Come together in difference
Come together in unity
Our shared dreams and compassion tie us together
Our diversity brings us the riches of many cultures and perspectives
Let our differences shine out to bring greater understanding
To show us other ways of wisdom
To nurture understanding and compassion
And to help us build a more loving world
Half Caste, by John Agard
Come together as many
Come together as one
John Agard Excuse me
standing on one leg
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when Picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas?
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather?
well in dat case
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast
so spiteful dem don’t want de sun pass
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony?
wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at yu wid de keen
half of mih eye
an when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand
an when I sleep at night
I close half-a-eye
consequently when I dream
I dream half-a-dream
an when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
but yu must come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
an de whole of yu mind.
an I will tell yu
de other half
of my story.
Othello, Act 5, Scene II
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum
Message, by Qaisar Siddiqui
First of all, there was a serious mistake made in the event description online. It clearly stated that what you’ll be getting from me today is a profound insight into cultural differences when at best I think I’ll be stumbling from one point to another in an attempt to provide a coherent narrative.
The title of today’s service is “My Muslim Culture.” Much like Coca Cola and Louis Vuitton, Islam is a mega-conglomerate, multinational brand that, filtered through the same lenses that gave us sexed up weapons dossiers and 24, can seem ubiquitous from Senegal to Irian Jaya. Compounded by the apparent primacy of community and group rights over individuals, to describe a hypothetical “my Islam” can seem like the very height of soft-minded Kum-Ba-Yah liberalism, and a rabidly unchecked narcissism. And of course nobody could ever accuse me, of all people, of being self indulgent and narcissistic. So now, let’s talk about me and my life.
So who am I? I am English. British. A Londoner. European. Liberal. Gay. Secular. Though we can recognise each of those labels independently, we need not think of them as mutually exclusive, and I know I’m not the only person in this congregation who openly embodies all of them. However, when my mother first emigrated with her family to a tiny East London council house in 1965, it would be fair to say that at the time, she didn’t identify with any of those terms. And fifty years on, that collection of ostensibly Western values, which for many of my friends translate seamlessly into a coherent identity, still sits uncomfortably with that part of me that calls itself Muslim.
This is by no means brand new territory, and countless books and movies have explored the tensions faced by Britain’s collection of second-generation people of colour. Many of us have read the works of Salman Rushdie, or watched Bend It Like Beckham, and we may already be familiar with the standard tropes of the South Asian diaspora narrative; disappearing accents, the flouting of sexual taboos, the sudden loss of cookery skills. For me to trawl through the last few decades of my life to highlight where and how and when the friction between my dissonant identities manifested is difficult, to say the least.
I smashed something once. Or I refused to behave and put my trousers on. To clarify, I’m talking about when I was six, not last week. I remember my mother in front of me looking thoroughly annoyed, pointing a finger in my direction and asking point blank after another one of my trademark comebacks; “Are you Muslim?!”. To my pre-pubescent ears the answer seemed obvious. I wore the traditional salwar-kameez, ate the traditional Muslim foods, prayed in Arabic, attended a Qu’ran school - or Madrassah - and woke up at sunrise to enjoy breakfast at Ramadan. We visited gargantuan flea markets that trafficked in all manner of illicit-looking spices, we all knew the steps to Tekha Tujhe Tho, and we all knew Surah al-Fatiha, known as the “Key”, by heart. That, for me, was what Islam looked like. A loose collection of rituals and symbols that transcended scripture and culture, and that separated me from most of my classmates.
But our family was also defiantly, painfully English. Like my peers we would also crowd around the TV to watch Eastenders, or bake Shepherd’s pies on Sundays. But for all the talk of nationalistic pride and allegiance to the country, my classmates all seemed to disappear to the Mediterranean whenever summer arrived, whereas our family would head North to holiday in the Lake District or the Costwolds, enjoying cups of tea in quaint villages, picking strawberries and cherries in lush fields, watching artisans construct wine glasses from scratch, walking into impromptu pantomimes that celebrated England’s history and stories - what I miss the most from that experience of childhood is how the question of whether I am this or that label remained completely immaterial.
Indeed this sense, over time, would begin to fade. The theological austerity that punctuated my madrassa became less and less relatable. The other Muslims in my class would reference cultural minutiae that I cared less for, and as secondary school with its political and sexual awakenings dawned, I noticed that fault-lines that separated one aspect of my identity from another. I would finally question the roles of purdah and hadith, and why my mother and sister would need to use a separate entrance to the mosque. I would notice certain friends would deploy casually disparaging remarks about my skin colour and method of prayer. I began to find the process of Tarawih - the marathon prayers following each night of Ramadan - too Spartan for my gentle soul. 9/11 happened, beginning a lifelong process of watching personal anxieties between faith and society debated on a global stage, and an even less welcome need to self-edit my words and conduct lest I be suspected of harbouring terroristic sympathies. And of course, shame and disgust dominated my thoughts for years as a I battled with internalised homophobia.
In our first reading, Othello, having been subject to relentless racial abuse and suspicion throughout the entire play, finally gives into the words of his oppressors. Though completely aware that his friend Iago manipulated him into murdering the beloved Desdemona, Othello instead chooses to square his acts of violence with his own culture, believing sadism and injustice to be inherent to Moors, and further internalising the racism that he has faced up to, likely the moment he stepped into Anglo-Saxon Europe. I actually remember saying once, unironically, and with scant regard for my certain future as an elected politician, that I wished I was White. In the theme of the apparent inseparability of Islam and Brownness in the West, I know now that I was also wishing I wasn’t Muslim. I wonder what drove my late teen self to so publicly broadcast my internalised loathing - and in the years since then I notice traces of it remain. My voice today is the result of unconscious modulation, perhaps in the belief that with an accent closer to RP than Essex, I could be, at least performatively, White. I wonder if that has also determined my choices in literature and music, meaning I question if my own love of Orwell and Bach is motivated by taste or by what taste is supposed to be, and worse, if my latter-day engagement Persian poetry and mystical Islam is one I witness through Rose-sipping Orientalist eyes.
John Agard’s poem, Half-Caste, is a fierce indictment against oppressive categories that force conformity onto those at the periphery of black and white. While I myself do not identify as mixed-race, the poem’s conflict between ideals of Whiteness and Brownness, and the sense of angry incompleteness the author confronts is something I readily identify with. My Urdu skills are nowhere near as refined as those of my cousins, and I cannot count the number of times where I’d be sitting with extended family members, awkwardly drinking my third cup of tea and nibbling on a cold samosa, while the dozen-odd other people in the room rapturously laugh over a joke that I couldn’t understand. Every now and then a distant uncle four decades my senior would look in my direction and ask, “Qaisi, how are you?.” Would it have been a stretch to say, “I feel like I’m always on the absolute periphery of every gathering involving my extended family or a gaggle of friends of a cavalcade of religious figures or the piles of manufactured statements that only reaffirm just how much of an outsider I am even in my own house and country and sometimes all I want to do is run away and scream….”. Oftentimes that would only sound like; “Yes, I’m fine.”
Aptly under a belief system where the First Man was constructed out of primordial Play-Do, one is left feeling like a misshapen lump of clay. The impact of one culture pushes against your front, another from behind, and perhaps another flanking from above, each one leaving imprints of differing degrees and intensities. Being referred to as a Paki or a coconut distorts your figure a little more, until looking in the mirror or writing your own name leaves you confused. The texts in the Islamic bookstore and the online fatwas tell you you're not Muslim enough, while the Sun’s front pages and Guardianista comment sections tell you you’re not even close to being British.
And here is the flipside of shamelessly enjoying Pride parades, monsoon weddings, Shakespearean tragedies and Bollywood dance numbers. For those of us, whom by virtue of birth cannot ever quite shake off the image and idea of difference, we cannot eat only the wheat, but must dine as much on the chaff of our respective cultures, and learn to make peace with the fault lines in our identities. The older I get, the more I accept my misgivings with orthodox theology as the price of my acceptance of Enlightenment principles, in the same way I recognise that to begin each prayer with Surah al-Fatiha guarantees that antitheistic peoples on either side of the political spectrum will never see me as their equal.
So what is my Islam, after all? I affirm the Islamic principles of Shahadah, with reservations on the nature of that Divine. I pray, though often by less traditional means. I pay my Zakah, though through direct giving or Oxfam rather than mosque authorities. I celebrate Ramadan, but sometimes substitute the fast for other exercises in truth and ethics. And my Hajj is contingent on the geopolitics of the region, and my unwillingness to submit to the stringent regulations outlined by the House of Saud. In other words, my Islam, is unfinished, incomplete, and as much of a work in progress as I am. In true orthopractic form, it is not a set list of beliefs that I subscribe to, but a way of being, a perspective, and practice that with each day, I get a little better at. Indeed, while I may not, and cannot, nor do I want to, speak for all of 1.7 billion Muslims around the world, I have to say something. Nature abhors a vacuum, and any silence that cannot be filled by a cacophony of diverse voices allows itself to be defined by one or two opinions, and more often than not, they will belong to those of Anjem Chaudhary, or Zakir Naik. I talk about “my Islam” not in attempt to gloss over theological troubles, or even to suggest that my own interpretation is truer than any other. I do it because my silence validates hegemony.
Two days ago, I learned that Abdul Sattar Edhi had died at the age of 88. If you don’t know who he is, I strongly urge you to find out more about him. Edhi spent close to six decades singlehandedly building Pakistan’s largest welfare organisation, and to date his foundation has saved and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of the country’s most vulnerable citizens through his ambulance service, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, maternity wards, morgues, homes for the elderly, women's shelters, rehabilitation centres and soup kitchens. He was famously austere, refusing to take a salary, living in a small apartment next to his office, and reputedly owning only two sets of clothes. Despite his own Islamic convictions, he earned to ire of conservative authorities for refusing to discriminate between Muslims and non-Muslims. For all my narcissistic talk on identity politics and the mechanics of assimilation in my own experience, I bring this up because Edhi’s example is the answer I’d like to give to the question of what my Islam is; selfless, defiant and compassionate, or rather the apotheosis of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of "A religious man is a person who holds Elohim and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
I have a lot of work to do before my own Islam can better resemble that of Edhi’s or Heschel’s examples, but in choosing who I wish to celebrate the Divine and the mundane with, whether as a member of the LGBTQ-affirming Inclusive Mosque Initiative, or New Unity, I am closer.