Letter to an agnostic

I understand and can empathise with almost everything you have said, as someone who went through a similar period of searching at around the same age as you. There are clear parallels between your experience and mine: the period of agnosticism, the concerns about being true to yourself, being open-minded and determined to read different perspectives, the insistence on reading polemics despite yourself, the obsession with religion and finding answers… it all rings true.

Continue reading “Letter to an agnostic”

Of a mountain

The reality of this road is that it is difficult. It may be straight, but it is steep and at times rough, and often vulnerable to the molestations of bandits. As anyone who journeys to the highlands of any nation will know, the easiest route to the top of a mountain is via the winding road that hugs the contours of every hill and valley; the expedition takes an age as the road traverses mile upon mile, winding back upon itself repeatedly as it climbs higher and higher. The straight road appears the easier path at first, until the traveller encounters his first obstacle. As he ascends the great mountain, each time he thinks he is nearing its summit, another fold of hill appears above the crest he had set his hopes on. The path is straight, but it is patently hard.

My heart aches; I feel alienated. The simplistic Islam of unlearned teenagers—we do not eat pork and should not drink alcohol—is long forgotten. There can be no casual meander along this path, as I had once thought when I was weighing up whether to embrace what I believed to be true. It is a path of action, requiring us to move and reform, to stretch ourselves, to be much more than we are.  Each time we almost reassure ourselves that God will accept our undemanding nomadic faith—and forgive us our multitudinous shortcomings—new realities insist that this is not so. We wanted to believe that we had been granted paradise because we had been kind to a cat; we did not notice being cast into hell for the evil of another deed.

I don’t know if I will be able to shake these sins for which I am promised an unfortunate end and which distance me from my Lord. I have tried before, repeatedly, and failed. Once I learned that it was probably haram, years after I thought I knew all that was permissible and forbidden. But probably opened up a door for its return. Years ago, in those early days of my Islam, when a friend—himself learning of this path anew—took to running through what was allowed and what was not, I had learned that it was probably disliked. But disliked did not strike fear into this unfortunate believer as it does for his pious brethren. For months he would avoid it, striving on his path of reform, but disliked would eventually open the door to tolerated, and from there it would become halal.

But today a revelation: it is not just probably haram, but almost certainly haram. Almost being an atom’s weight of chance to the weight of the world that it is not. An unpalatable revelation that I have been sinning almost constantly for years on end, oblivious to words that clearly spell out the consequence in store for one who does not repent and turn away from it. As we self-righteously poured scorn on those who eat any old food, believing it to be permissible as the meat of the Jews and the Christians, and demanded that they desist, we forgot to take ourselves to account. By God, what a fool! With this revelation, undoubtedly they are better than I a thousand fold. How it had seemed I was walking in His Shade, dependent on His Mercy: suddenly a shocking revelation, that I was in fact walking in His Wrath.

Can I now desist? Will He grant me His mercy and enable me to overcome this hideous malady? Will He grant me an escape from this curse? To leave some of what was haram was made easy for me, alhamdulilah. Leaving intoxicants was painless, for I had only ever drunk alcohol for six months of my life, although unfortunately to excess for half of that period. Leaving it was simple because I had never liked it and I hated what I and my friends became in that state. God gave me the sense to leave it almost a year to the day before I came to believe in Islam. To abstain from consuming food and drink in the month of Ramadan too was made easy. As my skeletal frame revealed, I was not a slave to my stomach back then. I missed meals frequently and ate little. To fast was no great burden. I am grateful that God made leaving much of what is impermissible easy for me. What if I had been of those who must savour all kind of whiskies and wines, and learn to pronounce the names of European vineyards, who must accompany every meal with a cocktail of gin beforehand, beer for starters and red wine with red meat? To desist then would surely have been a burden likely to steer me away from the straight path.

But it seems, after all, that I had my trials too. Of course I have always been conscious of it; I have always known it to be wrong. But if I had known that it was not just wrong, but categorically forbidden from the outset, would I be where I am now? Wouldn’t I have abandoned it long ago, like riba, khamr and pork? Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it was too pervasive, too deeply ingrained. Perhaps it had become too much of a habit, too much a part of me. Perhaps it was my wine.

I fear now returning to it. Oh, I have said that a thousand times before and I have returned to it. No, what I really fear is never being able to free myself from it and from sins like it. People have often advised me that we are not held account for our thoughts. But which thoughts? For there are those thoughts that flutter into our mind from nowhere, over which we have little control: surely it is these for which we shall remain unaccountable. But those thoughts over which we have full control, which are of the same instrument as our talking tongues and typing fingers, are surely to be questioned. As long as you do not act on them you will be safe, say some, but what is action? To think and dwell on the bad in them is surely action, for they enter the heart and stain it dark until it can retain no light. The heart dies from thoughts such as these. I know because I think them.

I have committed now to desisting from these sins, but I have been unable to throw myself down on my face before my Lord in proper repentance, for they are still here within. They are calling me back, trying to convince me that this realisation is misguided. And yet it is not that usual realisation—the result of reflection and guilt, of irritation in the heart, of a sense of the innate wrongness that descends moments later. This is not a realisation in that sense—not just the chattering of the soul. It is a realisation founded on knowledge: it is an acknowledgement of the prohibitions of our deen.

My schizophrenic soul is wrought in two. One half of me wants to pursue the path of righteousness; the other half wants to cast adrift, to hold fast to the dreams of another world. I know that when the Hour arrives I will look back and wish that I had listened to my better part. On that day of fifty-thousand years, when our life will have seemed but a blink of the eye, I will wonder why I could not have just been patient and held fast to that weak voice within. I will wonder why I turned my back on the promise of everlasting release for the sake of momentary, fleeting ease. I know what I shall think then. But just now, fifty-thousand years is unfathomable. These days, weeks, months and years seem too long to persist in righteousness.

I know I must repent now and return. The cost of repenting is great, but the price of not repenting is infinitely greater and infinitely worse. I know I must strive now, with a striving greater than previous strivings, for my distance from my Lord is now greater than ever. The voice that calls to righteousness is weak and feeble, like the parabolic mustard seed, and hardly calls me to truth any more. If I am to repent now, it will be against myself. It is like a warring cry, a declaration of war. Somewhere within, deep down, there is a feeble David, slingshot in hand. But it is Goliath that looks back wearily and with contempt. I fear the battle ahead.

There stands before me a great mountain. I stand on its foothills, unable even to see the crest of the first hill, let alone its peak. I know that my first step onwards must be repentance and a resolution never to return to my monotonous sins. Yes, of course I know, but will I? Can I make it to the mountain top?

Manliness

A week or so ago I received some advice that knocked me off course and disorientated me. Reflecting on their words, I found myself wandering around, wondering if I really had got everything wrong. I pondered on the advice and criticised myself for not being a dictator. And then, when I was done, I decided to ask a trusted friend and teacher for his advice as well.

“I was wondering if you could advise me how Islam defines manliness,” I said, “and/or point me towards a good book that covers the topic.”

As is often the case, his insight set me back on course again. I intended to post his response early last week, but the demolition of an outbuilding took precedence, occupying me every evening after work. But better late than never:

‘Manliness is “rujula”; it is what a man should reflect. In short, a true man is close to Allah, and the further from Him he is, the less of a man he is. So humbleness is manliness, arrogance is not. Patience, endurance, forbearance and so on is manliness.

Eating while walking in the street without a good reason diminishes one’s manliness. To serve your parents, your wife and family is manliness.

It is one of these men of our predecessors who said to his wife, “May my hand be cut off if it were ever lifted to strike you.”

Anyway this is a very broad topic, however I hope that the following points will be of help inshallah:

1.There are books about men, closely linked to the sciences of hadith but not always. There are also books about women. These books have different names. Some of these books are called “tabaquat…” e.g. tabaquat alquraa (men of Quran recitation), tabaquat alhufath (men of memorisation), tabaqat ashafiaa (men of the Shafiee school), etc. Tabaqat actually means levels, but it’s about men hence I translated it as men, albeit men at different levels.

But the best book of all about who is really a man is AlQur’an. AlQur’an mentions men who were Prophets and some who were not. Sometimes the Qur’an just uses the word “man” without naming the person.

2. Man and male are two different things. Every man is a male but not every male is a man. Man is a status, so a young boy of 11 may be a man and yet an adult of 50 may not be. We have a very common expression that goes “mashi rajel” —“he is not a man”— when a person breaks the etiquettes of Islam when dealing with others.

There are always men but not all are complete. Men are ranks: they are of different categories and they enter aljannah in the group they belong to.

3. We’ve been studying one category which is called “ibadu rahman” i.e. the servants of the Most Merciful at the end of Surah alFurqan.

4. Culture has a lot of influence on men and can entrap them. Hence spiritual migration, but sometimes it has to be a physical one. Historically all Prophets travelled, and were even expelled and rejected by some members of their tribes. Also it has always been the way of the ulema to travel.

However not everything that is cultural is condemned by Islam. As you know, in the Algerian desert, men cover their faces, but women do not. Also in the countryside sometimes it is the women who work the fields. The kitchen in Islam is not a space reserved only for women. The Muslims as you may know developed a whole industry related to cooking. As you may know the famous scholar ASuyuti wrote a book about cooking. And ASuyuti is definitely a man of high calibre.

6. Some men had very hard wives, but the good way they behaved with their wives propelled them to amazing levels of men. They became ‘legends’.

7. No true man sees himself above anyone else even if it were on a battle field. And there are true men who do not even feel their very existence in front of their Lord.

And Allah and His messenger know best.’

First faltering steps

To become a faithful believer is not easy. This thought occurs to me repeatedly as I set out to renew my faith and recommit myself to God. This voyage has recommenced many times over, only for me to stumble again within days. This time I’m serious, I tell myself, but still it is a struggle.

In ten years I have never abandoned the prayer, but there is more to the deen than this. Over the years I have become but a shell, fulfilling the minimum of our obligations, my prayers often rotten beneath the surface, their core like dust. As the months and years passed by I emptied sins into my book of deeds, always oblivious to their gravity, returning to them often as if they were of no consequence. To lift oneself from the habit of certain sins is a real test, for after a few days they pull at the heart, the symptoms of that addiction soon infecting one’s whole being. And so, once more, I slip.

Perhaps this time is better than all those previous occasions, I think to myself, because this time I have learned of the gravity of those sins; because this time my response is founded on knowledge and certainty. Right now I cannot imagine returning to them. It would, for me, be like drinking alcohol, stealing or taking a life. If I returned to them now, would I just give up? I pray I do not return to them. I pray I do not return.

And so it is that I find myself, a decade after I uttered my testimony of faith, making my first faltering steps along this way, and it is hard. How easy it is to fit in one’s prayers at home between one task and another, ending the day upon the prayer mat just metres from one’s bed. But to await the congregation, to venture outdoors when already tired, to head out to one’s place of prayer as others are preparing to sleep: for one unaccustomed to striving in the way of God, by the third day exhaustion has set in. And what of arising early in the morning to return? Here the fears for our community set in, for when those grey and white haired ones pass away, will the mosque any more open in the morning? One day I make it on time, the next day I awake just as the congregation draws together, the following day, who knows?

As each evening draws in, I commit to abandoning the computer and the internet, in order to sit and read instead. I have found this a blessing, a habit I could easily get used to. Yet my eyes are constantly drooping, a heaviness descending, craving for sleep, though there seems to be no time for it after work, in-between study, prayer and food, and so I find myself wondering how I will ever conquer my laziness and retrain my soul. Though a decade has now passed since I first uttered my testimony of faith, all I carry with me is a smattering of du’as and the shortest chapters of the Qur’an. Where have all the years gone and how is it that I learnt so little, committing to memory so few words?

To make up for lost time is hard, to be patient is hard, to maintain constancy is hard, to stop grieving over one’s sins is hard, to become a servant of God is hard. And so it should be. In life, we are told by those around us, you get nothing for free. Although the billions of blessings from our Lord cast doubt upon this claim, it nevertheless puts the difficulties of our spiritual quest into perspective: if, in life, we get nothing for free, why then should I demand an easy approach to the hereafter?

Taking stock of how far I have put myself back, how much I have oppressed my own soul and how little I have done to rectify my situation, it becomes apparent that this struggle of mine is not just necessary, but obligatory. It is my jihad: a real struggle, not a leisurely sojourn. Hence these first faltering steps of mine.

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?

Media-induced Distress

Okay, so I am writing again already. Prompted by the first comment left by yet another “anonymous” under my last post, something needs to be said about media-induced distress. I cannot say that I have no sympathy for sufferers of this ailment; indeed it would be hypocritical for me to deny the anxiety stirring power of the media given the subject of my articles at the height of the cartoon fracas. I was, however, stunned by this comment:

“Why am I reading, and will continue to read, your blog? Because I now view all Muslims as terrorists with one goal; and that is to kill non-muslims. I know my view is being warped by the news media, critics, etc. so am trying to understand why…”

I cannot claim to be fanatical in following the media, but I do get a fair exposure so it is difficult for me to comprehend how anyone could come to the conclusion that “all muslims” are terrorists from this source. Is reporting really that bad? When the earthquake happened in Pakistan, I recall that a number of Muslim charities received very good publicity. Similarly their role in the relief efforts in the Darfur region of Sudan and, more recently, the famine hit regions across East Africa have received a fair amount of attention. On the other hand, much has been said about Muslims as victims of conflict and crisis worldwide. So what is it that blinds people to this reporting?

When my mother was a hospital chaplain some years ago, she used to come home telling us about “a lovely Muslim Doctor” who would come to pray in the chapel every day. When I became a Muslim myself, she asked me, “But what about the terrible way Muslims behave?” What is it that skews a person’s viewpoint despite their own experience? My grandmother once touched on this, telling me that as a child she was told never to trust Jews and Catholics; but when she finally met people of these two faiths she considered them some of the most wonderful people she had ever met. She told me this after meeting some of my Muslim friends at my wedding. They were lovely, she told me, despite what people say about Muslims.

It is interesting because I don’t take this blanket derogation of Muslims away with me from the media. In fact I am conscious that many Jews consider the BBC anti-Semitic because of its reporting from Palestine, many Black people claim it is racist, members of BNP call it anti-white, all while it is labelled Islamophobic. Furthermore, I never found myself thinking that all Irish people or all Catholics were terrorists at the height of the IRA bombing campaigns. I find it impossible to comprehend that one could be so heavily swayed by the news media. Thus, if this is a genuine occurrence I can only conclude that my own viewpoint is affected by the conscious decisions I have made.

The first such decision was to remove the television from my home. My wife and I made this decision around November 2001, primarily because we found ourselves wasting so much time in the aftermath of the attacks on America, coming home in the evening to watch the Six O’Clock News, Channel Four News, the Ten O’Clock News and Newsnight. We realised that our need-to-know attitude as actually false, for in reality we only come to know what editors choose to tell us. Life without television means that I am often out of touch with the latest trends, fashions, music, products, cars and conversations. Big deal. On those occasions when I am visiting friends and the television is on I do feel there is no need to feel regret.

Naturally I don’t have access to a hundred channels of satellite TV, indeed I never have. My newspaper when I choose to buy one is The Independent. I would never buy The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Express or any other such paper. Conscious choices. On the Internet, it is a cursory glance at the BBC on my arrival at work in the morning, perhaps occasionally The Times, The Guardian and The Independent as well. I used to spend a long time scanning all sorts of sources, but again I realised it served no purpose. Consciously I chose to fast my media consumption. My one weakness is Radio 4, which I tend to have on in my car in the morning and evening and to which I listen at home.

A number of my friends have given up the media altogether, recognising the addiction for what it is. It is unnatural in any case, says one of them, for even a century ago our predecessors would have known little more than what was happening across the county. Important news would get through eventually, but decisions were not required based upon the breaking news. It is not healthy to have so much information bombarded at us day and night, he argued; quite an irony given that he works for the world’s largest satellite broadcaster. Other friends go on media-free retreats and come back telling us how refreshed they feel. As for me, I find my TV-free home a true sanctuary, an abode of peace (Darussalam).

Those suffering media-induced distress may find comfort in treating the addiction, fasting for a while, turning off the TV and closing the papers. Some drink green tea to detoxicate their bodies others fast the daylight hours. A similar prescription can certainly be written for the soul.

Vile

I have just read news on the BBC that three Indonesian Christian girls were beheaded as they walked to school – news buried under the frenzy surrounding David Blunket’s business dealings. What an utterly sick age we live in. Even as we anticipate it in our Prophet’s words, the depravity never fails to appall.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Just before the Hour, there will be days in which knowledge will disappear and ignorance will appear, and there will be much killing.”

May we all be protected from such evil people, who will slaughter innocents in this way. Vile. Vile. Vile.

Verily mankind is ungrateful

There is something wrong with me at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but my emotions are heightened, I am on edge, easily upset and completely inconsistent. I have been like this for two months now, swinging between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery reveals itself in the tears that well up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which rises rapidly and then dies.

I seem to be dissatisfied with myself. My heart aches, feeling heavy in my chest. On my return from Turkey I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by returning to the Smythian keyboard and reignite my “Copious Footnotes”. This lasted barely two weeks. It was followed by a yearning to start a cottage-industry publishing house called “The Othello Press”. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere. Then there was the “Blogistan” project, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the site because of the melancholy which overcomes me. It is all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals.

At work I want to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and now, just as I’m offered an interview for the latter, I’m resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a better day; maybe it will be good for me down the line. Perhaps it is not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then that I ever have since. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The Chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied despite a great wage for the simplest of graphic design work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started up my own business offering publishing services. This was a situation where I was in the position to do what I most love: creating beautiful books. Alas I was dissatisfied once more, even though I was given the opportunity to typeset challenging works such as “The History of the Qur’anic Text”. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onto new ground. I ended up as Office Manager in a busy training department. I was responsible for a team of administrators, got to produce newsletters and a directory of courses, develop the intranet and do many interesting things. Yet again I became dissatisfied and so the cycle started again.

What is it that drives me over the edge again and again? Why is it that I am never satisfied with what I have? Is my situation not better than the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every evening in Istanbul to sell ice cold, bright yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, is my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the days spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to three hundred customers over lunchtime off Berkley Square?

Perhaps it is pride. “I have an Masters Degree, you know?” Pride, which makes me think that the job I am doing is never good enough. “I don’t need a Degree to do this job, do I?” Pride which gets in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and you worthless as a result. I think it is. I think I am stumbling away from a path I once knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 was “The Purification of the Soul”. I think it is time that I returned to this work and others like it, recognising what it is that is creating this unease. My soul has been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscure the reality of faith.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart. Amin.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Encountering Christian-Muslim dialogue for the first time eight years ago was naturally a culture shock. Every young and enthusiastic activist owned a grainy, yellowy video with poor quality sound of a great debate between Ahmed Deedat and Jimmy Swaggart. As pamphlets detailing 101 contradictions in the Bible were pressed into my hands I wondered what these well-intentioned souls would make of the Christianity I knew. But for a brief sojourn with a group calling itself The International Church of Christ, prior to my agnosticism I had only ever known the Anglican Communion of The Church of England. Swaggart and his fundamentalist counterparts represented a creed almost as alien to me as the faith I was to adopt, yet everyday Muslim engagement with Christians remained focused on these Deep South stereotypes.

The Road Ahead: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue is, in many ways, the perfect introduction to that other Christianity. Based on the proceedings of a two-day seminar hosted by Dr George Carey – then Archbishop of Caterbury – in January 2002, it stresses how far our simplistic caricatures of Christians are off the mark. While the seminar aimed to address how Christians and Muslims might overcome the obstacles standing in the way of mutual understanding, the book in fact paints a picture of a faith unsure of itself. Far from witnessing dialogue, we see that character whom every infuriated agnostic meets on his search; that bumbling self-conscious believer, so utterly apologetic about his faith and too shy to articulate his beliefs.

Perhaps surprised to find Christians and Muslims talking to one another, Dr Carey describes the not particularly unusual gathering as one of the most remarkable of his career as Archbishop. Writing in his introduction to the book, he acknowledges that Muslim-Christian dialogue is by no means a new phenomenon, but he believes the events of 11 September 2001 have made it ever more urgent. He stumbles at the first hurdle, for rather than overcoming obstacles in Christian-Muslim relations, he casts Muslims into the problem role. The Muslim, associated with these horrific acts, is placed into a defensive position to be interviewed rather than to engage in dialogue.

In a second introduction, Prince El Hassan eloquently rehearses that favourite Muslim topic of critique, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Unfortunately this has been so over-emphasized in recent years that the whole argument now feels stale, let alone irrelevant to the topic at hand. It is not all cliché, however: for dialogue to be fruitful, he suggests, we should put aside differences in theology and rite. This is true to a point – if the aim of dialogue is to discover how Muslims and Christians can work and live together then it is only natural that differences should be highlighted less. But what if the purpose was to convince the other of the truth of Christianity/Islam? Surely such differences are of fundamental importance.

It is understandable that Tony Blair, writing the third introduction as Prime Minister of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, should choose to do so inclusively; yet in the process of dialogue should we not expect the Christian to speak as a Christian and the Muslim as a Muslim? Straddling the two faiths in order to project one’s own views onto both parties cannot be exemplary of dialogue, but this is what Mr. Blair achieves. It is true that principles of tolerance and respect are vital, but should we allow him to set the agenda where issues of justice or liberty might otherwise figure as key issues as well?

The Road Ahead is split into five chapters, each containing papers by both Muslim and Christian participants. The first chapter discusses Christian-Muslim interface, the second looking at the lessons history can teach us in regard to interaction. After focusing on communities of faith in the third chapter, the discussion moves on to examine faith in the context of change, before finally evaluating the way forward for dialogue between the two faith groups. It is a positive step that the first contributor should be a European Muslim. It could be said that we have come a long way in ten years, when one considers the European response towards its native Balkan Muslim population at its hour of need. In a thought provoking paper, excellently located as the starting place for dialogue, Mustafa Ceri? considers the question of assimilation or of isolation in terms of faith, a point relevant not just for Muslims in the West, but also for Christians in the East, or indeed for Christians in increasingly secular societies. Like the Jews of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, Muslims in Europe today are forced to grapple with questions of integration or isolation and tradition or reform.

Later, Mustafa Ceri? pulls out the right threads once more as he goes on to discuss monotheism. ‘The doctrine of monotheism is shared by Islam and Christianity,’ he writes, ‘but the perception of it seems unsettling, not because of an apodictic argument but because of a dispute conducted in an ad hominem manner…’ We cannot conduct dialogue if we insist on skirting around the fundamental issues and who we worship is naturally the most crucial of all. Sadly, some participants seem not to agree, for disturbingly there is very little mention of God within The Road Ahead, nor indeed of Jesus of Muhammad (peace be upon them) – it is as if these main players are not players at all.

Mustafa Ceri?’s discussion of cooperation makes good sense and his historical overview of the issue is helpful, but it would also be useful if he pointed out that such cooperation continues today. Furthermore, in speaking about Europe as a continent of many faiths he could have been more careful about not identifying Christianity solely with Europe at the same time as trying to disassociate Europe from the idea of it being a solely Christian realm; despite the missionary zeal of some Protestant churches aiming to ‘convert’ other Christian communities to their interpretation of the faith, there remain sizeable non-Western Christian communities outside Europe. This too is underplayed throughout the book.

Responding the Mustafa Ceri?, Michael Fitzgerald argues that Christians and Muslims should seek to understand their differences in a spirit of mutual acceptance. It should be implicit in the idea of honest dialogue that Christians and Muslims retain their beliefs with conviction. He goes on to explain the difference between overcoming and understanding, which seems to be a statement of the obvious. However he confuses matters: ‘Such an attitude in turn implies that truth is not to be seen as an object in the possession of one particular group…’ Does it? Why must a believer deny his beliefs in order to engage in dialogue with others? He goes on: ‘…indeed, for Christians truth is best understood as a Person by whom they are themselves possessed.’ This is confused double-speak. Tripping over themselves to be accommodating to those who do not share their beliefs, this mode of thought actually nullifies effective dialogue; what is there left to discuss?

Nevertheless his advice on discussing the similarities and differences between the faiths is practical, although it seems to ignore the wealth of literature already in the public domain: John Bowker’s excellent study of suffering in the World Religions or Hans Küng’s Christianity and the World Religions to name but two. It would be illogical for any inter-faith dialogue to begin without a discussion of the key theological and ethical concepts held by each faith. Always reasonable and accommodating towards his Abrahamic cousins, Michael Fitzgerald offers another olive branch: Muslims, he argues, have suffered from being misrepresented as a monolithic block. In reality, both faith communities experience this as a result of projection from within as well as from without. As Muslims we often talk of ourselves as a unified whole, ignoring the internal conflicts, as do Christians in their engagement with the outside world. The Road Ahead is often illustrative of this, taking the image of Christianity for granted, forgetting that there is an Ethiopian, Armenian, Roman Catholic and Adventist Christianity beyond their projections of self. Michael Fitzgerald is absolutely right, therefore, when he states: ‘Diversity and genuine pluralism within both Christian and Muslim traditions needs to be recognized equally by co-religionists and by members of the other faith.’

The third paper published in The Road Ahead sits uncomfortably amidst its counterparts, a peculiar contribution aimed at a different level of dialogue. Undoubtedly well versed in conversation between the two faiths having spent forty-five years in the Middle East and the author of at least thirty books, Kenneth Cragg seems to assume too much of the seminar and as result fails to make any real impact. The theme of his paper is his oft-repeated argument around Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) post-Hijra mission and Islam’s recruitment of political power to achieve its ends, as already developed in his previous works. The point of this often-incomprehensible paper is what Christians mean by Magnificat and Muslims by Allahu akbar; in what way, he asks, is God great? ‘Islamic confidence in the rightness of political power in the defence and propagation of religion has persisted ever since [the Hijra] and it remains a large issue in our inter-religious dialogue,’ he writes. Kenneth Cragg implies that the slogan Allahu akbar is denied by Muslims when they refuse to allow God to be ‘greater’ than an omnipotent Lord who creates, guides and forgives. The God of Christian faith is above this kind of greatness, he argues, as His grace and suffering are viewed as averting the punishment warned of by the Prophets. For Christianity, ‘it was a greatness utterly generous in its creative magnanimity and even more so it stooping to “our low estate” in the self-imaging so greatly given in the incarnate and redemptive Messiah Jesus…’

By contrast, he writes, ‘Islam “makes him greatly great” in the benediction of our human guiding into rightness by the textuality of sacred tanzil [revelation] and the summons into obedience by the discipline and the nurture ordained for us in the Qur’an and the Sharia.’ Yet this is simply a case of the author moulding his discussion about Islam into his own framework for the sake of convenience, for Islam actually makes God greatly great by its numerous reflections on the magnificence of the universe He has created. Pondering everything in it from the honeybee to planetary nebulae Allahu Akbar is the natural refrain. In reality Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim could just as easily be the beginning of our theology and if Kenneth Cragg’s paper were put in these terms (in what way is God compassionate and merciful?) the outcome could be quite different. Pushing Islam through his own filter of beliefs, we are left with a confused message, and one that is quite abstract and distant from the reality of life at that. Fortunately his paper is not without rebuttal and Sohail Nakhooda provides a coherent and – thankfully – erudite response.

The second chapter goes on to look at the lessons of history, beginning with an objective paper by David Kerr. Intelligently he chooses to speak as a Christian is his approach without stepping into the Muslim’s shoes to speak on the other’s behalf. He argues that we should see the relationship between Muslims and Christians as a single circle rather than a convergence of two. Mona Siddiqi responds fairly, calling for dialogue to take place in the spirit of genuine honesty on the part of all involved. Presenting the third paper in this chapter, Tarif Khalidi examines the figure of Jesus in Islam with an interesting – if brief – minor history of Muslim views of Christianity. In his view, the figure of Jesus in the Qur’an is very problematic, but he does not develop this, where a review of relevant verses would be useful. Yvonne Haddad’s response is intelligent and useful, with a discussion of dhimma, which seems fair and balanced.

Nasim Hasan Shah begins the third chapter on Communities of Faith with an analysis of Muslim society in Pakistan. Activists are always keen to point out that there are no true Islamic societies today, an argument which misses the point; it is important that we come to terms with the fact that we must deal with contemporary realities not historical ideals. In his response, Henri Teissier asks whether there is clarity in the Qur’anic position on the People of the Book because ‘some Muslims would apparently claim that the positive early verses were later abrogated by more negative verses’ (Qur’an 5:82, 9:29). Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in early Muslim history and Umar ibn al-Khattab’s charter with the Christians of Jerusalem. Evident occasionally in dialogue is an absence of appreciation of the sources of Islamic knowledge, the Christian often referring solely to the Qur’an. Later, Henri Teissier asks, ‘Should not people of faith recognize that religion is not the only factor leading to the moral improvement of humanity.’ The traditional viewpoint of both faiths has been that God defines morality; this question seems to advocate a Christianity that has had Christ washed out of it.

In his paper, Michael Banner considers toleration in the context of Western Christianity and can be commended for making the point that ‘existing under the conditions which obtain in the liberal democracies, Christianity is not called upon to make an active choice for or against toleration of other faiths.’ No Muslim engaged in dialogue could escape the self-satisfaction sometimes expressed by the contemporary Christian when discussing issues of tolerance, particularly in relation to Islam. However, he seems to overemphasise philosophical alternatives in his ‘Toleration: the Augustine alternative’. Why do contributors continuously fail to quote from Holy Scriptures, which, in their daily discourse, are the source of their faith? The absence of any mention of Jesus and what he taught in Michael Banner’s paper is unimpressive, but in any case, given his opening paragraph, what is the relevance of the Augustine alternative?

Writing the final paper in this chapter, Mohamed El-Awa raises a few points worth noting. He is right to say that the time for solving religious differences is the Day of Judgement when the final word will be with God. Secondly, he usefully clarifies the issue of making alliances with enemies. Lastly, he mentions that Christians in particular have always enjoyed a special status, based on the Qur’anic description of them as nearest to the Muslims in affection or love. He gives the example of the Christians of Najran who stayed in the Prophet’s mosque when they visited Madinah. Above all, it is refreshing that this participant refers to Scripture and the teachings of his religion in support if his arguments.

Regrettably the fourth chapter opens with reference to the events of 11 September 2001. David Ford quotes Jonathan Sacks as seeing the terrorist attacks as the greatest challenge to the religions of the world since the wars of religion in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Wrong; a genocide which targeted six million Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s was a far greater challenge to the world religions than the attack on the United States, no matter how terrible this surely was, not to mention the conflict in Northern Ireland over the past several decades or in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, David Ford’s paper is not unreasonable and his paper proceeds to cover fair ground. Is he the only Christian participant here who mentions Jesus Christ? This comes through in his ‘Christian faith and change: ten theses.’ Tariq Ramadan, already well informed in matters pertaining to faith and change provides a fair response. Seyed Amir Akrami follows this by arguing that Muslim debate is hindered by its alleged opposition to change. Following this, Christian Troll’s paper offers a critique of Islam, but does not forward views as to how bridges could be built. Once again, the Christian tells us what Islam should be, but fails to tell us about Christianity and what Christians believe.

If throughout this review there seems to be an imbalance, it is finally addressed in the final chapter, Setting the agenda. Rabiatu Ammah begins by arguing very strongly that self-criticism is severely lacking in the contemporary Muslim world. It is about time that there was more analysis of the issues we encounter in a truly honest manner without resorting to the tired refrain that the West is to blame. Christians might benefit from taking this approach as well. One does not have to put aside one’s convictions in order to recognise that communities of the faithful as well as individuals can fall short of their ideals, making mistakes and performing wrong actions. In his response Tarek Mitri expresses a very true sense that ‘Muslims are invited, sometimes in an unfriendly manner, to prove their innocence and that of their religion from the crimes committed by a minority of their co-religionists.’ Fair and objective in nature, this paper could be taken as a summary of the nature of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, likewise, provides us with an impartial summary.

The final paper ties together the different strands of the dialogue quite nicely. In fact, Gillian Stamp hits one aspect on the head: ‘There seemed to be an imbalance in questions,’ she says, reviewing the proceedings, ‘– “the questions are all about Islam, the face of Christianity is covered”.’ She is right. If this is genuine dialogue questions need to be asked equally of the two faiths and it is hard not to be irritated when reading The Road Ahead by the role of a Christian speaking on behalf of Islam. This is not to say that Muslims and Christians should not play their part in analysing and questioning the other’s faith; this would be an exchange of ideas, the very aim of dialogue. She concludes with three possible next stages of the journey, the most important being the challenge of secularism, for this creed is the greatest threat to both religions, than either is to the other.

The Road Ahead concludes with a postscript written by Michael Ipgave, especially relevant in its last few points. God must be remembered, for presumably that is the aim of this dialogue; theological dialogue must be undertaken; and Christians and Muslim should not conceal their convictions. Nobody could argue with his last point: ‘When those who have faith in God meet with an open acknowledgement of their faith, the quality of their meeting is transformed, and together they can change the world.’ It is a pity then that a number of participants did not grasp this. Is this book about dialogue? It is hard to say. Reading The Road Ahead, which lacks any biographical information, I cannot help recalling the Playwright David Hare’s observations in When Shall We Live upon meeting a group of Priests in inner London who barely mentioned their faith whilst undertaking great social works, fearing that ‘stuffing Christ down people’s throats’ would put them off. On his meeting with one South London vicar he wrote:

‘The experience of meeting these good souls left me confused, because although I liked them so much personally – liked them, I suspect, far more than I would ever like their fundamentalist brethren – it did seem to me, as an outsider, that they were perhaps overlooking some essential point about the Christian religion. If Christ did rise from the dead, then call me a fanatic, but I think you probably do have to tell people about it.’

While this book is intended to be all about dialogue, it serves better as an introduction to that modest Christianity which treads the ground so carefully, always conscious of your feelings, but which never addresses the question at hand. Every activist who thinks Swaggart is the typical Christian should read it. TJB

A life for a life

Apparently the loss of British life is only a tragedy if it is a means of scoring points against Islam. If ever we are unfortunate enough to mention our faith or to walk to the mosque for prayer, our socialist companions remind us that Muslims blew up three tube trains and a bus in London on 7 July. I point out that the leftist PKK blew up British citizens only a few days later; apparently this won’t be condemned with the same ferocity – instead they are silent. Much is being made of the bombings in the Turkish press for it suits their agendas like it does our companions’ – they suffer from selective sympathy and the inability to harbour equal sorrow for all victims of violence. In making their cheap political jibes they forget that Britons have experienced thirty years of terrorism at the hands of the IRA and that Londoners were the target of a white supremacist who planted nail bombs in the hope of sparking a race war much more recently. Were the lives of the victims of these attacks worth less because the perpetrators happened not to be Muslim? They also ignore the fact that July marked the sixtieth anniversary of nuclear bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the tenth anniversary of the slaughter of 10,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. Are Muslims peculiar amongst humanity as perpetrators of extreme violence? The answer is no of course; the last century and the beginning of the present one have been marked by extreme violence – wars on massive scales, the development of the most terrifying weapons ever conceived, the extermination of whole peoples, torture and terrorism. If the lives of all innocents killed in this chaotic madness are not considered to be of equal worth regardless of who they are or who killed them, we ourselves begin to slide into complicity. Our horror, sorrow and anger no longer stem from our reaction to the inhumanity of others, but from on whose side we are on. Let the Turkish chauvinists reflect.

In defiance or indifference?

We observed the two minutes’ silence today collectively as an organization, standing in the blazing sun in the car park. I feel sad and distant from my colleagues at the moment. They talk about these event momentarily, but the happy, jolly mood prevails, as if nothing has happened of significance. I hated some of these people as they stood out in the car park, laughing and joking merrily until the clock struck twelve. Two minutes without words, though all the cars but one continued their journeys onwards. No sooner were the two minutes up, however, and a bunch of fools burst into laughter, the usual suspects with their self-centred nonsense. I returned inside in silence, lamenting the hideous hypocrisy. For the past week I have been wandering around, fearing that our time is up in this country. That we have reached the end of the road. The Reichstag has been torched, thus the pogroms begin. But looking around me, I doubt this now. These people are indifferent in extremis. Like my journey in East London two days after the bombings, the people did not look sad; quite the contrary, it was business as usual, smiles on a thousand faces. Journalists are calling it defiance; I would call it something else.

Sincerity

Islam teaches that actions are only by intentions and everyone has only that which he intended: ‘Whoever’s emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry then his emigration is for that which he emigrated.’ Therefore sincerity to God is the key to faith in Islam. Believers are asked to ensure that all acts of worship are done exclusively for God’s pleasure. When actions are only by intentions, it means that deeds are only acceptable and rewarded if the intent behind them is sincere, although sincerity does not change the nature of forbidden actions.

Where a person’s intention is to show off, their acts of worship may be nullified. The greatest action, such as feeding multitudes of the poor, could be reduced to nothing because one’s intention was to earn a good reputation. Yet, at the same time, even the smallest action can be made great by the intention behind it. Good intentions are not spoken for they are matters of the heart of which God is well aware.

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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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.

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Us old fools

People often ask me why I became Muslim, or how, or what brought me this way, and there are many answers I give. Through reading, through listening, through watching. And yet, when I really think about it, it was something more. The final impetus was something deeper. There was a realisation that inside all was not well: the lies I would tell to get myself out of an awkward situation, my thoughts, the nature of my intention. Inside, hidden from view, my life was a mess and I was lost.

A few months before I became Muslim, there was a Saturday morning when I had gone to the library to do some work on the computer, only to find that the network was down. So instead I started out on an aimless walk through the streets of London. After a while, I reached Regent’s Park and I was walking through there when something troubled me. I was disturbed by something inside. Enough was enough, I told myself. So walking through that park in the bright sunlight, I began to speak to God. I made myself a covenant with God, saying that I would stop this and if I should start again, He could desert me. For a while, I was good, I did reform myself and I felt better, but then I slipped again. I broke my promise, but He did not desert me.

There were other things which kicked me; my insincere intention – looking to impress people by any means possible – and my self-pity. Over a few months, there was a realisation that within me there were problems. The final change came quite suddenly, however, over a long weekend when I did a lot of reading, little sleeping and I became convinced that Islam was the true religion of God.

A new beginning is always possible, though I did not really understand this at first. I became distressed after a few months: ‘How can it be that God guided me,’ I asked repeatedly, ‘when I was such a foolish person, while my family are good people, devoted to their religion?’ It took time to recognise that Islam refreshes, brings life anew and grants us a new beginning. Muhammad, like Jesus before him, came for the sake of ‘sinners’, not the righteous, for the religion is one of reform. It is us old fools who need a religion of reform, not the already pious.

Starting over

I begin as our close friend and neighbour flies off to a life in a new country. For them the growing hatred of Muslims expressed in our midst had reached its pinnacle and they decided that their future was not with Britain. We watched as they packed their bags and then we waved goodbye reluctantly. Not long ago, another friend – a history teacher by profession – announced his defeated observation amongst friends: ‘Now I know how the Jews felt in the nineteen-thirties,’ he said.

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Moderate Muslims

I am tired of hearing you say day after day ‘the vast majority of Muslims…’. I wonder, would you include me in that category? I absolutely abhor the attacks on innocent civilians attributed to Muslims, such as in Bali, New York or Luxor. It goes totally against the teachings of the Qur’an and of our Prophet who laid down rules governing behaviour even in a full scale war, such as engaging with combatants only, safeguarding the enemy population’s food supply and protecting their places of worship. Indeed our Prophet prohibited causing death by fire, which no doubt informs why many Muslims consider bombing totally un-Islamic. But I have a great problem with this term ‘moderate Muslims’ you use, because you never define it. What do you mean? Do you mean a practicing Muslim like me, who believes in Islamic Law? Do you mean all those other than the type who blow people up? Or do you mean something else?

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Why do I believe in Islam?

AT SOME point whilst I was still at school my heart began to turn away from Christianity. I believe a large part of this was teenage selfishness – seeing life in a wholly negative light, despite its reality. And maybe, too, there was a shyness of my beliefs. I remember Frasier from St. Andrews congratulating me on my confirmation one lunchtime at school and feeling a little embarrassed by it.

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“What about the terrible way Muslims behave?”

THE NATURE of the news media is that in general it only reports bad news; the exceptions may include sports news, visits by statesmen and royalty, finance news, and the like. We would not expect to see a report on the news dealing with the wonderful weather which hit Albania today, or the absence of war in Utah, or the revelation that a politician was totally uncorrupt. We do not need, apparently, to be told such things. Journalists are not in the business of reporting good news; that’s the job of those lovely Disk Jockeys on Radio 2.

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“Islam does not strike us as a very tolerant religion”

TO CONSIDER the issue of tolerance, we must work in the light of the teachings of the religion, not with the situation of the day in mind. For while we may wish to argue that Christianity today is a tolerant religion, this could not be said of all times in history. If Islam were to be held as untrue because of intolerance in some societies today, would Christianity then be held to be untrue because of its intolerance in the fifteenth century?

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“If that had been said about Islam, there would have been an outcry.”

It is an undeniable fact that Christians and Christianity are often derided in the popular press, in comedy, in literature and numerous other outlets. More often than not these occurrences go unchallenged and even unquestioned. When the attack is on Islam by contrast, the argument goes, the response is one of public outrage. ‘They would never have got away with saying that about Muslims.’

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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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“In Islam, sinners will face judgement without forgiveness”

Nicky Gumbel, 1994, Searching Issues, Kingsway Publications, England p.31

I WAS reading Searching Issues by Nicky Gumbel (of Alpha / Holy Trinity Brompton fame) recently and I came across the above statement in the second chapter, ‘What About Other Religions?‘ The question I want to address here is whether this is true. The actual context of his remark, I think, arises from a different theological perspective. To quote more fully, Gumbel writes:

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Blank Canvas

A friend sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

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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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Religion: state of mind or state of being?

Is discrimination a challenge for us all?

You can see the colour of a person’s skin, but you cannot see their soul. To some, religion is a creation of the mind, while for others it is as much a part of them as the eyes in their head. But to be discriminated against on the grounds of your religion is a complex issue. Here I examine some of the initial points and asks, “Is religious discrimination real or just an extension of racism?”

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