Forrest Gump meets the Internet

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

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

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

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

What happened?

Do Muslims really exist? I often find myself pondering this question. Do they exist in the workplace? Where are they? Whenever a new member of staff with a Muslim-sounding name joins the team, there is a momentary, fleeting sense of gladness: company at last. But, alas, such glee is always quickly spirited away when they head to the pub each Friday lunchtime instead of to the mosque, and when they dive into the birthday cakes half-way through Ramadan. So do Muslims really exist, except online, where they teem in great numbers, safe in the knowledge that the keyboard is mightier than the sword? Alhamdulilah, I just spent the day with real, breathing Muslims; I know my question, in reality, is really rather foolish.

But something has happened. I wonder what became of all those zealous companions of mine, who championed the hijab and ilm and the ummah when we were students 15 years ago. Where are they now? What became of those bold realities? Why did we disappear? Yes, something has happened. Five years ago, the interwebs teemed with ardent voices, upholding the toughest of stances on this, that and the other. They were critical of those they deemed to have fallen short: orthodoxy was the order of the day. But now? While we were away there was a great exodus. Old homes have been left abandoned. Words scattered like dust. The hot embers have been cast aside.

Who is left who will walk with us? Where now are our companions? Will we grow old and grey and wise together, or will we each cast out on our own path, to wander on alone, chasing after whichever new cause takes our fancy? Will the generation that replaces us fare any better, or are we set to degenerate, to promulgate a faith that blooms momentarily, only to wither away and become dirt under foot? Is there any hope in longevity for our faith? Or will we forever repeat the cycle of zealotry and mockery, turning back on the early days of faith in favour of this ugly cynicism that we have now adopted. Now we are the enlightened: those that come after us are the fools we once were! Really? Or is it just that once we were sincere and passionate and true, and now we are just jaded, compromised and fake?

These are troubled times. A beautiful elixir tastes mostly bitter. The world calls out to us, and we call out for it. We go whichever way the crowd goes. We have learned to laugh much, and to make comedy of our beliefs. We have replaced our heart with virtual spaces, where we speak all, sell all. We have replaced the inward gaze with the outward performance. Where is all that polish we once sought? Where that mission to refine and reform and to be reformed? Where has that desire to be better people gone? What is left of us? What happened?

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.