Learning About Islam III

Two final points that I took home from a Saturday with an Islamic scholar, Dr. Todd Lawson. We were asked to define “Islam”, and some of us were able to come up with the standard World Religions course meaning: “submission to the will of God”. Dr. Lawson went farther. (I won’t trouble you with the Arabic explanations, which I’d be sure to butcher anyway.) On a personal level, adherence to Islam can be defined as the opposite of those who were (or are) “ungrateful”. Therefore, it signifies a grateful commitment to divine teachings as given by Muhammad. On a societal level, Islam defines itself as the opposite of the ignorance that produces savagery and barbarism and mercilessness. Even today, a genuine understanding of Islam defines it as civilization, enlightenment and peace.

So why do we speak of the “clash of civilizations”? Why does the “war on terror” so easily come to appear as a “war on Islam”? Dr. Lawson was emphatic: “There is a widespread, nearly universal belief among the powers-that-be in the West that we have nothing to learn from Islam and Islamic peoples.” That cultural arrogance, he believes, must be eroded in order for understanding to be created. He reminded us that “certitude – about faith, about the spiritual life – is one of the great enduring treasures of the legacy of Islam.” Such confidence about life’s meaning, at the very least, is one of the things we can learn.

As is this: it was the Qur’án, among sacred scriptures, that first spoke of the concept of humanity, of the commonality of human beings living in a shared world. It also accounts for why the world was made with different communities and peoples rather than united from the start: “that they might know one another,” in the sense of mutual experience and understanding. How modern is that? In a world such as ours, in a country like mine, these encounters happen constantly. We’re learning from Islam, whether we want to or not. We should try to learn the right stuff. Fast.

It’s Where You Find It

So here’s a sports take with literary flavour (or perhaps just a slightly bitter aftertaste. Fear not, my brave ones!) I find that I’m relearning lessons I thought I’d mastered in the more sweat-soaked phases of my life. I’m listening to this advice, directed to those who think they might have something to say in print. It’s all about the drive, but it takes an interesting road in talking about it.

“Most writers must learn to make a pact with dullness. Not boredom, or lack of imagination or passion, but dullness of routine. Keep your daily appointment with the computer screen and keep your ass on the chair until you’ve reached your daily quota. However rich your inner life may be, seek also the dullard within.” David Carpenter’s credo, the foundation of his life in letters (he’s a short story writer and novelist, among other things), is a call I can understand. It says to any writer – this writer – that the idea of waiting around for Inspiration to come one’s way, that the idea of waiting at all for good things to somehow find us, is not only silly but actually takes the legs out from under any ambition or project.

As a long-time athlete and coach, I thought I knew this. No pain, no Spain was a jock mantra in the buildup to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. I used to make my basketball teams read a mossy but nonetheless wonderful hymn to athletes by the early-20th century sports journalist Grantland Rice. It was a poem (a jock poem!) called “How to Be a Champion”, and it ended like this:

You wonder how they do it and you look to see the knack,
You watch the foot in action, or the shoulder, or the back,
But when you spot the answer where the higher glamours lurk…
That the most of it is practice, and the rest of it is work.

You have to put in the hours. You hope that Inspiration will seep into the cracks of all your efforts, but you don’t wait for the tap at the window. You go out and find her. You take that daily constitutional. You do your reps. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re hoisting jumpshot after jumpshot, pumping iron, working on your chord changes or getting your daily pages done.

I’m listening to Grantland Rice. (You know GR. This is his, too: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks not that you won or lost / But how you played the Game.” One of the great things we ever got from sport, say I.) I like Carpenter’s dullard within, too. But this is wisdom that goes far deeper than our centuries, thoughts much older than the NBA or the Olympics or even that great hitter, Willie Shakespeare. There is an ancient Arab proverb which says, “He who seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.” And one of the only verses from the Qur’án that I know from memory speaks with the Creator’s almighty and encouraging voice: “Whoso maketh efforts for Us, in Our ways will We assuredly guide him.” Now, that’s inspiration. (So’s my mother. Happy 86th, Mum.)