More Encounters with Unusual Muslims

Mondays are meant real downers but I was fortunate to be able to take an afternoon off last Monday since things were slowing down as summer was already here. I had made two consecutive appointments with two Muslims one would normally meet. My happy hunting ground? Appropriately enough, the Edgeware Road/Paddington area.

My first meet up was with a journalist cum political analyst. I had met this lovely young lady as co-panelist on British Muslim TV the previous week. We were very much in agreement about the subject (on whether Muslim’s identity signals like beards and hijab are appropriately placed) although we had to ‘tussle’ a little bit to get to that point. She had very kindly agreed to help me on my quest to break into mainstream reporting.

In the usual ‘Muslims Vs The West’ scenario, it is usual to see people (from either side) become fanatical in their passionate defence of their ‘side’. It was so refreshing to see that my new friend did not fall into this category. Her journalism from what I understand seemed to be about bringing the other side of the Muslim narrative to the forefront. For example, the increase in women’s representation in Muslim parliaments. Sadly, this positive journalism does not feed well into the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ type scenario. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s shambolic stories make better headlines and that’s why truth becomes secondary. I can empathise. I have been following a ‘Muslim Atheist’ for some time and am amazed that he does not even read what he himself quotes!

My friend is also very balanced as she is not afraid to criticise Muslims where appropriate. She recognises outward signs of piety as cultural signals Muslims affect in order to flex their identity. This is something which is similar to how other young people affect cultural signals from other traditions (like punk or goth). She also had very strong feminist leanings and was very critical of the patriarchal nature of (what I call) Conservative Traditional Islam.

Yet, for all her liberalism, my friend was very unwavering in her notion of what is ethically acceptable. She was very wary of what she called ‘Koombayah Islam’ (a phrase which made my coffee go the wrong way!) and how the response to Conservative Traditional Islam should not be anything goes! I may not agree on what is ‘ethically accetable’ but I do feel that one needs to be unwavering on what one believes to be right.

I was early for my second appointment so I decided to walk over to Paddington. It was not a long a walk as I had expected. I even had the time to scope out a Malaysian restaurant I used to visit but it turns out, it was closed. I think closed down for good because if it was still open, it would be open at that hour!

I was here to meet a friend I met on Facebook, Hassan. We met in a group called British Muslims for Secular Democracy where I was struck by Hassan’s description of himself as an ‘Agnostic Muslim’. I am not one of those people who balk at such terms either. I happily acknowledge that there are infinite varieties of Muslims who have infinite religious experiences. What struck about Hassan, even before we met in person, was his emphasis that his position as an agnostic Muslim was his own. He was speaking for himself, no one else. This is contrary to many I know. I highly respect this because my own approach to religion is predicated upon my subjective experience. Check out the name of this blog, if you don’t believe me.

Hassan and I met at The Victoria pub just down the road from Paddington station (see pic below). It was a lovely pub in which you can imagine George Roper and Jeffery Fourmile having one of their little quarrels in. Hassan had very kindly offered to buy me lunch which made me all the more agreeable!

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Victoria Pub in Paddington

Hassan grew in during the ‘classical’ period of British Islam. I say ‘classical’ because this was the incubation period of Muslim youth. You could read a very beautiful narrative of this period by another British Muslim who grew up during this period, Ziauddin Sardar in his book ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim’ . Hassan was not just a casual Muslim. He studied and worked in the field!

He came to his agnosticism when he found there were theological questions he could not answer. The example he mentioned was the eternity of hell. Surely a merciful god would not torture human beings eternally even for a lifetime of errors. I could attempt to answer this conundrum here but really, I would just be speculating on God’s logic myself. The fact of the matter is, this is a metaphysical issue for which no objective answer can be reached.

Hassan and I shared an alma matter which was SOAS, that place where the historical criticism school of John Wansbrough first originated. Hassan actually studied under the man himself and I studied under his prodigy, Gerald Hawting (in his final class, no less).

An interesting subject which came up and which I will be writing on in my Quranology blog is on the issue of the asmaa ul husna. The 99 names of Allah. Hassan pointed out that some of these names were not based on the Quran and some of names which can be formulated from the Quran are not there. Very interesting, I thought. He also pointed out that some names of Gods were positive sounding but not others. In the end, he concluded, that God is beyond what we try to pin him down with.

This mode of thinking also extended to the Quran itself. For Hassan, the Quran was a divine inspiration in the same way any human being can be inspired to produce something meaningful. Prophet Muhammad was inspired but he had to express this inspiration in a human language and thus wrote down the Quran. So the wording was his but the source of the wording was not, if you will. Hassan still saw the Quran as a source of wisdom but has the choice of taking that wisdom on his own terms. It was very ironic, I thought, that he and I had different metaphysical views yet when it came to the practical application of Quran, we were on the same page. To me, Prophet Muhammad was inspired to verbalize what became the Quran. They were not his words but God’s own choice of words. This is why he could not understand them in full but had to see knowledge (as Quran 20/114 tells us). Of course, this is only my belief. I have no way of objectively proving this. In any case, in terms of application, we were on the same page. The Quran to me is applicable to the Reader who must decide if he is experiencing the particular sign or not.

Time passes quickly when you’re into these deep discussions and soon Hassan had to leave. We promised to meet up again soon. I looked forward to that very much. All in all, it was a beautiful Monday and I went home glowing.