Account of Stephen Bell
I was in no way searching for a belief to which I could adhere
I was born in England, in the County of Lancashire on the last day of July 1942 in Ashton-under-Lyne. The town is South-East of the City of Manchester. In 1942 the country was entrenched in a war – a conflict that had taken my father from his new wife and son and sent him into battle far from home. I took my first breath as the air-raid siren sounded to warn that the German Luftwaffe were overhead on their way to drop their bombs on Manchester.
When I was born my father received the news in the cold night of the Egyptian desert leaning against a tank and talking to his comrades. In the hospital I was quickly taken from my mother and carried off to the air-raid shelter with a name label on my toe. In later years my mother would look exasperated when I did something wrong and say ‘I wonder sometimes if I got the wrong baby after that air-raid and somewhere is a perfectly behaved son of mine in someone else’s house.’ She joked and made sure I knew it.
Until he returned from the army, the word ‘father’ had meant a photograph on the wall of a man in combat uniform, which showed him from head to waist. When he did finally return and joined the household I was astonished to see that he had legs just like everyone else and was later told that I had followed him around the house wherever he went, even waiting outside the toilet until he reappeared.
Childhood was spent in a time of great austerity. Almost everything was rationed and parental sacrifice was required if the young were to flourish. Of course we knew nothing of this sacrifice and we had the best of the meagre food permitted by the ration book. Food packages arrived from relatives in U.S.A. with tins of fruit and other delights and this must have helped the family rations considerably. Other children of my generations were afflicted by a number of illnesses born of deprivation, but my brother and I grew up relatively healthy, due to our parents love and sacrifice.
I passed several G.C.E ‘O’ Levels and stayed on to do ‘A’ Levels in the sixth form. I was offered a place at Leeds University for a newly created Combined Degree of Fine Art with Philosophy. Having no experience whatsoever of philosophy, when I was called for interview, I bought a volume of Plato’s Dialogues on the platform at Manchester Piccadilly Station and read it on the journey to Leeds. It was a life-changing journey, because even before I arrived at my destination, I was in love with Plato’s writing – specifically his argument for the survival of the soul after death – and earnestly discussed them with the Professor of Philosophy in the interview who consequently offered me a place. From then on I read avidly and became fascinated by all aspects of the world of ideas in Western Philosophy. This was to be the cornerstone of my life and thinking for the following forty years as I searched for some kind of blueprint on which to build a philosophy that was rational, personal, useful and explanatory.
By the sixties, society itself was changing. When I started at Grammar School in 1953 the old social structures and values that has been fought for during the war were still firmly in place. By the time I left University in 1965, the class system was collapsing and the voices of youth were heard in the land. University was not only an experience of learning and discovery but of personal freedom unlike any other period in recent history. It was a period of changes in culture, society, art, politics and science. A new age was surely and irreversibly dawning.
One afternoon I was relaxing at home and watching the news on TV when the programme was interrupted for a live bulletin from America. A passenger plane had struck one of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and Hell was descending on a mighty city. Out of a placid and ordinary day came scenes of horror and destruction that would change our world and define an era. I struggled to accept the reality of what I was seeing.
To Allah belongs the East and the West;
whichsoever way you turn, There is the Face of Allah,
For Allah is All-embracing, All-knowing.
Over the period of the Iraq war, I realised how little I knew of Islam, its culture and its history. Where I live there is a significant Muslim population, yet I had never gone beyond observing the clear cultural differences exhibited by what I assumed to be their code of dress and the strange and puzzling things I had seen for sale in their shops and on market stalls. They certainly gave no indication of being warlike, although the memory of the Bradford riots some time earlier suggested a problem unsolved, and a bitterness or dissatisfaction with the perception and reactions to Islamic communities by non-Muslim English people.
My interest engaged, I searched for information on the Internet and soon encountered some quotations from The Qur’an, which spoke, clearly of peace and of brotherhood and of war, as a defensive obligation, when the Faith of Islam itself is threatened. I thought of the message of Jesus in the New Testament and wondered how, under the circumstances, two peace-promoting faiths had such a bloody and confrontational history with each other. I decided to learn more about Islam. I was in no way searching for a belief to which I could adhere. I was fairly satisfied with the logic of my Humanistic philosophy but I was beginning to realise that the world was fast becoming a more dangerous place than it had ever been and wanted some understanding of the forces that now seemed locked in dispute and actual combat.
As in Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde has a significant Muslim population, although I had no reason to give it my attention or indeed to consider it part of the community to which I now felt I belonged. The disaster of the Twin Towers had already occurred and I was increasingly aware that a general impression amongst friends and neighbours was that Islam was now a significant threat to world peace and that the Muslim population in the town was strange, secretive and potentially highly dangerous.
I was at the house of my oldest friend one afternoon and having a few minutes alone in their living room as they discussed a family matter, I did what I often do in those circumstances; I looked at what books were in the bookcase. Intriguingly (for this friend belonged to no faith, least of all Islam) there was a copy of the Qur’an. I took it down from the shelf and opened it in mild interest. It was the first time I had ever held a copy of it and apart from a few phrases I had seen on the Internet I had no knowledge of its contents. I opened it at random and read:
To Allah belongs the East and the West;
whichsoever way you turn,
There is the Face of Allah,
For Allah is All-embracing, All-knowing.
My stomach turned and my limbs shook. My inner voice replied simply and immediately ‘Yes I know.’ I knew it. I had always known it. It was not the ‘Road to Damascus’ experience of Paul or the sudden shining through clouds of some newly discovered truth. In other words it was not a conversion. It was a remembrance of something always known and yet forgotten or in some way pushed aside in the pursuit of less fundamental but more complex matters. I could no longer ignore what I knew to be true for it was the truth itself that had finally ripped away the veil behind which I had been hiding.
One day, as I left the supermarket in the town centre I saw, adjoining the car park, a mosque. I had shopped at the market for years and never noticed it. The doors were open and a number of people thronged outside talking earnestly and greeting each other with hugs and token kisses on the cheeks. Children chased each other and youths sat on the separating fence and talked among themselves. I did not notice that they all were male. On impulse I put my shopping into the car and walked over. Even before I reached the door I realised that I needed to speak to someone about Islam. I am a Western Caucasian and all the faces I could see were Asian in origin. I felt nervous and intrusive yet it never crossed my mind to reconsider what I was doing. I paused at the door of the mosque and instinctively removed my baseball cap before stepping inside. Men of all ages were finding their footwear from a veritable mountain of shoes and some paused to look up at me. One man said helpfully
‘Do you wish to use the toilet?’ I shook my head.
‘Have you come to see what the inside of a mosque looks like?’ asked another rather defensively.
‘No not at all.’ I replied. ‘I’d like to speak to someone.’ He nodded and pointed at my feet.
‘Please take off your shoes.’ he said.
Awkwardly, I removed my shoes and stood with them in my hand getting more nervous by the second. Suddenly a much younger man came down the stairs and greeted me. He was dressed in white Muslim garb and had a full beard. Instinctively and uncomfortably I thought of the news footage of Osama Bin Laden. After a few words of my stumbling explanation as to why I had come, he asked me to wait and disappeared. Several people nodded or smiled as they walked past me and into the open air. The man returned with a second man and asked me to follow him outside. I put my shoes back on and did as he asked. We walked to his car and he opened the door and beckoned me to get in. I did so
I felt as if I was living something of a double life -
one as a British citizen and another as a Muslim.
He drove to a nearby house, parked and invited me in. Inside the door he waited as I took off my shoes again and then showed me into his front room, several others joined him from cars now parked outside. It was explained to me that the day was an Eid festival, celebrating the end of Ramadan. The man introduced himself and as he served refreshments I found myself chatting quite easily about myself and explaining that I wanted to learn more about Islam. A number of other men came to the house and joined us. At the end of about an hour he told me he would like me to visit the mosque on a certain date, to which I readily agreed. When I returned home I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as if a milestone had been passed. It was an important milestone and one that proved the reality of the journey. As I sat alone that evening I realized with absolute certainty that the journey would take the rest of my lifetime, but also that the milestones were of a finite number.
Later that week I went to the mosque as arranged to join others for a meal. The floor of the mosque was set out for a meal and many children were there. I sat down on the floor with them and was introduced as an ex-head teacher.
After that time I continued my contact with the Muslim community and met some of them for a number of discussions. I raised the seeming problem, that the way of Islam was a hard and demanding one, and that I felt unable to fulfil these demands satisfactorily. ‘We must strive.‘ was the response. It was the answer I needed. I somehow felt ready for striving, though the achieving seemed a matter far beyond my reach. Something within me was hungry and needed feeding. In due course I felt that the time was right to approach my Muslim friend in order to ask them how to join the Muslim faith. ‘You were born Muslim’ was his reply. ‘You have come home now, that’s all.‘
I had been surprised at the patience he and his friends had displayed when talking with me. They were far from urging me or encouraging me in an evangelical manner, but seemed content to let me access whatever information I needed, in order to make up my own mind in my own time. On reflection I think that my mind was decided when I had opened my friend’s copy of the Qur’an and read those words. I had found home but simply needed how to find the proper door and enter. As it was, the proper way was the simplest. Sitting in my favourite chair in my living-room, with my friend and a scholar, I recited the Shahadah.
‘Ashadu allah illaha illalahu. Washadu anna Muhammadeen abduruh wa rasulluh.’
‘Now you are Muslim.’ they said and they embraced me. I had at last found the door, knocked nervously and it had been opened. I had entered and been welcomed and my tears were in recognition of that fact. In due course I attended the mosque to find myself welcomed – and on occasion rightly advised and corrected.
On one memorable weekend, a visiting elderly Imam came and sat next to me after the midday prayers. He beckoned me to his side, asked me my name and I replied ‘Steve.’ He shook his head slowly and smiled.
‘Your Muslim name’ he explained. I said that I had no Muslim name. He looked surprised and shook his head.
‘You should have one and you should be proud of it.’ I stayed silent as he thought a long time. At last he looked up and smiled.
‘Abdur Rahman Mohammed.’
Someone listening found a shop receipt in his pocket and wrote the name on it before putting it in my hand. At home that evening I studied the name. Would I betray my origins and culture by allowing myself to be so named? I pondered on that and the thought disturbed me a little. What would my parents have thought had they been alive? I left the unanswerable and realized that I had done exactly as they had taught me,
‘To thine own self be true’.
‘One phrase jumped out at me immediately and it was a phrase with considerable and potent personal resonance,
‘Love For All, Hatred For None’.’
A number of years passed and the discontent I felt neither deepened nor did it alleviate. The surface was tranquil enough, but beneath the rituals, there seemed to run deeper waters that were other than spiritual. It appeared to me, rightly or wrongly, that the emphasis was upon the observance of prayers and ritual, and the outward imitation of the life of the prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him shared by a community that claimed rightly and legally to be British, yet showed no obvious signs of responsibility to anyone other than other Muslims, and seemed determined not to learn anything of the country in which they lived other than to see it as oppressive and deceiving. I need to assert that this is a personal overall impression of most, but not all, with whom I conversed, but it is this impression that I need to record because it is part of my personal journey. I felt as if I was living something of a double life – one as a British citizen and another as a Muslim. My non-Muslim friends, friendships I had built with good and caring people were viewed suspiciously or as potential converts. I was asked why I continued to associate with them. I was asked to sell my home and move into the community so that I would be safe from ‘outside influences’. It was not an unhappy situation because it was manageable, but it was not an entirely comfortable one. I felt increasingly as though I belonged to a kind of ‘secret society’ and this did not accord at all with what I knew from the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith.
I had gone to the doctor’s surgery for a checkup. The doctor’s door looked as before, but in fact it was not exactly that, for the doctor had changed. He greeted me warmly and showed an interest in the medication I was receiving. I explained that I was still having pain in both my legs to which he replied that there was no need to suffer pain these days. He changed my medication, urged me to take good care of myself and asked me to return soon to tell him if the newly prescribed drugs were proving effective. As I left his surgery he reminded me that I was still young and should try to remember that fact. It was an uplifting reminder and I walked back to my car with a smile. In due course I returned and reported that things were much improved, but that there were still times in the day that were specifically difficult. I explained that I was Muslim, that I tried to visit the mosque each day that I had to climb two flights of stairs and because I was not allowed to take my walking stick into the area designated for prayer, the whole visit was something of a physical ordeal for me. His reaction was unexpected. His face lit up with a sudden, spontaneous smile. He asked me about where I worshipped and on impulse scribbled something on a small slip of paper with the words ‘Check that out if you are interested.’
After collecting my prescription from the chemist I returned home and investigated what he had written on the slip. It simply read ‘Al-Islam.org’. Intrigued I went online and found the site. One phrase jumped out at me immediately and it was a phrase with considerable and potent personal resonance, ‘Love For All, Hatred For None’.
I read on. This was a branch of Islam about which I knew nothing at all. Founded towards the end of the 19th century it was based on the life and teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be the Mujaddid, the Promised Messiah of Christianity and also the Mahdi on whom all Muslims await. Reading this stupendous claim I shrank initially from pursuing my interest. Had I not already accepted that Mohammed may peace be upon him was the Messenger of Allah? Why was there any need for another to appear on earth? Is not the history of mankind filled with people of uncertain mental stability claiming to have been sent by God with a message for mankind? I had no wish to be pulled into some bizarre religious sect and brainwashed into handing over whatever money and property I own on the grounds that a seat in Paradise will be guaranteed. It is one thing to claim to be a prophet and quite another to be sane. The old man in the bus shelter who claims to be Christ is not likely to be – but equally he may be if I did but know it. How does the ordinary, reasonably intelligent person decide these things?
A pausing and a taking stock was clearly needed. I had made a commitment and to the best of my understanding had found the belief system that was anchored in the truth. As a direct result I had also found myself in the company of those who were not only culturally different than myself, but although apparently sharing my faith, also behaved and acted in ways that contradicted what I believed to be the essence of Islam itself. Now, unexpectedly I had been thrown another challenge to rethink and reassess that – a challenge that involved another ‘prophet’ of whom I knew absolutely nothing and who had died in India a hundred years ago. Initially the biggest concern for me was the word ‘prophet’. That word gave me two distinct problems as a man and as a Muslim. What exactly is a prophet? Ten years ago I would have said ‘One who prophesies.’ and left it at that. The word has connotations with oracles, fortune-tellers and astrologers with no relevance to anyone with a thinking brain. Yet I had learned that this is far from being the true picture. A prophet is someone who brings a message for mankind from ‘God’. It is easy to scorn this notion by assuming it to mean God on His throne handing a sheet of paper to an embryonic prophet and sending him down to earth to read the Holy Words to all who cared to listen. Few people would accept that as a reality and I am not one of them. However I am a Muslim and one who accepts that Allah (as one Qur’anic verse tells us) is closer to me than my jugular vein. We form pictures that are heavy with symbolism to picture what cannot in truth ever be imagined or comprehended. It is one thing to scorn the simplicity of the picture and quite another to dismiss the message it attempts to convey. Upon reflection I realised that my problem was not with the word ‘prophet’ at all, but with the pictures that automatically sprang to mind. You do not need to be a Christian to believe that Jesus was a prophet nor a Muslim to believe the same of Mohammed may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. They were messengers and their message was to a society that was in decline and to those who were behaving immorally. The Prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him said clearly that he was the last to deliver the laws by which all men can live good, fruitful and honest lives and from that we must see clearly that a Muslim must reject totally anyone who claims Prophethood and the right to add or detract anything that is contained in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad made no such claim but urged a return to the practices of the true Islam. He rejected all notions of spreading Islam through violence or war because it is clearly and demonstrably against the dictates of both the Holy Qur‘an and the teachings preserved in the Sunnah. He urged a Jihad fought with the pen rather than the sword and claimed that this was the spirit of Jesus and of Mohammed may peace be upon him and that it was in this spirit and with this spirit that he preached and taught – that he was therefore the second coming of Christ and also the Mahdi who was predicted by Islam.
In doing this they demonstrated the truth of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s words for how could a man be a true Muslim if he was killing and persecuting any with whom he disagreed?
Opposition was predictably great and he was accused of pretending to be a prophet of Islam when it had already been affirmed that Mohammed may peace be upon him was the final prophet and none could appear after him. He affirmed that Mohammed may peace be upon him was indeed the final prophet to reveal the Law for all Humanity, but that Islam had lost its way and Muslims needed to return to the pure form in which it originally was revealed, expressed and taught. This claim struck a great bell within me. Here was the bridge for which I sought that linked the Islam I had discovered and to which I had made a lifelong commitment, and the Muslim community which I so greatly needed, but that I had not yet discovered.
In the coming months I struggled to gain more information about the Ahmadi community. Some things in the history of the movement profoundly shocked me. I discovered, for example, that not only were they perceived by the other Muslims as outside Islam altogether and in some countries not allowed to use tradition Islamic greeting, but were also forbidden to call their places of worship ‘mosques’. In Pakistan they were actively targeted and persecuted because they had been declared outside the law, and their lives had been criminalised. As a result many thousands had been slaughtered and their places of worship burned or otherwise destroyed. I already accepted that extremism and terrorism had arisen from within Islam, but now had to accept that the adherents of the Islam to which I belonged, were willing to turn in anger and violence upon a group who believed that Islam had lost its way and needed to return to the teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the guidance and example of the Prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him himself. In doing this they demonstrated the truth of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s words for how could a man be a true Muslim if he was killing and persecuting any with whom he disagreed? The message ‘Love for all, hatred for none’ returned again and again to me and each time the heart sang out ‘Yes! Here is the right path at last.’ The initial suspicion that I had merely stumbled across a bizarre religious sect that had branched off Islam and that had built a new and self-justifying faith system, had been wrong. What I had discovered (in essence) was a group of Muslims holding (as it were) a large sign reading ‘True Islam This Way’ – not with the intention of signing me up to a new religious cult, but to direct all Muslims back to the Holy Qur’an and the teachings and example of the Prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him himself. It was for this and this alone that the prophet Mirza Ghulam Ahmad had come and it was for this and this alone that the Ahmadi movement had been formed. His mission was no less than to defend and spread Islam globally and peacefully without aggression to other faiths or to those who were critical and who may choose to persecute his followers. He saw the soul-destroying materialism of the West and urged a return to the Islam’s true spiritual values. He reminded all of Islam that the Muslim faith did not encroach or concern itself with politics nor with causes fought for with guns and bombs. The Qur’an was not a source of quotations that can be searched for verses that will justify a particular course of action concerned with politics or the use of violence. It is not a handbook for terrorism but a complete guide as to how each of us should centre and conduct our lives. Nowhere does it urge aggressive wars against unbelievers. Nowhere does it approve conversion to Islam by putting a gun to someone’s head. Nowhere does it ratify the creation of Islamic states or the enforcement of cruel laws. Whilst honouring and respecting the teaching of Jesus, the Prophet Mirza Ghulam Ahmad explicitly taught that the story of his death on the cross, the resurrection and the bodily ascension to Heaven to await a time when he would physically descend in a ‘second coming’ was scientifically impossible and for a Muslim it was also theologically unsound.
It was upon the subject of Jesus that the Imam of the London Mosque (the first mosque ever built in London) came to Manchester to speak, and as I had received an invitation to attend with some non-Muslim friends, it was with considerable interest that I did so. Sitting at a table with atheists, Roman Catholics, Hindus, men and women together, sharing a meal and listening to the learned Imam, I reflected on what my Sunni brothers would have thought. Sadly I knew the answer to that and that only confirmed the overwhelming feeling I had that at my local mosque, I was very much out of place. It was significant that the Imam made a clear statement that his talk was in no way intended to upset or anger anyone and that he hoped that any Christians present would not be offended or feel that their faith was being mocked or attacked. It was significant also that people of different faiths and beliefs were sitting together and socially inter-acting – eating together, listening together and discussing the content of the Imam’s talk. One more occurrence deeply impressed me, for the meal, the Imam sat on my right and therefore it was necessary for us to communicate. I spoke to him regarding the many translations of the Holy Qur’an and whether he considered one to be more accurate than the rest. At that he spoke to someone who then left the room and returned almost immediately with a copy of the Holy Qur’an. This he signed and dedicated to me after asking my name and he then presented it to me. To a casual reader that may appear to be of little significance – merely a kind-hearted gesture and nothing more. What was significant was that at no time did he ask about my faith or beliefs. My non-Ahmadi brothers at my mosque saw this man as an enemy so far from the truth of Islam and so unworthy of respect that it was commendable to persecute him and his followers. It seemed at that moment that as my Muslim brothers erected barriers between themselves and the rest of society, here was a man who represented the very spirit of Islam – the spirit that was already in my heart, but found no resonance in the community to which I belonged. Predictably and sadly, they also reacted strongly when I mentioned attending the Ahmadi mosque and strongly warned me that this was a very dangerous thing to have done. I was urged to seek out a scholar immediately who would explain why these people are not true Muslims and who would put me back on the right track.
I now had a dilemma. In the light of the very positive experience of the Ahmadi community, which was in direct contrast to the negative responses of the brothers at my mosque in Hyde, I clearly had to make a decision. In the event it was not a difficult decision to take. A learning process had begun as soon I reverted to Islam and became a Muslim and as time passed, although having unshaken faith as expressed in the Shahadah, I was increasingly concerned not only with the deliberate wall constructed to separate ‘us and them’, but with the literal interpretations of many of the Qur‘anic verses that flew in the face of common sense and scientific fact. Instead of the symbol being a gateway to a truth it was the symbol itself that was now being proclaimed as true. It was as if Jesus’ statement that ‘his Father’s house has many mansions’ were seen as proof that God lives in a very big house. In the same way, the Muslim belief that Jesus is physically in Heaven and on an appointed day will physically travel from Heaven to earth contradicts universal laws. It also creates a huge problem for any thinking Muslim. If the Prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him is dead and buried as any ordinary human being, but Jesus lives physically in Heaven, who then is the greater prophet and most favoured by Allah? The answer would clearly be ’Jesus’ in which case all Muslims would see the New Testament to be a more important document than the Holy Qur’an. That is a very important contradiction and one that has no logical resolution.
I contacted the doctor outside his working hours and asked him for more information regarding the Ahmadi community. I had already been aware that he was not ‘selling’ me his faith but was simply giving me the information I had asked for. He sent me by email (and without comment) a number of references on the internet and I took opportunity to reassemble my personal beliefs and measure them against the Islam I had known up to this point and the Islam of the Ahmadis. Then one day I was invited to the mosque in Manchester, that I had previously visited, to join them for Jumma – the communal Friday prayers. When the day came I joined a large group of smiling and friendly people, men, women and children at the mosque at the same for the prayers, and after the prayers were finished I was greeted and welcomed despite the fact that I had not officially joined their community at that time.
The decision was simple. I had read the Qur’an and the Sunnah and had absorbed the spirit of its message. The community to which I had belonged since becoming a Muslim was one that deliberately sought to isolate itself from the others who lived in the town. Its senior members appeared to me to concentrate on ritual for its own sake and indulge in a blind imitation of the dress and actions of the Prophet Mohammed may peace be upon him without reference to the local and historical circumstances of his time and without considering the possibility that some of these at least may not be appropriate in the 21st century. The alternative was a movement urging a return to the original spirit of Islam and one which looked far beyond its own community and its own faith to the deprived and needy not just in their immediate environment but to those around the world, whether victims of natural disasters, but also to victims of oppression and poverty. As one Ahmadi friend said to me:
‘If you choose to join us and then find fault with our belief, just walk away. If it is not the truth you seek you have a duty to keep looking. If I feel at any point that I cannot any longer belong to the community, I also will certainly walk away from it and keep searching’.
It was the easiest personal choice I have ever made and after a short delay I asked to join them.