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?

The legacy of my Christian upbringing

I once knew a fellow who explained that the reason he was not taking his shoes off to pray on the dusty carpet in the basement of his bookshop was that we should differentiate ourselves from the Jews and the Christians. I had heard other justifications for shoes-on-carpet before, but I thought he was confused. I pointed out that in this country certainly, Christians don’t tend to take off their shoes when they go to Church; at home too, they do not remove them at the door. Far from differentiating himself from the Jews and Christians, he was differentiating himself from those who differentiate themselves.

I am thinking about the question of differentiation because I have been pondering over recent days the legacy of my Christian upbringing. I think the initial response of the convert is often one of rejection. Certainly in my case I took various positions, led by a series of lectures I attended in those early days, which I now regret to some extent. The celebration of birthdays is a case in point. I was told that this is haram and so I built up yet another wall between myself and my family, refusing to accept well-wishes and gifts. I look back on that now with some derision, taking a more magnanimous stance, but the damage is done. We live in a society in which families spend less and less time together, but the birthday provides the perfect opportunity to reconnect, to get together and share a little love. Indeed it provides the opportunity to say that we care, to say thank you, even to acknowledge our place in the world. Conversely, what is the benefit of rejectionism? It does not serve any religious function; if anything it creates conflict with other imperatives (creating anger, conveying ingratitude).

In any case, there is a more pertinent question here: how much of this rejectionism is just skin deep? Much of who I am, how I act and what I think are a legacy of my Christian upbringing. I am not ashamed of this and do not think I should be. This upbringing taught me good manners and modesty after all, both of them perfectly admirable Islamic characteristics. And there is more; concerns about global justice and social responsibility come from this root, and I am thinking here of the Drop the Debt campaign and Fair Trade in particular. As a Muslim who believes that fairness and social responsibility is part of our religion, I buy Fair Trade products, but I still acknowledge the root of this concern. I buy my fish from an independent supplier and my milk direct from the producing farm via Abel & Cole. If I buy chocolate, I check that it’s from a source which pays cocoa farmers a fair wage. And I’m proud that my adopted town is known as a Fair Trade Town. All of this is a legacy of my upbringing.

Yet my upbringing has done more than affect how I act: it can be seen in my thinking. As a Christian I was raised on the parables and reported stories of Jesus’ life in the four gospels. The commentary provided by Paul’s epistles seemed less important in childhood as it becomes for the adult faithful. Jesus’ exhortations to the Pharisees to observe the spirit of the law not just its letter is no doubt reflected throughout everything I write. The gospel accounts do not call for the law to be abandoned — although Luke tells us of the infamous dream in which all foods were shown to be lawful in his contradictory Acts of the Apostles — rather there is a call to appreciate its purpose. Unconsciously I see this affecting the way I live. For example Muslims are taught to respect water and indeed there are rules about how water is used. In the spirit of this, I find the idea using heavy bleaches in the toilet abhorrent; I know it doesn’t make a difference in the big scheme of things, but my conscience drives me to choose biodegradable products. Likewise, Muslims are taught to be careful of the tongue, so in this spirit I consider it applicable to what I write.

I do not consider Islam a negation of my upbringing, but a continuation of it. Indeed, retaining that which is good, I consider it a perfection of it. I think it can be useful to acknowledge the legacy of our upbringing and to be truthful too; a lot of the rejectionism I see around me is surely just skin deep.

Inter-faith Dialogue

If dialogue is to be of any benefit we should set aside philosophical debates on our approach to different faiths and come as we are with a view to first understanding what we each – as faith communities – believe. I have encountered time and again Christians writing about Islam with no real knowledge of its basic teachings; and, yes, Muslims writing on Christianity in a similar manner. The question of forgiveness is a key example, many writers convinced by the notion that Christianity exclusively amongst the world religions has addressed the issue. The opinion of the prominent evangelist associated with the Alpha Course is just one example amongst many.

Perhaps understandably, authors often view the beliefs of others through the prism of their own theology. As a result Christians are concerned about salvation to such an extent that they view its absence in other faiths as a great oversight. Salvation by good works, for example, is a Catholic concept, for Muslims do not believe that humans are by nature fallen and thus do not seek salvation. Instead, good works are undertaken for the pleasure of God, who loves goodness and beauty. We also believe that we are not judged by the deeds themselves, but by the intentions behind them. Thus one could feed the poor seeking people’s good opinion and it would not be of benefit at all. Yet sin is addressed by Islam, with a huge emphasis placed on forgiveness; it just happens to be a practical step, rather than a metaphysical one: ‘as long as you call on Me and hope in Me, I will forgive you whatever comes from you and I do not care.’

Pluralism is not the problem

An article in the Church Times some time ago had David Banting saying, in relation to the General Synod discussion on Christian witness in a plural society, that Muslims expect Christians to have convictions as clear as their own. While diversity of opinion is of course to be welcomed, the meandering, self-conscious spirit amongst many does not promote confidence in the process of dialogue. Representatives of the two faiths need to define clearly what it is that they believe, not wavering because they fear causing offence. Honesty must crown any efforts at dialogue and this means addressing issues even if they cause discomfort.

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The way they treat their women…

“I CAN’T believe how many black men are becoming Muslim in London… after the way they treat their women.” I once heard this statement being made one evening a long time ago, before I knew anything about Islam. The above statement makes an assumption about Islam, even though it does not assert that assumption directly. ‘They’ is supposed to refer to Muslims; the statement suggests that if a man becomes a Muslim he must accordingly treat women in a way which is presumably poor.

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Reflections on Luther’s Epistle of Straw

ONE MAY wonder why I would choose to write reflections on The Letter from James.1 The answer primarily boils down to a personal reason. From the time I was about fifteen, I slipped almost continually between atheism, agnosticism, deism and doubt. During my second stay on the Isle of Iona2, overwhelmed by emotion and the beauty of the music in the abbey, I rejected God. I pretended to myself that God was not real and, from that point, I began questioning life, our existence, meaning, and myself. I hated attending church after that, for I felt like a hypocrite, uttering words I didn’t believe in and singing hymns I wished to avoid. But in my second year of university, I began to seek answers and I began to make an effort to discover what religious people call the truth. So, impressed by the preaching of John Stott at All Souls in central London, I began attending that church every Sunday just to listen to the sermons. Meanwhile, at the same time, I took to reading the Bible.

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Honest dialogue

The starting point of any dialogue must be that the parties involved are committed to honesty. This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but it is a point which seems to have escaped many. To illustrate, we may refer to an article which appeared in the Church Times during the Lambeth Conference in 1998, entitled, ‘When the chips are down’ (Margaret Duggan, 31 July 1998, p.4). In this article, the author summarises a speach given at the conference by Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna diocese in northern Nigeria, on dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Duggan makes no attempt in her article to verify the Bishops’s statements; it is a report of his speech, but it is clearly also more than that. Although statements about Muslims, the Qur’an or Islam are all attributed only to the Bishop, the causal reader will finish the article with an idea that he or she has an accurate representation of these matters. This is especially true since the source is said to have degrees in Islamic Studies.

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