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WORDS mean different things to different
people. In my mind, "Islam" is always
associated with adventure, possibly because I first encountered it (I think)
in stories about Robin Hood. Anyone who reads these romantic tales from the
Middle Ages becomes familiar with "bad" Prince John, "good" King
Richard, and those inscrutable enemies of the crusaders -- the "Saracens". (The
word "Saracen", by the way, comes from the Greek "Sarakenos", perhaps from the
Arabic "sharq", meaning sunrise.)
But by the time I entered
my teens, I knew that these people were, in reality, called
Muslims, and that they followed a religion called Islam. I did not learn, until
much later, that Islam is NOT a religion, in the Western sense,
but a complete way of life that suffuses all human activities.
These romantic ideas about Islam acquired an
aesthetic dimension when, at the age of 19, I travelled through Turkey and Iran
while en route to India, and marvelled at the mosques I saw. Islamic architecture,
in my opinion, is unsurpassed. I also see it as powerful testimony to the
refinement of Islam, to its unique sensibility.
Look up into the dome of an
Istanbul mosque, and you will see a microcosm of the universe
-- a sort of organised chaos in which every tiny, vital component
is held delicately in place. Here, in intricate art, is the grand "theory of
everything" that scientists are so assiduously seeking. In
a sense, Islam is life itself, lived in accordance with the ineffable
order of the cosmos -- insofar as this can be discerned, with the help of the
Qur'an and the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
course, none of this will convince those who see only the travesty of Islam presented
by its detractors. The cogency of the "case for Islam" is compelling,
but ultimately a person cannot be compelled to accept it.
Islam is not being magnanimous when it says "there is no compulsion
in religion"; it is simply making a statement of fact.
cannot be spread by the sword. Coercion can secure outward
compliance with a set of rules, but cannot secure inner conviction.
And without inner conviction, there can only be an empty shell
-- not enough to withstand the stresses and strains of
centuries, let alone to produce superlative art and architecture.
Actually, if you look at what might be described
as the methodology of Islam, you find that it tends to be spread discreetly
on a one-to-one basis, through personal advice or example.
In Islam, there are no Billy Graham crusades, with all their
attendant hype and hoopla, and hysterical, orchestrated "decisions
for Christ". Indeed, that kind of excessive emotionalism is
counter to the spirit of Islam, which demands moderation and sober judgment
in all matters.
Muslim associations, and especially those for "new
Muslims", are always keen to have one's "conversion story" -- or "reversion
to use the more fashionable term. The assumption, I think, is that something
pretty dramatic must have happened to make someone turn from one
faith to another. One imagines dark days in which the individual wrestles with
doubt, before succumbing to despair as the doubts refuse to
Then, when life seems utterly meaningless, there
is a flash of light...and the miserable wretch is miraculously transformed, becoming
in an instant the irrepressible apostle of the new creed. Is
that what a conversion is, or should be like? I don't think so.
In fact, I would doubt the psychological stability of anyone who reported such
an abrupt about face.