There has been one constant factor in human history over the past thirteen centuries. This is the confrontation between Islam and what was once Christendom and is now the secular Western World. During the relatively brief period of European imperialism this rivalry between the two Faiths, the two cultures, could be forgotten. While the ‘Cold War’ dominated international politics it was of minor consequence. It has now resurfaced, as it was bound to do sooner or later since Islam claims a universal mission as does Western civilization. The motto of the Ottoman sultans, ‘One World, one Faith, one Ruler’ is echoed today in the talk of ‘One World’ or the ‘New World Order’. But which world is it to be? Is peaceful and fruitful co-existence possible? This must depend upon mutual understanding and, since decisions depend upon the power to execute them, it is on the Western side of the frontier that understanding is most essential.
Europeans and Americans are so deeply convinced of the superiority of their secular, liberal culture that it is, to say the least, difficult for them to empathise with a profoundly different system, and yet understanding requires some degree of empathy. They may ask: Why should we bother? The answer, I believe, is that the peace and good order of our world in the twenty first century depend upon this understanding. The Muslim Ummah (the Community of Believers) is, today, weak, confused and divided. It will not always be so, and now is the time for the people of what is, for the moment, the dominant civilization to make the necessary intellectual and imaginative effort to glimpse the world and human destiny from a different perspective to the one they take for granted.
Books by academic Islamicists have their uses, but they seldom give the reader any sense of what it means to be a Muslim. This task is best undertaken by those who, in a sense, belong to both worlds and are equally at home in both; the Western converts to Islam. The European or American who has come to Islam in this way stands astride the oldest frontier in the world, a frontier which divides two areas of reciprocal incomprehension, and he or she might be said to commute between two distinct planetary systems. Those who stand astride this frontier find obliged to act as interpreters between two different languages and must themselves speak both with adequate fluency. The Western Muslim does not change his identity, but he changes his direction, his Orientation. He is dyed in the colour of the culture into which he was born and which formed him; he asks the questions which this culture asks, and he retains a sense of tragedy and of the world’s ambiguity with which the European tradition is imbued but which is strange to the traditional Muslim. He is still haunted by the ghosts of Europe’s past, and ancestral voices familiar to his kind are not silenced although he has distanced himself from them.
My aim in Islam and the Destiny of Man is to offer some keys to understanding from the point of view of a Westerner who is also a Muslim and who is therefore more sharply aware than any ‘born Muslim’ can be of the areas of misunderstanding which bedevil relations between the two cultures. At the same time, this book reflects my own personal experience and my personal understanding of my chosen Faith. The question of how I myself came to Islam is, therefore, of some relevance, and the. answer to this question may even serve to illuminate what follows.
I was recently commissioned by a fellow Muslim (who preferred to remain anonymous) to write some 20 pages on what he called my ‘Odyssey’. To explain why one has come to a particular religion does necessitate an essay in autobiography if the question is to receive anything like an adequate answer. The journey from unbelief to faith is always a journey through the landscape of an individual life, and I was glad of the opportunity to trace the stations of this journey in some detail. I had grown tired of giving superficial answers to a question I had been asked countless times over the years.
My publishers suggested that my brief essay in autobiography should be attached to the new and revised edition of Islam and the Destiny of Man. This makes sense to me. Most readers tend to underestimate the personal elements which underlie the text of almost every book, including works of non-fiction, and I—for my part—always feel that I would have a better understanding of whatever I may be reading if I knew more about the author. The writer or, for that matter, the lecturer who claims to be offering an entirely objective account of his subject is, none the less, a unique individual possessed by the need to communicate with other individuals; everything that we say or do reflects what we are and relates to our personal history.
Over recent years a growing number of men and women in Europe and the United States have been converting to Islam, and there is widespread curiosity as to what motivates them. A recent article in a Sunday newspaper compared me to the notorious Kim Philby and other ‘Cambridge communists’ of the 1930s who gave their loyalty to an alien creed. I do not recognise the comparison, except in so far as dissatisfaction with Western civilization is often one element among others in the motivation of those who see Islam as the only real alternative to the culture in which they were reared. But there are no simple explanations for this phenomenon. In 1986 two young journalists in Paris, the one French and the other Moroccan, published a book on conversions to Islam in the West. This was the outcome of extensive research and a great number of interviews carried out both in Europe and the United States. If there is a pattern to these conversions and if it is possible to generalise as to their motivation, this book should provide a key. In fact it demonstrates that there is no clear pattern and that the reasons for conversion are as many and as various as the individuals concerned.
It does however appear that a majority of intellectuals, taking this term in its broadest sense, have come to Islam through its ‘mystical’ dimension, Sufism. This is something that surprises some Muslims and shocks others. At best it seems to them like an attempt to reach the heights without passing by way of the lowlands or, quite simply, a case of trying to run before we can walk. There are. I think, two main reasons for this orientation. In the first place, the European or American intellectual, when he begins to doubt his own doubts and perceives the need for a way of faith and certainty, is less concerned with outward observance and a set of rules than with finding a spiritual path towards personal awareness of the divine Presence. Secondly, the intellectual is, by his very nature, someone who asks questions and is not prepared to accept facile answers. In the writings of the great Sufi Masters of the past he finds answers which satisfy him and solve problems which he had always assumed to be insoluble. But whatever the individual’s motives for conversion—or what he thinks are his motives—it seems clear that God designs for each man and each-woman a path unlike any other, Yet all these paths, some smooth and some stony, have led to the same end, the same homecoming.
© The Islamic Texts Society 2002-2005
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"And say: truth has arrived, and falsehood has perished: for falsehood is ever bound to perish." [TMQ Al-Isra:81]