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.

Faith and Family

In 2003 my mother wrote an essay entitled “Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!” for the interfaith module of her Masters degree in Theology. After reading the copy she sent me, I wrote the following essay, and sent it back in May of the same year. It was a useful exercise for us both, I think.

Introduction

Part of the title of my mother’s essay on my conversion to Islam read, ‘Help, there’s a Muslim in my family!’ Ironically that lamentation is not very different from the one which led to my renewed interest in ‘finding’ God some five years ago. Back then writing was my main hobby and, for a while, one theme predominated in the words I wrote: ‘Help, I don’t share my family’s belief.’ I rediscovered some of these articles recently while clearing old files off my computer. Here’s an extract from one dated December 1997 (I can’t now believe the bad language and anger I expressed in the rest of the piece):

‘You don’t want to reject their faith, you don’t want to be different, you don’t want to be an outcast; you just don’t have their faith, but at least you’re trying to find it. But it’s so hard to admit that. They prefer to hear that you’re lazy, because that’s not such a disgrace. You’re filled with fear, so you don’t admit openly that you’re completely lost. You’re hoping that someone will pick up on your blatant hints.’ (neurolie.doc)

During my second year at university there was this intense drive in me to ‘find my way,’ to be like the rest of my family, but not at the expense of sincerity before God. Again, from the same piece:

‘Your sister corners you with awkward questions at the dinner table. “Why don’t you come to church?” Her tone is accusing, she’s trying to humiliate you, but she doesn’t understand a single thing. She thinks you’re just a lazy —-. Your family looks at you and you look back. Well, you’re not exactly going to tell the truth, are you? “Well, it’s like this. Sis. Mum, dad, bro. I can listen to the readings, the gospel and a psalm. I can listen to the sermon and learn. But how do you think I feel when we all stand for the Nicene Creed, and all I can say is ‘I believe in one God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’? You want me to say it all, but faith isn’t about you, it’s about God. Do you want me to be a hypocrite before God? Of course you don’t. I don’t go to church because I don’t have the strength or the knowledge to claim your faith and I refuse to lie in the Name of God.”’ (ibid. – Note: these harsh words reflect my feeling at the time and not my views today.)

On the occasion of my eldest brother’s wedding, I remember bemoaning within that I would never be able to get married, for to marry outside a church would be like publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. This of course is now another source of irony, for a year and a half ago I did marry outside a church, effectively publicising to all that I didn’t share my family’s faith. One thing had changed; back in 1997 I was lost, looking, unsure of faith, in 2001 believing in Islam; the certainty of believing, as opposed to the flux of disbelief, made the ‘I will never’ less easily done.

This year, as part of her Masters degree in Theology, my mother wrote an essay entitled, “Help, There’s A Muslim In My Family!”: A Personal And Theological Reflection On The Experience Of A Son’s Conversion To Islam. Although it was submitted as an academic assignment, it was a very personal insight into the effect my embrace of Islam has had on the family. In preparation for this essay, she sought my involvement by asking me to review a book on Christian-Muslim dialogue. Hoping to add some sort of Muslim perspective I, along with my wife, did this, finding it a fruitful endeavour. Some time after her conclusion of the essay, my mother sent a slightly edited version of it for us to read. Although it was at first uncomfortable reading, its title coming as a shock to say the least, I can only express appreciation to my mother for opening this discussion up. My hope is that this may lead us to establishing some kind of dialogue towards understanding, of the kind which is much talked about institutionally, but rarely carried down to the lay men and women on the ‘street’. This essay, then, is an attempt to carry the discussion forward, in part responding to my mother’s essay and in part covering new ground.

Continue reading “Faith and Family”

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.

According to an evangelist I encountered some time ago, I should be full of regret that I can no longer drink wine and should have felt at a loss because I did not join the dating game. ‘Do you want some wine?’ she asked me, scanning me with her eyes, ‘Do you want some wine?’ I simply said no and walked away. ‘So,’ she started later, when I returned to the kitchen to do my washing up, ‘what is the criteria you are looking for in a wife?’ I spoke about the past, about what reality is like. I asked her what was wrong with seeking commitment right from the start, when invariably so many people, this woman included, experience the pain of falling in love with one who has no reciprocal desire where marriage is concerned. ‘But hasn’t that situation changed for you now?’ she asked me. ‘So what if it has?’ I thought. I had heard her speaking with my host earlier about how depressing it was in her mid thirties that she couldn’t find a partner who was committed to a relationship, let alone interested in marriage. She wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith. But I didn’t feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam liberated me from falling into line with those ways which had never served me and had only caused me pain.

I went to university after a year out of study. I had worked a while, written for some time and gone to stay with missionary relatives in east Africa for about a month. There had been a year to escape from the mistakes I had made at Sixth Form College. There had been time for me to mature and move on, but there had also been time for me to forget what student life was like. I moved into university accommodation on a Sunday, a week before term began. Meeting others who had arrived already, it was off to the pub almost straight away. I didn’t drink alcohol at the time, though not for any particular reason. Fortunately, I had some company. A neighbour of mine was a Rastafarian who considered drinking alcohol a heresy, although smoking marijuana was a vital component of his belief. So I had coke, he had orange juice, and the rest – the normal characters – helped themselves to beer or spirits.

Those first few hours were crucial steps towards a happy life in the months that followed. Naïvely, I failed to grasp that the purpose of that undeclared session was one of self-promotion. While my companions talked about their hugely interesting lives, about their expertise in blending coffee, about the research they had been carrying out over the summer, about their youth growing up in one African state or another, or in a village in Nepal, all I could say was that I was from Hull. When, by accident, I complimented one of them I was suddenly judged insecure – and therefore unworthy of their company.

Over the next few evenings at the watering hole, my eyes cast back on myself. Here was I, stuck on the periphery of all that surrounded me. There was no salvation for this bore amongst them, for while the micro-racists could patronisingly promote even the dreariest African to kingly heights, their vision could not extend beyond their cliché-bound world. Yet I rejected them too, in my own way. Despite my almost devout agnosticism, I continued to adhere basically to the Christian morals which my upbringing had firmly imparted. Amongst the post-moderns around me, thriving on the morality of immediacy, I drew an unconscious distinction between my way and theirs. Theirs was a dream of later on tonight, a taste of delight with someone no longer a stranger. In truth, I walked away from them, not the other way round. One evening, abandoning my quest for friendship with my ever witty cohorts, I encountered a man I had met on the day of my interview sitting a few tables away with his flatmate and his flatmate’s girlfriend. He, a Welsh man ten years older than me, welcomed me and from that moment on we were friends.

Some weeks passed without as much as a sip from a glass of alcohol. Was it my Methodist genes, passed on from my Grandfather which caused my abstention? I could not justify my refusal to drink to my friends for I had not rationalised anything in my mind. My family drinks alcohol; this could not be another of my pre-atheist urges, yet I was pious in my rejection of the bottle, even as my new friends constantly petitioned me to drink what they were drinking. In due course, however, I conceded and was introduced to a luminous liquid which tasted like Lemsip as a bridge to a new habit – and an unpleasant period in my life began.

A decade older than me and a seasoned drinker, my colleague could drink thirteen pints of beer and it would not appear to make the slightest difference to his behaviour. By contrast, I was a novice and a couple of bottles were enough to make me intoxicated; yet in his company a couple of bottles would never be sufficient. So sure enough, the inevitable happened and a night of heavy drinking took its toll on me.

I had not eaten all day when my Japanese flatmate suggested we went to the pub across the road. To avoid mockery I bought another alcopop while he tried some whisky. After a while my flatmate suddenly remembered that it was his birthday and so we decided to celebrate by having a glass of whisky from a bottle in his room. Maybe an hour later, I met my usual companion and we set off for the pub with an old friend of his. I drank several more bottles of the green liquid, by which time I was intoxicated well enough to ignore the taste of what was to come. Quite late, my friend decided we should go to the Bluenote, a popular nightclub of the time. So we went down the road to get a bus, until, bored of waiting, we changed our minds and decided to settle for two bottles of red wine. We drank those on the way back up the road and then went back to the pub where I had begun that fateful night.

There was a lock-in, because it was after legal opening hours, and at last they had got me drinking beer. Though I did not like the taste, I was so intoxicated that there was no taste; indeed by then I was barely aware of what I was doing. We went on to a party in someone’s flat, time shifting strangely now. How long was I there? What did I do? Who was I with? A mystery. What happened to prompt another friend to decide that it was time for me to leave, and help me down the stairs to my room? I have no memory of moving from the pub to the party, nor of the party, nor of what happened next – just moments of consciousness amidst a walking comatose. Back in my room I fell unconscious, awakening for moments and then slipping away again. Finally an ambulance was called and I spent the remainder of night in Casualty.

A rite of passage, say the cynical, blinded by their love of drink. True, I was not on the verge of death, simply very sick and unwell like many an Englishman in towns and cities around the country that night. Thus does our culture mock those who look beyond this veil, justifying actions which ordinarily would be condemned. Many an upstanding citizen would condemn my Rastafarian friend for his religious inhalation of an illegal herb, but would never dream of reproaching the frequent drinkers in the pub; and yet medical researchers have put alcohol in the same category as opiates in terms of the harm it can cause. For my part, regaining consciousness in an uncomfortable hospital waiting room in Euston, I felt guilty. I was angry with my usual companion, angry with myself and deeply embarrassed. With the breaking dawn I swore that I would not drink again; a promise I failed to keep.

Drinking alcohol was never about appreciating unusual and varied flavours, but simply about getting drunk. Indeed conversation while drinking alcohol was invariably about alcohol. A person set on drinking thirteen pints of water, orange juice or lemonade during a single evening would be considered something of the village idiot, but in the warped culture which envelopes us, to do anything less with alcohol is somehow considered a sign of individual weakness. Not weakness as I would comprehend it. I had no interest in this way of life, but I was weak in that I gave into the pressure of friends. Before I realised it, I had found myself forced by circumstance to engage in a life I despised. It did not take long to make me dependent on a vodka and coke as a means of escaping unhappiness.

There was conflict at that time between me and another student, which was entirely my fault due to my ignorance of her culture; she was Muslim and I knew nothing about Islam. I only knew that Muslims do not drink alcohol, do not eat pork and only eat halal meat. I was not conscious of Islamic terrorism, fundamentalism or fanaticism and I was not aware of the common preconception that Islam oppresses women – all basics of pop-thought. So I certainly did not know that having a close friendship with a Muslim girl was unacceptable. Having made friends with her over a cup of coffee after a tutorial, time created a bad impression as I became excessively possessive of friends, seeking to be a part of other people’s lives instead of continuously being on the periphery. As a result numerous difficult situations arose.

We never became close friends. I think out of politeness she was always kind to me afterwards. But during a time of tension when we would avoid each other at all costs, I engaged in a life which was a lie. Sometimes I would sit at the bar in the pub, drinking spirits I couldn’t stand, pretending that I was happy now. Then, during the year, my Welsh companion began to have problems of his own, and I found myself helping him as others had helped me during my night of excess. Still he would drink his thirteen pints of beer and he would not appear to get drunk in the slightest; but when he reached the bottom of that thirteenth glass he would suddenly snap. His intoxication exhibited itself in violence.

I never saw him being violent towards other people, but if you were a door, a wall, a table or a chair, you would have to look out for you would not emerge unscathed. On numerous occasions it fell to me to control him, for because we were friends, people thought that that was my duty. He would spend days doing nothing but getting drunk, wasting away his money, and then I would cook a meal for him in the evening. One day he stormed into the common room, picked up the pool table from one end and then slammed it to the ground, before snapping a pool-cue in half, not at its natural joint. Everyone was shocked – perhaps scared – and looked at me, telling me to deal with my aggressive friend. I took him to his flat, sat down with him, listened to his problem and then I went to see the person who had caused his rage. There was nothing I could do. I became a mediator for two people whose morals I abhorred and a support for a character whose behaviour made me sick. Circumstance had forced me to engage in a life I hated.

Stronger people might have escaped earlier and realised that all was not well. But I was a weak person who felt that he needed these friends. They offered pathetic advice, such as how I should not feel sorry about what had happened between me and the Muslim girl before. But I acted upon it anyway and wrote her a letter, after we had sorted everything out, telling her how I wasn’t sorry, how it was all her fault and how I didn’t care at all. And then I smashed up my own face because I wanted everyone to feel pity for me. And then I would go to the bar alone and drink vodka because who needs friends when you can just get drunk?

In May of the same year following one more night of excess, when my entire body ached as never before, I gave up drinking alcohol for good. This, as it happened, was exactly one a year before I came to believe in Islam, but it is still an answer to the evangelist’s question: ‘Do you want some wine?’

No I don’t want any wine. I gave up the drink long before I embraced this faith, but that’s not the point. Some people wish to convince me that Islam is a burden on my life. In fact, the burden was lifted from my life when I said, ‘None has the right to be worshipped except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’ So while my life may seem unbearably restricted to the evangelist passing through, who wished that I would feel a fool because I sought a life governed by my faith, I actually do not feel a fool, or at a loss, or full of regret, because Islam did indeed liberate me from a time when I was a fool, and I was at a loss, and I was full of regret.