n this holy month of Ramadan, my good friend Ali Kazimi asked me to write about my close relationships with Muslims. He jokingly calls me a 'Double Calvinist', knowing full well that my parents were brought up as Protestants in Switzerland and Scotland, the two cradles of 16th century Calvinism, whose adherents many would regard as religious extremists.
When you add to this my position as a privileged, white British, middle-aged male who has only ever occasionally sung in the Church choir, it may be surprising to believe that I have any Muslim friends at all.
But I do – very religious Muslim friends (both Sunni and Shia of various forms) who call me a brother and member of the family. At this time of Ramadan, when most of the day’s business is often conducted when there is no daylight, I wanted to celebrate the fact that there is 'no daylight' of a different kind between my friends as far as spiritual values, moral compass or religious beliefs are concerned.
I have always had a fascination for Islam. As a child I was lucky to grow up in the heart of Glasgow’s vibrant Pakistani community, where my first words as a small boy were "Shish Mahal" or "Koh-i-Noor", the two very famous restaurants where the family used to eat regularly, including at Christmas.
I was then fortunate to study history and the Crusades (1096 - 1204), but from the Islamic side. Somewhere along the various battles fought by Salah-ad-Din and his colleagues, I fell in love with the Arabic language and culture, of which the Qur’an (the Islamic holy book) is the cornerstone.
I became familiar with the many facets and evolution of Qur’anic writing and teaching; the subsequent interpretation of basic Islamic principles by generations of scholars; how this gave rise to differing cultural interpretations; how the schism between Sunni and Shia came about; and the implications of all of this on modern Islam.
So by the time I came to start working in the Gulf 20 years ago, I was fairly well prepared for theological discussions with Muslims, who grew to become close friends.
I have remained close to one friend in particular, whose outward appearance causes as much pre-judgement as mine. He has a thick long beard and wears work trousers whose legs finish about 5 centimetres above his ankles. He recites passages from the Qur’an whilst sitting in heavy traffic.
We first met in Al Khobar in Saudi Arabia when working together on a challenging project. As his family lived in Riyadh and mine in the UK, there was very little for us to do after work and so we sat talking in the hotel garden after dinner, drinking tea or juice in the cool night air, until the early hours of the morning. He was extremely well-read and a really deep thinker.
From Western philosophy of the Middle Ages to Sufi mysticism
So, within no time at all, our discussions moved from Western philosophy of the Middle Ages to Sufi mysticism. That led fairly soon to deep discussions about comparative religion. He and his wife had not always been religious people. They met one other while studying for Masters’ degrees in Computer Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
They are both extraordinarily gifted professionals, who came to realise that only through living in accordance with an Islamic moral code and principles, could they find true fulfilment. I have not met his wife but have seen her from afar across a hotel dining room, wearing a niqab. I do know from him however that she greatly encourages our friendship. I have met their children who clearly radiate the well-grounded stability created by loving parents.
Our religious debates in these cool Saudi evenings over several months involved side-by-side comparisons of Islam and Christianity, overlaid by our own personal beliefs and values. What immediately struck us was how similar both we as individuals, and our beliefs were.
We gradually reconciled them down to one immovable, unresolvable difference around the Christian Holy Trinity. I could not convince him that Christians have one God with three manifestations – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To Muslims this is polytheism and haram (forbidden); "la illah ila Allah" (there is no God but Allah), one of the most quoted phrases from the Qur’an.
We had to agree to disagree on this one point but in doing so, we did agree that we knew quite a lot about our respective religions and that, as a result, there was 'no daylight' between us.
Heathrow departure lounge
Even though there was never 'daylight' between my friend and I as brothers, plenty of daylight emerged between us and others, leading to some ridiculously amusing incidents. My favourite was when boarding a flight in London bound for the Gulf. I was already seated when, to my astonishment my friend boarded too.
Unbeknownst to me, he had been visiting his sister and was wearing what he called his "Pakistani jeans", his dishdasha and kufi. I was in a business suit with collar and tie. We immediately embraced in the aisle, calling one other "my brother" and kissing on each cheek.
A number of passengers quickly became uneasy and complained immediately to the purser who told us that we were making the other passengers nervous and should sit down immediately in our own seats away from each other. We both laughed hysterically at this point while my friend explained: "It’s ok, we are brothers who have not seen each other for a long time and became overexcited".
Needless to say, we (and our hand luggage) were rather rigorously checked before departing from our gate at Heathrow, and we were closely monitored throughout the flight. We were each able, in our own ways, to reassure nearby passengers and aircrew that there was nothing else going on and, as a result, the police were not waiting for us at our destination.
In that one incident on the plane, we both saw, through the reactions of others, how much damage religious misconceptions had already caused to our respective religions. We also realised that it was only by exchanging mutual respect and a keen interest in one other’s beliefs that we were able to establish that there was indeed 'no daylight' between us.
Ramadan Kareem to all my friends!
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