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Issue 276, Friday 27 April 2012 - 5 Jumad al-Akhar 1433

Book Review: Refreshing and insightful collection of Muslim poetry

By Muhammad Khan

Splitting the Moon: A Collection of Islamic Poetry By Joel Hayward, Leicester: Kube Publishing, pp108, 2012, PB, $16.95

Dr Joel Hayward is a British Muslim academic, writer and poet. In his Preface to the book under review, he writes: “From the very day on which I excitedly spoke my testimony of faith (shahadah)…I have been recording my spiritual journey not only in various articles for magazines and newspapers, but also in poems that I use, most days, as my primary means of examining, making sense of and expressing my thoughts, feelings and experiences.” (p.xi) What motivated him to embrace Islam?

He explains, “My own voyage into Islam commenced on that worst of days: 11th September 2001. I was already a well-established defence scholar 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 which was supposedly widespread within Islam: militant radicalisation. 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 the great faith of Islam was no more violent than the faith I had practised for decades: Christianity. Indeed, I knew then 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.” (p xi)

This, in turn, prompted the poet to approach the Qur’an with an open-mind and he claims to have been surprised by what he had discovered in the Divine revelation. In the Qur’an, he “found the same prophets as those revealed within the Bible I had enthusiastically studied. I found Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and other biblical prophets. More importantly, in the Qur’an I also found my own favourite: Jesus the son of Mary. As a Christian I had always revered Jesus, but I had never known that the Qur’an spoke of Jesus in precisely the same way that I had come to see him: as a wonderful, righteous messenger who brought glad tidings and warnings to the children of Israel…I was especially impressed by the Qur’anic emphasis on the messages revealed through Abraham, Moses and Jesus; messages I had believed for decades.” (pp xii, xiii and xiv)

After further studies and more soul-searching, the poet eventually became a Muslim. At the same time he continued to compose hundreds of poems expressing his views, feelings, frustrations, joys and happiness about being Muslim, the wonders of the Qur’anic revelation, the pitiful condition of the Muslim ummah (global Muslim community), the challenges facing Muslims in the modern world and also the unimaginable rewards that awaits the doers of good (khair) and righteousness (birr), in this world and in the hereafter.

By his own admission, Hayward became a Muslim at an “unusual and difficult time, with relations between Muslims and non-Muslims severely strained by various factors. These include 9/11, the so called War on Terror, 7/7 and other bombings, bans in European countries of minarets and burkas, Qur’an burnings, the rise of anti-Islamic groups like the English Defence League (the loutish and hateful protests of which I have twice observed first-hand) and a flood of new books which erroneously condemn Islam as brutish and backward. I have experienced anti-Muslim hostility myself, including a savage and highly dishonest tabloid attack and a steady trickle of unpleasant emails from anonymous people who claim I have betrayed my western values, and rendered myself unfit to hold senior posts, by embracing Islam. Some of the poems in this collection respond to those foolish and unenlightened views.” (p xv)

Having read Hayward’s poems for the first time, I must admit, he is a very skilful and gifted poet whose way with words is impressive. His poems are easy to understand, highly pertinent and equally spiritually profound, that is to say, this collection of poems are much more than poetry; they also provide a powerful commentary on the social, political, moral and religious challenges and difficulties currently facing Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The fact that he is able to do this in an elegant, evocative and inspiring way is an added bonus.

The poem titled The Voyage of a Scholar (p 2) is a beautiful example of how the poet is able to blend the personal, emotional, spiritual and existential dimensions of human experience, and do so without in any way over-playing or undermining any aspect. This is a very rare skill for a poet to possess; Hayward displays similar skills in At the Office on Thursday (pp 68-69), and again in Insha’Allah (pp 91-93).

This is one of the best collections of Islamic poems I have read for some time; a must read for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muhammad Khan

M Khan is author of The Muslim 100 (reprinted 2010; Kindle 2011); and Muslim Heritage of Bengal (forthcoming, summer 2012.).

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