I cannot promise

This weekend I intended to tidy my study, which is indisputably the messiest room in our house. Unfortunately, as often happens, I soon found myself side-tracked from the task and absorbed in reading a document that had no obvious place amongst my piles of bills and letters. It turns out it may not have been the most appropriate reading material for a Sunday afternoon, because now imagined images keep flashing before my eyes, causing me to weep.

I had barely dug into my huge pile of paperwork when I chanced upon a dossier of newspaper clippings from 1997, most of which were photocopied articles from The Observer, The Independent and The Financial Times. Each article related to the brutal massacres that ravaged Algeria that year, whether to the murderous rampages themselves or to the behaviour of the Algerian police.

Looking back to 1997, I was clearly aware of what was happening in a general sense, for I remember writing an article about it for the student magazine, but I am not sure that I was conscious of it. I mean, I am not sure I really appreciated how horrific it was, for my reaction then was not as it is now. I remember looking at it—as a non-Muslim with left-liberal leanings—as the media painting Muslims in a bad light, again. Where my sympathy for the victims was, I do not know.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to summarise what I read, or to pull out extracts to help you to understand. I am not even sure where to start. Won’t the headline from The Guardian on Monday 20 October 1997 suffice? ‘This is where they shot my wife. Here they killed my daughter with an axe’. Or from The Times on 23 October? ‘Algerian terror victims plead for death by bullet’. I am sorry, but I cannot go on, for the tears come flooding back.

At first those massacres were reported as the work of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, but within weeks suspicion had fallen on the police and army instead. In The Observer on 26 October 1997, ‘Robert Moore visits the Triangle of Death but doubts the official line’:

Women had been slashed to death. Infants thrown off balconies. Old men shot, and even pregnant women mutilated. All of it happened. I have never had a glimpse into such brutality and fanaticism.

We were told that those responsible for such crimes were solely the guerrillas of the GIA.

It was finally becoming clearer why the Algerian authorities were facilitating these trips to Sidi Moussa, Benthala, Rais and Larbaa. We were the tools that could be used to show the international community that there is no point negotiating with the militants…

If the public relations had ended there, both sides would have been contented. Shocked but mesmerised journalists would have had their story. And the Algerian government would have seen the GIA described as brutal killers, devoid of ideology…

But instead, witnesses started giving disturbing testimony about the role of the security forces and the behaviour of local militias. It was evident to all of us that many of the most harrowing attacks took place only a short distance from police stations and barracks. We could see that for ourselves.

Local people looked down at their feet when we asked how long it had taken for local troops to intervene. Four hours, some answered. Four hours to move a few hundred yards and engage the GIA? More questions followed, all of which hinted at collusion between the attackers and the security forces…

In the same edition, ‘A deserter in London tells Francoise Sergent of the army’s role in the killings’:

One evening last June his squad went on a mission. ‘They injected us with something, telling us it would makes us strong, so that we would not be afraid. People said it was cocaine.

‘They took us by plane, then by truck. Around three o’clock in the morning we were near a village, about 120 to 130 men. They told all the conscript soldiers to stay on the hillside overlooking the village and not to move, unless we saw a flare fired over the village streets.

‘About 25 enlisted men left in the direction of the village. We saw nothing and stayed without moving. Around 5.30 they came back. They were dirty, with false beards and smelling of musk like the Islamists. They were still wearing army trousers but had civilian T-shirts and really looked like typical Islamists. Some had blood on their trousers and their paratrooper knives were also bloody. They were asked nothing. No one asks anything in the army.’

The unit returned to the barracks in the morning. ‘I learnt that there had been a massacre in the village where they were. We knew it from the police who were nearby. There would have been about 30 dead. We made the connections, but nobody talked about it. We were terrified.’

On 12 January 1998, John Sweeney wrote in The Observer of Algerian policemen who said they had killed for the state:

The ninja – slang for the Algerian junta’s feared Balaclava-clad paramilitary police force – spoke quietly as he gave the details of the October 10 massacre last year.

“We were in a convoy of 16 vehicles, Nissan Jeeps and Peugeot 505s, four ninjas to each car. We left Chateauneuf police station (three miles to the west of the Casbah in central Algiers) at around 1.30am. The journey to the Algiers suburb of Rais Hamido took about 45 minutes. We were armed with Kalashnikovs and 9mm Berettas.

“Close to the target house, we stopped and waited for the special forces of the securite militaire. As soon as they arrived, one of us killed the electricity supply for the area, turning 20 to 30 houses completely dark. Switching off the electricity is one of our jobs,” explained “Robert”, a ninja trooper who fled from Algeria to Britain last month and only spoke to the Observer in the strictest anonymity.

“Our orders were clear. We should guard the surrounding area but not act unless we were given specific orders. The securite militaire went in and came out after a time, maybe two hours, maybe less. After they had gone, we went in to clean the place up. There were about 16 bodies, two families. I saw with my own eyes dead men, women and children, even a baby, all with their throats slit. I cannot tell you what it was like…”

So who is doing the massacres in Algeria?

“It’s us,” said the two ninjas in unison. Their testimony is damning evidence contradicting the official line of the Algerian government – that Islamic activists alone are responsible for the slaughter.

“Robert” and his fellow ninja, “Andrew”, gave detailed evidence of the state’s involvement in a whole range of human rights abuses: massacre by military security death squads, torture of the regime’s opponents, spying, and the murder of difficult journalists and popular entertainers to blacken the name of the Islamic activists in carefully organized psychological warfare.

Surely all of this is gruesome enough, but I have spared you the details reported in the dozens of newspaper articles in that dossier. My stomach turns as I look over them once more. Here is an article in The Independent on Saturday 1 November 1997 about the nightmares of torture—of a torturer. Here an article from The Independent on 31 October about the women who wait for their husbands and sons, even daughters, to come home—the thousands of men and women ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Here an article detailing how the police forced prisoners to drink acid, how they pulled out their beards and finger nails. There is worse, but I dare not copy those words.

Some of my colleagues enjoy a good horror film at the cinema, which to me is a sign of a sick mind. But what we have witnessed here is not fiction, but reality. What we have witnessed here is all the horror of the worst horror film multiplied a thousand times over. These people existed, had dreams and desires, feelings and thoughts. Like you and I, they had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. And like you and I, they too could be broken by brutality.

As I read through all of those newspaper clippings when I should have been tidying my room, a thought lodged itself in my mind: I don’t think I could survive such brutality. I don’t think I could survive my nails being ripped from my fingers. I don’t think I could survive such terror perpetrated against my family. I think my mind would die and my sanity leave me, even if my body survived.

I have always condemned terrorism, for I believe it is an abomination in the sight of God. Reflecting on the sunna, I believe Muslims are duty-bound to condemn it wherever it occurs, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. A study of Islamic Law reveals that there is no place for the targeting of civilians even during a war. I have no room for extremism.

But as I sat reading those newspaper clippings on Sunday, a thought lodged itself firmly in my mind. I cannot promise that if I am ever exposed to violence of that kind I will not resort to extremism. I cannot promise that I will not lose my mind. And I cannot promise that I will survive.

Falling

When I moved down to Cambridge in 1995 to work as a software tester for an IT company, I encountered a programmer who said he was quitting IT, heading off to work for the National Trust instead. The new-fangled email system and nascent internet were loading too many pressures on his shoulders and he could not wait to get out, to drive a tractor or something. The world has completely changed since then—in the course of my career I have only known this always-online world—but I can appreciate his sentiments perfectly. I often wish I could just turn off and disconnect. I sometimes think I might survive those old dreams of mine to disappear into the hills to live a subsistence lifestyle.

I mentioned my current feeling about the internet to my colleagues the other day and they all looked at me somewhat stunned. I have just got myself a job as a web application developer. ‘Don’t you think you might have chosen the wrong career path then?’ they asked me. Quite possibly.. I had just told them that I often think about cancelling my broadband internet connection, except that my wife now benefits from it greatly for staying in touch with family and friends overseas. ‘Okay, put it another way,’ I said, ‘I use the internet all the time, and that’s the problem.’ It wastes my time and worse.

I remember that feeling of relief we had after we disposed of our television six years ago. I can imagine such relief returning for me personally if I unplugged from this giant network. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with television: there is good in it as well as bad. The same is true of the internet. I am not condemning it as the ultimate source of evil. I am just saying I could live better without it, I think.

Today my heart is weighing heavy in my chest and I feel like I am burning up inside, and a memory keeps on recurring in my mind’s eye. A few years ago my wife and I holidayed in south Wales. One morning we were driving down hill along a private road. For a split second we freewheeled and I quickly lost control of the car. We hit a sharp rock and ripped one of the front tyres open. I managed to get the car back into gear, slow it down and regain control. But a minute on down the road, just round the bend, came a walker, rambling up the slope. I realised in that instant that I could have killed that man. The past few weeks I have been free wheeling (or free falling) just like that in my life. And now I see that walker, standing in my path. I think this pain in my chest is going to accompany me for a while now. I want to head for the hills and disappear.

The addictive grip of idleness

I have been reflecting quite a lot recently on what Christians refer to as ‘the addictive power of sin’, for I am one of those unfortunate souls that makes mistakes and repents only to repeat them again over and over. Faced with this phenomenon, I believe it is easy to appreciate how many Christians come to conclude that there is no escape from sin except through a dramatic external intervention—even if we believe they are wrong. While we would say that their solution is an illogical extreme, given that we only recognise sin in the light of what God has defined as good and bad, there is no escaping that sense of despair when we constantly replicate the same mistake throughout the years of our lives. Muslims are, of course, reminded of the words of God, that had He created a community that would not sin and err and return in repentance, He would have removed it and replaced it with one that would, for He loves to forgive. Indeed we are reminded of the famous Hadith Qudsi in which we are promised forgiveness, no matter what we have done, so long as we return in repentance:

O son of Adam, so long as you call upon Me and ask of Me, I shall forgive you for what you have done, and I shall not mind. O son of Adam, were your sins to reach the clouds of the sky and were you then to ask forgiveness of Me, I would forgive you. O son of Adam, were you to come to Me with sins nearly as great as the earth and were you then to face Me, ascribing no partner to Me, I would bring you forgiveness nearly as great as it.

We are aware of so many words which give us hope, and yet the sense of despair is real, for recurring repentance for oft-repeated errors begins to feel hollow, shallow and half-hearted. It is true that I am not the worst of people, but my criteria for judging myself is not the standard set by the behaviour of others; my errors may well seem insignificant in a world of widespread bloodshed, but the Middle Way is not defined as the path between the shifting extremes of the day. We judge ourselves against a fixed standard. The earliest Christians would have been aware that all was not lost in the face of sin—even the parables recorded in the contemporary Gospel cannon make this clear—but today’s discourse incessantly emphasises the need for a redeeming saviour. When I look at my own response, I see ignorance at its heart. Ignorance feeds despair, for addiction is persuasive. If we convince ourselves that our addiction is incurable—as is the Christian’s theological position, even though we find that many Christians are in fact people of high moral calibre who are clearly not subsumed in sin—a sense of hopelessness is really only a natural response. In my case ignorance affects me in many ways, which at first seem quite distinct, but which are in fact all interrelated. An ignorant response to mistakes is tied to the ignorance which leads to them in the first place.

All of this carries me back towards my thoughts during my recent stay in the Black Sea, which I have wanted to write about since my return, but have been unable to articulate (I still can’t as I would like to). People in that forested valley not far from the border with Georgia generally lead happy, contented lives and are self-sufficient in many ways, but I was still struck by the hardship of many of their lives. We met widows on the sides of those valleys, and children who had lost their fathers, mothers who lost their sons. I watched as old men busied themselves chopping logs for the stove and women collected hay for their cows, each preparing for the cold winter that will draw down on them in the next few months. I witnessed much more than this, and I reflected on it in light of my own life and the way I live it. My life has always been characterised by remarkable ease—I have never experienced real hardship—and yet what can be said of the way I live it? I am lazy and often feeble, capable of telling myself that I am doing okay when I achieve nothing in weeks and weeks. What my experience in the Black Sea taught me—and this thought kept recurring in my mind throughout our stay—was that our Lord has far higher expectations of us than I have ever acknowledged, that He requires a higher standard. The great hardship I witnessed convinced me that my laziness and feebleness in the face of so much ease could not possibly be acceptable to our Creator.

So here I stand taking stock of my life, and truthfulness—not humility—confesses that there is not a lot to be proud of. I may well deny that need for a redeeming saviour, but I remain tarnished by the legacy of that tradition, for instead of striving against my laziness, my weakness, my emotional addictions, I have allowed myself to succumb to them. Jesus was sent to sinners not saints, Christians often remind us, but we recognise that this was one of the roles of our noble Prophet too: the point is that they were sent to sinners so that they might reform themselves and become the best of people. I reflected on those matters during my stay in a simpler setting in Ramadan, but what have I achieved since my return? Nothing to be proud of once more. ‘To good and evil equal bent, both a devil and a saint.’

I recognise that laziness is one of my greatest diseases, but as I said to my friend last night, most of the time I’m too lazy to do anything about it. In a world of AA for alcoholics and smoking cessation counselling for Smokers, isn’t ‘the addictive power of sin’ a rather lame excuse for idleness?

To honour a solemn oath

You may have forgotten that the day God created our souls He took a solemn oath from us. Have a billion years passed since then? Perhaps; perhaps more. But do we abandon our promises just because time has passed us by? Or because we have forgotten them? I wish I could say I was perfect, that I am a pious believer whose heart is clean and strong. I wish I could. But instead the recurring realisation day and night, even if I do not act upon it, is that I must repent. I have so much for which I must repent, and its time is drawing near.

“Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.” {Ibn Maja}

We have been here before, but that’s life, isn’t it? Those recurring cycles and phases. Now is the time. And yes I will repeat these words in the future, no doubt. But now is the time. And if I return, then now will be the time again. So we repent over and over, renewing our faith week after week, driving onwards towards the inevitable event. That day when our bodies will not breathe another breath and our souls will hang there waiting – still alive, but unable to put forth any more deeds. Perhaps we will hang there in our graves for another billion years as our bodies become dust, but a day will come. How did we honour that solemn oath of ours back millenia ago?

“Repent and ask your Lord’s forgiveness before you leave this world. Before the world occupies all your time, hurry to do deeds to save yourself.”

Now is the time, and tomorrow will be the time, and a month from now will be the time. Every moment is now.

Divine Comedy

If ever we needed evidence that we have no control over our own lives, it is in my garden. Last year my wife and I spent a lot of effort working on our vegetable patch, digging it over and working in the manure, all to little avail. It did not get enough light, we concluded, and so this year with advice from my brother and sister we decided to turn it into lawn, seeding it with grass while dispersing the vegetables amidst the flowers in our sunnier beds. The rather wet conditions this summer have been perfect for establishing that lawn. Zeynep did most of the work preparing the ground and making it level. A few days before she spread the seed I took it upon myself to move the compost heap, emptying its contents onto that flat ground temporarily as I relocated the bin. This may have something to do with what happened next. My wife scattered the seeds during the sunny spell we had a few weeks ago and with daily watering the grass began to sprout. And then came the rain. Over the past week the grass has really started to grow quickly and strongly, and almost the whole patch is now green. But a trip down the garden two days ago revealed a very funny sight. All over that fertile ground, amidst the shoots of grass, are a hundred little tomato plants, lettuces, cucumbers, even melons. Seeds from the rotted fruit and veg in the compost heap? Last year’s seeds revived? A scattering blown by the wind? God knows best. But an autonomous vegetable patch in our lawn – yes. However we look at it, our lives remain in our Creator’s hands. We may convince ourselves that we have everything under control, but the truth is quite distinct. Oh for the parables of our lives.

The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

Jihangir’s Beacon

At the end of the summer last year, we spent our days between visits to a clinic in Jihangir, Istanbul. While its views over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn beyond were stunning, I was not too keen on those streets. In this secular quarter and haunt of expats, wine shops outnumbered grocery stores. In the rising heat there was often an unpleasant smell, for the area’s pet owners would not clean up after them. These streets had a continental European feeling to them and indeed conversations in French, German and English were often within earshot. Pehaps Jihangir’s most famous resident is the writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose apartment I always passed on my way to the mosque. My heart in Istanbul lies in a place inland called Gunesli – it is not beautiful, it does not have grand views and its residents are far from rich – but in its huge mosque in its centre into which pour local shop keepers for every prayer, there is a sense of iman. Jihangir is a place without spirit, a pale imitation of a Parisian street, losing itself in Efes Pilsner.

But on Fridays, a beacon lights on that hillside overlooking the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The adhan calling me from Jihangir’s eroding minarets, I would wander down the road to join my jamat. Nobody ever looked at me and stared, for in this land of different hues, nothing indicated that I was an Englishman. Sitting on the carpet, the sun streaming through the open windows, the voices of foghorns down on the water below would greet us. Seeing young men entering in droves through the antique doors was a true delight, having recently returned from Artvin Province where the toothless, grey-haired ones dominated the mosques, though even they were small in number. These youthful faces were not locals, but came here for employment: my visits for Asr and Maghrib met with an elderly jamat numbering no more than five.

With every period of darkness, when my life seems so distant from the Prophetic ideal, I recall that beacon on the hillside. In the midst of despair there can still be light. And where did that beacon lead me? Warmed by dhikr after jummah, refreshed and renewed, we packed up and moved on to Gunesli, where salams are exchanged on its streets.

My Heart

On Friday evening I came across an article which really resonated with me. I wanted to contact the author, but I decided to sleep on it first, to mull over my thoughts. This was an article in which the author wrote about what traditional Islam meant to him. Part of that description included this sentiment: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…”

It resonated with me because for weeks now I have been thinking of a faraway place I passed through last summer. It also touched me because there is a part of me which does not sit well with the modern age. Throughout my teenage years I was something of an eccentric. While my friends were interested in mountain bikes, football, Nintendo and Baywatch, I was a dreamer. I yearned after a romantic past, of a wood-framed house surrounded by the cottage garden, of self-sufficiency, spring-fed waters, of the homestead farm. I would sketch out my rough architectural diagrams of my self-build Tudor house. My favourite book as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy: I imagined I was Almanzo and I dreamed of living my life as he had all those years ago. Later – this probably led to my eventual arrival as a student of development studies – my attention turned to sub-Saharan Africa. An article about life in Burkina Faso inspired me in a way you could not imagine.

With the wisdom of age, of course I now realise that all those dreams were indeed for a romantic past. The reality of life is that it is hard: inoculated from birth against mumps and rubella, and against tetanus, living in an age protected from TB, and able to access an education from the age of five to twenty-one, we forget the realities of existence in different times and different places. Still, that was my dream and an element of it remains with me even today. Something has been bothering my heart of late and that article I read on Friday gave me an inkling of what it was: a kind of discomfort with the age we are living in.

Last summer I spent a couple of weeks up in the highlands of eastern Turkey with my mother-in-law, up above the clouds. My wife’s family originate in Hopa on the Black Sea, close to the border with Georgia in Artvin province. Every year, to escape the summer heat, my mother-in-law packs up her possessions like the nomads of old and ascends the mountains for the refuge of that usually cooler air. Life up there is quite primitive: the houses are simple stone-walled structures without cement, covered with the tarpaulin these travellers bring with them. The evening meal is prepared on wood burning stoves, which in turn warms the shelter as the cold evening draws in.

So last August my wife and I began the journey in the early morning one Friday, looking forward to our reunion with her mother after such a long time. There is a vast dam building project underway in the valley between our village just inland from Hopa and Artvin, so we had to leave at first light so we could travel while the road along the bottom of the valley was still open. We travelled inland rising steadily higher and higher into the mountains. At around 11am we stopped in Ardanuc to get some vegetables and have a rest, but not for too long. Soon we were winding up a dirt track through this beautiful landscape which reminded me of my holidays in Switzerland as a child. It was a steep landscape of meadows, streams and log chalets. Alas, we forgot our camera so there are no photographs I could share with you, but take my word for it: this was a landscape which almost made me cry tears of joy. We were heading for a Yayla about two hours short of Ardahan, but I could have stopped just there, so magnificent was that scenery.

But we continued onwards, until we came to a camping ground on the side of a valley where we stopped for lunch. There was a shack on the edge in which a group of men were preparing to barbeque cubes of lamb meat. I sat down on a bench with the lady-folk close to an ice-cold spring, for we had just discovered that the men were chilling bottles of Turkish spirits beneath the bubbling surface. After lunch, leaving my male travelling companions to their Reki and the ladies to their conversation, I caught a lift with an old Muslim man back to the mosque for Jummah prayer. I speak very little Turkish, but that ride was an immense blessing: we exchanged salams and I watched as those I had left behind appeared as dots across the valley.

It was this trip to the mosque that has been in my thoughts for these past many weeks, which made that article strike such a chord with me on Friday. I should think that mosque has never seen an English Muslim enter its doors before in all its ancient history. We parked our car just off the road, because the mosque could only be reached on foot. Together, communicating with one another only by hand gestures and that brotherly fondness in our hearts, we walked up the hill through that village that seemed to be caught in a time warp. There was a water-trough fed by a stream out in front of the mosque – what a beautiful sight. But what touched my heart was the sight in the small garden in front of that place of prayer. All of the men were gathered in a circle, awaiting the call of the adhan, expressing such affection for one another, conversing with kind words. We exchanged salams, but I did not join them, entering the mosque instead with my old companion. That building seemed centuries old inside. It was dark, and yet it seemed light. The walls were stone, not decorated like those fine mosques of Istanbul. There were some pieces of calligraphy, and old worn out rugs on the floor. There was a spirit in that mosque which warmed my soul. That place has been in my thoughts.

The tale of the remainder of my journey up into the mountains is for another time. This post is about that place in my heart. It is not a geographical place, but an emotional place. That place that the author described: “It is the Islam of the quaint villages…” Yes, this is the yearning of my heart. That place of true brotherhood outside the mosque, that place of a simplicity that does not care for our modern-day obsessions with labels and debates. That place where Allah is remembered, where life stops for the prayer, where brothers respect one another and welcome the stranger passing through. That place of beauty.

Allah knows best my heart. This weekend I have made a resolve. Allah knows best my heart. I cannot articulate yet what this is: not to you the reader. But its origin lies in that experience that has been on my mind all these weeks. Inshallah, with time I will explain. In time I will explain.

Good Counsel

One of the beauties of brotherhood as we experience it within the fold of Islam is sincerity amongst friends. In my days before Islam, friends were people who told me exactly what I wanted to hear. My true friends today are those who speak the truth and grant me wise counsel even when this is not what I want to hear.

I have a dear friend to whom I am still indebted because of his wise counsel. I was studying in Scotland and passing through a difficult period of my life. This friend of mine travelled 420 miles north from London to tell me that Allah had done His part in guiding me to Islam: now it was my turn to repay Him. I had been dwelling in self-pity and, witnessing this, my friend travelled all this way to give me his sound advice. He did not go the extra mile to help me: he went the extra four-hundred and twenty miles.

Giving and receiving good counsel is key part of brotherhood, as An-Nawawi illustrated in his Riyad as-Salihin (The Meadows of the Righteous):

22. Chapter: On Good Counsel

Allah says, “The believers are brothers,” (49:10), and the Almighty said, reporting about Nuh, “I am giving you good counsel,” (7:62) and about Hud, “I am a faithful counsellor to you.” (7:68)

181. Abu Ruqayya Tamim ibn Aws ad-Dari reported the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “The deen is good counsel.” We said, “For whom?” He said, “For Allah, His Book, His Messenger, the Imams of the Muslims and their common people.”

182. Jarir ibn ‘Abdullah said, “I gave allegiance to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, on the basis of performing the prayer, paying the zakat and giving good counsel to every Muslim.”

183. Anas reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “None of you can truly be said to believe until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.”

I pray that my friends will continue to grant me their wise counsel. It is one of the greatest blessings of Islam, that a friend can come round for dinner and speak the truth to his brother.