprised if everyone holds you in contempt too. If you can see no good in those around you, don’t be surprised if those around you see no good in you. If you have concluded that you are always right and everybody else is always wrong, don’t be surprised if people always turn away repulsed.

Be grateful for the blessing of you Lord and walk humbly on the earth with patience.

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”

Be grateful

Oh soul, God dislikes contemptuous bitterness. Overlook the shortcomings of others. Have mercy on your companions. Display true gratitude for the blessings showered upon you. Put away your repugnant scorn. Faith is goodness, love and light. Be as those “who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, Peace!”

Credit where it’s due

The old Pakistani uncle at the mosque is due his seventy excuses too.[1. “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves.” — Hamdun al-Qassar, narrated by Imam Bayhaqi in his Shu`ab al-Iman 7.522.] People like me are often found muttering taciturn complaints about the unfriendliness we perceive in our fellow travellers when we come together for prayer. In weeks and weeks it could be as if we are not even there, as if ghosts standing in line.

But to give your brother seventy excuses was the lesson I learned when I returned to the mosque after some months’ absence. There was a time—when I was doing better—that saw me hurry there for every prayer, until laziness got the better of me. My Lord would note my disappearance, I told myself, but no one else would miss me.

I was wrong. As I wandered into the mosque that afternoon, an old, white-haired man with weak English got up from his place and headed straight for me. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked me, ‘We thought you’d fallen dead.’

A minute later another approached to ask after me. Had I been away? Had I been ill? Um, no, I muttered, I’ve just… ‘Well as long as you’re alive and well,’ he interjected, sensing my inability to account for the months that had passed.

It is difficult to prise many words from these old folk. Salam alaikum is usually all they will spare, or the occasional, ‘How are you brother?’ We don’t have conversations, but that afternoon encounter taught me much. Perhaps they’re shy. Perhaps English isn’t their strong point. Perhaps they’re waiting for me to strike up the discussion. Perhaps their mind is on the prayer. Perhaps they have problems at home on their mind. And for the literalist, this is only seven percent of the excuses due to them.

Nowadays I attend the midday prayer each working day in another town. The folk there don’t seem all that friendly either, but here I have learnt to give them their seventy excuses too. We may not sit and chat when we come together for prayer, but still we are brothers to one another, witnessed in random acts of kindness.

My office lies a fifteen minute walk from the mosque—a hurried march there beside main roads set apart from my leisurely saunter back along the cobbled streets of the old town. It is in this daily journey that I learned my lesson, for I have lost count of the number of times someone has stopped to give me a lift. Often I don’t even recognise them as they come to a halt beside me, tooting their horn, but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Salam alaikum,’ they say as I peer in at them, ‘Do you want a lift?’ Or, ‘You’re going to miss the jamat. Jump in.’

Most of the time we don’t strike up conversation. We exchange salams and I reiterate my gratitude, but that’s it. But it does not matter. These random acts of kindness serve to remind me that things are not always as they seem. When someone is silent it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like you; they may just have nothing to say.

Sometimes I am too hard on people, jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about them. And sometimes I fail to give credit where it’s due. Bumping into a couple of friends from Arab lands after Friday prayer one week, conversation soon turned on our favourite bugbear: the incomprehensible Urdu speech followed by the hastily sung generic Arabic sermon. It’s a problem, I had to agree, but then another thought occurred to me. ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘were it not for these people, we wouldn’t have a place to pray at all.’

Beside me, my friend stopped and smiled. ‘That’s very true,’ he said, and soon we were considering our own shortcomings. And there were many.

Beauty

It is said that Moses—peace be upon him—was walking with his disciples when they came across a donkey’s corpse.

One of them said it smells so bad. The other said it looks so ugly. Moses, however, looked and said: ‘Mashallah, its teeth are so white.’

  • The gratefulness of the ears is to hear goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the eyes is to see goodness with them.
  • The gratefulness of the tongue is to say goodness with it.

There is beauty around but it’s for the trained ear, eye and heart.