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.
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?
One lesson that experience teaches me is that sincere repentance must always be followed by vigilance.
In Ramadan we have the gift of being able to distinguish between two types of sins: those that come from within, from the nafs, and those that come from outside. When, in the midst of that blessed month, we find our tongues dry of words, it becomes quite apparent that our misuse of speech throughout the remainder of the year derives largely from the inspiration of the whispering one. But as for those other sins that accompany us even through the month of fasting, it is usually self-evident that they come from deep within.
I have tried and tried to conquer the sins of the nafs, failing constantly but nevertheless returning to repentance in due course, falling down upon my face with a commitment to strive against them. It is hard work, for I have fed them since childhood and thoughts of them now pervade my mind and memory. On occasion it has been possible to abstain from thoughts of them for weeks and months, but usually progress is less effective: sometimes a couple of weeks, sometimes just days, sometimes only part of a day or an hour. It is a painful battle, wherein even the body reacts with hunger, persuading the mind to drop its guard and return to those transgressions that will be its downfall.
Nevertheless there is repentance and the possibility of redemption. It is possible to return to that ultimate realisation that the only way forward is to slay and conquer the sins of the nafs, to burn them out, even if the heaviness of desires causes that aching pain within to become unbearable. And so, slowly in time, even as we stumble along the way, we make ourselves a covenant with God, committing to strive steadfastly on this path, closing down every avenue that could lead to its return.
But experience has taught me that this is not enough. For without vigilance, it is all too easy to replace one sort of sin with another. My epiphany of reform came early on Sunday morning, driving me to fall down in prayer, to beg for forgiveness, help and guidance. Yet on Monday morning, heading into town to take care of some business, I would find myself tallying up a new set of marks in my record. Encountering a friend there, innocent greetings and an exchange of news would soon dissolve into one of those heedless conversations that carries us perilously close to danger. We both believed that we were speaking out of concern for our friends, petitioning one another to action, intent on them rectifying their affairs.
It was not until the midnight hours as I lay in bed that it occurred to me that the source of my sudden concern for a friend was not what I had thought it was. Instead of responding with measured advice and leaving it there, or even saying I don’t know, we had listened to the provocations of the whispering one and threw ourselves into sin, all the while convincing ourselves that we were acting with integrity, speaking up only out of love and mercy.
All of a sudden, quite horrifically, it occurred to me that just as last time when I had promised never to feed those sins of the nafs again, I had hurriedly dashed into another trap without even looking where I was going. And I know not what harm I have caused.
The avenues to our destruction are many — some wide, some narrow, some appealing, some repulsive — and so we must permanently remain on guard. If we are making an effort to overcome one sin that constantly plays on our mind, we must remind ourselves of others of which we are unconscious. The whispering one only requires us to be unmindful for an instant for us to throw all of our good deeds to the wind. So be vigilant both in times of strength and weakness, of joy and sadness, of contentment and of rage. Without it, our progress may forever remain a mere illusion.
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.
It is Easter weekend and I am staying in the Rectory with my parents. As both of them are vicars responsible for different churches, they are in and out all weekend. The station of the cross on Good Friday after the night vigil on Thursday. My mother has already returned from her service this evening, but my father is still out doing his in the darkness. At dawn tomorrow my mother will be lead her congregation in another vigil, and then the main service later in the morning. It is Easter weekend, marking the key events upon which their entire theology hangs.
The crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. Christians believe that the crucifixion represents the ultimate example of God’s love, the only means by which we are forgiven for our sins. Thus this weekend is a time of emotion for them, a time for reflection and giving thanks. It is a time of contemplation, and yet logically I find it a somewhat peculiar theology. The walls in my mother’s office are lined with books, mostly on different aspects of Christian theology. It is not that they have not reflected on it; in fact they believe in it with passion, considering it an altogether coherent philosophy. They live and breeth this theology. It is everything to them.
Still, I find it peculiar. For me, the ultimate example of God’s compassion cannot be seen in a ransom. Instead it is that beautiful and humbling moment when we turn to Him alone, regardless of what we have done, repenting sincerely. He does not require a sacrifice or an atoning saviour. He merely asks us to turn to Him in repentance and He will forgive us. The simplicity of the act is its blessing.
Let the Christians dwell on the cross and the empty tomb, but I will continue to dwell on the words of the Qur’an, on the supplications we are taught to say when we er and on that famous Hadith Qudsi:
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.
That indicates an infinetly more generous Lord. My sins could be like mountains, but God promises forgiveness so long as I turn to Him. No cross, no tomb, no crown of thorns. Just simple words from a sincere heart.