Editorials & Opinion: The West Wakes Up to Islam By Abdalhaqq Bewley
That morning Mr. Smith got up a little earlier than usual. There was something unfamiliar in the air, it definitely did not sound like a normal Monday morning. He went over to the window and drew back the curtains. He could not believe his eyes. There in front of him, instead of the familiar row of houses he was used to, was an encampment of richly decorated tents and pavilions. A group of turbaned horsemen riding beautifully caparisoned steeds galloped into view, shouting in a guttural language to each other. They were waving curved scimitars and their leader had flung over his saddle two severed heads tied together by the hair. He threw them down on the ground, laughing as he did so and two black slaves appeared with a silver salver to place them on. The men dismounted and a bevy of flimsily veiled, giggling slave girls gathered to escort each to one of the tents. Meanwhile in the distance the sun could be seen glinting on the domes and minarets and arches of a distant city, and between the tents and the city palm trees were swaying in the breeze. 'Goodness me! I've woken up to Islam,' said Mr. Smith to himself.
This ridiculous caricature, or one similar to it, is unfortunately, courtesy of the Crusades via Hollywood, more or less the picture that most people have at the back of their minds when Islam is mentioned and unfortunately the Muslims here and elsewhere have so far been able to do little to dissipate this view in the public consciousness.
Islam is viewed at best as an exotic import, something foreign, something from somewhere else and it is vital to address this misconception before it can be seen for what it really is.
Islam is in fact nothing other than the best way to worship God – that one God who everyone in their heart of hearts and their hours of greatest need knows to be there; the one who created and sustains the Universe and everything in it and beyond it.
When I became a Muslim, it was not because I wanted to put on fancy dress or change my nationality. It was because I knew and had always known inside myself that God existed and wanted to do something about it. I was looking for an outward form to correspond to an inner awareness that things were not what they superficially appeared to be and that there must be a way of living my life in such a way that my daily existence would complement and confirm what I knew inside myself to be true.
I know that this is also true for others who have become Muslims. In fact it is true for almost everyone to a greater or lesser extent. I remember once shortly after I become a Muslim, I visited an old friend of my grandmother's who was like a great aunt to me. She was a woman who by her own admission had no active belief in God and was not religious in any way. She never prayed or went to church, a typical agnostic member of present-day society. When she found out that I was a Muslim, she asked me about it and I told her that it was the best way that I had found to express my belief in that one God whose presence I had always been aware of. That triggered something off in her mind and she suddenly started to tell me of an experience she had had as a young woman and which she remembered in every detail even though it had occurred 50 years previously. She said she had been on the top of a bus, she even remembered the number and where she had been going. She was going along normally, looking out of the window when suddenly she knew that God existed and was in everything and everything was under His control. Her certainty was so strong in that moment that she wanted to get up and tell everyone on the bus about it. After a few minutes the state left her and very soon she had forgotten all about it. She said that if she had a regret, it was that she had never followed up what she had felt and now anyway she was much too old to change, so that was that.
Allah says that no people have been left without a messenger and this I believe applies to every human being. The experience of my old aunt on the top of the bus was the echo of that event referred to in the Qur'an when all the human spirits were gathered together in the Unseen, before their emergence in this world, in front of Allah ta'ala and He asked them, "Am I not your Lord?" They all answered, "Indeed You are."
At some point in the life of every individual this event re-echos through their being. You become aware of the source reality whose existence you know of from the depths of your own being – the Power that brought you into existence and which will be there when your own existence ceases – that from which you come and to which you will inevitably return. This intuition of immortality, this spark of awareness that there is much more going on than there appears to be on the surface leads you inevitably to say to yourself, "What should I do about it? How can I keep this awareness alive?"
The answer to this question is, "Adopt Islam because at base Islam means to live in harmony with all the universal laws manifest in existence so that your true potential as a human being, which is what you are being called to by this experience, can be realised. The experience of believing which comes into the heart is fragile and delicate and as the case of my aunt showed, is easily killed off if it is not nurtured.
Now as with every natural process, there are certain things which will promote and sustain its growth and certain things which will destroy it and this is where what is known as religion and morality come into the picture. Most of us born and educated in this age have a completely false understanding of these two things. Religion is in its essence a way of living that allows any group of people to both socially and individually, each according to his own capacity, fulfill themselves as human beings in the knowledge that this present life is part of a longer journey which began before their birth and will continue beyond death. The various great world religions are historical manifestations of a primordial natural religion which has been integral to human existence since the beginning of human history. Morality, which has now become practically a pejorative term, is in fact a word which denotes the natural behavioural outline of the human creature, the built-in limits of the human form. If human beings live within these limits, the result is inevitably an ecologically sound, balanced and harmonious social situation, if the limits are over-stepped and ignored the result is pollution, imbalance and discord both in the individual and society at large.
Early in human history it is clear that religion and morality were almost instinctive. The first people were much more open to the spiritual nature of the universe and were naturally in tune with the laws which govern existence. They lived their lives within a clear moral framework by mutual consent and understanding with there being absolutely no need for external imposition of it and they died knowing that they were returning to the source from which they had come and were answerable to their Creator for the way they had lived their lives. A faint echo of that can still be seen in the Bushmen of southern Africa.
However as time went on, the human creature became more and more opaque and people began to lose contact with their intrinsic moral patterning and to more and more overstep their natural outline thereby causing increasing corruption and discord within the human situation. Because the nature of existence is fundamentally merciful and compassionate men, inspired directly by the One God, the Creator of everything which has come into existence, appeared in their various communities to remind people of their true nature and to guide them back to the path of balance and harmony which had been abandoned to their cost and detriment. The great world religions of today are surviving remnants, more or less complete, of a few of these Messages revealed in the past to particular human communities.
The last of these transmissions or reminders from the Divine to His human creatures was the revelation of the Qur'an to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia during the 7th century A.D. It was specifically and explicitly intended to be a universal message to answer the spiritual and social needs of every human being from that time on. It necessarily has a form, but that form is merely to ensure that the human being remains within the moral parameters that in fact delineate the outline of the human form so that social harmony will prevail and the seeds of belief will be able to grow and flourish and to allow each human being the possibility of realising their full potential. The point is that the essential form that Islam takes corresponds to the universal human need we have been talking about and is therefore equally applicable to any human situation where there is need for it to be applied. It does of course take on some of the colour of the culture within which it takes root, but these cultural aspects of Islam are incidental and change from place to place as can be seen by anyone who travels through the different lands where Muslims live. The cultural manifestations differ but the essential practices of Islam which correspond to and govern the deepest aspects of human nature and human society remain the same and are relevant and applicable to any and every human situation.
In other words, Islam cannot be said to be foreign to this country or to any other country or culture. In this context it is interesting to remember that Christianity, which is now considered as English as cricket on the village green on a summer afternoon, had its origins only a very short distance from the birthplace of Islam. It is not a question of imposing a foreign culture, but of reviving the best of what went on before in these islands and responding to a present urgent need.
Wherever you look in the world today, you see the results of mankind having overstepped their limits in every sphere of existence. The incident at Chernobyl finally brought home to everybody the reality of the destructive nature of nuclear energy which has now been unleashed in the world beyond hope of retrieval. Rampant man-made chemical pollution is killing off forests, farmland, rivers, lakes and even parts of the oceans, never mind its effects on people. Drug and alcohol abuse in every layer of society is endemic, epidemic and growing. The scourge of AIDS is a terrible reminder of the consequences of unbridled sexual promiscuity. Most businesses have to give every penny of profit they make to pay off the bank and thousands of people are in debt up to their ears to building societies and credit companies desperately struggling to keep their heads above water. In the wake of all this, children are severely at risk both within the home and out of it and our streets are beset by rapists, muggers and rioters. Prisons and mental hospitals are overflowing and unable to cope and new reports of violent social unrest flood in daily.
This by no means exhaustive list is the inevitable outcome of immorality on a mass scale. As I have already stated, the moral laws laid down in the scriptures are not arbitrary restrictions imposed on human beings out of social convenience, but are reflections of laws built into the very structure of the universe; laws written into the patterning of existence and essential to the balance and harmony of the whole. In the human sphere these natural laws are known as the moral code and if these intrinsic behavioural limits are overstepped the direct result is bound to be imbalance and disharmony on an individual and social level. What we see around us is what we have brought about by the blatant flouting of natural moral laws.
This being the case, it is clear that the remedy for what has happened must be to step back inside those limits which have been overstepped and to restore natural moral law to its rightful place at the centre of human affairs. Religion in the sense that it represents that area of life where Divine guidance is made explicit to human beings must once more play the dominant role in the life of individuals and society as a whole.
Now the core of the religious experience is that individual belief in the oneness of God which I referred to at the beginning of this talk the possibility of which lies at the depth of every individual consciousness. This is the mainspring and the lifeblood of any religious revival. However it must be understood that unitarian belief has implications that go far beyond the relationship of the single individual with his Creator. The limiting of religion to this is a major cause of the present situation. By its very nature, active belief is one God necessarily affects every sphere of human existence, political, economic, legal and social because it encompasses the natural human mora; parameters whose existence we know of though the scriptures and divine teachings than have come down to us. Only when a community bases itself on the worship of the one God together with all that implies in terms of following the Divine ordinances revealed in the scriptures and reflected in the universe will social justice and harmony in human society be possible.
At this point the question might reasonably be asked, 'Granted that this is the case, why is it not possible to revive Christianity which is after all the traditional religion of this place? Surely that will have the desired effect? Why is Islam necessary?'
To answer this question, it is necessary to go back a little into the past and when we do so we find that Christianity has in fact played a major role in bringing the present situation about. The upholding of the divinely revealed laws we have talked about was, up until a certain point in history, ensured by a binding relationship which existed between the religious authorities and the state. The law of the land and canon law, which embodied the divinely revealed prescriptions, were inextricably entwined and jointly administered. While the Christianity was in many ways far removed from its original form, it nevertheless still contained clear links to its judaic source with its accompanying divinely inspired legal coding. So as long as this remained the case the basic human moral parameters were maintained at least in theory and worship and belief remained at the centre of the lives of the vast majority of human beings.
However the situation was by no means ideal and there is no doubt that added to the deviations in belief and practice that had crept into Christianity at a very early date, there was much corruption in the Christian Church, even within its own terms. The discontent engendered by this egged on by the frankly anti-religious currents of humanistic thinking emanating from what is known as the Renaissance culminated in the disastrous event of the Reformation.
Luther in Germany split with Rome smashing once and for all the unity of Christendom and thereby opening the door to everything that has followed. Calvin founded his independent theocracy in Geneva and in one momentous step opened the flood-gates to a torrent which now engulfs the whole world and which is largely responsible for the state of the world today. He legitimised usury.
It is not that usury did not take place before that. Jews and others had been surreptiously lending money at interest for some time previously. But the practice was illegal, punishable by law and generally abhorred. Calvin's argument was that since it took place anyway and as far as he could see was, provided it was kept within limits, apparently beneficial, it should be legalised but restricted to a certain level of interest. From then on there was no stopping it. There is no time now to go into the details of how it developed and what it led to, but suffice it to say that most of the social and economic evils of colonisation and the Industrial Revolution and the rampant materialism of the debt-ridden consumer society of our time is due to this one cause.
In this country Henry VIII who wanted to divorce his wife, which was not permitted under canon law and also rather fancied getting his hands on the lands and wealth which belonged to the Church and not to him, cynically exploited the Reformation and founded his own Church of England – a hardly auspicious beginning. Suddenly the tables were turned. Until then the state had, even if sometimes reluctantly, been subject to religious law. Now religion became subject to the law of the state.
When Parliament killed Charles the First and Cromwell established the first overtly secular state, the job was completed. Law-making became the task of Parliament and canon law, the last bastion of direct divine legislation, was jettisoned. From now on there was no structural way that religion could have a real and direct effect on people's lives. People were now free in religious terms to do as they willed. The Reformation for the first time enabled the state to act completely independently of religious authority.
This process has led step by inevitable step to our present situation when legislation about matters which are in reality the domain of immutable divine laws written into the fabric of existence has become the preserve of extremely fallible unqualified human beings who see themselves as ultimately able to decide what is right and wrong. The result is the mess we find ourselves in today.
The fact in that as far as the Christian tradition is concerned, irreparable damage has been done. It was Christian capitulation and compromise in the face of humanistic materialism that allowed secularism to gain ascendancy in the world. Christianity has proved itself powerless to stem the flood of moral decline and there is now no way that the moral authority of Christianity can be restored in such a way as to enable it to become an effective force in the re-establishment of a balanced, safe human society.
This is where Islam comes in. Islam is the final version of the ancient teaching of which the mission of Jesus was the penultimate. It was precisely because the Christian faith was bound to disintegrate in the way that it has, that Islam was revealed in the first place and it alone at this time in history is able to fulfill both the spiritual and social needs of humanity. It is astonishing how, in each area where this society is sick and troubled, the specific cure is to be found in the teaching of Islam. Although in fact it is not at all astonishing when one remembers that it was revealed as a universal teaching for this last period of human history by the One who knows exactly what His creatures need.
When the last of God's Messengers, Muhammad, died, he left a completed polity, a community with a functioning political, economic and legal structure which protected a radiant, compassionate social reality and permitted the flowering of as deep a spiritually as has ever been witnessed on the earth's surface. It is this total picture containing within its compass every aspect of human existence which is the Prophet's legacy and generation upon generation of human beings have taken it as their inheritance, putting it into practice and reaping from it the same rewards as the first community of Muslims in Madina. It is this complete picture of divine guidance in action in every sphere of life that we need now, that we must have if we are to survive as a human community. The spiritual dimension, by which I mean the relationship between each individual and his Creator cannot survive and flourish in isolation, it can only grow if the person concerned stays within the moral limits which constitute in fact their natural form and these moral parameters in their turn need the laws and economic restraints revealed by God if they are to remain in place. Only Islam still contains all these elements.
Let us take a few examples. A vast proportion of the crime both violent and otherwise which has reached such epidemic proportions in our time is closely related to the consumption of alcohol and drugs. I know this to be true because I spend some time every week visiting prisons and in 9 out of 10 cases of the inmates I see, alcohol or drugs proves to have been a large part of the reason they find themselves in prison. If you add to this the vast percentage of alcohol induced accidents, the growing incidence of alcoholism with its attendant social problems and the unprecedented number of people dependant on drugs of all kinds, the Qu'ranic injunction forbidding intoxicants needs no further elucidation.
The effect of usury, particularly in its most prevalent form of lending money at interest has already been mentioned. In this country alone the staggering sum of 17 billion pounds, that is 17 thousand million pounds is owed by private individuals to credit companies, banks, stores, building societies and money lenders for consumer goods bought on credit. The human cost of this is increasing distress and discord in a great number of families and for many absolute despair at not being able to make ends meet, leading to a growing number of suicides. On the international scene, the situation is the same or even worse. In some countries the gross national product is barely sufficient to pay even the interest on the money that has been borrowed, which means that every one in those countries is working for foreign banks. The situation is appalling and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying effects of usury have corroded every aspect of human life in subtle ways that are not immediately obvious but which can be traced directly back to the introduction and practice of usury. There is no time now to go into this subject in detail but much work has been done on it and is available for anyone who wishes to find out more. Suffice it to say that usury is a poison which pollutes all it touches. It was forbidden to the Jews and Christians but they got round their law. Its prohibition in the Qur'an leaves no room for manouevre.
It cannot be denied that the spread of the scourge of AIDS which now threatens so many millions of lives has been almost exclusively due to sexual promiscuity on a scale never before witnessed by the human race and more particularly by homosexual practices which were until very recently recognised as unnatural and illegal by every society in the world. The way that this abhorrent deviance has turned from being anathema to being almost universally accepted and approved of is one of the wonders of the modern world. Apart from this there are the terrible crimes of rape and incest whose regular and increasing occurrence has made them seen almost commonplace. Again, in this vital area of life Islam holds the key. Far from being suppressed, sexuality is explicitly encouraged within Islam and ample space is given for its expression. However its limits have been made clear and the penalties for overstepping them extremely severe. At the same time opportunities for sex outside the prescribed limits are kept at a minimum. Because extended families and the giving of hospitality are part and parcel of Islam, Muslim family life is full and open and the dangerous emotional currents which frequently lead to crime in the nuclear family situation are harmlessly dissipated in the general melee.
Much has been said about the barbarism of criminal law in Islam, but there are two points that are rarely pointed out. One is that it can only ever be applied in a situation where Islam is dominant and those who are subject to it accept it. The second is that it is overwhelmingly effective. In Saudi Arabia where Islamic law is applied more than anywhere else – and even then by no means completely – I have seen someone leave a pile of money – thousands of pounds – unattended for fifteen minutes while they were off seeing to something else, without any fear of it being taken and it is quite routine for shopkeepers to leave shops full of valuable goods completely unattended while they go off to pray. The relief of living in this atmosphere after the smash and grab climate we are used to has to be experienced to be understood. It generates a completely different attitude to life and property. And the fact is you do not see hundreds of people walking about with no hands.
The last and perhaps most important aspect of Islam I want to mention is the incalculable effect of the physical act of prayer which punctuates the day of every Muslim. This act puts the worship of God back where it belongs at the centre of human life and ensures the health of society as a whole. It gives people a correct perspective on existence so that they do not become totally engrossed in the life of this world. It is a continual reminder of the insubstantial nature of this life, that death is inevitable and that what follows it depends on the way we live and goes on forever. The acceptance of accountability implicit in this attitude makes people prone to live within the limits rather than wantonly transgress them. It creates a situation where people see that immediate self-gratification is not necessarily in their best interests and that generosity and patience and good character really do have benefits in them.
This is some of what Islam has to offer and if it were not for the fact that it has again and again been applied and worked in many different environments and cultures one would be inclined to say it sounds too good to be true. However there is a great deal of difference between knowing what it is and that it is available to us and putting it into practice.
Firstly there has to be a recognised need for it and it does seem that more and more people in this society are becoming aware that things are not all that they should be and are looking for a way out of the dilemma they are in. However, and this brings us right back to where we started, they do not understand that it is in Islam that hope for the future lies and they will not understand this until Islam is shown to them in its true light. As long as they continue to see Islam as an alien culture with no relevance to this environment, it will never happen. Nor will it happen if the Muslims continue to rush headlong into the deathly embrace of the system it is their task to replace. If they do they will be swallowed up without trace. The answer lies between these two. The Muslims in this society have to submit to the fact that they are here and not anywhere else and then be uncompromising in their determination to see Islam established in the land and not to be content with anything but that.
One step, which I have mentioned before, is for groups of Muslims committed to this goal to live together in more or less self-contained communities to demonstrate Islam as a viable and practicable alternative in the present situation.
Another practical step that can be taken is to set up more centres on the lines of your own Islamic Resource Centre in every centre of population where muslims live. As long as muslims have to go to non-muslims for help and to get what they need Islam is bound to be seen as ineffective and irrelevant by both Muslims and non-muslims. But if muslim resources are used to look after the needs of muslims and to project a true picture of Islam to the surrounding community, we could see a complete turn round in the way Islam is viewed in the larger community.
But however it is done, the true picture of Islam must be conveyed to the people of this society and no muslim in it can afford to be content with anything less than the complete establishment of what was left to us by our Prophet and those who were with him and those who have followed in their footsteps. Even if we never succeed in it this must remain our continual and explicit goal. It is absolutely certain that there is no hope for this society except in Islam. If the West does not wake up to Islam it will soon not wake up at all.
I will finish by translating the verses from the Qur'an which were recited before I started. They were taken significantly from Surat ar-Rum which might be translated 'Christendom' in English:
Corruption has appeared in both land and sea because of what peoples own hands have brought about so that they may taste something of what they have done so that hopefully they will turn back.
So set your face firmly towards the Deen, as a pure natural believer, Allah's natural pattern on which He made mankind. There is no changing Allah's creation. That is the true Deen – but most people do not know it – turning towards Him. Have fearof Him and establish the prayer. Do not be among thoe who associates others with Him.
So set your face firmly towards the True Religion, before a Day comes from Allah which cannot be turned back. On that Day they will be split up. Those who were rejected the Truth will find that their rejection was against themselves. Those who did right were making the way easy for themselves; so that He can repay with His bounty those who had iman and did right actions. He certainly does not love those who reject the Truth.