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
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,
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
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,"
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