April 5, 2010
Deccan Chronicle (India)

The Beauty of Islam

by Paul Goodman

For anyone trying to follow the journey begun by Abraham, conversion to Islam should recommend itself with compulsive force. It's the most plausible of the three religions that look back to him.

Near the root of Judaism is the conviction that a single people are chosen by God - a people, moreover, who are hard to join. At the core of Christianity is the belief that a man was God and rose from the dead. Both claims seem to spit in the face of reason. Isn't it an offence against justice to assert that God specially favours one people in particular? Isn't it an affront to common sense to hold that a baby was divine, and that a dead man walked from a cold tomb?

Nonetheless, the suggestion that Islam might be preferable to either is objectionable to modern Western minds. It provokes visions of frenzy: failing states, suicide bombers, fanatical mullahs, shrouded women, burning books, oppressed minorities. But it should also conjure images of tranquillity: serene mosques, the circles of dhikr, a certain detachment from the claims of politics, distaste for the extremism within its own ranks of which Mohammed warned, and - until fairly recently - better treatment of religious minorities than Europe's.

For most of its history Islam has been the most relaxed of the three faiths. It neither aches for the coming of a Messiah nor announces that outside the Church there is no salvation. It offers monotheism for all - a kind of Judaism for the masses. A more profound film about Islam than Geert Wilders's could be titled not Fitna, but Fitra - namely, man's primordial disposition, which is made for God. The path to paradise isn't closed by original sin. Rather, it remains open, but man strays from it in heedlessness and forgetfulness. In doing so, he turns his face from tawhid - from the divine unity. So God sends prophets to nudge man back to the straight path. Mohammed was the last of them - not God, like the Jesus of Christianity, but the best of all creation. I write of conversion to Islam, but what takes place, rather, is reversion - a return to man's natural religion.

I converted from nominal Judaism to Catholicism in my mid-twenties. Changing one's religion once is enough to be going on with. Perhaps this thought has inhibited me to date from doing so a second time, and accepting Jesus of Nazareth as a great prophet rather than as the saviour of the world. If I'm remembered for taking up any cause in the Commons, which I'm quitting at the next election, it may be for fencing at Islamism and its fellow-travellers in Britain . But Islamism is a polluted tributary of the great river of Islam , and my allergy to a politicised version of the religion hasn't deterred me from sitting at the feet, from time to time, of its traditional, classical form.

Being an MP representing the largest number of Muslims in any Conservative-held seat has made this easier. I've sat at celebrations in honour of Pir Shah Ghazi, a Sufi saint of the subcontinent; listened to the singing of the Saif-ul Malook - the great poem by Mian Muhammad Baksh, 'the Kashmiri Rumi'; trudged in Walthamstow behind a running crowd keeping up with its adored Pir, Sayeed Abdul Quadir Jilani; struggled for answers while being courteously but searchingly probed by students at Cambridge Muslim College. And so on.

Islam has three advantages over modern Christianity. First, it has better preserved its liturgy. A Muslim prays five times a day in much the same way as his ancestors did at the time of Mohammed, perhaps because there's no single source of authority in Islam to drive through liturgical change. There are no guitars, inexact translations of Arabic into English, imams that face the people rather than Mecca , and go-ahead muftis of Bevendon to proclaim: 'Jihad in a very real sense'. Pope Benedict, who understands the centrality of liturgy to religion, might see a connection between Islam's soaring numbers and its immutable worship.

Second, it has better preserved its spiritual inheritance, and kept polished the chains of spiritual transmission. This is no artificial figure of speech. The silsilah is a chain - the pupil receiving authority from a master who received it from his own master, and so on all the way back to Mohammed. Christianity has its apostolic succession. But this is the preserve of the bishops, not the laity, and in Islam everyone is a layman. This may help to prove that flat structures protect tradition more effectively than hierarchical ones. For better and worse, Islam has experienced no Reformation or Enlightenment - no questioning of the transmission of the Koran to Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel himself. There is a gimmicklessness about the practice of its spirituality.

Third, it has Sufism - the sum of that spiritual inheritance. I'm not dewy-eyed about Sufis, who are no more perfect than other believers. But the tradition they follow is one of the world's great religious movements, balancing the Koran's proclamation of the transcendence of God - 'Who begetteth not, nor is begotten, and none is like Him' - with its persistent whisperings of immanence, of a God who 'is nearer to him than his jugular vein'. Many of the great Sufi texts aren't available in English. I've been trying to read one that is. Jilani of Walthamstow is named after Jilani of Baghdad - a giant of medieval Sufism and founder of the Qadri order. I've ploughed my way through 61 of the 62 discourses in his Al-Fath Al-Rabbani - literally 'the Revelations of the Lord'.

Each discourse is supported by verses from the Koran. The first chapter quotes the following: 'Surely, God is with those who are patient.' It's a theme of Jilani's, and seems to be one of Islam's as a whole. The religion appears to lack that Western word, angst. Consider the Biblical and Koranic accounts of Abraham's sacrifice. The Koranic account is sucked dry of tension: Ishmael not only knows of his father's plan, but approves it. The Biblical account is dramatic: Isaac is unaware that his father means to kill him.

Perhaps the ox-like endurance of suffering is a feature of less developed societies. But for whatever reason, a sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel is never long absent from either Christianity or Judaism. Why suffering happens is one of the greatest human mysteries. In Christianity, God follows the logic of love, and vaults the barrier which separates Him from man. He plunges into the depths of suffering and transforms it through the Resurrection. The good old story may not make suffering bearable, but it may at least make it comprehensible. Once it's accepted, the Trinity becomes a partner rather than a stranger to reason.

The vision of Islam - of actualising the divine names as Mohammed did, thereby restoring man's original nature - has, as all great religions do, its own romance. But some calls must be questioned, however imperiously they're couched. There's cause for the eye of faith to pass on from the black stone of the Kaaba, and rest upon the white cloths that lay folded, on that first Easter morning, inside an empty tomb.


Paul Goodman is Conservative MP for Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK, and shadow minister for Communities and Local Government.

Isma'il Raji al Faruqi, "Islam and Other Religions," 1970s

Enver Masud, "The Truth About Islam," 1995

Paul Lewis, "Charting the Lost Innovations of Islam," Guardian, March 10, 2006

John L. Esposito, "Want to Understand Islam? Start Here," Washington Post, July 22, 2007

Lynn Parramore, "Right-Wingers Would Be Shocked to Learn That Islam Has Been Part of American History Since Its Founding," AlterNet, November 5, 2012

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