The Gates to Common Ground

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Image courtesy of The Photosapiens, click to see more.

The Gates to Common Ground


India is a steaming melting pot of faiths and cultures, one I was briefly cast into as a callow youth. I brought all my first world certainties to that extraordinary, baffling country. I hope I left some of them behind.

My journey started with my ego nicely plumped. An armed guard met me at Delhi airport and deposited me in the bosom of my family in Lucknow. There, amidst those who had remained through partition and the lure of the West, I was loved and coddled. But my movements were bounded by the modest compound, and I lacked all the freedom to roam I knew from London.

Opposite the house there was a temple. While I never went there, it provides the strongest memory of the trip. Every day the temple PA system would squeak to life. Over the braying of streetwalking cows and the intemperate traffic noise, a female voice would rise up in worship. I knew nothing of this lady but the relentlessness of her prayer. Whether she was maiden, or mother, or crone; weathered by care, surrounded by offspring or virgin – I never discovered. Her voice has stayed with me over the decades.

She read a repeated litany of thanksgiving and beseeching. It went on for hours and was almost incomprehensible to me. Time and familiarity had created an elision of words that made them almost impossible to follow. At first it was just annoying. The annoyance bred ridicule: constant use had lined the lady’s throat with gravel, her voice lacked any melody or softness. It was harsh on the ear and grated on the nerves.

By the time I left it was something I waited for. I would sit on the rooftop as the swelling cacophony of suburban life overwhelmed the quiet of morning. And then the alien soundtrack would gather its ponderous momentum. The harsh voice would batter the worldly hubbub into submission, silencing the chatter that filled my head. In those moments, before the inevitable call to join the family for lunch, I found a peculiar peace and freedom. The petty concerns of living evaporated as I fell into the immersion of her worship. The transactions that form life were diminished. I relinquished my hold on them with increasing ease. I was no longer bound by the fading glory of the cracked walls and peeling gate of my uncle’s home. I relearned in that time the joy of writing, and thinking without constraint.

It was only later I recalled that I had felt that stillness and freedom before, in an environment that could not have been more different. It was at choral Evensong. The rooftop in Lucknow was painfully bright in the sunlight, with rowdy, impatient India rising from the street below. In contrast the chapel was dim and quiet. Ancient oak absorbed light and sound. Even my breathing was hushed, as if the enveloping robes for lay visitors laid a geas of monasticism upon me. The service was pretty high up the candle, designed to awe as much as inspire. It was during the Apostles’ Creed that the same sense of stillness claimed me. The possibility of a broader understanding reached out to me, unlocked by absorption and chant.

In itself that moment is not unusual or exclusive, it is often found in music and meditation. Now I am aware of the sensation I have found it in such prosaic circumstances as a long night drive. With the busy, practical part of the mind locked in concentration, the higher functions can be uncoupled and freed. What startled me was to find that outcome across such a broad religious divide.

I found it again most recently, and perhaps most surprisingly on Hajj. During three weeks of pilgrimage the quiet, contemplative moments were plentiful. What astonished me was to be so transported during the rite of Tawaf.

Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime, if their health and financial wherewithal so allow. In past times those in poor far flung villages would save for a lifetime so that one representative could complete the Hajj from among them.

The spiritual function it performs no doubt varies from pilgrim to pilgrim, but some elements are at its core. First and foremost it reinforces the connection of the person to the divine and distances the individual from the concerns they left behind. It also seeks to engender a sense of oneness with all humanity and erase the sense of difference. All male pilgrims wear two simple pieces of unstitched cloth, the ehram. There is no rank and no precedence for wealth. The clothes are deliberately reminiscent of a shroud, the pilgrim will leave reborn.

One of the many acts Muslim pilgrims must undertake is the Tawaf.  They walk seven times around the black draped building in the centre of Mecca – the Kaaba. It is a rite than places God at the centre of creation, and man in his orbit. As one might expect, an endeavour in which several thousand people at a time are involved is stifling and chaotic. It is utterly different to the sedate choreography of Evensong, or the solitary rooftop. Not even the heat is a common factor. In India it was bright, baking direct sunlight; in Mecca it was a strength sapping sauna, fuelled by the skin crawling proximity of sweating bodies.

There is no organisation to it, there is no system. There is no queuing which my Britishness so craves. At any point in time some are beginning their seven circuits, some are in progress and some are finishing. Some people are not there for Tawaf at all, but to touch the building itself, or the holy black stone set in one corner. And there are more people trying to do all this at the same time than the orderly western mind can comprehend. For those familiar with rugby the seven circuits of the Kaaba are like a forty five minute rolling maul. It definitely shares all the rib cracking and toe crushing you would expect from the most violent of gentlemanly pursuits.

In that environment, so far removed from any other experience, and while in constant motion, it seems strange to claim access to the stillness. And yet it was there. The key was in the repetition of prayer, simple words of entreaty and gratitude, over and over. The sensation of elbows and heels and moist collisions faded. I was surrounded, and yet there was a zone of complete calm in which I could orbit. It was a planetary stillness, in which movement was effortless and irresistible and entirely natural. In the very beating heart of Islam I put to use the lessons learned from Hinduism and Christianity.

Somehow in heat and breathless endeavour to put one foot in front of the other, to progress and not impede anyone else, and to pray in fervent helplessness I unlocked the door to which a distant chaplain and dedicated lady had provided the key. In that thronging multitude I found my unique connection to the divine.

And of course we are all built the same way. Our brains are abuzz with inputs and reactions. We respond because therein lies survival and progress. How curious then that the connection sparks into life when that immediacy is constrained.

When we silence the babble of an inquisitive child with a new toy, then the quieter sibling, the one that sees much and says little, can speak up. Only when it is certain of our undivided attention will it share its precocious insights.

All of which left me considering the nature of faith, religion and prayer. In three incomparable religious circumstances I found the secret to freedom from the passage of time, and the constraining awareness of the mundane. The common thread was a method to distance the base concerns of living. Repetition of prayer seemed to be an essential part of the key that unlocked this state.

So what? Have all the world’s faiths merely found the same intellectual opium? Does a morphic resonance underlie the spiritual mind, if there even is such a thing? Do we all crave the same momentary high and nothing more?

I’m wary to claim epiphany. But in those moments of separation and elevation there was a distinct sensation of something more. I sensed a design grander than the primitive needs of food, shelter and procreation. Nor am I willing to categorically state this was a religious experience. These were moments of acknowledgement that the human mind has capability beyond the cunning and avarice of a higher animal. Does it matter if this is an evolutionary trait that promotes adaptation and innovation, or a divinely inspired gift? The fact is that it is there. Whether we ascribe to an external deity or the god within, we are more than the sum of simple biological processes.

More alarming, more heretical still is the realisation that this is no secret at all. Without searching I found the key in plain sight in three different faiths in three different parts of the world. Is it unreasonable to say that faiths of which I have no experience also share it? Or to suggest that other modes of living that do not characterise themselves as faith, or religion, share it too? Look closely and you may find it at the Wailing Wall, in the manic solfège of Sufi singers, or the throbbing intensity of an underground night club.

I wonder how different the world would be if everyone could take that moment to pause, meditate, pray, and touch the sensation of possibility?

I also wonder, as a Muslim, what it might mean for greater interfaith understanding if the restricted precincts of Mecca and Medina could be opened to people of all faiths or none. How would it be if the welcome I have always found in churches and cathedrals could be extended from the holiest sites in Islam?

What if the chaplain that lead evensong could swap his cassock for the rough unstitched ehram, or the chanting lady of Lucknow don a hijab, and join the orbit of chaos and connection? How different would our conversation be when we could say “I have seen what you see, I have been where you have been.”

My instincts say that openness, sharing, the cross contamination of ideas and beliefs is always a good thing. If we look for similarities perhaps we will lose our focus on differences.

If we all share that higher consciousness, the ability to see beyond our own cravings, then perhaps we should share the paths by which we get there.



More of my writing here

I should admit that The Photosapiens are all younger cousins of mine, from the Indian branch of the family, and I did not ask their permission to use the photo – I just told them I was doing it. That’s just how scions of multiculturalism roll.

The Lay of the Last Jedi

To celebrate the new Star Wars movie, which I am properly excited about, here is a Luke and Vader shaggy dog story for you.

Spoilers from episodes 1-6, but I’m not seeing the new film til Christmas Eve.

Stick with it, that’s the point of a shaggy dog story! And feel free to reblog, if like me you have no sense of self respect :)


The Lay of the Last Jedi


Listen. Here’s a tale well loved and often told

Of a young man filled with woe and righteous fire

Who finds his home a ruined smoking pyre

Young walker of the sky, Luke the bold

Brave but oft times reckless, our hero faces

His nemesis in the story’s fifth or second part

Dread Vader, Darth of name and dark of heart

Master of asteroid sized bases


With all his pomp and power Darth Vader tries

To turn the will of this untempered boy

He lures and bends his mind with every ploy

To make Luke join the path of dark and lies

Mismatched: bare youth, cold machine man

They battle fiercely with the humming blade

Both Jedis fearless Obi Wan had made

One schooled by the Emperor, one by Han


But Vader is the master of sabre and the Force

Luke’s still fledgling skill cannot compare

To the power that Darth Vader brings to bear

Strength fails, he cannot last the course

Yet when at last the lad is on his knees

His sabre lost, and whooped his sorry arse

Vader does not land the coup de grace

But asks instead without a pretty please


“Join me, Skywalker, Jedi, Flying Ace

Why bind yourself to the weakness of the light

You see in me the dark’s o’erweening might

Accept what comes to pass with poise and grace.”

“Never,” Luke claims his sabre and replies

“You killed my gentle mentor Obi Wan

I will not lose myself to what you plan

Nor will I listen to your evil lies.”


Still Vader tries to tempt Luke to his side

For he sees in him the Force runs wild and strong

And winning Luke would right an ancient wrong

The hubris that lost Annakin his bride

“Luke, I am your father, you know this in your heart”

Luke howls his proud denial to this cold truth

But knows the claim requires no further proof

It pierces him, as if a poisoned dart


Luke’s sabre droops as doubt now fills his mind

Vader senses that he may have won

He purrs, “Join me, my lost beloved son

I will make you Prince o’er all living kind

We will stride the cosmos you and I

Our power unfettered, desires one

All that we do will never be undone

Nor will any dare our mastery to deny.”


But a face rises in young Luke’s inner eye

The princess he knows not as his long lost sister

(We hope because we know for sure he kissed her)

Which fills him with the strength to rise and cry

“I deny you as my father or my friend

You are the monster that consumed him from within

Enough with all your talking, let’s begin

To fight again so I may bring your end.”


Luke finds his strength renewed and battles hard

Vader feels the chill of fear is seeping in

For the boy is pressing close and may yet win

Desperate he plays his final card

“Luke, you cannot know the power of the dark,

Yoda and Obi Wan hid much from you

They feared you and the things that you may do

Let me show you now the merest spark.”


Before his son can voice his negative reply,

Vader presses onward with his suit.

“The future is to me not blind or mute

Beyond the veil all my senses still apply

I have cast my power and I tell you true

This Christmas all the gifts you will receive

And when I say the words you will believe

What the future holds in store for you.”


Luke’s Christmases had never brought elation

In the home of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru

The moisture farm on which this young man grew

Was too poor a place for lavish celebration

The hardship he endured had cut him deep

An orphan who longed to hear a father say

“Here are precious things to mark the day

And bring you joy that will be yours to keep”


But Time and Fate heal all wounds and rifts

A princess and a smuggler are now his friends

This year he thought that he would see amends

And be hip deep in piles of wondrous gifts.

“Luke, there is a tree and gifts galore for you

A bike of BMX and three sixty Xbox One.

Three pairs of socks and stolen blaster gun

My words will echo in your power, you know them true.”


“How come, how come, what sorcery is this?

What fell and foul enchantment have you wrought

How did you pay, how was this knowledge bought

‘Tis true, ‘tis true your words I can’t dismiss.”

Vader takes his chance with an attack

The distracted Luke unable to resist

There is debris all around and in its midst

He falls helpless and prone onto his back


“Tell me,” he begs, now careless of his fate.

Darth Vader’s light sabre slowly descends,

Luke’s long and brave resistance surely ends

His father confidently lets him wait


The blade marks Luke’s face with scalding crescents

His smooth and beardless cheek is burned and marred

As in defeat his soul will soon be scarred

Vader fills with joy, for he has won

He shares his secret with his foundling son

“Luke, last symbol of my darling Padme’s love.

Skywalker, destined to rise above

Luke, my son, I have felt your presents.”



More of my writing here