In 2019, which now feels like several lifetimes ago, the architects who designed the London Eye created a beautiful, approachable and eco-friendly new place of worship in Cambridge. The result was the new £23m mosque in Mill Road, Cambridge. According to a review in the Guardian the mosque “is the most determined attempt yet to build in a way that is of its own place and time.” It is the brainchild of Timothy Winter, also known as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, a convert to Islam who teaches at the University of Cambridge and is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College. The building has room for over 1,000 worshippers and has been funded, according to the Shaykh, by more than 10,000 donations “large and small”, from private individuals to governments such as Qatar.
The striking interior of the mosque has large engineered timber columns in the main prayer hall which, according to the architects, owes something to the internal stone forest of the great mosque of Cordoba. And it is from this great spiritual forest that the Shaykh has been delivering his Ramadan Moments, a series of short lectures designed to help us spiritually through these difficult times. There have been two such lectures so far, the first on the 24th of April, and the second on the 1st of May. Both lectures are presented below, along with a selection of quotes.
Prior to these two lectures, way back on the 7th of April, the Shaykh shared his views on the pandemic that has swept across all aspects of mankind and human existence. This lecture is also presented below, again with a selection of quotes. There are common themes that run through all three speeches, such as sticking to our spiritual paths in difficult times, and re-evaluating our relationship with wealth and consumerism.
In total the three lectures will take up no more than an hour of your time and, let’s be honest, since you’re not exactly going anywhere right now because, you know, of all that is going on, it is worth spending an engaging hour in the company of a Muslim scholar as erudite and as learned as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad. As much as one can in these bizarrest of circumstances, enjoy!
A Perspective On The Pandemic…
The consumer carnival, the Mardi Gras of our product-addicted age, is over; this feels like some kind of morning-after, a hangover. We used to reach happily for the goods in the shops, which shone and sparkled before our entranced and childish eyes. Now we hesitate and touch gingerly, reluctantly, as though touching the skin of a corpse; I press the keys on the ATM, wondering if my hands, instruments of so much heedless taking in past years, are now carriers of my own demise. A twenty-pound note, the most recent banknote to be plasticised, may be a filthy lucre which can kill us; we want to sanitise it; the thrill of wealth is over.
The world is fasting, in a certain way, this is an imsak of capitalism, whose Belshazzar’s Feast has abruptly broken up; as for the daytime visitor to the stunned city centre, much is off-limits; as a Ramadan hadith tells us, the devils are chained, sufidat al-shayatin. The wary shoppers are interested not in nice things but in survival; old habits of absentminded browsing seem absurd. Our Prime Minister, baring his hedonist’s soul, has closed the bookshops but kept the off-licenses open; but even they do not seem to be busy. Many people are polite and caring, but everyone is chastened, subdued, sober, watchful.
So Heaven has given us to live in interesting times; we are entering the gravest global crisis in many decades; and it is right for Muslims to reflect, taking advantage of these newly long and quiet days. But before we do so, let us self-quarantine from the panicky and sensational media, let us click away and block up our ears against the second-rate fumbling politicians; let us look from our windows upon the eerie emptiness of the streets, and consider what God might mean by this.
Even the atheist brain knows ours for a time of hubris: we madly ravage and violate nature and walk upon the moon; every other species cringes from us as ecosystems die; our gamed financial system is increasingly parasitical upon the poor. From our human perspective COVID-19 is an infection which disorders our world; but seen from the world’s perspective humanity itself has, over the past age, become a still more deadly disease: like a fungus or a hookworm we suck the blood of the host, multiplying insanely until the ecosystem itself, the planet which we vampirize, starts to sicken and die. Bani Adam, released from the natural restraints urged by religion, has itself become a disease, in its planning and its wisdom no more intelligent than a microbe. We have become a Qarun-virus.
And now God’s world is paying us back with this invisible miasma which makes us afraid even to inhale. Putin and Trump, masters of nuclear arsenals, are staggering back from its influence, discovering, perhaps, the Naqshbandi rule of khush dar dam, mindfulness in every breath. So small an enemy to have overthrown our world: too tiny to see, the corona literally a crown: this microscopic flimsy protein, this almost nothing, is now king of the world.
In this divine irony we remember old fables in the mouse and the elephant genre. The Holy Prophet, whose entire message is a challenge to the love of dunya and fear of death, was born in the Year of the Elephant; how often we repeat that sura, as though it were a nursery rhyme: but Abraha the tyrant remains a perennial symbol of the arrogance which seeks to displace the things of God: the Sira writers tell us that the birds which rained clay pellets upon him and his army also brought a disease, so that their flesh started to rot on their bones while they still lived. It was a kind of terrible Ebola, eating them alive. Faja’alahum ka-asfin ma’kul.
Microbes, then, which are part of the symphony of the world’s balanced ecosystem, also belong to the army of God. At times they serve us through the Divine names al-Razzaq, al-Latif: our stomachs and intestines are crawling with them, and without them we could not digest our dinners; on the land they then break down dead matter and return it to the soil; they limit populations naturally, maintaining the balance, mizan, of creation, in which every species has the right to its space. But at other times, no less necessary for the balance, they serve the Divine names al-Qahhar and al-Muntaqim, the Compeller, the Avenger, and thus did Allah use them to strike down the oligarch Abraha and his elephant, his commandos and his marines.
Allah says that He is with the poor and broken-hearted: ana ‘inda’l-munkasirati qulubuhum. The Qur’an makes us uneasy with its uncompromising prophetic arguments against status, pride and the hoarding of wealth. The sharia, with its zakat and its inheritance laws, aims to break up fortunes, smashing them with the hammer of God’s justice; by contrast the parasitic modern schemes of homo economicus have led to a historically unequalled hoarding of wealth by the global one percent.
The smallest creatures can overthrow the proudest human hubris. And in our time it is the virus that wears the crown, and the mighty who are helpless and humbled. Look at the politicians across Europe who have persecuted the honourable traditions of Islam: it is they, now, who are forced to wear the niqab.
Terrors about death and a love of abundance are more the sunna of Nimrod and Pharoah; they are the way of Abu Jahl, not that of the Seal of the Messengers; as the poets say, they reflect the materialism of the donkey, not of the Jesus who rides it. Our modern attitudes to death are very unrealistic, evasive and stressful: atheist beliefs, which have themselves spread like a virus thanks to the unclean matter which has accumulated in our hearts, persuaded many that clinical death is the end of ourselves. As the Qur’an describes such people, in Surat al-Jathiyah: “They say, it is only our life of this world, we were dead, and we live, and only Time kills us.”
Such people are tragically terrified of death; in fact, this forms the major terrorism which dismays humanity in our age: the wicked threat of a meaningless and eternal nothingness. In the old Arabia the jahili Arabs had no confidence in life after death; but the Man of Praise, in his saddest moment of confronting them, was told: “the next world shall be better for you than this”. And in Surat al-A’la: “you prefer this worldly life, but the next life is better and more permanent.”
Death is a normal and natural part of our frail human reality, and its decree proceeds from an inexorable Divine name al-Mumit, the Slayer. Premodern humanity saw it on every hand, and knew how to cope; rituals helped a good deal, but even more healing was the awareness of the Divine wisdom and mercy. So the Man of Praise said, remarkably: “tuhfat al-mu’min al-mawt”, the precious gift to the believer is death; because he or she moves on from this disappointing world to the world of pure mercy and meaning. True, the Holy Prophet also tells us not to hope for death, “let none of you hope for death”, for our ending is to be by His decree, not our preference. We simply accept it calmly as an entire expression of the Divine wisdom.
This is one reason, no doubt, why believers enjoy better mental health outcomes than atheists; a 2013 Daily Telegraph article, noting the intrinsicality of religious belief to human beings, proposed that atheism itself should be classed as a mental illness. But it is a widespread infection, with ugly psychological symptoms, and in modern Britain this is showing. The monstrous cruelty of atheist beliefs is revealed never more sharply than by the suffering of relatives as they receive the news that a loved one has died in an ICU. A void replaces a soul; there are no timeless rituals; there is not the glimmering of hope.
Islam is quintessentially the religion of submission: not only to God’s amr taklifi: the commandments of sharia, but His amr takwini: His command which shapes every event in the world, including the command which says that we must die. Ours is pre-eminently and proudly the religion of tawakkul, of rida, of taslim.
Thus the wali, the truly Muslim person, is of those whom “la khawfun ‘alayhim wa-la hum yahzanun”: they fear not, neither do they sorrow. For God has commanded us to say: “lan yusibana illa ma kataba’Llahu lana”: nothing will afflict us other than what God has written for us.
So we mourn our dead, and this is a natural and a healing reflex; and we believe in medicine; but we do not panic. Death is a natural part of the glorious system of God’s universe, with its cycles of birth, growth, flourishing fertility, and death, a creation which contains jalal as well as jamal, rigour as well as beauty. As Ibrahim Haqqi, the Turkish poet, writes:
What comes from Thee is good for me,
The rose’s blossom, or the rose’s thorn,
A robe of honour, or my deathly shroud,
Good is Thy gentleness; good is Thy rigour.
The current khawf and huzn, this epidemic of fear and sorrow, which are paralysing our supposedly blasé and sophisticated world, are not only about death however, but about the frailties and precariousness of dunya as well. The FTSE all-share index has dropped through the floor: thirty-five percent in the red, and counting; unemployment is growing ten times as fast as it did after the 2008 financial crisis; businesses are folding and dying. The poor and helpless, on zero-hours contracts and gig economy jobs, are already facing hunger. This will fall heavily on our community: tandoori restaurants and taxi businesses are very vulnerable; failed asylum seekers and the visa-less can even be denied healthcare. As usual the weakest and the poorest suffer most; but this is Ishmael’s fate: we live on the wrong side of the Gaza wall. Again, we reflect that in an age of spiralling inequalities and titanic arrogance, God is always with the weak, the hungry and the despised; the Holy Prophet himself prayed to be resurrected among the destitute.
We need our basics from dunya, we have the right to our qut, our daily bread. But the mad love of consumption which has become modern man’s lethal addiction is hateful to Heaven. The Qur’an says, “Know that the life of this world is only a game and play, and adornment, and boasting among you. And the life of this world is only the enjoyment of beguilement.”
Our product-addiction is murdering Mother Earth; hence our idea that humanity is itself a disease killing its planetary host: we are all the Qarun-virus. But it is killing our souls and our societies as well. The believer is not much given to shopping, although she or he takes pleasure in treating guests well; the Holy Prophet’s home was so simple that his door was not made of wood, but of a simple length of sackcloth. Kun fi’d-dunya ka’annaka gharibun aw abira sabil, he says: “Be in this world as though a stranger or a traveller”.
So the believer, in isolation, is further from dunya, there is a detachment, and he revives some of the key benefits of khalwa or ‘uzla, remembering the possibility of experiencing clear-heartedness when distractions and worldly pleasures are at arm’s length: the Blessed Virgin saw the angel when she was on her own in the desert, and the same angel came to the Best of Creation when he was alone, yatahannath, in the Cave of Hira.
Our moment, then, is an opportunity to reactivate the honourable and richly-rewarding Islamic customs of khalwa and ‘uzla and I’tikaf. Perhaps, if Mr Hancock’s predictions of an unlocking at the end of April come true, it will be a forty-day retreat. Literally, a true quarantine, an arba’in, a chilla. During this time the atheist materialist world will be suffering from boredom, fear and financial anxiety: its dilemma is clear: either leave people in their homes, or revive the economy: the fear of death and the fear of poverty are two agitated giants clashing in their hearts.
To the extent that we have internalised our Islam, we will not suffer much from such clashes or from such fears. The future belongs to Allah, not to man; all is His, and we travel into it as He decrees.
For many people, the confinement is irksome and the purity of spiritual concentration seems like an unrealistic hope: children fight and need exercise, we miss our friends, and, this the greatest pain, in Ramadan we are likely to miss the timeless majesty of our Tarawih prayers. Our hearts miss the mosques, and in this distance we learn how much we need the beautiful and healing forms of our practices, and we realise also with sorrow how impoverished must be the life of the Godless.
But Islam has no priesthood and no consecrated churches; the Chosen One tells us that one of the khasa’is, the special characteristics, of his Umma is that “the whole earth has been made a mosque for me”. In almost every home there is someone who can lead the prayer, even in a basic way; the fasting can proceed in a fully Sharia-valid manner; our zakat al-fitr can still be paid: Islam is entirely doable in our seclusion.
So let us relearn the traditions of seclusion, ‘uzla. And let us not waste time, but seize the opportunity. We can read books more than we ever did before: Ni’ma’l-anisu kitabu, in fataka’l-ashabu. “How good a friend is a book, when friends are unavailable.”
In times of fitna, particularly amid the seditions and sorrows of the end-times, the Prophetic instruction is, firstly, to break your swords: “wa’dribu bi-suyufikum al-hijara”, and to become a piece of furniture in your house: “kun hilsan min ahlasi baytik”. The intention should be to avoid the distractions of the tumultuous outside world: in many countries, for instance, the temptations of the treacherous glance in the underdressed summer months, the risks of improper conversations, of backbiting and slander, or pointless shopping expeditions and extravagant restaurant meals; but our imams, including Imam al-Ghazali, emphasise that the intention must primarily be to keep others safe from our own evils, not to be safe from theirs. By self-isolating, we avoid infecting other people with our bad habits and our poor adab. We now inflict less harm upon the world.
We were all running too fast after dunya, and we need to stop, and draw breath for a while.
And we will pray that the mighty will be humbled, that the dead hand of materialism will be lifted from a frantic and greedy and stressed Bani Adam, and that this be a time of tawba and reflection and return to Haqq not only for the Umma, but for all of humanity, which has suffered from its own sins for too long, and craves the merciful guiding restoration of its heart, by the grace of Heaven.
Ramadan Moments 1 – Straight…
It’s like the two shahadas. La-ilaha-il-Allah Muhammad-ur-rasool-Allah. “There is no god but God.” What should I do about that? The sunnah. Follow the holy prophet, sal-lal-lahu-alayhi-wa-alihi-wa-salam.
We get distracted, that’s our nature. It is said the reason why man is called insaan is because he is full of nissian, forgetfulness. This is one interpretation, poetic perhaps, of what the name of man means. We forget, and we remember, and we forget, and we remember, and we forget that Allah and His grace gives us lots of times and opportunities and days and months to go back to Him.
The believer is between fear and hope. Fear and hope are like the two wings of a bird. If they’re balanced the bird travels, it goes right, in a balanced way. So we have to have fear as well as hope. Life is not just about enjoying the pasture, life is all about having a direction. You’re not always going to be in this field where you’re munching the grass happily. You came in through a gate, you’re going out through another gate. That’s the iron rule of life for Bani Adam and for every living thing. You came in through a gate, you’re going out through another gate. So don’t spend too much time just thinking this pasture and this joyful munching is going to go on forever.
This is the nature of Bani Adam, that we have these two enormous impulses, just as we have these two enormous spiritual principles within us. There’s the nafs, which is gravitational, animalistic, it wants to go down, subject to the laws of gravity, and it is interested in every possible way the endorphin circuits of the brain might be tickled. Any pleasure and it’ll be really interested in it, like a dog that looks excitedly in the direction of anything that smells good. That’s us. But there’s also this ruh, this spirit, which is from the divine breathing in, insufflation. Adam had the divine spirit breathed into it…The lower self, the nafs, doesn’t really have a direction, it goes this way and that just like any instinct or creature. It goes where ever the pleasure seems to be greater. The goat goes for whatever looks tastiest. That’s us…So we have these two dimensions within us, the one which is going this way and that…The ego is like a fox, it is slimy, it wants to get out of difficulties, it wants to tell fibs in order to extricate itself, it twists and turns, it is devious. But the spirit, what we truly are, the ruh, which remembers the day of alas-tu-bi-rabi-kum, just wants to go straight back, straight for the light.
Ramadan Moments 2 – Own Your Wealth…
The Holy Prophet says, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, “If a man were to have a whole valley full of gold, he would want to have a second valley full of gold. But at the end only dust will fill his mouth.” Another of our deep problems as human beings is this hubbul-maal, this love of wealth. It’s no coincidence that some of the very first verses of the Holy Quran to be revealed were condemnations of this human sleepy acquisition of stuff. A futile exercise because the more we have the more we tend to want.
Al-haku-mut-ta-ka-thur. “Rivalry in worldly increase has distracted you.” There’s three important lessons in those two words, not just the problematic nature of wanting worldly increase, but the fact that we compete with each other. “This guy’s got a billion, I want to have two billion or I can’t sleep.”
And then the fact that al-hakum, “it distracts you.” Hat-ta-zur-tu-mul-ma-kay-bir, “until you go to the graves.” All of these people, at the very last moments of their lives, are still checking the FTSE and the Dow Jones, just to see what’s happening to their fortune. They can’t see the dark mouth of death yawning in front of them, waiting to swallow them whole. But this is how we are, but at the end only dust will fill our mouths.
The Holy Prophet, salallahu alayhi wa sallam, says in a hadith Qudsi, “Oh son of Adam, do you own any of your wealth, except for something which you end up eating and you pass it on (you pass it away, it goes through you, it’s no longer yours, you destroy it)? Or you wear it and you wear it out? Or you give it in sadaqa and make it eternal?” This is the irony. We think “If I give ten pounds to the Cambridge Muslim College, I’ll be ten pounds poorer.” Nope! Actually, you’re poorer if you hold on to it because it’s not going to go with you into the grave. But the sadaqat, the investments, the deposits, in the eternal bank, this transaction which never diminishes, this hisaab, this account which is the account of the akhira. The believer knows this and with an expression of pain perhaps he produces his zakat, when he can, as much as he can, and his sadaqa, and his lilla, and his zakatul-fitr. But there’s an element of pain, which is foolish because he’s actually liable to lose these things. He may not even enjoy them himself if he walks around during his life, with all of these coins jingling in his pocket. What should he do? Put them in the bank. But not the bank of this corporation or that corporation that may or may not, in the current reckless world of casino capital and financial freefall, go on. But instead the only bank which, once the deposit has been made with a “Bismillah,” will keep it for eternity and will yield dividends eternally. That’s intelligence, that’s wisdom.
This condemnation of al-haku-mut-ta-ka-thur was from the very beginning of revelation, but is absolutely appropriate to our time now. And Islam is the religion that says give and give and give…Give, give, give. We are people who are muta-sad-diqeen, who give.
The holy Prophet, sallallahu alayhi wa sallam, was more generous and swift in giving, doing good, then the wind let loose. In other words, there’s no hisaab, there’s no calculation, he just gives and gives and gives because he’s not afraid of poverty.
We like to have those coins jingling in our pockets. There’s a story that says that when the first gold and silver coins were minted, created when somebody first had this idea, Iblees raised them and put them to his eyes and kissed them and said “Whoever loves you is in reality my slave, my servant.”
The age of wealth has become the age of loneliness as well. But ours is not the ummah of loneliness, ours is the ummah of solidarity, ummah-tul-wahida, a single ummah, and we are to be an exemplary community to show how human beings can and should be together, in solidarity, in cooperation, in sharing, not in hoarding but in sharing, in giving. We are to be open handed people.
May Allah make us people of giving, people who are not misers, people who are open hearted and open handed, an example to an increasingly lonely and selfish and self-centred age.