British and Muslim?
British and Muslim?
by Abdal Hakim Murad
(Based on a lecture given to a conference of British converts on September 17 1997)
It is said that the 19th century French poet Mallarm can only be fully understood by those who are not French, because they read him more slowly. Converts to Islam, the subject of this essay, can perhaps claim the same ambiguous advantage in their reading of the Islamic narrative. Several consequent questions impose themselves: can the clarity of vision brought by novelty outweigh the absence of a Muslim upbringing? Is adoption a more culturally fertile condition than simple son ship? Has the dynamism of Islamic culture after the initial Arab era owed everything to the energy of recent converts, with their own ethnic genius: the Persians, and then, pre-eminently, the Turks; and if so, might the appearance of converts in the West presage a larger revival of the fortunes of an aged and tired Islamic ummah.
I hope to return to these interesting queries at a later date. Here, I shall confine myself to the issue that presents itself most sharply to those British people who, like myself, have boarded the lifeboat of Islam. The issue is the question of British Muslim identity.
Who is a British Muslim is an easy question: it is anyone who follows Islam and holds a U.K. passport. This is at once the easiest and probably the only workable definition. The more teasing question, which I wish to raise in this article, is: what is a British Muslim? The query raises two problems related to belonging. What does it mean to be a British person who belongs to Islam? And, what does it mean to be a Muslim person who belongs to Britain? How do we map the overlap zone in a way that makes sense, and is legitimate, in terms of the co-ordinates of both of these terms?
Clearly, by virtue of the first definition, the British Muslim population, all 1.5 million of it, divides into three groups. Firstly, and least problematically, there are men and women whose cultural formation was not British, but who have migrated to this country. This essay will not touch centrally on their own particular struggle for self-definition, which is quite different to that addressed by converts.
Secondly, there are the children of the first group, and occasionally now their grandchildren. These people are usually seen to be torn between two worlds, but in reality, the British world has shaped their souls far more profoundly then they often recognise. Modern schooling is designed for a culture that puts an increasing share of acculturation and upbringing, as opposed to the simple inculcation of facts, on the shoulders of schoolteachers rather than of parents. Muslims who have moved to this country have done so at precisely the time when British education is also going into the business of parenting; most Muslim parents do not recognise the fact, but Muslim children in this country always have a third parent: the Education Secretary. Even those second-generation Muslims here who claim to have angrily rejected Britishness are in fact doing so in terms of types of radicalism, which are deeply influenced by Western styles of dissent. Most noticeably, they locate their radicalism not primarily in a spiritual, but in social and political rejection of the oppressive order around them. Their unsettled and agitated mood is not always congenial to the recent convert, who may, despite the cultural distance, feel more comfortable with the first rather than the second generation of migrants, preferring their God-centred religion to what is often the troubled, identity-seeking Islam of the young.
Thirdly, we have the smallest group of all: the convert or so-called revert community. This group is highly disparate, and it is not clear that one can make any meaningful generalisations about it at all. Almost by definition, a British person who is guided to Islam is an eccentric of some kind: one of the virtues, perhaps, of the British is that eccentrics have always been nurtured or at least more or less tolerated here. But the overall pattern is confusing. One can offer certain sociological generalisations about British people who become Buddhists, or evangelical Christians, or Marxists. But the present writer’s experience with new Muslims is that no discernable patterns exist which might shed light on the routes by which people awaken to the truth of Islam. This failure to discern patterns can only be described as lamentable, for were we to discern such patterns, they could immediately be exploited for d?awah purposes. The most we can say is that a clear majority of converts to Islam in Britain are from Catholic rather than Protestant or Jewish backgrounds. Within this group, in my experience the only clergy that convert are Jesuits; I am not aware of a single member of another religious order that has become Muslim.
Other than this very general and not terribly helpful observation, few patterns are discernable, and our missionary efforts, never very coordinated, flounder accordingly.
But whatever the processes, and we may be wise to accept traditional invocations of divine providence and guidance, which transcend and make irrelevant any sociological pattern-finding, this third group among British Muslims confronts certain sharp problems of self-definition. Egyptian, or Indonesian, or Indian Muslims becoming British do so slowly, perhaps over two or three generations. The identity problems can be sharp: in particular, there can be painful challenges to the hopes and expectations of parents. But the process is gentle in comparison with the abrupt jolt, which typically welcomes the convert. The signposts of the universe are not adjusted slowly, but all at once.
The initial and quite understandable response of many newcomers is to become an absolutist. Everything going on among pious Muslims is angelic; everything outside the circle of the faith is demonic. The appeal of this outlook lies in its simplicity. The newly rearranged landscape upon which the convert looks is seen in satisfying black and white terms of Them versus Us, good against evil.
This mindset is sometimes called convertitis. It is a common illness, which can make those who have caught it rather difficult to deal with. Fortunately, it almost always wears off. The only exceptions are those weak souls who imagine that the buzz of excitement caused by their absolutist, Manichean division of the world was a necessary part of Islamic piety, or even that it has some spiritual significance. Such people are often condemned to wander from faction to faction, always joining something new, in an attempt to regain the initial excitement engendered by their conversion.
Most new Muslims, however, soon see through this. A majority of people come to Islam for real spiritual or intellectual reasons, and will continue with their quest once they are inside Islam. Becoming Muslim is, after all, only the first step to felicity. Those individuals who adopt Islam because they need an identity will be condemned to wander the sectarian and factional hall of mirrors, constantly looking for the perfect group that will give them their desperately needed sense of specialness and superiority.
But actions are by intentions. A hundred years ago the founder of the Anglo-Muslim movement, Imam Abdallah Quilliam in Liverpool, was writing that those British people who convert for Allah and His Messenger would, by the grace of God, be rightly guided. Those who convert for any other reason are in serious spiritual trouble. Just as the namaz [salaat] prayer is invisibly invalidated if the niyya [intention] at its outset is not correct, similarly, Islam will not work for us unless we have entered it in faith, out of a sincere questing for God’s good pleasure. If things are not going right for us, if we find no delight in our prayers, if Ramadan simply makes us hungry, if we cannot seem to find the right mosque or the right company to take us forward, then we would do well to start by examining our intentions. Did we become Muslims only, and purely, to bring our souls to God? Other reasons: solidarity with the oppressed, admiration for Muslims we know, desire to join a group, the love of a woman – none of these are adequate foundations for our lives as Muslims deserving of Allah’s grace and guidance. Imam al-Qushayri says that spiritual aspirants are only deprived of attainment when they neglect the foundations. So we need to look within, and if necessary, renew our faith, following the Prophetic Sunnahh. Renew your iman, a celebrated hadith enjoins.
So what are we? Statistically, perhaps fifty thousand people. But once we have taken the plunge, and enjoyed the feel of Islam, and come to know through experience, rather than through reading books, that Islam is a way of sobriety, dignity, poise and rewarding spirituality, what exactly is our self-definition? When we meet family and friends who are not Muslim, how do we carry ourselves? Do we treat Islam as a great secret? A discreet eccentricity that we hope people will not be so crude as to mention? Or, on the contrary, something we wear on our sleeves, feeling that it is our duty constantly to steer the conversation back into sacred quarters, confronting people with Islam, that they might have no argument against us at the Resurrection?
More generally, what is our view of the wider world of unbelief, which, despite the breathless predictions of some of our co-religionists, continues to grow more powerful and more prosperous? How much of it can we affirm, and how much of it must we publicly or privately disown?
We can, of course, take the easy way out, and avoid engaging with these questions, by retreating from the mainstream of society, and consorting only with Muslims. But this is not so easy. We need to be employed, since this is pleasing to God; and we need to maintain good ties with our relations, since this is also enjoined in the Sunnah. Wa sahibhuma fi dunya m’arufan. Keep company with them both in the world in keeping with good custom, says the Quran to converts who have unbelieving parents. And the Sunnah explains that non-Muslim parents have significant rights over their Muslim children.
But more significantly even than this, to solve the problems thrown at us and at our identity by the real world outside the mosque gates, we need to engage regularly with non-Muslim society. But for this, there would be no effective d?awah. People do not hear the word of Islam, generally, by being shouted at by some demagogue at Speakers Corner, or by reading some angry little pamphlet pushed into their hand by a wandering distributor of tracts. They convert through personal experience of Muslims. And this takes place, overwhelmingly, at the workplace. Other social contexts are closed to us: the pub, the beach, the office party. But work is a prime environment for being noticed, and judged, as Muslims.
There is nothing remotely new in this. Islam has always spread primarily through social interactions connected with work. The early Muslims who conquered half the world did not set up soapboxes in the town squares of Alexandria, Cordoba or Fez, in the hope that Christians would flock to them and hear their preaching. They did business with the Christians; and their nobility and integrity of conduct won the Christians over. That is the model followed by Muslims, particularly the Sufis, down the ages; and it is the one that we must retain today, by interacting honourably and respectfully with non-Muslims in our places of work, as much as we can.
If this is clear, then my initial question still begs a response. What is a British Muslim? What manner of creature is he, or she? The public consensus has clear ideas about other British identities: British Anglican, British Jew, British Asian Muslim or Hindu: all these are recognised categories and a certain community of expected response governs interactions between the majority and these groups. The Anglo-Muslim, however, is not a generally recognised type.
My own belief is that the future prosperity of the Anglo-Muslim movement will be determined largely by our ability to answer this question of identity. It is a question mainly for converts, but which many of whose dimensions will come to apply also to second-generation immigrant Muslims here, who have their own questions to ask themselves and this culture about what, exactly, they are.
To frame a response, I think it is useful to step back a little, and consider the larger picture of Islamic history of which we form a very small part. I mentioned earlier that Islam usually spread through the utilisation of commercial opportunities as opportunities for d?awah. That picture is one of the most extraordinary success stories in religious history. Compare, for instance, the way in which the Muslim world was Islamised to the way in which the Americas were Christianised. Islamisation proceeded with remarkable gentleness, at the hands of Sufis and merchants. Christianisation used mass extermination of the native Americans, the baptism of uncomprehending survivors, and the baleful scrutiny by the Inquisition of any signs of backsliding. A more extreme contrast would be impossible to find.
Perhaps no less extraordinary than this contrast is its interesting concomitant: Christianisation brought Europeanisation. Islamisation did not bring Arabisation. The churches built by the Puritans or the Conquistadors in the New World were deliberate replicas of churches in Europe. The mosques constructed in the areas gradually won for Islam are endlessly diverse, and reflect and indeed celebrate local particularities. Christianity is a universal religion that has historically sought to impose a universal metropolitan culture. Islam is a universal religion that has consistently nurtured a particularist provincial culture. A church in Mexico City resembles a church in Salamanca. A mosque in Nigeria, or Istanbul, or Djakarta, resembles in key respects the patterns, now purified and uplifted by monotheism, of the indigenous regional patrimony.
No less remarkable is the ability of the Muslim liberators to accommodate those aspects of local, pre-Islamic tradition, which did not clash, absolutely with the truths of revelation. In entering new lands, Muslims were armed with the generous Koranic doctrine of Universal Apostleship; as the Koran says: To every nation there has been sent a guide.
This conflicts sharply with the classical Christian view of salvation as hinging uniquely on one historical intervention of the divine in history: the salvific sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Non-Christian religions were, in classical Christianity, seen as demonic and under the sign of original sin. But classical Islam has always been able and willing to see at least fragments of an authentic divine message in the faiths and cultures of non-Muslim peoples. If God has assured us that every nation has received divine guidance, then we can look with some favour on the Other. Hence, for instance, we find popular Muslim poets in India, such as Sayid Sultan, writing poems about Krishna as a Prophet. There is no final theological proof that he was one, but the assumption is nonetheless not in violation of the Koran.
Even among Muslim ulema, who had not been to India, we find interestingly positive appraisals of Hinduism. For instance, the great Baghdad theologian al-Shahrastani, in his Book of Religions and Sects, had access to enough reliable information about India to develop a very sophisticated theological reaction to Indian religion. He accepts that the higher forms of Hinduism are not polytheistic. He notes that that although the Hindus have no notion of prophecy, they do have what he calls ashab al-ruhaniyat: quasi-divine beings who call mankind to love the Real and to practice the virtues. He names Vishnu and Shiva as examples, and speaks positively of them. He focuses particularly on the veneration of celestial bodies: the sun, the moon, and the planets. The reason why he fixes on these practices is that they seem to situate Hinduism within a recognisably Koranic paradigm. The Koran mentions quite favourably a group known as the Sabeans, who were by the second century identified with various star-worshipping but still vaguely monotheistic sects in Mesopotamia. The Sabeans are tolerated in Islamic law, although they are less privileged than the Jews and Christians, a position reflected in the ruling in Shari?ah that a Muslim may not marry their women or eat their meat.
Shahrastani explicitly assimilates many Hindus to this category of Sabeans. They are to be tolerated as believers in One God; and will only be punished by God if, having been properly exposed to Islam, they reject it.
Another example is supplied by the great Muslim epic in China. Those who believe that Muslim communities can only flourish if they ghettoise themselves and refuse to interact with majority communities would do well to look at Chinese history. Many of the leading mandarins of Ming China were in fact Muslims. Wang Dai-Yu, for instance, who died in 1660, was a Muslim scholar who received the title of Master of the Four Religions because of his complete knowledge of China’s four religions: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Many of the leading admirals in the navy of the Ming Empire were practising Muslims.
In China, mosques look very like traditional Chinese garden-temples, except that there is a prayer hall without idols, and the calligraphy is Koranic. In some of the most beautiful, you will find, as you enter, the following words in Chinese inscribed on a tablet: Sages have one mind and the same truth. In all parts of the world, sages arise who possess this uniformity of mind and truth. Muhammad, the Great Sage of the West, lived in Arabia long after Confucius, the Sage of China. Though separated by ages and countries, they had the same mind and Truth.
In these examples from India and China, we see a practical confirmation of Islam?s proclamation of itself as the final, and hence universal, message from God. In a hadith we learn: Other prophets were sent only to their own peoples, while I am sent to all mankind.
It is not that the Koranic worldview affirms other religions as fully adequate paths to salvation. In fact, it clearly does not. But it allows the Muslim, as he encounters new worlds, to sift the wheat from the chaff in non-Muslim cultures, rejecting some things, to be sure, but maintaining others. In Islamic law, too, we find that shara’li man qablana, the revealed laws of those who came before us, can under certain conditions be accepted as valid legal precedent, if they are not demonstrably abrogated by an Islamic revealed source. And Islamic law also recognises the authority of urf, local customary law, so that a law or custom is acceptable, and may be carried over into an Islamic culture or jurisdiction, if no Islamic revealed principle is thereby violated. Hence, we find the administration of Islamic law varying from country to country. If a wife complains of receiving insufficient dower from her husband, the qadi [judge] will make reference to what is considered normal in their culture and social group, and adjudge accordingly.
All of these historical observations have, I hope, served to make quite a simple point: Islam, as a universal religion, in fact as the only legitimately universal religion, also makes room for the particularities of the peoples who come into it. The traditional Muslim world is a rainbow, an extraordinary patchwork of different cultures, all united by a common adherence to the doctrinal and moral patterns set down in Revelation. Put differently, Revelation supplies parameters, hudud, rather than a complete blueprint for the details of cultural life. Local mindsets are Islamised, but remain distinct.
This point is obvious to anyone who has studied Islamic thought or Islamic history. I reiterate it today only because some Muslims nowadays reject it fiercely. Those who come to Islam because they wish to draw closer to God have no problem with a multiform Islam radiating from a single revealed paradigmatic core. But those who come to Islam seeking an identity will find the multiplicity of traditional Muslim cultures intolerable. People with confused identities are attracted to totalitarian solutions. And today, many young Muslims feel so threatened by the diversity of calls on their allegiance, and by the sheer complexity of modernity, that the only form of Islam they can regard as legitimate is a totalitarian, monolithic one. That there should be four schools of Islamic law is to them unbearable. That Muslim cultures should legitimately differ is a species of blasphemy.
These young people, who haunt our mosques and shout at any sign of disagreement, are either ignorant of Muslim history, or dismiss it as a gigantic mistake. For them, the grace and rahma of Allah has for some reason been withheld from all but a tiny fraction of the Ummah. These people are the elect; and all disagreement with them is a blasphemy against God.
We cannot hope easily to cure such people. Simple proofs from our history or our scholarship will not suffice. What they need is a sense of security, and that, given the deteriorating conditions of both the Muslim world and of the ghettos in Western cities, may not come readily. For now, it is best to ignore their shouts and their melodramatic but always ill-fated activities. Our psychic problems are not theirs; and theirs can never be ours.
Islam is, and will continue to be, even amid the miserable globalisation of modern culture, a faith that celebrates diversity. Our thinking about our own position as British Muslims should focus on that fact, and quietly but firmly ignore the protests both of the totalitarian fringe, and of the importers of other regional cultures, such as that of Pakistan, which they regard as the only legitimate Islamic ideal. So far, however, we have been too busy restating the initial question with which this chapter opened, and defending its legitimacy, to propose any substantive answer. It is time now to attempt a brief sketch of what I construe our cultural position and prospects to be.
As I have tried to emphasise, Islam’s presence in Britain is not an Islamic problem. Islam is universal, and can operate everywhere. It is not an Islamic problem, but it may be a British problem. Europe, alone among the continents, does not have a longstanding tradition of plurality. In medieval Asia or Africa, in China or the Songhai Empire, or Egypt, or almost everywhere, one could usually practice one’s own religion in peace, whatever it happened to be. Only in Europe was there a consistent policy of enforcing religious uniformity. The reason for this lay of course in the Church’s theology: unless you had some part in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, you were in the grip of original sin, and hence were an instrument of the devil. Medieval Catholics were even expected to believe that unbaptised infants would be tormented in Hell forever. Given that absolute view, it was only natural that Europe constantly strove for religious uniformity.
Britain, as part of the European world, has traditionally suffered the same totalitarian entailments in its history. Hence, although it has always been possible to be a Christian in a Muslim country, it was against the law to be a Muslim in Britain until 1812, with the passage through parliament of the Trinitarian Act. Nonetheless, three centuries before that, with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, England cut itself off from formal submission to Vatican doctrines; and from that time a type of religious diversity has been, within severe constraints, at least a possibility. In fact, Britain was the first major European country to break with the medieval European tradition of absolute religious conformity. Perhaps it is because of this fact that exclusivist and xenophobic political manifestations are less common in Britain today than in most Continental countries. The National Front is a lunatic fringe party in the U.K., whereas its equivalents regularly scoop twenty percent of the votes in some regions of France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Austria.
When England threw off the Papist yoke, opportunities arose for questioning ancient errors of understanding, which had been introduced into Christianity by the Church Fathers. These opportunities, however, were not properly grasped. The English Reformation was an attempt not to extirpate bid’ah in the Muslim sense, and return to the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, which had been distorted by the Church on the basis of the Hellenising agendas of the anonymous gospel authors, but to reform the doctrines and liturgy of the medieval church. Hence the reformers did not attempt to return to the simple monotheistic worship of the Apostles, but, in the Book of Common Prayer published in 1549, created a new vernacular liturgy based largely on medieval trinitarian and incarnationist precedents.
This English willingness to challenge tradition, however, was to have immense repercussions. Despite the lack of awareness of the instability of the gospel texts, as revealed by 20th century scholarship, for the first time Europeans, and notably Britons, were questioning the innovations of the Church magisterium, and attempting to grope back towards the faith revealed by God to His prophet Jesus, upon whom be peace.
One repercussion of the Reformation on our ancestors was the revival of a mystical tradition, whose most obvious manifestation was the Cambridge Platonists. English mysticism has usually been of a moderate type: one thinks of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Julian of Norwich. Extreme feats of asceticism, or extravagant and obsessive preoccupations with visions and miraculous happenings, have never been part of the English style of spirituality. The Cambridge Platonists drew on this moderate mysticism, but insisted that mystical inspiration must work hand in hand with rational judgement, and with sound doctrine derived from the Scriptures. This position, which influenced John Locke in particular, again evinces the English style of religion: profound but not verbose, rational but not rationalistic, and scriptural but not literalistic.
This very English approach to religion in due course led to serious questions being asked about the centrepiece of medieval Christian dogma: the Trinity. Milton, and later John Locke himself, are known to have held discreetly Unitarian beliefs, having been unable to find convincing justification for trinitarian and incarnationist views in the Scriptures. Locke’s close friend Newton was even more frank, writing of the vehement universal and lasting controversy about the Trinity … Let them make good sense of it who are able. For my part, I can make none.
The period around the Civil War threw up many Englishmen who were likewise concerned about the distortion of the teachings of Jesus by the Church; and the term Unitarian comes into being sometime during this period. But side by side with this tradition of dissent, and in often obscure ways interacting with it, went an even more revolutionary change: improved information about the Blessed Prophet of Islam.
The medievals chose to remain in ignorance about Islam. For them, Muslims were summah culpabilis: the sum of everything blameworthy. Knights from Britain had been at the forefront of the Crusades. The sack of the Muslim city of Lisbon in 1147 during which perhaps 150,000 Muslims were massacred, was largely the work of soldiers from Norfolk and Suffolk. But the same quest for simplicity and honesty which made the Reformation possible, also made of England the first country in Europe where medieval images of Islam could be challenged.
To an extent, which we cannot now determine, largely because an excess of sympathy with either Islam or Unitarianism could result in the dissenter being hung, drawn and quartered, new perspectives on Islam informed and reinforced the discreet Unitarian movement. This is implied by the title of Humphrey Prideaux’s hate-filled book of 1697, which he called, The true nature of Imposture, fully displayed in the life of Mahomet … offered to the consideration of the Deists of the present age.
Prideaux is clearly implying that some radical Dissenters were being drawn towards Islam, and he is writing his polemic to hold back that tide. But a far clearer insight into this process is supplied by another author, a certain Henry Stubbe.
Stubbe is the first European Christian to write favourably of Islam. In fact, he writes so favourably that we can only conclude that he had thrown off the heritage of Christianity, and privately adopted it. He was educated at Westminster and Oxford, and worked as a physician in Warwick, and as personal physician to King James. His biographer Anthony Wood described him as the most noted person of his age that these late times have produced. He died in 1676, after being accused of heresy, and spending some time in prison.
Stubbe was a child of the Civil War, and the spiritual chaos of the Interregnum prompted him to question the official tenets of his inherited Anglicanism. He was also a scholar, who had mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and was fully conversant with the new critical scholarship on the Bible. Putting all these gifts together, and thanks to his friendship with Pococke, the Laudian Professor of Arabic in Oxford, he wrote a book, which for the nineteenth century would have been advanced, but which for the seventeenth is positively astounding. Just the title alone gives some hint of this: An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians.
The book begins with a chapter demonstrating how the message of Jesus Christ has been perverted by the Church. He stresses the fact that Jesus, upon him be peace, had remained faithful to the Mosaic Law, and would have been horrified by the idea that later generations might use his name to justify the eating of pork, for instance. He says, of the Disciples: They did never believe Christ to be the natural Son of God, by eternal Generation, or any tenet depending thereon, or prayed unto him, or believed the Holy Ghost, or the Trinity of persons in one Deity … The whole constitution of the primitive Church Government relates to the Jewish Synagogue, not to the Hierarchy. The presbyters were not Priests, but Laymen set apart to their office by imposition of hands . . . Nor was the name of Priest then ever heard of. He concludes that the sacraments of the Church, particularly baptism and the Eucharist, are pagan rituals introduced into Christianity several decades after Christ.
Stubbe then provides a chapter on a brief History of Arabia and the Saracens, followed by four on the Prophet. Chapter Eight is a vindication of the Prophet; chapter 9 is a vindication of Islam, and chapter 10 explains the moral necessity of the doctrine of Jihad.
His polemical intentions throughout are clear: he constantly shows Islam to be a purer and more rational form of religion than Christianity. Here is Stubbe, for instance, summahrising the Prophet’s teaching: This is the sum of Mahometan Religion, on the one hand not clogging Men’s Faith with the necessity of believing a number of abstruse notions which they cannot comprehend, and which are often contrary to the dictates of Reason and common Sense; nor on the other hand loading them with the performance of many troublesome, expensive and superstitious Ceremonies, yet enjoining a due observance of Religious Worship, as the surest Method to keep Men in the bounds of their Duty both to God and Man.
And a little further on he adds: Let us now lay aside our prejudices … Their Articles of Faith are few and plain, whereby they are preserved from Schisms and Heresies, for although they have great diversity of opinions in the explication of their Law, yet, agreeing in the fundamentals, their differences in opinion do not reach to that breach of Charity so common among the Christians, who thereby become a scandal to all other Religions in the world. Their Notions of God are great and noble, their opinions of the Future State are consonant to those of the Jews and Christians. As to the moral part of their Religion . . . we shall see that it is not inferior to that of the Christians. And lastly, their religious Duties are plainly laid down, which is the cause that they are duly observed, and are in themselves very rational.
He allocates an entire chapter to show the moral significance of the Jihad. This chapter is perhaps the most remarkable in the entire book, since it had long been a Christian ide fixe that Islam could only spread by the sword. He goes to some length, quoting travellers to the Ottoman Empire, to show that Christian minorities are usually protected better under Muslim rule than under the rule of their fellow Christians. He observes, for instance: It is manifest that the Mahometans did propagate their Empire, but not their Religion, by force of arms . . . Christians and other Religions might peaceably subsist under their Protection . . . it is an assured truth, that the vulgar Greeks live in a better Condition under the Turk at present then they did under their own Emperors, when there were perpetual murders practised on their Princes, and tyranny over the People; but they are now secure from Injury if they pay their Taxes. And it is indeed more the Interest of the Princes & Nobles, than of the People, which at present keeps all Europe from submitting to the Turks.
Having sung Islam’s praises in these terms, Stubbe could hardly expect to publish his book. He published several others, but this one languished discreetly in manuscript form until 1911, when a group of Ottoman Muslims in London rescued it from obscurity and published it.
At least six manuscripts did, however, circulate in a more or less clandestine fashion. No fewer than three of them were preserved in the private library of the Revd John Disney, who at the beginning of the 19th century shocked the established church by publicly converting to Unitarianism. Some historians have suggested also that Gibbon was familiar with the work. For instance, Stubbe observes: When Christianity became generally received, it introduced with it a general inundation of Barbarism and Ignorance, which over-run all places where it prevailed.
And Gibbon, several decades later, closes his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the words: I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion. Gibbon himself was known for his private scepticism about Trinitarian dogma.
Stubbe’s book, as I have said, is the work of a brave pioneer. But it is also a considered reflection upon the religious instabilities of the interregnum period, which generated it. It shows a sensitive and immensely cultivated English mind shaking off the complications of old dogma, using modern scholarship to reconstruct the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and of the Prophet Muhammad. Instead of something exotic, we see here a very English kind of religion expressing itself. Stubbe is spiritual, but not superstitious. He likes simplicity: the blank, Puritan wall of the mosque rather than the elaborate stone metaphors of Catholicism or of the dizzyingly high Anglicanism of Charles. He values wholesome morality that is pragmatic rather than irresponsibly idealistic: so he commends polygamy, and shows the moral dangers of legally imposed monogamy. He regards with distaste traditional Christian strictures on the flesh – a century beforehand, Englishmen had rejected the arguments for a celibate clergy and had firmly quashed monkery as both unnatural and parasitic. For Stubbe, the Prophet’s approach was in accord with nature: the love of woman is as natural as the love of God. The Prophet, like the great Hebrew patriarchs, showed that sacred and profane love can and indeed must go together.
A generation earlier, John Donne had suffered passions for both woman and for God; and found his religion finally unable to reconcile the two. His early poems are among some of the most touching, and also sensual, love poems in the English language. Later, as Dean of St Paul’s, he realised that he must renounce the flesh as the instrument of the Fall and the perpetrator of original sin. Hence his agonising, tragic spiritual career, renouncing the flesh to serve God, composing poems wrapped in his winding sheet: Donne’s great Muslim soul caught in the flawed dialectic of a theology that regarded spirit and body as eternally at war.
Stubbe is also drawing on a particularly English pragmatism in his treatment of the Jihad. Far from regarding the Islamic institution of the just war as a reproach, he extols it, contrasting it with what he regarded as the insipid and irresponsible pacifism of the unknown New Testament authors. Stubbe is an English gentleman of a generation that had known war, and knew that there are some injustices in the world that cannot be dissolved through passive suffering, through turning the other cheek. He had sided with Parliament during the civil war, holding, with Cromwell, that the righteous man may sometimes justly bear the burden of the sword. An admirer of Cromwell, he became an admirer of the Prophet. For him, the Prophet was not a foreign, exotic figure: his genial vision of human life under God exactly conformed to what a civilised Englishman of the seventeenth century thought necessary and proper. In Stubbe’s work, in other words, we find a vindication of Muhammad as an English prophet.
There is more that can be said about the convergence of Islamic moderation and good sense with the English temper. Tragically, the rise of Dissent in England coincided also with the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, which reached its intoxicating heights with the empire of Queen Victoria and the Edwardians. Under such Anglocentric and frankly racist banners, sympathy with Islam became once more a receding possibility. But there were exceptions. Perhaps the most celebrated was that most English of intellectuals, Carlyle. Carlyle, like Stubbe two centuries before, was a free spirit, unhampered either by obsessions with Trinity, or modern delusions about the ability of material progress to secure human happiness.
On May the 8th 1840, in a stuffy lecture room in Portman Square, London’s intellectual elite were hearing Carlyle speak about the Prophet. They had anticipated the usual invective; and they were astonished to watch him holding up the Prophet as a heroic, adventurous figure, whose sacrifices had brought a natural theism to his people, and had much to teach a materialistic Victorian England. The climax came when the lecturer cried: Benthamee Utility, virtue by Profit and Loss; reducing this God’s world to a dead brute Steam-engine . . . if you ask me which gives, Mahomet or they, the beggarlier and falser view of Man and his Destinies in this Universe, I will answer, it is not Mahomet.
Stung to the quick, John Stuart Mill leaped to his feet, and cried out: No!
Carlyle was lecturing on The Hero as Prophet; and again we see the English realism towards the use of force, which had made possible the creation of the British Empire, inspiring a more positive appreciation of the Prophet of Islam. The great Christian blindness towards Islam has always been the belief that there can be only one type of perfection, namely the pacifist Jesus, who taught men to turn the other cheek, and who said, Resist not him that is evil. For minds nurtured on such an image, the hero-Prophet is a difficult figure to comprehend. In the Far East, of course, there is no such mental block. Spirituality and the cultivation of the martial arts there went hand in hand. The love of women was also seen as a necessary part of this ethos. The samurai tradition in particular, of the righteous swordsman, a meditator who was also a great lover of women, ensures that a Japanese, for instance, will have few difficulties with the specific genius and greatness of the Prophet of Islam. But for Christians, there is no such model, although knightly ethics in the early Middle Ages, learned from Muslims in Spain and Palestine, dimly suggested it. But even for the Crusader knights, the ideal of celibacy was often accepted: the Knights Templar, for instance, a monastic warrior order, who were influenced enough by Islam to comprehend the importance of a sacred warriorhood, but who never quite got the point about celibacy.
With Carlyle, the Hero as Prophet, or the Prophet as Hero, reveals itself as a credible type for the English mind. And Carlyle?s insistence on the moral exaltation of the Prophet who transcended pacifism to take up arms to fight for his people was understood by at least one later British writer: George Bernard Shaw. For Shaw, as for Carlyle, there was no doubt about the correct answer to Hamlet’s question.
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
Edmund Burke had already pointed out that for evil to triumph, it is enough that good men do nothing. Shaw, like Carlyle, recognised that this principle calls into question the Gospel ethic of passivity in the face of suffering and injustice. Let me read to you a few words from Hesketh Pearson’s biography of the generally post-Christian Shaw: For many years (this was 1927), Shaw had been meditating a play on a prophet. The militant saint was a type more congenial to his nature than any other, a type he thoroughly sympathised with and could therefore portray with unfailing insight. In all history the one person who exactly answered his requirements, who would have made the perfect Shavian hero, was Mahomet.
In his diary for 1913, Shaw himself wrote: I had long desired to dramatise the life of Mahomet. But the possibility of a protest from the Turkish Ambassador – or the fear of it – causing the Lord Chamberlain to refuse to license such a play, deterred me. And so, as Pearson records, he wrote Saint Joan instead.
Perhaps we can close this brief parenthetic summahry of the convergence between British martial theory and traditions and Islam, with a final insight; this time offered by Colin Morris, former head of the BBC in Northern Ireland: The false prophet is a moralist, he tells the world how things ought to be; the real prophet is a realist, he tells the world how things really are.
Let us try to sum up the above arguments. Firstly, Islam is a universal religion. Despite its origins in 7th century Arabia, it works everywhere, and this is itself a sign of its miraculous and divine origin. Secondly, the British Isles have for several hundred years been the home of individuals whose religious and moral temper is very close to that of Islam. To move from Christianity to Islam is hence, for an English man or woman, not the giant leap that outsiders might assume. It is, rather, simply the logical next step in the epic story of our people. Christianity, formerly a Greek mystery religion advocating a moral code against the natural law, is in fact foreign to our national temperament. It is an exotic creed, and it is now fatally compromised by its positive view of secular modernity. Islam, once we have become familiar with it, and settled into it comfortably, is the most suitable faith for the British. Its values are our values. Its moderate, undemonstrative style of piety, still waters running deep; its insistence on modesty and a certain reserve, and its insistence on common sense and on pragmatism, combine to furnish the most natural and easy religious option for our people.
I should close by saying that nothing in what I have said is intended in a jingoistic sense. That the British have a convergence with Islam is to the credit of our people, certainly. But I am not commending any smug ethnocentrism; precisely because Islam itself came to abolish a tribal mentality. Islam is the true consanguinity of believers in the One True God, the common bond of those who seek to remain focussed on the divine Source of our being in this diffuse, ignorant and tragic age. But it is generous and inclusive. It allows us to celebrate our particularity, the genius of our heritage; within, rather than in tension with, the greater and more lasting fellowship of faith.
(Currently, he is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He studied at the universities of Cambridge and al-Azhar, Egypt, and has also translated a number of Islamic works including Imam al-Bayhaqi’s The Seventy Seven Branches of Faith (Quilliam Press, 1992).)