One of my friends at university used to smoke weed enough that he had a regular dealer who he liked to refer to as “my guy”.
He got his details from a friend-of-a-friend, as I imagine most people do, and he had proven to be a very reliable supplier by all accounts.
My friend was able to call him any time between midday and midnight, seven days a week, and be in possession of a fresh bag of weed not more than half-an-hour later. The delivery even came to his door.
This guy was better than Amazon.
However, he was not always so punctual. My friend told me once about a time that he had been made to wait for over three hours (I mean, that still sounds quick to me).
When his dealer finally arrived he explained why he had taken so long.
“Sorry mate”, he said, “we were just breaking our fast”.
My friend was shocked that this man, his “guy”, who had been reliably delivering him illegal drugs for years, was a Muslim.
“How can he be a Muslim if he deals drugs?”, he asked me over the top of his pint when he told me the story.
“I don’t think he can be, not really”, was all I could reply at the time.
Since then, my answer to that question has got longer. After converting to Islam, I think I can see how it is possible for a drug dealer to be a Muslim.
The first point to make is probably the simplest: most Muslims are born Muslim. If your parents are both Muslim, then you are also Muslim. That’s just the rules of Islam. But being born a Muslim is no guarantee that you will be a good Muslim.
There is also a distinction to be made between Islamic culture and Islamic religious practice. Both of those terms sound similar but they are not quite the same thing. It’s a bit like how most British people celebrate Christmas, even if they are brought up with absolutely no religious belief – even if they have sinned.
At the prison where I work, murderers put up Christmas cards in their cells, and the lads in the kitchen do a Christmas lunch that, whilst being appropriately austere, does include a large dollop of cranberry sauce for festive cheer.
There are things about being a Muslim are similar. Eid, for example, is a day when families get together to get dressed up in their best new clothes and go to mosque for prayers. Even Muslims who never go to the mosque the rest of the year – even the ones who rarely pray at all – will go along with everyone to pray at Eid.
Muslims who are more committed to their religious practice are still only human beings, like anyone else. And like anyone else they are capable of sin. Just like prisoners celebrating Christmas, however, they are not automatically struck off the religious register if they do.
But Islam compels them them to make amends. Thankfully, there is always the chance within Islam to do so. As the Quran says: Allah is much forgiving.
The key point is that we must recognise that what we have done is wrong and then commit to not repeating it. If we do that then we can be forgiven as long as we also pay the appropriate penalty: a good deed or an extra prayer, a day’s fast, or giving something to charity. The size of the sin determines the size of the deed we must do.
If we deliberately stop someone from coming out of a side-street when we’re stuck in stationary traffic, for example, we should first tell ourselves that we were wrong and that we will be more courteous in future and we should seek to apologise if that is possible. For good measure, we should let a car or two out at the next junction.
The cars are just a simplistic illustration but hopefully you get the picture: it’s all about cancelling out our bad deeds with good ones.
Atheists might say that it doesn’t matter if someone commits a sin, because we are all just insignificant atoms and will eventually turn to dust to dust whatever we do in life.
Humanists believe that, whilst humans are just atoms that will turn to dust, we should still be nice to each other and do good deeds while we’re here on Earth because, well, it’s a nice thing to do.
Muslims think that the stakes are much higher: if we die with more good deeds than bad on our balance sheet, we will be rewarded in Paradise. If not, we will find ourselves in Hell.
(I will write something longer about Paradise and Hell when I have a lot more time, because they are not quite what they seem).
When it comes to my friend’s dealer, I suspect that in his heart he knew that what he was doing was wrong. But I can imagine that the lure of money was just too strong for him: he must have been making a couple of thousand pounds a week – and least that’s what my friend said – and from the sounds of it, he seemed like someone who would struggle to earn a even a quarter of that by doing an honest 9 to 5.
By the rules of his religion he should have stopped dealing, but by the rules of modern Britain, dealing was probably the only thing that made sense to him.
If he were to leave Islam, he would have lost even the small amount of motivation that had made him put his criminal activity to one side at Ramadan and there would be absolutely nothing stopping him from dealing drugs forever.
But by remaining a Muslim there will always be a small voice in the back of his head telling him that he should stop.
If he’s still dealing now then maybe, one day soon, he will decide that he wants to give up his life of crime because he fears the Day of Judgement. Or maybe it will be because he’s made enough money that he doesn’t need to anymore. However it happens, he will find Islam waiting patiently for him when he does. And that might be the difference that helps him make something more of his life.
The next time you think that someone isn’t a real Muslim because they drink and smoke, or they have sex before marriage, or that a terrorist was not a real Muslim because he blew himself up, you should tell them about my friend’s drug dealer. The absolute worst of people can be Muslim but that doesn’t mean that Islam is to blame.