Maqsud came to England in 1964, aged 18. He had intended to return to Sylhet after saving money from a few years’ work; but, bit by bit, got drawn into life in Britain. He eventually went “back home” in 1970, to get married and return with his wife to Britain.
He has had a quiet and, on the whole, a successful life. He held down a succession of factory jobs until 1983; then, as the factories closed (and the work became less appealing for a man entering middle age), he put his redundancy payment into a restaurant. He is a simple man and, in a world full of complications, kept his business simple: good food, large portions, reasonable prices. Fashion and vulgar sophistication passed him by, but customers did not.
With little help from the state—a fact he takes quiet pride in—Maqsud and his wife raised five children: two boys, three girls. He loves all his children equally, but always took special pride in his firstborn, Monawar. Born in 1977, when his parents had feared they would never have children, Monawar was always highly intelligent and disciplined. His father noticed how effortlessly Monawar seemed to slide into the wider society, and was not surprised when his son excelled at school. Maqsud had always wanted his son to be a doctor, but was not too disappointed when Monawar chose a career in biochemistry. He eventually specialised in drug design and worked for a pharmaceutical company.
Even more than in his family, Maqsud has found solace and meaning in the mosque. He and his friends bought a terraced house to use as a mosque in 1972, keeping lodgers upstairs to pay the mortgage. In the 1990s, they were able to buy the properties either side of the mosque, and do extensive renovations. To Maqsud’s quiet regret, he lost the vote that decided to put a dome on the mosque in 1999. He doesn’t really think it suits. Still, at least nobody can miss the mosque.
Maqsud much preferred prayer to administration, and was only too happy to retire from the mosque committee in 2005. Like his contemporaries, he felt it was time to hand over to a younger generation: who were much more educated, and much more acculturated to the modern world. Maqsud looked forward to years of quiet contemplation, and to seeing his grandchildren brought up in the old-fashioned ways of spirituality and service.
In recent years, however, Maqsud has found his peace disturbed. He imagined that the mosque would continue much as before: five prayers a day, group meditation every Thursday, and celebrations of all the holy days: the Night of Desires, the Night of the Ascension, the Night of Destiny; and, above all, the Prophet’s birthday, with song, poetry, food, and special prayers.
However, the younger generation think differently. They say solemnly that some of these holy days are not holy days at all, but cultural accretions. In particular, they are against celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, regarding it as an innovation. The programme of festivals has been gradually trimmed back in the mosque. The old men still attend group meditation—nobody is actually going to stop them—but this meditation is increasingly regarded as quaint and slightly reprehensible, rather than the heartbeat of the community.
Maqsud doesn’t understand this at all. He feels instinctively that these religious changes are very wrong. He was brought up in these festivals and prayers, and his forefathers before him. Could they, and their holy teachers, all be wrong? It doesn’t make sense. Moreover, Maqsud feels in his heart, in his body, the goodness brought by celebrating the Prophet’s birthday. And if he doesn’t attend the meditation on a Thursday, he becomes ill.
Monawar looks with sympathy on his father, but can’t pretend that his father is right. He doesn’t blame him for his beliefs: what was he supposed to know, growing up in a backwater of South Asia, not fully literate in any language? Monawar has read several books on Islam that explain quite clearly that these festivals and prayers originate in pagan practices: they have nothing at all to do with Islam, and certainly weren’t practised by the early Muslims. There doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity about the subject: no room for manoeuvre. And yet his father can’t grasp the arguments. He wonders if his father is going soft in the head.
Maqsud is heartbroken. The greatest treasure in his life has been to pray for the Prophet, and now that precious inheritance is being snatched away from his grandchildren—and all at the hands of his eldest son, on whom he has doted. Monawar is also deeply upset. Hasn’t he done everything his father wanted? Unlike his younger brother, he didn’t go to jail; he stayed in their home town (admittedly, in a posh part of it) when he could have got a job in London; his father has never asked him for money, but he would have given it if asked. And now their relationship has to fragment—over what? Nothing that ought to be central to their lives or their relationship.
Maqsud’s wife, Forzana, wishes the problem would go away. The arguments all sound silly to her. Surely what’s important is to be a good person—and isn’t that whole process pretty obvious? Do your duty, be kind, and tidy up after you (as if Maqsud ever did—but then, he doesn’t have a lot of possessions to tidy). She can’t bear the rift between the two men closest to her. She wonders if Monawar’s wife has been playing mind games.
One Sunday, Maqsud’s eldest daughter, Lola, pops in. She lives with her young family around a hundred miles away. She has a disabled son and, what with one thing and another, hasn’t paid much attention to the rift in the family. Noticing that Maqsud’s knees are creaking a bit, she innocently asks how he is managing on Thursdays (when people sit cross-legged). This is all it takes for Maqsud to make a pained and angry remark, and for Monawar to plead his innocence.
As the details of the disagreement are poured out, Lola is bewildered; but not beaten. She is very fond of her old dad, and rather suspects that her older brother is too big for his boots; but this is not enough for her to be able to solve their problem. Like her mother, she has never taken an interest in the finer points of theology. But she knows of a mediator, in her home town, who seems sensible, and has some knowledge of Islamic law—more than Monawar, she’d warrant. And she has a funny feeling this mediator would disagree with Monawar.
Maqsud is horrified at the very idea of a family problem being discussed in front of a stranger. This is between him and his son. If they can’t sort it out, who can? Monawar is embarrassed that his father will seem a simpleton in front of a third party. That isn’t fair on the old man.
Just then, Forzana speaks up. Drawing on a folk memory of Gandhi, she says that, unless the men can sort their problem out quickly, she will go on hunger strike. This sounds absurd and slightly worrying to all present, not least to Lola. But she uses the pause to explain that the mediator is a learned man of religion. It would be just like consulting the local imam, only better; and anonymous. Nobody need know the details of the family dispute, and nobody will care, especially since the mediator is an old man from Cyprus. She will come with them and make sure things all go smoothly.
Sipping his tea bravely, Maqsud agrees. Monawar follows.
The mediator possesses a charisma and insight that put Maqsud and Monawar at ease. He explains that the problem is very simple: where there is knowledge, there are no books; where there are books, there is no knowledge. The traditional festivals and prayers are authentic, indeed important religious practices, but have been passed on by oral tradition. There is copious written evidence for their authenticity, but it is not in the cheap books you often find in Islamic bookshops (Monawar blushes; the mediator affects not to notice). The mediator rapidly turns to Monawar and opens up a book on his table. He invites Monawar to go and read the chapter. He asks if Maqsud reads English. When Maqsud replies, “A little,” the mediator suggests that maybe Lola could read the chapter to Maqsud.
They all go back to Lola’s house. Maqsud and Monawar only have an hour before they must return home. Lola decides to use that time to read the chapter to Maqsud.
As she reads, the old man is in tears. He feels like leaning over to his son to say, “You see what I always told you?” But there is no need. Monawar would like to find an excuse to leave the room, but with Lola there he doesn’t quite dare. For her part, Lola sees a new side to her brother. He might be smug and insufferable, but he is sincere and he does care. It must have been hard for him all these years, wearing that carapace of knowledge—or what seemed like knowledge.
Monawar wants to ask, what really were the qualifications of the mediator? What makes him necessarily right? But in that moment, it doesn’t matter. He has his father back. And he knows he is going to have to question his certainties.
The discussions that follow between Monawar and his friends are not always easy. At one point, he even returns to the mediator with a couple of friends as they thrash out their beliefs. But peace has been restored in Maqsud’s family. The youngsters have no idea how to run a party, so he and the other old men are asked to organise a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday that year. It’s not everything, but it’s a start. And he is so happy to be able to hand over the meaning of his life to his grandchildren.