I am a mild, peaceable and politically tolerant Muslim scholar who chose to embrace the faith of Islam because of its powerful spiritual truths, its emphasis on peace and justice, its racial and ethnic inclusiveness and its charitable spirit towards the poor and needy.
From the very day on which I excitedly spoke my Shahadah in a British mosque in parrot-fashioned Arabic — interestingly, as the only Caucasian amongst hundreds of happy and congratulatory Asians — I have been recording my spiritual journey not only in various articles for magazines and newspapers, but also in poems that I use, most days, as my primary means of examining, making sense of and expressing my thoughts, feelings and experiences. This essay is a short prose description of my journey.
My voyage into Islam commenced on that worst of days: 11 September 2001. I was already a well-established scholar and university academic (an associate professor) when 9/11 occurred and I could immediately see through the mistaken claim by several governments and the media that “the world had changed” because of a dangerous new phenomenon which was supposedly widespread within Islam: militant radicalization. Unlike many people who seemed unable to find alternative explanations, I knew from my own extensive travels in Islamic lands and from research and reading that violent extremism exists, but only as a tiny fringe element, within all religions and that the great faith of Islam is no more violent than the faith I had practiced for decades. Indeed, I knew that Osama bin Laden was no more representative of Islam than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was of Christianity.
The events of 9/11 nonetheless had a profound impact on me. I felt troubled by the sudden public misperception that, while not all Muslims were terrorists, all terrorists were Muslims. Some of my own friends and family members, and even my students, spoke negatively about Islam and seemed certain that the terrorists’ motivations must have originated from within the Qur’an.
I then worked for a charismatic and rather brilliant retired army chief, a major general, who angrily said to me on 9/11, “I always knew that something like this would happen. There’s always been something violent lurking within Islam.” I was shocked and told him that in all the years I had known him he had never even mentioned Islam. He persisted, telling me that Muslims have a tendency to be violent because their holy book is violent. I challenged him, saying: “General, with no disrespect, you’ve never even read the Qur’an.” He shot back a rebuke that hurt me because it was embarrassingly true: “Joel, you haven’t read it either.”
I was undoubtedly well read (by most people’s standard anyway). I had studied the Jewish and Christian scriptures often and thoroughly and had studied Greek and Roman religion and philosophy. As an undergraduate Classics student I had intellectually wrestled with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I had also devoured many notable works of Western religious and political philosophy, including those by Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet to my shame I had to admit to my boss that he was right: I had never read the holy book studied by a quarter of the world’s population: the Qur’an.
Up until 9/11 the Qur’an had meant little to me. In our garage while growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, we had a tatty set of old green books, the 51-volume set of Harvard Classics, which supposedly contained humankind’s most important works of literature and philosophy. The books had belonged to my granddad but faded and grew grubby in our spiderweb-filled garage. I was (and am) a veracious reader and occasionally I would dust off one of those volumes and read it. In a volume titled Sacred Writings, I read as a ten-year-old boy a strange set of words that I didn’t understand: “Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran”. I glanced through this fascinating material, which reminded me of The Thousand and One Nights, which I’d recently enjoyed, but for no real reason I chose instead to take Homer’s The Odyssey inside from the garage to read in bed. That epic poem filled me with love for the ancient world and eventually led me to learn Greek and undertake undergraduate and honors degrees in Classical Studies. I have often wondered how my life might have been different if, as a boy, I had devoured the Qur’an instead of Homer’s masterpiece. But, as I have since learned, Allah knows best.
I never actually got around to reading the Qur’an before 9/11. I researched the Bible intensely (even learning Hebrew to read it in its original tongue) and I read it right through many times and studied it each day as I tried to make sense of both Judaism (the religion of some of my mum’s forebears) and Christianity, a unitarian form of which I embraced in my 20s. Yet the Qur’an remained a mystery until 2001.
Concerned by the events of 9/11, and determined to respond to my boss’s embarrassing exposure of the glaring gap in my knowledge, that very day I purchased a copy of the Qur’an from my university bookshop and began to read it. With the habit of a scholar, I decided to study the Qur’an systematically in search of anything that might have inspired such wanton violence against innocent people. I started at the beginning and over several days read slowly and carefully through to the end, all the while making notes on verses that might support the violent and aggressive philosophy and actions of the 9/11 terrorists. I found some verses in the Qur’an that dealt with armed combat within wars of justice, but none that would support indiscriminate or disproportionate violence during those wars, and none that would support any violence outside of formal warfare.
The Qur’an is a fascinating book, full of spiritual depth, gentle wisdom and moral guidance. I have now read it more than seventy times and I enjoy reading it daily in Arabic. It is wonderfully cathartic and enriching and has given my life added meaning.
What I found within its pages when I first read it greatly surprised me. In the Qur’an I found the same prophets as those revealed within the Bible I had enthusiastically studied for decades. I found Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and other biblical prophets. More importantly, in the Qur’an I also found my own favorite: Jesus the son of Mary. I revered Jesus, but I had never known that the Qur’an spoke of Jesus in precisely the same way that I had come to see him: as a wonderful, righteous messenger who brought glad tidings and warnings to the children of Israel.
That does not mean that I had ever found the religion of Christianity entirely fulfilling. From the moment when I first felt the call of God as a young man I had always believed that God was truly the master of the universe and the creator of everything within it. He was sovereign, all-powerful and all-knowing. I accepted that fully and willingly. Yet I had a problem. The mainstream Christian teaching of the Trinity — the Church’s insistence that the one God was actually three in one, and that Jesus was himself God and one third of the so-called Godhead — sat uncomfortably with both my intellect and my heart. I could not rationally see logic in it and I could not embrace it emotionally. Initially I wanted to believe what the Church taught. Surely two billion Christians could not be wrong about something so important. This issue mattered to me. It bothered me. After all, the Book of Deuteronomy (6:4) had proclaimed: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.” This revelation to Moses sits so centrally within both Judaism and Christianity that I found its power inescapable. I also knew that Jesus felt likewise about that specific revelation. When asked by a scribe what he considered the most important of God’s commandments, the Book of Mark (12:29) quotes Jesus as replying: “The first of all the Commandments is, Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.”
When I first read the Qur’an systematically after 9/11 I was amazed by the compatibility between the Qur’anic revelation and my beliefs as a non-trinitarian monotheist. I was especially impressed by the Qur’anic emphasis on the messages revealed through Abraham, Moses and Jesus; messages I had believed for decades. On the other hand, I knew nothing about the Prophet Muhammad and the message that he seemed to bring to the Arabs. I began intensively to read and study Muhammad’s life (from the Arabic sources) with the aim of learning whether he revealed anything new, whether the emphasis of his revelation was consistent with or different to those of previous prophets, and whether Muhammad himself lived a morally superior life (as Jesus had) which was worthy of emulation.
The eventual conclusion I reached after years of intellectual inquiry through in-depth study was life-changing. After methodically reading the Qur’an twenty times and countless works of Sirah during the course of a few years I accepted that God’s revelation through Muhammad was identical in every way to that revealed through former prophets. God is one! His oneness cannot be divided! He is worthy of all praise and He asks us to enjoy lives of willing submission. Moreover, unlike previous prophets, Muhammad — absolutely worthy of emulation — revealed a calling not just to the children of Israel, and not just to the Arabs (as I had initially thought), but to all of humanity.
What was I to make of my inescapable intellectual conclusion that the Qur’anic revelation was logical, coherent, consistent and persuasive, especially as I then had no emotional desire to embrace a “different” religion? The answer is easy for me to give. I submitted. On the basis of my thorough rational investigation over several years, I decided to take a step of faith knowing that my heart would probably quickly catch up with my head. I chose to become a Muslim. My heart has since caught up and now both mind and heart are in unison.
Throughout my years of spiritual exploration I continued to write poetry, much of it dealing with these very issues, but also, of course, with everything else I experienced or observed. Throughout creatively fertile periods I wrote one or two poems every day, while during barren phases I wrote far fewer, sometimes only one per week. My eventual conversion — which occurred after I saw four or five hundred Indonesian shoppers praying their Dhuhur prayer together in a Jakarta convention center and I knew I ought to be kneeling with them — ushered in a fertile period that has, thank God, remained right up until today. Hundreds of poems have arisen from within me: most in praise of Allah but many also to capture moments of curiosity, wonder, joy, frustration, and disappointment at things I have observed occurring within or affecting the surprisingly disunited Ummah.
As a scholar by both profession and inclination, my desire to make intellectual sense of Islam sometimes feels all-consuming, as is my hope insha’Allah that I can share some of my knowledge usefully with others. After all, I have been a teaching academic for most of my adult life. Sharing knowledge through teaching as well as research (I’ve authored numerous books) has been the key role in my life. Becoming a Muslim gave me new areas of research and I feel particularly motivated, as a scholar who understands warfare and strategy, to explain the concepts and the nature of the wars which Muslims through history were sometimes compelled to undertake to preserve their lives or religious freedom.
I have been especially bothered by the misconception in recent decades (strongest since the commencement of the so-called War on Terror) that, although westerners have a code of war based on restraint, chivalry and respect for civilians, the faith of Islam is more militant, aggressive and tolerant of violence. According to this mistaken view, Islam is indeed the religion of the sword. I have therefore written various scholarly pieces on the Islamic function, conduct and codes of warfare revealed in the Qur’an and in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, may he have peace and blessings.
Based on a careful reading of the earliest Arabic sources, I conclude that Islam is very clear: Muslims are prohibited from aggressive violence and are compelled, if warfare should become unavoidable, always to act within a code of ethical behavior that is closely akin to, and compatible with, the western warrior code that scholars call “Just War”.
In case anyone wonders what I think of the terrorist events that gave rise to many of the misconceptions, it is worth pointing out that I strongly condemn those acts as unjust and un-Islamic. I would certainly not have become or remained a Muslim if I saw anything but inclusiveness, justice, peace and temperance at Islam’s core.
In many ways I became a Muslim at an unusual and difficult time, with relations between Muslims and non-Muslims severely strained by various factors. These include 9/11, the so-called War on Terror, 7/7 and other bombings, bans in European countries of minarets and burkas, Qur’an burnings, the rise of anti-Islamic groups like the English Defence League (the loutish and hateful protests of which I have twice observed first-hand) and a flood of new books which erroneously condemn Islam as brutish and backward. I have experienced anti-Muslim hostility myself, including a savage and highly dishonest tabloid attack (for which I won substantial damages and a published apology) and a steady trickle of unpleasant emails from anonymous people who claim I have betrayed my western values, and rendered myself unfit to hold senior posts, by embracing Islam. Wanting to remain calm, dignified and forgiving (as Muslims should be) I have chosen not to respond to those foolish and unenlightened views.
Being attacked for my faith was perhaps inevitable, however unfair and hurtful it was. Unfortunately, Islam is passionately disliked by some of the tabloid newspapers and, as a prominent and supposedly influential academic at the heart of the British defense and security establishment, I guess it was always likely that, before long, one of the Islam-intolerant newspapers would take a swipe at me. High-profile converts should expect to be attacked, I’m afraid to say. It’s certainly not fair, but it happens. I thus found myself attacked in 2011 by one of the scurrilous British tabloid newspapers, which routinely portray Islam in a highly negative fashion. The newspaper seemed really bothered that someone in my position — Dean of the Royal Air Force College — had chosen Islam. It tried to present my faith as immoderate; which is completely different to the gentle, balanced and inclusive reality.
I’m still shocked that the Mail chose so zealously to go after me of all people. I’m a quiet and bookish scholar and poet, not a young activist. My conversion was not dramatic and it involved no abandonment of the values instilled in me by my parents. In other words, I merely quietly immersed myself in my new faith, wrote poetry about Allah’s radiance, and did not seek to make waves or gain publicity.
I did not feel I could let the Mail’s highly untrue story on me pass. Islamophobia — which is as poisonous and cruel as antisemitism — will continue if Muslims allow themselves to be victimized. I did not want this to happen to anyone else. So I sued. After a year of intense legal battle the Mail eventually accepted it had libeled me. It apologized for its untrue allegations, it paid hundreds of thousands of British pounds in legal costs, and it paid me a substantial amount in damages.
Despite all this, my changes of religious affiliation and outlook could not have occurred at a more exciting time. Everything seems intense; everything feels intense. I therefore thank almighty God that he let me come to Islam after having observed it from outside for four decades and then, in an era bursting with dramatic things to teach and write about, he opened my eyes to the majesty of the Qur’anic revelation.
By: Professor Joel Hayward