What the McConnell trial has taught me about friendship

Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini with Pastor McConnell outside Laganside courts in Belfast.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini with Pastor McConnell outside Laganside courts in Belfast.''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The feast of Christmas marks the birth of a figure revered by Muslims and Christians alike.

Across the centuries, in plural communities of the Levant, the Balkans and Africa, neighbours from both faiths have traditionally celebrated the coming of Jesus in fellowship, often with greater reverence for its spiritual significance and with less consumerism than in the West.

Dr Al-Hussaini was struck by the friendship between Pastor McConnell, left, and Father Patrick McCafferty, right. 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Dr Al-Hussaini was struck by the friendship between Pastor McConnell, left, and Father Patrick McCafferty, right. 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

How starkly the landscape has changed, as Christian refugees brutalised at the hands of Daesh (Islamic State) or Boko Haram huddle this Yuletide under canvas, their survival hanging on the mercy of others.

Meanwhile, the world grapples to understand this Noachide deluge of religiously-motivated extremism and genocide which has swallowed up the Tigris and Euphrates, drowned millennial Christian and Yazidi communities, murdered countless fellow Muslims – and from which there is no Ark to save us.

And yet, in the maelstrom, there endure still powerful narratives of humanity, like the Muslim librarian in Mosul who angrily faced down the armed horde of ISIS militia at his door when they came for the Christians he was sheltering. For since time immemorial, a man’s name and his family’s honour have been bound to his duty of hospitality to care for his guests, and you shame a good host at your peril.

Pre-Islamic Arab poetry celebrates the epic tale of Samaw’al bin ‘Adiya, the Jewish warrior who gave sanctuary in his hall to the Christian prince, Imru’ al-Qays who was being pursued by foes.

When these enemies laid siege to Samaw’al and kidnapped his son, the father rather gave up the life of his hostage boy than betray his friend.

The idiom, awfa min as-Samaw’al, “More faithful than Samuel” as a benchmark of loyalty, was thus how my own dad would teach me in boyhood about the art of “guestmanship”, of entering the tent of hospitality of one’s host always with reverence for the custom, etiquette and peculiar quirks of a place – and most important of all, with good humour.

It has been my privilege to have spent time among various “honest-talking cultures”, Yemeni tribesmen in Hadramawt with their ancient and extremely bawdy Arabic poems round the campfire, hill people in Myanmar where the local delicacy is grilled rat on a stick, and these gentle folk make pained faces if you don’t eat their food.

I’m a fiddle player in the Irish tradition and singer of sean-nós song, and last time I was in Belfast was just over a year ago, where I was at the Europa Bus Station, taking a coach to Enniskillen and then onward to Ballina, County Mayo. I was standing there with my fiddle, when this weird little chap comes up to me and says, “I’ve seen you awn TV...I’ve seen you awn TV, with yer...with yer...Paddy music. Ye f**kin’ T**g...”, and simply walked off.

Only in Belfast would a Muslim fella get done for being a mick, and far from feeling the need to tip off the authorities about such a surreal “hate crime”, it is in the telling that any prejudice is dissipated and consigned to the past.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from my recent experience at the trial of Pastor James McConnell for his statements about Islam and Muslims. It has caused me to reflect on how every country and its nationhood is an evolving civilisation, developing through history under waves of new incomers and new ideas, self-examining and reforming its past flaws.

But it is not the place of any state to impose upon the freedom of civil society to grow naturally through healthy and honest public conversation – most especially when this pertains to matters of religious belief.

I feel this particularly heavily as a Muslim scholar because the intervention by the state to shut down free theological debate is in fact exactly what happened in Islamdom in the 9th century, and now look where we are...

At a time when there are families grieving loved ones at the hands of paramilitaries and victims of abuse at Kincora Boys’ Home who have still not realised justice, the system does us a disservice by intervening in the ecology of a nation’s public conversation, at an historical juncture when the abuses of religion are at the forefront of debate. Muslims, just like everyone else, are offended by all kinds of things that are streamed via communications media, but what are you going to do?

Lock up our own Jamie Dornan for “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Is he going to end up cell mates with Jim McConnell and me?

Rather, the loyal friendship between the Evangelical pastor and his Catholic priest chum, Patrick McCafferty, has taught me as a Muslim imam how trust can only be earned and built through honest words spoken between men in brotherly love, not sent down as a verdict from a Court of law.

And it is this message of trust-building that I take home now from Belfast in recollecting the life of Christ to all those silver-tongued religious politicians here in London, who will never have to stand in the dock and tell the truth about this.

• Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini is Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute