Ishmael or Isaac?
A Muslim Story
I was born into a Muslim family in 1961 from a Pathan background. Due to matrimonial problems, my father left my mother when she was six months pregnant with me and came to England, and so I was born and grew up in my maternal grandmother’s house in Pakistan.
While my father was in England, he married an Anglo Indian lady who then became a Muslim. In 1968, he came back to Pakistan with his new wife and three children and abducted me from my mother and brought me to my paternal grandmother’s house. I stayed there until 1971 when my father returned to England, taking me and my grandmother with him. I was almost ten.
During the following years, I attended the local schools and had lessons in Islam at home. There was no established mosque that we could attend and my father and some members of the local Muslim community bought a house and turned it into a mosque. I can clearly remember that it was my school summer holidays and my father, brother and I and one or two other members of the community took the first steps to demolish a wall to create a hall for the mosque. I grew up as a typical Asian in England. Due to our strict upbringing and my father’s stern temperament, we had a thorough education in Islam and the recitation of the Koran after school hours. It gave me a great sense of pride to say that I was a Muslim and that I came from the north-west Frontier region of Pakistan.
As I grew older and became more mature, I started to drift into a typical Western Asian way of thinking. I was a Muslim but could not follow the strict discipline that my father wanted. Like many other younger Muslims growing up in Britain, we had two different lives, one at school and one within an Islamic household. After coming home from school, we were made to catch up on all the missed prayers from the day and due to the distance of the mosque from our house, there were many times when my father would act as the Imam and lead me and my brothers in prayer. Looking back, I can say that my father’s main preoccupation in life was that his children should not stray away into a Western way of life. This sometimes caused a lot of bitterness on my part due to my lack of understanding of the way in which he had been brought up.
Like most teenagers, I went along with the flow. In school I would be just like the English students except that I think I respected my teachers more than the others. I also did not become involved in any relationship with girls due to my strict upbringing and cultural background. The relationship between my stepmother and my father was deteriorating at this time because he wanted her to lead a typical Muslim life and though she was a devoted wife, she could not adhere to praying five times a day and reading the Koran.
Between 1975 and 1976, my father went back to Pakistan for a holiday taking my younger step brother and step sister. During that time, my stepmother in England received news from a family friend that my father had got married again in Pakistan. On receiving this news, my stepmother became very upset and wanted a divorce from my father.
Between 1976 and 1978, they were divorced and up until this point, I hadn’t had any contact with my own mother due to my father’s wishes. In 1982, I decided to go to Pakistan and make contact with my mother. Once there, I met up with all my relatives and re-established ties with them and used to attend the local mosque now and then. One day I was in the mosque when Muslim preachers, (tableagh), were urging youngsters to go on a type of camp where they would spend time in a typical Islamic environment. They spoke with great zeal and passion. Up until this point, I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who could live within a strict Islamic way of life. Like many of my contemporaries, I believed that Islam was a true religion and we should follow its ideals, but I always felt short of those ideals. While listening to the speaker, I was overcome by great passion and put my hand up to be included within the group that would be leaving soon for the camp.
After joining the group, (Jamaat), I was introduced to about a dozen people some of whom had been in this type of work for quite some time. The rest of us were new members who promised to give three days to rediscovering Islam and relearning the correct way of living. We visited a few remote villages where we followed a strict Muslim code. As we were sleeping and living in the mosque we had to keep to a strict code of ablutions and cleanliness. When walking with the group, we had to walk and speak with great humility. We woul d not raise our eyes above a certain level in case our vision was distracted by any kind of evil. We all ate communally from the same eating tray and studied some of the laws of the Sharia, and we recited prayers to make sure that we were saying them correctly in Arabic and did various other activities to rebuild our faith in Islam. After the three days, I came back home with a fresh seed planted within my heart.
During the next month or two, I went for another few days and then again for another few. By now, I was conditioned to praying five times a day and reading the Koran as much as possible. On many occasions, I would rush to the mosque to take responsibility for the call to prayer in order to call other Muslims to pray. Most of my mannerisms and conduct were in accordance with the laws of Sharia as was my clothing and appearance.
After a year in Pakistan, my airline ticket was expiring and I decided to come back to England. On arrival, I visited Dewsbury quite often as this was the main centre for the work of the Jamaat and during the next year, I made frequent visits to recharge my spiritual batteries. Outside that particular environment, I would engage in constant conversations and debates with Muslims who had drifted away from Islam. In my heart I believed that it was more important for Muslims who had drifted away to return to Islam than for non- Muslims to become Muslims. Due to unemployment, I went back to my home city and re-established links with my father, (with whom I had broken off relationship due to his third marriage). Being away from the Muslim environment with the Jamaat, I was left to my own devices. I still we nt to the local mosque but not as regularly as I used to. After some time the hold that Islam had on my conscience during the previous two years began to fade away and I no longer felt guilty when I shaved my beard off.
During this time, I got a job in an Indian restaurant which would have been unimaginable two years before because I would be handling alcohol and non-Halal food. In 1983, my first step mother converted to Christianity. She contacted a local Christian and asked him to come and talk to me about Christianity. Though I had shaved my beard off and was working in the restaurant, I still had most of my knowledge about Is lam and regarded it as the ultimate truth.
When he met me, he introduced himself as having been sent by my stepmother. It was my desire for him to know about Islam as I believed that he had never had a proper discussion with a Muslim before. I was hoping for him to become a Muslim. On one hand I was conveying the message of Islam, but on the other hand I wasn’t totally following the laws of Islam because of my job and lack of discipline in praying five times a day. I had also started gambling and various o ther sinful things. Although I was ready to die for Islam and would scorn anyone who would speak against it, I was also no different than the people I was condemning.
Looking back on those years, I could say that I was at war with my conscience, wanting to do what was right but not doing it. At the back of my mind, I believed that if I could help somebody to become a Muslim irrespective of my standing before God, I wou ld be granted as great reward in heaven. I believed that the medicine that I was prescribing was very good for the non- Muslim to follow but I could not swallow it myself all the time. I met with that Christian every week for about two years. Though I was about twenty four years old, sometimes my way of thinking would be quite immature and I would only hear what appealed to my own biased opinion where Christianity was concerned. I still held the beliefs about Jesus which the Koran and Muslim teachers had conveyed to me. I strongly believed that what Christians followed was all folly and that t he way the Bible talked about Jesus never took place and was made up. I also believed that the Jews had deliberately changed the Bible, together with later Christian changes, even though Islam taught me to believe in all the Holy scriptures including those of the Jews and Christians. During my childhood, I had tried to look in the Bible to see if Muhammad was mentioned as I had heard that his coming should be predicted in it, but I could not find it.
During this period of discussion, there were often many questions lingering in my mind at night. We explored the Old Testament,(Torah and Zabur),which has similarities with the Koran in dealing with the stories of the prophets such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses etc. According to both the Koran and the Bible, Abraham was promised a son and heir whose descendants would bless the earth and through whom the final prophet would be born.Abraham had two sons; Ishmael who was the ancestor of the Arabs,(and therefore of Muhammad who was an Arab), and Isaac who was the ancestor of the Jews. I used to argue the Muslim belief that it was Ishmael that Abraham took to be sacrificed,( and so was the son of Allah’s promise to Abraham), and not Isaac, but looking at the Bible, I could not get away from the fact that there was a link between Isaac a nd all the Jewish prophets and Jesus who descended from him. It was Isaac who had more of a miraculous birth than Ishmael because he was born of Abraham’s wife Sarah, who according to both the Koran and the Bible was ninety years old, whilst Ishmael was born of Abraham’s maid Hagar who was much younger.
If Ishmael, who was born first, was the promised son then there would have been no need for a miracle to produce a second son Isaac. I had always heard from various Muslim sources that the Jews had been jealous of the fact that the prophet Muhammad had been born from the line of Ishmael and not Isaac and therefore they could not bring themselves to accept him as the promised final prophet. After reading the Bible and studying various other historical literature, however, I came to the conclusion that if I put aside my inbredbias, then with all the prophets after Abraham being Jewish from the line of Isaac, it would seem quite reasonable for the Jews not to believe in Muhammad as a prophet. Considering that the Jews were in opposition to Muhammad and his claims at the time when he was founding Islam, it seems reasonable to me that he would have wanted to add prestige to the Arab nation, (of which he was a part), over the Jews by saying that t he ancestor of the Arabs, Ishmael, was the promised son who was to be sacrificed and not Isaac the ancestor of the Jews.
Although Islamic sources tell us of the wonderful character of Muhammad and according to the Hadith some of the miracles that he did, they did not seem to me to be in the same league as what Jesus said and did. Having been reading the Bible, Jesus came ac ross as someone more than a prophet when it came to miracles. He told the lame to get up and walk, He made the blind to see, He raised the dead to life, fed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish, walked on the water, spoke with authority about the forgiveness of sins and did not say ” God says ” but ” I say to you “.
Jesus was always said to be Al Masih, the Messiah, in the Koran but it did not explain what that meant and neither did the commentaries. I discovered from the Bible that the Messiah was someone promised to the Jews who would be a Jewish King who would rule the world forever. This was a very different view of Jesus than I was used to. Together with his miracles, Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies in the Torah and Zabur regarding the coming of the Messiah; being born in Bethlehem, entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, being betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, cleansing the temple of traders and literally hundreds of others.
I also began to see contradictions in the Koran if I was open to look for them. Even as a young child, I could not understand the story concerning the fall of Satan. According to Islam, Satan was one of the Jinns who attained a position of great prestige amongst the angels. When Allah created Adam, He ordered the whole of creation to prostrate before Adam but Satan refused and was punished. The Muslim belief is that Allah is merciful, beneficent, Almighty, all knowing, eternal and unchanging and you should not prostrate yourself to anything else other than Allah. If Allah is eternal and unchanging then He has always been merciful from the be ginning and the command that you should not prostrate yourself to anything else other than Allah must also have been from the beginning and be unchanging. How then could Allah command all creation to prostrate themselves before Adam? This made me think that something was not right here. Though the Koran is appreciated as a very beautiful book and its recitation in Arabic can be very moving, should I accept it for its contents and message or just for the poetry in which it is written? Surely it is the content that is important.
I had always taken great pride in the way that I would recite the Koran and it would have a soothing effect on me but this was only a temporary solace and not a lasting answer to my problems. I would be overcome whenever a speaker in the mosque would confront me with my life and the punishment that awaited all sinners in hell and this would make me want to change myself into a better Muslim but it didn’t seem to last. When I thought about the justice of God, I could not understand how Allah could be just if the Koran stated that it was up to him whether to condemn or reward a person regardless of their sin or righteousness. For example, he could send a righteous man to hell if he wanted or a terrible sinner to Paradise if he wanted. How could that be just?
Also the Muslim belief that anything good comes from Allah and everything bad comes from Allah also troubled me. If we say that Allah is loving and good, which no Muslim will deny, then how can He give something which is bad? This especially applies to the teaching that predestined bad things,including even adultery, murder etc., cannot be escaped no matter how hard men may run or try to get away.. This also is not just or kind and so it appeared to me that Islamic teaching makes Allah seem to be unjust. In contrast to the Koran, the Bible states that God is love and that there is no evil in Him and no evil can come from Him. He is so pure that evil cannot exist in His presence in heaven. All this was making me question my Muslim background.
For a long time, the main thing which was holding me back from becoming a Christian was the Bible’s statements that Jesus is God. I could believe that Jesus was born without a father, that He died on the cross, (even though the Muslims say that He didn’t), but to regard Him as God was something beyond my comprehension or ability to accept. Trying to put God into the body of Jesus as well as in heaven as well as dying on the cross, feeling pain, bleeding was all too much for me.
Most of these talks would play on my mind and I would try to block out some of the thoughts which seemed blasphemous to my Muslim beliefs. Somehow I came to the belief that what I needed to do was to open my mind to God and let Him show me the right way. It was at this point that I put away my biased leaning towards the teaching of Islam and tried to look at things from a fair and open perspective.
A change began to take place within my heart. I could see my body as a robot-like device within which I sat operating all my faculties and in the same way, I could see Jesus as a person with God sitting inside operating Him. But what happened to God in heaven whilst this was going on? The Muslim belief that God is everywhere would mean that He could be in heaven at the same time that He was in Jesus. This also helped me to understand how Jesus could pray to God the Father in heaven. I also knew that I could not get to heaven through my own efforts, praying five times a day and following all the pillars of Islam and Sharia law. I began to look more seriously into what the Bible said someone must do to get right with God and when I learnt about the need for a relationship with God, I knew that that was what I needed.
In the Bible, Jesus says ” I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me “. It says that anyone who believes in Him, trusting their life into His hands for their forgiveness and to be saved on the day of judgment through His death on the cross for their sins and giving themselves into His control would be saved and forgiven and given eternal life, receiving God’s Holy spirit into their hearts.
I finally decided to trust in Jesus in this way in 1987 and this began a change in my life which is still going on. The gambling gradually declined and finally stopped altogether after about four years. For a time, I kept my new beliefs and the fact that I had trusted in Jesus as a secret due to the reaction that I expected from my family. There were times when I really wanted to just go to the local mosque and stand in front of everyone and tel l them my new faith but deep down inside I knew that this would not be easy.
Though I did not have any physical fears, I was afraid of facing my family and especially my father who had quite an up-standing position within our local community. There was also the fact that my extended family in Pakistan would also be horrified and w ould not understand what I had done and why, (to them Christianity was the religion of the West and a Muslim should not become part of it). While working in the restaurant, many people would come from the mosque to talk to us about revitalising our Muslim faith as I had previously done when I came from Pakistan. I would put questions to them and have discussions without letting on that I was a Christian. They would give me half-hearted answers which I knew full well that they themselves did not understand. After many such visits from strangers and people known to me, I felt that it was about time that I declared my faith in the open.
During this time, I prayed that the Lord would give me strength and create the right opportunity in which I could declare my faith. I also prayed that He would control the consequences of this and that I would have the right words to say when questioned. Once I had told a close friend, who in turn informed my father, the first few weeks were rather intensive for me. One evening, my father rang my flat to ask me if what he had heard in regard to me becoming a Christian was true. I admitted to him that it was true and that it was not an easy decision for me to declare it openly. At this he became very, very angry to the extent of disowning me. Certain friends came to my home and begged me to become a Muslim again. They were crying at my doorstep and offered to give me all their wealth and possessions if I would only return to Islam. Many relatives urged me that I should simply say that I was st ill a Muslim. In reply I told them that even if I did that verbally then I would be a hypocrite because in my heart, I truly believed that Jesus had died for me and that he was the only way to God. I didn’t know if they understood this or not as it had taken me more than two years to come to this conclusion.
Did they want me to become a Muslim again to add to numbers or for the sake of pride or because they truly wanted me to be saved? I can truly say that in my experience, the majority of Muslim people are Muslim because they happen to be born into that religion. Though some outside the Muslim world are given the opportunity to question their religion, the majorit y believe that they are on the right path without any question or a chance to question. Even those who believe in reciting the creed, praying five times a day, keeping the fast, giving alms and performing pilgrimage do not have any assurance that they wil l be accepted by God into paradise.
I asked those who came to me that if I came back to Islam could they guarantee me a place in Paradise and they said ” if God is willing “, but with Jesus, I have an assured place in heaven because He paid the price for my sins. They are many more Muslims who have put their faith in Jesus but have not declared it openly due to fear of the persecution that they might face, (if a religion is so true, then it should not need intimidation to protect it).