A Muslim at Bishop’s House

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A guest article by Qaisra Khan, a friend of the Forum, originally written for Interfaith Scotland

Iona has been a place of pilgrimage and refection for generations particularly since Saint Columba (521 –597) founded his monastery and was a major influence in the spread of Christianity1.  Iona’s spiritual importance endures, enhanced by the founding of Bishop’s House in 1894 and the Iona Community in 1938. What is less clear is why a Muslim would choose to live and work there. I have, however, spent two wonderful months doing just that.  Most of my experiences were not peculiar to my being a Muslim but to the beauty and tranquillity of Iona and the generosity and welcome of the team at Bishop’s House.  Bishop’s House is a busy retreat centre that can host up to 23 people and has a dedicated team plus seasonal staff.  The team was also very welcoming to a friend who visited. All this has relevance to all our faiths which include welcoming the stranger, hospitality and doing unto others as you would be done unto.

One retreat/pilgrimage started with some stormy weather so we had guests stranded in Oban for sometime but the little ferry that crosses the Sound to Iona did an extra trip so guests could arrive. That and the fact that most of the staff kept looking anxiously for the bus on the horizon captured some of the generosity of people. The guests were obviously delighted to arrive to a warm welcome and a nice hot dinner. 

As a Muslim I hold the following close to my heart: that is we have been created from “a male and female, and … into nations tribes so that {we} may come to know one another2”  and “every community has had an apostle3” who has been able to throw light on the path so I have no right to dismiss the truths others hold dear. There were however some peculiar aspects to me being a Muslim and living in a Christian community which I shall reflect on below. (I intend to do this with the utmost respect and ask for forgiveness if I fail.)

A friend asked why as a Muslim I was going to live and work in a Christian community and I explained ‘my faith is Islam but my culture is not’. An odd statement but I am a Muslim who has lived in the UK most of my life. I may find it hard to go to a Muslim community because they may expect me to wear a headscarf and I may not be as comfortable with the languages they use. Life’s journey is very intricate and if you pull one thread you often tug at several others and why you do anything is a part of that rich tapestry. The immediate answer, however, is that I saw the advert for the post of general assistant at Bishop’s House Iona at just the right moment. I was between contracts, wished to get away for a while and had wanted to visit Iona for some time so it seemed perfect.  In addition I had also only recently visited the holiest sites in Islam, Christianity and Judaism so it was important to continue to be in places where it seems only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual4.  By the time I went to Iona I had not only visited the Middle East; experienced a Ramadan5 which coincided with a significant birthday and the anniversary of my father’s death; been on a retreat by the Threshold society6;  I had also trekked Hadrian’s Wall and visited the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

The first time Islam made a significant impact on my life at Bishop’s House was during the evening meal. When I first arrived in Iona sunset was at about 7pm when we all sat down to dinner. This coincided with Magrib the fourth formal daily prayer which takes place around sunset so for me it is often the most visible call to prayer. For several days when I sat down to dinner I would notice the sun go down and ask ‘is that the sun setting’? A few days later I was given a print out of the sunrise and sunset times because they thought it would be helpful. I was overjoyed at this thoughtfulness which enabled me to continue with the formal prayers and remain comfortable with the rhythm of the house. In addition we often had a grace of sorts at the mealtimes and I was invited to say something which was the Bismillah7 so we began our meal in the name of the infinitely compassionate and merciful.

I had cause to reflect a lot during the services I attended at the Abbey and the Chapel. I often listened to the service, from outside the chapel, before ringing the gong for a meal.  My first service was a healing one at the Abbey which was beautiful. A group of guests invited me and because my head torch proved useful I felt as if I was shining God’s light on the path. The Abbey had a very embracing feel and the service included a refection on those that are suffering in various ways and then they had the laying on of hands. It felt wonderful and I was tempted to join in except for the fact they ended it "in Jesus’ name." The service then ended with a woman walking out and singing “All will be well" It was lovely and very soothing. I reflected on my impulse and decision not to take part with friends and some of their responses included:

“It sounds beautiful. I imagine you could still join in and end for yourself in the name that you choose?”

“It’s all about intention?”

“Even though it can be a challenge try not to worry about the difference in outer forms especially if you have a sense of inner connection’.

The group invited me to the evening service once again. This time it was the Agapé Service which is described as a fellowship meal which seemed like a communion I had never seen before. We all sat together around a large table so it felt rather homely, the bread was passed around so when it came to me I took some but did not take the wine. I was given a holding cross when the group left:  I never knew such a thing existed but it is easy to hold and feels a bit like a stress ball.

A new volunteer joined the team with a strong faith who loved the cross. We were both invited to take part in the in the footsteps of Columba retreat and went to the healing service at the Abbey together. This was the second time I attended the healing service: it was beautiful and reflective but I did not have the same impulse to join in. On the journey back from the Abbey, however, I mentioned a physical pain and they offered to pray for me. I did feel uncomfortable, however, with the audible nature of the prayer, the laying on of hands and the apology that they could not pray in any other way than to Jesus. It made me wonder if prayers always need to be audible and I remembered that a group I attend organised by the Threshold Society prays for those who are sick and ask for names to be said in “a clear and audible voice.”  An outcome of this incident, however, surprised me: a few days later when I had to deal with a crisis I made sure that no one who would pray aloud for me should know of my concern.

This was quite interesting since all the women had to carry candles and they passed around oatcakes and wine.  I felt a little uncomfortable because the service made me reflect on the way different societies can seem to define women through their roles as wives and mothers and I was concerned that I could be being disrespectful.

Fireworks at Martyr's Bay, Iona on 4 November 2013 were great: fireworks can be a great way to bring communities together despite the fact that this annual observance of Guy Fawkes Night is bad for the environment and a reminder of a dark past. The date, for me, had other more international significance; this year Diwali, the festival of lights was on 3 November and Al-Hijira and Muharram were on 4 November: that is significant events took place in Islamic history at this time.  

One of the things which surprised me most was how connected I felt despite being on a remote island. This seemed largely due to the internet, television and also being part of a community that included me. I had been able to post on to Facebook and hear from my friends. In addition there is the Christian Muslim Forum and the ‘Sharing Group’ which both have members from all over the world. The members of this group are truly international and a number of the posts really pulled at my heart. There was one in particular that also reminded me of what the Muslim family were currently experiencing and made me put on the Islam channel to see images of Hajj8, the annual pilgrimage which takes place in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a place I had visited with an incredible group of friends.

I am reliving the amazing time I spent in Iona by sharing my story with others and today I was told how lucky I am to have been there and I cannot agree more. It was hard work but I had plenty of opportunity to give expression to “my inner child” so had fun. There was friendship, community and spiritual engagement. The views were breathtaking and I can still recall the sound of silence when sitting by Loch Stanoig with a friend: no waves, ripples, footsteps or anything. It was great but it also feels good to be back home - the following words I read on my return journey seem poignant:

Farewell. Return. Farewell. Return again.
Here home and elsewhere share one mystery.
Here love and conscience sing the same refrain.
Here time leaps up. And strikes eternity9

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1. http://www.ionahistory.org.uk/columba

2. M. Asad, The message of the Qur’an, Surah 49 verse 13: page 904. The Book Foundation ISBN 1-904510-07-08. 

3. Ibid or M. Asad, The message of the Qur’an, Surah 10 verse 47: page 336. The Book Foundation ISBN 1-904510-07-08.

4. George MacLeod, founder of The Iona Community in 1938, described Iona as a "thin place" - only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual. http://www.welcometoiona.com/iona-today/iona-community

5. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and it is traditionally a month in which people fast or go on retreat to allow a deep and meaningful time with God. BBC religion and ethics: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/

6. The Threshold Society: http://sufism.org/

7. Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim: Muslims often say this phrase when starting something maybe shortening it to just bismillah. All but one chapter of the Qur'an begins with it. 
http://wahiduddin.net/words/bismillah.htm

8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/

9. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was commissioned to create a piece of written verse to encircle the balustrade of a new lightwell in the open space to the north of St Martin-in-the-Fields. http://www.modusoperandi-art.com/projects/st_martins_in_the_field_poem/

 

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