Before I go

It is that time once more, when my website domain name comes up for renewal and I force myself to evaluate whether to pay for another two years or not. It is never about the money, but about the tongue — or rather my typing fingers — about words, and the adab due to them as we wander along this path. It is likely I posted an article very similar to this one exactly two years ago, the last time the notification arrived from my web host, so I won’t prolong this (and anyway, I am typing this one-fingered on a virtual keyboard on a tablet computer — hardly conducive to writing).

In short, I don’t think I’m going to renew it. I’m going to let it float away, to be occupied by another soul perhaps. For a while I thought I ought to hang onto it for my publishing ventures, but as I have now turned my back on those too, it hardly seems worthwhile. It is not as if it is sought-after intellectual property; I have resigned to my place in the world, as a person with zero influence. I no longer lament leaving the writing to the learned and the wise; it is time to abandon my pretensions and inflated opinion of myself. So to the hills, I suppose. This website is no longer read much at all anyway, and I rarely have time to sit down to formulate a post, though ideas occasionally occur to me. Alas I have alienated many along the way, and sent the remaining to sleep, bored of my perpetual dreary refrain.

Let this not be a long goodbye, for we have been here before, preparing to withdraw, only to return once more. This is not meant as food for my ego, a ploy to draw out undeserved eulogies. We have been here before, haven’t we? I vowed to disappear last year too, but in time felt guilty for abandoning the little community that seemed to gather here, worrying after the faceless souls that would utter amiable words from time to time. I promised to return then, but it has only really been to leave a repository of writing online.

I rarely contribute anything new, for parenthood leaves me weary, or because too much of life is now too private, too important to be spoken of in public, or because the passing of time reminds me that most of the words I have uttered should never have been uttered at all. I recall years ago writing some post about Real Men, and now I regret almost every word, for back then I had no idea just how hard parenting would be — so how dare I pontificate on the weakness of a father who could not cope and who walked out on his two severely disabled children, leaving his wife to raise them alone. Yes, my sympathy for the mother remains, but still: how arrogant of me. And how many more words did I expend, talking about matters I knew nothing about, without right? So many thoughts occur to me now, but I either cannot articulate them, or choose to remain silent instead. I think it is better this way.

So no long goodbyes then; I am more than happy to stay in touch. No, just a plea. Forgive me for my innumerable shortcomings, for misplaced words, for that novel, for my arrogance, for alienating you, for hurting feelings, and for all the rest. Before I go, forgive me for the bad stuff, and perhaps keep me in your prayers if I am worthy. I think the domain expires in about a month.

Conquering darkness

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.

Continue reading “Conquering darkness”

Staying true to the past

While editing my novel Satya, I took the decision to leave it fairly intact in order to preserve where I was then, in 1997, when I originally penned it. I wanted to stay true to the original, without imposing too much of who I am now on the story. I didn’t have in mind that this was a story I would sell to publishers. It was an attempt to set free a piece of past writing in a form that could be understood by others.

Continue reading “Staying true to the past”

Burnt retinas and RSI

In 1996 I wrote a novel entitled The Beauty of the Lion. From a literary point of view, it was a disaster, but for me as the writer it was remarkably influential.

There was nothing remarkable about the book itself, except for its particularly sloppy style and poor punctuation. Indeed, I suppose the same story has been recounted a million times before, only with mildly different characters. This was no ground-breaking tale or spectacular innovation; it was, perhaps, just another tired-out rewriting of a quite ordinary life.

Yet as I occupied the lives of those characters for a few short months — mainly in the darkened hours — as I hammered the story into the keyboard and burnt my retinas with the word processor’s midnight glow, a whole new world opened up before me. It is quite true to say that this project started my writing habit, having avoided any kind of hard work throughout my schooling, but this is not what I have in mind. Rather, though completely unintended, my investment in those semi-imagined lives carried me along a path towards an unexpected destination.

The story accompanied two quite unlikely companions: a young Sikh woman from an irreligious family attempting to rediscover her faith and a young white man running away from his. But the story was not about religion, for these faiths were purely markers of identity. For the jumble of atheist, Sikh, Christian and Muslim characters race was the defining identity that caused tensions between them.

So a tale began of how two insecure characters could have become friends were it not for the intervention of their other acquaintances: the Pakistani Muslim girls who befriended the Sikh at school and warned her of the white boy’s crimes, and the boy’s Muslim friends who derided the girl for her odd ways. The Muslim characters were one dimensional, with few redeeming qualities. The girls were judgemental and racist, while the boys befell one misfortune after another.

Naturally, as these tales almost always go, eventually the two saw through the machinations of their advisers and decided to become friends. And so of course the Sikh girl’s brother threatened to break the white boy’s back, and her friends turned their backs on her, and a friendship was exaggerated into something akin to fornication, and though they denied that it was anything more, the girl finally faced the consequences of insinuation and was thrown out of the house and sent away.

And yet that was just the beginning. Fifteen chapters and a hundred thousand words later, a period of fifteen years having passed by in its pages, the novel ended on her son’s first day of school. Her job now ‘was to see that Benjamin-Piara, and Laila, would succeed the way she did, but without the heartbreak and the struggle.’  Apart from the terribly poor writing, it was quite a grim novel — the encounters with racists and criminals were hardly light entertainment — but it had a happy ending, of sorts.

For me, however, that was not the end of it. About four months after completing the project I moved down to London to begin a university degree. A few of my fellow students read copies of my novel, but they were all far too polite to offer any constructive criticism. It did not matter, for I had already come to terms with its flaws. Finding myself in a hugely cosmopolitan environment, interacting with people from all sorts of backgrounds, I was suddenly conscious of the one dimensional nature of the characters in the book and the great complexities of real people. Gradually I was becoming sympathetic to some of the antagonists in my novel and more critical of the two main characters.

As the year wore on and I honed my writing skills penning essays on environmental degradation and theories of economic development, I knew that I had to rewrite that novel. At first I just wanted to improve the quality of the writing, which I knew was poor and immature, but as I committed to revisiting the story it began taking on a life of its own.

The Sikh girl’s friends were not as bad as I had thought. One was just principled in her beliefs. She had her faults like anyone, but her objections to the boy came not from malice, but out of genuine concern for her friend. The Sikh girl was not as certain about beliefs as I had thought: she was just putting out feelers, stumbling to find her way in an environment devoid of guidance. The boy was no pure victim of the vindictiveness of others: he had played an active role in messing up his life.

By the time I returned to my word processor at the start of the summer break and began the novel anew, it was already a different book. Where it had once been clearly about race, now it was threaded with ambivalent questions of faith. Where there was once a certainty about the rightness of some characters and wrongness of others, there was now uncertainty in everyone. The girl that was the thorn in the side of the main players in the first draft had somehow won my respect.

In the process of writing a piece of fiction, it was as if the writer had moved a thousand miles. My summer break proved too short and by my return to university to begin my second year of studies I had only completed half of the rewrite, and that was as far as I ever got. My writing had carried me — though not alone, for there were other influences too — towards another world.  Before the following summer I would be a treading a new path myself. Not as a well defined, one dimensional creature, but a complicated, ambivalent character that a far greater Creator had willed into existence.

I shall forever be grateful for the pen, for bringing me this far from home. And to the publisher who recognised that the manuscript was best consigned to the bin.

The restoration

The past two weeks have seen this blog go through the full mid-life crisis. First going into maintenance mode, then reappearing for a couple of days, then being deleted and replaced with the finale from a Walt Disney cartoon, then momentarily restored, only to be shunted into a sub-directory, to be abandoned in favour of a much needed sort-out of my scattered study notes.

This morning—thanks to a long chat with a trusted advisor last evening—I have put everything back as it was two weeks ago, and I have locked up the notes repository to spare the general public my mistakes; if they do make it back into the public domain at some point in the future, it will only be once they have been checked, edited and put into the right order. Patience is then the order of the day in that regard.

Of course, it wasn’t this inanimate website that had a little crisis; that was me. Blame it on the maddening antics of friends on Facebook that caused me to flee the technology in an instant, blaming the tool instead of dominating nafs; indeed, just as I deleted my blog, so I deleted numerous other online accounts that I have accumulated over the years. Or blame online discussions that to me resemble backbiting and mere gossip—two of the deeds condemned by our deen—that inspired me to rid myself of any blame by association. Or blame the way I stumbled once more soon after venturing back online after many weeks away. Or simply blame my numerous insecurities, my persistent fear of my use of words, the lack of constancy in my life, the wavering between certainty and doubt.

I might blame all of these, but I blame too the lowly character traits of mine that arise from time to time: pride, arrogance, the ego, the desire to be known, respected and liked. Yes, this much is true. This web of little boxes connected by cables all over the world is like a plain upon which we amass our troops, ready to battle our corner for the diseases of our hearts. We fire off rounds and shells: the cruise missile called “respect me”, the scud-missile called “don’t condemn me”, the atomic bomb called “I respect you, so you MUST respect me”—mutually assured destruction?

Yes, I have witnessed all of this in myself, and as a true soldier I kept on fighting my corner right up until last night, even after I had pulled the plug on the website. Because even pulling the plug was part of the battle: it is the ego, the desire to be seen. One’s intention, as we know, is as difficult to detect as black ants crawling on a black stone at night. Even so, as we attune ourselves to our heart as the years pass by, we soon learn that we cannot escape the two witnesses of the heart: God and ourselves.

The games we play are incredible, rekindling the inner child with every passing day. A visitor shall respond, “Actually you’re wrong.” But the inward gaze laments that I’m not wrong at all, and so I can only envy that one that has conquered the calls of his nafs and the whispers of the rejected one. To that one I must repeat that I only know what my own soul contains; you have your journey and I have mine.

My foray into the world of “blogging” has been recent. Prior to mid-2005 I had never heard of a blog—or if I had, I had never given it any thought. I had created a website in 2001 and had occasionally added an article to it over the years that followed, but by 2005 it seems that I was totally out of touch with the technologies of the Internet—my websites were all still static affairs, using table-based layouts and plain HTML. Even a cascading style sheet was a mystery to me.

I believe it was an article in a computer magazine that first pushed me towards creating a blog. I read it in the week that four bombs exploded on the London public transport system and suddenly I had a need to write, to work things out of my system. I googled for a blogging platform and promptly minted one using the first offering that came up. The Neurocentric—my journey of a self-centred soul from my student days—was thus resurrected on Blogger, shedding the sarcasm that my magazine column was famous for in favour of an intense inward gaze. Soon I was hammering out my thoughts, spewing my anger onto the keyboard, relieving the heaviness within.

Google also provided my first link into the world of Muslim blogging. I had no connections with Muslims in cyberspace, for all of my friends were three-dimensional folk. So my search would have been, “blog islam”. The first site I discovered was Yusuf Smith’s Blogistan, and I don’t believe I got much further than this, for his site was the gateway to this corner of the internet; had I hit upon SalafiManhaj, my virtual world could have been entirely different. Br Yusuf had carefully collected a huge list of Muslim blogs, categorised as “Brothers” and “Sisters”, and so I was soon clicking away in my discovery of this other world. He also had a small collection of links entitled, “A-List Blogs”, which would soon become my staple: sunnissisters, izzymo, writeoussister, ae and rolleduptrousers, plus Bin Gregory because I liked the name.

But for me, blogging was not so much about reading what everyone else had to say as about writing, or more specifically, counselling myself with words. That period—however long it lasted—wrought good and bad for me: the bad in an intense depression brought on by unsuccessful medical treatment, the stress of moving house and a disastrous change of job; the good in the bad leading me to re-evaluate my priorities and refocus on my deen. The writing was a kind of therapy, complimented by the words of others, far wiser than I. The blog known as Sunnisisters was the jewel in the crown, always providing exactly what this soul needed exactly when it was needed. Like early in 2006, a post brimming with useful guidance on fasting the Day of Ashurah in Muharram, about which I had been oblivious. Or a beautiful post about the importance of being disciplined in the use of words.

Though, ever since I entered this world of blogging, I have frequently had the urge to walk away, in truth I have benefited from it enormously. Yes, from thinking things through and receiving feedback on my thoughts, and in encountering the words of others. Over the net I hear rumours that the world of the Muslim blog is imploding as battles rage on, but in truth there has been more benefit here for me than the despair that others speak of. Perhaps my blog vision is just too narrow to know much of the wider web. I have moved on beyond that famed A-List, discovering the wonders of Dynamite Soul and Mr Moo, but I am no adventurer: I can count the websites I visit regularly on my finger tips.

Despair descends suddenly and this imperfect soul is well known to waver and stumble, between its bouts of constancy. With the despair come doubts about one’s worth, or the worth of one’s efforts, and so it is only natural that I should return to the same old argument within, between keeping the blog and closing it. But it also helps to step back and be reflective, to evaluate the good as well as the bad, the benefit as well as the harm. Sometimes we can do this alone, but sometimes it takes an outsider to help us see an issue in its proper light. For some, the world of the blog has run its course: they have nothing more to take from it and nothing more to add. But the blog, as a trusted advisor told me last night, still has its place, and can still be a worthwhile pursuit and can even be important.

Somewhere in this jumble, splurged onto the page, is some kind of explanation of how he persuaded me to carry on and keep it up, and keep at it. Yes, with words come responsibility, but that is not only to be silent, but to convey truth, goodness and beauty as well. And so I am here to say, inshaAllah.

Changing Times

Weblogs have come under quite some fire recently in the newspaper I regularly buy. Janet Street-Porter‘s comment last week was followed a day later by an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. In both cases their generalisations are quite amazing. For me and many others this medium is a mere tool.

Continue reading “Changing Times”

Going off at tangents

It is interesting where my frequent digressions lead me. I have a tendency to see in other people’s writing what they did not intend, or never could have intended: the little snippet, the sentence or the word, which leads me off in an altogether new direction.

Late last night I was thinking about that article on nasheed pop-culture which led me off on another irrelevant foray two days ago. I had considered it rather harsh at the time, but it has got me thinking. This journalist was not alone in expressing her concerns; indeed in this month’s Q-News, Suma Din reports on the growing concern that the nasheed business has lost its bearings as it becomes increasingly efficient and corporate. All across blogistan and cyberspace, fingers are tapping out thoughts on the subject.

That something is efficient, or corporate, or well organised does not have to be a bad thing. It would be wonderful if the teachers in Muslim schools received a decent wage, for example, the management respecting their teachers’ efforts. But I do appreciate the concern: there is that fear that we might just be diving head first down a lizard hole.

As I pondered the whole topic late last night – initiating thoughts that led me to search out some ahadith about the signs of the hour – it occurred to me that this concern could equally be applied to any media we are engaged with today. Muslims have sought a voice over recent years in print, through the internet and now satellite TV, primarily as a means of countering the representations made by what we commonly call the “mainstream media”. Just as we may have legitimate concerns about where a culture of nasheed performance may take us, it is reasonable to ask whether everything is sound in these other media.

Personally I find that I am caught between two poles. On the one hand I am anticipating an Islamic renaissance in the West – our Cordoba moment when our community will flourish in culture, art and literature as a light to humanity. On the other hand, considering the realisation of many of the signs of the Hour which Muhammad – peace be upon him – announced for us, there is a sense that this dream of regeneration is mere delusion.

Many engaged with the various communication media available to us today have high hopes about the former. There are growing numbers of glossy magazines and weekly newspapers circulating today. Thousands of us maintain weblogs and take pride in our contribution to… what? To the Muslim community? To literature? To humanity? To ourselves? We maintain them for some reason anyway. There are also thousands of traditional websites. There is the growth of Muslim publishing. And of satellite TV. I have been trying to look on the bright side too.

But the journalist’s contribution has left me thinking. When we write, do we do so with the proper adab? And do we respect knowledge as we should? Do we say we do not know when we do not know? Do we write about that about which we have knowledge? And when saying nothing will do, do we feel we must write something just to fill up the column inches? The journalist asked us not to listen to what is haram: similar could be said of our engagement with writing. Do we lay people have the ability or capacity to write about that which we are writing about, and if we do not, is it halal to continue doing so? I do not know the answer.

The signs of the Hour are in many minds these days. The violence, brutality and widespread killing remind us of our blessed Prophet’s warnings about the latter days. The once barefooted Bedouin are now racing one another to construct the highest building, just as he – peace be upon him – said they would. All of us are touched by the dust of usury, even as we try our best to avoid it, just as he foretold. We know that every word that our blessed Prophet Muhammad spoke was truthful. As Ibn Majah, Bukhrai and Muslim all reported, “The Prophet said, ‘Just before the Hour, there will be
days in which knowledge will disappear and ignorance will appear, and there will be much killing.'” As I witness the fulfilment of many a prophesy, I feel quite afraid of others.

Our noble Messenger Muhammad, peace be upon him, told us of the days when ignorance would increase, when an opinion would be sought from the most worthless of us, when writing would be widespread, when the matters of public life would be discussed by ignorant people, when the leader of a people is the worst of them. All of these have implications for those of us involved in one medium or another. So how are we to conduct ourselves if we are to engage at all? If we see an evil action, we have been commanded to fight it with our hands, but if we cannot do that we should fight it with our tongues, and if we cannot do this we should hate it in our hearts – and that is the weakest of faith. So we know there is a role for us – but how we conduct ourselves is the question.

I know that we should not read ahadith in isolation and we should really study under a teacher, for we are not qualified to interpret knowledge for ourselves. Still, I gave myself such a fright last night as I sat reading before my Isha prayer. To turn in repentance was the only response I considered appropriate. The Prophet’s words reminded me that even if Allah t’ala has granted me a vocation, He requires me to act within the framework of the Shariah with wisdom. When I do not know, I should be silent. If I am asked for my opinion on something about that which I have no knowledge, I should say I do not know. If news reaches me, I should endeavour to verify it. And if I see an evil, I should uphold Allah’s law above all, being a witness to the Truth and not a slave to the latest trend.

So for this weblog journey of a self-centred soul, it may mean some re-evaluation of my direction. Perhaps a return to those idealistic postings of early 2001 which were more dawah focussed. I’m not sure yet. I may just post less frequently – but then I have said that before. Whatever I decide to do, I pray that Allah t’ala grants me wisdom and protects me from those whispers that lead us astray so quickly. We all should, for the consequences do not bare thinking of.

A story: how I started writing

I have been asked to write something about my love of writing, where it started and so on. It is an interesting question, especially when I look back. I am not well read nor am I learned. I did not have this interest throughout school – or at least I don’t think I did – although I have always been my own story teller.

Continue reading “A story: how I started writing”

Troubled Writer

Exactly a decade ago I spent every day, between the hours of about two in the afternoon and three in the morning, tapping out a novel called The Beauty of the Lion. I had just finished a short contract testing mapping software on the Science Park in Cambridge and had returned to my parents’ home. I don’t know how they tolerated me, but I spent about five months solid writing that book. When I had finished, I printed five limited editions on my HP inkjet on some plaid A5 paper I had bought from WHSmiths. My father then took the pages with him to the office where he had them bound.

Shortly afterwards he kindly ordered me a dozen packs of guillotined A4 paper, which arrived in thick A5 blocks wrapped in brown paper. A few more copies promptly popped out of my printer. I say promptly, but there was me printing the odd pages from each one of the twenty-nine chapters, each one stored in a separate Word file, turning them over, setting the file to print back-to-front and then printing the even pages. My sobs when it pulled multiple pages through the printer at once were audible throughout the house. When I had finished I flew off to Tanzania to spend forty-nine days with my missionary uncle.

By the following summer, after a year at university, I had decided to re-write that novel, having concluded that the original was a pile of #@£$. I wanted to make a decent book out of it, so I spent my entire summer holidays working through it. Again, I don’t know how my parents tolerated me, but they did. The first draft had been all about race, the new one more about religion. The shift in my writing reflected what was happening in real life, as attested by The Neurocentric column published in the student magazine. I never finished this draft for by the following summer I had embraced Islam and was shunning the creative life.

The Neurocentric disappeared from the student magazine and all work on the novel ceased. A couple of years later in a fit of disillusionment I deleted the files from my computer and threw the printed copies away. A week or so later I wondered what on earth I had done; the writing may have been poor, but those books were part of me. I frantically searched for some software to restore my files, for they were long gone from the Windows Recycle Bin. I searched my Zip disks, my floppies, the odd CD-ROM. Some files, at least, I was able to restore, but half a dozen chapters from my latest work were gone. There was once a manuscript from that one circulating amongst friends – it is the only remaining copy of those words – but I have no idea where it is, even if it still exists.

I have written on this web log before about why I ceased to write in this fictional setting. I stopped for three or four years, although there were moments now and then when I returned, or thought about returning. The urge to write remained, but I was often disillusioned. I did not know if I still could, or still should. There was another aspect: in the past I had been a rather angry chap and so I used my writing to work things out of my system. As a Muslim, however, I no longer have that anger, or at least I cannot sustain it. If I am angry, my prayer makes me calm again. With five prayers in the day it is nearly impossible to use that anger, to put in down on paper. Rage is such great inspiration, but Islam has made me calm.

Around four years ago, however, I finally came to some sort of peace, reconciling my desire to write with my Islam. I perceived a need. And so began a new novel at last. It is a tale about the way power can corrupt and temptations overcome us. Progress is incredibly slow, but at least there is a work in progress. These days I am employed full time and I am a married man. I cannot lock myself away for hours on end; especially since I haven’t even shared a paragraph with my good wife in three years. Progress is painfully slow. No more than 90,000 words in three years. But at least I am writing again.

Despite the constant requests, I am reluctant to share my novel even with my wife or a writer friend of mine because it is disjointed at the moment and would not make sense. I have long since abandoned the first chapter which I wrote three years ago, thus my original second chapter is just hanging there while I rework everything. Alas it was not a short chapter either, so it is quite a substantial gap. While reading a bit of Wilde and a bit of Dickens recently made me re-evaluate my chapter structure and make them much shorter, those early versions were 16,000 and 36,000 words respectively. The early text was also set in a fictional town circa 1993, while it now encompasses a very real landscape and a new decade – so continuity is hugely wanting.

What is more, the way in which I am writing this novel causes reluctance. As I have said before, I describe it as “layers upon layers”. I usually start by rushing the dialogue down, then I would go back to really work on that dialogue. Later I would move on to the environment, the setting, the details. Sometimes it’s the other way round – I have swathes of atmospheric text I am really happy with, but the dialogue is hollow. I would say I have a continuity of twelve chapters now which could be considered a complete first draft – from what was my new first chapter – and the original long second chapter, but beyond this all I have are islands. Some of those islands are there because I haven’t got to them yet, but many others are there simply because they are so difficult and I am avoiding them as long as possible.

People think I am crazy: I am the author after all. Why am I making things so difficult for myself, they ask. It is the gap between formulating the story and my ability to tell it as I want it to be told. It is really hard work. My writer friend was asking me why it is taking me so long a couple of weeks ago. I explained that I tapped out my first novel over just a few months a decade ago, but it was a load of rubbish: it had no stylistic merit whatsoever. This time I want to write something that is “good” at the very least.

I have picked it up twice this week, but only managed five sentences. I am lazy, or easily distracted, or I have a very short attention span. Emails took me away from it. The Neurocentric took me away. The call of my garden pulled me away. A forum for writers distracted me. My evenings pass me by too quickly. I do not want to neglect my wife. So much to take me away. I may pick it up again this evening. It is Friday night, I may work into the early hours. I may.

But then again, I said I would cook a pie tonight; I said I would do my share. Sorry, dear novel, I must neglect you once more.

To be nor not to be?

It is a question which I have written about many times before, but one which seems to recur almost in a cycle, returning every three weeks or so: to write or not to write? The latest turn—having only just reconciled myself—arose when I read a comment on this site about the role of the people of knowledge. As I have noted repeatedly, we are a people commanded to speak good or stay silent, thus I wrestle with myself regarding this passion of mine. I love to write, for it brings me joy and relief; indeed it is a tool of counsel, clarifying thoughts that were at first confused.

As I reconcile myself to this passion, I consider my writing a gift from Allah. Some are given the eloquence of the tongue, others the hand of the calligrapher. Some are given great strength and energy, others compassionate gentleness. Everyone is given their gift, to be used to glory of their Creator and His way. And yet, that question recurs. Is it a gift or is it a test? Is it a tool to be used to benefit my faith or is it a distraction that replaces God-centeredness with the ego? Constantly I ponder this question.

From where does this dilemma come? Is it the legacy of the culture which first nurtured me when I was new to my faith? Throughout the Muslim lands we find the most beautiful mosques, flowing calligraphy, stunning tiles, works of poetry and literature, but my new faith seemed to look on these with contempt. In my mind, it became an almost Protestant Islam, painting over a rich tapestry of history with rough whitewash. Presenting an acultural view of life and religion, all those achievements of the ages were presented as nought; indeed they were viewed as the going-astray of the believers. So the architecture of Alhambra was seen as decadence and the scientific endeavours of Bagdad were viewed with ambiguity. Thus when I visited a Muslim country for the first time—Turkey in this instance—I viewed the great mosques not with wonder but with a kind of dismissive derision instead.

I believe this is a question which continues to trouble me and it is no doubt the root of that other question of mine: to write or not to write? For I have an ambiguous relationship with the arts, with those nuances of the human condition. On the one hand my faith inspires me with beauty, whilst on the other better believers state that true knowledge is our only armoury. Thus I am caught between the desire to put my talents to the service of my faith and the fear that they may rather lead me astray. The result is that I do nothing.

But why so much thought and so many words? Since early childhood I constructed tales in my mind, though I was never inspired to put pen to paper. Throughout my youth I was the laziest of boys, never exerting myself in anything other than daydreams, but upon leaving school and moving on to sixth-form college I had a wonderful English tutor called Eleanor Marsden who encouraged me like no teacher had before. My writing was poor, but nevertheless she nurtured this nascent interest and I am in many ways indebted to her. Two years later I completed a lengthy novel, tapped out over about six months of constantly sleepless nights. It was an immature work with few stylistic qualities, but it laid the foundation for everything I have done since. It made me want to write. It was followed by a diary of two months spent in Tanzania. Then, at university, The Neurocentric began in the pages of the student magazine; rantings that somehow fed my search for God’s pleasure. Those angry protestations of a weary agnostic, damning the believers for the faith they refused to share. And there was the rewrite of that novel of mine over the summer holidays, shifting the plot along with my thought patterns away from race and onto religion. My style had developed significantly—though looking back on it now, I see it was still hugely wanting—and the plot was more mature. It was a piece of work I never completed for by the following summer I was a Muslim, shunning this creative life.

Why so much thought and so many words? I suppose it lies with a renaissance in that desire of mine to write. Four years ago I finally began thinking about that novel again, three years after pushing it all aside. I pondered it and, realising that the impetuous for that particular story had long since passed, I decided to start afresh. Three and a half years ago, the work got underway. Sadly that question—to write or not to write—has disrupted this work all the way through. I completed the first chapter in Turkey early on (but subsequently scrapped it) and the second chapter neared completion the following summer. Yet all the time I meander between the two states. I began the first chapter once again around November last year—but I only manage to write for about eight hours in a month—starting with a spurt and then giving up once more as the disillusionment strikes yet again. I have had two novels on the go since the new Gregorian year: one that is already complete in my head but which needs to go down on paper, the other still coming together in my mind. Both of them urgent, and yet nowhere near completion. And now there is a third one just beginning.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Muslims are beginning to recognise the power of the media and are thus starting to engage it. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, even satellite TV are now within the Muslim’s grasp. My sights are set lower perhaps, but I see a vacancy for a Muslim Dickens in this land of bookshops and literature read on the tube. The question is: will I ever reconcile myself to this passion?

The complexities of censorship

Following my recent post ‘To blog or not to blog?’ some additional complexities surrounding the question of censorship occurred to me. Namely the question of censorship in the contemporary Muslim world and, secondly, how freedom of speech plays against the Islamic emphasis on the preservation of knowledge (think of the science of isnad verification, for example). In accepting that Islamic Scholars are the guardians of our religion, we implicitly reject those who speak without authority in matters relating to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In reality, today such censorship hardly exists, hence the confusion we encounter. Nevertheless, I would like to explore these two issues more.

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To blog or not to blog?

Our blessed Prophet said, “He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.” For those of us who love to write, the implications of this are clear. To “Blog” brings with it responsibilities. Although I don’t consider myself a “Blogger” – simply a writer who finds the dynamic publishing mechanism of blogging software a really useful tool, a step on from FTP I used four years ago and DTP before that* – this question exercises me constantly. I have a back catalogue spanning nine years on my own site, yet it contains barely one hundred items; were I a real blogger I would have at least three thousand. The command to “speak good” must equally apply to all forms of communication.

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Can African publishers publish African authors and keep them?

Textbooks make up ninety percent of Africa’s total book production. Whilst the continent’s population makes up twelve percent of the global figure, it produces only one percent of the world’s books. As a result, the remaining ten percent of Africa’s book production, which includes liturgical materials, academic books and gray literature, makes up a tiny and almost insignificant proportion (Chakava, 1996, pp.79-81). The affect of this situation on African authors is put by the President of the Ghana Association of Writers:

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