An Open Letter, Paul Sutherland
Dear Christian Friend
Thank you for asking me to challenge Graham Moorhouse’s comments in The Flock Catholic newsletter Spring 2016. Sorry, it has taken me four years to reply. I have recently re-read his article and he makes convincing arguments against being a follower of Islam. Had I found Islam as he portrays it I would have shunned the faith. Intellectually I never considered being a Muslim until I met my wife-to-be and in that same instant she entered my life, Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani, my wife’s Shaykh, came into my heart, though it would be months before I met him in person in a physical location. He began to assist me, not control, in decisions I made every day. I never mooted the idea to myself of shifting from a Christian to Islamic adherence. Encountering Shaykh Nazim inwardly or outwardly was too real to be ignored.
Before converting to Islam, my Christian practice was informed by a mystical belief that faiths are connected especially People of the Book (Qur’anic phrase), Christian, Muslims and people of Jewish belief. I saw the surface shines of difference but for me, rightly or wrongly, the undertow of faith revealed the same pursuit of holiness, living a sacred existence and taking on the challenge to overcome the selfish ego’s dominance. I see our conflicting faiths, Christian, Muslim and Judaism, as vehicles for some, perhaps many, to try to live a life of ‘servanthood’ as my Shaykh would call it, a life pleasing to God that highlights our love for our fellow creatures, emphasising inner transformation over external conquest. Muhammad (peace be upon him, pbuh) is reported to have said to his soldiers after a long campaign, ‘now the real battle begins – against the Ego’. All beliefs have the potential to guide a devotee to a higher level of conduct, understanding and responsibility that would give pleasure to the adept but not necessarily make his or hers life easier and could at times make it far more difficult.
When I declared my Christian faith in the mid-80s’ I was confronted with criticism from secular enlightened friends that considered all faiths as inherently evil, that religion destroyed freedom and creativity. My peers would list religious wars, persecutions of innocents, Protestant-Catholic conflicts, Northern Ireland, 30 Years War, Inquisition or the Crusades and much more. If my compatriots from 1960s through to 1990s had a spiritual leaning it was towards far eastern faiths like Buddhism that appeared less regulated, Zen Buddhism in particular or towards New Age or pagan practices. My Christian vision, as later when embracing Islam, was an esoteric encounter and revelation with little external context. I was faced with inner visions and sensations that proposed not changing the world but myself.
In the discussions that followed my conversion to Christianity, no one mentioned Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hadith or the Qur’an. The vast majority in the British Isles and the West, including me, were ignorant of Islam’s incredible culture with its history, its ideas and conflicts, and its saints, which emerged from the Arabian desert in the 7th CE. When a Christian, I read the description of saints in the litany as part of my daily worship. I never considered or imagined there could be living Islamic saints, Muslims who had reached the point of perfection. In the 1980s so few people in the British Isles or on the European mainland referred to the world’s second-largest religion. The riots in London and Liverpool that accompanied the decade were not between Christians and Muslims but between blacks and whites. At that time, ethnic identification cut across religious affiliation. A further reason for silence about Islam was that immigrants from countries with Islamic heritage had forgotten or were inclined to ignore most of what their forefathers and mothers knew by heart. The newcomers’ goal was almost complete assimilation into Western ways of life. Many immigrants didn’t practice their faith. There were few mosques erected, no Muslim tv stations: did publishers and journals, courses at universities exist? Graham Moorhouse, like other religious spokespersons, I speculate, would have never thought of Muslims. They were inconspicuous, irrelevant and marginal. Now perhaps almost every Western adult knows or possesses an opinion about Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. This transformation in the UK, in the West in general, is phenomenal. The cultural, social, political, religious growth of Islamic devotion can be compared to the expansion of the Cistercians in the Middle Ages.
The British Isles specifically has gone through an Islamic Revolution and largely doesn’t understand or relate to it. Now there are thousands of mosques in related countries, (600 in the centre of London alone) each with its class in learning Arabic, the Qur’an, Hadith. A range of Radio, TV stations, journals, publishers, courses at universities and colleges are dedicated to advance an understanding of the Muslim faith. I’m involved in one, Cambridge Muslim College. There are others. When the mosque I attend in Lincolnshire holds an open day a good number of non-Muslims visit to learn about teachings. Each year in Peterborough you can witness a procession of white-robed white prayer-hatted Muslims walking through the streets, stopping the traffic, guided by the police, being fed snacks and given drinks as the shop-owners come out and assist the marchers waving their flags and chanting ‘Allah Hu’ as once medieval palmers paraded through with their Glory Be To God in the Highest. The new pilgrims are Sufi Muslims. I’m a Sufi Muslim. You can see boarded up pubs and corner shops with colourful saris hanging in windows between Halah butchers along high streets.
In the 1970s and 1980s my Cypriot Shaykh with his Turkish background came to the Turkish community in London, others Islamic leaders came to sub-continent communities across the UK and Ireland and began to teach Islam reminding migrants of the faith of their homelands. And now years later that faith has taken root in these alien countries. Commentators suggest there are more devoted Muslims living and thriving in the West than in Islamic homelands.
The history of this transformation, this Islamic Western Revolution is being written. For the purpose of our discussion, we need to understand the context of how Islam has become a top priority in government, in society, in politics, in culture. The government’s de-radicalisation, ‘Prevent’ programme is an attempt to calm-down the Islamic invasion. Islam’s ascendancy has caused many in the West to become frightened, critical, producing in some cases bizarre fantasies about Muslim practices such as Muslims have weird toiletry rituals; or worse enjoy honour killing, institute rape-gangs, have many wives, hide their faces, kill anyone who isn’t a Muslim, have no tolerance, are enslaved to medieval punishments like cutting off people’s hands, stoning etc. The word Islamophobia has been coined to cover the fearful reaction of European and North American societies. Driven by Islamophobia, myths and misinformation about what Muslims do have flourished. But also facts are exposed – a woman buried in sand, only her head showing, being stoned to death for adultery. I admit when I became a Muslim I had no idea the level of shame I also would have to endure – witnessing inhuman acts in the praise of the One Most Merciful and Compassionate, Allah, acts supposedly performed to show obedience to the teachings of Muhammad (pbuh).
The emergence of a hard-line, intolerant Islam from the advance of the ideas and theology of Wahhabism (originating in Saudi Arabia) is a tragedy for Islam in Europe and everywhere. This rigid ideological base, in turn, has led to the rise of paramilitary groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State that have committed atrocities against ordinary citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims, in the West and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq to name a few. To an alarming extent the pacifying, humanitarian works of the sheikhs, who brought Islam to the West, have been jeopardised by the event of Wahhabism. Promoted by resources from the Arab Gulf States Wahhabi ideas have invaded Muslim communities, influencing, in particular, disaffected youths who are the third generation from Muslim homelands. But also too many converts are indoctrinated into a fundamentalist and aggressive form of spirituality. Yet resistance against extremism is profound. The Islamic State’s brutality has further shaken moderate Muslims from indifference to becoming outspoken activists of diversity and peace.
All these theo-political tensions and developments appeared irrelevant two or three decades ago. The West was absorbed in left – right-centre secular politics. Now conflict fragments across ethnic, religious differences as well as along lines of fear between resident and refugee populations. Also one wonders how ethnic conflicts in other countries, for example between Muslims and Hindus in India, will distort further political alliances in Europe and America. In the near past, no one took any interest. Islam was far away or a fringe sub-culture of those from far away. I am a convert but the large majority of 3 million Muslims in the UK and Ireland are born Muslims (have relevant passports). These Muslims have been swayed by their heritage and world events, such as the Gulf wars, to become aware and dedicated to their belief and their distant homeland’s cultures. More than ever, the mixing, the negotiating of East and West cultures is fascinating, highly creative and volatile with potential for good or evil. We all are part of the inside of a huge melting pot of cultures, traditions and religions mixed up to create the contemporary world we experience each day.
The growth of Islam in the West has helped intensify the reaction reported in newspapers. They publicise the negative side of the faith encouraging antagonism against Muslims. But the acts of ISIS do not need to be sensationalised. Islamophobia is fed legitimately by Iran’s repressive regime, Arabia’s execution of a dissident poet, Pakistan’s monoculturalism, the news of children taken out of school to be brides for war heroes, abducted, raped, tortured, the Arab Spring that has frozen into a eight-year-long nightmare of fleeing refugees, starving citizens, the oppression from an immovable dictator. The Muslim dilemma’s front-page news.
But all these terrors have been in the world since the beginning, they were expressed through different colours, weapons, dissimilar justifications. Today the far right in Germany is one destructive force and ISIS is another. A wide spectrum of shocks and panics are concomitant with human existence. These deadly outrages are challenges to anyone desiring or seeking ways to love their fellow human beings, to live by teachings of Jesus or the Desert Fathers, patriarchs or Islamic Sufi Saints, rabbis, Buddhist monks, Zen masters and Vedanta masters or gurus and a host of unnamed, de-classified others. 124, 000, 00 prophets have been sent to the earth to teach people the way of compassion, forgiveness, peace, according to Qur’anic sources. Each generation and nation claimed my Shaykh possesses holy ones whose prayers, devotion and angelic acts sustain creation, keeping the balance against terrors of annihilation.
I wish I could refute Mr Moorhouse’s allegations against my faith, but I cannot. I can only point to the other side, to acts of virtue, of beauty, of love that Muslims perform in the course of each day. If in a dream I was required to defend humanity before its Creator I could not deny the horrors of which human beings are capable: the prejudices, desperations, cruelties and injustices. I could only advocate for the other perspective and point towards expressions of humans love for each other, the less recorded acts of remarkable kindness, gentleness one finds in lives of Christian, Jewish or Islamic saints, which can prevail in the acts of ordinary people as well. Unfortunately, the Sun newspaper might not be aware of these radical deeds.
Gratefully God is utterly conscious of each minor invasion of love whatever the propagator’s faith. I would have to leave the verdict to God to decide if humanity should be allowed to prevail or be destroyed in a cosmic flash. With Islam coming to the West another ‘terrible beauty is born’ to quote W.B. Yeats. Its followers must determine on beauty or terror; if the men with guns and ropes want to horrify the world into submission, others under the flag of Muhammad (pbuh) want to beautify and ‘belove’ the world into submission. A nun I have heard of, went from inner Christian devotions to cursing Muslims walking down the street; she had to be imprisoned. A person can slip from the perception of beautifying to one of terrorising fellow humans. People of faith must be careful they don’t slide into this trap.
I wish Mr Moorhouse would broaden his focus and see and think of the atrocities the IRA committed, or current right-wing supremacists, many acts unknown to us. Individuals, put in the worst circumstances, become able to perform unthinkable horrors in the conviction they are doing what is necessary and right. Thankfully God has protected me from nightmarish scenarios at least to this time. He has shown His holy ones and I want to walk in their steps. I hope Mr Moorhouse opens his heart to fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in these Isles who are engaged in fasting through Ramadan; not interested in killing or harming neighbours. To be a Muslim means ‘to inflict no harm’. Islamic words addressing the Creator, proclaim ‘Your abode is the abode of peace’. The Five pillars of the Muslim faith are belief in One God and Muhammad as his messenger, to give alms, to perform the five daily prayers, to fast during Ramadan and go on pilgrimage to Mekkah if that’s possible within your life. These goals are most Muslims preoccupations. Sufis strengthen the practice with more fasting, days in seclusions, extended prayers, more observance and the following of a master who has gone into the darkness and retrieved light that shines on his face, across his forehead. When I faced the love in my Shaykh’s eyes I had to reach for his alien faith.
Grand Shaykh, my Shaykh’s teacher, near the end of his life on one of his travels met a Manjun, a mad person, similar in the Christian tradition to a holy fool. The fool asked Are you a Muslim? The learned loving sensitive man of great age replied, ‘That’s what I have been trying to be all my life.’ Once when my Shaykh, Shaykh Nazim walked with his teacher, out of respect Shaykh Nazim moved a stone out of Grand Shaykh’s way, a small stone on the path. Instantly Grand Shaykh said, ‘Leave it where it is.’ I want to know the sensitivity, presence of mind, the love, that treats the moving of one stone as a too violent act.
‘Peace be with you’
Paul Abdul Wadud Sutherland