A gathering involving books is always an inspiring place. But as Mspiration found out at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the book sellers can sometimes have a story more fascinating than those on their shelves. We speak to book merchant Idris Mears about his journey to Islam.
I have many hats. My favorite is my book hat. I am a book merchant. I travel around book fairs in the gulf, places like Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, and sell books under the name Blackstone and Holywell. I chose the name because it would be recongisable to Muslims, what with the Blackstone of the Kabaa and the Holywell meaning zamzam, and also because it sounds like general booking selling name as well.
I discovered Islam through a book. But off-course, Allah places something in your heart that allows it to be lead to Islam. I was in movement. I was taking one step to Allah SWT and He was taking ten steps towards me. At a certain point, a person came to me and said “this book is your book.” It was called The Book of Strangers. It was written in 1972 by Ian Dallas who became a Muslim in 1967. He was a very influential Scottish man that was right at the heart of London society, connected to all the people that were creative and on the intellectual edge. He eventually became known as Sheikh Abdul Qadir Al Sufi.
At that time I was in London and part of an experimental theatre group. I dropped out of Oxford University because I thought – in my idealistic naivety – I would find there people of wisdom and learning. What I found out is that they were neither of these things and instead people of information. They were role models of people that you didn’t want to become. I wasn’t alone, a lot of us were questioning the nature of knowledge at the time, as part of a group we collectively left the university.
Now Ian Dallas, or Sheikh Abdul Qadir, wrote The Book of Strangers as a sort of science fiction novel: a university city in the future where all novels have been reduced to computerised data and access to books have become politically sensitive. Librarians have the highest vetting for suitability and students don’t get to read the books but only bits that are put on a computer system. The book’s narrator is the chief librarian and his predecessor disappeared and he tries to uncover what happened to him. He finds his notebook and discovers the predecessor left to the desert and became a Muslim. The narrator also leaves the city to the desert and becomes a Muslim too.
The book was also biographical, showing sheikh Abdul Qadir’s journey to Morocco and becoming Muslim. What moved me was that the story felt like it came from direct experience and I realised I was also in search of this kind of knowledge. Reading the book about a man who looked for knowledge, found it and has been changed by it proved to me there is a path. It gave me great joy.
I had to return the book to a friend. So I went in to London to purchase my own copy and that started a process that by Allah’s will ended in me sitting in front of the sheikh himself within two days of reading the book. The Sheikh’s own background was similar in that he was previously involved in theatre, producing documentaries and was an actor himself. He starred in Felini’s 8 and a Half. It is a very important film and he played The Magician, a very critical role in that he moves the protagonist – a film director suffering a mental block – forward and helps him. This is kind of what the sheikh does with people: moves people who are blocked to an opening.
The sheikh was only Muslim at the time for about five years but it was a time where one day was a year and a year was like a hundred years. It was a very intense period of time. We spoke about theatre and he asked me this question: “Who is looking at you when you are on the stage?” It made me think. On stage you don’t see the audience. The way the lights are you are only looking out at a dark space. I reflected deeply and I realised that the eyes that were looking at me were the eyes of the parent. In the theatre, what we try to do – like a child – is try to draw the attention of the parent and get their approval. Then he said something to me that was even more extraordinary: “Have you not noticed that so many actors hit the bottle? And the whisky bottle and the baby bottle are the same.” He realised within the acting profession is the desire to seek approval and that is linked to alcohol. This was true for me as I was beginning to hit the bottle at the time, with me moving around theatre circles. Having pointed that out to me the sheikh then said to me “Then, that’s not very interesting is it?” I had to say no, it is not so interesting.
Many things also happened in that meeting but at the end of the evening he said “You heard and seen these things, now what are you going to do?” I thought, okay, I am going to become a Muslim. There was no choice for me. If he told me that Islam is standing on your head five times a day I would have said, okay, if you do it I will do it because I trust you. It was the da’wah of the prophet PBUH. Many people became Muslims because they trust the prophet PBUH because he was the best amongst them. He was the Al Ameen.
When I became Muslim in 1973, the group of people I became Muslim with were involved in publishing. I helped them as a gofer. I would make the tea and coffee. It was a start at the bottom and I eventually became the director of that company. It was called Diwan Press. It was the first English based Muslim publishing company. We were mainly doing translations of classical books of sufism and Maliki fiqh. One of the first projects I was first involved in was actually the translation of The Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, which was actually sponsored by the late Sheikh Zayed (founder of the United Arab Emirates).
The general standards of English translations of Islamic books have gotten better. When we first started I don’t think we paid enough details. We just wanted the books out as much as possible because we were so excited by the material. Then other people, like the Islamic Texts Society, were more exacting and because of them and others more good quality work grew and continued.
Good quality translations are very important. I am also talking about the feel of the book because there is a fair amount of cultural expectation. If you are someone like me, coming from my background – which is quite literary having grown with books and going to university studying literature – the feel is very important. I think the first set of books coming out from the United Kingdom didn’t have that feel, therefore the books didn’t appeal to the target audience like me. It is an essential form of daw’ah. Because it shows that you have a cultural understanding of the place where you live. When I became Muslim we didn’t have those high quality Islamic translations around. Then again, as you now know, I became Muslim in another way.