WHY I BECAME MUSLIM by Jacob Williams

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Growing up in twenty-first-century Britain, I was often struck by a feeling of anomie. Around the time I was born, John Major tried to evoke a vanished past by conjuring “long shadows on county grounds” and “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.” As for my generation, it had only the faintest notion of our once-great national religion. The Anglican Church had become a shadow of itself, reduced to the picturesque, empty buildings that adorned our lanes and streets. It was a shadow we noticed when we shuffled into the parish church’s cold, echoing interior for the Harvest Festival and sang the cheery modern hymns that church bureaucrats imagined we would like.

Anomie was one thing; the ferocious renunciation of tradition I encountered at university was quite another. I had hoped that the spiritual emptiness of wider society was a result of ignorance, and that the ­academy—especially the ancient, venerable, Gothic academy of Oxford—had preserved what I vaguely imagined was my country’s noble heritage. Studying philosophy did provide some engagement with an intellectual inheritance, but for anyone moderately interested in public life, the campus movements for “social justice” were impossible to ignore. All of these—whether their goal was the liberation of women, of LGBT persons, or of ethnic minorities—seemed to have the same vision of man: a deracinated, protean aggregate of desires. These movements gained in strength every year. ­Formerly apolitical spaces were distorted by the need to appease one demand after another. The culture of the university, once imbued with the brash boyishness of the English public schools, now accommodated the sterile, strenuous inclusivity of progressive zealots.

After three years of this, I was frustrated and alienated. I needed a purpose. Philosophy classes had sharpened my inquiries, but they didn’t rectify the meaninglessness all around me. My utopian peers found their purpose in crusades against racism and homophobia, but their contempt for England revolted me. I chose a different course and embarked on a search for God.

Where could a lost soul go? Nowhere in college or country offered an answer. What the campus Conservative Party outlined was absurd: We can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits, getting riotously drunk, and reviving the divine right of kings. I had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity.

But when I entered the chapels and listened to the ministers, the regeneration I sought didn’t happen. Christian voices sounded all too agreeable and compromising. I wanted something stronger, something that didn’t ­bargain with secularism. I found it in Islam.

The first part of the Islamic ­shahada, or testimony of faith, is la ilaha il’Allah, “there is no god but God”—an uncompromising statement of pure mono­theism. Islam puts the One God front and center, a simple and commanding being. Philosophy had persuaded me that God was an intellectual and moral necessity. I did not know whether his existence could strictly be proven, but I recognized the dishonesty and intellectual contortions atheism required. Without an absolute, transcendent Lord, I could see no way to objective morality and to a purpose and order in the cosmos that could overcome the transience of this world. I doubted that we could justify even belief in causal regularities without a constantly acting Creator to guarantee them. If I were to embrace God, then God would need to be an ­unmediated, undifferentiated, and decisive Omnipotence, whom I might ­willingly obey.

My problem with Christianity arose from the contrast between the abstract Divinity who answers such questions and the all-too-human majesty of Jesus (peace be upon him). Surely God, if he was God, had to be a perfectly simple being, absolutely distinct from his creation. If his separation was questioned, then he wasn’t really the infinite Creator I sought. How could this transcendent being be identical with the fleshy Messiah portrayed in church, complete with his bloody stigmata? The mystery of the Trinity seemed to me a dark glass that made God’s majesty dimmer, not brighter. Rather than puzzling indefinitely, I sided with simplicity and affirmed the Islamic doctrine of tawhid: God’s absolute oneness.

So goes the first shahada. The second declares Muhammadun rasool’Allah: “Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” This is a matter of Scripture. In the Qur’an’s claims to be the direct speech of God, Islam again seemed a simpler and more compelling story. One God, one final Message.

C. S. Lewis argued that a man claiming to be God must be either a lunatic, a liar, or truly the Lord. Likewise, a man claiming to be a Messenger of God must be either insane, dishonest, or just what he says he is. I judged, based on my reading of history, that Muhammad (peace be upon him) could not have been either of the former two. The facts of his life and ministry reveal an honest man in full possession of his rational faculties. By contrast, it wasn’t hard for me to avoid Lewis’s trilemma, because Muslims simply do not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) ever claimed to be God. Rather, we hold him to have been another prophet like Moses, Abraham, and Isaac (peace be upon them all). The final piece of the puzzle fell into place upon my learning of the long process of redaction and recomposition that produced the canon that became the Bible. This was consistent with the Islamic narrative of an earlier revelation that, though true, was imperfectly preserved. The Qur’an was the unification and confirmation of what the Bible merely tried to assemble.

All reasoning is motivated by something—and perhaps, under different circumstances, I might have reached different conclusions. But what started my search for God was my inability to feel at home in the England of the 2010s. The country in which I was born, raised, and schooled had imparted the sense of Islam as wholly foreign, strange, and backward, the antithesis of our entire civilization. And as a historical matter, I had learned, the West emerged in part through its self-definition over against Islam. This, then, was the hardest part: opening my heart to the truth of Islam and ceasing to see it as another destabilizing force, alien to the tradition I loved.

What was happening around me made it easier, however. At one point, a campaign was launched at my university called, “Why is my curriculum white?” The premise was that a British university should not teach British authors because doing so might make cultural minorities feel unwelcome. In other words, “Orientalism,” which cast the East as Other, had to stop. On hearing of this campaign, I recognized that the only way to create a world with no “others” is to have no self. While my Christian conservative friends objected to this denigration of the West, I saw the deeper aim, which was to eliminate the self, to deny all of us a home, a country, and indeed a religion. I had absorbed enough of the remnants of what Charles Taylor calls the British synthesis—the conflation of Britishness, Christianity, liberty, and sexual restraint—to experience such losses as catastrophic. My journey toward Islam thus began not with a rejection of the Western tradition and inheritance but with a strong desire to affirm as much of it as might prove compatible with religious truth. Faith, I hoped, could be reconciled with the secondary loves of my family and flag.

Of course, Islam, like all universalist religions, abhors narrow, jingoistic nationalism and ethnocentrism. But it respects the deeper patriotic impulse that originates in love of one’s home. This point was made clear to me by Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy. English culture and institutions, Scruton argues, were founded on a deep connection with geographical particularity and manifested in forms such as the horizontal idiom of English church architecture, which affirms an enchantment in the land rather than gesturing dizzyingly (and futilely) upward. Islam, I was happy to discover, values this type of organic connection to place while treating patriotic attachment to the nation-state as a flawed loyalty. The Qur’an rejects nationalistic chauvinism while nonetheless recognizing that mankind is divided into “nations and tribes” for which we naturally have affection.

So, I began to see that Islam was able to appreciate the West’s good qualities. As I studied further, I saw the possibility of beneficial exchange between these historically opposed cultures. I learned how much Islamic civilization owes to Greek philosophy, Roman statecraft, and now the Industrial Revolution. By coming to see Islam as a means of stability and regeneration, I overcame the difficulty of adopting a religion other than that of my fathers. My peers and teachers were busy desecrating the Western tradition. Islam stood a chance of preserving it.

By this time, Islam felt more familiar to me than did the Christianity of my home. Tepid, half-believing Anglicanism—“almost-instinct almost true,” in Philip Larkin’s words—couldn’t stop the spread of utopian progressivism on campus or London’s arid diversity. I needed a different antidote for the hedonism of my culture. By the time I went to North Africa to witness Islam as a lived reality, my ­anxieties had dissolved. I was soon able to enter the state of islam, or “submission to God,” without ceasing to be the person I had been. I did not change my name, my style of dress, or my diet (save that I now take halal beef with my eggs rather than bacon). I enjoy the Anglo-Muslim poetry and music produced by my coreligionists over the last century and a half. I am still moved by the landscapes of Constable and I still feel that Shakespeare offers among the deepest insights of any writer into the vicissitudes of the human soul. Above all, the vapid global consumer monoculture dissipates when I undergo submission to the One True God. I appreciate the best of the West, not despite being a Muslim, but because of it.

I experience being Muslim and being British not as tension, but as convergence. As the Islamic scholar Umar Faruq Abd-Allah puts it, Islam is the clear water of pure mono­theism, colored by the bedrock of the native soil over which it flows. Life as a Muslim in the West does not consign you to being a diasporic Arab or Desi; it need not produce awkward and anxious suspension between two civilizations. Another scholar, Timothy Winter, sums up my feelings eloquently: “[Islam] is generous and inclusive. It allows us to celebrate our particularity, the genius of our heritage; within, rather than in tension with, the greater and more lasting fellowship of faith.” It is my ardent hope that the cause of God and truth will be served when others, too, come to see this.

Jacob Williams is a writer living in London, England.

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Categories: Converts to Islam, Dr Tim Winter, England, Islam

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27 replies

  1. There are so many great quotes in this essay:

    ‘C. S. Lewis argued that a man claiming to be God must be either a lunatic, a liar, or truly the Lord. Likewise, a man claiming to be a Messenger of God must be either insane, dishonest, or just what he says he is. I judged, based on my reading of history, that Muhammad (peace be upon him) could not have been either of the former two. The facts of his life and ministry reveal an honest man in full possession of his rational faculties. By contrast, it wasn’t hard for me to avoid Lewis’s trilemma, because Muslims simply do not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) ever claimed to be God. Rather, we hold him to have been another prophet like Moses, Abraham, and Isaac (peace be upon them all). The final piece of the puzzle fell into place upon my learning of the long process of redaction and recomposition that produced the canon that became the Bible. This was consistent with the Islamic narrative of an earlier revelation that, though true, was imperfectly preserved. The Qur’an was the unification and confirmation of what the Bible merely tried to assemble.’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul, nice article….I think this would be a great go-to article for you to go again and again if you for some reason have any time in the future the the (false) tension between being English and a Muslim.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place upon my learning of the long process of redaction and recomposition that produced the canon that became the Bible.

    He is assuming redaction and recomposition for the NT books themselves; and then he mixes that issue with a different issue – the canon – the list of inspired books – these are 2 very different issues. He clouds the issue by confusing the 2 issues.

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    • He refers to ALL the books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation (not just the NT). The “long process of redaction and recomposition” he mentions is well known in academic scholarship of the Bible.

      Finally, there are various canons of scripture in the ancient and modern church. Christians have *never* agreed on what constitutes inspired scripture, which cast doubts on the whole concept.

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      • Ok, but the Jews NEVER considered the Apocrypha books to be inspired. Maccabees even admits this. The inspiration stopped with Malachi / Chronicles around 430 BC. The TaNakh proves this – it is the same OT canon as the Protestant faith. And everyone agrees with the NT. So you are wrong.

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      • No Ken Greek speaking jews accepted the wider canon including the so-called Apocrypha – just read the septuagint.

        Also, not all Christians are agreed to the NT canon. I have schooled you on this subject before, but you never learn.

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      • Just because they translated some of their other books does not mean that thought they were inspired. Who are the “Greek speaking Jews” that had any authority after 70 AD and 135 AD? All the Jews for Judaism and Tovia Singer and other Jewish scholars and Rabbis that you use would agree with me on this issue.

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      • they were widely cited a holy scripture by Greek speaking Jews. Ken you are so ill-educated!

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      • Who among Greek speaking Jews cited them as inspired Scripture?

        Josephus and the Maccabees both admit that prophesy stopped with the books revealed during the reign of Persian kings, Artaxerxes and Xerxes – Nehemiah, Malachi, Chronicles, Esther.

        Where is this branch of Judaism today?

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      • Many ancient Jews rejected the Apocrypha as Scripture. Philo never quoted the Apocrypha as Scripture. Josephus explicitly rejected the Apocrypha and listed the Hebrew Canon to be 22 books (same TaNakh as Protestant OT) and also wrote that prophesy stopped at the time of Xerxes and Artaxexes, Persian kings at the time of the last books of the OT. (Esther, Nehemiah, Malachi, Chronicles). (Against Apion 1:8) In fact, the Jewish Community acknowledged that the prophetic gifts had ceased in Israel before the Apocrypha was written.
        The Apocryphal books do not share many of the characteristics of the Canonical books: they are not prophetic, there is no supernatural confirmation of any of the apocryphal writers works, there is no predictive prophecy, there is no new Messianic truth revealed, they are not cited as authoritative by any prophetic book written after them, and they even acknowledge that there were no prophets in Israel at their time (cf. 1 Macc. 9:27; 14:41).

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  4. I judged, based on my reading of history, that Muhammad (peace be upon him) could not have been either of the former two.

    The guy did not read enough of the Hadith and other Sunna / Tarikh / Tafsir and Sira literature.

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    • He is much better read in Islam than you are Ken. You have repeatedly demonstrated on the blog that you do not grasp the most elementary concepts of the faith.

      You lack humility and knowledge.

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      • no; he did not demonstrate that he knows the Sira, Tarikh, Hadith, Tafsirs, and subsequent history (more Tarikh) of Islam.

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      • He didn’t discuss them. It is wrong for you to assume he has no knowledge of them.

        Sadly, all muslims reading this blog would agree that you have a very poor understanding of Islam, failing to grasp even basic ideas and concepts. Shocking really. Suggests you have a hard heart, lacking humility.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I did not write that he had no knowledge of them; I wrote that he did not demonstrate that he knew much of them.

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  5. I had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity.

    But when I entered the chapels and listened to the ministers, the regeneration I sought didn’t happen. Christian voices sounded all too agreeable and compromising. I wanted something stronger, something that didn’t ­bargain with secularism. I found it in Islam.

    This exposes the weakness of modern Anglicanism – If those ministers were too agreeable and compromising with orthodox Christianity, then it was not orthodoxy that was the problem, it was rather the ministers who went liberal.

    A lot of that is the influence of John Henry Newman and the Oxford movement of high church externals, bells and smells, combined with the Monarchy being “the defender of the faith” and the tendency for humans to see the phoniness of ceremony and pomp without reality.

    The whole “state church” phenomenon in Europe is exposed. Thank God we don’t have that problem in the USA.

    There are some good Biblical Anglicans still left, but this guy did not encounter them.

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    • Christianity as a whole has been fatally infected with modernism and secular humanism.

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      • It is not Christianity, if it gets “fatally infected with modernism and secular humanism” – it has become something different. And it stared with the liberal theories of redaction and anti-supernatural bias and presuppositions of the same kind of scholarship that you constantly repeat here.

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      • Yawn..

        Like

      • When you don’t have an argument, you resort to “Yawn . . .” (or other times, insults, etc.)

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      • Kenny you haven’t given any arguments. All you do is cry “liberal liberal” and pretend that magically refutes something. Kinda funny how you accuse Paul by saying “When you don’t have an argument, you resort to “Yawn . . .””
        when you’re the one that doesn’t have an argument and resort to your usual crying ‘liberal liberal’. Amazing how xtians turn everything upside down.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It is not May 2019 yet.

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  7. @ Atlas,
    I did not just write “liberal, liberal”. Rather I am making the argument that liberal theology starts with presuppositions that God does not communicate through prophets or apostles or inspired books; and there is no such thing as supernatural miracles, like the virgin conception and birth of Christ, the resurrection, the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish or whale shark, and then 3 days later, being vomited up on shore, Noah’s arc, etc.

    “It is not Christianity, if it gets “fatally infected with modernism and secular humanism” – it has become something different. And it stared with the liberal theories of redaction and anti-supernatural bias and presuppositions of the same kind of scholarship that you constantly repeat here.”

    My argument is that it is inconsistent and contradictory for Muslims to use those kinds of arguments against the NT Scripture (or OT Scripture), since you, and all true Muslims, believe in the supernatural, and that God inspired prophets, apostles, and had them write inspired Scripture, and did miracles through them.

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  8. I always learn from those who convert to Islam. May Allah bless him.

    Like

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