Recently I was reminded that I am indebted to the University of Essex Islamic Society--after all, I wouldn't be in the UK had they not invested in me and funded my Post-study work visa. I'm working full-time now, so I am not able to volunteer at the Islamic Awareness Week events like last year. For this reason I am determined to attend all of the Islamic Awareness Week events in order to show my support.
I strolled into the Awareness Week display area, where informative posters about Islam decorate the walls, and tables are covered with free Islamic literature. I was drawn into several bits of reading material, a few providing information about women in Islam, advice for Muslim parents, Islamic perspectives on topics including smoking, pork, and drinking. I felt quite comfortable, until I found a brochure on Adultery and Homosexuality. I was disappointed, immediately, to see Homosexuality coupled with Adultery. I then skimmed through the brochure and was disturbed by bold comments calling homosexuality sinful, insisting that no one is born homosexual, just as no one is born a murderer or a thief.
My heart sank, and dropped the pamphlet back onto the pile. This perspective, I must admit, repulses me, and feels far too close-minded. I couldn't remember why I had come to the seminar. Knowing this, how could an LGTB person respect or even consider Islam? I've said before that if there is an issue in Islam that makes me hesitate to convert, it is this one. Perhaps I need to do more research, but my sense is that there is little to no wiggle-room in Islam on topics like homosexuality. At the same time, I am drawn to the reality that one cannot bargain with Islam, that to pick and choose the aspects of Islam that one wants to obey, and to forget the rest blatantly contradicts what it means to be Muslim.
With a box of tissues and two bags of throat lozenges in my backpack, I found a seat in the seminar room. Tonight Surkheel Sharif Abu Aaliyah honoured us by tackling the following question:
I'll say right away that the entire seminar far surpassed my expectations. I was completely captivated by Surkheel Sharif's entire exploration of the question at hand. Sharif began by describing some rifts between Modern Britain's mindset, and the Muslim mindset. First, Islam promotes a visible and public religious practice, while religion is considered a private matter in modern Britain. Second, the mindset of the British Liberal Democracy dramatically contradicts the implication in Islam that there are nonnegotiable rules and commitments to abide by. These religious guidelines may in one sense limit individual freedom--the individual is not entitled to create their own moral code, as in Liberalism, even if their behaviour does not intend to harm another human being. But overall, the religious guidelines are established to keep human beings collectively in their place before God--humble and in submission.
Sharif quoted Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who says there there are two types of religions: Catholic and Protestant. Sharif went on to call Islam a 'Catholic' religion, because Islam has something to say about the behaviour and practices of people in the public realm, as well as the private. Islam is to inform how politics are conducted, how buildings are constructed, and all human actions.
I appreciated Sharif's explanation that Islam is much less about redemption, or being saved from original sin, than Christianity. Islam is much more about reminding human beings that we have an innate disposition to recognise truth and goodness. Throughout the text, the Holy Quran is described as a reminder to people of their higher purpose in life, and responsibility to Allah. When Sharif mentioned a city or world where religious symbols that function as reminders are taken away, I imagined how different it must feel to live in an Islamic country, where mosques are so frequent and noticeable. The experience must compare to Orthodox Churches in Greece--whether you are in the islands or the heart of Athens, you will pass churches and symbols of Orthodoxy. And when Greek Orthodox Christians pass a church, they are reminded to pray and make a cross three times across their chest.
Sharif mentioned the establishment of prayer in Islam, which functions as a reminder to the people of God. I actually think this is how I described the meaningfulness of the 5 daily prayers to me in discussion with Alysia and Brandon. I appreciate how the prayers make me more conscious of my behaviour in relation to Allah. For example, will my action here or there put me in a state of ritual impurity, so that I will have to wash myself in order to pray? The prayers remind me to give thanks, to acknowledge God's authority over my life every day. The rituals keep me firm in the faith, and prevent slothfulness. Sharif described Islam as an 'Orthopraxy,' that emphasises actions over theological belief.
He explored 4 types of Muslims attempting to make a home in Britain, which I will summarise briefly: 1) Muslims who consider Modern Britian to be immoral, and narrowly insist on isolating themselves as much as possible from the surrounding culture. 2) Muslims who value faith above all, and utilise Muslim institutions whenever possible, but also make a great deal of effort to interact with and integrate into the society. 3) Fundamentalist Muslims who are angry with the West for its immorality, foreign policies, and seemingly anti-Islamic conduct. Fundamentalists are determined to Islamify Britain inside and out, but according to the scholars of Islam, base their actions on misreadings and perversions of Islamic texts. For example, Fundamentalists violate prohibitions against killing women and children in battle and they ignore the Quranic mandate that jihad be initiated by a head of state. Sharif's suggestion here is that more religion, more religious education that is, be made available to such people, not less.
I believe the least amount of time was devoted to the fourth category, although it is the category that concerns me the most. The fourth category is made up of Muslims who pour Islamic traditional teachings through a sieve of liberalism, what Sharif warns is 'pandering to the times.' These Muslims are hoping that they can develop a version of Islam that is compatible with the surrounding culture and liberal society.
I think it is this dilution of religion, in part, that distanced me from Christianity. To water down religion is to undermine the authority of God and the entire faith. Again, Islam is not a faith that allows one to select those rules he/she would like to apply, and dismiss the others. Because once any religion is filtered through the sieve of our own wishes, the faith is unrecognisable. God is lost, and what was once a moral code is now simply a resource, one option among many.
At this point, I am hypocritical. Could I convert to Islam at this moment if I wanted to? Well, some of my behaviours would be warmly welcomed by the Muslim community. But not everything. And right now, to keep what is important to me, I think I will have to wait. Generally, should we wait until we are perfect to approach God? Or does God make us perfect in submission? I really wish for a future that is vastly different from my past. I want my children to be raised in a bedrock of religious and moral sensibility - I want them to have more blessings than my family does now. Sometimes I dream that this unwavering faith will help them, and me too.