The Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in Neasden is a stunning building, with its mass of domes, elaborately carved walls and huge marble staircase. I drove past it many times, but never allowed myself to go in; it was a place of Shirk, idol worship, the most unforgivable crime in the sight of God. But by now my faith had dwindled to the point that I no longer regarded it with the same aversion. On the contrary I was intensely curious to see what it was like inside and how Hindus prayed. One day while passing the temple I decided to park and take a look inside. I cautiously walked up to the perimeter gates, it felt like I was doing something very naughty. I saw a security guard sitting in a little cabin and I thought he was going to stop me, but he just smiled and nodded, so I kept walking. As I approached the main doors I saw there was a bookshop near the entrance and a man standing at the counter. I went over to him and asked if I could look around. “Yes, of course,” he replied and showed me where to put my shoes. The building was just as impressive inside as it was outside and I felt dwarfed as I walked along the corridor and up the steps to the prayer room. I was a little surprised that the prayer room itself was quite small in comparison with the vastness of the temple complex. At one end there was an enclosure with ornate and brightly decorated statues of Krishna and other sacred figures. Several worshippers were deep in prayer. One man was lying prostrate on the ground, hands outstretched; others knelt or walked around the shrine, chanting prayers. A bell rang, and monks appeared from inside the enclosure. They were carrying large plates of curry and rice. The monks placed the food in front of the statues and then closed the curtains.
“Why did they do that?” I asked the man next to me.
“So the gods can eat.”
“But they don’t really eat, right?”
“The statues are treated as gods, because they have the divine spirit of the gods within them. The monks wake them, bathe them, dress them and offer them food, just as though they were living gods.”
“What do they do with the food afterwards?”
“The monks eat it or it’s given in charity.”
I began to feel hungry and made my way to the temple canteen.
Not long after my visit to the Neasden temple I was walking out from my house when I heard someone calling me. “Teacher Hassan! Teacher Hassan!” shouted the voice. I turned around to find one of the White Ladies running towards me, holding her Sari off the ground to prevent herself from tripping. I called the women who attended the Brahma Kumaris Centre opposite my house the ‘White Ladies’ because they always wore white from head to toe, usually Saris – though anything white would do: white trousers, white jumpers, white shoes and white socks. (I often wondered whether their houses had white furniture, white televisions and white cutlery.) They were a bit of a nuisance because they parked their cars all along the road when they came to worship, making it impossible for anyone else to find a parking space. They didn’t usually say anything to you either, though were pleasant enough if you greeted them first. I was very surprised to see one of them running towards me, calling me “Teacher Hassan,” something only those who knew me at Islamia School did.
“Assalamu-Alaykum, Teacher Hassan. Do you remember me?” She was a short, slim Asian woman, in her late thirties or early forties.
“I’m afraid I don’t, I’m sorry.”
“I’m Seema, Wasim’s mother; he was in your class at Islamia School a few years back.”
“Oh yes!” I gasped, feeling astonished to see someone who had been a devout Muslim now quite obviously following a form of Hinduism.
“Yes, Wasim, a lovely boy, Mashaallah,” I hesitated, “Do you attend the Brahma Kumaris Centre?”
“Yes, I go there regularly.”
“Aren’t you a Muslim anymore then?” I blurted that out in a way that didn’t sound right.
“In a way I still consider myself a Muslim, but I now appreciate the significance of Islam much better.”
“It’s odd that we should meet like this because I too have begun to move away from the traditional understanding of Islam.” I said.
“Do you believe things happen for a reason,” she said suddenly, “I mean that there are powers at work beyond our understanding, but are ultimately for our good?”
“Erm… yes, I think I do.”
“You may find this strange, Teacher Hassan, but I had a voice inside me urging me to call you.”
“That’s pretty amazing.”
“I’d like to invite you to attend some of the talks at the centre. I feel you would really benefit from them.”
“Yes OK… Insha-allah.”
I began attending a series of one-to one lectures that introduced the Brahama Kumaris beliefs. The topics included, Self–Realisation, Reincarnation, Nirvana, and Karma. Seema explained that time is cyclic and goes through five stages, starting with the ‘Golden Age’, a time of peace, love, and harmony. Each following stage marks a decline on the previous, until we reach the last age – the one we’re in now – a time of greed and war, disaster and calamity. If, however, one has woken to one’s true self, one will be re-incarnated into the new ‘Golden Age.’ She explained that one must lead a life of purity and that included celibacy. It all sounded quite nice, apart from the celibacy. (Not that I was in a relationship – but one always lives in hope.)
The centre had a bookshop on the ground floor, and I began to browse through the books on meditation, vegetarian cooking, and positive thinking. Amongst the title’s on display were “Don’t Get Mad Get Wise” and “The Seven AHA!s Of Highly Enlightened Souls.” I decided to choose a book that gave an overview of the Brahma Kumaris movement and its core beliefs.
In the 1930s a wealthy Indian jeweler, Dada Lekhraj, claimed to have received a series of revelations from God. He was shown that the end of the present age was imminent and that a select few would purify their souls and achieve a place in the newly regenerated world to come. Those who did not purify their souls would be trapped in an eternally repeating cycle of misery and hardship. Dada Lekhraj encouraged women to join and become spiritual teachers, which went against the prevailing culture. Despite opposition the movement grew and now boasts a million followers worldwide. When Dada Lekhraj died in 1969 the messages from God continued to be received by others from within the movement.
As I sat in the foyer of the centre one day, waiting for my next lesson, an elderly Indian man sat next to me. We soon got to talking about religions and I asked him what the Brahma Kumaris thought about religious leaders such as Muhammad or Jesus.
“They were pure souls who did much good in the world. In fact we believe that they are reincarnated in different ages, right up to today.”
“Really, what would they be doing now?”
“They would probably be following the spiritual path of Brahma Kumaris.”
Whenever I visited the centre after that I couldn’t help playing ‘Spot Jesus’. There were a surprising number of likely candidates.
At home, money was getting tight, and so I decided to advertise for a lodger. A Nigerian lady came to see the room, her name was Abisoye, or Abi for short, about thirty years old, tall, slim and very attractive. She told me she was a practicing Christian and that her faith was the most important thing in her life. She was extremely eager to take the room and told me right there and then that she wanted it. She didn’t have any references and was new to the country, but something about her made me trusted her. I liked her open-hearted and joyful approach to life. We got on extremely well and of course started discussing religion, and I felt very comfortable opening up to her. She invited me to come along to the Pentecostal church she attended in Notting Hill. I accepted, but I asked her not to tell anyone I was a Muslim, as I just wanted to sit quietly at the back and observe. When we got there the main hall was full, so Abi took me upstairs to the balcony. On stage there was a band consisting of two guitarists, bass, drums and keyboards. Everyone in the church was standing and there was a buzz of excitement.
“Is it OK if I sit down, Abi?”
“Of course, Hassan.”
Suddenly the crowd hushed, and all eyes were fixed to the stage as the pastor strode on to the sound of music.
“ARE YOU READY TO PRAISE GOD?”
Loud cheers and cries of ‘Praise the Lord’ and ‘Hallelujah’ rang around the church as people jumped up and down and screamed.
I thought I’d better stand up. There were cameras hanging from the roof, and they panned the congregation. Images of cheering worshippers flashed up onto the huge screen behind the stage. I bowed my head as the camera came my way.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the good news… AMEN?”
“AMEN!” replied the crowd.
Throughout the sermon people were shouting out “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” Even Abi was getting excited and squeezed my hand, which almost made me shout ‘Hallelujah’ too! After the sermon the band sang the first of their songs. I love watching live music, but there’s something not right about religious songs such as these – they just make me cringe. The lyrics were put up on the big screen, and everyone began singing and swaying. Some got very carried away. One little old English lady, who for some strange reason was dressed in an Indian Sari and pink trainers, began dancing wildly, while a fat African man in front of me was rotating on the spot and pointing dramatically in the air, giving everyone a jubilant glare. I was the only one not moving or singing and began to feel extremely self-conscious.
“All to Jesus I surrender,
Humbly at His feet I bow,
Worldly pleasures all forsaken,
Take me Jesus, take me now!”
The camera pointed towards me. I quickly mumbled; “Take me Jesus, take me now!”
Towards the end of the night’s proceedings an invitation was extended for people to come forward to ‘receive the Lord.’ Abi looked at me, but I pretended not to notice. A young woman went up to the stage and was quickly followed by several others. The preacher placed his hand on her head and prayed loudly. She stood there, hand raised high, eyes closed, beaming from cheek to cheek. Then she fell down and was caught by a couple of others, who seemed ready for this sort of thing. They lowered her to the floor, where she stayed for a while, face down. A woman in front of me, who hadn’t even gone to the stage, suddenly fell to the floor and curled up in a foetal position. Others closed their eyes and began praying in tongues. Every now and then the whole congregation started clapping passionately and I felt obliged to join in.
“Why are we clapping?” I whispered to Abi.
“It’s a ‘Clap offering’”
“It is applause for God.”
After the service Abi was keen to know if the spirit of Jesus had come to me.
“I was impressed by the warmth and sincerity of everyone there. I have great admiration and respect for your faith, Abi.”
“What did you think about the service?”
“I found the whole experience very enjoyable.” What I really meant to say was; ‘I found the whole experience very embarrassing.’
I have mixed feelings about extremely religious people – of whatever faith. On the one hand I admire the sincerity, warmth and love many exhibit, while on the other hand I can’t stand how gullible, shallow and feeble-minded some of them can be. I often observed this amongst my fellow Muslims where they were willing to accept the most ridiculous proof that Islam is the truth, such as finding verses of the Qur’an written in Arabic on the side of a fish, on the back of a cow or within a variety of fruit or vegetables. I was once handed a picture of an aubergine sliced in half. The writing below the picture explained that ‘the word Allah can clearly be seen written across the middle.’ Unlike the word Allah written on the sole of a Nike shoe, this was placed there by God Himself and so instead of being sacrilegious, it was a miraculous affirmation of the truth of Islam, even if one was to inadvertently eat it.
“Mashallah, ” said the person sitting next to me, “This is what Allah meant when he said, “We will show them Our signs in all the regions of the earth and in their own souls, until they clearly see that this is the truth.”
“Yes brother,” said a sister sitting opposite, “there are so many signs all around, if only people open their eyes.”
I had my eyes open, and it took a great deal of added imagination to decipher the word Allah, in the picture in front of me. Other ‘clear’ signs are a tree in Australia that is making Ruku’ (bowing in prayer), and a tree lined road in Germany where the tree trunks spell out the words; “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah” in Arabic. Both these ‘clear signs’ have been photographed, mass-produced, framed and sold in Muslim bookshops up and down the country. In the case of the tree-lined road, the words have been highlighted in white and the rest darkened, to make sure the ‘clear signs’ are clear.
One morning, during the daily teachers’ briefing, a sister handed out pictures she had just photocopied. The picture showed some people digging around a giant skeleton and the writing beneath explained:
“Recent gas exploration activity in the south east region of the Arabian desert uncovered a skeletal remains of a human of phenomenal size. This region of the Arabian desert is called the Empty Quarter, or in Arabic, ‘Rab-Ul-Khalee’. The discovery was made by the Aramco Exploration team. As God states in the Qur’an that He had created people of phenomenal size the like of which He has not created since. These were the people of Aad where Prophet Hud was sent. They were very tall, big, and very powerful, such that they could put their arms around a tree trunk and uproot it. Later these people, who were given all the power, turned against God and the Prophet and transgressed beyond all boundaries set by God. As a result they were destroyed. The Ulema of Saudi Arabia believe these to be the remains of the people of Aad. Saudi Military has secured the whole area and no one is allowed to enter except the ARAMCO personnel. It has been kept in secrecy, but a military helicopter took some pictures from the air and one of the pictures leaked out.”
I almost laughed out loud when I saw the picture, but managed to prevent myself and waited for someone to say something. But the only comments were
“They want to hide the truth of the Qur’an from everyone.”
I leaned closer to the brother sitting next to me and whispered,
“Rashid, I really don’t think this is a genuine picture.”
“Perhaps you are just being sceptical again, Hassan; it is well know the people of Ad were giants.”
The sister who gave it to me said she had got it in an email, so when I had a spare moment, I did a quick search on the internet and found – as I had suspected – it was hoax created using Photoshop.
Another characteristic of many religious people that I find irritating is the obsession with converts. Abi had a magazine delivered to the house that seemed to be filled entirely with stories of famous people who Jesus had saved, while at the Brahma Kumaris centre I was often told, proudly, that a lot of ‘English people’ had become followers of their teachings. Muslims also have a fixation with converts, and names such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Yusuf Islam, Jermaine Jackson and Chris Eubank are mentioned as though to say, ‘You see, Islam is true.’ Of course religious people are reluctant to mention the names of converts that are known for all the wrong reasons. Amongst the less celebrated converts to Islam are people like John Allen Muhammad, convicted serial killer, John Walker Lindh, Taliban fighter, Adam Gadahn, Al-Qa’idah operative, Richard Reid, shoe bomber, and Carlos the Jackal, convicted murderer and international terrorist. There are also some people mentioned as converts to Islam who are not actually converts at all. People such as Neil Armstrong, Jacques Cousteau, and Will Smith are still frequently claimed to be Muslims. Prince Charles is also said to have converted ‘in secret’. I have been told this quite a few times, in hushed tones of course – so as to keep it a secret. When I questioned one brother about this, he insisted it was true and that it happened after Prince Charles had visited Sheikh Nazim in Cyprus. I was told that it must remain a ‘secret’ or they would stop him from being King, and my friend winked and tapped his nose.
Princess Diana, it is claimed, also converted to Islam. That’s why she was ‘murdered’; they didn’t want the mother of the heir to throne to be a Muslim. What a shame! If only Prince Charles had known.
I began to feel less and less comfortable amongst devout believers and I felt tired of humouring people who believed things that I regarded as absurd. I just wanted to get away from it all. Then one day, out of the blue, my old friend John Shackelton emailed me. He had found my email address on a page I put up that included information about the Deeply Vale music festival we attended in 1979. I hadn’t seen him since then and was overjoyed to get the email. It turned out that he was no longer a practising Christian and was also trying to re-discover himself, revealing an odd parallel between our lives. We decided to meet up at the Cropredy music festival in Oxfordshire. It was great seeing him again after all those years.
“You haven’t changed!” I said.
“I was about to say the same thing to you!”
“That’s a bit disappointing isn’t it? After twenty-five years you’d think we’d have bloody changed!”
“Well apart from the fact we’ve both been given some old bastard’s body!”
“Where’s the wisdom that’s supposed to come with age? I’m less sure of myself than I was back then!”
“Maybe that’s Wisdom.”
“Would you prefer to delude yourself you have all the answers!”
“No. I’d rather really have all the answers!”
It was great to see John again after all these years. It was as if the floodgates were opened and I just let go. John and I spent the next three days getting drunk and stoned and collapsing face down in our tents, talking in tongues. Of course there was also the music, particularly the Saturday night performance of Fairport Convention. Every year they went through their well-thumbed catalogue of songs culminating in the anthem “Meet on the Ledge”. As always they were joined on stage by many of the performers from the weekend’s music. Everyone linked arms, as the crowd held aloft glow sticks or torches and swayed from side to side.
“It reminds me of a revivalist meeting,” said John.
“It’s all bullshit.”
“I thought ‘Matty Groves’ was good.”
“No. I mean groups, mobs, crowds, anything you have to be a member of!”
“You’re all individuals!” said John, mimicking The Life of Brian.
“We’re just looking for people to tell us what to do and avoid thinking for ourselves.”
“True! Now tell me, what should we do now!”
“I think a pilgrimage to the Holy Beer Tent is in order.”
“Lead on, Brother! Lead on!”