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Bateel Skycraper

 

Coming Home to the Land

Coming Home to the Land

Issue 68 May 2010

Country living is not just a bland ‘lifestyle option’. The natural landscapes of the country echo the presence of God in this world.

 

My love of nature and the countryside has always been a vitally important aspect of how I perceive my identity, and one of the earliest essays I wrote for this magazine was an expression of that passion and an appeal to my fellow Muslims to reconnect with the beauty and majesty of the natural world (“Walking in Nature: A Call to the Heart”, emel, November 2006). In his book The Making of English National Identity, Krishan Kumar looks back to A.G. Macdonell’s novel England, their England, written in 1949 (the year after I was born) and notes that “rural England is the real England,” and that “the English retreat to the country as often as possible.” “The novel ends,” he says, “on a mystical note in the very English city of Winchester, with a dream-like evocation of the muted voices of grazing sheep, and the merry click of bat upon ball, and the peaceful green fields of England, and the water-meads, and the bells of the Cathedral.”

Without doubt, much has changed since this idyllic vision of the “real England”, which in itself might be seen as a somewhat idealised portrait of a “Merrie England” that may never have existed. I have observed the progressive destruction of parts of the landscape in my own lifetime, but I am still always struck by the relative ease with which it is possible to penetrate to the heart of the country (the “interior”, as a member of my family once described it) and spend a whole day walking in sublime landscapes without ever setting eyes on another human soul.

We might explain the rural idyll of the English, and their national genius for gardening, as a nostalgic projection of an inward vision of paradise but such a psychological explanation does not take away its power. It was my realisation that my emotional and spiritual roots lay in the English landscape that inspired me to return to my homeland after four years living in rural Normandy in France. And how does this connect with the Muslim component of my multiple identity?  Quite simply because the Qur’an, perhaps more than any other religious scripture, is insistent on the beauty, majesty and sacredness of the natural world. “And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths.” (71:19-20) And it is most encouraging to see a new and emergent spirit amongst British Muslims to reconnect with the countryside, to revive the Qur’anic vision of the beneficence of nature, not only as personal spiritual nourishment, but as an urgent prompt to get involved in addressing our ecological crisis.

You will notice that I have already used the words “British” and “English” without attempting to distinguish them. Of the 17 books in my library devoted to the subject of national identity, eight have the word ‘England’, ‘English’ or Englishness’ in the title, and nine have the word ‘Britain’, ‘British’ or ‘Britishness’. My books on Britishness include in their titles the words Believing in Britain, Being British, Brit-Myth, and so on, and the English camp was represented, amongst others, by Identity of England, Englishness Identified and Real England.

If I identify most strongly with Englishness, what about my Celtic blood, the Welsh ancestors on my father’s side, and the Cornish seafarers from whom I am descended through my mother, not to mention my Huguenot ancestors who emigrated here to escape religious persecution in France in the 16th century, but who originally imported their glass-making craft into Lorraine in medieval times from Bohemia - modern-day Czech Republic? Only last week I received an invitation to attend a debate in the Scottish Parliament on “Celtic Islam: Rhetoric or Reality?” Is there, I wonder, a West Country English Islam, and how might it differ from the Scottish brand of Celtic Islam (let alone the Welsh, Irish and Cornish brands)?  The question may be flippant, but are not such increasingly fine distinctions in danger of distracting us?

Can we not get around the problem of potential tensions within our multiple identities by simply identifying with our common humanity? Last year I went to Lascaux in the Dordogne to marvel at the 17,000-year-old cave art of earlier descendants of Cro-Magnon people who first came to Europe 40,000 years in their migration from East Africa. I was greatly moved by the very simple and striking realisation, inspired by that extraordinary art, of the common humanity I shared with these people, and, stretching back even further in time, to their ancestors who first moved out of Africa 70,000 years ago. I felt as never before that ultimate connection to a shared humanity. It was an authentically simple insight, at once emotional and intuitive, which might have completely transcended any analysis of all the complex factors supposedly involved in the makeup of my British identity, whether historical, genetic, or conceived of in terms of distinctive national character or values.

And yet, as a Briton, I am irresistibly drawn back to my need to recognise what Tim Winter has called “our particularity, the genius of our heritage.” “Islam,” he says, “is generous and inclusive.” It allows us to celebrate that heritage “within, rather than in tension with, the greater and more lasting fellowship of faith.” No matter how ultimately universal our worthy vision of shared humanity might be, it is hard for me to identify in any deeply personal or emotive sense with a remote genetic inheritance. DNA analysis suggests that British Celts – our indigenous population – are descended from a tribe of Iberian fishermen from the Atlantic seaboard of Spain who crossed the Bay of Biscay almost 6,000 years ago. And according to a very recent study, most Britons, along with four out of five white Europeans, are descended from male farmers who left what is now Iraq and Syria in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 years ago. Yet it is hard for me to identify with being a Stone Age Syrian farmer or an Iberian fisherman, let alone the first Cro-Magnon migrant out of Africa. It seems to me obvious that the impact of cultural transmission between civilisations decisively trumps genetic factors.  The contribution of the Normans to the gene pool of the British was extremely small, perhaps only two per cent, but their impact on our culture was massive. After all, more than half of the English language comes from Latin through Old French, including (as one French wag suggested to me) all words of more than one syllable.

When I went to live in the countryside in Normandy several years ago, I had reasoned that if my human identity was transcendent and universal, it could not be bound by the particularity of place. But it gradually dawned on me that even as I knew that all of us are rooted in the universal endowment of the fitrah, there was a very real sense in which my heart was deeply rooted in the English landscape. I could not feel the same emotional or spiritual connection to the land I occupied in France. Now I live on the Malvern Hills, that quintessentially English place which inspired William Langland, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Edward Elgar, and I look out to the Herefordshire Beacon, known as British Camp, where the British chieftain Caractacus made his last stand against the Roman invaders. For me, it was a real homecoming, and I can only confess that I had profoundly underestimated my own need for a living connection to the land of my birth, no matter how I might have believed that I could live out the lofty abstraction of simply being a human being in a foreign land, even if it were the land of my distant Huguenot ancestors. As the Qur’an tells us, the diversity of our tongues and colours is a sign for those who are endowed with insight! (30:22). And the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: ikhtilaf ummati rahmah (The diversity of my people is a blessing.)

And it is that love of the land which for me is the essence of the question. I was not impelled to return to England by those core “British values” which have become so politicised and which are, in any case, pretty well indistinguishable from the “Western values” or broadly human values which ideally inform our “way of life”. I believe we should always be very wary of misappropriating universal human values for the jingoistic and smugly ethnocentric purpose of asserting national superiority or claiming special dispensation to act as moral exemplars for all mankind, as in the doctrine of exceptionalism. Instead of colonising core values for the purpose of asserting tribal superiority, we should all, no matter what our affiliation, be working together to reclaim those shared universal principles and core human values which transcend national, cultural, ideological and religious divides. Islam, after all, came to abolish a tribal mentality.

That is not to say that I do not recognise that there is something distinctive in the British “temper” or character and how the best of it converges with authentic Islamic principles. This has been well explored both by Tim Winter and by the late President Izetbegovic of Bosnia, who noticed the convergence of Islam and what he called the “Anglo-Saxon spirit” in the idea of the Middle Way.

But the heart goes deeper than abstract principles. It was the land I came home to, and it is that beloved land I now walk again. Country living is not just a bland “lifestyle option” in our strange modern world of spiritual disconnection. To live in the country, and thus to become alive to the treasures of the countryside, is to open the core of the heart to the signs of the Presence of God in our world.

 




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Comments

2 Comments

1

Daniel Bright

18 Jun 10, 16:21

I suppose there can't be Celtic Islam, because compared with Christianity, one man came Ireland, St Patrick, enslaved, and most came to Jesus forming an organic local print of Christianity.

The same cannot happen with Islam when 500,000 immigrants move to one area and set an exlusive enclave utterly alien culturally, gastronomically and linguistically to everything around it: go to Newham, Tower Hamlets, Dudley, and see for yourself just how 'english' the languages of Urdu and Bengali are. It is about as rare seeing a white british muslim as seeing an albino. Islam doesn't grow, it moves; there is no growth of Islam in the UK, just the movement of Islam, wheras people actually choose to become Christians in other countries where christianity hasn't moved to; China, India and Africa. Because Islam is merely a culture, not a belief that will lead you to heaven.

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2

Daniel Bright

18 Jun 10, 16:21

I suppose there can't be Celtic Islam, because compared with Christianity, one man came Ireland, St Patrick, enslaved, and most came to Jesus forming an organic local print of Christianity.

The same cannot happen with Islam when 500,000 immigrants move to one area and set an exlusive enclave utterly alien culturally, gastronomically and linguistically to everything around it: go to Newham, Tower Hamlets, Dudley, and see for yourself just how 'english' the languages of Urdu and Bengali are. It is about as rare seeing a white british muslim as seeing an albino. Islam doesn't grow, it moves; there is no growth of Islam in the UK, just the movement of Islam, wheras people actually choose to become Christians in other countries where christianity hasn't moved to; China, India and Africa. Because Islam is merely a culture, not a belief that will lead you to heaven.

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