Do not invest in your sins, for they will be difficult to leave when the time for repentance descends. I speak from experience, sadly.
I guess one mistake we make when we set out upon this road is to assume that we are important, or that the world does or should revolve around us. Very soon we grow despondent because nobody notices us, while we remain oblivious to all the other souls that are thinking just the same thing. In truth, nobody really cares what we have to say, unless it can benefit them in some way. And further, we probably don’t really care what others have to say either. We are just souls brushing shoulders with each other momentarily, wandering on indifferent to each other’s lives.
Nobody cares where you’re from, who you are, what you’ve seen or what you’ve done. You are nobody. Perhaps that realisation is driven home all the more forcefully for those cut off by language, who must sit there not just ignored, but in total ignorance too — not just unheard, but also unhearing — but it is a realisation that must dawn on all of us eventually. We live most of our lives having no influence on the world around us at all. And so it is in the mosque and in our communities: our place is to listen, but not talk, to see but not be seen, to hear but not be heard.
Perhaps this age of the celebrity has warped our expectations: when there are some who are known by millions, perhaps it is only natural that the millions also want to be known. But we are nobody. Perhaps this realisation is driven home all the more forcefully to those who walk upon a different path to their family, for it becomes clear that the brotherhood of faith often extends no further than a family or a clan, or perhaps a group of friends. Mosques bear witness to this reality all too well, where believers are now mean with their salams, withholding them from all except their loved ones. Even a smile or an exchanged glance is a rarity today. For you are nobody.
The ego petitions us constantly, doesn’t it, demanding that others pay attention to our insignificant lives? That’s why I consider our community good training for the nafs. Daily we are reminded that we are nobody, that nobody cares about our thoughts, that nobody in interested in your health, that nobody cares what you have to say, that your life is of no interest or worth. On forums we are those who come and go, who speak but are ignored. We are the ones who send emails that are never answered. We are the ones who wander into the mosque like a stranger in a crowd of strangers. We are the ones who gives salams that are never returned. We are the ones that Allah has decided to train, whose nafs cry out for reform. Allah loves the slave who is hidden from the people, we once learnt, but it took all of this to make it true.
Yes, it is the truth: we are nobody. Don’t get despondent; take heart. Allah plucked you like a grain of sand from the desert, gave you faith and threw you back into that sea of sand, blown by the wind; without all those grains there would be no cascading dune. Amongst our companions we are nobody, but before our Lord: so much more.
In the two years before I first uttered my shahada, I came to fancy myself as a fine writer, although my only real talent was to have the patience to hammer out a million words on a keyboard in the middle of the night for months on end. I had two self-printed novels to show for my efforts, which I shared with friends and family, accidentally revealing my woeful illiteracy.
When I became Muslim, I initially shunned my investment in creative writing, for I feared that the act of fictional storytelling would impact negatively on my efforts to cleanse my heart and soul. Yet over the months and years that followed I would periodically return to this hobby, convincing myself that I could put my supposed abilities to the service of my deen. Over the next few years a number of new works would be born, sometimes competing for my time, but mostly languishing on my computer.
Five years after that blessed day which opened up this new world to me, I would shun my writing once more, this time taking steps to finalise it by physically destroying my work. It was part of my repentance; the embodiment of my mission to overcome the darkness of my soul. Weeks later I would regret my hasty actions, lamenting the loss of a novel I had invested so much in. I procured a piece of data recovery software, restored whatever I could from the hidden depths of my computer’s hard disk, and spent the rest of the decade deriding my puritanical rage. Indeed, five years after my decision to eradicate the last vestiges of my novel, I made the opposite decision to revisit it and ultimately publish it. I thought I was ready to embrace a piece of my being from my days before faith.
And so it was that at the beginning of this year, I finally set it free, releasing it into the wilds. I published it as a brick of a paperback and as an eBook, momentarily confident of its prospects. It survived out there for two months before I had a change of heart. Now, as with everything I write, I cannot bear to read it back to myself. I have shunned it once more, writing off my time spent editing it as a lesson learned and my financial investment as cutting my losses. Now I look back on that day in 2003 when I sought to destroy the work for good, no longer with that derision of mine; instead I tell myself that it was probably the right decision. I had a chance a decade ago to escape the darkness of my soul, but I was not prepared back then to commit to the hard road ahead.
Now I stand at the same juncture once more, having that same conversation within: whether to purify my soul of all that holds it back, or to try to reconcile my darkness to my light. I am in a better place to succeed today, perhaps, in that I have a better understanding of the world of the writer: that most writers are never read, that most writers expend an incredible effort that is never rewarded, that for the most part it is a waste of time and energy. A decade ago I probably believed that I was an excellent writer, destined to succeed. Today I recognise that I am a mediocre writer, possessor of mixed reviews, some quite positive, but most very negative indeed. To give up writing against such a backdrop no longer seems a hideous, insurmountable sacrifice; rather, it feels like the right thing to do.
True, I lament the unfinished drafts on my computer. I lament that they may never see the light of day. But now I ask myself another question: will I really be questioned on that Awesome Day about those stories I decided not to set free, or about the obligations and prohibitions of our deen? Only a small part of me yearns to write fiction now. Mostly I have resigned to turning my back on that world, for the redemption of my soul. This time around it is less puritanical rage than resignation. The time has come to conquer the darkness of my soul.
In this month of clemency, our Lord sent us a mercy in the form of a man who refused to fly into an unholy rage when his son was torn away from him in the midst of the anarchic disintegration that had seized a nation in the preceding hours. He has become an example for a nation; a light. Commentators on the Left and Right have hailed his humble, understated words as the voice of reason in a sea of chaos. He has been an embodiment of this holy month.
Every year in the weeks before Ramadan, strange thoughts flutter into my mind, planting a seed whose roots push far enough down into my heart that it will begin to sprout just as the fasting month begins. As my pious brethren set about welcoming the month of mercy, this soul heeds another call. It has long been clear that while the transgressions of the tongue derive from the whispers of the cursed one, these indiscretions come from within; from the soul of the self.
And so, even as I abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, the riotous nafs come into bloom. Each year the ailment is the same, provoking the same reaction, the same visions, the same plots and plans, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at its end. This year: in the first then days, when sensible believers are found seeking the Mercy of their Lord. Instead of imploring my Creator to forgive and guide me, I was found harbouring an argument within: between the soul that cherishes righteousness and the soul that prefers rebellion. The first was weak and feeble, petitioning unconvincingly of an imminent end; the second was brazen, unheeding and arrogant. In the conversations within, it was the seditious soul that appeared to be on the ascendency.
We might find that these long summer fasts in the northern hemisphere are a great mercy, though they may not seem that way as our stomachs growl and shrink, as our frames become skeletal, as our eyes droop with sleep. For where the long nights of the winter fasts provide broad avenues for feasting and misdemeanour, these long days and short nights seem to curtail the conspiracies of the mutinous soul. As the sun sets there is no return to normality, no recuperation for the dissenter within; there is time for food and then comes that heavy fatigue, from which there is apparently no escape.
A week ago there arose strange contrivances, demanding strategies for the weeks that will follow this blessed month, when we will believe ourselves free from the restraints that impose self-discipline upon us now. But suddenly — whether due to the du’a of a friend or stranger or to the exhaustion that accompanies us as the month wears on — those erroneous designs have left me. Now that brazen soul has become feeble, whispering when it can for a return to its plots and plans, but even it is unconvinced. The righteous soul is still nowhere to be found, resigning to the intervention of this weary hunger instead.
My pious brethren strive in this month; they stand their nights in prayer and whenever their nafs petition them to act upon their lowest calls, they turn their backs and pray some more. This soul can only look on in awe, for it is tiredness that restrains it now; not piety, not righteousness, not religious purity. This is a soul that would sin through a month of immense mercy, were it not for the constrictions of a summer fast.
Mine are riotous nafs, which would tear down all that is good for short term gains, of little worth or value. I have not been wronged, I remind myself, but I wrong myself. And England lost its senses last week, not for the call of the devil, for the devils are chained in Ramadan, but for the calls of a nation’s nafs. It took one man — a mercy from above — to remind us of a higher calling, of a better way. He was Ramadan incarnate, the word made flesh. For the Muslim, it takes these long thirsty days, these parched throats, this heavy sleep, the aches and pains — all of this — to burn away our unholy desires, to overcome our riotous nafs.
There is a disease that I have harboured for the best part of my life. It accompanied me as a child, an adolescent and an adult; as a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic and a Muslim; and in times of both health and sickness. I would define it as a disease of the soul — a spiritual malady — that stifles realisation of any lofty goals. As familiar symptoms return as the years pass by, it becomes ever more apparent that it is an addiction. I turn to treat it frequently and promise to abstain, but in time the cravings become too intense, sometimes manifesting themselves in physical form, and once more I succumb.
In my mind’s eye, I can map out every resolution of reform, for I have long recognised the nature of this disease, striving to conquer it whenever the moment of clarity descends. There was that cold night on Christmas Eve — perhaps 1990 — sitting alone in my bedroom, my parents at church for the midnight service, the window obscured by condensation; I sat on my bed with my bible between my palms, conversing inwardly on the sudden urge to seek out righteousness in place of this affliction. I resolved to displace the ailment with faith and determined to focus on the bible now, reading it from cover to cover, penning my own copy in the process. What happened thereafter, I do not recall, but it is most likely that I forgot my pledge as the sun rose on Christmas morning and the celebrations carried us away.
Another resolution came in my second year of university. The virus was becoming epidemic, infecting every private moment, calling me towards ever lower depths and pulling me closer and closer to despair. My conversation with this agnostic’s God became hopeless, giving in to a grim fate after a death that somehow felt so close. Then one morning I arose and took to the streets of London in a crisp, cool sunlight, the sky an enlivening blue. My steps were aimless, but I ended up in the Regent’s Park, cutting through its beautiful gardens with my mind a million miles away from there, until all of a sudden I was very much there and abruptly conscious of myself. In that instant came a prayer: a resolution of instant reform and dedication to my Lord. In the days that followed I made contact with evangelists and took up their invitations of months before.
Such resolutions — and my revulsion for myself — became key drivers of my search for God and faith. It felt over those first days and weeks after my testimony of faith, months after that Saturday sojourn, as if a great burden had lifted. With belief in God and His messenger came a desire to be good now. The weather was hot and dusty in the city that summer, yet it was in my mind that I felt my sins burning up and blowing away in the wind like parched dust. I had broken the chains, I naively thought, as I adjusted myself to my new-found faith.
This disease, however, is pervasive and deeply ingrained. I frequently blame the television of childhood and the gaze of my infant eyes for planting the seed that has grown and grown, until it has become more rampant than the Russian Vine in my garden, or like the Bamboo the previous owners foolishly thought fit to plant. The kernel of this ill may have been miniscule, but the years have fed and nurtured it, creating a monster whose shoots push up from a new fragment of root whenever another is cut off and cured.
Another marker on the map comes to mind as if it were only yesterday. It had not taken a year for this soul to relapse into the ways of old — in fact it may have only taken a matter of weeks — and soon the self would justify its conduct, normalising it and dismissing the significance of such minor matters. But in time this would dissatisfy me, for I could not promise that the minor would not become major and undermine whatever I had achieved. It was a realisation that struck me one late spring day in 1999.
I had finished my studies for the day and was heading back to my flat beside Waterloo Bridge on the southern bank of the Thames. My saunter, as always, had carried me along the western edge of Russell Square, along Montague Street, half-way up Great Russell Street and down Museum Street. Now I was meandering up Drury Lane. Half way along my portion of the street I sidestepped Jay Kay from Jamiroquai as he got out of his Lamborghini[1. Fame had clearly aborted the environmental message of his early lyrics.], but inner thoughts prevented me from glancing back or lusting for his Italian marque. I was mulling over reform: the time had come, I was telling myself, to finally conquer that disease. A voice was asking questions: will you really abandon all of that, when your life is so long and you so weak? But my mind was suddenly conscious of the Hour and mindful of punishment if nothing changed, and convinced that death could come at any minute. As I cut onto Bow Street I arrived at a reluctant retort. Yes, I would abandon my addiction and dedicate myself to God and His way.
Why I remember that conversation as if it were yesterday, I do not know, except that it was a pledge that I failed to keep. Weeks would pass — perhaps even months —when I would persevere patiently, ignoring the call of the ogre within, but eventually I would succumb to it. How many times I have resolved to reform and overcome this great infection, I cannot say or count. Another conversation came one hot afternoon on my return from Friday Prayer on an early summer’s day in Ealing. Another came on a painfully frosty night in mid-winter as I awaited a train to carry me home.
I oscillate continuously between a call to righteousness and the call of a pervasive addiction that never seems to leave me, regardless of good intentions or the sincerest resolve to leave it behind. It is what evangelists refer to as ‘the addictive grip of sin’ and what Muslims call ‘the domineering nafs’. I call it my great test, and it is a test I would not wish on anyone.
The past two or three years, I fear, have been worse than those earlier years. My memory fails me, of course, for in the continuum of life it is the same old-same old. But worse because I now know better: because a teacher has taken time to explain the stages of the nafs and provided the tools to overcome such burdens, because I have awoken to the necessities of faith, because I am supposed to be older and wiser now. My faith provides the resources to climb to a great height, but there is no instant panacea for any ill; we are required to exert effort, to persevere and be strong — as in any field of life — or else we fail.
Earlier this year I believed that I had cured my addiction. Months passed when its symptoms ceased, when I preoccupied myself with other tasks in order to dull its calls, when I shut down each avenue that would lead to this giant’s reawakening. Imagine if I had succeeded! In my mind it is like a golden ticket — if only I could grasp it, I tell myself, I could then progress. What a blessing to be close to one’s Lord! What a blessing to earn His pleasure! What a blessing to rise in rank before Him! But alas!
I must have compromised somehow — opened the door a crack — for all my achievements of the early part of the year have now been lost and reduced to just a distant memory. Could I not just repent and start over? If I have achieved forty days once, can I not again? If I have achieved sixty, why not try to better it, and gradually — pole pole ndio mwendo[2. A Swahili proverb that roughly translates as, “Slowly, slowly fills up the bowl”.]— build up some kind of immunity? I should aspire to that, at least, I know, but with each resolve to return to God my determination weakens. Mankind will never comprehend the mercy of God; when we despair of His mercy, it is really despair of ourselves, for though our Lord can forgive a world’s weight of sin and more, man is short on tolerance. Yet in truth it is not disbelief in God’s mercy at all, but rather surrender to addiction.
Two weeks ago came that resolve to turn to righteousness and abandon foolish ways. I knelt in prayer and tried my best to eradicate every trace of the poison that had welled up like a bitter sore. But soon the cynic within was once more whispering those familiar counter-arguments, chiselling open the crack, nudging the door back open. And so, so soon, the foolish ways returned, each period of reform narrowing against the last, until it is but a slither of time: the proverbial mustard seed, perhaps. Last night, again I resolved to change, to strive in His way. But by morning I could hear the virus calling.
And now? What now? My sorrow stems from my acute awareness of the affliction. Were I an ignorant fool succumbing amidst blindness to the realities around me, surely I would find respite. But instead I am a learned fool: one that knows of right and wrong, good and bad, of the diseases and cures of the heart. For such a fool, what hope could there possibly be, except the undeserved mercy of His Lord?
All of this, my dear friends, is the woeful curse of addiction, the oscillation of the wayward soul. So don’t be a fool like me, my friends. Shelter yourself and your children from the poisons of this world, and seek refuge in your Lord.
I’m not really sure about this Web 2.0 malarkey. I’ve just deleted my Facebook account again. Last time it was because I imagined a fantastical conspiracy in which key investors were databasing our identities for unspeakable ends. I can’t remember how the account came to be resurrected, but somehow I delved back in and rebuilt my global empire of friends. I found old classmates, connected with the Turkish relations and found myself sought by people who knew me from somewhere, or who were a friend of a friend, or who were just trying their luck.
But as of two nights ago, my Facebook account is no more (well technically, it will be no more in 14 days time; in the meantime I can change my mind and pretend this never happened). This time the reason was closer to home. Learning of another marriage on the rocks in which Facebook had played at least a part, I found myself heeding the alarm bells going off within. If this could happen to folk likes these—far better believers that I—it could clearly happen to me.
Although Facebook for me was just a glorified address book—as I shunned the invitations and applications that appeared on the dashboard when I logged in once a week—the analogy that sprang to mind was that of the marketplace. Now I can understand why sitting in such a setting without purpose is discouraged. ‘The nafs that walk the street,’ as a friend said recently, oblivious to the fallen relationships, ‘are the same nafs that surf the net.’ The face in a crowd that appears much more beautiful than that of your beloved is no different to the virtual contact who appears far more interesting than them.
In the past when my wife recounted yet another article describing a family torn apart by a blossoming relationship across the keyboards on Facebook, I felt able to dismiss it, pointing out that these things have always occurred, that it’s only the technology that’s changing. Why single out Facebook, I would ask? It was a valid argument, but it missed the point. She would condemn any forum where people were losing their senses and falling headlong into sin. But media accounts always carry a different weight to those of people you know. It is scary, to be perfectly honest, to realise that real relationships, real families, real spouses and real children are indeed reaping the consequences of our abandonment of the sunnah when we venture online.
I have enough experience of my own to learn that the Internet can be an addictive drug. There is something rather unsettling in the routine that sees one repeatedly checking back to an old favourite to see if it’s live again at last, even though it’s become perfectly apparent that we’re stuck with visual commentary for the rest of eternity. Such a habit is, of course, the least of the problem. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is rather more intrusive.
The weeks I spent offline, bringing the garden under control, were physically exhausting, but emotionally liberating. The world offline—for me—brings a peace to my heart (but often aches to my back, knees and arms). My return online soon has me spinning back into old, irritating ways. It is my curse.
And it is the curse of others too. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is taking over people’s lives, as they forget a multitude of sunnahs—the gaze of our eyes, the company we keep, our use of words, sitting alone (albeit with the intervention of fibre-optic cables) with those haram to us, and this list goes on.
‘What has happened to Tim?’ asks a friend. ‘Why such extremes, so suddenly?’
Is it an extreme, or is it the dawning of reality? Today ‘extreme’ is where Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 led two friends, but tomorrow I may change my mind. Today I am thinking out loud. Tomorrow I may make the hard choices.