The Essence of Islam

Feature Ahmad Thomson, a British lawyer who converted to Islam, argues that a zone of knowledge about Islamic truth has been kept at bay by educational institutions in the West.

Ahmad Thomson, a British lawyer, converted to Islam in 1973. A co-founder of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, he launched Wynne Chambers in 1994, one of the first legal practices specialising in Islamic as well as English law. He argues that a zone of knowledge about Islamic truth has been kept at bay by educational institutions in the West. He tries to redress the balance here with the choice of five books that best represent his beliefs. The Book Of Stranger, by Ian Dallas I had looked at many different philosophies, religions and writings before I converted. In The Book Of Strangers I saw what I had been looking for. It was a description of a society that was very much information-based, but very poor in terms of wisdom. In the initial stages of the book, there's a young man at a university, thirsty for knowledge but not knowing where to find it. Looking at all the people around him, he says they don't understand life and then he goes out in search of this Book Of Strangers.

It's not science fiction, but it's set at a point in the future where very few people have access to physical books - all "knowledge" is on microfiche, or electronically recorded data. So he foresaw the age of digital information. The Way Of Muhammad, by Ian Dallas, writing as Sheikh Abdalqadir As-Sufi This was written not many years after Ian Dallas had accepted Islam and again one finds in it this extraordinary illumination and understanding of the meaning of the various acts of worship.

It draws on the Quran, it draws on the sayings of the Prophet, it draws on the writings of some of the great people of wisdom of the past. The purpose of the book is to convey something you were never taught at school. It is actually talking about a whole zone of knowledge that has been kept at bay, if you like, by established educational institutions in what's called the West - but west of what? Having said that, it's not really a critique of the capitalist system.

The point of this book is not to say this is what's wrong with the world. It's really based on the five pillars of Islam, which are all to do with the worship of the divine. The more that you follow the way of Mohammed, the more you embody what he embodied, the more you will understand what he understood. And, importantly, what this book does is trace in detail what the path of knowledge is, and what the man of knowledge is, and what the knowledge is. Sheikh Abdalqadir has a gift of articulating knowledge one senses but cannot put into words, and somehow when you read it you say, yes, that's what I was trying to put my finger on.

The Noble Quran, translated by Abdalhaqq Bewley and Aisha Bewley When I accepted Islam, I'd done it on the basis of meeting Sheikh Abdalqadir and the people around him, and I realised that I knew nothing about it really. So obviously one of the first things was to learn the basics - and I thought I'd better read the Quran because that's the book of the Muslims. At the time, I had the Arberry translation which is accurate, and which in some measure conveys the poetry of the very pure Arabic of the original. The Bewley translation is a beautiful translation, where some of the key terms are not translated but transliterated, with a small glossary at the back defining what each term means. This helps you to keep to the original meaning of the Quran - it's a clear, crisp rendering of its meaning in English.

Al-Muwatta Of Imam Malik, translated by Aisha Bewley and Ya'qub Johnson Imam Malik lived about 100 years after Mohammed, in the eighth century. After the Prophet's death, Islam was very much concentrated in Madina, but then it spread extraordinarily quickly. It was initially spread by the companions of the Prophet, and then the followers who had met the companions, but hadn't met the Prophet. The heart of this process was Madina, and people would come from all over the rapidly expanding Muslim world to learn and to get knowledge by direct transmission from the people of Madina.

Imam Malik was one of the followers of the followers, and he became established as one of the great people of knowledge in Madina. Perhaps his most well-known book is The Muwatta, which means "the well-trodden path". It's like survival-kit Islam - these are the essentials, this is what you have to know. We're more than 14 centuries from the time of the Prophet, and if you look at the history of Islam, there have been both high and low points.

As with any religion, you find people of wisdom and people of great ignorance who use Islam for political expediency, who distort it. And so, for anyone who wants to follow in the dust of the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed, you have to get to the point before there were any schools of jurisprudence, before Sunni and Shia - and if you go to that point there's no argument, just knowledge. For anyone who wants to get to that point, and in so doing bypass some of the nonsense that's around today - whether it's people who don't know what they're talking about or ignorant attacks in the media - if you want to stay clear of that and get back to a pure Islam, this is an essential book.

Ash-Shifa of Qadi Iyad, translated by Aisha Bewley This is another extraordinary book. It was written by Qadi Iyad (1083-1149), who lived in Spain when it was ruled by Muslims. He was a great scholar and by this time there were so many collections of Hadith and commentaries on the Quran that it could be bewildering for a seeker who wanted to know more about the Prophet. You have a section of the book, for example, about the Prophet's miracles - and we say that his greatest miracle was the Quran, because he was illiterate and yet had this revelation in pure Arabic that he couldn't have made up, which contained knowledge he couldn't possibly have had unless it was revealed to him.

But, in fact, he had many other well-documented miracles. For example, Qadi Iyad talks of events in the Prophet's life such as the well-known miraculous night journey, where he travelled on a winged beast called the buraq from Mecca to Jerusalem and prayed there with all the Prophets who had preceded him. He then travelled through the Seven Heavens, beyond the limit of forms in the Unseen, and beyond that into the realms of no-form, and into the presence of Allah - although we know from the Quran that Allah is not "far away", but nearer to us than our jugular veins - and then returned to Mecca, all in an instant.

This journey has been debated for the past 14 centuries, but in the Shifa you have an account of it with all the evidence and proofs and what has been recorded, and he puts it together in a way that you can arrive at an understanding of what actually happened as best you can. All these are reliable and inspirational books for people who want to ask, what is Islam really about? As they say, the nearer you get to the source, the purer the drink.

This interview by Tom Dannet first appeared on

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