2016 bucked the trend a bit for me. Whereas 2012-15 were years of growth, changing and self-improvement, 2016 was predominantly about self-reflection and consolidation. Even though I’m a highly introspective person anyway, last year really forced me to ramp it up.
One of my main points of reflection was exactly how Islām had affected me mentally and behaviourally. As I covered that in another post I won’t delve into it too much now. What I want to focus on is exactly what my Islām was. What did Islām mean to me, why and where did it come from?
- My very first source of religious influence was my mother. It’s generally the case that converts to Islām follow it more faithfully than those born in the faith. As children trust, depend on and emulate their parents, I adopted her deep devotion. I never did any drugs (including alcohol and smoking), prayed 5 times a day every day, etc. (See the full list here) To us Islām is a very action-oriented faith. You cannot just believe in it privately, you must publicly & privately practise it. Which I did.
- Due to a predominantly Scholar personality, in some respects I took it even further than her. In my childhood I told her she shouldn’t be listening to music because it was harām (Arabic for forbidden). In my teens I memorised over 30 chapters of the Qur’ān. I considered interreligious relationships morally wrong, as well as any relationships outside of heterosexual marriage.
- We were considered weird by coreligionists for one reason: we did not adhere to any sect or school of thought. In uni I regularly got into arguments with other Muslims over this; they insisted that unless you’re a scholar Muslims need to learn the faith from scholars (self-styled experts) otherwise you’re doing it wrong, I insisted that Allah had directly told us to not divide the religion (6:159, 30:31, 42:14). To me there was no place for Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, whatever. You’re either Muslim or not, simple as that.
- Despite this level of devotion, I always felt alienated from most other Muslims around me. Why? I was Afro-Caribbean, and the vast majority of Muslims around me were south Asian (especially Pakistani). In the after-school Qur’anic classes I used to attend as a child, even then I was aware that Pakistanis do radically different things to most other Muslims*. They would bow to their imams, touch their feet and kiss their hands. Even as a child I knew this was blatant blasphemy so I wouldn’t do it. Not to mention my teacher, being Pakistani, claimed I should learn Urdu – which was offensive to me because only they speak Urdu. He spoke perfect English, and I wasn’t the only non-Asian in the class. Why should I learn a language I’d never use? Only afterwards did I realise that they were following yet another sect! To this day I don’t know the name. Were they Alavis, Barelvis, or Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah? And should I care at this point?
* And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. In my early-mid 20s I worked in north London. My Gujarati Indian supervisor and Bengali deputy manager were both Muslims, and they regularly complained how “Pakis do their own shit” (their words). Pakistanis always want to be special and do Islām their way. They are a major reason why there’s always disagreements on when Ramadan begins and ends each year!
- On that point, it should be made clear that Afro-Caribbean Muslims are EXTREMELY RARE anywhere in the world. And being born as one? The phrase “1 in a million” doesn’t cut it! Some Muslims don’t believe Caribbean Muslims even exist! Can you imagine me trying to get on with them?
- It should also be made clear that the Nation of Islam had no influence in my upbringing. I only became aware of it in my teens, and once I researched it I concluded they’re not Muslims at all. Many of their core tenets squarely place them as mushrikiyn (polytheists/ idolaters), which “normal” Islām teaches is the one sin God doesn’t forgive. They say God came down in the form of a man (blasphemy!!!), that Elijah Muhammad is his most recent prophet (blasphemy!!!), and we ‘black’ people are gods & goddesses (blasphemy!!!). Just quoting the Qur’an and using Arabic words doesn’t mean shit. Even after attending some NOI seminars, and even as an ex-Muslim I still don’t consider them Muslim in any sense. I appreciate what they do for ‘black’ people; that I’ll never fault them for. I also now sympathise with their we-are-gods-and-goddesses doctrine. But calling them Muslims? Nah.
Furthermore, I also take issue with their belief that ‘black’ people aren’t descended from Africans. According to them we’re originally Arabs/ “Asiatics” and our native tongue is Arabic. It is true the original Arabs were/ are ‘black’. That doesn’t make us their descendants. There are so many different types of ‘blacks’ in the world: Asian, African, Australian, native American, etc. And since it’s clearly documented that our ancestors were predominantly from west & central Africa it’s a bit ludicrous and in denial to think we’re not African. That I take huge issue with.
- We (my family) have been to Jamaica twice and Barbados thrice. In both islands we met Muslim communities, and I noticed MASSIVE differences between them. The Jamaicans were “normal,” in the sense of following their faith and just living life. The Bajans, however, were yet another sect called Salafis. They see themselves as pure Muslims and not a sect, but they are very distinct from most Muslims. In a nutshell they’re fundamentalists; they don’t socialise or integrate with non-Muslims in any way, they dress in “traditional” Arab garb, they try to learn the Qur’an by heart, they believe Arabic is the superior language – and they believe all innovation is a sin. The heart of Salafism is that only Muhammad and the salaf (pious predecessors, the first 3 generations of Muslims after Muhammad) were pure Muslims, everyone else on Earth is wrong. This is exactly the attitude I saw in Barbados.
- Despite knowing I was Jamaican, that had very little influence on my upbringing. Mum could speak fluent Patois but never did on any regular basis, and certainly never taught it to me. I only started learning & understanding Patois when I was 17! She always taught me to speak Queen’s English. In her mind if you’re going to speak a language speak it properly. Unfortunately she’s been like that since she was a kid. We had very little Caribbean influence in our house, apart from the occasional ackee & saltfish dish, cowfoot soup (halāl of course) or fried/ boiled dumplings. I don’t believe that was due to Islām, but due to my mum being a first-generation immigrant trying to fit in with the dominant culture. I was always starkly aware of the negative portrayals of ‘black’ people in the media, especially of Jamaican males. And honestly I can’t say it’s totally the media’s fault; a lot of us bring it on ourselves. Too many of us buy into the Euro-American portrayals of us as weed-smoking yardies. But the dreadlocks are nowhere near as common as you’d think.
- I was also heavily influenced by Harun Yahya, a Turkish Muslim philosopher. However he has a very determinist doctrine; because Allah is all-knowing & all-powerful free will is an illusion. We are all following the will of Allah whether we want to or not. I was never happy with this, and because I’d been struggling with the free will-determinism debate I honestly found it intimidating and depressing. If I’m going to hell there’s nothing I can do about it.
- Despite my family’s anti-sectarianism, we were in some respects Sunni. We had more in common with them than anyone else, and we followed the Ahādiyth just like them. I still have the full collection of Sahih-al-Bukhari at home, which I use as shoeracks.
- In uni I met members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. And there was nothing in their doctrine I could disagree with. They actively encouraged open debate with non-Muslims and their own members to ask questions about the faith. The only things that stopped me joining them were they were in effect another sect, and they were listed as a terrorist group – and still are.
- In my mid-late 20s I counteracted this with a new movement on the Internet: the Qur’aniyyah or Qur’an-alone movement. They believe that Islām is much much much simpler than most Muslims believe: follow the Qur’an because only that is the literal unadulterated word of God. Since most Muslims in the world are a subsect of Sunni (which the 5 schools of thought come under), they have a huge problem with this. Though they agree the Ahādiyth are secondary to the Qur’an because they were written by man (and the Qur’an wasn’t?), they say we can’t understand the Qur’an without it. In Western minds the Qur’an-alone movement would be liberal/moderate, but they regard themselves as fundamentalist because they follow the fundamentals of Islām: the Qur’an. And the thing that endeared me most: they believe in free will! To them there’s nothing to argue; Allah predetermined that we have free will but not what we do with it. Simple!
- I don’t know if or how much this affected me, but for the sake of completion I’ll say it. Before my mum converted to Islām she was a Christian (don’t know which sect) but she never believed in it. In her 20s she became a Buddhist, but she gave it up because it wasn’t spiritual enough. Yes, Buddhism wasn’t spiritual enough for her. She was searching for “the right religion” for years before Islām, and there’s no telling what influences she came across or picked up along the way.
In summary, my Islām was a mixture of familial anti-sectarianism, Sunnism in all but name, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Harun Yahya’s determinism, Qur’aniyyah belief in free will, alienation due to my Afro-Caribbean ancestry, and my mostly Scholar personality complete with thirst to learn as much as I could. As far as I was concerned since this was the perfect religion all I had to do was follow it “perfectly”. Ignorance was forgivable, but if you know something is wrong or counterproductive why would you do it? Learning from mistakes? Pfft, load of bollocks.
Looking back on this, one thing is very clear: it’s all about Islām influencing me. In the faith there’s no room for personal input; I could never influence Islām or have any say in how it’s done. Since this is the literal perfect word of God, who can replace us at any time with a better people whenever he wants (47:38), what right do we have to change it or adapt it to suit our needs? None! It’s perfect so it already caters to all our needs, has perfect answers to all our problems. All we have to do is make sure we’re obeying it correctly! Knowing this explains something that perplexed me all my life: why do I fear being in a position of authority? Answer: All I was good for was being a passive recipient of the god’s message. The only active role I could take was in how much I wanted to hear and obey (2:285). Even the ad’iyah, personal supplications to Allah, were scripted to make sure we’re doing it as the prophet did.
No personality, just submission, which is the literal translation of Islām. Take that how you will.
Final point: all of a sudden I’m hearing scholars distinguishing between different types of murtadd (apostates). This is new to me, and I don’t see any such distinction in the Ahādiyth but whatever. Apparently there’s murtadd milli (converts from another religion to Islām to another religion) and murtadd fitri (born Muslims leaving Islām), and “only” the second type are to be killed if they actively threaten or insult the diyn. Now I’ve come to understand where these apostasy laws came from: they were created in the very early days of Islām after Muhammad died. The Muslim community had very little numerical clout. It was all about keeping up their numbers, nothing else.
In short, apostasy = treason.
Just by existing, apostates could bring about the end of Islām, and no it didn’t matter that they were ALL murtadd milli because the religion was still so young nobody was born Muslim yet! And many of those millis had only become Muslims by threat of death – Iran is a classic example, and even most Arabs for that matter. Even if this milli-fitri argument held any water, still doesn’t change the fact that I am a murtadd fitri and therefore the “worst” type of apostate and therefore supposed to be killed.
But life goes on, and so do I.