At first sight, a book about a Christian minister’s engagement with Islam might appear to have limited value to the non-religious reader.
However, I believe, this book has something to teach all of us working for peace and justice. And in these times when the nature of Islam is so misrepresented and misunderstood, Ray Gaston’s story is little short of revolutionary.
This book is part-autobiography, as we follow Ray on his path to a greater understanding of Islam, and part-philosophy, as he ponders the nature of Christianity and Islam and political responses to injustice and violence.
Ray’s journey is inspiring. Already interested in working with his Muslim neighbours, the events of 11 September 2001 challenge him to become more involved. Politically this means becoming active in the anti-war movement and standing up against Islamophobia. Spiritually, he joins Friday prayers in his local mosque, begins to study the Qur’an and to practice fasting in Ramadan. He finds a warm and joyful welcome completely at odds with the media portrayal of Muslim people.
A journey to Karbala in 2004 with fellow activist Hussein Mehdi, develops his understanding of the importance of nonviolence, that we must literally break our hearts open “to let the whole world fall in”. When, a year later, the local community is rocked by the news that some of the 7 July bombers lived among them, Ray’s church, All Hallows, is able to be a focal point for the neighbourhood’s response.
The discussions on key points of Islamic faith are also very helpful. The explanation of “jihad” as both a challenge to work for economic and social injustice, and a willingness to surrender oneself to God, fighting the forces of ego, pride and greed, are clearly compatible with Christianity, and the practice of nonviolence.
The chapters reflecting on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity are also useful. And the revelation that by immersing himself in another faith, Ray developed a deeper understanding of his own, seems to me profoundly reassuring.
The contributions from three other activists, Annie Heppenstall, Hussein Mehdi and Firdaws Khan also add weight to the thought that the more we are willing to learn from each other, the better our chances are for creating peaceful communities and ultimately a peaceful world. This is a rich and thought-provoking book, which is worth reading whatever your personal beliefs are. I can’t recommend it highly enough.