...on the way to the mosque / final page
As we talked, another man started to sing ecstatically, while others tapped out an irresistible rhythm on the kitchen’s stainless-steel counter.
Scarcely able to stop myself swaying to this somewhat hypnotic music, I asked the sheikh what it was about.
They’re praising Allah, he said. All Sufi groups do this.
“You can go on British Airways and I can go on Pakistan Airways, but we are all going to the same place. Daily life makes you blind. This opens your eyes.”
I said I was trying to get a taste of Islam.
He approved, said the only way to do that was to try it, and told me a story about the Prophet holding a jar and asking his followers what it contained.
One guessed it was honey, as did a second. But a third actually dipped a finger in and tasted it: “Honey!”
I decided to try fasting, which isn’t only done at Ramadan: one of my Sufi brothers had told me he won’t touch food or drink during daylight on Mondays and Thursdays – not even water.
I rose early.
I still hadn’t mastered the routine for prayer but did my best, remembering what Al-Toma had told me about prayer: “It’s not what other people think. It’s between you and God.”
I ate a bowl of yoghurt, a banana and a slice of toast – and glugged a litre of warm water.
Went back to bed, rose again at seven to get my daughter ready for school, dropped her off, and returned for an hour of desultory typing.
But I wasn’t thinking straight, and at exactly 9.42am I decided I would have to break the fast for a coffee.
Managing somehow to restrain myself, I crept back to bed at 9.58 to doze for 90 minutes, and rose, for the third time that day, only marginally refreshed.
After lunchtime prayers, I needed help.
My wife suggested I give up. But that wouldn’t do.
I emailed Hilal to say I couldn’t imagine how he copes doing this for a month. He sent back a poem on fasting by Rumi, and encouragement. “It’s tough when you’re doing it for the first time, and only for one day.”
(Apparently, it gets easier after four or five days.)
Shortly after, something magical happened.
I stopped feeling hungry, tired and frustrated and became instead terrifically excited at the prospect of my first bite of food, my first sip of water.
Just as, in the mosque, by the physical act of prayer I’d achieved an overpowering sense of humility, so by fasting I’d struggled for self-control and worked up a powerful feeling of gratitude.
It was true what the sheikh said: only by actually trying it would Islam make sense.
Of course, dipping my toes in was never going to be the same as converting properly.
One convert who later gave up on Islam told me he’d been put off after being pressured, at his local mosque, to change his name and adopt Pakistani clothes.
“There’s nothing un-Islamic about my name,” he said. “And as for my clothes, Islam is supposed to be a universal religion.”
He stopped going to mosque and, lacking any wider Muslim support network, gradually lost faith. He felt scared even to speak of this, he said, because the penalty for giving up on Islam, in some countries, is death.
Others who converted and then quit Islam told me they should really have looked into it more beforehand. “I truly believed in Islam at the time,” said one, “but the more I learnt, the more I disagreed with.”
Specifically, he felt uncomfortable about the different treatment of men and women.
I, too, was troubled by a number of questions. Will the Koran always seem alien to people who don’t speak Arabic?
At her north London offices, Sarah Joseph reassured me by stating that she’d not found it necessary to master Arabic (nor to change her name) though she takes care to research the meaning of key passages (and, for the record, she chooses to wear a headscarf).
Trumping even the generosity of Mo and Amina, Joseph gave me a monumentally beautiful copy of the Koran, translated with commentary – and without suggesting that I wash before reading it.
Will mosques ever become, like some churches, places that ordinary Britons wander into for spiritual sustenance and quiet time?
I doubt it: mosques aren’t sacred spaces in quite the same way – what matters, so I’m told, is for Muslims to pray together, all pointing towards Mecca – and that could perfectly just as easily happen elsewhere.
What’s more, there’s the gender divide: if I brought my wife to the mosque we’d be separated – not something we’re used to, unless to change at swimming pools.
But is separation so bad?
After living in Pakistan for years, Khan concluded that “Islam is not a religion which subjugates women while elevating men”. Who am I to argue?
I’ve found the practice of Islam surprisingly familiar – energising as a yoga class, meditative as Zen, worshipful as the most happy-clappy Anglicans.
Did I ever feel uncomfortable?
A bit, when I was propelled forward to join the prayers at Regent’s Park, and later when I travelled with Al-Toma to Iranian-owned TV studios in west London for a discussion show on converts, only to be left in the lobby because the producers considered me a security risk.
On my last visit to Brent mosque, I bumped into Mo, the Bosnian.
He was delighted to see me, but wanted to know if my frequent reappearances meant I had accepted Islam. Unsure what to reply, I said I was still trying it out.
This seemed to satisfy him.
I left the Islamic centre happy to have been accepted. But as I stood outside, my warm feelings were dashed.
A neighbour – a white man in his forties – opened his window and shouted, hoping I would do him a favour and burn the mosque down.
This story first appeared in The Sunday Times magazine