To remain steadfast after repentance is never easy. That moment of sincerity whilst falling down on your face in regret, resolving never to repeat those mistakes or return to them, is severely tested over the days that follow. It is too easy to become heedless of realities, returning to the norms that surround us. Video, photography, opinion pieces, radio, music — our senses are perpetually bombarded from every direction. The gentle teachings of our deen are easily ignored: listen not to vain talk, speak good or remain silent, lower your gazes, remember your Lord often. It is all too easy to return to wickedness even after that sincere resolve to reform. The battle with the nafs is perhaps the fiercest conflict of all.
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 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?