Quicunque Vult, or, A teenage journey to Islam

By Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (Dr Tim Winter)


In a former church, my heart is a mihrâb,
Urging me to repent, the erasure of old but remembered sins.
(Sünbülzâde Vehbî)


This memoir is offered, at the persistent request of some Turkish friends, by a monotheist whose formative life was shaped by Anglican Christianity, but who has made his home in Islam. Like the kilisâ-camii metaphor in the old Ottoman poetry, which describes a church which has been made into a mosque, such a man is architecturally distinctive, but a symbol of undeserved improvement: he is the mühtedî, the object of guidance, at once a spiritual migrant and a symbol that Islam, battered by despisers on all sides, is still Refuge of the World (‘âlem-penâh). Richard Bulliet flatteringly believes that the vigour of Islam has always been secured by the mühtedîs, who bring the energy and the sometimes annoying zeal of the proselyte ‘on the edge’ into the formalised traditional world of inherited religion.[1] Perhaps, he implies, such newcomers are like the desert dwellers who, in Ibn Khaldun’s view of things, periodically invade the sedate, bourgeois citadels to establish a new, often rather puritanical, reconnection with God.

The reality, of course, is that the man whose qibla-niche lies cattycorners, at an angle to the larger temple, typically takes more than he gives. Particularly under modern conditions, the refugee into Islam, who crawls gratefully onto the lifeboat, brings rather little to those who are already aboard. In earlier ages, when the likes of Ibrâhîm Müteferrika, Ali Ufki, and Abdullâh al-Tarjumân joined the Muslim world (and should we not go back further still, to Salmân and Suhayb?), rival cultures were sacred cultures, and the Islamic neophytes had been trained in great civilisations whose purpose was the service of one or several Gods. Today, what riches, what energies can the Western mühtedî truly bring? For we are sons and daughters of Mammon, nurtured by an increasingly absolutist liberal capitalism to be

that deadly modern type, the consumer, who wants to be flattered for his discriminating taste but whose taste amounts to nothing more than liking what will get him flattered, taking refuge in brand-names and high-end merchandise, much as the snob does in high-end people. A whole society looms where no one is or even wants any more to be ‘who one is’ – another Nietzschean nightmare.[2]

Wild talk of a new Islamic hermeneutic hatching in the Muslim communities of the West has been with us for some years, with sadly insufficient justification. It is not clear how religiously fertile the Occident can be, when its crops grow in soil that has been so long polluted. The ancient trope of ex Oriente lux is perhaps more true than ever. For one British Muslim poet of the last age:

Thousands of years hath the sun rose,
In the glow of its Eastern hues,
Thousands of years doth the West close
It in gloom, and in tears, of its dews.
Even so, in the Orient morning,
Faith, true! – pure, of Allah, The One,
Rose, Earth, with its beauty, adorning,
And sank, Westward – and darkened, its sun.
O, Believers! Have faith in Faith’s morning,
Know ye, Allah knoweth the best!
See, the Light of the Orient, returning
Pure Islamic beams, over the West.[3]

From my middle teenage years, I recall living in a deep alienation from the modern condition, with a restless desire to be free of its brilliant mediocrity. This was the modernity which, as Max Weber acknowledged, seemed to be trapped in a ‘shell as hard as steel’, where the iron of natural limitations had been replaced by steel bonds of our own making, a terrible alienation from which no mere political solution can release us. Pessimistically, Weber was sure that human happiness and fulfilment must be increasingly restricted in the machine-age, whose logic seeks to reconstitute the human subject as a consumer and producer, and nothing more.[4]The very principle of individuation which the West, since the Enlightenment, has taken to be the basis of personal fulfilment, has allowed us to view ‘the Other’ increasingly as an object good only for manipulation, and the results have been disastrous. Family, neighbourhood and community are as inappropriate to those caught in the steel shell as are contemplation, prayer, and art which exists for any sake other than itself. Herbert Marcuse, in the 1960s, spoke of One-Dimensional Man, trapped by the very rhetoric of choice and freedom in a technologically-enabled totalitarian reality, the power of whose chains stems from their ubiquity, technical competence, and invisibility.

Mid-twentieth century pessimism in the face of science-based totalitarianism seemed paradoxically abated by the collapse of Marx’s deterministic optimism (the idea that natural selection has a moral outcome), and for a short while there was a sense that the original dream of the Enlightenment might be realised after all. However the decay of the Eastern Bloc, already sensed in the popular culture of the 1970s, has simply underlined the aimlessness of the West’s hi-tech pleasuredrome. The natural environment offers only one theatre in which our technology threatens us with the very cleverness developed to protect us. As Walter Benjamin concluded:

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian Gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.[5]

And in our new, turbo-charged yet doubt-ridden millennium, who can deny that we live under the shadow of hazards more numerous and imponderable than those which worried Benjamin? Martin Rees, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, offers this assessment: ‘I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.’[6] Serious art, poetry and theatre reflect this persistent unease.

Why, then, ask the mühtedî whose story is Western to bring gifts? Spiritually, and indeed in terms of all of the accomplishments which once defined human flourishing, our ‘Abendland’ has made itself infertile, having turned against the sources of its own flowering for the sake of an individualistic project whose consequences have turned out to be a trivialisation so extreme that we fear to consider its destination. Islam’s ‘grand refusal’ of the puerilization project is the great fact of our age; and the stubborn persistence of Muslims in respecting historic human normalcy in areas such as gender, sexuality, prayer, art and the meaning of nature, is an unmistakeable sign of God’s ongoing favour. But the mühtedî communities have so far played at best a marginal role, a walk-on part in this gripping drama.

My ancestors, according to family lore, were always troublemakers. On my father’s side, some Scots forebears allegedly fought against Julius Caesar, and another was executed by Robert the Bruce. Two sainted maiden aunts in my mother’s family were proud of their descent from Philip Doddridge (d.1751), a preacher and hymnwriter who rejected the Anglican church in favour of a radical Nonconformism. Like others in his day, he took the Reformation demand for a return to the beliefs of the first Christians to entail a serious reaction against received orthodoxy. His most famous hymn recalls the Hebraizing mood of his time.

O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed;
who through this earthly pilgrimage
hast all our fathers led:

Our vows, our prayers, we now present
before thy throne of grace:
O God of Israel, be the God
of their succeeding race.

My school chaplain, Willie Booth, taught me to consider carefully the Jewishness of the early Christian church. Were the Anglicans, truly, the ‘succeeding race’ to Israel’s God? Booth, with immense fair-mindedness, accepted our cynical challenge to this notion. Jesus, clearly, had been Jewish. An honest reading of the Old Testament slowly forced us to see that the Trinitarian God we daily worshipped was something new.

We prayed as worried Anglicans, but Nonconformity was in my blood, and I grew up with fresh family memories of strict Sabbaths when children might only play games involving the Bible. Until my grandfather’s time, too, the men of the family had ‘taken the pledge’, swearing off alcohol for life. My grandfather was the last, until, in middle age, he found that occasional social drinking might be good for business. In his time that was still a momentous decision. His was a now unimaginable England of temperance hotels, deserted Sunday high-streets, and no kissing before putting on an engagement ring. To the Blair generation, it sounds like a far foreign place. Yet the mühtedi knows that there is a paradox here. Faced with England’s desertion of its own identity, may one ask whether an English move to Islam is a farewell to one’s heritage – or its unlooked-for revival. Certainly for me, there has always been a pleasing irony in the fact that the small church on Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, in which my family worshipped, married and attended Sunday School in my grandparents’ time, has been converted into a mosque. When I visit to pray, am I the last surviving upholder of the family tradition?

Booth weaned me from official credal Christianity, and unintentionally helped me rediscover the Nonconformist legacy. This was reinforced indirectly by my sister, who was attending a school founded by the Unitarian minister William Channing (d.1842), whose influence remained strong in the school’s ethos and worship. Channing was a hero of true Dissent, who wished to take the Reformation back beyond the manipulations of Athanasius and the political bishops of the fourth century, to discover and revive the beliefs of the earliest Christians. This was the way he thought:

we believe […] that there is one God, and one only. We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption [… none] doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different […] perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply three minds, we are at a loss to know how three minds are to be formed.
We […] protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. To us, as to the Apostle and the [original] Christians, there is one God, even the Father. We challenge our opponents to [point out] one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons.
This doctrine, were it true, must, from its difficulty, singularity, and importance, have been laid down with great clearness […] and stated with all possible precision. But where does this statement appear? From the many passages which treat of God, we ask for one, one only, in which we are told, that he is a threefold being, […] So entirely do the Scriptures abstain from stating the Trinity, that when our opponents would insert it into their creeds they are compelled to leave the Bible, and to invent forms of words altogether unsanctioned by Scriptural phraseology.
We have further objections to this doctrine, drawn from its practical influence. We regard it as unfavorable to devotion, by dividing and distracting the mind in its communion with God. It is a great excellence of the doctrine of God’s unity, that it offers to us ONE OBJECT of supreme homage, adoration, and love, One Infinite Father, […] to whom we may refer all good.[7]

Channing also speaks passionately against the injustice implied in the Blood Atonement. This resonated with me also. I recalled how, as a schoolboy aged perhaps nine, I had sat in services at an Anglican church in Hampstead, gazing at an enormous and bleeding Christ. How small, and how guilty I felt! The message was, as the hymnal confirmed, that this suffering was the consequence of my own sinfulness. How ungrateful I would be, a voice would whisper, not to accept this heroic deed! Later, as a frank and turbulent teenager, I was able to call this kind of religion ‘blackmail’. The gruesome image was oppressing me into faith. But was there a God who could forgive directly?

Later I was to discover the words of Ruqaiyyah Maqsood: ‘God does not need a sacrifice in order to forgive anyone. The split-second of turning from Christianity to Islam is the realisation of the truth of the parable of the Prodigal Son.’[8] In the parables, God is loving enough to forgive directly. That was the whole glory of the Judaism which Jesus upheld.

When, in 1976, a Hayward Gallery exhibition unveiled the arts of Islam, I looked for an equivalent to the penitential moods of Christianity. Not one religious painting in the National Gallery offers a smile (unlike the pagan gods, who reappear, apparently amid much relief, at the Renaissance). But in Ottoman miniatures, of religious or profane subjects, everyone smiles. The calligraphy, too, the arabesques, tessellations and vegetal curlicues of Muslim decoration, all recall the fact of a benign creation and a merciful God. The world is woven from the true signs of God, and that God is smiling! Such were my discoveries, as I attempted, crudely but intensely, to compare the aesthetic spirit of the two worlds.

Evening classes in Arabic, at London’s Morley College, followed. I was a lone schoolboy in a class of pensioners, and stood out as an eccentric. The mosaics and the arabesques I had seen were clearly submissive to the mysterious writing above: but the art historians hardly bothered to translate it. What was its secret? What was the formal message of this art, which breathed the presence of a loving God, Who told us of His presence and beauty more than of evil and of sin?

It was, of course, the Koran. In that still insular age, the Koran meant Rodwell, or (the copy with which I began) Zafrullah Khan. Sir Zafrullah’s sectarian leanings veiled the text grievously: Surat Yasin began ‘O Perfect Leader’, and worse was to follow. In fact, the Koran, that ‘shy bride’, would take years to unveil herself. At the outset, she seemed to dazzle me with her unworldly strangeness, and the purity of her ego-less diction. Much of the Bible comprised stories whose purpose seemed ambiguous or even absent, punctuated by occasional flashes of pure light; the Koran was giving me the light alone. Even after joining, I found the text ‘hot’, and some suras too challenging to recite often. The early Meccan sequences, commonly learned before the rest, are absolute in their demands. Total sincerity, monotheism, love of the poor, denial of the self. How can one recite such words, presenting them to God, when one’s heart and habits deny them? The one who ‘pushes away the orphan’, Sura 107 declares, ‘calls religion a lie.’ Who has the courage to repeat such a line? While facing God, without the comfortable defence of a pew? Why is God so absolute?

A lonely search through the shelves of Foyles yielded few guides in that still insular age. Maxime Rodinson’s paperback Life of Mohammed gave the view of a confident French Communist. No less than medieval monks, Rodinson was committed to reducing and explaining away the figure he portrayed. And yet the drama and heroism of the story shone through. The Prophet, wholly and uncomplicatedly human, changed his world forever, while living as a prayerful pauper. Rodinson shut out the supernatural, and stressed class and economics; yet the sheer magnificent suspense of this story, so successfully concealed from young people in my culture, was itself a revelation, astonishing even where it was apparently mundane.

Reading Rodinson, trying to find God between his lines, I found myself thinking about forgiveness. Religious searching always seems driven by a consciousness of sin and alienation. Which forgiveness is higher, I was obliged to ask: the forgiveness of one crucified, who has no power in his hands, or the forgiveness shown by the Blessed Prophet at the Conquest of Mecca, at the highest moment of his political life, when his ancient enemies were in his hands and he forgave them? This, I discovered, is the virtue of al-‘afw ma‘a al-qudra: to forgive when in a position to punish.[9] It is the virtue of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest of modern moral icons, who forgave his tormentors despite being in power. To this, I also learnt, there is to be a coda at the end of time. Who is the more merciful: the Pantocrator-Jesus of the Book of Revelation, who wrathfully judges and consigns people to hell,[10] or the Muhammad of the Hadiths, whose entire work at the Judgement will be to intercede for sinners, thus showing Islam as, finally, the religion of God’s forgiveness and mercy? As I came to see it in my teenage years, the Cross is not a symbol of forgiveness at all: on the orthodox view, it denotes the repayment of a debt, as the infinity of Original Sin is atoned for by the infinite sacrifice of God’s own temporary death. What humanity urgently needs, as we contemplate our long record of disobedience, is a model of true forgiveness by a God who does not calculate, who gives bi-ghayri hisâb (‘without reckoning’, in the Koran’s idiom), who imposes no mean-spirited ‘economy of salvation’ worthy only of accountants and bookkeepers. The letter killeth – the spirit giveth life.

On this stage of my wandering, I came across Matthew Fox, a Catholic priest and theologian who had left the church in protest at its doctrines of blood atonement and the ‘fallenness’ of creation, to found an influential Centre for Creation Spirituality. He emphasised joy rather than guilt, and gratitude for the body, rather than sexual anxiety. Fox urges that in the light of our moral rejection of the ungenerous idea of ‘full repayment’ for sin, we let go of the ‘fetish’ of the Cross, which is ‘profoundly linear’, in favour of the more open symbol of the empty tomb.[11] That symbol, I thought, might resemble the Crescent, which is open, and also cyclical, in distinction to the Cross, which seems to diminish God’s providence with its symbolic insistence that over the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, full salvation has been made available only once, a doctrine which true religion, insisting on the divine love and mercy, should surely regard as tragically inadequate. Once, when still a student, I visited an Anglican church with a Turkish friend. Seeing the cross on the altar, he spontaneously exclaimed: ‘No!’ In my ignorance I assumed that he was expressing a prejudice. But he explained to me that his idea of a loving God made the whole notion of a single once-and-for-all salvation seem monstrous. ‘More than once!’ was what he passionately believed.

None of my discoveries was at all original. The growing number of theologians who, overcoming an allergy to ‘Semitism’, were prepared to set ancient misunderstandings aside and acknowledge the integrity of Judaism (and now, more slowly, Islam), proved a source of real encouragement, and was clearly a historical shift of immense importance. It seemed to reflect some deep sea-changes in the way Christians perceived virtue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred pastor of Berlin, was so horrified by his hierarchy’s insistence on Luther’s doctrine of non-intervention in politics that he issued his famous call for a ‘Christianity without religion’. And I myself, growing up when memories of the war were still all around me, often heard of the martyred Stauffenberg’s attempt to kill Hitler, but could not name a single German bishop who was remembered for rebelling against the Reich.[12] Certainly for my own spiritual journey, the old images of Christ, solace of pacifists and ineffectual dreamers, were less impressive than the new icons of a truly socially responsible human being drawn by Bonhoeffer and, more especially, the liberation theologians. Sometimes I believe that there is significance in the fact that I was baptised by Father Jack Putterill (1892-1980), best known of all radical priests in his day, who insisted that true religion is not pacifist or apolitical, but must be a revolutionary challenge to the rich and the autocratic.[13] Putterill, to my knowledge, went to his grave without knowing the Prophet whose Lord was Lord of the Poor, who actively championed their cause and adopted their way of life, who challenged great empires instead of meekly submitting to them. That Prophet, hailed by the socialist Bernard Shaw as ‘a princely genius’,[14] turns out to be a spiritual type close to the urgent but hidden needs of a comfortable, bourgeois consumer culture, which in its heart yearns not for faint chanting in distant oratories, but a willingness to engage in a virile way with the real issues of poverty and injustice. Such, of course, was the motivation which drove Roger Garaudy, whose Communism was of the empathetic kind, and who therefore broke with Stalinism and entered the free, non-hierarchical space of Islam. For Garaudy, like Putterill and Shaw, secularity could only produce freedom within the confines of the ‘cage of steel’. True freedom lay beyond, but it had to be promote itself, and therefore incorporate a willingness to challenge those who degrade God’s earth and His servants. Faced with radical evil, preaching and witnessing alone are tragically inadequate.

Liberation from the cage, whether that cage be capitalist or Marxist, should be a real liberation for society as well as for the spirit. At the age of sixteen I heard my history teacher, a devout, celibate Catholic, heaping praises on the Ottomans as authors of the most tolerant and religiously-diverse society in Europe before modern times. Coupled with my religious agitations, this helped me to see that the growing acknowledgement of Judaism and (slowly) Islam by European theologians has had much to do with the sense that Latin Christian thought historically produced societies and intellectual systems characterised by a massive exclusivism. The radical division of humanity into saved and unsaved, being coterminous with the frontiers of the Church (extra ecclesiam nulla salus), seemed to engender a world which, unlike traditional China, India and Islam, could not tolerate internal diversity.[15] It is not surprising, then, that the first explicit appreciation of the Prophet in the English language was by a Puritan who saw the Ottoman system as more open to diversity, and also to religious sincerity, than the England of his day, with its established church and insistence on religious conformity. This was Henry Stubbe (1632-1676), whose book An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians could hardly be published during his lifetime, but indicated a subterranean philo-Islamism that is deeper than images of an islamophobic Britain will admit.[16] Several Muslims have pointed to some of these possible precursors for British Islam in Unitarianism and allied forms of Dissent.

Goethe’s fragmentary Mahomets Gesang is a hymn to the radical freedom and purity which, Goethe believed, Islam brought from its desert origins. In fact, many great advocates of freedom who were also in love with God seem to have been attracted to Islam. Here, for instance, is a neglected passage in Rilke, whose Duino Elegies were, as he later acknowledged, inspired by Islamic angelology:

Muhammad was immediate, like a river bursting through a mountain range, he breaks through to the One God with whom you can talk so wonderfully, every morning, without the telephone called ‘Christ’ into which people constantly shout, ‘Hallo, is anyone there,’ and no-one replies.[17]

Certainly I was receiving no answer to my phone calls. Daily I would choose a Person of the Trinity to address. The ‘person’ of the Holy Ghost was the most alien of all. But to address the wandering Messiah, now back ‘at his Father’s right hand’, also burdened me with impossible conundrums. It seemed much more natural to pray only to ‘God’, or perhaps to God the ‘Father’, and when I did this there was certainly an awareness that He was watching and waiting. And as months and years went by, I could not help but recognise the ‘conscious’ nature of the Absolute, as I played chess with Him. I would advance an argument, and He would show me an answer. All events acquired a religious meaning, as I entered what the Sufis call the ‘hidden game.’ In gently liberating me from the Greek web of the Trinity, He certainly showed me His existence.

The quest for information also continued, and, unsurprisingly, I sought it in my heritage. I found that the questions I was asking were none of them new.

Stubbe himself had been part of a pro-Unitarian trend;[18] and the greatest English poet, Milton, is now known to have been a closet Unitarian.[19] John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens, were further examples of men who had publicly rejected Trinitarian theology. In Nonconformist England, more than in any other European context, the doctrine of the Trinity had come under sustained criticism. I visited the Unitarian chapel at Rosslyn Hill, in Hampstead. ‘The Religion of Jesus, not the Religion About Jesus,’ proclaimed the poster. The Trinitarian obstacle was gone; but where was his Jewishness? Did it have no meaning at all?

The wider culture, still then sometimes interested in theology, was reporting on these tensions. In the seventies, a large crop of new writing revived the old Dissenting challenge to the Trinitarian position. Surveys indicated that a growing number of clergy held ‘heretical’ views on the Triune God.[20] Trinitarianism, which posits three centres of consciousness within one God, which love one another, was a paradox which an increasing number of educated people seemed to find oppressively difficult. Like Channing, they were asking whether ultimate reality should not be ultimately simple. Some responded with despair, and ended in Buddhism, ‘alternative spiritualities,’ or agnosticism. But this metaphysical question also began to open Christian theology up in a fresh and insistently Unitarian direction.[21]

Side by side with this came the growing awareness that a full admiration of Jesus is only possible when he is regarded as exclusively human. In 1977 I was fascinated by the controversy when a group of theologians and Biblical experts published a book called The Myth of God Incarnate, drawing angry but agonised hostility from defenders of the fifth-century creeds.[22] I remember reading the text during a balmy summer on the Norfolk coast. It was not difficult to sympathise with the editor, John Hick, a Methodist minister whose study of the historical Jesus, and whose openness to other religions, had taken him far from his earlier born-again Evangelicalism. One of the lessons I drew from the book was that the orthodox creeds had removed Jesus from any possibility of real human understanding or empathy on our part. Classical church doctrines held that he was entirely human as well as entirely divine, but the newer theologians were pointing out that those limitations which constitute our humanity, including forgetfulness, and lack of full knowledge of past and future, and the capacity to make mistakes, cannot exist properly in the orthodox Jesus, in whom God and man are together. As Geoffrey Turner complains:

It is not easy, in one’s devotions, to see him as one of us, with all our bodily and mental functions: eating and excreting, sleeping, learning languages, laughing, getting headaches, being exhausted, experiencing fear, being puzzled, and, of course, dying.[23]

The Gospels, in passages which as a child I had found immensely powerful, dramatically told that the Devil tempted him, and that, faced with the possibility of punishment, he prayed: ‘Father, take this cup from me!’ Yet the orthodox theologian utterly confounds the pathos of this moment, insisting that ‘Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal.’[24] Despite the outward drama, he knew everything; which, I concluded, was precisely to say that he was inhuman, unlike us in any respect.

He is hence neither recognisably human (and hence a fairly accessible figure), nor is he straightforwardly God (difficult, but coherent), but exists as some third entity utterly strange to us. Hence, in one recent book, a theologian has the courage to write: ‘The traditional view of Jesus Christ actually demeans both his accomplishments and his heroism by attributing to him ‘intrinsic deity’ that essentially eliminates the possibility of either authentic temptation or failure.’[25] In Jewish-Christian dialogue, in particular, the ‘christological idolatries’ of the traditional view have been frankly acknowledged.[26]

From Hick’s collection I learnt that these undercurrents were being facilitated not only by the awareness that Jesus is made alien and God made more complex by the traditional ideas, but also by the braver spirits of biblical criticism. Muslims have always been distressed by the casualness of the methods by which the biblical texts were transmitted to the Bible’s eventual compilers.[27] B.D. Ehrman’s book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture[28] is one of the more recent scholarly demonstrations of the fragile obscurity of the methods by which the Gospels in particular were handed down. Professor Burton Mack, and others in the celebrated ‘Jesus Seminar’, have sought to reconstruct the original unitarian teachings of Jesus, a process fraught with extreme difficulty.[29] The debates rage on, but over the course of the last century it was clear that the traditional picture was regarded as untenable by a steadily-growing number of researchers. Sometimes this has resulted in further expansion for the Unitarian church, or other sects that do not accept the Trinity, such as the Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Often, too, I encounter Anglicans who privately deny the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, and agree wholeheartedly with my understanding of Jesus’ self-belief. The consequences for Islam have been particularly interesting; in 1999 the Daily Express published a series of articles predicting the leading trends which would be visible in the new millennium. One of these thinkers, the best-selling biographer of Jesus, A.N. Wilson, wrote as follows:

Islam is a moral and intellectual acknowledgement of the lordship of God without the encumbrance of Christian mythological baggage […] That is why Christianity will decline in the next millennium, and the religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not the Cross.[30]

Most ordinary churchgoers are not informed of the conclusions of the bible-scholars and the theologians, and continue to practice a naive faith.[31] Yet not everyone is protected by such ignorance. Certainly, my own migration towards Islam was facilitated, if not entirely supplied, by those questers for the historical Jesus who doubt that he would have accepted the abstruse metaphysical conundrums of the Athanasian Creed. How would the charismatic wandering rabbi of Galilee have voted, had he found himself at the Council of Chalcedon?

Other blessings deserve to be recounted. Already in love with Islam, but still nominally Anglican, I visited Cairo in the spring of 1979. I spent two weeks photographing and sketching in the mosques, attracting the attention of the invariably-polite but curious Egyptians who worshipped there. One afternoon I was sitting against a pillar in the mosque of Imam al-Shafi’i, telling a young man of my troubles with the Trinity and the Incarnation, and hearing his courteous reflections which, without compromising Islam, reminded me of God’s mercy and His respect for the ‘People of the Book.’ Looking back to that afternoon, I recall the verse addressed to the Blessed Prophet: ‘Had you been harsh, and hard of heart, they would have scattered from round about you.’ (3:159) Today, in those mosques, as Saudi influence grows, are they all so courteous to guests? Are they adorned still by that absolute Abrahamic virtue?

In Cairo’s mosques I saw more than architecture. I saw religion in its classical majesty. For me, one of the greatest gifts has been Islam’s miraculous steadiness. Today, entering an English church, one cannot know what will be presented. The Anglican liturgy, once based on Cranmer’s fine Book of Common Prayer, has been ‘updated’ by men manifestly unworthy of the task, provoking division and rancour, often leaving congregations with shallow performances in the place of ancient beauty. Sometimes one receives the distinct impression that the committees have placed ‘relevance’ above considerations of beauty and truth. Disputes over which prayer-book to use are now common. Even in Catholicism, which often has a better sense of the dignity and beauty of ritual, there has been a crisis since the forced abandonment of the Tridentine Latin Mass at the Second Vatican Council in 1965; as Pope Benedict has acknowledged: ‘One shudders at the lacklustre face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become; or one is simply bored with its hankering after banality and its lack of artistic standards.’[32] Whatever political disasters may have overtaken some Muslim lands, the core doctrines and practices are miraculously intact. In a mosque, one experiences not a hankering after banality, but a ritual inherited from a great age of faith, a Rock of Ages, into which one can submerge and be annihilated as one seeks for God. It may be said that no other religion practices as its founder did; no other religion is so liturgically united both geographically and to its sainted past. If I have one recommendation for Turkish readers, it is that they do not neglect the immense gift of worshipping in congregation in the mosques. For us refugees, the Muslim liturgy is an astounding, irreplaceable gift; it is the ‘banquet of God’, as the hadith describes the Holy Koran and its reverent reception in the midst of our worship.

‘Going up’ to Cambridge allowed me to attend Unitarian services on a regular basis. It also brought me closer to some debates that were raging in the Divinity School. Geoffrey Lampe, professor of divinity, had just published a detailed and iconoclastic account of the doctrine of the Trinity, God as Spirit. This was a systematic manifesto aiming to rescue Christian belief and worship from baffling doctrines which, he felt, were hastening the secularisation of England. The Church’s various ‘myths of redemption,’ he wrote, ‘receive, on the whole, little support from the New Testament writers.’[33] The Trinitarian model, an obstacle to worship, should be reinterpreted to signify the three modes by which a non-Triune God operates. ‘We need no mediator’,[34] he went on to say: God is, by definition, enough; there is nothing in the ‘Son’ that is not also fully present and powerful in the ‘Father’. In fact

The personal distinctions have no content, and are therefore meaningless, so long as they are understood to consist solely in the relations themselves. If religion is to be Trinitarian, they have to be filled out with content; yet to do this is impossible.[35]

‘Taking Shahada’, I found, was indeed ‘witnessing’ to God. The hypocrisy of my final months, when I worshipped as a Unitarian but walked near and around mosques, not knowing how to go in, or whom to approach, was thankfully swept away by the ceremony, which God’s wisdom has kept simple. All that I had enviously learnt, I now placed at the centre of my way of life. Hitherto, leaving church after Evensong had been a relief from ritual, now leaving the mosque, or ending the prayer said in a college room with a friend, gave me a sense of enormous humility and calm.[36] There was much of ancient Rome in the Church’s priestcraft, I concluded, including a love of theatre; in the namaz, there was the ancient simplicity of surrendering the ego to Abraham’s God, Alone, without partner. The complexities were stripped away by the ‘light words’ of the Witnessing, and I felt that I now had the reality of what I had once only claimed to have: a personal relationship with God. The beloved had lifted her Greek veil.

As the Muslim years pass, one’s sense of gratitude and humility increases, usually with the realisation that one still knows little. Theory becomes (attempted) practice. There are meetings with remarkable men: the beauty and compassion of Sufism; and the lessons learned from the tragic superficiality of Wahhabism. There is the fellowship with a true global community, and also, without compromising that fellowship, a commonalty with others of one’s world who have been taken through the same gate. Six years after the Witnessing, I turned to the man beside me in a London mosque, and saw that he was an old school-friend, the son of an atheist Jewish MP. And although I have protested against the tendency to place the mühtedis on a pedestal, I have formed a cautious sense that as inhabitants of both worlds, we may be a legitimate source of information and – who knows? wisdom – to some in the Umma, who struggle to understand the modern West in its imperial mode.

Is any of this story of larger significance or helpfulness? Muslims often ask me what they should study; and are perplexed when I usually warn them against joining the legions of believers now populating departments of politics or social science. The crisis of our age produces political and social disruptions, but it is not their consequence. Religion is about truth, and unless truth be properly discerned and defended, nothing else will come right.

Despite appearances, and the urgent but mistaken desire of many Muslims to engage in dialogue with purely secular thinkers and ideologies, we are primarily called to speak to the ‘People of the Book’. Years ago, as I turned away from the machine age to consider alternative voices, I expected to find the heirs to the monotheist scriptures as the most serious prophetic dissidents of our time. By no means is that always the case, as there are many churchmen who are willing to lower the price of their goods in the hope of selling them to a trivial and lazy world. Yet I take heart from conversations with other scripturalists, and experience the accompanying fellowship as momentously important. I find, too, that God has placed Muslims in a privileged situation in such environments. Followers of Ishmael, who revere the founders of the other monotheisms not just for reasons of conviviality or diplomacy, but as a doctrinal necessity, are better-placed than Jews or Christians to benefit from the eirenic and mutually-affirming ethos which is informally demanded in such encounters.[37] The clarity and apostolic authority of our doctrines proves a no less precious advantage. It is helpful, and not difficult, gently to help the People of the Book confront their inherited misunderstandings about our faith, which are often based on errors already challenged in the Koran. In earlier centuries, and in certain right-wing Christian circles even today, a furious and hate-filled polemic existed based on utterly erroneous information,[38] and it is still not unusual to hear, even from reputed mainline theologians, wild opinions based on hearsay or long-dead scholarship. Pope Benedict XVI’s various pronouncements on Islam, for instance, seem to be drawn not from consultations with the Vatican’s established Islam experts, but on concerns shared, to a visible degree, with right-wing activists and journalists such as Oriana Fallaci.[39] He hardly condescends to listen to us; any more than the Roman emperors spoke to the new Christian believers multiplying in their inner cities.. But there are many others, perhaps very numerous, who seek humbly to listen and to learn. Many of them are seekers. Many of them, too, harbour the doubts about Christian doctrine which once precipitated my change.

Two inspiring examples of Christians ‘troubled by Islam’ might witness to the importance of this project.

To the loss of the world, there is currently no great Christian theologian of Islam who can match the depth and wisdom of the French priest Louis Massignon. Massignon (1883-1962), author of some of the most enduring classics of Islamic studies in the West, was himself an active theologian. Representing without doubt the high-point of Christian attempts to understand Islam, his immense erudition was very nearly matched by his spiritual acuteness and humility. Unusually for a Christian of his time, and following a deep study of primal Islam and its spiritual consequences, he recognised the authenticity of our Prophet’s mission from God, although he took the view that it was primarily a mission to the Jews.[40] Some persist in the belief that Massignon was privately a Muslim; the belief is based on the story of his conversion at the Üsküdar Mevlevi Lodge in Istanbul. The last incumbent (post-nisin), Remzi Dede, apparently told him: ‘Inwardly, you are a Muslim. Outwardly, if you continue to wear your priest’s cassock you will serve Islam more successfully’.[41] Massignon’s leading pupil, Vincent Monteil (d.2005), formerly professor of Arabic at the Sorbonne, would not be drawn on the story of his mentor’s conversion; but he himself took Massignon’s wisdom to its logical terminus, and accepted Islam. I still treasure the memory of Vincent’s guidance and his quick, erudite humour.

Another, contemporary example has been Benedict’s great adversary, the ‘silenced’ priest and reformist theologian Hans Küng, who like Massignon is seeking to overcome ancient judgements and recognise the spiritual integrity of Islam and its founding texts. Looking at the new mood of militant hostility to Islam, he laments that ‘the crusader mentality is currently being revived;’[42] the problem, he thinks, is America’s ‘aggressive imperialistic foreign policy.’[43] To deflate the current Christian triumphalist mood in Washington, moderate Christians like himself must proclaim what, on an honest reading, they find to be the case. ‘Today,’ he insists, ‘Christians too can recognise the Koran as the word not simply of a human being but, in principle, of God himself’.[44] Where Massignon found God in Sufism; Küng finds Him in ‘the suffering of the West’s victims’. His example, too, has borne fruit.

Islam is making progress, as it always does. Yet no-one should assume that our present task is an easy one. Humanity is now being programmed from an early age by an insistent materialistic culture, driven ultimately by the greed of large corporations, and to join Islam has become a more radical, absolute step than ever before. Yet human nature has not changed, and those religious needs which were so central to the lives of our species for ninety-nine percent of our history have certainly only been suppressed, not removed. Monotheism is the most coherent form of the religious life; and Islam is its purest expression. Given human need, God’s good intentions, and the miraculous preservation of the divine gift, there are immense grounds for optimism.

[1] Richard Bulliet, Islam: the view from the edge (New York, 1994).
[2] Robert B. Pippen, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian aftermath (Cambridge, 2005), 328n.

[3] W. Ubeidullah Cunliffe, ‘The Orient Sun of Islam,’ The Crescent I (1893), 118.

[4] Peter Baehr, ‘The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,’ History and Theory 40 (May 2001), 153-69.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (repr. London, 1967), 244.

[6] Martin Rees, Our Final Century (London: Heinemann, 2003), 8.

[7] William Ellery Channing (ed. I. Bartlett), Unitarian Christianity and other essays (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957). Even today Sunday Schools may teach children the verse ‘For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one’ (1 John 5:7). However almost all scholars now agree that this verse was inserted later into the Bible by Trinitarians. It has been removed from many modern Bibles. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 716-718.

[8] Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, The Mysteries of Jesus: a Muslim study of the origins and doctrines of the Christian church (Oxford: Sakina Books, 2000), 60.

[9] See Ahmad Shawqi, al-Shawqiyyat (Cairo: Maktabat Misr, 1939), p.23: ‘And when you forgave, it was as a man empowered, so that the ignorant could not despise your clemency.’

[10] ‘And a sharp sword with which to smite the nations proceeds from his mouth, and he will rule there with a rod of iron; and he treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of Almighty God.’ (Revelation 19:15.)

[11] Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1979), 111-7.

[12] For the myth of one bishop’s active opposition to Nazism see Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Bishop Von Galen: German Catholicism and National Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); for his collaboration with the Nazis see especially pp.96-135.

[13] Fr. Jack Putterill, Thaxted quest for social justice: the autobiography of Fr. Jack Putterill, turbulent priest and rebel (Marlow, 1977).

[14] Dan H. Lawrence (ed). Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters 1926-1950 (London, 1988), p.305.

[15] Islam is ‘a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity’ (Karen Armstrong, in The Guardian, Sept 18, 2006).

[16] Reprint Lahore: Orientalia, 1954.

[17] Quoted in Minou Reeves, Muhammad in Europe (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 275.

[18] For the background see Philip Dixon, ‘Nice and Hot Disputes’: the Doctrine of the Trinity in the seventeenth Century (London: T & T Clark, 2003).

[19] Michael Bauman, Milton’s Arianism (Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang, 1987).

[20] Or rejected it outright. The proportion continues to grow. In 2002, a quarter of Anglican priests stated that they did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. See Daily Telegraph, 31 July 2002. See also E.L. Mascall: ‘One of the most surprising recent theological phenomena has been the recrudescence at a high professional academic level, especially in the more ancient English universities, of the views commonly known as unitarianism and adoptionism.’ (Journal of Theological Studies XXIX (1978), p.617.

[21] For a recent example of this genre see J. Gwyn Griffiths, Triads and Trinity (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996). For a more popular example of this large literature see Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (Lanham: International Scholars Publications, 1998); for the weakness of the claim of a Biblical basis for the doctrine see Robert L. George, The Trinity’s Weak Links Revealed (iUniverse, 2007); Patrick Navas, Divine Truth or Human Tradition? A Reconsideration of the Roman Catholic-Protestant Doctrine of the Trinity in the Light of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2006).

[22] John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977).

[23] Geoffrey Turner, ‘Jon Sobrino, the CDF, and St Paul,’ New Blackfriars 88/1017 (September 2007), 542.

[24] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 474.

[25] Mark H. Graeser, John A. Lynn and John W. Schoenhurst, One God and One Lord: Reconsidering a Cornerstone of the Christian Faith (Indianapolis: Christian Educational Services, 2000), as paraphrased on the cover.

[26] A. Roy Eckhardt, Jews and Christians: the contemporary meeting (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1986), 153 for Christianity’s ‘christological idolatries’. See also Luke T. Johnson, ‘The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic’, Journal of Biblical Literature 108/3 (1989), 419-41.

[27] In Islamic terms, the Gospels lack an isnad – they are ‘maqtu’, obtained through ‘wijada’.

[28] Oxford, 1993.

[29] Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco, 1993).

[30] A.N. Wilson, ‘The Dying Mythology of Christ’, Daily Express 21/10/99. Wilson’s biography, Jesus (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992), explains how his research caused him to reject his formerly devout Anglican faith, in favour of an image of Jesus who considered himself to be messiah, prophet, and pure monotheist, but not a person in a Trinitarian God. He writes, for instance: ‘The ultra-orthodox Christians – whether Catholic or Protestant – are so anxious to preserve their religious faith intact that they do not dare to confront the conclusions of the last two hundred years of New Testament scholarship.’ (p.xv).

[31] Professor John Rogerson of Sheffield University, in The Expository Times, 113/8, p.255: ‘Most congregations are kept in ignorance of the findings of biblical criticism.’

[32] Joseph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco, 1985), 121.

[33] G.W.H. Lampe, God as Spirit (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 16.

[34] Lampe, 144.

[35] Lampe, 226.

[36] A further recollection. Converts often remark on the unexpected benefits of gender separation in worship; and this certainly applied to me. At school prayers I had been anxious to sit beside, or behind, the young Imogen Stubbs, later to become a well-known actress. Such distractions in gender-mixed churches were the subject of many a joke. I recall my amusement on learning of John Betjeman’s careful positioning of himself in the Grosvenor Chapel in a place from which he could observe the beauty editor of Harper’s Bazaar:

How elegantly she swings along
In the vapoury incense veil;
The angel choir must pause in song
When she kneels at the altar rail.
(‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’)

[37] For a persuasive list of reasons for Muslim participation in dialogue, see Mustafa Alıcı, Müslüman-Hıristiyan Diyalogu (Istanbul: Iz Yayıncılık, 2005), 365-386.

[38] Norman Daniel, Islam and the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960); Aftab Ahmad Malik (ed.), With God on Our Side: Politics and Theology of the War on Terrorism(London: Amal, 2006).

[39] http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/AHM-Benedict.htm

[40] David Kerr, ‘He Walked in the Path of the Prophets: Towards a Christian Theological Recognition of the Prophethood of Muhammad’, in Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Wadi Haddad (eds.), Christian-Muslim Encounters (Gainesville, 1995), 426-446.

[41] Ahmed Yüksel Özemre, Üsküdar, Ah Üsküdar (Istanbul, 3rd edition, 2005), 54. Massignon would thus have joined the ranks of the so-called ‘submarines’, priests secretly converted to Islam. The present author has encountered several examples of this interesting and ambivalent spiritual type, which believes it appropriate to continue working as a priest, while removing references to the trinity and the Blood Atonement from sermons.

[42] Hans Küng, Islam: past, present, future (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), 311.

[43] Küng, 453.

[44] Küng, 520.


Categories: Dr Tim Winter, Islam

4 replies

  1. > Yet human nature has not changed, and those religious needs which were so central to the lives of our species for ninety-nine percent of our history have certainly only been suppressed, not removed. Monotheism is the most coherent form of the religious life; and Islam is its purest expression. Given human need, God’s good intentions, and the miraculous preservation of the divine gift, there are immense grounds for optimism.

    Simply one of the most eloquent passages that I’ve ever read

  2. It’s very interesting to read about a man who is so determined to seek after God and finding in Islam which according to his upbringing would have been a very strange choice since the decline of the Church of England, as well as other mainline Christian denominations, had only begun to be noticed.

    I find it particularly interesting how the aesthetics of Mosques in contrast to the Liturgy of the Church seemed so liberating and inspiring. Nowadays there is a growing number of churchgoers who are pushing for a return to Liturgy; its sense of drama and beauty in worship. Having attended a Tridentine Mass, the similarity between that and the contemporary Norvus Ordo in terms of beauty and a sense of God’s presence is astounding and very difficult to put into words.

    However, I can’t help but be perturbed by the observation of a loss of the Abrahamic hospitality that was mentioned while he was living in Egypt as perhaps being lost. The anxieties of the digital age seem to make any sustained appreciation of Tradition extremely difficult as well as veiled behind increasing layers of societal pressure to scoff at such things as impractical or hopelessly old-fashioned.

    Is it possible for such an experience of Traditional Islam in our time?

  3. But God does need to be physically present to worship. If he isn’t you worshipped a demon.

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