Author Joel Hayward discusses his work in several seemingly unrelated genres — non-fiction, fiction and poetry — and the Holy Qur’an’s transformational role in his life
You work as a professor of defence and security studies, and publish non-fiction works on aspects of early Islamic warfare and security, yet you also write Islamic poetry and even Islamic fiction. All these genres are very distinct. How do you master all three, and do you see any common themes?
I can’t help but conclude that humans are, by and large, rather unkind to each other and sometimes utterly hateful. How else can we explain the transatlantic slave trade, or slaveholding in the American South? How else can we explain ordinary German soldiers and paramilitary people murdering six million Jewish civilians in history’s greatest atrocity? How else can we explain ordinary Iraqis and Syrians joining ISIS and cutting the heads off their opponents and taking and violating female sex slaves? How else can we explain ordinary young British and other Western Muslims going off to join them? How else can we explain Pakistani and Afghan suicide bombers exploding themselves in market places and mosques every day, indiscriminately killing men, women and children? How else can we explain poverty in prosperous nations? I feel desperately sad about inhumanity and want to write about it. I never quite feel satisfied that I can get my feelings of anguish out of my system through the scholarly analysis of past and present wars, violence and cruelty, so I use both fiction and poetry as more effective and cathartic ways of expressing myself.
Yet your work doesn’t only focus on the worst aspects of human morality. Your poetry in particular, but also your fiction, is buoyant and optimistic about the role of religion in transforming the human soul. What is it you see in religious faith that changes people; works inside them to give them more moral focus, empathy and compassion?
I’ve adored the three Abrahamic faiths all my life and, although I identify as a Muslim, a convert from another tradition, I see them all as wonderful means of bringing humans – even the most imperfect – closer to their Creator. For me, that’s the heart of the matter. God wants a relationship with every person, and does not really ask too much of us. His standard is manageable. His reward for our efforts is enormous. Yet we do have to do our bit. We have to live according to the moral code revealed in the holy books. We cannot ignore that code and we must sincerely repent each time we violate it. That code rests on two pillars of love: love of God and love of our fellow humans. We have to strive to love and obey God and be charitable, tolerant, compassionate and forgiving to those around us.
At least in English there’s very little Islamic poetry and even less Islamic fiction. How do you see the state of these genres and how do you see your work helping to strengthen them?
Islam has produced some of the most beautiful poetry ever written; take Rumi, for example. In every Islamic country poets are producing stunning poetry in their vernacular languages. I’m a big fan of Allama Iqbal, for example, who wrote marvelous and moving poetry in Urdu. Yet when writers in diaspora Muslim communities in English-speaking countries attempt to create the kinds of poetry they are familiar with in their ancestral homes, it often fails to come across well. It seems wooden and clumsy, especially if it relies on rhyme (which has virtually disappeared from western poetry). Perhaps the best way forward is for those writers to try to develop a new and original style, one that leaves the rules, patterns and conventions of the old ways but retains the same desire to praise God and offer insights into the complexities of human experience.
It’s the same with fiction. Islam has not produced much decent fiction, at least in English. I attribute this to the writers’ fear of saying something inaccurate about our God or our religion, or of accidentally attributing to a prophet or religious figure something they not actually have said or done. I respect that caution. The process of using the Almighty’s gift of imagination to craft uplifting stories is valuable as an offering of love to God and as an act of literary creativity, but only if it does not involve attributing to the prophets or their known companions things they did not say or do. Yet this reservation has perhaps made writers excessively timid. I wish they wouldn’t be. There are many creative and literary “safe spaces” within and around the lives of our prophets and their acquaintances — creative room resulting from gaps in the scholarly record, for example — where writers can position fictitious events and people so long as they remain careful not to attribute to Islam’s personages any words and actions that reliable sources cannot support, and mindful not to create descriptions of those individuals that might in any way attract veneration which could detract from the worship of the Almighty. In my own Islamic fiction, I have always tried to use that creative space with the utmost consideration, yet I also haven’t been shy in trying to push the boundaries of the genre of Islamic fiction. That’s how humans progress. Insha’Allah I look forward to more Muslims writing creative fiction based on an imaginative understanding of how our beautiful religion shapes human experience.
Do you have any favourite Muslim poets or fiction writers?
I really like Shades of Islam: Poems for a New Century, which is a terribly clever, lovely and inspiring book of poetry by an Indian-born scholar and poet named Rafey Habib. Like me, Rafey writes poetry about the depth and mysteries of faith, the glory of the Almighty and the life and wisdom of our Holy Prophet. Also like me, he writes poetry to condemn the evil of terrorism done in the name of our religion. Two other poets I read are Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, who sadly passed away recently after decades of prolific output, and Paul Sutherland, a British Sufi poet whose 2017 book, New and Selected Poems, is fabulous. I haven’t been able to find much decent Islamic fiction in English, although I feel optimistic that more Muslim writers in the West will begin to turn their hand to fiction.
Perhaps you could say a bit about how you came to Islam.
My voyage into Islam commenced on that worst of days: 11 September 2001. I was already a well-established scholar and university academic (an associate professor) when 9/11 occurred and I could immediately see through the mistaken claim by several governments and the media that "the world had changed" because of a dangerous new phenomenon that was supposedly widespread within Islam: militant radicalization.
Unlike many people who seemed unable to find alternative explanations, I knew from my own extensive travels in Islamic lands and from research and reading that violent extremism exists, but only as a tiny fringe element, within all religions and that the great faith of Islam is no more violent than the faith I had practiced for decades. Indeed, I knew that Osama bin Laden was no more representative of Islam than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was of Christianity.
The events of 9/11 nonetheless had a profound impact on me. I felt troubled by the sudden public misperception that, while not all Muslims were terrorists, all terrorists were Muslims. Some of my own friends and family members, and even my students, spoke negatively about Islam and seemed certain that the terrorists’ motivations must have originated from within the Qur’an.
I then worked for a charismatic and rather brilliant retired army chief, who has since sadly passed away. He angrily said to me on 9/11, “I always knew that something like this would happen. There’s always been something violent lurking within Islam.” I was shocked and told him that in all the years I had known him he had never even mentioned Islam. He was a good man and certainly no racist, yet he persisted, telling me that Muslims have a tendency to be violent because their holy book is violent. I challenged him, saying: “General, with no disrespect, you’ve never even read the Qur’an.” He shot back a rebuke that hurt me because it was embarrassingly true: “Joel, you haven’t read it either.”
I was undoubtedly well read (by most people’s standard anyway). I had studied the Jewish and Christian scriptures often and thoroughly, and had studied Greek and Roman religion and philosophy. As an undergraduate Classics student I had intellectually wrestled with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I had also devoured many notable works of Western religious and political philosophy, including those by Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet to my shame I had to admit to my boss that he was right: I had never read the Qur’an, the holy book studied by a quarter of the world’s population.
Up until 9/11 the Qur’an had meant little to me. In our garage while growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, we had a tatty set of old green books, the 51-volume set of Harvard Classics, which supposedly contained humankind’s most important works of literature and philosophy. The books had once belonged to my grandad but faded and grew grubby in our spiderweb-filled garage. I was (and am) a veracious reader and occasionally I would dust off one of those volumes and read it. In a volume titled Sacred Writings, I read as a ten-year-old boy a strange set of words that I didn’t understand: “Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran”. I glanced through this fascinating material, which reminded me of The Thousand and One Nights, which I had recently enjoyed, but for no real reason I chose instead to take Homer’s The Odyssey inside from the garage to read in bed. That epic poem filled me with love for the ancient world and eventually led me to learn Greek and undertake undergraduate and honours degrees in Classical Studies. I have often wondered how my life might have been different if, as a boy, I had devoured the Qur’an instead of Homer’s masterpiece. But, as I have since learned, Allah knows best.
I never actually got around to reading the Qur’an before 9/11. I researched the Bible intensely (even learning Hebrew to read it in its original tongue) and I read it right through many times and studied it every day as I tried to make sense of both Judaism (the religion of some of my mum’s forebears) and Christianity. Yet the Qur’an remained a mystery until 2001.
Concerned by the events of 9/11, and determined to respond to my boss's embarrassing exposure of the glaring gap in my knowledge, that very day I purchased a copy of the Qur'an from my university bookshop — translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, who captures its meaning nicely in English — and began to read it. With the habit of a scholar, I decided to study the Qur’an systematically in search of anything that might have inspired such wanton violence against innocent people. I started at the beginning and over several days read slowly and carefully through to the end, all the while making notes on verses that might support the violent and aggressive philosophy and actions of the 9/11 terrorists.
I found some verses in the Qur'an that dealt with armed combat within defensive or pre-emptive wars of justice, but none that would support indiscriminate or disproportionate violence during those wars, and none that would support any violence outside of formal warfare.
The Qur'an is a fascinating book, full of spiritual depth, gentle wisdom and moral guidance. I have now read it more than ninety times and I enjoy reading it for an hour each day in its pretty and poetic Arabic. It is wonderfully illuminating and enriching and has given my life added meaning and direction.
And what did you find in the Quran that changed your life? And how has it shaped you as a scholar?
As a poet I always considered the Psalms of King David to be wonders of language with depth, meaning and beauty beyond comparison. When I read the Qur’an, even now, after reading it for many years, I am astounded by that same incredible literary perfection.
I strongly urge all Muslims to read the Qur’an daily (even if only for ten or fifteen minutes). We eat food every day to nourish our bodies and we know from our fasting that if we miss even single meals we get hungry. If we go hungry for too long we lose strength and focus and if we don’t eat at all we will soon die. It’s the same with our souls. We need to eat spiritual food to nourish our souls — and there is nothing even close to being as nutritious as God’s word’s — and if we go too long without reading God’s words we will lose spiritual strength and focus. If we stop reading it entirely our faith will die. When I first read the Qur’an systematically after 9/11 I found the comfort and truth I sought. I was amazed by the compatibility between the Qur’anic revelation and my beliefs as a non-trinitarian monotheist. I was especially impressed by the Qur’anic emphasis on the messages revealed through Abraham, Moses and Jesus; messages I had believed for decades. On the other hand, I knew nothing about the Prophet Muhammad and the message that he seemed to bring to the Arabs. I began intensively to read and study Muhammad's life (initially from translated Arabic sources, including Al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d, Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir) with the aim of learning whether he revealed anything new, whether the emphasis of his revelation was consistent with or different to those of previous prophets, and whether Muhammad himself lived a morally superior life (as Jesus had) which was worthy of emulation.
The eventual conclusion I reached after years of intellectual inquiry through in-depth study was life-changing. After methodically reading the Qur’an twenty times and countless works of Sirah during the course of a few years I accepted that God’s revelation through Muhammad was identical in every way to that revealed through former prophets. God is one! His oneness cannot be divided! He is worthy of all praise and He asks us to enjoy lives of willing submission and righteous conduct. Moreover, unlike previous prophets, Muhammad — absolutely worthy of emulation —revealed a calling not just to the children of Israel, and not just to the Arabs (as I had initially thought), but to all of humanity.
I am probably rare in that I became a Muslim without ever once having discussed Islam with Muslims. Actually, at that stage I did not know any Muslims. Quietly and privately I merely studied the Qur’anic scriptures intensively along with the life of Muhammad, may he have peace and blessings, and from that study I reached an inescapable belief that I had found truth and meaning.
My eventual conversion — which occurred after I saw four or five hundred Indonesian shoppers praying their Dhuhur prayer together in a Jakarta convention centre and I knew I ought to be praying with them — ushered in a fertile poetic and intellectual period that has, thank God, remained right up until today. Hundreds of poems have arisen from within me: most in praise of radiant Allah but many also to capture moments of curiosity, wonder, joy, frustration, and disappointment at things I have observed occurring within or affecting the surprisingly disunited Ummah.
As a scholar by both profession and inclination, my desire to make intellectual sense of Islam sometimes feels all-consuming, as is my hope insha’Allah that I can share some of my knowledge usefully with others. After all, I have been a teaching academic for most of my adult life. Sharing knowledge through teaching as well as research (I’ve authored numerous books) has been the key role in my life. Becoming a Muslim gave me new areas of research and I feel particularly motivated, as a scholar who perhaps understands warfare and strategy more than most people, to explain the concepts and the nature of the wars which Muslims through history were sometimes compelled to undertake in order to preserve their lives or religious freedom.
Undoubtedly a high point of my life was making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Following in Prophet Muhammad’s footsteps (may he have peace and blessings) and excitedly circling the Kaaba moved me beyond description and made my heart race, my soul swell and my optimism increase. I’m in no hurry to die, insha’Allah, but should God call me away I will die feeling that I have made progress in my spiritual journey; a quest for truth and meaning that has involved thirty years of prodigious study of scriptures coincidentally in their original order of revelation: Torah, Bible and Qur’an. The purification of my soul must continue, of course, but praying in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, gazing upon God’s ancient house in Mecca, and seeking His mercy on the stony plains of Arafat filled me with the realisation that I now fully understood what the Qur’an says (5:3): “This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”
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